When vegan is merely a label

I wonder if anyone – other than a few select CEOs – was happy with Oprah’s hilarious product placement vehicle vegan show from a few weeks ago. Big Ag’s pissed. The high priest of Less Meatarians, Mark Bittman, was also unimpressed:

Ms. Winfrey, who has been on more diets than the rest of us combined, challenged her staff to “go vegan” for a week. Intriguing, except her idea of surviving without meat and dairy — no explanation given for why we should go from too much to none — is to fill your shopping cart with fake versions of both, like meatless chicken breasts and dairy-less cheese.

You can watch clips of the show here. My column from last week after the jump.

When vegan is merely a label

When I heard Michael Pollan, the closest thing to a national food conscience we’re going to get, was to be a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” I was intrigued. I’ve read several of his books — including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” — and found him a reasonable, readable advocate for changing the American diet and the way our food is produced. He’s passionate without being preachy, or at least not overly so. But he eats meat, so the show’s focus on veganism seemed odd. Still, it was worth checking out, I thought.

Things ran off the rails quickly though.

After a brief setting of the stage with Pollan, the product placement machine kicked into gear. Kathy Freston, author of the best-selling vegan cookbook “Veganist,” is introduced as “the nation’s veganist” and is shown making a presentation to show staffers. The backdrop is composed of dozens of Kashi brand bags. Whole Foods grocery bags make a conspicuous appearance soon after. Regardless, nearly 400 staffers decide to go vegan for a week, and we follow several of them as they progress and, as we are constantly reminded, go to the bathroom more.

Why we should actually consider a vegan diet is given relatively short shrift. One segment taped at a Cargill slaughterhouse might be enlightening if you’ve never seen or considered where your fast-food hamburgers come from, but if you already know there’s a bolt gun involved, it’s not so much. Winfrey asks Freston whether she feels it’s OK to eat eggs from pampered chickens. “It’s OK to have that egg, absolutely, because it’s a natural cycle for the chicken,” she replies. “But what I would say to you, Oprah, is that not everybody has that kind of access to those kinds of eggs or, you know, humanely raised beef from small farms. It’s more expensive, and it’s harder to find.” So eating vegan must be cheaper, then.

Just a few minutes later, Freston takes a show employee to the grocery store — Whole Foods, as we are constantly reminded — for a little vegan shopping and buys nothing but exceedingly expensive processed and packaged vegan foods. The woman leaves the store with a full grocery cart and not a single vegetable in sight. No broccoli, no carrots, no beans. It’s too tough to get a good shot of a label on those, I guess; broccoli isn’t a brand. By the time we find out Freston’s husband is a partner in Winfrey’s OWN television network, the whole exercise begins to feel downright tawdry.

Which is too bad because most of us really should consider eating less meat and getting what we do eat from people raising the animals humanely and with minimal environmental impact. Pollan, who advises we simply “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” played nice but had to recognize this as a giant missed opportunity.

The fundamental problem with the show is this reliance on packaged food is a continuation of what got us in trouble in the first place. The packaging has changed, but the message remains the same: You don’t know enough to make a healthy meal. Trust us.

On a recent Saturday night, flying solo with the kids, we made pasta, rolling out long strands of fettuccine and hanging them to dry while we made a sauce. Into a pan went a tablespoon of bacon grease, then shallots; later, some spinach, tender mustard greens and wine. While the pasta bubbled away on the stove, we threw together a salad and a simple vinaigrette. The pasta was drained, added to the pan, and with a few quick stirs, we were done. It took a while, sure, and it wasn’t vegan. But there were no boxes involved; it was delicious, and we had made it together.

Scott Rowson lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at showmeeats.com. Reach him at showmeeats@gmail.com.

Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

2 thoughts

  1. Agreed. I have no philosophical argument with veganism per se; in many ways I think it’s more consistent than vegetarianism (takes lots of dead animals to produce milk & eggs, too). But I, too, have found that lots of veganism ends up far more reliant on fake food than a more balanced diet. Along the same lines, I get annoyed at restaurants whose idea of a vegetarian option is a processed veggie burger or tofu surprise, instead of the vast possibilities inherent in good vegetable-based cooking.

    At the CSA farm we worked at in Virginia before moving here, there was a couple (vegan & vegetarian) who signed up for a single 1/2 share, and regularly complained that they couldn’t use it all every week. Joanna and I went through the equivalent of two shares a week without sweating. Their kitchen (we were friends) was mostly processed, pre-packaged food from Trader Joes & Whole Foods, overall far more expensive per unit than a diet of whole foods.

    If that’s your thing, it’s no better or worse than anyone else’s preference. But I think Scott’s on to something in the hypocrisy of proselytizing vegans on the health and naturalness of the diet above all else.

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