In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we know that the monster is in fact the hero, because he speaks with such eloquence about the cruelty of man. Cast out into a world alone with a visage that afforded him no chance of finding companionship, he fosters a hatred for his creator, but its a hatred informed by a noble sense of suffering and a keen sense of imagination for a world in which justice and kindness might be ubiquitous. Is it any wonder then that the monster is vegan? Should we be surprised when Frankenstein’s monster tells his creator, “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment”?
The way vegan food is discussed today, one would be surprised to find Shelley writing such a notion two centuries ago. A confluence of histories, of discourses, have converged to present the fiction that vegan food is novel, new, and nascent. In one sense, vegan food is undoubtedly a social construct. That is, in the nineteenth century Shelley didn’t conceive of eating nuts and berries as being already constitutive of a particular category of ethically oriented food consumption. Yet I want to talk a bit about how vegan food is “constructed” in a different sense; it is constructed to be analogous to food itself; it is constructed as food façade.
To be clear, not all vegan food is constructed food. I am speaking of what I call “quotation food.” If you’re vegan, you’re familiar with quotation food. Here are some examples:
“Mac and Cheeze”. Vegan “Sausage.” Vegan “chicken”.
You get the idea. There are literally quotation marks used to describe the food. The punctuation communicates to the consumer that they are not really eating cheese or sausage or chicken, but simulacra instead.
Surely, quotation food often tastes good. I’m not above eating vegan sausage once or twice a year. And for some people, quotation food allows them to more easily participate in more ethical behavior, and we shouldn’t dismiss that. But there are limits to the utility in defining a practice as quotidian as food consumption with quotation marks. The discourse of quotation foods is indicative of the power that markets have in defining and circumscribing our food and foodways. And its also illustrative of the degree to which meat consumption has become the normative center around which food habits are framed in contemporary American culture.
All cuisine is arguably defined by markets. For example, Chinese food, or what is understood as such, was only defined in American culture after its entry into the American economy, via Chinese restaurants. Vegan food is at its most basic simply any food wholly composed of plants. But vegan food as a normative concept has been constructed discursively through the marketing of vegan food.
Food corporations love vegans, but it’s not because they’re interested in your ethics. They’re interested in you because your ethics are intelligible, and because they’re attached to your wallet. The creation of market segments, and the reification of consumer identities, is only a means of targeting brand messaging. So vegan food, as produced by corporations, is designed to achieve the goals of marketability and identity branding. Quotation food satisfies the needs of manufacturers; it is instantly recognizable as ersatz — and thus vegan — food, which makes it recognizable to the identity it has functioned to create. Its novelty makes it marketable to a consumer base raised to value novelty. And yet its similarity to other foods, its analogousness, makes it familiar and comfortable to consumers raised on meat.
The history of meat at the center of American plates is impossible to ignore; this history itself has done much of the work that constitutes the normativity of meat in American culture. And yet the discourse of American food and foodways also serves to obfuscate alternative histories. To see the limits of quotation food is not to deny that meat is a starting point for most Americans, even for those seeking to eat less of it. It is to understand that moving beyond the consumption of mass produced animal products, to reckon with the processes of food production in this country, requires more than simply replacing meat products with similarly hyper-processed franken-foods. (Apologies, Frankenstein’s monster.)
What then, should vegans cook ideally? In an imagined world where vegan food is the norm, using analogs to meat-based food traditions, products, and brands make no sense. Sadly vegan cookbooks are in on the scam. In search of the new, and desperate for sales, they instruct readers to use things like textured vegetable protein instead of tempeh. You can call it a meat substitute if you like, but tempeh’s been around for hundreds of years. “Chik’n” not so much.
The vegan promised land requires no new lexicon. Like Frankenstein’s monster, we’ve all been eating vegan food for hundreds of years. Forget about “vegan bacon,” which is likely to make meat eaters cringe. Let’s eat hummus instead. We all eat it already — meat eaters and vegans alike. I call it “everyone food.” Let’s eat black beans on corn tortillas. People in the Middle East have been eating mujaddara for hundreds if not thousands of years; in India they call it dal. (I suppose both cultures add yogurt sometimes.) Even pizza was vegan when it was first invented. Cheese was added later, and in Naples, you can stop into any pizzeria and order a pizza marinara and it will be vegan. No need for quotes.