Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Vegan cookbooks: helping folks eat the Other February 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 7:32 am
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I’ve written before about exotification in discussions around vegan food, but it’s something I’m always thinking about & that has come up a lot lately. This year I’ve set myself a goal to cook at least one recipe from the many cookbooks I own. Hence I’ve been scouring them more than usual.

Has anyone else noticed that a staple of many a vegan cookbook is a recipe for African Peanut Stew or African Yam Stew or something similar? I’ve also seen (though less frequently) recipes for, say, Asian-Style Tofu or whatever. I cannot recall ever seeing a cookbook featuring anything like European Bean Soup. Is it because to most vegan cookbook authors/food bloggers, it would be preposterous to assume that there is anything universal or overarching about the many countries that make up Europe, or their cuisines? And yet we don’t often see the same distinction granted to countries in Africa.

“African” stew? Is the recipe from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa? Is that tofu done Chinese-style, Japanese, Filipino? Never mind the many variations even within those categories (just to preclude comments along the lines of “But hey, lots of countries in Africa do that kind of stew / lots of Asian countries use tofu!”).

Another thing I’ve seen not infrequently in vegan cookbooks & food blogs is the following construction:

“[Non-English ingredient or recipe name] must be [non-English language] for ‘delicious’!”

I also spotted this recently at Food Fight, who guess that “Mahalo is Hawaiian for ‘fake Almond Joy.'”

Oh, how cutesy. How patronizing. We don’t know what those funny foreign languages mean but we sure do love their grub!

The obsession with authenticity is another thing. This, like all the food othering in this post, is not limited to vegans, of course. My white boss (a one-time vegetarian turned omnivore due to happy meat, I might add) once praised my lunchtime curry because it “smelled really authentic.” She then went on to bemoan how she couldn’t manage to cook Indian food “authentically.” I squirmed, & said something about how surely what mattered most was whether she liked what she cooked. This only served to encourage her to rattle on about how important it was to get food “authentic.”

Anyway, there are countless examples of vegan recipes that stress their authentic nature. One I stumbled upon recently was in The Urban Vegan, in a recipe for “Blue Mosque Ayran,” which apparently is a drink you can find “at any cafe or from any street vendor in Istanbul.” I’ve never been to Istanbul, so perhaps I’m missing something in how this drink would be connected specifically to mosques (whose architecture are often held up as images of the exotic & dangerously foreign, I note), much less how the recipe in the cookbook is “so refreshingly good that the imam would definitely approve.” I dunno — has anyone ever seen an Italian recipe touted as being so delicious that the priest would approve?

I did some Googling & found that a common Turkish recipe is Imam Bayildi — which apparently means “The imam fainted” (when he tasted the recipe). I didn’t really see any other references to the imam having a lock on what is authentic Turkish food or not, but if someone knows differently, please let me know. I wonder if the Urban Vegan knew of this particular recipe & made a deliberate reference to it, or if it was just an example of throwing in something seen as “exotic.”

On the same page of that cookbook, by the way, is a recipe for “Political Biscotti.” The recipe notes that cafe culture frequently features both biscotti and political discussion. The biscotti are political because they contain both carob & chocolate, two flavors about which “people tend to be very ‘either/or'”:

They are always considered separately, as two distinctive flavors that were never meant to come together, sort of like Palestine and Israel. … The dates [in the recipe] act as a sort of sticky-sweet peacemaker, a culinary UN if you will.

Yeah. She went there. The bloody oppression of Palestinians reduced to a clever comment about biscotti.

 

“Anyone should be able to tell other countries NOT to eat creatures” September 13, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 9:09 pm
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Remember Kinship Circle’s colonialist campaign to get Western vegans to tell Korea & the Philippines to cease the dog meat trade? (There’s also a follow-up post.)

I see echoes of this same thinking in a recent post on Vegan Verve. After writing about Japanese dolphin slaughter, the blogger received a comment noting that in the US, lots of animals are slaughtered for food, sometimes in “crazy” ways. And furthermore:

Just because the Japanese are particularly exotic, particularly non-Western, we think we can criticize their traditions when it comes to food. They shouldn’t be eating dolphin or whale because, according to our Western upbringing, those are not animals that are to be eaten. The Koreans shouldn’t be eating dog, and the Chinese shouldn’t be eating anything that moves.

