Drag Cuisines: The Inherent Queerness of Vegan Food Ontologies

Scroll this

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in the series, Succession: Queering the Environment, which centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.


As theorists of classification systems have noted, “To classify is human.”[1] Classification can be defined as “a spatial, temporal, or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world,” and a “classification system” is a set of literal or metaphorical boxes “into which things can be put to then do some kind of work—bureaucratic or knowledge production.”[2] The categories making up classification systems should be “mutually exclusive,”—that is, clearly demarcated and separated—as well as complete and thorough.[3] But rarely do real-world classification systems live up to these standards. People routinely ignore and bend the rules of systems of categorization, but the systems themselves remain as a prescriptive for world-ordering and power production—that is, power is imparted and produced, in part, through systems of classification that reify normative hierarchies.


“I am interested in the ways in which gender and food, respectively, are classified and categorized, and how Queerness…disrupts the ontological project of classification and undermines the structures of power enacted…in food and gender.”


Here, I am interested in the ways in which gender and food, respectively, are classified and categorized, and how Queerness—or that which is slant, oblique, a reversal of, or outside of a categorical demarcation—disrupts the ontological project of classification and undermines the structures of power enacted (separately but parallel) in food and gender. Judith Butler (among many others) has written extensively about how the queer subject—the person or body that steps outside of normative sexual and gender categories—exposes these categories to be purely superficial, a lie. She writes, “What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”[4] Food categories, too, are ostensible. And part of this project involves “unmasking” carnism, or the violent ideology that normalizes meat-eating and empowers the meat-eater.

This task requires me to use the word “queer,” not just in relationship to marginalized individuals and groups, but in relationship to food, a move which could be construed as problematic. But if one considers the ways in which “queer” has been used historically to describe wide arrays of difference (such as racial difference),[5] is being used in recent theory to discuss ecology and animality,[6] and if one considers the ways in which food and eating have been and are gendered and sexualized,[7] then it is not such a theoretical leap to apply “queer” to food or to describe food as queer.

Food, like all else, is subject to classificatory regimes. Food is classified, typed, and organized in myriad ways, including but not limited to: By ingredient (e.g. meat, fish, vegetable, fruit, grain, dairy, spice—each of which contains countless subtypes); By region (e.g. Southern food, East Coast food, Caribbean food); By ethnicity (e.g. soul food, Thai food, Indo-Chinese food); By means of preparation (e.g. fried, baked, braised, boiled); By nutritional composition (e.g. low-fat, high-protein, junk food, low-carb); The list goes on. The need to classify food or anything else is rooted in the need to understand the object or individual’s nature of being.[8] To even begin to understand what food is we must first “sort it out,”[9] label it, and distinguish it by type and kind. This categorization also helps us understand what is not edible or not considered to be food.

Plant-Based Dishes, Raw Food, Ella Olsson, Flickr Commons.

This categorization of food is a type of ontological project. In order to understand the nature of food’s being we must first classify it, that is, catalog it according to all of its minute details. And, as Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker note, the project of classification (and also of deconstructing classifications) necessarily involves privileging or valorizing one point of view while diminishing or silencing another.[10] That all expressly plant-based foods, by their very existence, destabilize the classificatory rigidity of food exposes the ways in which Western food classification is an invisible exertion of power meant to maintain separate categories such as “meat” and “vegetable” in order to privilege one over another. “Meat,” by its very rigid (though often implicit) classification as “of an animal” or “of flesh” (at least in an American context) sits at the top of a food hierarchy marked by tradition, taste, distinction, and nutrition. That nothing from the plant kingdom may enter into the category of “meat,” means that plant-based foods, even when performing as meat, do not receive the levels of taste and distinction reserved for meat that is of an animal.


“That nothing from the plant kingdom may enter into the category of ‘meat,’ means that plant-based foods, even when performing as meat, do not receive the levels of taste and distinction reserved for meat that is of an animal.”


This unquestioned project of American food classification, as with any project of classification, has consequences. That meat (classified and categorized as being derived from animal flesh) has for centuries sat at the privileged center of the American diet means that Americans feel entitled to having animal flesh at most if not every meal. Food historian Maureen Ogle writes of these consequences:

“That sense of entitlement is a crucial element of the history of meat in America. Price hikes as small as a penny a pound have inspired Americans to riot, trash butcher shops, and launch national meat boycotts. We Americans want what we want, but we rarely ponder the actual price or the irrationality of our desires. We demand cheap hamburger, but we don’t want the factory farms that make it possible. We want four-bedroom McMansions out in the semirural suburban fringe, but we raise hell when we sniff the presence of the nearby hog farm that provides affordable bacon. We want packages of precooked chicken and microwaveable sausages—and family farms, too.”[11]

