Monday, June 10, 2013

"[A] health-food-store simpleton"

Via Will Baude, a vegan... restaurant review? Treatise? Is a high-end meal inherently unvegan? I haven't been to Next, in any incarnation, but I have been to one of the Chicago vegan establishments Kevin Warwick approves of. I ordered wrong - the most wrong I have ever ordered, to this day. Vegan paella. Not good, not good at all.

Warwick's review is basically like if the old-time health-food store reviewed Whole Foods. There's what vegetarianism/veganism once was, and there's what it's become. Recently, at a restaurant in town, a woman very much of the ladies-who-lunch style informed the waiter that she was a vegan. This veganism did not conflict with the largest diamond ring I had ever seen (overheard conversation and other clues suggest its authenticity) and, more to the point, a gargantuan logoed designer leather handbag.

Now, I'm not saying that this woman shouldn't be a vegan - for all I know it was doctor's orders, for all I know Louis Vuitton handbags exist in remarkably leather-like sustainable hemp. But as David Brooks told us in 2001, and has only become more true since, what was once 'hippie' has now become a class marker for elites. Which presumably inspires ambivalence in hippies. (Hipsters being some mix of the two categories.) On the one hand, it ought to be a good thing if haute cuisine means celebrating vegetables. On the other, if you were vegan before it was cool, or if you're vegan because you don't care about what's chic (I mean, indirectly because of this - if you're an earnest sort concerned with animals, not trends), I see how a vegan $225 tasting menu might grate.

And maybe Warwick has a point. If veganism is a social-justice movement (as some contend), then maybe a feast that screams '1%' doesn't sit right? But is that a restaurant review? Dude had the chance to eat a meal many would be thrilled to try, and comes across as altogether ungrateful for the experience.

Or does he? This is something I've long thought about high-end dining, but basically, food can only be so good. Is the best $300 dinner really 100x better than the best $3 slice of pizza? And isn't 80% of how much we enjoy a meal simply a function of how hungry we happen to be when eating it? While $300 is... steep, I suspect I'm not alone in having been at some dinner or other where the only socially-acceptable thing to say about the food, on account of its cost, was that it was truly the most amazing food ever made. But you're sitting there and thinking - as Warwick does - that a taco would be preferable.

Of course, I also tend to think this is why I'd make a terrible restaurant critic. (My reviews would be something like, 'I really enjoyed this dinner, because I'd gone running that morning and had had a light lunch. I wasn't too thrilled about the inclusion of zucchini, because it's not my favorite, but it seemed like zucchini that someone who liked zucchini would have enjoyed.') So there's that.

But my initial reaction - the one I posted to Facebook and that's currently being read by Obama, who's like, wow, Phoebe, you are slow on the uptake, was that an item on a $225 tasting menu is called "douchi." But then I Googled this and it's just a Chinese ingredient. Not some kind of surreptitious and altogether self-defeating class warfare on the part of an upscale restaurant. Alas.


Sigivald said...

If veganism is a social-justice movement (as some contend), then maybe a feast that screams '1%' doesn't sit right?

To the extent veganism is either a "I like animals" or slightly weirder animal-"rights" thing, I have enough sympathy for it to not abuse a practitioner - though I am also not going to convert.

To the extent it's vegetarian-on-crack for hippies, I gently shake my head, smile, and move on.

As "social justice" I am going to laugh in their faces, o Lordy, am I ever. While eating a ribeye right at them.

When you make it "social justice" you're making a moral claim against me for not buying in, and that makes you a target.

Moebius Stripper said...

There's what vegetarianism/veganism once was, and there's what it's become.

Where I live, I'd say there's a third category, one that flies under the political radar: "ethnic" vegetarianism/veganism. The old-school veg*ns tend to frequent the old hippie joints, where, in my entirely objective opinion, the food is overpriced and tastes like sawdust; the hipsters and yuppies-who-think-they're-hippies attend places like the one in the review you linked, where the food is even more overpriced but tastes somewhat less like sawdust.

