#5 | vegetarianism as a food aesthetic
on individual solutions and the lack of systemic vision in the so-called ethical diet
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VEGETARIANISM AS A FOOD AESTHETIC
on individual solutions and the lack of systemic vision in the so-called ethical diet
In 2013, I proposed a blog to cover vegetarian eating-out for Gazeta do Povo newspaper, where I had been working for a year as a freelancer. I had just been hired as a reporter for Bom Gourmet1 and had been living in Curitiba for almost a year. Between the moment I moved to the capital of Paraná and writing the blog proposal I took my first steps in vegan cooking, curious about the challenge of learning how to make cakes and pies without butter, a change that seems simple to me today.
Curitiba proved to be an oasis of price and variety for me, who had been living in Florianópolis for five years, where I only knew pickled mushrooms. In Curitiba, a tray with 10 ounces of Paris mushrooms cost less than a dollar in the nearest green-grocery – white, firm, and giving off its light earthy aroma2. From 2012 onwards, my food was much fresher. Instead of concentrating on shopping at the supermarket once a month, I started to buy only what I needed, when I needed it, in shops nearby. I hadn't eaten meat very often to save money, so I stopped cooking it at home.
The blog was approved a few months later and Verdura sem Frescura (a name that would sound like "frilless greenness" in English) went live in September 2013, days before the largest vegetarian event in Latin America, the VegFest congress, in the Agronomy studies campus of the Federal University of Paraná. That same year, two vegan establishments had opened in downtown Curitiba, the Semente de Girassol snack bar, in March, and the Veg Veg emporium, in May.
These two places opened the doors to many ventures and changes in the eating-out scenario that developed in Curitiba. I documented part of this process on the blog and in 2016 I studied the period in my Master’s. The small market that was beginning to form in Brazil was driven, at first, by amateur cooks, with few hours of cooking, and who met a repressed and undemanding demand.
Until the first decade of 2000 what we had was vegetarian buffets at lunch and cheese or the heart of palm snacks in cafeterias. Sharing recipes on the internet made many people start to prepare substitutes of meat, dairy, and eggs from scratch at home. A multitude of these homemade preparations were the main products sold at the beginning, which helped to reinforce the stereotype that the vegetarian eats a food simulacrum.
Amidst this consumption acceleration and little complexity in the elaboration, there were two interesting moments that we reported in Bom Gourmet: in 2015, the restaurant sector in Curitiba evolved into a professional vegan cuisine, which cooled off a few years later. At that time, it began to emerge an issue that became unavoidable and ended up getting central in the debate: "lab meat".
I start the first class of the How to Write About Food course by saying that we've all been eating and telling stories for millennia. I spare the students and I will spare you, reader, from hearing for the umpteenth time that sapience and sapidity have the same etymological root, and jump directly to the statement: if language is a living knowledge, so is the cuisine. When I wrote about this in my dissertation, I was looking for a justification in Massimo Montanari's proposal for the nomenclature adopted by vegetarians for a traditional recipe without meat, such as vegan feijoada3. The reasoning is as follows: if the preparation uses the same techniques, the way of serving, the dinner rituals, and the occasion, then adaptation is a valid expression of the current food culture, even if one of the ingredients is not present. In the case of feijoada, the meat.
Montanari considers that the lexicon of a people's way of eating (that is, the set of practices) is composed of animal and vegetable ingredients (analogs to morphemes) available in the region. The construction of the dishes (formation of words) would take place through the use of cooking and preparation methods. Thus, the same base can be cooked up into preparations with different appearances and functions. A pie and a bread are examples of this: both preparations share the etymological root wheat flour, but they are distinctive things. To briefly advance this reasoning, I highlight this excerpt from my dissertation:
The rhetoric would be how this food is prepared, served, and consumed. The expression power of food, as well as language, is the adaptation of speech to an argument. In this way, the substitution of an ingredient (morpheme) in a dish (word) – either by necessity or an arbitrary alteration – guarantees the continuity of the system.
Just as language has its variations in different regions and these differences do not exclude dialogue, the same goes for the way of eating. If the morphology of the food is respected, then it fulfills its function: an example would be mashed manioc or mashed potato, where manioc and potatoes are used as morphemes, and mash would be the word.