Meat’s animal-derived classification combined with its privileged status at the center of the American plate means that American food systems have been structured to fulfill the pervasive entitlement to animal flesh; and as countless scientists and food scholars have noted, the meat-centered structuring of our food institutions has devastating consequences for our planet, the individual animals killed to make meat, the workers involved in the slaughter of animals, and on our own health and longevity.[12]

Vegan food intervenes in this ontological project of categorization (and its consequences) and troubles what we understand meat to be (or accept as meat), which, in part, makes it queer. Further, this queer intervention in food classification comes with its own set of outcomes and consequences that comprise one aspect of a moral and ethical agenda.


“Vegan food intervenes in this ontological project of categorization (and its consequences) and troubles what we understand meat to be (or accept as meat), which, in part, makes it queer.”


Take, for instance, the popular vegan protein seitan, or “wheat meat.” This meat is made from vital wheat gluten, the resulting flour left when whole wheat is ground finely and its protein is isolated from its fiber, starch, and carbohydrate.[13] The protein flour can be seasoned to resemble the flavors in meat and kneaded into a chewy dough reminiscent of meaty textures. After kneading, the dough can be prepared in any number of ways that animal flesh would be prepared—breaded and fried, braised, grilled, slow-cooked and pulled, and so forth. Seitan can be used to make vegan versions of chicken wings, bacon, steaks, deli-type sandwich slices, burgers—most any meat except fish, for which textures seitan is not well-suited. In many Asian cultures, seitan is not a new or expressly vegan food. The earliest uses of wheat gluten can be traced back to 6th century China, during which time it was mostly consumed by strict adherents of Buddhism.[14] Historically, the food was sometimes used as a meat substitute, but also prepared alongside meat in soups, stews, and stir fry. It is only in an American context that seitan is primarily viewed as a vegan ingredient.

Seitan, kelly, Flickr Commons.

And in this American context seitan is queer. This is because, for Americans, “meat” is constituted by animal flesh or that which comes from an animal (e.g. bologna is not largely composed of “flesh,” or muscle, but is of an animal and thus called meat). Seitan intervenes in traditional American food ontologies because it is a food categorized as X but performing as Y. Wheat is a grain, and wheat gluten is of a grain, and seitan—in the U.S. at least—is a meat that is of a grain. Seitan, in other words, performs a categorical leap. And categorical leaps, of many types, are a hallmark of queer performativity. Even David Mehnert, for whom queerness in food is a matter of spectacle, wrote, “All food pretending to be something else is food in drag.” Take the “tofuburger,” for example. Tofu is a fascinating substance because it takes on the qualities of whatever it is put with, whether in soup, sauces, or stir-fry. Tofu is a food that ‘passes.’”[15] Foods like tofu and seitan—plant foods that dare to step across the meat-as-flesh line—have sparked an identity crisis in American cuisine, in which foods that can “pass” as something other than what they are begin to dismantle normative ideas of which foods are categorized as what and why.[16] And the breakdown of foods’ categorical cohesions has interesting consequences for sex and gender. How is it, for instance, that “real men eat meat” if “real men” are among those fooled by plant foods acting as meat. If one can no longer distinguish meat from vegetable then what effect does this have on our highly gendered approaches to eating and cooking?


“All food pretending to be something else is food in drag.” – David Mehnert


The investment in maintaining established food categories is so strong that in many countries animal-based meat and dairy corporations are suing plant-based food companies to gain legal ownership of words like “meat,” “milk,” “cheese,” “dairy,” and “egg.”[17] In October of 2014, for instance, Unilever (the parent company for Hellman’s Mayonnaise) sued the plant-based food company Hampton Creek for their mayonnaise alternative Just Mayo’s “false advertising and unfair competition.”[18] Unilever argued that “mayo” is a “literally-false name” for Hampton Creek’s product and that their mayonnaise-like alternative “caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever and to the product category the industry has taken great care to define in a way consistent with consumer expectations.”[19] In this instance, the plant-based alternative poses a threat to the ontological order of food. At stake here is Unilever’s profits, tradition, and cultural dominance on the one hand, and on the other hand Hampton Creek’s profits, the reduction of animal suffering, fewer CO2 emissions, less water and ground pollution, and a no-cholesterol alternative to mayo. Who could have ever predicted that questions about which foods could be called mayonnaise would involve such a contentious legal and cultural battle?

Burger King Impossible Whopper, Tony Webster, Flickr Commons.

