At the height of the Netflix documentary series “Bad Vegan,” restaurateur Sarma Melngailis is arrested at a Tennessee motel after her ex-partner Anthony Strangis ordered a Domino’s pizza, a transaction that informed police of their whereabouts. At this point, the couple had received arrest warrants after allegedly making off with nearly $2 million in restaurant funds and charged with criminal tax fraud and conspiracy to defraud investors.
The media, of course, had a heyday.
This was a woman who built her career on the raw vegan food she sold through her celebrity-favorite New York City restaurant Pure Food and Wine and her juice bar One Lucky Duck—yet she was knocked down by a chain pizza. It didn’t matter that it was actually Strangis’ food. Rather than highlight the alleged financial crimes, tabloids and nighttime TV caught on to the story of a hypocritical vegan — and the public (pardon the pun) ate it up.
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When I spoke to journalist Allen Salkin, whose Vanity Fair article on Melngailis served as the basis for the documentary, he noted this reaction.
“I’m not saying I think vegans think they’re better than us, but I think that” people think vegans think they’re better than us,” he said. “And then people get mad at vegans.”
He continued, “It’s almost like a guru sitting on a rock, just breathing and minding his own business and trying to get in touch with a higher power, right? He’s literally not hurting anyone, but someone could be watching him and say, “Hey, why are you judging me?” Sounds crazy, but I guess that’s the same thing, people feel like… [they are] rated by vegans.”
In both pop culture and American culture in general, healthy food has long been positioned as ‘different’. This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is no surprise. In both pop culture and American culture in general, healthy food has long been positioned as ‘different’. This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
As author Jonathan Kauffman wrote in his book “Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat,” many young Americans rebelled against increased industrialization in the US, including within the military. , by changing how they ate. Pre-industrial foods – without cans and plastic – such as organic vegetables, sprouted grains and soy protein became touchstones of the movement. Goodbye Wonderbread and TV dinners, hello mung beans and carob.
“The idea that my personal food choices — what I buy, what I consume — can have this greater political impact on global hunger, the environment and capitalism,” Kauffman said in an interview with CUESA. “It was a huge shift.”
Indeed, the idea that healthy food is actually “hippie food” has stuck, a correlation that has been portrayed time and again in film and TV to the point of becoming an enduring trope. In November 2007, the “King of the Hill” episode “Raise the Steaks” aired for the first time. In it, Appleseed, Hank’s hippie acquaintance, convinces the Hills to try the CornuCO-OPia co-op after Hank is disappointed with the quality of the steaks at the big-box Mega Lo Mart. Unsurprisingly, the organic steaks and tomatoes are noticeably better. causing a series of dilemmas for the main characters.
With a long gray beard, a tie-dye shirt and a Spicoli-esque timbre in his voice, Appleseed is sort of a stereotypical hippie character. Fourteen years later, Netflix’s “Chicago Party Aunt” introduced viewers to Feather (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), a spacious juice store owner who incessantly sells wheatgrass shots and reformulates body odor as natural pheromones. In many ways, it’s just an updated Appleseed.
Parallel to those depictions of the people selling or working with healthy food is the commercial positioning of healthy food as aspirational, which is another way it seems to exist outside the mainstream. Take a quick scan of Goop’s food section, for example, and you’ll find that the page is full of captions of $60 tubes of smoothie “superpowders” and recipes that appear between ads for Tiffany and Co. food is akin to a diamond bracelet. It is a frivolity or a luxury – something largely inaccessible to the masses.
I’m thinking of the episode of “Broad City” where Ilana is informed by the manager of her co-op that she hasn’t completed any of her work hours for the current “lunar cycle”. If she doesn’t knock them all out at once, she’ll be banned from co-op.
The bodega vegetables, which are easily accessible, are a punishment for the hoi polloi, while the organic co-op products are reserved for those deemed worthy enough to enter.
Unfortunately, Ilana (Glazer) has an urgent doctor’s appointment that day, so Abbi (Jacobson) tries to help her find a solution by posing as Ilana at the co-op for the day to fill her hours. Unfortunately, a hot co-op worker betrays them, and the disgruntled manager (played by Melissa Leo) lashes out, deeming them SPs (“sh**ty people”) and sentenced to a lifetime of eating “bodega veggies”.
The bodega vegetables, which are easily accessible, are a punishment for the hoi polloi, while the organic co-op products are reserved for those deemed worthy enough to enter. That idea of who’s “in” or “out” also gives rise to a pop culture image of health restaurants or store workers that differs from the stereotypical “dirty hippie.”
On that episode of “Broad City,” Abbi falls for Craig, an attractive co-op who loves Phish and the arts. He’s unlike any man Abbi has ever met on the “outside” of the co-op, but she knows she’ll probably never see him again once she’s banned.
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This mimics the character from HBO’s “Bored to Death” whom Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) falls for. In that series, Jenny Slate plays Stella, a co-op worker who is radically different from Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby). Where Suzanne was portrayed as pretty buttoned up, Stella has some manic pixie dream girl vibes. She smokes weed, plays Nerf basketball and proposes to Jonathan for a threesome under the guise of “all love.”
And, in a case where life imitates art and life imitates, the documentary “Bad Vegan” alludes to the fact that actor Alec Baldwin, among others, may have been in love with Melngailis. “My understanding of her relationship with Alec Baldwin is that he was a regular at the restaurant and like many of the gentlemen who went there, he was a little bit in love with Sarma,” Salkin said in the documentary.
In both the real coverage of the Melngailis case and the fictional depictions of the people who make, sell and market health foods, it’s clear that America continues to be divided between being drawn to and repelled by the culture surrounding “hippie food.” That said, author Jonathan Kauffman points out ways in which foods once considered countercultural are becoming more mainstream.
“What was really remarkable is to look at 1970 and what nutritionists were saying about things like whole wheat bread and brown rice, and they were kind of pooh-poohing about the nutritional value of all those foods, until now, and the USDA nutritional value. guidelines recommend that we eat, you know, half of our grains should be whole grain,” he said in an interview with Here & Now. “And I think it’s because that generation, their ideas about health … there was a lot of solidity in it, and the science eventually backed them up.”
However, it will probably be a while before our pop culture depictions of who eat healthy food — and who it’s for (aka everyone) — finally changes.
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