Which Comes First: The Chicken or the Ego?

March 14, 2012

Tom Philpott has a knack for writing important food politics stories, but his interests don’t seem to include animal protection and when he covers this topic his coverage typically shows a frustrating lack of insight—as well as zero empathy toward animals.

This morning, Mother Jones published Philpott’s take on last week’s Mark Bittman article covering Ethan Brown’s vegan chicken. Philpott writes:

Here is where Bittman lost me. The ingredients of Savage River Farms chicken strips that Bittman tasted run as follows: water, soy protein isolate, pea protein, amaranth, chicken flavor, carrot fiber, canola oil, titanium dioxide (food coloring), and white vinegar.

Ugh. How depressing. The product reinforces the industrial food model: You isolate components of whole foodstuffs—the the protein in soybeans and peas, the fiber in carrots—and combine them into some composite that derives its flavor from the laboratory (“chicken flavor”), not the farm field.

It’s telling that Philpott uses the word “depressing” to describe passing some processed and unprocessed plant ingredients through an extruder, but he doesn’t use this word to describe the fate of the animals at slaughterhouses.

So what would Philpott have us eat instead of vegan chicken? He suggests falafel, tempeh, and tofu.

I adore these foods but there are so many problems with this suggestion that it’s hard to know where to begin. Falafel only works in Middle Eastern cuisine, and tofu and tempeh require some specialized preparation if you’re going to use it in recipes. None of these foods can provide a satisfactory replacement for somebody craving a chicken burrito, a chicken salad sandwich, or a chicken stir-fry. You can indeed season tempeh or tofu to provide a delicious flavor in many dishes, but the result won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s chicken.

So what about the omnivores who really enjoy chicken, and who aren’t all that adventurous when it comes to trying new foods and flavors? Does Philpott really think most of them will find tofu or tempeh an acceptable alternative?

Of course he doesn’t, because he’s not even making a good faith suggestion. This is a guy who still eats chicken himself, and he’s not even pledging in this article to abstain from chicken in favor of falafel, tempeh, and tofu. So if these foods aren’t good enough for him to make a complete switch, why the hell is he putting them forward as a satisfactory alternative to people who really, truly want chicken? It’s because he hasn’t thought this through and, at bottom, doesn’t seem to have much interest in preventing billions of needless chicken deaths a year.

***

Whenever a big step is made in developing vegan meat substitutes, you’ll always find someone on a vegan message board pop up with a despair-inducing post saying something like, “Meat is disgusting, so why would I want to eat fake meat?”

These people are insufferable because they’re so ego-driven that they’ve lost sight of the fact that there’s currently, oh, at least a few billion people who love meat and have no intention of giving it up. If you’ve truly transcended any desire for the flavors and textures of meat, then that’s fine and dandy. But realize that we’re not going to see the entire world gladly switch from beef and chicken to falafel and tofu overnight. If we want to inspire a large and rapid migration away from animal products, we’ve got to give people the textures and flavors they’re familiar with. So if you’re vegan, the fact that a thoroughly convincing vegan chicken substitute has at long last been developed should have you standing and cheering—regardless of whether you ever intend to eat the stuff.

As annoying as it is to see a vegan sneer at vegan chicken, watching someone like Philpott disparage it is doubly troubling. That’s because the vegan is at least not part of the problem when it comes to the slaughter of chickens. Philpott, by contrast, seems a lot more troubled by the idea of putting soy protein isolate and some vegetables through a mechanical device than he is about hanging a bird upside down in shackles and cutting her throat. Put another way: if you aren’t all that troubled by animal killing, maybe you shouldn’t be proposing solutions that even you aren’t willing to follow.

Philpott doesn’t articulate his world view clearly (perhaps because he’s never thought about the ethics of animal use with great care), but it seems like his position arises from this set of values: killing animals might be disagreeable, but eating unnatural foods is a greater sin. From there, Philpott draws the line between natural and unnatural in a completely arbitrary place. Whole vegan foods, slaughtered animals, fungus-treated soy and milk (tempeh and cheese), coagulated soymilk (tofu), and deep fried falafel are apparently natural and good to eat. But run some soy protein isolate with some veggies through an extruder and suddenly you’ve got a frankenfood.

Mother Jones needs a food writer who cares as much about animal abuse as the magazine’s political reporters care about human rights abuses—one who doesn’t put his unreasoned food purity rules ahead of the environment and nine billion animals. Philpott’s written a throughly counterproductive article on perhaps the most important development in food politics to emerge this year. Every food activist—vegan and omnivore alike—who seeks to reduce meat consumption has reason to feel sold out. (Thanks, Matt.) Link.

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