Down the Rabbit Hole

This past weekend we attended the World Veg Festival in San Francisco. Knowing that the festival draws an estimated 3,000 people each day, we were happy to be a part of what we thought would be an exciting event that would educate thousands of people about the vegan diet, arming them with the knowledge and tools they needed to succeed. Because it was located in Golden Gate Park and was open to the public, we also knew it would draw people who are not vegan but who happened to walk by. Here was an opportunity to reach not only thousands of people, but to potentially reach thousands who were not yet vegan. In other words, it would not simply be preaching to the choir.

Yes, the event was packed. Yes, there were plenty of workshops for the public. Yes, it seems that everything went off without a hitch. If you were judging the event simply by these calculations, you would no doubt conclude, and we imagine the San Francisco Vegetarian Society and the other sponsors did, that the event was a smashing success.

But what if you were to judge the event by more important standards than whether everything went according to plan and the rooms were full? What if you judged it based on content? In other words, did this vegetarian festival make being vegan seem like a good idea, an appealing concept, something the average person could identify with? And did it then effectively show them how to be one?

Using these questions as guidelines, we fear that the festival fell far below its potential. In fact, from our perspective, it may even have done some harm by perpetuating false and misleading stereotypes about who vegans are, what we believe, and what is necessary to become one. In fact, not only did the festival fail to reach the goals outlined above, it did not seem to be designed with them in mind.  Aside from a few cooking demonstrations and one talk about overcoming myths that stood in the way of success, the majority of the workshops were a random, incoherent collection of talks about the raw diet, how ancient people used to live, conspiracy theories about Western medicine, and various discussions about nutrition that made the vegan diet seem fraught with danger.

In short, if you were a typical San Franciscan spending the afternoon at Golden Gate Park, as thousands do, and you knew little about the vegan diet and came upon the San Francisco World Veg Fest and decided to check it out; Or, even if you were interested in becoming a vegetarian or vegan and you made the festival a specific destination, you would have likely concluded that the vegan movement is filled with nutrition-obsessed, raw food, New Agey conspiracy theorists that have nothing in common with you. And, after sampling the fare, you would have also concluded that eating vegan food was not only a hassle, it was foreign and unsustainable. Because quite simply, the San Francisco Veg Fest not only wanted to replace your hamburgers with raw kale salads, they wanted you to cleanse your colon, analyze everything you eat and supplement it with vitamins, and embrace a mystical lifestyle. In other words, they weren’t asking you to simply, and deliciously eat a veggie burger instead of a burger made from cows or a soy dog instead of a regular hot dog, to keep on eating those French fries, and to otherwise go about your life. They were asking you to stop being you. Somewhere along the line, being vegan somehow stopped being about what you ate and started being about your lifestyle, spiritual leanings, and the health of your colon. In short, you would say, “Thanks, but no thanks!”

Rather than orient everything around the central goal of demystifying veganism and teaching average people with average diets how to be a vegan in the most convenient, tasty, and practical way possible, those in attendance were instead greeted with many workshops and exhibitor booths that had nothing whatsoever to do with veganism and which extolled the following:

  • If you like to sleep a lot, you’ll come back in the next life as a bear (the Hare Krishnas)
  • How to avoid painful and expensive gum surgery
  • How to go from being legally blind to getting an unrestricted driver license
  • How to integrate the “wisdom of the ancients” into your modern lifestyle
  • How to cleanse your colon and detoxify your body in two weeks

As for a taste of veganism, attendees were offered kale salads, detoxifying raw juices, and similar foods, but there were no analogs of the foods the vast majority of Americans are accustomed to eating, or which many successful vegans enjoy eating: no hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, or other delicious vegan analogs. Sure, Eli’s bars was there (thank you!) and Field Roast (thank you, too!) but mostly, it was greasy Chinese food, raw salads, and green juices. There was no clear, concerted effort to present the tastiest vegan food available today and therefore excite, rather than alienate, the non-vegans in attendance.

On Saturday afternoon, a close friend of ours—vegan for over 20 years who is raising two vegan children—came to visit us at our table. Although she has been vegan for over half her life (in fact, she was the person who inspired Jennifer to go vegan) and has lived in San Francisco just as long, she had never attended the festival before. As she approached our table in the back of the room, there was a look of bewilderment on her face. “Oh my God,” she said when she got to our table, “What is all of this?” She is a typical vegan who could not identify with the way her diet was being portrayed to the public.

Like us, she is an otherwise average person—a typical American—living a very mainstream life, except that when she makes muffins she uses egg replacer instead of eggs, when she drinks milk it is soy instead of dairy-based, and when she makes fried “chicken,” she uses seitan instead of an animal. She enjoys baseball games, going to the movies, and roller coasters. On the 4th of July, she hosts a BBQ at her house and serves grilled veggie burgers, veggie dogs, coleslaw, potato salad, and apple pie with ice cream. She celebrates Thanksgiving with her friends and family by serving a seitan “turkey,” mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, crescent rolls and pumpkin pie with whipped topping for dessert. And at Christmas, she stuffs her children’s stockings with vegan chocolate Santas, vegan marshmallow snowmen and other animal-free candies and treats.

We know vegan real estate agents, insurance agents, lawyers, accountants, CEOs, nurses, doctors, and stay at home moms raising vegan children. These people have been vegans for several decades now, but you would never know just by looking at them. If you peeked in their kitchens while they were preparing dinner, you might not be able to tell that they were vegans, as their use of vegan meat, egg and dairy analogs means that their diets look and taste very similar to that of most Americans. They are not Hare Krishna or Buddhists, they are not living in communes, they are not constantly cleansing their colons, obsessed with Omega 3s or visiting Ayurvedic healers with a 717-year old lineage when they get sick. They are perfectly average people who have made the simple choice to swear off eggs, meat and dairy products, and to consume the abundantly available alternatives to those foods instead. There is a beauty and simplicity in their story that needs to be told, that would inspire other average Americans, too, but which our movement so often fails to convey when we allow those who advocate for “health” and those who are obsessed with spirituality to speak for us instead.