The Impossible Burger represents another type of queer food, and one that is “passing” well enough to be widely accepted in the American foodscape. In the past three years, the soy-protein-based burger has been added to restaurant menus around the United States—at local restaurants, regional chains, and even in the international fast food chains White Castle and Burger King.[20] Impossible Burgers are now sold at more than 15,000 restaurants around the world.[21] Many vegans see the rise of the Impossible Burger as a breakthrough vegan intervention in American food nationalism (though they may not speak of it in those terms). That the Impossible Burger’s sales have risen many times over[22] at popular restaurants in the United States means that the very category of “burger”—one imbued with many quintessentially American meanings—has been challenged, reinvented, and irreversibly changed. The burger, which used to be exclusively constituted by bread and ground beef, is now routinely constituted by any number of ingredients other than ground beef. A burger patty may now be comprised of soy, seitan, pea protein, quinoa, black beans, millet, a combination of vegetables, lentils, and many other plant-based ingredients.

To be fair, this categorical troubling of the “burger” began long before the advent of Impossible Foods. The classic vegetarian Boca Burger hit the American food scene in 1992, and was a favorite of then-president Bill Clinton.[23] Other vegan and vegetarian versions of the classic American burger can be traced back to early 20th century cookbooks and popular culture.[24] But the Impossible Burger represents a successful burger alternative—so successful that some predict that it and other products like it will replace beef’s popularity in burgers of the future. The Impossible Burger has queered the concept of burger by changing the properties with which burgers may be constructed.


“Vegan food’s ability to trouble established food categories is queer because queerness is in part defined by a reconstitution, disidentification, or dis/orientation of or from a category considered to be normative or hegemonic.”


Vegan food’s ability to trouble established food categories is queer because queerness is in part defined by a reconstitution, disidentification, or dis/orientation of or from a category considered to be normative or hegemonic. Sara Ahmed asks her readers to think about how queer politics might involve disorientation. She writes, “The point is not whether we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do) but how such experiences can impact the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how things are ‘directed’ and how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do—whether they can offer us hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.”[25] If, in a normative American context, the category of burger is oriented toward ground beef (and vice versa), then the [plant-based ingredient]’s orientation toward burger falls outside of established norms, thus not only creating a reconstituted burger, but also providing a new and hopeful vision of “burger,” a vision with a new set of ethics reoriented toward the reduction of harm done to animals in our food systems, more sustainable food systems, and healthier food options.


Feature Photo: Vegan Food, Ella Olsson, Flickr Commons.


Notes:

  1. Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000, p. 2-32.
  2. Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000, p. 10-11.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge 2006, Preface.
  5. Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here : Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Justice, Power, and Politics. 2016.
  6. Chen, Mel Y. Animacies Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Perverse Modernities. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2012.
  7. Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat : A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1990.
  8. Stancati, Claudia, et al., editors. The Nature of Social Reality. Cambridge Scholars, 2013, p. 28.
  9. Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.
  10. Ibid., p. 5.
  11. Ogle, Maureen. In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
  12. Barclay, Eliza. A Nation of Meat Eaters: See How it All Adds Up, NPR, 27 June 2012, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/06/27/155527365/visualizing-a-nation-of-meat-eaters.
  13. Miller, Marissa. “What is Seitan and is it Actually Good For You?” Women’s Health, 2019, www.womenshealthmag.com/food/a27410265/what-is-seitan/.
  14. Bramen, Lisa. “Seitan: The Other Fake Meat.” Smithsonian Magazine, 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/seitan-the-other-fake-meat-97622092/.
  15. Mehnert, David. “What Is Queer Food?” Slate Magazine. Slate, April 3, 2002. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2002/04/what-is-queer-food.html.
  16. Adams, Carol J. Burger. Bloomsbury, 2018.
  17. Engel, Pamela. “Mayonnaise Is At The Center Of A Legal Battle Between Hellmann’s And A Sandwich Spread Startup.” Business Insider, 2014.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. “Impossible Whopper Boosted Burger King Traffic.” The Food Institute Report 92, no. 22 (2019): 4.
  21. Applegren, Jessica. “Impossible Burger Becomes No. 1 Item Sold at Grocery Stores.” Business Wire, 2019.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Adams, Carol J. Burger. Bloomsbury, 2018.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006, p.158.
The following two tabs change content below.

A. Paige Frazier

Paige Frazier is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Purdue University. Her work brings interdisciplinary methodologies to the study of food, social movements, queer film and literature, and the history of activism. Paige holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Northern Michigan University. She currently lives in Indianapolis with her partner and three cats.

Latest posts by A. Paige Frazier (see all)

2 Comments

Leave a Reply