Carnivore's Holiday: My vegan rant

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.21.12
For years, a child in my extended family suffered food allergies so wide-ranging and life-threatening that the dinner table felt like a battlefield.
The parents worked the front lines. They checked ingredient lists for triggers and never, ever took a restaurant at its word, no matter how well-intentioned. They asked to see labels from bags of flour, salad dressings, sauces, you name it. Some places even invited them into the kitchens to check for things the cooks might have missed.
To be honest, it was tedious to eat at home with them and a nightmare to go out. But they did what they had to do to keep their child's food supply safe.
I’ve thought about them during my 10-part Carnivore’s Holiday series, because I see parallels between their situation and the dietary dodgeball games vegans and vegetarians have to play. As a culture, we’re not too far removed from Andrea Martin in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” whose character Aunt Voula finds out the boyfriend’s a vegetarian: “What do you mean, you don't eat no meat? That's OK. I make lamb.”
Our collective benign ignorance about alternative foodstyles — a fancy way of saying we’re OK with whatever you eat; just leave us out of it — draws the occasional persecuted cry, like this one in response to a story about vegetarian burgers I wrote for the Statesman: "The cashier walked me through the process, assuring me that the vegan burger was totally vegan. He was 100 percent sure. Then I looked at the posted ingredients, and the bun has honey in it. So... yeah, not the best and most trusting experience there."
It's not a question of trust. It's a question of taking charge. Give your ethos the credit it deserves: Veganism is complicated, nuanced and layered. In a culture that runs on animal products, most of us never consider the almost universal presence of them in our food supply. Whey in bread, gelatin in marshmallows, insect-derived food dyes, even fish parts in the clarifiers some beer companies use.
As a vegan, you might not have an anaphylactic reaction and die from eating the honey a cashier neglected to mention. That doesn't make it any less important to honor your needs. But do you really expect the guy at the fast-food counter to have your level of vegan sensitivity? Animal exploitation is easy to grasp when you're watching a YouTube video of sick cattle being forklifted to the slaughterhouse, but we're not quite as sensitized to the practice of drawing honey from a beehive, regardless whether it's a violation of that creature's sovereign rights.
As a restaurant critic and an omnivore, I’ve been on the meaty end of lectures from vegetarians and vegans. I'm not offended by anyone's choice to limit or eliminate the role of animals in their personal food supply. I envy the discipline a plant-based diet brings to the table. The Carnivore’s Holiday series has taught me that a vegetarian dish in capable hands can take the Pepsi Challenge with meat anyday. Casa de Luz, for example, is laid-back metabolic rocket fuel, lean and efficient and above all, satisfying. And I'm not the only omnivore who's quietly thankful that somebody’s taking steps to ease the impact of animal farming on the planet's resources.
What offends me is when those scoldings take a finger-pointing tone, like when a minimum-wage cashier fails to identify honey as a vegan red flag. Nobody with a sense of decency is out to subvert your goals, even if their earnest efforts to accommodate them fail.
Like it or not, if you're committed to following vegan or vegetarian strictures, the burden is on you to monitor your food, just as it was my family's responsibility to identify food-allergy triggers at home and on the road. Flip the script on the salesman’s code: “Yes is just the starting point for negotiations.”
(TOP PHOTO: For vegans especially, finding a restaurant is like playing dietary dodgeball. Clockwise from top left: the now-closed Borboleta, Daily Juice Cafe, Counter Culture and Casa de Luz. INSET: A well-intentioned vegan hamburger patty at Elevation Burger was compromised by the presence of honey in the bun. The cheese? That was nobody’s compromise but mine. Photos by Mike Sutter)