We want and the animals need veganism to be stripped to its barest essentials: “don’t eat animal products, here’s what to eat instead.” Everything else is merely a distraction that confuses people and makes it hard for them to identify with us because they don’t understand what, at it’s core, the movement for an ethically-based veganism really stands for: not using animals or their products and nothing more. Tragically, ours is a movement now so entangled with the health-food, raw-food, and “spirituality” movements that it has lost sight of the animals and the urgency of their plight. And it has lost sight of its audience: average Americans—the people we need to convince to go vegan because they are the demographic buying the vast majority of the products that cause so much suffering and death.

A few days ago, the Associated Press released an article discussing the collective eating habits of Americans entitled, “Salads Are Nice, But Burgers Are What Really Sell.” While Americans may say they want to eat healthier, when they actually do eat, they choose fast food:

No matter that First Lady Michelle Obama has been on a crusade for a year and a half to slim down the country. Never mind that some restaurants have started listing calories on their menus. Forget even that we keep saying we want to eat healthy. When Americans eat out, we order burgers and fries anyway.

Billions of animals are abused and killed every year in this country, and they deserve advocates who are dedicated solely to bringing that tragedy to an end. They deserve advocates that are thinking critically about what is the most expedient means of ending their abuse and killing: and that means simply replacing the demand for foods that fuels that cruelty with appealing foods that don’t. Our imperative is to get people to stop eating animals, not to reform the unhealthy eating habits of Americans, not to advocate for whole grains over refined flour, not to advocate for whole foods over processed, not to advocate for vitamin supplements, and certainly not to be concerned about their spiritual lives. All of these may be worthy goals, but they are not our goals, and when we behave as they are, they hinder the one that really is.

Being vegan has nothing to do with reading poetry in your Zen garden. Let’s stop confusing people that it does. Being vegan has nothing to do with the so-called “wisdom” of ancient cultures. Let’s stop confusing people that it does. Being vegan has nothing to do with not cooking your food. Let’s stop confusing people that it does. It has nothing to do with whether your flours are refined, your foods are packaged or processed, and whether your colon is in need of cleansing. Let’s stop confusing people that it does.

In our cookbook, we went to great lengths to push the idea that even if you eat a diet of mostly processed vegan foods, you are going to be better off than you would be eating the typical American diet because they do not contain cholesterol or saturated fats. But even if that weren’t true, we’d be pushing those foods just the same because they provide the key to getting Americans to stop eating animals and their products. They alone—and not quinoa and not kale and not sprouted mung beans—hold the key to weaning Americans off the products that result in so much terrible suffering and death. And authentic advocates are duty-bound to promote them. For most of the population, nutritional quality is not a priority when it comes to food choices, and we must stop acting like it is. Our job is to appeal, first and foremost, to the average American—the overweight, fast-food eating person who loves their pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs and doesn’t care one fig if it is processed, filled with sugar, fat or salt, or whether it is organic vs. covered with pesticides.

How does social change occur? What is necessary to move a society away from a casual embrace of some form of oppression or killing to a more humane, compassionate and enlightened view? Critical thinking and strategic and informed responses to the roadblocks that stand in the way of success. For the vegan movement, that means helping people to see the vegan diet as a viable alternative to a diet based on animals, and then teaching them, step-by-step, what to eat instead, and making sure those alternatives are appealing and sustainable.

To that end, we are planning our own class designed to address the confusion about what it means to be a vegan and which will provide helpful, down-to-earth, practical information about how to be one, including the following topics:

  • Veganism Demystified: Veganism is not what you think it is! An engaging and funny look at myths associated with the vegan diet, and a fresh and simple perspective that will make it easy to succeed as one.
  • The Art of Vegan Substitution: The quickest, easiest and tastiest way to approach veganism is to simply veganize the foods you are accustomed to eating by replacing meat and dairy with the wide variety of analogs now available. We will introduce you to the latest and tastiest vegan meats, vegan cheeses and other dairy products, and show you how to replace eggs when cooking and baking.
  • Thinking Outside the Salad Bowl: Vegans no more want to eat only salads than the rest of the population! We’ll offer helpful meal planning tips using the vegan art of substitution.
  • Vegan Holidays: Being vegan doesn’t mean missing out on holiday fun! From fake Thanksgiving “turkeys” to vegan Halloween candy, stocking stuffers, Hanukah gelt and marshmallow chicks, we’ll show you how easy it is to “veganize” America’s favorite holiday traditions.
  • Dining Out Vegan: How to locate vegetarian and vegan restaurants, as well as what to eat at traditional restaurants. We’ll make it easy for the vegan on the go!
  • Effective Vegan Advocacy: Adopting a vegan diet is the most important thing any of us can do to help animals. But for those who want to do more, we’ll offer tips on how to veganize your own hometown—from making sure your local natural food store stocks the latest and greatest vegan foods, working to expand vegan options at traditional grocery stores and restaurants, as well as how to teach your own classes on vegan substitution.

In other words, our “Veganism Made Easy” day-long workshop will cover all the topics the San Francisco World Veg Festival should have, but didn’t, in its obsession with Ayurvedic healers, colon cleansers, raw foodists, and vitamin pushers. We’ll be posting more information about this class in the near future.

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