Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Vegan" is Not a Cuisine

I've lost count of the times people have told me that they "don't like," or "don't go for vegan food." Most often, I get a sense that these remarks are uttered as a defensive maneuver, either overtly--to ward off what they imagine will be an attempt on my part to sell them on some freaky diet--or subconsciously, to justify what they may feel is a personal failing (by now it's fairly common knowledge that animal food is laden with bad fats, cholesterol and generally not very good for you). What makes this most interesting to me is that I have no threatening agenda (beyond selling people my books, if that counts). So I wonder what's going on in these people that motivates them to reject "vegan food," as if this were an actual cuisine, on a par with, say, "Indian food," or "Tex-Mex food."

I do understand people's trepidation to an extent. There there have been some sensationalist in-your-face campaigns designed rub the public's nose in the ugliness of animal cruelty and exploitation. PETA in particular is known for that sort of stuff. Personally, I'm ambivalent regarding this subject, because while I fully understand the enormity of animal abuse (not even counting the fact that billions of land animals are slaughtered annually), I'm skeptical that what I consider a pretty violent approach will prove effective as a means of winning people over to the "Peaceable Kingdom." I'm not denouncing these activists, because I'm confident that they mean well. As shocking and graphic as their propaganda may be, what they hope to achieve is ultimately a good thing. Great advances in human rights have come with great struggles, so why would animal rights be any different?

On the other hand, I'm not waving any pictures of brutalized animals, or pushing a worldwide meat ban. I'm a cook, not an animal rights activist, so it does surprise me when I'm met with defensiveness.

But let's get to the point I want to make. "Vegan," as it pertains to food and diet, actually doesn't describe anything beyond eating plants. There are a few vegan/vegetarian oddities, like "Tofurkey," soy cheese, and a growing array of meat- and dairy-imitative products (and I'm no fan of any of them), but I don't see these as any different from all the other forms of processed food. They don't constitute a genuine cuisine; they're just some entrepreneur's clever business idea, catering to meat-craving vegans. If anything, they're the anti-cuisine, supplanting the time-honored practice of honest home-cooking with convenience products that to varying degrees devalue health and the pleasure of eating.

True cuisine is not about what we don't eat; it's all about what we do eat, and about what we do to make it thoroughly enjoyable. Within every cuisine, there will be foods and practices that will please some and displease (maybe even disgust) others. "Cuisine" is actually just the French word for "kitchen," although it also refers to the style, quality and delicacy of the food produced in a particular kitchen, or by a particular cook. More than anything, cuisine is about ethnicity; it's about the food of our ancestors--methods, tastes and preferences handed down to us, with each generation adding something new and unique to enrich it. Ancient cuisines like Chinese and Indian are vastly sophisticated, with hundreds of classical dishes and variations. When "American cuisine" has been around long enough, I'm sure it will have evolved out of its mere 200-year-old hillbilly roots, include the immense wealth of its many immigrant contributions and the fearless innovations of its many great cooks.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, there is no such cuisine as "vegan." There can be "French cuisine," "haute cuisine," even "my cuisine," but "vegan" is really just about ingredients (plants only). How each person will take those ingredients and make them sing will be a reflection of that cook's life story and taste predilection. His or her cuisine will either please your palate or not, but we should never blame the ingredients, any more than we could blame the tools. So lighten up, carnivores, and try my food--I'm pretty sure you'll like it!


  1. Alan, I really enjoy your articles and I totally hear where you're coming from with this one - I had "vegan" friends years ago when I was working in Lubbock - they would scare the crap out of old ladies wearing fur coats - and express anger at those who didn't subscribe to their beliefs. I suppose in my early days of macrobiotics and vegan eating I was a bit more religious and preachy with my views, but I quickly learned that "seduction" with delicious food is a much more effective way to entice people to healthier ways!

    I'm trying to figure out how to subscribe to your posts, but when I click above it offers options like add to Google, netvibes etc..what if I just want to get email alerts?
    Keep up the great work Alan - you're an inspiration!

  2. Thanks, Aine!

    I'll try to figure out how to enable people to subscribe to my posts (they shouldn't have to work that hard!).

    In the meantime, try clicking "Subscribe by email"(below). Let me know if it works!

    ~ Alan