I recently watched a rerun of the canceled-too-soon show Raising Hope, and Cloris Leachman’s character Maw Maw was eating a plastic apple. “This apple tastes awful!” she exclaimed, and her granddaughter Virginia told her she was eating one of baby Hope’s toys. It reminded me of the bowl of fake fruit we had on our dining room table when I was little, and it made me think of my childhood questions about decorating with fake food.
Indeed plastic fruit is fake food. Ice cream made with almond milk instead of dairy is not. Nor is “meat” made with wheat gluten or cheese made from cashews. The word “fake” implies that it can’t be eaten or isn’t real. Of course almond milk ice cream, seitan, and cashew cheese are all 100% edible, and none of them are made up.
I cringe when I hear people refer to vegan food as “fake”. By calling it fake, you’re implying that the non-vegan versions of food are the only “legitimate” version, and everything else is a knock-off. It’s sort of like referring to cows’ milk ice cream as “real ice cream”. Is almond milk ice cream “non genuine” because a cow wasn’t milked in order to make it? Does that make it non-edible? Where do we draw the link when it comes to labeling food as fake? Is lasagna fake because it’s made with tofu ricotta? Is a cupcake fake because it doesn’t contain eggs? Is a taco fake because there’s no beef in it?
Referring to vegan food as “fake” also perpetuates the false stereotype that vegans eat “weird” things that aren’t always actual food. Is drinking “milk” that came from soybeans really stranger than drinking milk from another animal? Is eating “meat” that’s made from wheat really weird in comparison to slaughtering a little bird for her flesh? I think not, but maybe that’s just me.
Let’s take a minute to think about the word “meat”. It comes from the old English word “mete” and back then it referred to food in general. It was used to describe anything edible and to differentiate what could be chewed from what could be drunk. We still use it that way when talking about certain foods, such as nuts or fruits, but somehow it has mostly become synonymous with animal flesh in our culture.
If “meat” does mean “animal flesh”, then that does mean that foods made with wheat gluten or soy are “fake” because they don’t come from an animal? (And also because they’re new and weird?) It is believed that consuming wheat gluten originated in ancient China by strict vegetarian Buddhist monks who ate it as a protein source. Would anyone have accused them of eating fake food? Probably not. Tofu originated in China, probably sometime between 179 – 122 B.C. , and it was introduced to the people of Japan and Korea sometime in the 700s. I don’t think anyone was considering it to be “fake food” back then. The earliest known reference to tempeh was in the early 1800s in Indonesia, and I’m betting that even then, there were more people consuming it in Asia than there were people eating beef.
What about milk? Doesn’t it have to come from an animal to be considered milk? This is a question that has been brought up by the dairy association, who tried to get non-dairy milk companies to stop calling their products “milk” a few years ago. They lost their battle. While one definition of “milk” is “an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young”, it’s not the only meaning of the word. “Milk” is also used to refer to any type of white fluid. I’ve even heard of facial cleansers referred to as “cleansing milk”, and they certainly weren’t considered “fake soaps”.
Soy milk originated in Asia, where they know that humans aren’t supposed to be drinking the breast milk of other species. In fact, the Chinese started drinking soy milk somewhere between 202 BCE and 9 CE. I doubt they even considered it a substitute for cows’ milk at the time, since Asians don’t have a history of consuming milk from another animal. People have been squeezing almonds for their milk since the middle ages, and grain milk beverages are probably just as old – if not older. And hasn’t coconut milk been called “coconut milk” forever?
So really, none of the foods that vegans are eating in place of products from animals are really that new, or even weird by historical standards. (We might even be able to argue that eating flesh and drinking another animal’s breast milk is weird and new, but that’s a subject for another post.) They’re just more convenient and readily available now, and there’s a lot more of them than there was 10 or 20 years ago. What can we call our new-fangled vegan foods if we’re not calling them “fake”? Call them what they are! Cashew cheese, non-dairy ice cream, soy meat, wheat meat, seitan, almond milk, etc. Don’t let the omnivores take our words away from us, and don’t let anyone think that what we’re eating isn’t real food.