An Open Letter to a Vegan Who Dislikes “Processed” Vegan Food:
Hi! How are you?
So…now that the pleasantries are behind us, can we talk about something?
I know you will only eat the most noble and wholesome of healthful foods and that nary a speck of “unnatural” food shall ever pass your pristine lips, but I want you think of something. I want you to think of the numbers 1–9–9–5.
I picked those exact numbers because that was the year I went vegan. Nineteen ninety-five. It even sounds old-timey. It was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the year that Alanis Morrisette drove me to distraction with her kitchen sink approach to the meaning of irony. It was also the summer after I went vegan. The years have passed by quickly but I can clearly remember a time that there was very little by way of vegan convenience foods in 1995. It was a totally different, and much more barren, landscape. Before then, things were way worse in terms of accessibility. So when you disparage vegan convenience foods as “junk,” “processed” or “gross,” all I can think of is 1995.
Things are still not much better in many small or even medium-sized towns but depending on where one lives, today is a whole different ballpark for living as a vegan and it is so much better. I think I need to emphasize this with the magic of italicization: so much better. When you disparage vegan products, are you aware that in 1995, there would be no such variety to complain about? Are you really thinking you want to return to an age when vegan convenience foods were not available for the most part and if they were, they were awful? And because vegan convenience foods were so scarce and so bad, our numbers didn’t budge at all, which meant that we were in a holding pattern for years in terms of progress. I have to ask, how can we change the world if there are few food options anyone but the most diehard animal advocate is willing to try?
So the next time you want to say something negative about a vegan food product that isn’t up to your dietary standards, I want you to think of these numbers: 1–9–9–5.
Because here is what it looked like in 1995…
You had to do much of your shopping at specialty health food stores, which were generally dusty hippie shops with limited options or faith-affiliated shops with limited options and it was much more expensive than today. Soymilk, tofu, you name it: you couldn’t get that at a regular grocery store for the most part and all the tofu was either shelf-stable or in one variety: mushy. Prior to my era, though, people would have to scoop their tofu out of open barrels where soy blocks were floating around in germs and who knows what else and I don’t even think about it now without wanting to puke so I will just leave it at that. Be grateful. That is all.
Speaking of vegan milks, it was basically singular because we had one kind and it was an aseptic soymilk carton that, I swear, came in a flavor that can only be described as Extra Beany. Maybe that was even a selling point. It was what beige would taste like if it had a flavor. I was part of a lucky time, though, because before that, dairy abstainers had powdered soymilk. Is this really a bygone era you want to return to, dear vegan?
There was vegan processed food you could buy at an aforementioned hippie or religious health food store, things like wienies in a can and boxed, dry burger mix, in other words, items that were frightening close to what you might find as the last remaining options in a survivalist’s bunker and they would make you the loneliest person at the family grill. No one wanted that shit! And now you’re complaining that we actually have items that could be tempting and appetizing to a meat-eater???
In 1995, if you happened to live in a city where there was a vegetarian restaurant, they generally only knew how to make brown rice and bathed everything in Bragg Liquid Aminos. None of your non-veg friends would eat there with you. Hell, you couldn’t blame them. But, oh no! Now we actually vegan restaurants that can create amazing food and desserts that look great and taste better. How horrible it is to be us!
Speaking of, if you weren’t at a vegetarian restaurant, you would be very lucky to find menus that could serve vegans at all, let alone options beyond hummus and portobello mushrooms awash in the dreaded Bragg Liquid Aminos. You would have to decipher a menu with surgical precision to engineer a dish without animal products and sometimes you’d be lucky to get plain white rice. Lucky! Get off my lawn!
Speaking of hummus, it was our mayo. It was also our butter. Hummus was a condiment. WE HAVE MAYO(S) AND BUTTER(S) TODAY, as in a plurality of them. Don’t like this fact? I have a really novel idea that just occurred to me: Don’t eat them. I am an expert problem solver.
It has been well-reported that the only vegan cheese available in 1995 was basically food-grade (???) plastic but it’s also worth remembering that the only ice cream was frozen sugar + milky water and it always tasted like it had freezer burn even though it rarely would freeze but we happily ate it up because that was what we had. Do you love your raw frozen banana “nice cream” and want to point that out every time someone posts a picture of vegan ice cream? Here’s the thing: I have no hate for frozen banana confections. In fact, I have more than a couple recipes for it myself. But I also love that non-dairy ice creams are slowly nudging dairy-based ones out of available shelf space at the grocery store and that I could give my non-vegan friends a scoop of Chocolate Cherry Chip from Trader Joe’s and know that they will love it. Guess what? Dairy cows would probably appreciate this and not tsk-tsk us about the sugar.
I must take a quick moment now to let you know that in 1995, lard was still very much a thing you might come across on a label or in a restaurant.
Don’t like processed foods? Good, because if it’s 1995, if you go out with non-vegan colleagues, family and friends, you will be eating a lot of plain salad. You might even have to ask for no cheese and/or eggs on it. In 1995, you will hit the jackpot if a restaurant has plain baked potatoes because even though it’s boring as hell and your server has to ask you 27 times if you really want just a baked potato with nothing on it, it’s at least filling. Sometimes you might even find salsa on the menu to dress it up and, hey, salt and pepper are vegan. Woot woot! (Damn these forsaken companies that make it possible for a vegan to eat a regular meal at a restaurant that doesn’t generate furtive looks of second-hand embarrassment and pity from our dining companions. Damn them all!)
In 1995, nobody knew how to pronounce the word vegan, partially because it was before the Internet but also partially because it was so fringe and rare, not many people had heard it spoken, including vegans. Do you really think it’s helping the animals if veganism is so uncommon you don’t even know how to say the word?
Speaking of, because vegans were as rare as unicorns, unless you lived in a city, you were often on your own. If you did live in a city, vegans were still so few and far between that you still had to hang out with people you otherwise had nothing in common with just because they were vegan, which for me included this one guy with spiders tattooed on his face who always went to the circus protests and ran after cars and this other guy who I was half convinced might have been the actual Unabomber for a while.
Still want to go back to 1995? You’ll have to wear Keds or Converse shoes all the time and order “dressy” shoes from a catalogue. Most shoes were a very hard plastic, uncomfortable and very unstylish, kind of like polio shoes. If you wanted to wear anything but sneakers to the office or a wedding, these were your option. Speaking of dressing up, if you were looking for cosmetics, you’d find better quality make-up in a picked over Spirit Halloween store discount bin on November 1.
Traveling as a vegan meant you had your VRG restaurant directory or Tofu Tollbooth directory and a prayer that when you drove 300 miles to the closest option listed in Oklahoma, it was still open for business. Or else, yeah, it was nothing but miles and miles ahead of you. Gas station potato chips were your main source of sustenance.
So, dear vegan, does all this mean that I’m saying you shouldn’t eat fruits and veggies? Of course not. Eat what makes you feel your best! But don’t disparage these options because they are a sign of how far we have come with building a vegan movement that is accessible for everyone. Don’t like those things? Easy. Don’t eat ‘em!