Why Vegetarians Will Never Be Cool
In the 1995 episode of The Simpsons helpfully titled "Lisa the Vegetarian" (aka the one with Paul and Linda McCartney), she bails on meat after befriending an adorable lamb at a petting zoo. This principled decision earns her the immediate, gleeful scorn of Springfield's many meat-eaters. Homer and Bart chant, "You don't win friends with salad." Janey Powell asks, "Are you going to marry a carrot, Lisa?" Principal Skinner forces her to watch the Meat Council propaganda film Meat and You: Partners in Freedom. The ridicule crescendos at Homer's backyard BBQ, after Lisa presents the guests with a meatless alternative: gazpacho. "Go back to Russia!" cackles Barney.
Later, while talking to Apu, who doesn't eat any animal products, she learns that giving up meat isn't enough to earn the approval of vegans. "You must think I'm a monster," says Lisa, when she discovers that Apu doesn't eat cheese. "Yes indeed, I do think that," he says. In the 2000 episode "Lisa the Tree Hugger," her hopes of impressing teenage environmental activist Jesse Grass with her vegetarianism are dashed when he negs, "That's a start," and adds that he's "Level Five Vegan... I don't eat anything that casts a shadow." He then reproaches her for not composting in her pockets.
Humans are binary creatures. We love it when items are the best or the worst, people are either good or bad, and tweets are either worth a "like" or not. But we know that much of life exists on multiple spectrums, and that's much harder to sort out. Relating to food, it'd be so much more simple if your stance on meat is either juice-cleanses or Baconators all the way down. You get either the sexy, primitive appeal of being a meat-eater, or the moral high ground of veganism. But vegetarianism falls in a dietary gray area: one that's seen as being joyless for not eating meat, and weak for eating dairy.
While vegetarianism isn't a new-age trend -- Greek philosopher Pythagoras first mentioned the diet around 500 BCE -- it was once at the cutting edge of the Western diet. Reverend Sylvester Graham, who founded the American Vegetarian Society in 1850, saw vegetarianism as part of a larger lifestyle movement toward temperance, abstinence, and cleanliness. He believed that the "Graham diet" (no meat or spices, lots of whole wheat) would prevent people from having impure thoughts, which he believed shortened lifespans. Inspired by his dietary teachings, "Grahamites" began to market things like graham flour and graham crackers.
For many years, adhering to a vegetarian lifestyle has meant navigating the extremes of the American diet. "The food [at vegetarian restaurants] was secondary to what they were selling, which was a lifestyle -- health, politics, environment, diet," said chef Amanda Cohen, founder of the vegetable-focused restaurant Dirt Candy, in an interview with Thrillist. It wasn't about the food, but about the ethos.
Of course, vegetarianism isn't extreme for a number of cultures. Chitra Agrawal, author of the cookbook Vibrant India, grew up vegetarian in America and told me that, because of her family's satisfying Indian cooking, she was never tempted to eat meat. (About 70% of Indians eat meat, but culturally vegetarianism is a little more accepted.) However, she was bombarded with questions when she'd refuse the pepperoni pizza at childhood birthday parties.
Agrawal, who grew up in a predominantly Irish and Italian town in New Jersey, is now seeing a shift in the dietary preferences of her peers. "What's interesting to me is I was probably the only vegetarian in my class," she said. "And now, two of my friends from school are vegetarian. Which is something I never thought would happen."
Cohen said that she agrees that things are changing, if slowly. "The world's diet has changed a little, especially in New York," she said. "Now people are like, 'I can eat vegetables for a meal, that's not so weird.'" Some of what's driving the mainstream acceptance of meat-free meals is a growing realization that they can actually taste good. "[For a long time,] meat and the fish were the main attraction on the plate, and vegetables were like a steamed vegetable on the side," said Agrawal. "But now that people don't want to eat a steamed piece of broccoli for a main course, they need to figure out how to make it taste better."
Over the past few years, veganism has managed to nudge its way into the mainstream in a way that vegetarianism never has. A report from last summer determined that veganism has grown in the United States by 600% since 2014, perhaps buoyed by a rise in coverage chronicling the trend under clicky headlines like "This Is Why Millennials Are All Turning Vegan" and "The Rise of the Vegan Teenager." Both Agrawal and Cohen said they can see why veganism has managed to take off compared to its dietary cousin. "Vegetarian is middle of the road," said Agrawal. "It's not as exciting."
Just compare the words. "Vegetarian" is clunky, too close to the childish "veggie," and evokes flavorless plates of vegetables and noodles crying out for a piece of chicken. "Vegan," on the other hand, is smooth, lithe and clean. Two syllables and five letters, and nothing that isn't necessary. It's also something you can incorporate into all aspects of your life, as Goop, the lifestyle site for all things white and thin, has capitalized on, in the form of everything from vegan soup cleanses to a vegan nail salon. Agrawal said that when she demonstrates her Brooklyn Delhi condiment line at Whole Foods, the most frequent question she gets asked is if it's vegan (which it is, though not by design).
Veganism has also found an influential ally in Instagram. "On Instagram, people make veganism look like a very desirable lifestyle... they always show pictures of vegan people looking beautiful and healthy," a teen revealed to The Guardian when asked why she went vegan. A quick tour through the #vegan hashtag reveals image after image of lush spreads of colorful fruits and vegetables and the fit, good-looking people who allegedly follow this lifestyle. The messaging is clear: Eat vegan and this sun-bathed life of health, glowing skin, and a coveted figure can be yours.
Veganism has even been given a sexed-up moniker. Marketers have begun using "vegan" and "plant-based" interchangeably, as in "plant-based diet," a term that Cohen said didn't exist when she opened Dirt Candy. The new branding helps reframe any preconceived notions someone might have towards veganism by making it sound less restrictive. It's not that you can't eat meat: you're just choosing to eat an abundance of plant-based foods.
On the other extreme, we have buzzworthy diets/lifestyles like paleo, which is breathlessly admired on every man-centric health blog out there. Paleo is about power. It's the "caveman diet," or "primal eating," marketing phrases that especially appeal to men. Paleo lets men be mindful about food without having to count calories, which has always been coded as "feminine." If you're paleo, you're a man who has dominated beast. You are seen as strong. If you're vegetarian, you've dominated a plant. It's just not as impressive.
People are proudly carnivorous in Western societies and even brag about not eating vegetables. The paleo movement, in particular, has gripped the United States. The Whole 30 Diet is one of the best selling cookbooks on Amazon, paleo products like jerky and grain-free "breads" line the shelves of health stores, and multiple podcasts are dedicated to promoting the lifestyle. Look anywhere in the wellness world, and you're bound to find a paleo influencer.
If you're vegetarian, you've dominated a plant. It's just not as impressive.
The vegan and paleo worlds may appear to be polar opposites, but there are many overlaps between the two. Most crucially, both diets encourage a dairy-free lifestyle. Just take one look at your local grocery store's dairy aisle for proof. You'll likely notice a giant range of "alternative milks" made from everything from almond to oats, alongside cups of coconut yogurt, and ice cream made from cashews. Vegetarianism's embrace of dairy -- a core pillar of the diet -- excludes them from fully participating in either of the revered lifestyles, leaving them to eat their Greek yogurt in a corner by themselves.
I wonder what Lisa Simpson's vegetarian crusade would look like if updated to the present. In 2018, her father's BBQ guests might welcome her gazpacho, a few deciding that they weren't in the mood for meat that day. Or Marge might bake a vegetable lasagna that she found on something like Saveur's recent list of "veggie-based dishes that don't taste like you're missing out on anything." Perhaps Bart has even become vegan -- all the cool kids are doing it.