living underground in the real world

vegans break my heart every day: thoughts on American veganism

I was foraging for morels this morning, and I got so fucking angry.

About the internet. Of course.

My online life is split in two: I follow a ton of chefs and pastry chefs on Facebook and Instagram but most of my actual friends (who I also follow, as one does) are vegans. This sometimes creates weird things like the photo I saw this morning. Seeing a photo of cute animals, I naturally assume it’s from a sanctuary a friend is volunteering at. Then I read the caption:

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It hurts the heart, but I get so many plating ideas from this chef! So I didn’t unfollow them.

I do a lot of eye-averting on the internet.

Walking in the woods is a good way to heal from being a split self.

You’d think being a vegan who’s into foraged food would be a natural fit. Vegans eat vegetables and foragers forage almost exclusively for vegetables. Easy. But vegans don’t always eat vegetables, and foragers aren’t always vegan-friendly. I know of almost no vegan foragers, except Wildman Steve Brill. Most of my forager friends extoll the benefits of churning their own fucking butter to accompany their ramps or something.

Walking with my morel-eyes on—scanning the ground while focusing on my breath, mentally noting the location of what I think is woodruff I want to watch for blooms in order to make May Wine, smelling the sweet foresty air, all that good shit—I suddenly got an actual heart-pang about the whole thing. Foraging takes time, that’s for sure. But I worked weeks of 12+ hour days and managed to fit in six morel walks, until the seventh one finally paid off:

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You become what you do not resist.

You also become what you spend your time doing.

I spend too much time looking at the computer on breaks from work.

I want to make sure I become, too, a person who spends time grocery shopping in the woods.

Why have we let the pleasures of local food become associated with annoying nose-to-tail locavores, while vegans are associated with chik-o-stick and Oreos and processed fake ice cream and Boca burgers?

Most vegans are political, why aren’t we more concerned with corporate food?

Is it really just the thing of craving what you can’t have? We need to grow up, in that case.

Is it because we’re all extremely class-conscious and foraging seems like this Brooklyny fancy thing to do?

To me, foraging is the most anarchist act possible: finding your food for free, instead of buying it from The Man. Foraging people are a covert, underground mycelium of Facebook groups and list serves—I have foragers I buy things from for the shop with whom I only have texting relationships once or twice a year: that kid who texts me when the ramps come in, that other kid who texts me when he finds woodears. Before I had the shop I’d buy my ramps in the parking lot of a health food store, from a plastic bag in an ice chest in the trunk of a car. Talk about underground. Talk about anti-corporate.

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Meanwhile, the vegan internet is today going crazy for a recipe with Bacon Bits as the star ingredient.

Are we really this short-sided? This unimaginative?

Yes, I’m not a Latina single mother raising my kids while working three jobs in a food desert with no woods nearby. (And neither are most vegans. And that’s pretty damn fucked-up too.) Yes, it’s easy to say that anyone can make the time when I was 15 minutes late to work because I was Instagramming my morels photo, so I just texted L and E and said I’d be in soon and by the time I got to work the shop was almost ready to open.

Don’t most of us reading this blog live lives of ridiculous luxury?

I bet you do. By luxury I mean: enough food. A house. Not being scared about being hungry or homeless in a week or a month. If you’ve got that stuff taken care of, you have the time to forage. Dandelions and garlic mustard and dock and Japanese knotweed and field garlic and wild chives: I guarantee that most of these are in an abandoned lot or field near you right now, no matter where you live. It’s shocking, how much food goes to waste in this starving country because we don’t see it.

But vegans are going insane over something called Beyond Meat and that Earth Balance makes a Tings-like product now. Before I realized Tings were genetically modified I’d eat Tings now and then, too, but…how do I put this without seeming like I’m lecturing more than I already seem like I’m lecturing? I was ashamed of my Tings. A corporate product, not a whole food—processed junk. Sometimes you do it, but it’s nothing to be proud of. Not because it’s bad for your body, because it’s bad for everything. The earth and the vegan movement and the reputation of veganism.

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I believe in being a good soldier. Sigh. I do. An ambassador. I’ve been vegan 20 years this year, so I think that allows me to speak with some shoutiness on the topic of what is needed to improve in this little movement of ours.

