Crying ‘Fowl’ on Vegandale
How do you solve a problem like Vegandale?
That’s a slightly softened version of the question that has consumed Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood for much of the summer, as a cruelty-free (read: vegan) hospitality company called The 5700 Inc. has set up shop, opening two restaurants, a retail store, and a brewery in the area before going whole hog, so to speak, and branding the entire outfit Vegandale, a play off the neighbourhood’s actual name. It would be cutesy if it wasn’t at once appropriative, insensitive, and steeped in intensely unproductive moralizing.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to understand Parkdale, the west-Toronto neighbourhood that is as diverse as it is fast-gentrifying. The neighbourhood has evolved into a slightly cooler-than-thou hotbed of hipsters and artists – and their attendant restaurants and gallery spaces – over the past decade or so, and despite the crush of condos and other high-end developments, the neighbourhood is lived in by some of the city’s lowest-income residents. There’s also an incredible selection of restaurants reflecting the area’s diversity – and it’s some of the best food you’ll find in the city.
The restaurants operated by The 5700 Inc., to be blunt, do not offer anything that comes anywhere near some of the best food in the city. Of course, I’m not vegan, so my perspective may be skewed. But to hear their owner, Hellenic Vincent de Paul tell it, his restaurants – Doomies, which serves up vegan fast food; Mythology Diner, slightly elevated diner fare; and the brand-new Vegandale Brewery – have the “best” food by a standard having literally nothing at all to do with taste: it’s good grub, because it’s moral grub.
And therein lies the rub, and the controversy. The problem is not veganism – and anyone saying that it is, that opposition to the Vegandale branding is opposition to cruelty-free patterns of consumption, is setting up a strawman. Plant-based eating is definitively the thing this year. And plenty of plant-based restaurants have opened up in Toronto in recent memory, before and after Doomies et al., to grand fanfare and precious little backlash – see: Planta, Awai, Hello 123, and Rosalinda. Indeed, the early offerings from The 5700 – Doomies (which opened in 2016) and Mythology Diner (late 2017) – were greeted with exactly the same reception you might expect any number of slightly splashy and/or gimmicky (as the case is here) Toronto restaurants might be: what’s-on-the-menu write-ups, photo spreads, features in ‘best new vegan’ listicles, and so on. It wasn’t until Vegandale Brewery, with its Parkdale-appropriating branding opened, that anyone cried foul. And, honestly, it might not have been so bad if it had just been about the Vegandale thing! But the brewery’s tagline – “Morality on tap” – is utterly beyond the pale.
Sure, veganshave a bit of a reputation for piety veering into zealous evangelism – and Vincent de Paul’s restaurants are no exception: case in point, the bathrooms at Mythology, whose walls are spackled with heavy-on-the-guilt-trip ‘myths’ about veganism (e.g., ‘Myth: I’m doing my part if I participate in Meatless Monday’). But would Vincent de Paul or any of his staff be able to, without shame, walk into any of the numerous family-owned restaurants for which Parkdale is well-known throughout the city – from Mother India to Tibet Kitchen – and tell their proprietors that family recipes for butter chicken roti and momos are deeply immoral simply and only because of their use of animal proteins? Or cast aspersions on members of the neighbourhood’s disenfranchised population for buying frozen meats and discounted dairy at No Frills, because in the grand scheme of things very few people can afford to spend $18 on a meatless (and flavourless) ‘Reuben’ sandwich? Should The 5700 take on the small grocers and convenience stores in the area who prioritize serving the community over ending animal exploitation? The 5700 Inc. has implicitly suggested that its neighbours should be ashamed of their amoral ways – why not just come out and say it?
It’s great that The 5700 have, since the backlash against Vegandale began in earnest, committed to contributing $100,000 to community programs in Parkdale that address food-security issues, among other concerns. But Vincent de Paul undercuts any goodwill inherent to this commitment by continuously insisting that the Vegandale branding was never meant to apply to the neighbourhood – it’s just in reference to his restaurants, as if co-opting a community’s identity simply for the sake of a cohesive corporate identity is any better than (or, indeed, different from) attempting to overwrite that community altogether.
Food is not good because it is moral. And, in the interest of honesty, the food at The 5700s various outposts isn’t even good, from a gustatory perspective. The only thing the proprietors of so-called Vegandale have brought to Parkdale is a reminder that those who conflate morality with sustainability when it comes to food do so from a place of deeply myopic – and therefore deeply dangerous – privilege. Frankly, all it takes is a cursory look at the prices on Vincent de Paul’s menus to know immediately that he and his cohorts are not serving their community. They’re simply dishing up a tunnel-visioned idea of what it means to differentiate Good food – in this case, animal-free food – from Bad food, without considering the nuances of how food is procured, prepared, and consumed.
And anyway, when has piousness ever worked as a method of conversion? Even here, Vegandale falls flat. There are plenty of ways to get people thinking about the importance of thoughtful, sustainable food. Playing the guilt card, all things considered, is the surest way to fail.
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Rebecca Tucker is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and journalist, whose work has covered food, travel, arts, and culture. Her writing has appeared in the National Post and Globe and Mail, as well as Vice, Buzzfeed, Reader's Digest magazine, and Toronto Life. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Ryerson University, and lives in Toronto with her cat, Sam. A Matter of Taste: A Farmers' Market Devotee's Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table is her first book.