Veganism, Year Four: The Cruelty-Free Quadrennial

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Four years ago tomorrow, in a post here on Dorf on Law, I discussed the proximate events that led to my decision to become a vegan. Each year since then, I have written an annual "veganniversary" post (although this is the first year that I have used that bad neologism). Last year's anniversary post includes links to the others.

This year's celebration is an especially happy one, because I now live in the DC area's "vegan central," Takoma Park (Maryland). Takoma Park has long had a reputation for being especially welcoming to vegans (as well as for its more generally progressive atmosphere), and it was only a matter of time before I moved here. What makes TP most interesting, however, is its demonstration of just how simple it is for a place to be vegan-friendly.

This is a truly small town, with about two blocks of "downtown" shops, including four (count 'em) restaurants. The diner that just opened (franchised from a national chain) is surprisingly lacking in vegan fare, but the other three all have many good vegan options. (My favorite is Roscoe's, which is named after the rooster who used to be the unofficial town mascot. Did I mention that this is a small, quirky town?)

A short walk from downtown, there is a justifiably famous place called SouperGirl, which is a completely vegan gourmet soup take-out shop. In the other direction, there is a good, funky coffee shop with vegan desserts. Most importantly, there is the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-Op. Although it recently (and quite unfortunately) began selling meat, TPSS puts all of its meat products in what amounts to a "corner of shame" in the back of the store.

That is it. A tiny town, with very few shops. But there is more than enough to make it vegan-friendly, and in a self-reinforcing effect, to make it worthwhile for businesses to consider vegan concerns when they make decisions.

One effect of being in a place that caters to vegans, even while it also caters to those who consume animal products, is that one need not engage in what one might call the "vegan dodge." Elsewhere, one is always faced with the question of whether to be evasive, saying, "Well, I can't eat dairy products, so can you tell me ..." This takes advantage of fear of lawsuits from lactose-intolerant diners, and it avoids spiteful reactions from some quarters. In TP, by contrast, one simply says: "I'm a vegan," and the server knows what that means (and proceeds appropriately).

Another effect of being in a vegan-aware environment is that labeling is vastly better on menus and in the co-op, regarding food ingredients. As I argued in my post four years ago, improvements in food labeling laws would make it much easier for people to become vegans in the first place. Takoma Park shows that, yes, if you can get the vegans in one place first, then the "free market" will change its labeling behavior.

The uniqueness of TP, however, shows just how unlikely it is that businesses will take the lead elsewhere. It hardly seems like a major imposition on businesses to require including a verifiable (and enforced) system to label products as animal-product-free, but we can expect that there will continue to be mindless rejection of such proposals. (I received an angry email from a BigLaw partner after my 2008 post, saying that he was tired of vegans asking for "special treatment" that imposed costs on others. This has always struck me as a position that, at the very least, lacks all sense of proportion.)

As a related matter, efforts to mainstream veganism have also long foundered on the availability (or, more commonly, the unavailability) of tasty substitutes for non-vegan foods. Although it is not in Takoma Park, the Sticky Fingers Bakery is only three and a half miles from town, in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest DC. Sticky Fingers has solved what had been one of the major challenges of veganism: really great baked goods. No one could ever complain that vegan food is not tasty after trying anything from Sticky Fingers, which has become famous for winning blind taste tests against non-vegan bakeries.

There have long been many mock meats available to vegans, which are very good. Because I have never missed the taste of any meats, however, this has never seemed like a big deal to me. Still, it is important for others to know that those options are there (and that they are much, MUCH healthier than the cruelly-produced products that they replace). Vegan ice creams are also great.

The lone remaining challenge now is cheese. I cannot count how many people have told me over the last four years that cheese is their deal-breaker for veganism. I take this seriously, because that was the issue that stopped me from making the right decision, for too many years. (I discussed the ethical aspects of products that do not involve killing animals -- except that they do -- in my 2008 post.)

What we need is a Sticky Fingers Cheese Shoppe. When that happens, everything will change overnight. The future will see growing acceptance of veganism. As food alternatives inevitably improve, more and more people on or near the fence will find it less intimidating to make the moral choice. At some point, something close to critical masses will be reached in more and more places. The momentum will then start to build, and fewer and fewer animals will be tortured, killed, and exploited.

In those happy times, Takoma Park will have to find something else to distinguish itself. No problem. We do a lot of meditating, which will give us time to find other things on which to take the lead.