Do you think vegans think that being vegan is enough?

I think we do, all too often.

I think I do, all too often.

Am I wrong about all this? I do know a ton of CSA-obsessed, gardening, fermenting, foraging, dumpster-diving wildcrafting vegans. But I know we’re in the minority of a minority.

Let me know what you think, OK? I want to know how things look from your end of the produce aisle.

Here are two good comments to start you off from my Facebook pals:

I think you are really, really wrong. New, teenage, vegans are still learning, like all teenagers, to understand their impact on the larger world. Folks that have been vegan for a while, like you, me, Maresa & Jacob, are obsessed with plant-based local food. Foraging is mostly a fantasy in the leaden soil of Chicago, but I still dumpster dive & trash pick, for food, clothes & furniture, plenty. Urban foraging! Still CSA obsessed though.

And:

 I couldn’t agree more. We need to leave single issue veganism behind and embarrass food justice, complete foods, urban farming etc… I think we’re really missing an opportunity letting omnivores dominate the locavore, food accessibility and clean foods movements…

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Tomorrow I have a post ready to go about capitalism + classism + veganism. So many -isms, can you even stand it?

40 Responses to “vegans break my heart every day: thoughts on American veganism”

  1. megillicuddy

    Near the top of my list of things that people say when they’re the kind of people who are just dying to discredit veganism is the one along the lines of, “Why do you care about animals more than the conditions of the workers who farm your vegetables/work in factories/etc., etc.”

    Aside from being a completely arbitrary assertion, incredibly insulting, and straight up hypocritical, it’s untrue. And really I’d guess that per capita vegans are probably more aware of and concerned about intersectional issues including environmental concerns and fair working conditions than most omnivores. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I guess I’ve always thought of processed vegan junk food in a training wheels capacity, something that most people outgrow as they get more comfortable.

    But yes, it’s always possible to do a little bit more and it’s worth being reminded from time to time since the scope and scale of things that need more care and attention in this world can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. I think being vegan is part and parcel of making considered, deliberate decisions about how we interact with the world, and even if something like foraging isn’t a possibility, there’s room in pretty much every choice we make as humans to influence things in the right direction in a million small ways.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hey! Look at us thinking alike—I had just written about that exact same thing (people trying to discredit veganism by saying it somehow means you don’t care about people) in the next post!

      “Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I guess I’ve always thought of processed vegan junk food in a training wheels capacity, something that most people outgrow as they get more comfortable.”

      This is a great point. I have a suspicion you’re right.

      I’m glad a lot of these comments are in the “calm down, girl,” vein. Makes me feel like things aren’t so bad.

      Reply
  2. Ali Seiter

    Hi, Lagusta!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, as always. Though I probably can’t mend your broken heart, I would like to introduce you to another vegan forager. His name is Zach Chaves and he often partners with our Vassar Animal Rights Coalition to take students on “Wild Edibles Walks” to educate us about foraging as well as compassionate lifestyles. If you’d like to get in touch with him, I’d be happy to get his contact info for you!

    By the way, I could not be more excited about having Sweet Maresa’s macarons available for order on the Lagusta online store. Jayme’s husband brought them to our Joyce reading group a couple months ago and I just about died of ecstasy. Anywho.

    -Ali.

    Reply
  3. Ann

    I don’t know enough vegans–hardly any, actually, you being a sterling exception. But I have been dedicated not so much to foraged food (just because I’m not up on what to look for yet–but plan to become so) but to whole plant foods pretty much forever (though as a kid in the 1970s eating from my mother’s extensive garden fertilized by kitchen compost and old jute rugs found on the side of the road after they’d been put out for trash pickup and eating organic brown rice from 50-lb. bags bought at a local food co-op that was essentially a second home and miso-cured olives made by that same extraordinary mom, I didn’t know that’s what it was). I’ve finally become vegan only recently–after being a pescatarian and then vegetarian for about 40 years. I’m ashamed to say that most of that time, I didn’t know better (I won’t even go into it, I am so ashamed). I wish I had gone vegan long, long ago. To me, the two–veganism and whole foods–are inextricably intertwined. In fact, to my mind, very simply, food and whole foods are. I love chips, nonetheless, and trying some fun junky treats seems fun sometimes (and there’s always the time-thief factor, no matter what you say, you Amazing Energy Woman, you). But the goal, always, is real food, as real and whole as possible. I see the vegan media focus on dairy and meat replacements and am often disappointed when I open up a recipe for something that looks real and yummy only to find that it calls for “non-dairy sour cream” (and where’s the recipe for that? ’cause I ain’t buying some packaged non-dairy crap, uh-uh) and Earth Balance this and that. But really, are you saying that’s what vegans mostly are about? I don’t know; I’d like the opportunity to find out more.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Ann, you’re a gem!

