Never would I imagine that 20 years after last stepping into KFC to protest it I’d be rolling through their drive-thru ordering KFC Beyond Chicken. Holy crap. People: This is an amazing development. However, there is a problem. (If you say, “Yes, and that problem is the OIL,” this manifesto is for you.)
KFC’s recent launch of Beyond Chicken, preceded by Burger King’s Impossible Burger launch, was widely supported by vegans and omnivores. Predictably, it also dredged up the puritan crowd in comment sections across the US of A: “But it’s fried in the same oil/grilled on the same grill. It’s not vegan.” Please note that this crowd is not just vegans, but omnivores trying to “help.”
If this commenter is you, please take heart: I do not wish to belittle you with this piece. I want us to join forces and increase access to non-animal proteins, together. As much as I’d love to believe that I was born thinking strategically about the cause and effect of my actions, I was not. And I’m still learning.
Sometimes you’re not right
I developed compassion for people working in busy kitchens in three ways: Working in my father’s restaurants, collaborating with chefs in city-wide vegan chef challenges, and by reading Kitchen Confidential.
I grew up working in my late father’s restaurants, from Mama Ella’s Pizza to Poseidon’s Fish & Chips. I still remember dad’s irritation when customers would whine about too much ketchup, too little mayo, or an expired coupon they weren’t allowed to use. “They’re so cheap,” he lamented. “And picky.”
Customers are encouraged to police their culinary experiences. “The Customer is Always Right” since businesses fold without them. Yet many interpret the phrase as cart blanche to force our wills upon businesses until we get our way. This is both unkind and unproductive.
Working in a hot, fast-paced kitchen is grueling. One thing I learned from the success of the Vegan Chef Challenge: It’s better to add a vegan option to the menu than for customers to request a special order ad-hoc. Disrupting the line for a special request is difficult for already busy chefs and line cooks. If they go out of their way for you, gratitude is in order.
My “journey” with Anthony Bourdain started when I read about his uncharitable description of vegetarians and plant-based cuisine in Kitchen Confidential and dismissed him. Twenty years after it was published, I finally read his book. It was highly entertaining, but more than that, it showcased his compassion (yes, compassion!) for fellow staff working the “back of the house” in fine dining. The amount of hours and labor that goes into meal preparation is astounding.
Being grateful for the meal prepared is an important start, but it’s not quite enough.
Kill your inner cop
The compulsion to define what is “right or wrong” is not limited to police, religious texts, Supreme Court justices, or vegans. Average citizens routinely patrol others (case in point: “Karens” and “neighborhood watch” vigilantes). This same impulse to dictate the “rules” of society (as one sees them) also informs the strict policing of what it means for a person, food, or drink to be vegan.
Back when my band was performing in 2019, we asked audience members to write a “signal” they wanted to send to the world. One signal stood out: Kill your inner cop.
I confess: This rallying cry hit me in the gut, as I certainly have a tiny police officer patrolling my psyche. And she’s cranky! Not only has she doled out speeding tickets and parking violations, but (bear with me here as I wind down this metaphor) she has made arrests leading to convictions.
Through the lens of time and experience I’ve learned — somewhat — to silence my inner cop. Or at the very least, to recognize when she’s taking out her pen to write a ticket.
Trying to make personal purity a public requirement hurts animals because it creates barriers to change. Griping about the grill, the oil, and the minuscule amount of non-vegan ingredients in breads, drinks, or sauces slows the process of cultural transition from animal-based to plant-based foods for three main reasons.
Three Reasons To Stop Talking About the Oil (and everything else)
1. It creates barriers for restaurants to add and sustain plant-based options
When I helped run the Chef Challenge, some customers complained to the chef that the same grill or pans were used. To my dismay, these chefs deemed it more difficult than they anticipated to accommodate this strange “vegan” cuisine that required such purity. After convincing the chef that vegan options were easy to add, it was deflating to see the opposite message conveyed.
Most restaurants will not jump at the chance to add more complexity to their already burdened kitchens. A quick (but sordid) thought experiment: Say you stood in a busy restaurant’s kitchen next to your plant-based alternative, and a chef was weighing which of you to cook up. You are trembling in fear, hoping the chef chooses the plant option. Suddenly, someone bursts in and demands: “If you choose the plant-based version, use a special grill.” The chef looks at the current grill, then looks at you. Now that it’s easier to choose you, how would you feel about these additional requirements when your life is at stake?
Animals spared don’t care about the grill. (Also, air is not vegan because we’re all breathing it together.)
