thoughts on decapitalizing and decolonizing veganism…

….and photos of one of the dishes at an 8+ course dinner of Shanghai foods I cooked recently: Stinky tofu (take tofu, marinate it in [homemade! or, not homemade] miso for three weeks. You’ve just made something that will change your life.) with wild watercress; dry-fried green beans with smoked ramps; strange flavor eggplant with ginger foam (foam not pictured.). It was good.

A commenter named Daniela wrote the following comment the other day:

This is totally not related to your post, but would love to read your thoughts on this thing that has been going around in my mind for several years now. I am reaching out to you because, after reading your blog for some years now, well I like how you think.I have been wondering throughout the years why it is that the highest rates of vegans exist only in economically developed countries. My first answer to this was, once a human being has not only fulfilled its basic needs, but has an exceeding of commodities, only then we can focus on other things, like human o animal rights. I don’t know if we agree with this, but here comes my big issue, hence veganism is profoundly linked to capitalism. Although I truly believe that all animals are here for their own reasons, and not for us to use. I don’t know what to do with this. The gap between a person from the Montaña de Guerrero, Mexico, where they are literally dying of hunger, being almost vegetarian, not because they have a choice, but because meat is just a luxury for them, and I a vegetarian because I believe that eating animals is wrong. What can I tell those people when I am at field work, when I tell them that I don’t eat that precious meat, when deep inside me, I know that what allows this dietary choice is the system we live in, the same one, that makes them live in poverty. Here in Mexico almost all the vegans I know are in a privileged position, except for one, and I see how her mother struggles because she wants to support her child, but doesn’t have enough money.

I hope I have made my self clear, being English my second language it’s difficult for me to structure my thoughts.
I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

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Some thoughts:

“I like how you think.” Thanks!

“I have been wondering throughout the years why it is that the highest rates of vegans exist only in economically developed countries.”

I think about this a lot too.

And I agree with everything you’ve said, and feel for ya. My grandmother, a deeply working-class person, could never understand how I couldn’t eat meat when she could proudly afford to feed me meat. This rejection of the symbol of how she’d scraped herself up to a middle-class existence meant so much to her. She had cans and cans full of beef ravioli, split pea soup with ham, beef chili—these cans of hearty, meaty food were to her food security and pride in a life that was short on both. In time she respected my choices, but I always felt a twinge when she sadly fed me iceberg salad, knowing she’d spent the day making a precious meat thing for us.

A lot of people around the world, as you’ve said, are vegan or almost-vegan by default. Meat and dairy are still luxuries, so in undeveloped (what’s the more P.C. term for this? I know there is one, because “undeveloped” or “developing” are both patently awful, sorry to use em) countries they are status symbols. On the other hand, in more (over)developed economies, it can be a luxury to flaunt how little one needs the traditional status symbols of meat and dairy.

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I also know that there are most likely thousands of people around the world without blogs, Instagrams, or Twitter accounts who are vegan simply because they see that animal suffering is wrong and we just don’t know about them because they’re not in our weird insular little community and we’re so busy Instagramming our #veganfoodshare photos that we stop being able to imagine, after a while, that other “kinds” of vegans exist. This is what really breaks my heart. It’s great to know what my tattooed Portlandia besties made for their homeschooled children for dinner with their heirloom zukes, but what is that girl in a tiny Chinese village who one day decided she didn’t want to eat animals because it felt wrong and has no vegan cookbooks making for dinner? (Not like I think in tiny Chinese villages there’s no internet or anything—I’m just saying.)

Anyway, this is not so related to Daniela’s question.

Here’s my answer to what to do about the fact that pretty much 99.99% of vegans around the world are in a ridiculously privileged position:

I don’t have an answer at all, and I want someone to tell me the answer. 

But I know what a bad solution to this problem would be:

to not be vegan.

It can be hard to tell people who don’t have as much privilege as you do that you’re vegan, but what are you gonna do, not be vegan?  Of course not. That reminds me of when I used to do a lot of animal rights demonstrations and people would yell at you to care about people more. I always thought: I can care about people suffering while simultaneously not eating a hamburger, how can they not realize that? Happily, veganism is inclusive in that way. It leaves a lot of time to be a good person in other ways too, since everyone eats and in time it becomes just as easy (with the aforementioned access to vegan food at all, of course) to eat vegan food.

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Anyway, in the situations Daniela describes where people can’t conceive of how you couldn’t eat meat, I always do the same thing: just try to tell people politely that if I can live without hurting animals, I do. I think it’s a gentle way to not make a big deal of it.

