The Meaning of a Mock Muffin

» August 13th, 2015


Is a vegan muffin a form of animal activism?

I ask this question because it seems that every other tweet that enters my cultivated Twittersphere is a celebratory shout-out for some new vegan food product. Vegan donuts! Vegan cookies! Vegan bean burgers at Wendy’s!!

How to interpret these products? Of course, they offer vegans more commercial options and, as we conventionally understand matters, having more commercial options is a good thing. Likewise, there’s always the possibility that a non-vegan will see the vegan option and think, “you know, I’ll have the more humane pancake today.”

But the idea that a deeper respect for animals will emerge from greater consumer choice seems like a flimsy prospect at best. I mean, the vast majority of natural food that currently exists is already vegan. Shouldn’t we be promoting the consumption of apples and carrots rather than vegan versions of crap food? Plus, isn’t there a danger here? What if your vegan muffin tastes like a hockey puck? You could be affirming more non-veganism than veganism.

That said, I’m thrilled by genuine vegan substitutes—rather than supplements—that enter the food system closer to the point of production. Think about what Josh Tetrick and Hampton Creek is doing. Rather than add a vegan product to a shelf already sagging with non-vegan options, he’s aiming (in part) to enter the ingredient stream at an earlier stage, ensuring that what makes it to the shelves did so because of cheaper vegan substitutes (pea plant eggs rather than real egg whites).

Vegans are so besieged by the carnivorous reality that suffuses daily life that we tend to overplay the meaning of vegan versions of products that, by their nature, are sort of inextricably linked with animal products or, again, are just crap. Honestly, a vegan muffin is, in the grand scheme of things, just another worthless pile of calories.

Don’t get me wrong. A mock tuna sandwich is a delightful thing when done right. And I love that I can choose a mock tuna sandwich under certain circumstances. But it’s still a mock, an approximation of what’s “real.” And while it’s fun to think we can co-opt authenticity and raise our vegan muffins skyward and call them, simply, muffins–veganism implied. But come on.

Why not just go with the apple?



16 Responses to The Meaning of a Mock Muffin

  1. Karen Harris says:

    I think that the broader, and clearly far more important issue is that veganism is an ethic, not just what you put in your mouth. I think that there is actually far too much emphasis on how to obtain the latest vegan delicacy, and far too little focus on the myriad ways animals are abused within contemporary culture.
    I find that so many vegans spend endless time researching vegan food, and so little time learning about and reading about the real issues.
    Ultimately, what difference does it make if someone chooses a vegan muffin (which by the way can be healthy!) or an apple? Who cares?

    • soren impey says:

      The quickest way to get banned on most vegan fora or social media sites is to discuss complex ethical issues relevant to animal rights.

  2. I think these products help to normalize veganism in the public eye. If vegan treats are something that a mainstream chain restaurant makes a point of offering, then it’s harder to continue characterizing veganism as the province of weirdos.

    One must also remember that people become vegan for different reasons. Some want to engage in compassion for animals, but aren’t especially motivated to pursue a healthy, whole-foods diet. And if they *can’t* have compassion on animals without eliminating junk food from their diet, it becomes that much harder for them to have compassion on animals. Let’s face it: a muffin is more appealing than an apple to some people. Saturating the market with vegan treats is thus equivalent to reducing the level of temptation to return to participation in animal exploitation.

    Yes, we should promote healthy eating too. But realistically, we shouldn’t expect everyone to start there, or even make it there — and with that in mind, I think it’s okay to be excited about vegan “substitutes.”

    • James says:

      Good points. I suppose it’s all about where your pragmatism begins to compromise your idealism. I seem to be moving more and more towards pragmatism as I open my eyes to reality.

  3. John T. Maher says:

    Hmmm. Some Discordant thoughts present in response.

    This last para. raises issues discussed in the early 80s by Jean Baudrillaud in ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. At the time Baudrillaud fictated a quote from the Bible which, although it did not exist there, was more revalatory, ‘real’ if one will, than anything actually in the text — and became ‘real’ through the absence of the original. Mr. B said something like: words to the effect that the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, but instead the truth which conceals that there is no truth. In other words the Erschlossenheit of the Vorhandenheit is problematic, as if the Emperor’s nakedness was a form of costume as real as any new clothes (Many Heidegger people will take offense here). Here the faux tuna sandwich is the new ‘real’ — the old ‘real’ does not exist anymore for the vegan — in a literal sense this will soon be ‘true’ (lets not venture too far down this path of truth and absolutes and other Frenchies such as Alain Badiou) as the oceans collapse due to global ecocide, pollution and overfishing. Anyone know what the sardine catch off Alaska was for the last 3 years? Zero, a very real number used to describe catch.