What the Japanese do when it comes to whales and dolphins is cruel and horrible, and poses a serious threat to the continuation of certain species (they overfish a lot too; global tuna populations, other fish are in trouble too), but there is a cultural angle too, and I don’t think it’s our place to tell them what they shouldn’t be eating. Hopefully before too long some groups will arise within Japan to protest this – when Japanese tell Japanese not to hunt and kill dolphins this way, and that they refuse to eat whale or dolphin, then things can change. (emphasis mine)

This, as you may recall, was my point in the earlier post about Kinship Circle: we in the West feel it’s our high-and-mighty duty to go & tell other countries, with which we have had an adversarial & racist relationship, what to do. Instead of listening to local activists & supporting them if & when they request it (& in the manner they request), US activists love to barge in, without thought to cultural context or self-determination & autonomy for folks in the countries they’re horning in on. (& yeah, go figure, the whole exotification thing makes it a lot easier to point fingers at OMG those weird savage people!)

In response to the commenter’s critique, the blogger replies:

Actually I quite disagree with you. I do believe that anyone should be able to tell other countries NOT to eat creatures, OF ANY KIND. Being vegan, I don’t quite understand why you would base your response on game meat in the U.S. and non-Western countries. Do you honestly believe that I am not against ALL animals being eaten?

Sigh. Gosh, do you honestly believe that I’m not against animals being eaten, either? And yet, I still find this quote incredibly offensive. Go figure.

The blogger also wonders:

Why the hell are there so many damn delicacies in Japan and other similar countries, and why do they mainly focus around poor animals? Does the United States have supposed delicacies that I am not aware of?

How about foie gras, among other “damn delicacies” eaten in the US? Many US vegans are aware of foie gras & legislative campaigns to outlaw it, for example. & what does “similar countries” mean? Scary “exotic” countries? Where people eat kerrrrrrazy things, unlike the US? What?

 

Exotification & the Vegan Traveler September 2, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 9:20 pm
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I’ll say it up front: I love to travel. I love to see new places; I love trains, planes, buses & big huge backpacks (so much better than cruddy suitcases!). But I’m conflicted about it. I know that when I travel I am also carrying the baggage — & privilege — of being an American, with a certain amount of financial privilege, & the privilege of speaking a language that is considered, for better or for worse, the closest thing to a global tongue right now. What does it mean for me to travel to other parts of the world? I try to be conscious of issues of exotification, but sometimes I wonder if leisure travel, especially to a country or culture not “your own” (which I realize is a complicated issue for many people, self included), inherently makes the places & people you’re visiting subject to exotification.

We’ve talked about how frustrating this stuff is recently. I thought I’d examine some specific examples of the ways in which vegan travel is discussed, in light of that, & throw it open for discussion. (more…)

 

Fair Trade & Eastern Allure in England November 20, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 11:40 am
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Last week I spent in England — my partner is contemplating grad school there, so we went to visit some campuses. I myself spent some time at university in York, & it was wonderful to be back there after 10 (!) years.

In Sheffield, we ate at the Blue Moon Cafe, where I was delighted to find vegan pasties. I used to grab pasties on the run all the time when I lived in York, & one of the things that made me sad about returning as a vegan was anticipating not being able to indulge. I guess pasties count as English ethnic food, huh? I meant to take a picture of my glorious pasty, but was too busy eating it, alas.

One thing I noticed when we were there was that some veg*n restaurants do the same thing they do over here: pour on the “mystical Eastern” stuff. Like Cafe Maitreya (whose food is amazing, don’t get me wrong; they weren’t twice-named the best veg restaurant in the UK for nothing), whose name is apparently Sanskrit for “universal love” or “loving kindness.” Now, thematically, that makes sense for a veg restaurant (although really, it’s not like vegetarianism is actually cruelty-free either). But what’s w/the fetish for “Eastern”/Asian/”Oriental” naming? Especially when, in many cases, the owners & patrons of veg restaurants are white? But even if they’re not, what does it mean that the mysterious East gets trotted out as something that’s going to pull in the customers (extra-suspicious when the cuisine isn’t even particularly Asian)?

I’ve read a lot of reviews of Hangawi here in New York, for example, that rave about how going there is like being transported into a Korean temple, & it’s all so enticingly exotic. Now Hangawi does serve Korean food, & I’m guessing it’s owned by Koreans (but I don’t know) — & yes, the calm, beautiful atmosphere definitely serves to highlight the wonderful food. It’s still creepy to see folks drooling over how it’s just like taking a trip to Asia, but you’re right in NYC! (subtext: & you can return to your comfortable American lifestyle immediately afterwards, without experiencing any of the hassles of actually traveling to those weirdo countries.)