So maybe what is helpful is what I was talking about in the last post: to recognize that veganism is not everything. It doesn’t solve everything, though it helps. But it doesn’t absolve us from having to work on alllllll the other issues too.

Veganism is profoundly linked to capitalism, like Daniela said, and this is what we need to work on, too (see last post: foraging! Aka, “how people in all other periods of time except for this period of time have always eaten”). How can we de-capitalize our movement, make it more accessible for people of all classes, and less focused on processed food?

I think we need to steal it back from these damn nose-to-tail people, for starters. I think we need to infiltrate Alice Waters-type Edible Schoolyards—we need to go into urban schools and make gardens and teach kids how to cook their homegrown zucchini in olive oil instead of butter. (Get a good sear, kids!)

And then we need to teach people how veganism can be CHEAP. Like: cook with the Mexican Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash, and you won’t go wrong. Look at the traditional diet of Mediterranean people: vegetables and olive oil. Some bread.

This is what gets me: veganism is a traditional diet of peoples all around the world, and we need to do a better job explaining that and celebrating it. American veganism, with the exception of Terry Hope Romero‘s books and a damn few others, is a celebration of bland white people’s food. Mac & cheese and burgers and whatnot. Ridiculous.

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Is any of this helpful?

Let’s talk more in the comments. Tell me how you’ve veganized the foods of your heritage people, please. I’d love to know about that.

8 Responses to “thoughts on decapitalizing and decolonizing veganism…”

  1. calvinhisboldness

    I just finished a great class [Plants & Civilization] in which the students and professor cooked up a meal and ate together as part of the curriculum. The professor encouraged us to make foods that reflected our heritage. Being of German, Irish, and English descent, I didn’t want to comply because I just haven’t found that food to my liking- and it involves some foods that my classmates, being Muslim, can’t eat. So I made something else. It was good, and vegan, actually.

    The point, at least to me, was the assertion of something I really think is at the root of why I love the United States. I let go of my history and used someone else’s [Moroccan] to make a new one that better fit the best world I could make. I am glad to have choices for my present that differs from the options my parents, their parents, and so on had.

    So instead of veganising my heritage I used a different one that someone else had already made vegan. I suppose it’s the easy way out, but I still think it’s an improvement.

    Reply
  2. lagusta

    Sounds like a great plan to me. I gotta admit, I love being American for just that (and pretty much only that) reason, too.

    Reply
  3. suzysorensen

    Ah! I have so many thoughts about this, and it’s impossible to write it all in a comment. I will try to be concise:

    1) Culture: I am half-Korean and explaining my vegetarianism to my mother/grandparents/uncles/aunts/cousins/boyfriend’s mom (who is also Korean) has been… well… a challenge. My mom has tried to feed me mandoo (dumplings), which she claimed were vegetarian, but in reality, and much to my horror, they only had “a little bit of meat” in it. Also, when first meeting my boyfriend’s mom, she told me if I don’t eat meat, I’ll get brain damage. She didn’t fail to remind me later that night and the night after. However, I’m well aware of the history of Korean immigrants /pre-industrialized Korea of my mom’s/grandparents’ generations, when meat was a luxury. That being said, Americans have now adapted Korean food to their tastebuds (BBQ), and I think many Korean immigrants have adapted to American culture. (Keep in mind the Koreans living in US now immigrated in the 70s for the most part. Things might be different in Korea now!)

    *Here! http://animalrightskorea.org/vegetarianism/vegetarianism-on-the-increase-in-korea.html

    In reality, traditional Korean food has little to no meat or animal products. If you know what to order, it’s terribly easy to be veg and eat Korean. If you are with other Koreans, be patient, be respectful, and eat lots of rice and ban chan (side dishes)! (Watch out for the anchovies! They are hiding in many dishes.)

    2) Class: I work in inner city public schools (in NYC). My students don’t understand how I don’t eat meat (except for my ESL students from India/Bangladesh, who are Hindu), and I don’t understand how they can eat potato chips and sodas for breakfast. Of course, I know the issues are inherently deeper and so so so complicated; they are cultural, political, and economic. However, most of my students are on free lunch, and I can firmly say they HATE school lunch, but they only have enough $$ to buy a $3 bacon/egg/cheese sandwich if they want anything otherwise. I also believe we are educated/indoctrinated to believe that these foods taste good – thanks to propaganda (heh) and government subsidies. There is a capacity for change, we just need to make it happen. Is a paradigm shift too much to ask?

