MAILANDER’S LA - The fact that I am beginning to feel defensive about occasionally enjoying a rare steak and a moderately dry martini is an indicator of the profound impact that vegans are having throughout the country and especially in Los Angeles, where they have been notable since before the days of Annie Hall but are now a force.
You may recall Woody Allen wincing in that 1977 flick, as he orders "a plate of mashed yeast" from a health food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. And if you go further back, you may even recall thinking of Gypsy Boots as a nut rather than "an American fitness pioneer" as his Wikipedia page now celebrates him.
But when an LA lifestyle trend not only hits the stores but the New York Times too, it's gone mainstream, and you need to adopt a line explaining yourself.
My first line of defense is expansive: might it all be caught up in a liberal rip tide, the same tide in which LGBT folks and environmental Greens also swim?
"Going vegan is probably the biggest single change one can make to reduce his/her destructive footprint on this planet," a close friend, vegan for eleven years, tells me, "so yes, you must be vegan if you're going to call yourself an environmentalist."
But don't pigeonhole it as a liberal stance.
"I can't tell you how many vegan gun rights supporters I've met in the last few months," he is quick to add.
Another friend is both vegan and cynical about veganism as a "movement."
"Well, it has to be about something, but because it isn't about just one thing, as a movement it's about nothing," she said on the phone, sounding fully hale. "You don't have a movement, you have several movements--and I suppose you could find some scatological meaning in the term 'movement' if you like," she added, cackling. "But if there's no locus for the group, there's no movement. In England, it's purely about animal rights. Not here, where it's about two dozen things."
I tend to agree with her. I admire commitment at the personal level, but am skeptical of commitment at the broader social level, and especially as applied to marketing our food.
For instance, we all know that Trader Joe's is a decent place for a vegan to shop. It's also a pretty good place for a worker, vegan or no, to work.
But I care about workers more than I care about vegans, and for all their cute vegan samples, which they alternate with a mean carne asada on occasion, I also learned that Trader Joe's this week sent out a memo to employees announcing cuts to both retirement and healthcare benefits.
On the coming health care cuts, the memo cited "Obamacare." Not "The Affordable Care Act," but "Obamacare."
I didn’t see the memo, but employees I spoke to wondered if there was some political subtext to this phrasing.
Is that "progressive" at all?
Trader Joe's has a corporate policy of not commenting on private communications to employees, so they wouldn't respond to my inquiry on this matter, and they responded/not responded with a sanctimonious snip in fact.
"We do not comment on confidential communication with our crew members," public relations huffily responded via email.
From all that huff, I wondered if they thought I was wearing an Hawaiian shirt too. But no matter--they are but one commercial enterprise built on shrewd marketing. Along with the far more notoriously worker-wobbly Whole Foods, of course.
Trader Joe's huffiness aside, the outright sanctimoniousness that some vegans can bring to the table does on occasion annoy me. "Enjoy your cow," one churlishly snapped at a friend of mine on her way to a local carnitas haven.
For quite a long while now, while I've not abandoned roasted meats at all, I've looked for Yuletide ducks that fed on insects, Easter hams whose snouts never knew a trough, and Thanksgiving turkeys who preferred West Coast Jazz to Hard Bop. And I also never buy farmed fish of any kind, remaining unconvinced that such breeding enables fish to lead healthy natural lives.
Mark Bittman must be feeling a little guilty too. Bittman is a New York Times food columnist and the author of the recent tome "VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good."
My friend on the phone doubted the whole premise.
"It's so much harder to digest food at night," she told me. "If that's his prescription, I won't be seeing that doctor."
The VB6 concept, which makes for a buzzy hashtag (a critical consideration now when titling a book!) frankly seems mostly a hedge both ways. You get to tell the sanctimonious vegans that you are there with them eighteen hours a day--which in my mind is like telling a gay marriage advocate that gay unions are OK in daylight--but not around suppertime.
But I'm only marginally committed myself--to organic but not to vegan--so I suppose I am one of those fractions, about whom my phone friend remains very skeptical.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs at .)
Vol 11 Issue 38
Pub: May 10, 2013