In times of grain shortage, peasants increased the bread dough with earth, and even that preparation was named bread. For an omnivorous culture in which meat is one of the main morphemes, the exchange of this ingredient for another that fulfills the same function can be observed in vegetarian diets: in the hamburger (preparation and presentation of the dish) of beef (morpheme), it can be used legumes such as lentils (morpheme) or mushrooms (morpheme), among other ingredients. The rhetoric of vegetarian cuisine is identical to the omnivorous one: food traditions such as churrasco4 and feijoada are still linked to the specific way of preparation and to the situation and ritualization that involves the diners. It is as if the replacement of animal protein by vegetable ingredients were a synonymous neologism: a heart of palm moqueca5, lentil hamburger, vegetable feijoada, coconut milk brigadeiro6, textured soy protein barreado7, jackfruit coxinha8.
At the time I was taking my Master's, there was no point in discussing the aesthetics of food choices, but this was always the topic that most interested me in gastronomy. I consider all the sensory information of a preparation that has been intentionally developed by the cook from what he has in his hands to be aesthetic. Thus, the sensory information of a tomato comes from its natural characteristics, while the sensory information of a tomato sauce – flavor, aroma, texture, color, meaning – was created with aesthetic intent.
Vegetarianism, which uses ethical decisions to compose its eating strategies, is always in danger of getting carried away by the functionality of an empty meaning substitution. Textured soy protein (TSP) is perhaps the best known of this trap: an industrial by-product of vegetable oil extraction, soy meat is not an intentionally produced food. TSP is only on the supermarket shelf (and in your pet's ration) because it's convenient to sell it.
IT'S AN AESTHETIC CRISIS
I was a vegetarian for five years. I've lived through all the phases: discovering new flavors, judgment, enthusiasm for cooking, conflicts at the table, tests that go wrong, proselytizing. I lived the curiosity and expectation of trying vegan sausages and cheeses, tasting vegetable bacon, making hot dogs with soy sausage – perhaps the most honest of all the adaptations since the animal sausage itself is a food simulacrum.
Adaptations that simplify a preparation, flattening its nutritional, historical, and sensory values are practical for times of scarcity. A recipe that uses cornflour, food coloring, and potatoes can be used as an ingredient that melts under heat, but it is not cheese. To be cheese, in the reasoning I follow from Montanari, is to be a mass with fat and protein, fermented or cured, to the point of developing aromas, flavors, consistency, and a new appearance.
The peasants who added earth to make the dough yield didn’t do it for pleasure: if they could, they would mix other cereals in wheat. The application of a cooking technique to emulate a texture or to fulfill a function in a dish is in opposition to (but just as limiting as) seeing only calories in food. Choosing one of these poles dries up all the juicy discussion between them.
Banana, jackfruit, apple cashew, green coconut: the pulps (and peel) of these fruits are present in traditional people's stews, moquecas, braises, and marinades long before vegetarianism was a market trend. Its availability for collection and cultivation means that its use has been multiple throughout history, and its preparation varies according to the variety, maturation point, and culinary knowledge of those who cook it. Real food contains more stories than we can record.
The transition to a meat, dairy, and egg-free diet can be difficult until the palate gets used to flavors that have less fat and a lower intensity of free glutamate per mouthful. The missing silhouette of a steak on the plate and the lack of resistance that the muscle tissue offers to the teeth, I dare to say, must be what makes many people opt for merely scenographic products, such as isolated vegetable protein burgers, gluten sausages, and potato-and-starch cheeses.
Amateur cooks prepare their best mockups; the industry, with an eye on the ill-prepared market, takes care of its lip service and packaging. Both will deliver something that will be aesthetically poor, but that will be consumed as if they were better than nothing by people who don't know how to cook and who believe they are contributing to a better future for the planet. However, active actions – choosing what to eat for its aesthetic characteristics and ethical production – are more efficient than the passive ones – replacing a product that violates its ethical principles for one that is aesthetically inferior and whose ethics may also be questionable.
In the 2010s, the Brazilian market was flooded with plant-based products. I've tasted much of what's been released over the years – even after I've gone back to eating meat – and despite the façade set up with flavorings and flavor enhancers, you soon see a weak and compromised structure, historically and nutritionally speaking.
An ethical diet is never the result of individual conduct, nor is it mediated by the ultra-processed food industry. Food is a cultural expression within a historically and socially constructed food system, with its limitations and possibilities. When the food industry sits down at the table to serve up its brand new products, it serves it up with an extra greenwashing topping to mask the acrid smell that comes from its unsustainable production chains.