    *Small changes here!
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/02/health/new-york-vegetarian-school

    P.S. We don’t know each other, but I’m a huge fan of your blog (and YOUR CHOCOLATES). I don’t think I can call myself vegan, but I can safely say the majority of what I eat is entirely vegan, except for the milk in my morning coffee. I’m sorry. :( (What do I do? Soy creamer is GMO and nasty!) I don’t have many veg-friends, and the ones I do know, well, we don’t share the same taste in food… or politics… or cultural heritage. They are super haole! I’m from Hawai’i originally, and I read that you go there often! (Creepy?). So anyway, thank you, for being here and continuing to be FIERCE in the face of this terrible world and continuing to provide feminist rants, radical food, and good vegan advice. It’s really helps me be to more vegan and conscious everyday! (I don’t want to name any names, but I went through a lot of bad, “mainstream” veg cookbooks written by white American women before I got here! Ha ha ha.)

    P.P.S. This comment is way too long, and I never comment on people blogs whom I don’t know, but I really appreciated this post!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      What a great comment! I’m so happy my post resonated with ya.
      What a fascinating link about Korean vegetarians.
      Yeah, I found out about the many many anchovies in the ban chan the hard way once…sigh. I was at a restaurant that made its own tofu—now I know that doesn’t guarantee vegetarian-friendliness…

      There’s some organic soy creamer out there, but yeah, it does separate. So annoying. At the shop we mostly use almond milk, have you given it a whirl? It’s kinda thin, but it works!

      Where are you from in Hawaii??? How cool!! (I don’t think it’s creepy if I’m putting it all out there on the internet. I think I’M the creeper, in that case, actually.)

      Reply
      • suzysorensen

        Ah, thanks! I’ve tried all milks. The coconut milk creamer tasted the best and I did that for a while, but then I read the ingredients and it freaked me out. I like to make my own almond milk, so maybe I will try that! Homemade tastes better…

        I’m from Honolulu. I get to go back once a year or so during the holidays. I miss it terribly! I’d like to move back one day. Do you go often?

        If you ever stop in Honolulu, you should check out my (vegan) friend’s vegan-friendly deli called Kale’s (pronounced KAH-leh’s) in Hawaii Kai. The deli puts a healthy/veg twist on a lot of local foods. She’s also an amazing vegan baker! She makes mochi, using local, organic ingredients. Delicious!

        http://www.kalesnaturalfoods.com/retailer/store_templates/am_custom_page.asp?pageID=2370&storeID=AD5DDB8ED2B24753A27A5747E28D0A62

        From what I am hearing/reading these days, there seems to be a growing movement towards healthy, local, organic foods and sustainable farming. Also, a lot more vegan restaurants are starting to pop up around the island (on O’ahu in particular), which is exciting! My Hawai’i friends are starting to turn more veg than my NYC friends, surprisingly. Yay!

      • lagusta

        Ahhh Honolulu! Have you been to this SuperPho there? They have vegan pho that is the most amazing of all time. http://www.yelp.com/biz/super-pho-honolulu
        And why does Honolulu hog all the best shave ice??
        We got to Kauai every year and sometimes work in a layover in Honolulu in order to get the pho–and now I’ll go to Kale’s! Local, organic mochi! Wow wow wow. We get some nice mochi every New Year’s at the Buddhist temple down the street from us where they make it fresh. So lovely. The Kale’s menu looks amazing, thanks for the tip!

        Yeah, on Kauai there are some good food activists combatting the fact that half the island is used for GMO crops and things. Sigh. There used to be a great vegan restaurant (Blossoming Lotus) on Kauai, but it’s gone now. There’s a cute raw vegan place, and lots of nice organic things at the farmer’s markets, but less burgers and touristy food sure would be nice. My partner’s step mother is Thai, and she’s introduced us to the nice world of Thai food trucks and farmer’s markets and things, which is really awesome and sometimes pretty vegan friendly.

      • suzysorensen

        YUM – I haven’t! I will have to go!

        Have you been to Uncle Clay’s?
        http://www.yelp.com/biz/uncle-clays-house-of-pure-aloha-honolulu-2

        He uses homemade syrups and has flavors like kale… Heh! It’s on the way to Kale’s actually (and it’s also the neighborhood where I grew up/my parents live). And if you do go to Kale’s, you should say hi to Jenn Hee (the vegan baker friend)! I think you two would get along. Here’s her blog:
        http://www.jennmeleana.com/

        Also, I think you could probably make (Hawaii-style, baked) mochi pretty easily. I attempt here (warning: has earth balance):
        http://walkingmykarma.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/mochi-battles-recipe/

        Also, did you read this NYT article?? How timely!
        http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/health/the-health-toll-of-immigration.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        Nice chatting with ya! :)

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