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On “Cheating” and Cookbook Authors

There was nothing surprising about Oprah's most recent show about food. It was full of Michael Pollan, Food Inc., the way we treat animals, and the way we turn food into food facsimiles with unusually long shelf lives. Recommendations included: know the people who produced your food, get out of the supermarket (go to a farmer's market), and cook at home more (especially junk food, as if you had to make your own french fries you'd eat a lot fewer of them). Nothing wrong with any of that.

You wouldn't expect Pollan or Oprah to deliver a vegan or animal rights message and they didn't. Fine.

Alicia Silverstone was on the show as a spokesperson for the health benefits and other benefits of veganism. She had one perfect opportunity to present herself as pro-animal rights when Oprah (laughingly) asked: But what if the cows and the chickens are treated really, really nicely . . . (would you eat them)?

Alicia (laughing): Well, I'd have to see the cows and the chickens.

First of all, I don't see what's so funny. But I get that this is entertainment and the mood was light. And people often giggle when speaking of things that make them feel uncomfortable. It's true that there was a tiny opening for a real message, and we'd all like to think that in a similar position, we'd be able to articulate one. Silverstone let the moment pass her by.

The more controversial moment was when Oprah asked Silverstone if she ever cheats and Silverstone admitted to eating some cheese. Why is that an issue? First of all, she's not evil because she eats some cheese. That's not the point. And I won't say she's not a "real vegan," as I'm not the vegan police. (Also, her response seemed  like the eating of cheese was sort of an accident anyway–she didn't order something with cheese.)

This moment was significant because if you "cheat," it is presumed that it's either very difficult or very unappealing to be a vegan. There's so much sacrifice or bad analogs or whatever that lead you to crave and succumb to "the real thing." It's largely about willpower, cheating tells me, and once in a while it's too much to expect yourself to not want to eat (fill-in-the-blank) while you're on the diet known as veganism. And that's not a message I want to send the millions of people who watch Oprah.

In addition, talk of cheating creates a space for omnivores to pounce, "A-ha! I knew she couldn't do it! Even the great vegan cookbook author/actress can't go without cheese!" And a similar pouncing has come from some vegans. It was all just an unfortunate moment in an unscripted interview.

I enjoyed every recipe I tried from Silverstone's The Kind Diet and though I might not be a fan of the way she does her activism (PeTA, etc…), a book by a vegan that helps other people go vegan (she recommends taking baby steps and calls it "flirting," which I suppose could be viewed as an innocuous, fun way of easing into veganism) can't be a liability for vegans or veganism. Or can it? I'd imagine that the more resources available to the mainstream about going vegan and cooking/preparing vegan food, the better the odds that more people will go vegan.

I am aware that many vegans won't buy Silverstone's book because they don't agree with her on some important issues. 

What do you think? Are there vegan cookbooks you won't purchase or vegan food bloggers you don't support because you don't agree with them on issues other than veganism?

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. This attitude of not buying a person's book because we don't agree with all of that person's beliefs confuses me. I hope that there are no other people, anywhere in the world, with whom I agree on everything.

    February 1, 2010
  2. Dan #

    For a number of reasons (not just that she ate cheese, but that is significant as well), I do not consider Alicia Silverstone a vegan. Maybe someday she become one, but she's not one now.

