On Veganism

and why it shouldn't be easily mocked and written off.

No one likes vegans, except other vegans, though sometimes even that is debatable. There are the white vegans focused solely on animal rights who go after Indigenous folks. There is the issue of Moby, who cannot shut up about being vegan despite the fact that we’ve all asked him to shut up for being a creep. One can’t say anything about how the stereotypes don’t tell the whole story while the online discourse is running amok with it, because then one is a wet blanket. The internet is no place for historical accuracy, and most don’t believe veganism worthy of a second thought, much less critical thought.

When one gets into the history, the idea of not harming animals in order to eat is a much more diverse one. For my first restaurant review in the Village Voice, I decided to take the 5 train all the way up to the Bronx to try out Vegan’s Delight, which has now been open for nearly three decades. Among fast food and pharmacy chains, it’s an ital grocer—referring to the Rastafarian diet established in Jamaica, which is a mainly vegetarian but often vegan diet, save maybe for some fresh-caught fish. The food itself was delicious and filling, and faux shrimp made of soy could be found in the grocery section. 

That fake shrimp was made possible by Buddhist innovation in the realm of meatless meat that began in China centuries ago. May Wah Vegetarian Market, now Lily’s Vegan Pantry, founded in New York City in 1994, sells a ton of vegan seafood and other products, and—as Clarissa Wei reported for Goldthread—began because the founder, Lee Mee Ng, “struggled to find the kind of fake meat she grew up eating in Taiwan as a practicing Buddhist.” 

If, in New York City, it’s easy to trace vegan food from Chinatown to a Jamaican neighborhood in the Bronx, why is the image of veganism in most omnivores’ heads so white? The answer could be as simple as, “because then it’s easy to dismiss,” and this would go along with the historic understanding of vegetarianism as synonymous with “crankiness,” as Tristram Stuart wrote in his The Bloodless Revolution. To Stuart, that’s what made it easy to pigeonhole and ignore. Not much has changed in centuries. Not eating meat means, to many, being no fun. 

I don’t want to discount the real harm Indigenous folks suffer in life and online at the hands of single-minded, foolish white vegans who don’t understand that giving land back to Indigenous peoples and adopting their farming and eating practices would be a great avenue for mitigating climate change. I also don’t want to deny that Muslims and others have suffered violence for eating beef. What has been done to humans in the name of animals is atrocious and inexcusable. I am writing about the cultural treatment of veganism and abstention from meat in the West, specifically, and I respect people’s choices for what is right for themselves personally, spiritually, and culturally.

I would also recommend reading the scholar Lisa Betty on the crisis in veganism that won’t fully acknowledge white supremacy, which is spot-on. But here I’m talking to omnivores, especially those on the left. Because while not everyone has to go vegan, there is a lot of intellectual dishonesty at play in the hate and mockery.

One doesn’t have to look far to find and uplift narratives of non-white veganism, if one wants to: For example, I’ve interviewed chef and author Bryant Terry, Veggie Mijas’s founder Amy Quichiz, and Woke Foods’ Ysanet Batista on the subject. Eater recently published a wonderful piece by Amirah Mercer on the history of Black veganism and how she found her place in it, titled “A Homecoming.” The books Sistah Vegan: Black Females Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society and Veganism in an Oppressive World: A Vegans of Color Community Project would be other great places to start.

On the matter of Indigenous veganism, scholar Margaret Robinson has written on the subject. In the chapter “Veganism and Mi’kmaq legends” in Meatsplaining: The Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial, she quotes a few white men who “by projecting white imperialism onto vegans … enable white omnivores … to bond with Aboriginal people over meat-eating,” and then writes:

When veganism is constructed as white, Aboriginal people who eschew the use of animal products are depicted as sacrificing our cultural authenticity. This presents a challenge for those of us who view our veganism as ethically, spiritually, and culturally compatible with our indigenity. A second barrier to Aboriginal veganism is the portrayal of veganism as a product of class privilege. Opponents claim that a vegan diet is an indulgence since the poor (among whom Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented) must eat whatever is available and cannot afford to be so picky. This argument assumes that highly processed specialty products make up the bulk of a vegan diet. Such an argument also overlooks the economic and environmental cost of meat, and assumes that the subsidized meat and dairy industries in North America are representative of the world.

Accepting the diversity of practitioners and thought, though, would mean not dismissing veganism wholesale as a bougie, white, and aggressive obsession. It would mean seriously grappling with what it means to eat industrial meat and dairy in a warming world where the food system accounts for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and where beef is the biggest offender with chicken not lagging far behind.

If veganism were taken seriously, we would have to truly consider and discuss the ethics of eating endless meat in the Global North and creating climate-based suffering for those in the Global South, who are by and large not white (see Hanna E. Morris on why “anthropocene” is a misnomer that attempts to lay blame for climate change with all humans when it is actually a specific subset of humans and their systems). We would have to look at our food magazines and newspaper sections and ask, “Is it responsible to tell people to eat and cook this much meat and shrimp?” Instead, veganism is treated as a joke, even though moving toward a plant-based diet will be necessary to keep the planet from warming to a dangerous level.

People like to say, “It’s the government’s problem! They need to regulate the fossil fuel and industrial food industries.” Yes. Do you see that happening anytime soon? This is a serious question, and I would like someone to tell me I’m wrong— that they’re on it up in D.C. But if the United States government decided to end subsidies totaling $38 billion per year, and meat and dairy were priced responsibly, with the labor, animal welfare, and ecological impact accounted for, would people say, “Okay,” and eat less meat and dairy, or would they riot at the supermarkets? I believe it’s the latter. The impacts of the broad U.S. diet are a cultural problem as well as a political one, and it needs to be discussed on both levels. That those who choose to give up animal products—whether as a vegan or at a “plant-based” scale—are the odd ones out is a cultural issue.

In the U.S., where individual choice reigns, it is somehow here where that buck stops. In the U.S., where those on the left have been pointing out that response to crisis needs to be collective, it is with animal agriculture that the conversation stops.

If people are to eat less meat and dairy, it’s going to have to be the government that makes that happen, vegan opponents say. Here we are in a pandemic. How has the government response been? Wearing a mask has been deemed necessary for everyone’s survival; we make the choice to do the right thing for each other’s health. How do we relate these acts for the collective good that we’ve been doing to the climate crisis?

The desire to dunk on white vegans is a natural one, but it isn’t the whole story of veganism and it’s frustrating to see that idea endlessly repeated. Is dunking on white vegans worth continuing on with a food system that is responsible for a huge chunk of global warming? Veganism itself isn’t stupid. It’s an ideology rooted in doing less harm—why is that in and of itself so often portrayed as problematic? As inherently judgmental? If you’ve only met terrible vegans, I’m sorry, but there’s more to the story. I hope you’ll be open to hearing it.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature cookbook author Emily Stephenson, who’s written the books Pantry to Plate and The Friendsgiving Handbook. We talk about trying to be a writer while not wanting to be on social media, pantry cooking, and the Food Writers’ Workshop we co-organized.

Annual subscriptions are $30 and provide access to nearly a year’s worth of interviews. This summer, I’ll be adding twice-monthly recipes for paid subscribers.

Today, a big feature should be going up. Some other stuff went up but I’m typing with one hand right now because I cut my left thumb.

Sorry but I’m one-handed.

Bread I cut my thumb slicing. Up there it’s chia pudding with local fruit from Cafe Regina.