      I don’t know really if my annoyance represents the true vegan “mainstream” (if such a thing can be said to even exist) or not…I hope not.

      Reply
  4. laceyputnam

    I love being a vegan, but my life’s work focuses on helping people heal and cope with life. Just this week, I spent hours meeting with workers from CPS, DSS, numerous treatment organizations and families- the goal was to keep a mother and her three young children from being homeless. The older boys, 12 and 13 struggle with anger and are failing out of school. The last time they saw their father he gave then a fake number and left town.
    I had many talks with these two boys, we played some games and discussed what they thought about the recent move to a motel. They have no thoughts, this is what is their “normal.” What they are dealing with his should not be anyone’s normal.
    When I get too caught up in myself, doing veganism the “perfect” way, what I eat, etc., I am quickly brought back to reality when I go to work. There are people all around us who are hungry, children that are homeless, individuals who are painfully lonely and living in fear.
    We all have to choose what is most important. Sometimes, knowing that I can quickly grab a fake meat sandwich so that I can have a session with a young person whose father just died in jail, makes my life a little easier. I don’t have time to be perfect, just to do the best I can.

    Reply
    • Dustinbuster

      First, I applaud what you do. When I read this post, my first thought was: vegans should stop telling vegans how to be vegan. I don’t often have the inclination to be a perfect vegan either, and sometimes not the time; meaning that, yes, I eat plenty of corporate food and foraging does not cross my mind very often (to wit: never) because: it just doesn’t interest me. Maybe I am a horrible person. Or worse: I am a horrible vegan. I focus on my progress: just the fact that I have stuck with veganism this long! (I am terrible at committing to things (or even believing in them) for the long haul, and it’s no minor miracle that I still believe in animal rights for decades — even more so than in the beginning, in fact; I am, at my core, an expert at bending reality to suit my desires in most areas of my life).

      I also have no desire to eat oreos, but I am so tired of our already disenfranchised, dysfunctional community constantly finding new ways to one up each other. I don’t think that was the point of Lagusta’s post, but a real life friend and I were discussing this post yesterday and we kept coming back to the fact that, for many people (including ourselves), veganism can seem pretty hard, daunting…and then so many vegans seem to want to make it harder and more daunting and impose new rules of perfection. I didn’t come to veganism to be perfect. I would NOT be vegan if I didn’t think I had to — which is to say, it sickens me to think of eating another animal.

      But I don’t like being told I am being held to a higher standard, or that this is how I should do vegan. I will go out on a crazy limb and say that I don’t think everything about so called corporate food is bad. But that’s another story.

      One last thing: the reason I religiously read this blog, and the reason I am madly in love with Lagusta (seriously: I worship); she makes me constantly think, reevaluate, grow. Sadly, I don’t encounter many people like this, in real life or otherwise.

      Reply
      • lagusta

        Yep.
        Yep.
        Yep.
        And thanks.

        What would it be like to be Dustin, and to not engage in the endless game of perfection every day? Could we switch bodies and brains, just for an hour or so? This perfectionism thing, it’s so exhausting. I can’t imagine what giving myself permission to be imperfect would be like. I mean, it happens. Sometimes. Not enough though, and it’s so hard, and it usually carries a stomachache with it.

        I also don’t think everything about corporate food is bad. I just use the term as a shorthand for the kind of food that I do think is bad. (Imprecise language, thy name is blogging.) Food safety practically guaranteed, food availability—these are good things. SOme fine delivery systems for food corporate food has worked out—this is good. There are more things that are positive, too. Anyway.

        Ah, this imperfect world.

