One of the gifts I got for my birthday was a cookbook called The Conscious Cook, by Tal Ronnen. Ronnen is apparently a highly respected vegan chef who is trying to bring meatless cuisine to the forefront. There’s much discussion in the book about why removing animal products entirely from one’s diet is the best way to eat. Although the self-righteousness is definitely present, the attitude is more…cultish: well, don’t you see that it’s just simpler, and just right, to think the way that we do?
For over a year now I’ve been trying to keep meat out of my diet as best as I can. It started because I had to lower my cholesterol, but then I found that the less meat I ate, the better I felt. There are fewer calories in non-meat protein alternatives, so it’s easier to lose or maintain weight with them, and they are much less expensive.
The issues I have with vegetarianism and veganism are another post for another time (I’ve written and deleted hundreds of words here because they’re off-track), and I’m really just trying to get at something weird in this cookbook that I’ve noticed elsewhere in the vegetarian world. That thing is the matter of substitutes.
This cookbook is obsessed with substitutes. The recipes have names like Gardein “Chicken” Scaloppini and Paella with “Sausage”. Vegan mayonnaise and cashew cream abound. I’m sure that a good many people who decide to go vegetarian choose to substitute meat-ish items for the meat items that they miss in their diet, but in my opinion, this is missing the point.
If you think of a less-meat or no-meat or no-dairy diet as one for which you have to make substitutions to hang on to the dishes you love best, you are setting yourself up for failure. No vegetarian substitute is ever going to be as delicious as a steak grilled to medium-rare over charcoal, or a pork chop seared with a little sage in a cast-iron pan. Not ever. You’re going to be biting into that tempeh or whatever and you’re going to think “this is so thoroughly not steak” and you’re going to be miserable.
But that’s a perspective problem, not a problem with the diet or the food. Tempeh is not steak, but tempeh is tempeh, with its own pleasures, and its own set of rules for preparation that are better in some ways and worse in others. Trying to dress tempeh in a steak outfit and pass it off will never work as well as making it as pretty as it can be in its own clothes.
Tofu, for instance, does not resemble meat whatsoever. It resembles tofu, and nothing else. But since it has so much less inherent flavor than meat, you can bring a much wider variety of flavor to it, and turn it into something interesting in its own right. You just have to stop thinking substitution and start thinking tofu.
That’s where I find this cookbook so strange. About half of the recipes embrace the vegan diet with the mindset of making vegetables and whatnot delicious in their own right, and the other half are all about the substitution, especially in adapting French cuisine to the vegan mindset. I admire Ronnen’s effort, but I think he’s nuts. Trying to do French cuisine without eggs or milk? Some rules of this world are inviolable: Americans will never embrace soccer, and there’s no way to make a souffle without eggs.
Ronnen, I think, is still looking at the vegan diet as being restrictive. He is determined to eliminate meat and dairy from his diet and from the food he cooks for others. But that’s another way in which I think a vegetarian or vegan diet is set up for failure. Elimination does not work for most people.
But moderation often does. From my perspective, if you want French food, just eat some meat and dairy already. You can balance it by eating vegan the next day. If your ethics don’t allow you to indulge in meat and dairy in moderation, then I don’t think French food is for you. Maybe this is unfair, but from my perspective, a substitution is just going to make you think of how good the real thing is, and that’s going to weaken your resolve to eat a healthy, moderate diet.
Allowing restrictions to determine your diet seems simultaneously to be the easy way out and the least likely to succeed way to go about it. You can just say no, I won’t eat that donut, I’m vegan. This can skirt your human craving for junk food for a while, until you crack, so tired of substitutes and turning down everything in front of you that you stuff your face with donuts and chili from Wendy’s. To me, it’s much more sustainable to have the willpower to say no, I won’t eat that donut today, I’ve already had dessert. Maybe tomorrow. My opinion is that you need to allow your diet to be open to all possibilities, and you need to have the inner resolve to find healthful food in all the nooks and crannies you can.
And the key to finding healthful food is appreciating it for what it is. Braised chard with balsamic vinegar is delicious, but it will never taste like Cheetos. You have to come to terms with that in whatever way seems best to you, whether it means you choose never to eat Cheetos or never to eat chard. But trying to split the difference by pretending that healthful food can have the same kind of obvious pleasures as junk food…well, I just don’t think that’ll work.