I thought there were signs of enlightenment in recent months but like a compulsive flasher parting his mac every so often you get a searing glimpse of the depths of Jay Rayner’s incomprehension of the dietary world he inhabits. Today’s Observer review of London’s newest vegan restaurant Saf (‘It’s grim down Saf‘, Magazine, p73) was such an exercise in ignorance.
There was the usual stuff – the baiting – where he conflates cruelty to animals with cruelty committed by poor vegan food on the national palate. Similarly “It’s not that I actively seek the death of an animal. But hell, a little light slaughter does seem to make things taste better”. This is frankly obscene, and at the same time normal – see Nigel Slater in what was the most shame-ridden justification of meat eating I think I have ever read. Those sods – including H F-W and Gordon – reinforce each other.
A few things I want to take issue with. First, his experience wasn’t ‘grim’. He liked his maki rolls and cheesecake. Why did he have to call Saf ‘grim’? Maybe it was the editor, but is there nothing these people won’t sacrifice to a cheap pun? Second, his derision of vegetarians. With his own free-ranging predilections surely he would be the first to agree that giving up meat is a big deal. I salute vegetarians for giving up meat. It took me 18 more years of trying and failing to make the transition to the veganism he rightly (unpleasantly, though) observes to be the ethically consistent position. So he should by all means point out the logical and ethical flaws in vegetarians’ arguments (if indeed they make them – I was always sheepish about arguing with meat-eaters, and I couldn’t look a bullock in the eye without experiencing excruciating guilt) but he should stop assaulting them. This connects to the third thing I want to take issue with, his incredulity about the ‘cheese’:
“What in God’s name are they doing with a fake cheese course? If they like cheese so much, stop being vegan”.
Now why in God’s name would Jay suppose that vegans wouldn’t like cheese? Is there nothing he wouldn’t deny himself because he believes that it would be wrong to eat it? Poached Panda, perhaps? Maybe long pig? If there really is nothing, then OK, the man is an eccentric and prodigious eater and what can I say – watch your back because he’s probably wondering what you taste like. But if there are some theoretical edibles Jay Rayner would balk at, then this single fact should be enough to persuade him that he’s missed the point of a lot of veganism.
Me, I liked cheese. There’s literally nothing like it – silky, salty, rich, satisfying cheese. The slight chewy bounce of hot mozzarella. The tongue-coating richness of boursin. The firm mildness of yarg on a salty cracker. Cheese is uniquely delicious. But, no more cheese for me – and I’m not a self-denier by inclination, au contraire. So, given that the reasons I have forsaken cheese are ethical, any approximation of cheese will be most welcome (provided I can actually digest it and it’s not ethically disastrous itself). It’s a very simple premise for Jay Rayner to grasp: although they don’t eat it, some vegans like cheese so much that the idea of fake cheese and the prospect of reliving those half-remembered flavours and textures makes them delirious with excitement. So shoot us, Jay. Enough with the faux incredulity.
Another thing – from what I can gather Saf isn’t making a big thing out of being a vegan restaurant. I would imagine that it will depend for income on appeasing meat and dairy eaters – particularly in the event of an anti-vegan backlash. This is another reason to have cheese analogues on the menu.
Veganism is diverse and important movement. Its environmental, health and humane benefits are now widely recognised. It’s appropriate and helpful to challenge them but surely it isn’t really alright for the Observer food critic to be so obtuse about vegans, and so gleeful when things go wrong for us. Surely he has indulged himself at our expense long enough.
As I’ve said before, if vegans are poorly catered for then we look to professional critics like Jay Rayner to champion better catering rather than rubbing their hands together and cackling like Rumplestiltskin when somebody fails in their attempt to crack the challenge of excellent vegan cuisine.
How much longer are Jay Rayner and the rest, with entrenched and destructive prejudice, going to consign vegans to a dining life at the margins?