    February 1, 2010
  3. Great blog; it's a recent discovery that I'm really enjoying! I freely admit to never having been a fan of Oprah's, but so many fellow vegans were talking about it that I tuned in; my response, predictably, was "Ugh, not again." Alicia Silverstone blew a major opportunity to reach millions of people with the message that being vegan doesn't have to entail some enormous "sacrifice," and her comments about thinking she'd "never have another decent meal" when she went vegan, and her occasional "cheating" with cheese struck me as woefully inadequate representations of the healthy, happy vegan lifestyle she claims to embrace. To be fair, I thought the question about "the cows and the chickens [who] treated really, really nicely" pertained to drinking/eating their milk, eggs, etc., rather than eating THEM, but at the end of the day it all wound up looking like a bit of a joke (on the animals). While I understand that Oprah's audience is more likely to be swayed by promises of serendipitous weight loss and clear skin than by the plight of billions of tortured, exploited animals, I was still perturbed a the way Alicia's whirl-wind tour of the frozen, processed meat and dairy analogues available at Whole Foods only reinforced Oprah's ham-handed (you should excuse the expression) interruption to her "why I became a vegetarian" story, to wit: "Fried chicken tastes really good!" Thanks for that, Oprah – I think by now we all know how much you love eating chickens, cows, pigs and whoever else doesn't get out of your personal chef's way fast enough. Now it's someone ELSE'S turn to talk about themselves, okay? In the end, that a public personality squandered a chance to present a cruelty-free lifestyle as an wholly achievable goal in favor of extolling the convincing texture of Gardein's fake chicken is disappointing, but – alas – hardly surprising, especially when she was following an act like Michael "Here, piggy, piggy, piggy, I respect you so much, now get in my belly" Pollan. We've still got a looong way to go, baby!

    February 1, 2010
  4. Dan #

    Simon, I agree that you shouldn't boycott a book because you don't agree with EVERY belief that a person has. I'd wager that the vast majority of my favourite authors aren't vegan, for example. However, taking into account an author's beliefs and behaviours shouldn't be completely ignored.

    Orson Scott Card is a good example. He is openly homophobic and uses his own money to fund anti-gay organisations. Because of this, I will never buy any of his books or buy anything that results in him getting royalties. This is the reason that I didn't purchase the 'Shadow Complex' video game, because Card was recieving money for the use of his characters.

    In Alicia Silverstone's case, I would much rather spend my money on a book written by someone who takes veganism more seriously. If I was looking for a cookbook, I would probably buy Dino Sarma's 'Alternative Vegan'

    February 2, 2010
  5. If I'm buying a vegan cookbook I want it to be by a vegan author. I don't buy cookbooks anyway because you can find so many recipes on the internet for free.

    I didn't watch the Oprah episode but from your description Alicia's behavior seems very understandable. When you're surrounded by a bunch of gung-ho omnivores (and it feels as if they're against you) it can be hard to speak your mind as articulately as possible. Besides, Alicia's is probably a bit in the welfare camp if she does so much work for PETA. (I have no idea what the video ad of her naked actually has to do with veganism).

    As far as cheating goes, I don't think there's anything wrong with accidentally consuming non vegan food from time to time, or even from consciously consuming it when there are no other options and you won't get a chance to eat for a very, very long time. You should, of course, always pack a snack and be prepared so that doesn't happen.

    February 2, 2010
  6. In my view, whether it is unethical or merely strange depends on the context.

    If it were humans’ body parts and those humans were not exploited as a race or considered an “inferior” ethnic or racial group (and not killed for the body parts), I would consider it exceptionally strange, but not necessarily unethical.

    OTOH, if it were humans’ body parts and those humans *were exploited as a race* or considered an “inferior” ethnic or racial group (and not killed for the body parts), then I would consider it obviously unethical and contributing to the notion that that ethnic group of humans are here for us to use and exploit.

    It is therefore obviously unethical to use nonhuman “roadkill” for fashion as well.

    BTW, from now on, I’m going to refer to the victims of fatal human car accidents as “roadkill”. And yes, please call me roadkill if I’m killed in a car accident. If you’re a weirdo, you may even use my dead body parts for fashion if you care to, since I’m not part of a severely exploited group.

    BTW2, I’m posting as “Dan UVE” now so as not to be confused with the other Dan who has recently posted.

    February 2, 2010
  7. Haha, I posted the above comment to the wrong blog post. It's meant for the roadkill blog post dated Feb 2.

    February 2, 2010
  8. John #

    I'd say to all watch what you boycott(some are obvious of course) or will or will not buy as you'll end up opening up a whole slew of subsidiaries owned by companies who profit off of animals. Becomes mind boggling after awhile. You really do have to draw your own personal line somewhere whether you admit to it or not. Otherwise you'll be living alone in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass all because of the standards you set for yourself, not because of poverty.