Restaurants like KFC and Burger King are already successful. While new product launches are part of a strategy to stay relevant, they can just as easily add a new animal-based meat item to the menu. The fact that these huge chains with massive distribution added plant-based meat to their menus is incredible and should be celebrated. Demanding they go to additional lengths (and costs) to do so will make them or other companies hesitate and factor in how difficult and expensive it is to add plant-based options.
Critically, the burden to maintain this purity ultimately falls to the “essential worker” who must choose the right grill or oil. The demand for purity causes them harm in an already stressful environment.Eleni
2. It creates the perception that eating plant-based is impossible and vegans are a**holes.
“Vegan” has a marketing problem. The word itself, unfairly or not, often evokes a person who is unpleasant. Strictly defining veganism as not touching any animal products not only creates unrealistic and unsustainable expectations for current and aspiring vegans, but it ensures that omnivores will dismiss the idea (and the people) as ridiculous and impossible.
What bothers me most about this perception, beyond actually harming animals, is that most vegans I know — and I know plenty — are actually very pragmatic, kind, considerate, and forward-thinking people very compassionate toward both non-human animal and human. Yet, the squeaky wheel reverberates.
There are many close cousins to the “same oil and grill” family. Years ago, I saw Bruce Friedrich, Founder and CEO of the Good Food Institute speak about animals harmed by fretting over minimal ingredients in items like hamburger buns. Asking servers “what’s in the bun” then refusing the bun if it contains 2% or less whey makes veganism unreachable.
I eat sugar processed with bone char, drink wine filtered with fish (guts?), and don’t ask about the bun. And I still dare to call myself vegan! My consuming products that have touched animal products does not cause suffering to animals. Why make it so difficult for others? On yourself? As Matt Ball pointed out years ago on Vegan Outreach,
“Don’t worry about avoiding hidden animal ingredients—as society moves away from using animals these byproducts will disappear.”
Vegan sites providing endless lists of ingredients is a similar disservice. Who wants to spend their lives worrying about that 2% list? I must say I admire all of the detectives out there — no ingredient gets past them! — but cracking the case of purity will not lead to any convictions besides the conviction that “vegan” is much too difficult an ideal to attain, and the sentencing of countless animals to confinement and slaughter.
Similarly, insisting that abstaining from honey is required to be vegan hurts animals. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve told omnivores I am a “honey vegan,” and they share their relief because boycotting honey seemed extreme. This pure and strict definition of veganism including insects is out of reach for most people. I applaud you Jainists out there: I too avoid killing bugs. But I don’t make it a platform for my veganism. It hurts animals.
Cracking the case of purity will not lead to any convictions besides the conviction that “vegan” is much too difficult an ideal to attain, and the sentencing of countless animals to confinement and slaughter.Eleni
Maybe it’s the label that is problematic, “vegan” as a stagnant concept rather than a fluid process quietly renewed daily just as you decide to stay with your partner, not kill someone (!), or continue living in your city.
3) It doesn’t hurt animals
But also, practically, what do these minuscule ingredients — symptoms not causes — matter? The amount of suffering caused by using the same oil or grill is zero.
Frying the Beyond Chicken in the same oil that a chicken was fried in or does not kill more chickens, nor does using the same grill for those BK Impossible burgers. If it truly grosses you out, then simply don’t eat there.
The addition of Beyond Chicken spares animals because it makes it easy for customers who would normally order chicken to choose plant protein. A small percentage of animal ingredients in sauces does not have a big impact, like the full-bodied chicken being fried, or not fried, in that oil.
Use your tongue for finger-licking…
Not for barraging restaurants who have taken a great leap.
Everything, including fundamentally changing what we eat, is a negotiation process. Yet those advocating for plant-based do not have the same number of seats at the table. Though the consensus is growing that plant-based cuisine may be the future of food and it behooves companies to add these options now, most people still eat meat and these restaurants are already profitable without these offerings.
Veganism isn’t a diet — for me, and for many. It’s embracing the bold and revolutionary idea that animals exist for their own purposes just as we do and we can survive — even thrive — without using their bodies, despite years of their use. In the face of justifications such as “we’ve always used animals” (tradition) the vegan forges a new path, but one now easier traversed because it’s filled with familiar foods like the Beyond Chicken tender.
Even if we don’t all agree on a definition of “vegan” — and why should we? — shaming others by not following our own strict rules hurts animals. We need to embrace the Bourdain approach: Savor and celebrate the abundance of plant-based cuisine — as many cooks already are on platforms like Instagram and Tiktok — even if that cuisine is not hermetically sealed in a perfect utopia. Let’s embrace impurity.
The Skit! Four Types of Plant-Based Meat Critics
All this to introduce our latest skit, recorded on the day KFC launched Beyond Chicken, January 10th. We predicted four types of critics for plant-based meat.
Thanks for reading/watching!