Returning to a positive note, there was fair trade stuff everywhere in England. Okay, we stayed in two veg B&Bs, & so it’s perhaps not surprising there, although the non-veg B&B also had fair trade coffee & tea in the room. But we kept seeing cafes that had fair trade drinks, saw shops frequently that sold fair trade goods (I was able to get vegan fair trade truffles in a mall in the Bristol city center!), & on the York campus, the student cafeterias appeared to have lots of fair trade stuff as well.

Breeze Harper wrote recently (also here, near the end) about how important fair trade is, & how vegans drooling over vegan chocolate need to step up & demand fair trade goods as well. It is encouraging that this appears to be happening over there. I’ve heard that the UK not only has more vegans per capita than the US, but more vegans, period — which if true, is astounding given the population difference. I’ll have to dig up a cite behind that, but anyway, I’m hoping that this is a sign that perhaps vegans there are starting more broadly to understand multiple -isms. (Not that avowed “anti-racists” can’t be screwed up on race, too, of course…)

 

Exotic to whom? November 3, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 10:18 am
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A few years ago, there was an article in a veg magazine that was called “Exotic Produce 101.” I think it was meant to be part of a series; anyway, the one I saw focused on Asian produce. Apparently, “[f]or your family and friends, [Asian] greens are exotic enough to be interesting but familiar enough not to be scary.”

Let’s unpack the assumptions in that sentence. First of all, the assumption that whoever is reading this is unfamiliar with Asian vegetables — & thus is probably not Asian. Second of all, that “exotic” equals “interesting.” And also, that while “exotic” is good, too exotic is bad, Other, frightening.

Now I know that vegans pride themselves on the wide variety of food they cook & eat. Me too; I’ve long thought that veg*ns (especially vegans) eat a more varied diet than omnivores. And I like to learn about new cuisines to try too. But sometimes it starts to feel a little colonial, a little imperialist, you know what I mean? Calling the article “Produce from Around the World,” for example, would’ve been a lot less loaded than “Exotic Produce 101.” If we are what we eat, what does this imply for folks for whom this “exotic” produce is normal? Are we exotic & exciting & Other, too? Are we to be coveted for our ability to spice up your (white) life? (Oh yeah, I forgot: that’s how it works. Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi = cool. People who wear bindis because it is part of their cultural background & tradition are “too ethnic” & get targeted by people like the Dotbusters gang.)

Related to this, I mentioned online that one thing I wish I could find a really good vegan substitute for was bi bim bap — the vegetarian kind that has a fried egg in it. A few people mentioned that they had no idea what food I was even talking about. Okay, I’m not Korean, but I am Asian, & I have friends who are Korean & w/whom I’ve eaten bi bim bap. For me, it’s part of my cultural experience of being Asian. I could’ve substituted in pancit or lumpia from my own cultural tradition (both of which are easier to veganize, but let’s just use that as an example) & probably would’ve received the same bewilderment. Sure, there are probably lots of vegans who know what all these foods are (some of them are probably even Asian too). But because the only response I received was puzzlement, I feel safe assuming that there are many vegans who don’t. It felt kind of lonely. If I had said, “I want a really convincing mac & cheese recipe!” I don’t think anyone in the thread would’ve had trouble understanding what I was looking for.

Oyceter writes here about common & hidden cultural knowledge (Coffeeandink has a round-up of responses here). She says:

Your holidays, the ones that you travel miles away to celebrate, are always the ones people forget about. Your history, the one where you trace back where your ancestors came from, is never taught in class. You have to explain what you’re eating. You have to sit there and feel dumb that you don’t get a reference when everyone else in the room does, or face their disbelief when you say that you don’t get it. But when you mention something from your culture, everyone shuts up and doesn’t know what to say, since they don’t know what it is.

It’s not people denying you a job or refusing a loan, but it’s still isolating and painful. And it can be a little thing, like a non-knitter sitting with knitters. But the non-knitter can go back to non-knitter society pretty darn fast (ha! darn! get it? ok-i’ll-go-away-now).

Yeah. Vegans feel alienated from mainstream society a lot. And some vegans feel further alienated by vegan society, y’know?

 

 
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