But there are a good dozen or local Asian vegetarian places (whose menus tend to be at least 95% vegan) I know of offhand, where the food is reasonably priced (largely because you're paying for food, not decor (which is faux-authentically rustic in the hippie joints, high-end at the high-end places))and absolutely delicious. And those places never, ever make the "best vegetarian restaurants in town" lists, because they're not vegetarian restaurants, they're ethnic vegetarian restaurants. Given that a fairly large proportion of local vegetarians are 1) white, and 2) ideologically committed to social justice, this is pretty damning.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think what they mean by this is that the food system would be more fair if meat were not consumed.


Is "'ethnic' veg" as you define it about white people eating 'ethnic' food, or is it the vegetarianism practiced by non-whites, for non-newfangled reasons?

I can't say that I've ever met vegetarians/vegans who avoid - or who don't actively seek out - the various Chinese and Indian restaurants making vegan or vegetarian promises. Meaning, I haven't witnessed the hypocrisy you describe, at least not on an individual level. Eating with friends who are vegetarian has, in my experience, involved non-Western cuisine more often than not.

But in terms of best-restaurant lists, that does seem true, and points to the broader issue of 'ethnic' food not being seen as even potentially upscale.

Moebius Stripper said...

Is "'ethnic' veg" as you define it about white people eating 'ethnic' food, or is it the vegetarianism practiced by non-whites, for non-newfangled reasons?

I'm defining it in terms of the latter - the Asian vegetarian places I'm thinking of are mostly Buddhist, and run by Asians. But in the hippie crowd, it's white people eating ethnic food: notably, the hippie-sawdust places all have a few ethnic dishes on the menu, but I just can't think of a charitable reason for not ordering dishes of the same name, for 75% of the price, at the vegetarian restaurants run by Asians.

As for the Asian veg places not making the best-of lists...the winners in the best-vegetarian category often aren't upscale, either, so.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Then we just know different white vegetarians. I was thinking 'ethnic' restaurants, not 'ethnic' items on menus.

Weird re: the best-vegetarian places not being upscale. And yes, probably racist.

All of this brings up another question, though, which is whether the generically-vegetarian (what you're calling "hippie-sawdust") restaurants serve a function other than meat-avoidance, namely serving as a way for vegetarians to socialize with others who share their ideology. And that ideology is a Western sort of vegetarianism, not Buddhism.

Not so different, in other words, from how keeping kosher is largely about ensuring that one only ever eats with other observant Jews. Yes, technically, kosher food can be consumed any number of places. (My vegan paella experience was actually with a friend who keeps kosher - that's what had brought us to the vegan restaurant.) All the more so if it's a not-so-strict version that just means avoiding pork and shellfish. But it's not just about the food. It's about the community (the positive interpretation) or exclusion (the negative one). And if Western vegetarians who are white aren't excluding Western vegetarians of color, I'm not sure we can call this racist. Xenophobic, perhaps, as exclusion tends to be.

Moebius Stripper said...

Hmm, I'm honestly not sure whether the hippie-sawdust places are hippie hubs in addition to providers of food. My feeling is no, because I tend not to talk to people outside my party and the staff when I eat out, and I haven't observed other restaurant-goers behaving measurably differently, but it's not like I've been looking.

I'm still inclined toward racism, and it looks like the community of aging hippies I know isn't unique in the way it expresses its commitment to diversity.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It's not specifically that restaurants are hubs. It's that ideological divides sometimes maintain themselves with food restrictions. It's about ruling out the possibility that vegetarians would socialize with non-vegetarians. At least if the analogy to keeping kosher holds, which, maybe not.

Whole Foods... is it hippie, though? I thought it lost that cred when everyone noticed that it - like Lululemon - has a not-so-progressive conservative/libertarian sort at the helm. But yes, food-smuggery and racism can overlap. You're preaching to the converted on that one!