Have you ever noticed that the biggest compliment for vegan food is that it tastes just like the „real“ version?
When I make a cake that consists of a creamy white layer on top a crumbly brown base, people who like it say: „It tastes almost like real cheesecake.“ Vegan burgers are praised in the same way: „No one would know the difference.“ And about a salad of shredded pasta I once made, some generous man said: „It even has the consistency of egg salad!“
Why does vegan food have to taste like something it isn't? Why can‘t it just be good in its own right?
We humans, of course, like to classify things in familiar categories. That‘s why mixed-race people get asked „what they are“ and most countries' passports require us to decide on a sex. Food especially is a matter of tradition, culture, and recognition. The vegan movement needs to overcome this need for familiarity. If both vegans and non-vegans continue to expect vegan food to resemble some animal-derived food, vegan food will forever fall short of the normative original. This will make it harder for vegans to stay vegan and less likely for non-vegans to replace the tried-and-true original with some well-intended, but second-rate knockoff.
Well-prepared vegan food is delicious in its own right. It‘s not an imitation. In a few decades, I‘m sure, vegan food will have created more of its own traditions. We won‘t need „tofurky“ for Thanksgiving or „cheese-“cake for Easter. But to create our own, novel traditions, we need to stop faking old ones. We need to serve squash for Thanksgiving and rhubarb crumble for Easter, because it‘s appropriate to celebrate seasonal holidays with seasonal produce. We need to break through the notion that only something resembling an animal or at least deriving its name from an animal product can be nourishing or merit a special occasion.
When I bring vegan food to a non-vegan gathering I make a point of not introducing my dishes as fake versions of food people already know and love. I won‘t say: „This is my vegan ,cheese‘-cake.“ I‘ll instead say: „This is a cashew-coconut-lime cake.“ I don‘t want to gesticulate quotation marks when I‘m presenting my dishes. My food doesn‘t need quotation marks; it isn‘t fake. You just haven‘t had it before.