By Priscilla Feral
Just a month ago London opened its first vegan fish and chip restaurant, Sutton and Sons, substituting banana blossoms for cod fish. As one vegan diner said, who couldn’t get enough of the fake fish, “It’s amazing, delicious.” Unlike tofu, a common vegan substitute, he said it had the same look and texture of fish, but “less oily, cleaner.”
But clearly, even in London, even with 10% of its residents identifying as vegan, not everyone is open to vegan burgers, sausages and other plant-based foods, despite an uptick in vegan dining. When freelance vegan food writer, Selene Nelson made a pitch to William Sitwell, the editor of a British food magazine, to run a new series about veganism, he responded with over-the-top hostility. He paid the price for such rage with a resignation from the magazine, Waitrose Food, a decision that was made in conjunction with the publisher.
“How about a series on killing vegans one by one?” he wrote in an e-mail that went public after Nelson used it to pitch Buzzfeed a story about hostility towards vegans. “Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?”
Sitwell offered an apology on Instagram, calling his vitriol an “ill-judged joke,” but Waitrose was having none of it, saying he had gone too far.
On Twitter, Nelson faced her own critics who defended Sitwell, saying it was “Just a joke.” She responded by asking: “Why it’s accepted or considered funny to speak to vegans with hostility and anger.”
Last April, the three-Michelin-star chef Gordon Ramsay took a break from mocking vegans and vegetarians—saying he was allergic to them—by saying in a tweet he was “going to give this vegan thing a try.” Ramsay triggered an uproar amongst animal rights activists, who assailed Ramsay of making a joke of animal cruelty. In an earlier interview, Ramsay said that if his kids went vegetarian he’d “sit them on the fence and electrocute them.”
When I asked FoA staff members to recite vegan backlash they’ve experienced other than contempt at family Thanksgiving gatherings, Dustin Rhodes, FoA’s development director, told me about working at a progressive college in North Carolina, and his decision to produce a vegan Earth Day meal for the entire campus prepared and served by volunteers, using organic ingredients grown in the college’s garden. After word traveled that a vegan meal on one designated day was official, Dustin said backlash was “swift and insane.” He was accused of imposing his beliefs and “acting as an animal rights activist” promoting an agenda. There were calls for a boycott, and the outrage was led by a popular professor, also known as prominent environmentalist. What was less known was this professor’s zeal for the NRA and hunting. He prompted students to harass Dustin along with the committee for Earth Day.
The upshot was the meatheads cooked meat during the Earth Day event, attracting a handful of two dozen students who taunted the vegan meal team—while 500 people opted for the vegan meal. The professor, Dustin added, was “intimidating, inappropriate, unhinged and generally a terrible person through the ordeal.”
If vegans tire of being the butt of insipid jokes in TV series, or on commercials, or in public and private encounters, do also take heart in seeing the omnivore’s defenses as woolly and poorly presented. The silver lining in this story is the magazine’s swift response sends the message bullying vegans is unacceptable.
Vegan dining and living isn’t a contest for who is the most violent or tone-deaf. Eating animals and their products is a dreadful, inefficient way of feeding people. As an organic, vegan food activist and cookbook author, I don’t respect another’s choice to eat animals—to contribute to an industry that harms animals and the environment. I respect the principle that animal farming is wrong and that no practice of it respects animal rights.
As the year winds down with holiday meals taking center stage, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the healthy, delicious food available to a culture that’s changing and to recognize that killing 23 million animal every day in the U.S. causes animal suffering, water pollution and other land use problems.
Getting animals off our menus is the collective work ahead. Hope is activism, and with it our defensive critics eventually catch on.
And the bullies, like Stillwell, will continue to be sidelined.
Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, has presided over the international, non-profit animal advocacy organization since 1987. She also serves as president of the San Antonio-based sanctuary Primarily Primates and is a food activist and author of three vegan cookbooks.