‘Pretend your food is disgusting’: A Christmas survival guide for vegans
Vegans have an unfair reputation as difficult guests, especially at Christmas. Here are comedian Romesh Ranganathan’s tips on what to say, what to serve
At Christmas, vegans are forced temporarily to reintegrate into mainstream society, which can be incredibly stressful for both them and the omnivores who host them. Photograph: Getty Images
Veganism is a point of contention all year round. So much so that many vegans cut themselves off from the rest of society, huddling together for warmth and smugness, and using online forums to vent their disgust at the morally corrupt dairy- and meat-eating savages who make up most of the populace. But at Christmas, vegans are forced temporarily to reintegrate into mainstream society, which can be incredibly stressful for both them and the omnivores who host them. Here, then, are some basic guidelines for a happy vegan Christmas.
Avoid invitations, if possible
This is always my first strategy. This might imply I’m suggesting you invite people to your house. I am not. It’s much easier for the vegan to remain at home and do their own Christmas dinner. That way, you can enjoy your food without someone making some hilarious comment about your stuffed pepper. I realise this won’t work for ever, however, in which case please see my subsequent tips.
Accept you will be asked a lot of questions
Veganism is an unusual thing. Regardless of how many celebrities take it up, or how large the Free From section gets at Tesco, the fact is, you have chosen an extreme standpoint. Morally superior, without doubt, but unusual nonetheless. For that reason, you’d do well just to accept that you’re going to be asked questions such as, “Why are you vegan? Don’t you miss scotch eggs? What if you were on a desert island and you had to eat animals to survive? If we were meant to be vegan, why is bacon so delicious? Are all your pizzas shit?”
Many vegans will throw up their arms and complain about being asked the same questions over and over again, but that only reinforces the stereotype that we are sanctimonious. What’s much more effective is to wait for the first question to arrive, then answer it in such painstaking and mind-numbing detail that nobody else will even want to talk to you, let alone ask inane questions.
Accept that you are a difficult guest
People don’t want to invite you round, because having a vegan round is a pain in the arse. They have to check all the ingredients and find vegan alternatives to all the traditional Christmas desserts, and they’re terrified of giving you something that ends up not being vegan.
One year, I went to Christmas drinks at the house of one of my wife’s mates, who went to great trouble to point out the vegan snack selection to me. When I commented on how delicious the vegan sausage rolls were, the colour drained from her face as she explained she had actually been pointing to the hummus selection behind the pork sausage rolls. I then had to pretend I didn’t feel sick and she had to pretend she cared.
For this reason, it is nice to be a bit considerate of the challenge you present. If you are invited to someone’s house, offer to take vegan food with you, or offer suggestions of good vegan stuff they could serve. There are loads of accidentally vegan things that people don’t even think of getting, such as Waitrose Christmas pudding or Oreos: it’s in your interests to be forthcoming. Basically, don’t be difficult about it. Alternatively, be massively difficult to ensure you don’t get asked back.
Don’t let anyone touch your food
In terms of quantity of food available, you are always at a disadvantage. There will be less food made for you, plus there’s the fact that everybody can eat your food, but you can’t eat everyone else’s. That’s why it is essential to make it clear what food is vegan, and therefore yours and off-limits to your moral inferiors. I will never forget being told how much trouble a friend’s mother had gone to making me vegan gravy from scratch, before watching her dad slather it all over his turkey, leaving me with a choice of chicken gravy or dry nut roast.
Sometimes, though, you don’t get to decide what’s yours. One year, we were having Christmas dinner at my Dad’s pub, and my mum made me an incredible spread of Sri Lankan curries. My parents invited a Muslim family round, and Dad ordered a halal turkey to be roasted by the pub chef. The chef delivered the turkey, covered in foil, and my father made a big show of bringing it to the table and peeling back the silver wrapper. He revealed a turkey covered in more bacon than I had ever seen in my life. So my parents and brother ate a turkey for six, while I shared my Christmas food with the Khans.
