Food as Identity

When I first tell people that I’m vegan, I often feel like I’m coming out. I get a bit uncomfortable, hedging my statements with an insistence that I’m not one of those annoyingly sanctimonious vegans, that my reasons are more environmental and political than “touchy-feely” or emotional. But why do I assume that my food choices imply a fully formed identity?

Perhaps it’s because our media is full of references to food choices (like eating local, choosing to abstain from eating meat, dairy, and eggs, eating artisanal foods…) as though they were indicative of a cultural persona. Why do each of the food choices I listed above invoke a mental image of a certain kind of individual, complete with wardrobe, music choices, facial hair (I mean, who eats artisanal bacon without a questionably ironic waxed mustache?), political attitudes, and verbal tics? Locavore. Vegan. Hipster foodie.

The arm of John Stewart, owner of The Black Pig Meat Co., a Bay Area purveyor of artisanal bacon and other pork goods


Take, for example, this sketch from IFC’s show “Portlandia” on the precious, white, privileged couple who take locavore-ism to the extreme…

Is The Chicken Local?

Of course, we know that there are African Americans concerned with eating local, sustainably harvested agriculture and that not all vegan men ride fixies and that some people who are gluten-free are not obsessed with cupcakes (and are not secretly  completely able to digest gluten, but just subject to food trends).

Still, the most prominent representation of black vegans in the media is of the young couple who were charged with first-degree assault for “starving” their daughter with a vegan diet, which they purportedly approached “as a religion.” Their veganism, combined with their African American identity, was represented as an uneducated attempt to impose unhealthy, “tribal” beliefs on their child (all the references to their food highlighted the use of herbal teas and oils, spoken of in exoticized, suspicious tones).

Still, this is our image of the Paleo diet.

John Durant, Melissa McEwen and Vladimir Averbukh, hip New Yorkers with slabs of meat in their apartments and cut-throat attitudes

Why do we take food choices as indicators of complete cultural identities and what do we do when confronted with individuals who clearly break those molds? In the following months, I’ll be probing these questions, exploring stereotypes, and, as a vexed vegan, considering how my own food choices are and aren’t part of a larger way in which I want to present myself to the world.

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