Serious Eats

The Vegan Experience, Day 17: That's Really Good... For Vegan Food.

20120126-vegan-experience-day-14-primary.jpgNote: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Day 17: Monday

Breakfast: I was testing recipes, so a variety of small bites this morning.
Lunch: A tofu bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon.
Dinner: Braised Eggplant and Tofu in Garlic Sauce (recipe to come) with bok choy and steamed rice.

After another morning of recipe testing, I'd just finished constructing a sandwich that I thought was pretty damn good. The basic idea was a hybrid between a New Orleans Muffuletta, a Philadelphia broccoli rabe, and a panini: broccoli rabe braised in white wine with plenty of garlic and hot sauce until completely tender, fresh roasted red peppers, thin sliced marinated artichokes, and a scattering of thinly sliced sun-dried tomatoes, all piled onto a large seeded bun from Parisi bakery slathered with Muffuletta-style olive salad and pressed in a panini press until compressed and crisp.

Of course, as I was constructing it, Ed wandered over from the Overlord's lair (as he is wont to do when there's cooking going on) and said to me, "what's cooking?"

"A sandwich for a recipe I'm working on. Sort of like a muffuletta," I replied.

"Oh, a vegetarian muffuletta," was Ed's response. Now don't get me wrong—contemptful is the last thing that comes to mind when you think of Ed, but in this instance, he couldn't help hiding his tone of disapproval.

"Just for that, you don't get to try any," I told him. (I was lying).

The thing that bothered me was the implied notion that vegetarian/vegan food is vegetarian/vegan first, and food afterwards, and once you've outed yourself as a vegan, that attitude seems to follow you wherever you go. I myself used to treat vegans in a similar way.

Wind the clocks back a couple months ago before I'd mentioned this project to anyone and replay that situation. A broccoli rabe, marinated vegetable, olive-salad panini sounds f*&king great to me, whether vegan or not. I guarantee you had I been making that exact same sandwich as a full-on omnivore, I wouldn't have even noticed that it was vegan, and Ed would have thought nothing of it. Coming from an omnivore cook, it would have just been another good sandwich. But coming from a vegan cook, it's a vegan sandwich.

I run into the implications of this mindset every day when I write recipes. Many of the recipes I've been writing for this vegan series are ones that even a skeptical omnivore would love, so long as they go into it without prejudice. The dilemma? Well, I want vegans and vegetarians users to be able to quickly and easily identify and find these posts both on the site and via a search engine. So do I title the posts "Vegan Recipe [X]" to make them easier for vegans to find but risk prejudicing omnivores whose eyes will pass right over them, or do I simply give them a regular recipe title and risk having vegans who are interested in them miss them entirely? (I chose the former).

I have friends who have said to me that they aren't coming to dinner "if [I'm] going to cook vegan food." What does that even mean? Off the top of my head I can think of a half dozen completely vegan meals that I've fed these same people when I was an omnivore with neither me nor them thinking anything was amiss. It's only after they get it in their head that there won't be meat that they really start missing it.

Is the prospect of missing a bite of meat so scary to some omnivores that to intentionally place yourself in a position where you know that for the next few hours (minutes, seconds, whatever) you definitely won't be eating bacon is unthinkable?

The Other Foot

To be fair, there's more than one side to this prejudice. There are obviously the many, many omnivores who don't feel this way at all—who are happy to eat meat-free food occasionally whether or not it is labeled as such. Moreover, the door swings both ways: It's not just omnivores who think of vegan food as vegan first and food afterwards. Indeed, many—but by no means most—vegans think this way as well. I personally believe that this is what leads to a lot of the poorly executed vegan/vegetarian restaurants and products that contribute to giving the lifestyle a bad name.

I'm talking about those vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic/raw/juicitarian restaurants where it's good enough that the food follows the prescribed diet. Whether or not it tastes good afterwards is inconsequential. Not that anybody is really trying to intentionally make food that tastes bad, but that there just happens to be a higher concentration of poorer cooks amongst these subsets of restaurants by simple virtue of the fact that there's a smaller pool of talented prospective candidates to choose from, and that cooks are hired for their philosophy first, and their cooking chops second.*

*By no means do I mean to take anything away from any of the extremely talented chefs and cooks who do choose to apply their craft to delicious vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic/raw/juicitarian foods, of which there are many (ok, maybe not the last).

I still think it's a while yet before vegetarianism/veganism become mainstream enough that a significant number of world-class chefs and cooks will add vegan-friendly sections to their menus or even open all-vegan restaurants. Perhaps this tipping point will never occur and vegans will always have to live through these mild prejudices. I know that I certainly will no longer feel that way.

By the way, I cut the big sandwich into 8 wedges. Ed ate one and proclaimed, "that might be the best vegan sandwich I've ever eaten." It was an excellent but qualified accolade. That he came back twice more for two more wedges without saying a word was the true compliment.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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