    • lagusta

      Of course. I hope you didn’t sense in my post any anger at social workers eating a Tofurky sandwich once in a while, because believe me, I’m not coming from that place. I’m talking more about a movement-wide mentality, one that, knowing you as I do, I certainly wouldn’t consider yourself guilty of.

      Reply
      • laceyputnam

        I am sorry for my post! Nothing is worse than an overworked therapist. Meanwhile for all my good work, I am currently in a battle with half my family over my own pride!

      • lagusta

        Aww. No need to be sorry at all! Hope the family stuff gets better ASAP.

  5. zoe p.

    Of the two major conundrums in this post, I think the second is more worthy of your time and effort…

    (1) Why have we let the pleasures of local food become associated with annoying nose-to-tail locavores, while vegans are associated with chik-o-stick and Oreos and processed fake ice cream and Boca burgers?

    (2) I spend too much time looking at the computer on breaks from work.

    I want to make sure I become, too, a person who spends time grocery shopping in the woods.

    Can’t wait for the next post.

    Reply
  6. AQ

    I really want to try foraging for food and am particularly interested in munching on some wild mushrooms, but I’m also afraid of doing it without any base knowledge and accidentally poisoning myself. Did you learn what’s good to eat on the fly/from a friend, or do you recommend any resources for a newbie like myself?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hello!! Yeah—when I worked at a veggie restaurant in Connecticut they were mega-foragers and taught me a lot, then when I moved to Upstate NY I joined the local mycological club and went on a few walks and things. And I got a bunch of books on foraging and mushrooms…and now I have a few apps that are helpful on my phone. It just takes time and practice, like anything. Google searches and Wikipedia are helpful—but only up to a point. You’ve really got to do your research with that stuff, because you can convince yourself something is edible by Googling “trout lilies edible,” then that something’s poisonous by Googling “trout lilies poisonous.” (Turns out they make some people puke in large quantities, but not me…or else, I got lucky.)

      Have fun!

      Reply
      • AQ

        Thanks for your response! I’m going to try going on a few guided walks, and I’ve purchased a couple of books (one by Steve Brill). I probably won’t trust myself to eat anything I find for quite a while, but I am still excited about becoming more aware of all the wonderful food opportunities in the world around me! :)

  7. Athonwy

    I’m a vegan forager. I collect wild mushrooms, nettles, berries, hazelnuts, lettuces and other greens, and a whole bunch of herbs. There is nothing more satisfying to me than to find a whole basket of food in the forest.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hello hello! How lovely! Oh, nettles. I’m too lazy for those guys. Is the flavor really worth the headache??

      Reply
      • Athonwy

        They are easy, just use thick gloves and scissors, and snip them straight into a bag. Long sleeves and long pants too! The flavour is good, I put them in smoothies, make them into pesto, and saute them with other veggies and greens.

  8. Rachel Creager Ireland

    I was vegan for 12 years. In the beginning, I didn’t have a job, so I could spend as much time as I wanted reading cookbooks (course the only vegan cookbook I actually had was Soy Not Oi) and preparing food for myself and my boyfriend. Over the years, it got much easier to be vegan, largely because of prepared foods. The corporations moved in because it was a ballooning market where they could make tons of money.
    That was in Eugene, where it was easy to forage wild fruit, even though I knew nothing about foraging.
    Now I live in rural Kansas. I know a lot more about wild food and herbs now, but being vegan, even then, was much easier than eating local, even now. It pains me how much so-called vegan packaged food goes in my kids’ lunch boxes every day, and it pains me when my 8-year-old tells me when she grows up she won’t eat animals, but she will eat dairy, because she wants to be more like other people. And what do you think the chance is that I’ll get my family to eat the wild greens I just grabbed from the yard?

    I admire the way you constantly push yourself and others to do more, do better. That’s why I read your blog. I keep trying, and studying, and hoping my kids will learn from being with me, that somehow my influence will win over the surrounding culture. Still, if I held myself to the standard you hold for yourself, my hopeless inadequacy would be so overwhelming that I would just have to lay down and die. I have to remind myself every day to accept what is, to accept myself as I am, even while struggling to find the best choice among many, all of which have different drawbacks. Drive thirty miles to participate in a community garden/CSA? Oreos from the grocery store a ten-minute walk away? Wild greens from the backyard, which no one but me will eat? Soy yogurt the kids love in a non-recyclable package from the health food store twenty miles away? Grocery store beans from a can with BPA? Local eggs from free-range chickens raised by someone I know? It’s never simple. I just do the best I can.

