Sunday, May 13, 2012

Here's the Beef: Where's the Beef?

Know what's delicious? Bacon.  Know what's a tasty addition to almost everything? Goat cheese.  Guess what I ate a lot of in 2010.  Give up? Pizza. And quesadillas.

When I went vegetarian and eventually vegan, I didn't suddenly decide that these things don't taste good. I made a decision that my desire for certain flavors really didn't justify the death and suffering that comes with them.

Within the realm of foods that I have no ethical objection to, I eat the ones that taste good when I can, the ones that taste okay when necessary, and avoid the ones that taste bad.  Them's some pretty simple criteria.  Using this program, I don't reject good tasting food because the ingredients aren't what I expected.  I've never, for instance, thought, "Wow, this is the best blueberry pie I've ever eaten, but they thickened it with corn starch instead of flour, so I'll buy that blander one down the street where they use flour."

Which is why, a few short weeks into baking for profit as well as fun, I'm feeling a little frustrated.

I knew going into it that getting vegan food to the general public would be an uphill battle.  "Vegan" is a word with a lot of baggage, conjuring images of asceticism and denial, visiting judgment on omni eaters, and linked to its extremist cousin raw foods with all the peculiar culinary acrobatics that go into crafting familiar-food analogs from walnuts and agave syrup.  Going in, my plan was to make awesome stuff, send up the vegan Bat-signal to let them know it exists, but not market it specifically as vegan.  I'm a child of the 80's and I've internalized the core lesson of the Pepsi challenge:  what people like and what they think they like aren't always the same, and that gap is largely a function of ephemeral concerns like image and marketing.

But as it happens, my first customer is a conventional bakery, and the fact that they carry my wares is specifically a function of the fact that I bake without eggs and dairy, an alternative option labeled accordingly.  It wasn't necessarily in the original plan, but I'm grateful to have a steady outlet where my stuff sells well.  And in the first batch, two sold to my friends, one to a girl whose vegan friend needed cheering up, and one to someone who made no mention of it being vegan.  It's a small sample, but it leaves room to hope that I might still appeal to a wider audience even with the scarlet V on the label.

Then I took some samples to a coffee shop.  The owner knew before I arrived that the samples were vegan and after asking some questions about ingredients and process she asked, "But you only do vegan, right?"

When I said yes, she got a far-away, disappointed look.

"'s just that we're looking for someone who can do other things too."

"Well, try the samples and see what you think.  If you can taste the difference, more power to you, but I think you'll find they're not any different than conventional," I said.

In the course of our fifteen minute conversation she mentioned that they wanted someone who could do "other things that aren't vegan" at least three times, always wearing a little frown and using that let-you-down-gently tone that says, "It's not you, it's, actually, it's definitely you."

And fine. It's her business, it's her decision, but it's dumb.  Not just because I think I make a really great product (which I do), but because it was a decision that very clearly had nothing to do with the actual product and everything to do with her gut reaction to the idea of vegan.

I have a tasting coming up with a large corporate concern to make a bid for snacks at their meetings, etc.  I have not mentioned that I'm a "specialty" baker, nor do I plan to.  More than one person has asked if I've told them, and to a person they've responded with surprise when I say no, as though I'm planning to scam the elderly out of their pensions.

But I'm not tricking anyone into eating something they object to -- the ingredients are the same as most conventional items,  and I'm fairly sure no one's looking to get their protein or calcium from the egg in a cupcake or the scant amount of milk in frosting, so I'm not depriving them of any expected benefit.  I'm offering tasty treats.  If they reject them because they don't like them, or don't like the price, or because I can't do the volume they need, I can accept that because those are reasonable, reality-based issues.  But I won't put myself in a position to lose business based on vague ideas about what a recipe should be like instead of what the product actually is.

Someday I'll have a brick and mortar establishment, a little cafe with pastries and cakes and soups and sandwiches like any other cafe with pastries and soups and sandwiches, except there won't be any meat or animal products.  I won't point it out, and most people won't notice.  I'm not looking to proselytize, I just want to make awesome food consistent with my ethics and stand or fall on the strength of my skill.

And as my semi-estranged father told me the other day in a moment of casually shocking intimacy, "That's what I've always admired about you...when you want something, you go to the mat to get it."

Thanks, Dad, I guess I do.  And I will, I just want a fair fight.


  1. The term "vegan" has an unfortunate overtone of activism (not unlike "vandal") which unfortunately, and unfairly, puts the kibosh on an ecumenical, mouth-only reaction to sweet treats. I like the idea of using the term as shorthand for "made without any of this short list of ingredients that aren't that good for you anyway," but pop culture projects a vegan brownie as heavy and dense enough to use as a projectile in street riots against a corpulent establishment. The term "gourmet" could easily be substituted (walnut and agave syrup-wise) for the V-word, to assert the same thing, without the political freight.

    And as an aside, my experience in small business leads me to think the coffeeshop pastry buyer may have been more afraid of having another vendor's account to process rather than her customers' reactions.

    Good luck with this Meghan. As usual, it's always good to hear what you're thinking about.

  2. Thanks, Jay.

    That's definitely another piece of the term's baggage. It's really a pretty terrible word across the board: not only does it inspire all sorts of uneasiness from people who aren't, but there's a weird competitiveness among people who, apparently disagree on whether or not they are.

    There are a lot of people who say they're vegan but eat honey, and an equal number who will hear this and shriek that the former are not vegans. On the one hand the term describes a pretty specific set of lifestyle choices, but on the other, what's the appropriate term for someone who doesn't eat meat, dairy, or eggs, doesn't wear leather, wool, or silk but eats honey?

    As in nearly other arena, I dislike the dogmatism that often accompanies the lifestyle. It seems especially disappointing in a subculture defined to a certain degree by self-examination. I'm on board with the central premise that animals don't exist to serve at our pleasure, I think some things aren't as cut and dry as that. The continued existence of honeybees has depended to some extent on the protection and cultivation of human beekeepers. Some animals (think domestic companion animals, and yes there are vegans who object even to these) are, rightly or wrongly, stuck in the confines of human culture because we domesticated them. Is there room for respectful, mutual exchange of products and services? I'd venture a cautious yes, though the argument is that the animal has no opportunity to consent to or opt out of this arrangement.

    Anyway, as with everything else, I'm more committed to being mindful in my decisions than I am to any particular ideology. It probably makes me a bad vegan, but I'll still call myself that because it's more effective to shorthand it than to describe my personal food-political ethos in detail every time someone offers me a snack.

    I highly recommend these blog posts on the subject of being radical and reasonable in a vegan context by my personal hero, Lagusta Yearwood, who's smart as a whip, sweet as sugar and makes some badass vegan chocolates: