I had a fascinating conversation at a swanky restaurant last night. I was attending a celebratory dinner at a very hip media-friendly place called “The Hospital,” and wound up sat next to an admirably committed young woman who has become a strict vegan for largely political reasons.
Veganism is a food movement that I find difficult to comprehend, but only really because I’m a committed carnivore who wouldn’t sniff at eating their own relative should we be caught in any sort of “Donner Party” situation. We all draw our own moral lines, food-wise, and mine runs along the “I shall never willingly wear faux leather so I feel it absolutely morally correct to eat beef” skein. So while I could possibly commit to a lifetime of vegetarianism, I never could with veganism, because I could never give up milk. Cheese I can live without, but not that late night glass of milk with my cookies or peanut butter. I do, however, admire anyone who can not only have strict epicurean morals, but stick by them too.
So I learned a great deal last night. Not about lentils or nut cutlets or anything like that, but about the vegan question of “old or new.” By which I mean, coming up with whole new ways of employing the ingredients at your moral disposal balanced against the desire to simulate dishes that quite frankly demand ingredients best described as forbidden.
To which end, we got onto the topic of “Silken Tofu Cheesecake.” After I’d made my usual snarky comments about tofu being readily available on the end of your average HB2 pencil, she allowed that, while said “cheesecake” was perfectly pleasant, it was not quite pleasurable enough to make her forget the dairy-based original.
So I asked, what is the point of simulating food you now feel morally compelled not to eat? Surely, if you’re giving up dairy products, shouldn’t you also give up all that goes with them? Isn’t it a bit like ordering the Veggie Burger from McDonald’s? Shouldn’t you be re-thinking things entirely? Moving on to non-pastures new? I didn’t mean it in a Catholic sense, as if veganism was some sort of hair shirt to wear to the table, but rather in the sense that if one took that path, one might perhaps leave their previous meal-time definitions behind entirely. Find new kinds of dessert that didn’t invite comparisons to her culinary past.
To which she responded, most reasonably, “Why?”
She allowed that Silken Tofu Cheesecake was a less than satisfying substitute for the real thing, but added that it was but one dessert, one dish, one recipe. And that giving up actual Cheesecake was not one of the greatest challenges in her life to date. Also, she just likes the sheer idea of cheesecake, so is quite prepared to eat the cheesecake she gets.
To put words in her mouth, you may not be able to go home again, but the town is still there and you can usually live with the changes, especially if it’s just for a visit. And she’s not living a life of self-denial, but rather a life of positive commitment, one in which she’s allowed peanut butter.
She certainly didn’t win me over to the cause of veganism, but that wasn’t her aim. She was simply hoping that the kitchen might offer her just a bit more than the inevitable “Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables Tossed On a Plate With A Dash Of Balsamic Vinegar,” which was of course, well, fruitless.
Which is when I really started learning. Because I thought, “Why can’t one of the vegetarian options on the menu for each course, be a vegan option?” Especially at the kind of high-end, celeb-savvy joint we were frequenting last night. Is it really so difficult for trained cooks to come up with a starter, main course, or dessert that does not involve animal products in any way? Must it always be roasted vegetables and or/pasta or polenta with lashings of cream and eggs and cheese?
Not that I’m suggesting they offer the Tofu Cheesecake. That still sounds perfectly foul to me.