    Reply
  9. Jen McCleary

    This post was a good wake-up call for me! I am definitely guilty of eating shitty corporate food way too often lately. It’s so easy (especially when I’m really busy/stressed) to fall into only thinking that something is convenient and vegan and not thinking about what it actually is otherwise (processed crap). I just moved to a new neighborhood so I had to give up my CSA since they don’t deliver there, and I’m really going to miss it. I think there are some good farmers markets in the area though, and I finally have a yard for growing things in!

    There is also a brand new gigantic grocery store in my neighborhood, which has a big section of vegan stuff, organic stuff, etc. A mixed bag of good things and processed crap. I’m really torn about how I feel about it- on the one hand, yeah it’s processed crap corporate food. On the other hand, it’s a huge section of vegan food in a mainstream grocery store. Used to be you were lucky if a mainstream grocery store had tofu. Of course the ideal is whole-foods veganism, but I think it’s a stretch for people who are eating a SAD diet of processed crap to make that leap, so maybe at least they’re eating processed crap that is vegan? I feel conflicted about it. In any case, I’ve been vegan for a LONG time and should really be past the place where I’m super excited about fake cheese being readily available. It’s just lazy and uncreative and kind of gross. I don’t believe in berating myself (or anyone else) for not being a perfect vegan, but I do believe in a gradual process of improvement and mindfulness about the choices I make and I’ve kind of lost sight of that.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Well, I feel like my critique was against veganism as a whole, and I feel terrible that it could have made everyday, hardworking, doing-what-they-can vegans feel bad about their diets. But of course that sentiment doesn’t make sense, because veganism is obviously made up of vegans. What I want to say is: at least you’re trying!
      I’ve been thinking about this. I also get excited about new vegan crap cheeses! (And the good crop of new cheeses that are coming out.) But I think I’ve just sort of retrained my palate (even as I’m writing this, I know it’s slightly untrue though—like everyone else, I love junk food.) to know that crap processed food tastes like crap and makes me feel crappy. But yeah, like you said, it’s a step.

      Nothing wrong with steps.

      Reply
      • JenMcCleary

        Oh no! Don’t feel terrible! I think you made a fair point, and your post coincided with my thinking a lot about why exactly I was SO happy to have a whole array of fakey-fake meaty cheesy overly-packaged things within easy grasp when I really keep meaning to eat BETTER food that actually makes me feel good. There is a huge difference in how I feel physically if I eat some kale chips vs. tings- it’s just easy to forget that sometimes.

        I would LOVE to forage food- just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I bought a book about it a while ago, which I just realized is co-authored by Wildman Steve Brill who you mentioned. Awesome. I hope the little park in my new neighborhood has some good stuff in it!

  10. Rachel Creager Ireland

    After I wrote that reply above, I was thinking about this and realized that you were talking about veganism as a whole, not individuals, as you stated, but for some reason I felt compelled to write what I did anyway. Perhaps many of us are a bit sensitive about this question?

    Reply
  11. ann

    Just to comment on the “nose-to-tail locavores” and the local food movement, the other night we went to a hoitytoity farm-to-plate restaurant (with the farm literally in their backyard) who when I requested a vegan meal – I called the day before we even went – could do no better than a Burma-Death-March sized portion of quina and three pieces of steamed broccoli. No salt. For $24. I honestly felt as if the chef should have just come over to our table and said “Fuck You”, as this is clearly what that meal was meant to convey.
    If I had, however, requested a roasted pig that had been gently raised by the monks in the shade of an almond tree and completed with a glaze of burnished goat cheese wildcrafted by blind orphans, THAT would have been no problem.
    I don’t get it.

    Reply
  12. Eeeee

    After reading, I decided I’m going to eat more vegetables and fruits! Thank you!
    I hope I can get a good CSA when I move and do some foraging or have a small garden or something too.

    Reply

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