On Words

Why are people sensitive to applying meat terms to plant-based items?

The first I’d heard of a vegetable butcher was in this 2010 blog post about Eataly, the grocery store, hiring the artist and culinary-school grad Jennifer Rubell to fulfill the role at the store. Shoppers could drop off an artichoke and have it properly trimmed; the trimmings would be composted in the store. The short post hasn’t aged well, but it wasn’t the last time the term would be used: In 2016, Cara Mangini’s book The Vegetable Butcher: How to Select, Prep, Slice, Dice, and Masterfully Cook Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini came out and went on to win awards. She’d also served as an Eataly vegetable butcher.

Far from being a gimmick, the text showed readers how to adopt the precision and avoidance of waste that meat butchers apply to animal carcasses to vegetables. People might believe they intrinsically know how to chop up vegetables, but what does a little guidance hurt? Every weekend at the farmers’ market, I listen to people ask questions about what to do with every single vegetable. Vegetables are so much more versatile than meat, after all. They can be used in so many different preparations; people sometimes need a little help, a little inspiration. (I, of course, wish they’d hurry up on Saturday mornings before I’ve had my coffee, though.)

People find the term “vegetable butcher” a bit silly, though: Doesn’t it go against the dictionary definition of “butcher,” which explicitly names the slaughter of an animal? Well, yes, that’s why here “vegetable” is applied as a modifier. In verb form, the object of the butchering would always be named, so I’m not sure whether it matters if it’s cow or kale. Chef Dan Barber was on Instagram last week talking about “sunflower butchers,” going for the “seeds and the chokes” but mostly seeking out the “marrow” in the stalks.

All of this is, to me, clever. Our culinary language is based on meat; as more people move toward plant-based diets, there will be a period of overlap as we come to new or redefined terminology.

One of the readings from college that I deeply internalized was Ferdinand de Saussure’s on “signified and signifier,” referring, respectively, to a concept and its sound pattern, which constitute the “sign,” as documented in Course in General Linguistics. This blew my little mind, realizing the word “tree” had no inherent relationship to the object of a tree. It. comes to mind now as I think we don’t need to make up different words for plant-based gastronomy versus meat-based gastronomy: We can just adjust our minds, man. As the co-father of semiotics said, “For any means of expression accepted in a society rests in principle upon a collective habit, or on convention, which comes to the same thing.” 

In “On Bones,” I wrote a bit about meat terminology being how I mentally discuss my own vegetable cooking. What I’ve noticed is that people are really hesitant about this—especially omnivores. While I’ve said that “corn ribs” aren’t really “ribs,” upon further thought, who really gives a shit? They’re shaped and seasoned like ribs; they have the “corn” there to clarify, as though someone might mistake a curved cob for a pork bone. In general, while I find tech and lab meat troubling for reasons related to agriculture, political economy, culture, and gastronomy, I don’t find the pursuit of familiar flavor by those not consuming animal products to be problematic in and of itself. When you grow up in a culture defined by meat, it would be rather difficult and even cruel to completely shut yourself off from a desire for certain flavors, textures, and mouthfeels. And thus I don’t find the use of standard language to refer to plant-based foods problematic, either. It meets people where they are, helping them to see that letting go of daily meat-eating is possible and doesn’t involve too much restriction or a total reformatting of what they like to eat. 

It’s been a legal matter, though, with meat and dairy companies fighting plant-based ones not to use words like “butter,” “cheese,” or “meat” on their products, as they might confuse consumers. I think these lawsuits are frivolous, a useless gasp at retaining power (it’s telling that meat companies were simultaneously getting into plant-based meat while many of these lawsuits were afoot—if you can’t beat them, join them). On Twitter, people will regularly ask, “When did they start calling pleather ‘vegan leather’?” and for the most part I want to know: Why do you care? The modifier is still there to let you know it’s not been made with an animal. Usually, the term is referring to leather made by other natural means, such as cactus, pineapple, or mushroom, not plastic. Terms evolve, the all-powerful market evolves, and artisans use different tools. This is life. More people know what “vegan” means now and, especially in sustainability-focused contexts, it doesn’t carry as much negative connotation as it once did—thus, as a word, it has more use.

As Michele Simon, a writer and then-executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association told the Times in 2019, “There’s just limited words in the English language to convey a concept that the consumer already understands. If you want to convey something tastes like bacon, what do you do? Do you say it’s salty and fatty and, wink wink, pig-like? The point is that we should not have to engage in linguistic gymnastics.” 

The compelling thing to me in all this is the sensitivity, something I’ve called “omnivore fragility,” the idea that someone is trying to get something over on you by using meat words to refer to plant things (as though it’s more offensive to use a plant than an animal, which just goes to show how deeply enshrined in people’s minds the normality of using animals is, for food and other things). Why does this push buttons? People change their language all the time to accommodate new norms or new information.

Some have argued that using meat words is a bad way to “legitimize'' vegetable food, but I don’t think it’s about that—I think it’s, like Simon said, about broad legibility.

In a piece for Bon Appétit, Jasmine Ting writes about the chefs who are veganizing Filipino food and how there are cooking processes that are simply Filipino, that can be applied to anything, whether it’s vegetable, fish, or meat. These chefs don’t change the names of the food they’re making just because it’s made with a vegetable (especially because, as in most of the world, heavy reliance on meat was a result of European colonization). Ting also writes of the dishes chefs haven’t had luck adapting, a transparency that I think is significant: 

Filipinized vegan food is still a work in progress. But all cuisines are continually evolving as chefs innovate to make use of new technologies, as diners change their desires, and as the world changes. 

Just as we’re adapting our diets because of changes in the weather, we can adapt meat-centric language to apply to vegetables where it makes sense without getting too tied up in what exactly the dictionary definitions are of things like “ribs” or “butcher.” I see it as expanding our meat-based gastronomy to encompass the full totality of what people are eating, and if we redefine some things in the process, that will be a bonus. Words mean things, yes, and meanings change.

Throughout October, Friday conversations will be available publicly thanks to Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Encyclopedia, out 10/12 from Workman Publishing. Purchase this encyclopedia of incredible ingredients, food adventures, and edible wonders here.

This Friday, all signups will receive my interview with Nigella Lawson, author of numerous cookbooks, from 1998’s How to Eat to 2020’s Cook, Eat, Repeat, as well as the host of many eponymous cooking shows. We spoke about how starting her career in journalism has influenced her food writing, why she maintains a robust and generous presence on social Media, coming up with new recipes over decades of work, and more.

We are back to nothing, I think. I do have a sponsored piece in the latest issue of Carhartt WIP about The Natural Wine Company. Print, baby!

I’m in a frenzy for reasons that will eventually be revealed, as well as preparing a book chapter for its debut as a public college talk. So I’m not leisurely reading right now.

The classics! Eggplant parmigiana, lots of toast, bought some wildly expensive imported broccolini out of a sense of nostalgia—roasted it and ate it with harissa and lemon on toasty bread. The above cake was a test and didn’t come out very well, but Benny did enjoy licking it.