“Smoky and moist, tangy from barbecue sauce … kind of chewy” are words Observer food editor Beth Rankin used to describe the vegan brisket at the newly opened V-Eats in Trinity Groves. Who could guess those words would set off another food firestorm in Dallas, or that so many barbecue devotees are so vehemently opposed to an animal-free form of their beloved brisket?
The post on the Observer’s Facebook page got nearly 300 comments from supporters of the vegan option and even more people who were vocally opposed to anything that’s a substitute for the real deal. The outrage was heard across the internet, and sites like Fox News and Food and Wine reported on the response to Rankin’s review. Even news outlets as far-flung as the U.K.’s Daily Mail picked up the story and the vitriol that trailed behind it.
All of the response begs a question: Why do vegan restaurants serve meat substitutes, and why do vegans eat things that are reminiscent of the meat they've left behind, often for ethical reasons? And what’s behind the outrage from die-hard meat-lovers?
The owner-chef of V-Eats, Troy Gardner, says there’s a lot of misunderstanding about vegans and vegan cuisine by those who aren’t vegan.
“The biggest misconception is that vegans don't like the taste and flavor of meat, fish or dairy," he says. "That's not it; they're making a sacrifice whether it’s for health reasons, environmental reasons or for compassion reasons."
Gardner struck out to change perceptions by creating appealing vegan cuisine for non-vegans — something the masses can relate to that’s a healthier option than its animal counterpart — and to bring vegans the old, familiar meals they may be missing.
“People were like, ‘I haven't used a steak knife in 10 years, this is amazing,’” Gardner says of V-Eats customers during the soft opening. “They still desire these textures and flavors, and I’m trying to make it possible to replicate as many of these textures and flavors as you can without having to hurt anyone.”
Gardner is also trying to take away some of the mystique around veganism.
“The idea is to make ‘vegan’ not a dirty word anymore,” he says. “I've been focusing on a plant-based diet for a while and trying to change the image. People usually think of a vegan cuisine as grilled vegetables and tofu, but there's so much more to it.”
Jamey Scott runs DallasVegan.com, a resource website he started 10 years ago, the corresponding Dallas Vegan Roundup Facebook page, and the Texas Veggie Fair which was held in Dallas on Oct. 22.
“Food is a very personal thing for anyone, and when you see something that's new and foreign to you, I think your initial reaction is going to be that of shock or confusion," Scott says. "Even though trends across the country are heading to where there are more plant-based options, and they're getting more popular in the mainstream, there are people where it’s still very new to them. ... It’s a loud minority of people who are saying the most things.”
Scott acknowledges that no two vegans are completely alike in ideology or in their motivations for eating or not eating meat analogs, but agrees that for most who choose to eat meat substitutes, “It’s about the familiarity of the foods you used to eat, and the flavors," he says. "When you think about the flavors and the mouthfeel of brisket, I probably could get a block of tofu and marinate it in some sort of barbecue sauce and get the feeling like I'm eating barbecue, but they're going to infuse it with that smoke flavor, even put it on the smoker or grill [to get a] charred flavor that comes through.”
Meat-eaters aren't the only ones who sometimes oppose fake meat — some vegans are staunchly anti faux-meat, too, because they believe it glorifies meat products.
“I know some people who are repulsed by [meat imitations],” Scott says. “Some of the detractors say if you don't want meat anymore, why do you create these products? If it's cruelty-free and there aren't any animal products used, that’s all I care about.”
Back at V-Eats, Gardner says Dallas relies a lot on meat analogs as opposed to in markets like L.A. or New York, which have vegan cuisine similar to Europe, where vegetables stand on their own. We’re doing a lot right in Dallas, he says, but there’s room to improve, so he trekked to Europe this summer to study vegan cuisine at a vegan culinary institute and hopped around the major European cities, sampling their vegan restaurants.
He’s passionate about vegan cuisines but isn’t a vegan himself. He says he believes in the vegan ideology of compassion to animals and doing less harm to the earth by cutting out factory farming, and he sticks to a predominately plant-based diet but still eats meat to keep his palate primed to its taste, which helps when he’s creating meat-free dishes that are supposed to taste like the real thing.
With V-Eats, Gardner saw a hole in the Dallas market that he could fill. He owns Samson’s Gourmet Hot Dogs and says 40 percent of his client base is vegan. He also owns a custom catering company, Mobile Gourmet, for which he worked with personal trainers to tailor-make food for high-end clientele, many of whom were vegan.
Scott also echoes the need for more vegan options in the city.
"I'm glad that this is getting attention now. I'm hopeful in the Dallas market we can get over that hump ... there is this huge community, and I'm hoping that something like this will bring more awareness so next time a vegan restaurant opens here, there's not as much of this weird backlash. In Dallas, it is still new even those it's been under our noses for years."
As far as the public outcry, Gardner, who officially opened V-Eats this week, says he thought the backlash from both sides was “comic.”
“It's like we've personally insulted their parents or their family,” he says. “I think it’s hilarious that we made international headlines.”