With this comparison, I do not want to diminish the plasticity of a food strategy made during the transition to vegetarianism; I have resorted to these practices many times myself. But if we can create food by manipulating molecules through bioengineering, we also have the creativity to adapt a diet without projecting a hologram of hamburger, steak, wings, and ribs onto the plate. It is possible to add fat, smoky aroma, and umami tastes by letting plants be plants – not dressing them up like animals.
The Brazilian food lexicon is very rich in bolinhos9, stews, ragouts, fried foods, porridges, bread rolls, fermentations, preserves. There is enough technique repertoire to mix potato and starch to obtain different and equally interesting results that do not simulate cheese melting. It bothers me to see that there are still merely plastic vegetarian food choices – visual and tactile, but inert – and the comparison that comes to my mind is implant surgeries: the result at the first glance may be satisfactory, but it is an illusion. There is no built structure and for that reason, it is temporary and fragile.
When vegetarianism doesn’t take into account the food system that produces its meat substitutes or other animal-derived ingredients, it doubles the problem. I understand the line of reasoning that defends that if we would stop eating animals massively, livestock would be discouraged and it would reduce our impact on Earth. But the food industry definitely cannot be a substitute for taking over the pasture or poultry farm space.
Maybe I'm late in posting this as the 2021's lights out. I need to be honest: my Instagram algorithm has gotten me interesting profiles and posts about vegetarian eating for the last year. The ministers of the study group Regional Kitchens in Brazil are the best example of this: five vegetarian cooks who present their regions from an original perspective, critically exposing historical information, taking a closer look at techniques and preparations of native peoples and quilombolas10, and pointing out ways for a vegetarian diet closer to our origins. No proselytizing.
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NT: A gastronomy editorial magazine of Gazeta do Povo newspaper, Curitiba's greatest.
NT: Although mushroom consumption has been widespread in northern hemisphere countries for centuries, finding fresh mushrooms (and at this price) ten years ago was only possible in very large cities. Instead, a traditional Brazilian vegan option is palmito/palmetto, the heart of palm – especially on snack fillings. In Brazil, eating mushrooms is a developing culture that is still far from being popular, and its consumption is still restricted to larger cities and specific social groups.
NT: Feijoada is a national dish in Brazil, served in restaurants or homemade for gatherings – since it takes at least two days to make and it’s not worth doing little. It’s a black bean stew with meat (smoked or not, such as salted pork and beef cuts, and sausages), that might be served with white rice, farofa, shredded kale, orange slices, hot sauce, fried banana or other garnishes, and paired with a caipirinha or cachaça. Stewed black beans by itself would only be feijão, not feijoada.
NT: Churrasco has taken the place of feijoada as the most popular national dish. Unlike the American Barbecue that is made with burgers, sausages, and meats with rubs and sauces, churrasco is focused on a variety of larger meat pieces on skewers, usually seasoned only with coarse salt. From poorer to richer families, it is not hard to find a house or apartment with a churrasqueira (the masonry-built barbecue grill).
NT: A seafood stew preferably cooked in a clay pan, with onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers. The most popular is the gold-sun color Bahian moqueca, which also takes red palm oil and coconut milk, and it’s served with rice.
NT: A fudgy confection of cooked condensed milk with cocoa powder. In the most traditional version, it is round-shaped like a truffle and covered with chocolate sprinkles.
NT: A Paraná’s state traditional dish. It’s a slow-cooked stew with meat, tomatoes, onions, and cumin, prepared in a sealed clay pot, traditionally in a wood fire oven for over 12 hours, resulting in a rich ragout with shredded meat fibers. To balance the strong flavor, it’s eaten with manioc flour, bananas, and pepper salsa.
NT: It’s a staple snack found in bakeries, snack bars, cafeterias, and children’s parties (in a bite-size version). It’s traditionally a chicken broth plus wheat flour cooked dough, filled with shredded chicken meat, shaped into a teardrop, battered and fried. Coxinha is literally “little thigh” because originally it was made with the dough covering the whole chicken leg. Leah Mennies wrote about coxinhas in this Above the Fold's post.
NT: Bolinhos are a Brazilian classic. They can be created from the most different sweet or salty ingredients, but generically it refers to a small portion of dough-based fritter. Depending on its ingredients, bolinho's dough takes leftovers and can resemble a croquette, meatball, arancini, or even a beignet.