Are Vegans Ascetic?

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The recent death of Anthony Bourdain was an untimely and tragic event. It speaks well of him that he could compare vegans to Hezbollah and still have my admiration and respect. There are few people with his magnetic charisma. His death got me thinking about pleasure, indulgence and a life well lived.

One of Bourdain’s primary knocks on veganism is that it is an ascetic lifestyle. The pleasures of meat and dairy were too central to his life for him to renounce. (In his defense, he also took animal life seriously and encouraged meat eaters to look their dinner in the face while it’s still breathing.) I must differ with him here and contend that a lust for travel, life and experience is not incompatible with veganism.

There are two routes vegans can take in approaching the pleasure question. One is to emphasize how vegans are not really the joyless monks we’re often made out to be, which is the primary thesis of this piece. But I also want to touch on the other route because it’s not deployed often enough: to admit defeat. Bourdain couldn’t have lived the same life as a vegan. If you want to go to France and eat at most restaurants, you’re probably going to have a hard time. If you want to go to Argentina and eat like the locals do, you’re not going to be able to accomplish that as a vegan. I don’t deny that vegans are missing out on some pleasures, but at some point it simply comes down to priorities.

For much of human history meat has been associated with feasting and indulgence. It’s tightly linked to backyard barbecues, weddings and other celebrations. And we don’t live in anything close to a vegan world, which means that 99% of chefs are cooking primarily non-vegan dishes. You have to go out of your way as a cook to use only vegan ingredients.

This fact may have obvious downsides, but it cuts both ways. Sure, you’re missing out on the cuisine of most chefs. However, this also means that the possibilities of vegan cuisine are under-explored. And sometimes less is more. It’s unintuitive that a subtraction could make for more creativity, but this is often true. Artists often place themselves under constraints such as time, materials or form. My go-to examples are the poetic forms of the sonnet or haiku. Both are extraordinarily limited because they forces the author into a given rhyme scheme and prosody.

From those dire constraints
Possibilities emerge
The world again new

In my experience going vegan leads to a renaissance of foods and flavors. We only eat a tiny fraction of all the foods on earth. All too often omnivores get stuck in a rut eating the same dishes that they grew up with.

And things are looking up in terms of the number of chefs and food scientists making vegan food. Evan has reviewed his 5 favorite meat substitutes. I’ve gushed that the veggie burger has gone mainstream. I’ve had unbelievable vegan ribs from a small cafe in Nashville Tennessee. When I went to Vancouver B.C. in Canada I had vegan comfort food so good that even the salads were indulgent. And the crepes at this little Morroccan place are delectable and made with pure love (Tell Sam I sent you!). Most major cities have represent vegan food quite well. There are hedonistic pleasures abound for the traveling vegan foodie.

Many cultures make incredible vegan food, especially in India, Asia, Mexico and Ethiopia. Indian food is by far my favorite world cuisine and I am spoiled for choice deciding between favorites like dal makhani, aloo gobi and baingan bhurta. Many asian chefs are masters of tofu, capable of converting even its most die-hard critics. Mexican food, with it’s emphasis on beans, salsa, avocado and chillies, is a snap to make vegan. And my favorite cookbook ever is Teff Love, a diverse and creative assortment of Ethiopian recipes.

I don’t feel more deprived as a vegan. Quite the contrary, veganism ignited a desire to think carefully about food and eat better than I ever had previously. In terms of flavor, veganism has been unquestionably positive for me. Bourdain may be right that the ability to eat anything anywhere leads to unique experiences, but there’s good reason to question the view of vegans as ascetic and deprived of life’s most precious pleasures.

 

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