Pretend your food is disgusting
I hate sharing. This is not a dilemma I have to face often, thanks to vegan food’s terrible reputation. Unless, of course, you make the mistake of displaying New Vegan Enthusiasm (NVE). The error that many vegans make is forgetting that our food has novelty value. Non-vegans think our food is awful, but are fascinated by the prospect of something vegan being delicious. They want to disprove it. The NVE error occurs when a vegan is given food that they have not tried before and announce how delicious it is to the rest of the party. Every other person then asks to try it, thereby finishing all of it, before stating, “It’s quite bland and would be better if it had chicken on it.”
It’s far better silently to eat your food, and declare it disgusting to anyone who looks in your direction. For good measure, maybe tell somebody how messed up the dairy industry is, to ruin his or her meal.
Avoid vegan cheese
Supermarkets and specialist suppliers will have you believe there are great substitutes for cheese. There are not. No vegan cheese tastes anything like decent cheese, and melting cheese might as well be alchemy as far as the vegan cheese industry is concerned. People will tell you different. In the past year, I’ve spent more than £1,000 to find a great vegan cheese. I even bought a vegan “world cheeseboard” for Christmas: it was like an international tour of disappointment. There are nut cheeses that taste passable, and even some that taste very good. But the fact is they Do. Not. Taste. Like. Cheese.
Take your own dessert
There are many vegan dessert options, particularly at Christmas: there are vegan mince pies, Christmas puddings, ice-creams, cakes. Identify your favourite and take it to the party, even if the host says there is a dessert for you. Because if you believe them and turn up empty-handed, you’ll watch people tucking into pavlovas and gateaux while you nurse a fruit salad. And not a good fruit salad, either: it’ll be mainly diced apple.
Be prepared to discuss isinglass
Most people know Bailey’s isn’t vegan, so, unless you have secured a bottle of vegan equivalent, which is rarer than a Trump-supporting member of Mensa, you will have to endure the sound of creamy slurps and declarations of how “Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Bailey’s”. What many people don’t know, however, is that many other drinks, such as red wine and some beer, use isinglass in their production, which is made from the swim bladders of fish, so rendering them “non-veegs”. It’s a pretty simple explanation, but you will be expected to clarify this repeatedly before someone says something along the lines of, “Next you’ll be telling me that Quorn isn’t vegan!” Which, of course, it isn’t (it contains milk and egg products).
Be ready for some terrible jokes
One Christmas, when I was merely a vegetarian, I visited a friend who was staying with his parents. His father asked if I fancied some of the chicken curry, at which point my friend told him I was vegetarian. To which his dad replied, “Let him have water then.” My friend and his dad then laughed for a full minute. For the next year, every time I went to the pub, my friends would offer me water and fall about laughing. Even today, every now and again, one of them will recount that joke and they’ll all tell me how I got “owned”. That’s the type of thing you have to accept at Christmas. Someone will say something like, “Are you having carrots with your carrots?” and everybody will fall about in hysterics. And you’ll know you can’t have the carrots because they have butter on.
Do not preach
If you’ve made the decision to become vegan, you’re doing so because you feel morally compelled or you’re a huge Beyoncé fan. Whatever your reasons, it is pretty good practice not to bang on about them at Christmas. Most people are generally aware of the arguments regarding veganism and vegetarianism, and many people continue to eat meat and dairy despite being conflicted about the morality of their choices. What these people don’t need is a vegan in their ear, explaining how milk is made up of mainly pus and cruelty, and how, if you eat turkey, you deserve to have stuffing inserted into your anal cavity to gain some perspective. The truth is, people don’t like being lectured at the best of times, and they certainly don’t want to be told about the horrors of animal slaughter when they’re still dealing with the aftermath of their behaviour at the office party.
And if you’re hosting a vegan...
It’s hard having a vegan round for Christmas, and your efforts are thoroughly appreciated, but it’s in both of your interests for your guest to have ample supplies. In all likelihood, they are going to be far better informed than you as to what sort of things you should provide, so feel free to ask what they’d like. They will probably be grateful. If not, at least you know you’ve tried and you can give them a jacket potato without feeling guilty.
And if you want to encourage a vegan to leave? Ask how they manage to get enough protein. They will never speak to you again.
Listen to Romesh’s podcast, Hip Hop Saved My Life, at romeshranganathan.co.uk