    As for the main thesis of today’s post, I nod in assent to McW’s “Shouldn’t we be promoting the consumption of apples and carrots rather than vegan versions of crap food?” and add that capitalism collapses time and so humans feel compelled by the last gasps of modernism to not to do their own processing, to not take the clock time required to cook with love, and instead crave a vicious cycle of muffins at hand whacked out glycemic quick burn cancer associated calories. We are all guilty of grabbing the muffin occasionally rather than cooking up Burdock roots and purple Peruvian potatoes but that ought to be the exception rather than the rule. I would personally like to see James enter this arena and write a consumerist food history of modern to postmodern America which unpacks all the new ideas concerning food choices, “at hand” if one will, and their hidden components and visible signifiers.

    In the material sense, if you desire to reduce “by catch”, fish and marine mammals inadvertently killed while actively killing other sea creatures, such as the ‘real’ but soon to be mock Tuna, please click on this link to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Dept. of Commerce Rulemaking Petition and click through to the comment section and file your support for the proposed rulemaking and say it is not strong enough:

    To all those who point out this measure is welfarist and enables the structural means of fishing, I know, I know, we should all work on it while attempting to prevent humans from killing off all life.

  4. Ray says:

    There’s no such thing as a mock muffin. It is, or it is not. If the suggestion is that if you ask a vegan for a muffin and they give you an apple, project normalization has failed. My father asked me why do vegans name their food after non-vegan food, and I said formed soy product #7 stir fry doesn’t tantalize in our current context. If I said vegan duck, it conjures up an understanding that it’s not made of animals but you’ll probably find the Chinese duck sauce familiar. If you’re an ethical vegan, please don’t expect that your personal yuck factor amounts to much — in the animal’s unspoken opinion, any product that isn’t it’s own leg gets a quack of approval. I brought simulated chicken legs to a chicken vigil and shared them with other vegans in front of a chicken slaughterhouse. The feature of a simulated chicken leg is the thin wrapping (rice paper soaked in liquid smoke?) that gives a sensation of biting through skin, while you hold onto a thin dowel instead of a bone. The thought of plants simulating a meat eater’s indulgence may repulse you, but my 14-year-old son loves them, even though he’s never been known to seek out chicken wings when he was a non-vegan, a mere month ago. I’d rather he not go back to gnawing on real bones…

    This conversation will only intensify as the “bleeding” ground beef substitute hits the market. The question each must answer is not whether it’s healthier than the real article (it must be!) or more nutritious than kale (it won’t be), because we simply can’t wait until the date that everybody agrees on a menu (the last time that happened the entree was wooly mammoth). Why can’t we wait? #Cowspiracy @ClimateVegan

  5. Karen Orr says:

    Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has a short video on reclaiming the language around plant foods that some might find interesting.

    “I Don’t Eat Fake Meat or Drink Imitation Milk

    • James says:

      I would have agreed with this line of thinking a year ago, but the more I think about “reclaiming the language” the more I think it’s akin to reclaiming gravity, or death, or taxes. Anyway, the language is going to reflect custom rather than suggest what custom should be.

      I want to add something here that I feel strongly about. Part of the reason I stopped blogging for a while was to reassess the whole vegan project. I have a million new ideas to share, but a foundational one is that the movement, as it were, too often operates at a dangerous remove from reality, buffeting itself with overly optimistic assessments of what is currently possible. Thinking you can reclaim culinary language is an example of this false optimism. The fact that CPG did a video on it is one thing, the prospect of it being realistic is another.

      I make no claim to authority on any of this; I’m only offering my honest opinion.

      • soren impey says:

        Have you taken a look at “reasonable vegan”?

        Essays on fuzzy lines, “optimism”, over-simplified ethics, and inaccurate claims would fit well there.