    February 3, 2010
  9. I also blogged about Alicia's appearance on my vegetarian blog on I guess even movie stars get nervous on TV.

    February 4, 2010
  10. Cyndi R #

    I have recently become increasingly disappointed with vegan food writers. I also freely acknowledge the inconsistencies as I have purchased, read, and often recommended authors with whose views or practices I disagree. Peter Singer, T. Colin Campbell, the authors of Skinny Bitch come immediately to mind. I initially rejected Silverstone's book because of the use of "super-hero" to describe her version of the ideal diet. After purchasing and reading the book, I have more issues with it, although I think the design is lovely and the recipes look very good. I imagine I will continue to purchase cookbooks and frequent blogs of writers with whom I disagree, but with a tarnished enjoyment. However, I also believe that we should gently encourage critical thinking, discourage the use of speciesist language, and question whether vegan advocacy or just self-promotion is the goal. No exemptions here for any of us and certainly not for celebrated food bloggers and their star-struck followers.

    February 10, 2010
  11. jeannie #

    Stop the presses! Alicia Silverstone ate a piece of cheese!

    That's it. She doesn't get to join the club. She must turn in her membership card immediately!


    Now, if only climate change got as much attention among genuine animal rightist vegans…

    Though, in my opinion, Foer's book wins the prize for receiving the most pointless attention.

    I'm sure Johnny Weir would be very disappointed to hear it. He seems to be this year's Vick.

    They should all take notes from Victor Schonfeld. He must be doing something right, because it seems as though he needn't be a vegan at all to be accepted and honored by the club. Mentioning the right people in one's work apparently gives one a free pass from criticism.

    February 11, 2010
  12. Actually, Schonfeld was criticized in the comments section of the The Guardian for not being a vegan himself. I, and several other abolitionists, were the open critics immediately after he admitted he wasn't a vegan. Schonfeld wasn't at all pleased, but perhaps that's his problem.

    I'm guessing that you won't hear much from Schonfeld from now on as a result of the criticism unless Schonfeld starts walking the talk. IMO, that's as it should be.

    February 11, 2010
  13. babble #

    The problem isn't really with the fact that she ate a piece of cheese here or there; it's that she had the opportunity to show that she takes veganism seriously and she *didn't* do that. I don't know Alicia Silverstone, and I'm in no position to speculate as to whether or not she actually *does* take it seriously. But she didn't give any indication that she does, here. Saying that she's slipped here or there is one thing; I'd wager that many current ethical vegans, on the way to where they are now both *thought of themselves* as vegans *and* slipped, from time to time.

    The deeper problem is in two places in Mary's post:

    1. "In addition, talk of cheating creates a space for omnivores to pounce, "A-ha! I knew she couldn't do it! Even the great vegan cookbook author/actress can't go without cheese!" And a similar pouncing has come from some vegans. It was all just an unfortunate moment in an unscripted interview."

    2. "Alicia (laughing): Well, I'd have to see the cows and the chickens."

    If veganism is a diet, and not an ethical position, then cheating becomes (as Mary points out) a matter of willpower. Habits can be tough to break, especially in a culture that exploits animals everywhere, all over the place, endlessly.

    Had Silverstone said, "You know, I was addicted to cheese. It was a tough habit to break. Along the way, I slipped a few times." I don't think anybody would have raised much of an eyebrow about it. I woudn't have. But that's not what she said in the interview; that, coupled with the implied claim that "well treated" cows and chickens might be perfectly acceptable to eat, and, well…

    It may be that the book serves as an introduction to veganism for some, and gods know that in a celebrity-obsessed culture, there will be folks who will buy the book on celebrity alone, but — and we need to be making this case, over and over and over again:

    Veganism is not a diet.
    Veganism is not a diet.
    Veganism is not a diet.

    February 22, 2010

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