      • Ray says:

        Language is constantly being curated, and can be used to control public opinion (and taxes are a certainty but how the amounts and uses of it change is of great public interest). As I said, I concede the art of fakery when somebody accomplished a compassionate chicken leg, but the encroachment of the traditional language of food has only just begun. In 2014 Field Roast’s vegan products were pulled from shelves in Canada because they didn’t identify in their labelling as “meat substitutes.” It’s a sausage made from wheat protein — what were consumers going to confuse it with? Yet elsewhere, sausage products are prevented from identifying as sausages because of their lack of pork content. I’ve seen salmon sausages, and I can’t imagine their producers being harassed. Field Roast points out that “there is a fundamental bias that exists in these regulations; one that holds animal proteins as the standard of all meats.” Their labelling has been corrected, and the lesson learned is that the meat production companies are scared. Huge strides have been made in the USDA’s own language and inclusion of meat alternatives, soy and nut milks in the published food pyramids. Watching the emergence of non-animal milk in the “dairy section” doesn’t feel like “false optimism.” People are becoming aware, slowly, that the seeming increasing rate of lactose intolerant people is actually a decreasing rate of tolerating a secretion naturally designed for infant cows, not adult humans. Milk producers managed to prevent their word to appear on a container of “soy beverage,” but are no doubt furious that the container itself (not to mention the nutritional content) mimics their product exactly. Most people don’t even realize that the word isn’t there as they pick up a carton.

        I’m eager to hear your “million new ideas to share” on “the vegan project.” I recognize my own “new vegan euphoria” and know there are many bitter pills to swallow. I’ve made many vegan friends who have been at least vegetarian for two or three decades, and they haven’t seen change as is happening today.

  6. Ray says:

    Good call, Karen; I was thinking about Colleen while I was typing “imitation” and while I agree that as a PR policy we shouldn’t identify more wholesome food as less “real,” I decided that the effort to simulate a drumstick including skin and bone has enough charade to be playing the imitation game. A muffin? It’s a muffin. Really.

  7. At the Sanctuary we have visitors who meet the animals — often the first time they are seeing farmed animals in person — and make the connection to what they have been eating. They’re inspired to go vegan.

    Or we’ll have a couple visit where one person is new to veganism, and the other has no interest in it but agreed to go see some animals.

    In both situations the new vegan often asks, “What do I do now? Where do I go?”

    CaptainSakonna is spot on that having vegan options available helps normalize the decision. New vegans still have to stop someplace for dinner with their spouses or go to lunch with co-workers the next day. There can be a lot to learn, but it’s less likely to happen at all if suddenly they’re self-exiled from group meals because there’s nothing to eat at the restaurant.

    We would love for people to eat whole foods, but we also accept the reality that dining is often a communal experience and that much of our country’s dining occurs in chain restaurants. And reality has to include people who can’t afford or don’t have access to produce, but can go to Wendy’s. They should be able to make the decision to go vegan as well.

  8. Seymour says:

    This definitely resonates. I realised very quickly on becoming vegan that as far as society was concerned, I’d simply become a different category of consumer with a range of specialist products aimed at me. Opting out of consumerism is a logical extension of my vegan ethic. I was disappointed recently when friends agreed to come to a 100% vegan restaurant with me. I saw this as a great opportunity to show that the vegan way could be delicious. I should have checked the restaurant first. Everything on the menu was ‘steak’ and ‘burgers’ and various meat substitutes presented rather like junk food: nothing deliciously different and distinctive was on offer. I can understand the commercial pressure here to present familiar dishes and keep a foot in the non-vegan market – but I felt they’d missed a trick.

  9. Ray says:

    @Seymour, there are raw vegan restaurants as well — but don’t you think that the drastic difference from the Standard Amercian Diet would be an alarming first step for people LOOKING for a reason to reject the vegan lifestyle, as most people are? I had some amazing raw “ravioli” at Rawlicious, but seriously, it was crunchy raw vegetables and I only knew it was ravioli because the menu said so. The message could be, “this is how far you must depart from your understanding of food to be a vegan.” Well, no, pasta is vegan, and you can replicate cheese and meat if you have a soft spot in your heart for ravioli. When meat consumption is ruining our health and the environment, a plant-based steak is not a missed-steak, make no mistake!

    How did your friends respond to this presentation of vegan food?

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