From ‘Bad Vegan’ to ‘King of the Hill,’ how pop culture diet foods ‘other’

At the climax of the Netflix docuseries “Bad Vegan,” restaurateur Sarma Melngailis is arrested at a Tennessee motel after her ex-partner Anthony Strangis orders Domino’s pizza, a transaction that alerts police to their whereabouts. At this point, the couple had warrants for their arrest after they allegedly got away with nearly $2 million in restaurant funds and faced charges of felony tax evasion and a scheme to defraud investors.

The media, of course, had their heyday.

She was a woman who had built her career on the raw vegan food she sold through her favorite celebrity New York restaurant Pure Food and Wine and her juice bar One Lucky Duck – but she was knocked down by a pizza chain. The fact that it was actually Strangis’ food didn’t matter. Rather than shine a light on the alleged financial crimes, the tabloids and late-night TV latched onto the story of a hypocritical vegan — and the public (pardon the pun) ate it.

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When I spoke with journalist Allen Salkin, whose Vanity Fair article on Melngailis served as the basis for the documentary, he noted this response.

“I’m not saying I think vegans think they’re better than us, but I think people think vegans think they are better than us,” he said. “And then people get mad at vegans.

He continued, “It’s almost like a guru sitting on a rock breathing and minding his own business trying to get in touch with a higher power, isn’t he? hurt anyone, but someone might look at it and say, ‘Hey, why are you judging me? That sounds silly, but I think it’s the same thing. [they are] judged by vegans.”

In pop culture and American culture in general, health foods have long been positioned as “other”. This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is not a surprise. In pop culture and American culture in general, health foods have long been positioned as “other”. This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement of 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 were rebelling against the growing industrialization in the United States. United, including in the military, by changing the way they eat. Pre-industrial foods – without boxes or plastics – like organic vegetables, sprouted grains and soy protein have become touchstones of the movement. Goodbye Wonder Bread and TV dinners, hello mung beans and carob.

“The idea that my personal food choices — what I buy, what I consume — can have these larger political impacts on world hunger, the environment, and capitalism,” Kauffman said in an interview with CUESA. “It was a huge change.”

Indeed, the idea that diet foods are actually “hippie food” has stuck, a correlation that has been depicted time and time again in film and television 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 significantly better, which triggers a series of dilemmas for the main characters.

With a long gray beard, tie-dye shirt, and Spicoli-esque timbre to his voice, Appleseed is kind of a stereotypical hippie character. Fourteen years later, Netflix’s “Chicago Party Aunt” introduced viewers to Feather (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), a spacious juice shop owner who constantly peddles shots of wheatgrass and reframes body odor into natural pheromones. In many ways, it’s simply an updated Appleseed.

Along with these portrayals of people who sell or work in health food is the commercial positioning of health food as an aspiration, which is another way they appear to exist outside of the mainstream. Quickly scan Goop’s food section, for example, and you’ll find that the page is packed with descriptions of tubes of $60 smoothie “superpowders” and recipes staggered between advertisements for Tiffany and Co. In this context, health la food is like a diamond bracelet. It’s a frivolity or a luxury – something that’s largely unavailable to the masses.

I’m thinking of the “Broad City” episode where Ilana is told by her co-op manager that she hasn’t worked any of her hours for the current “lunar cycle”. If she doesn’t knock them all out at once, she’ll be banned from the co-op.

The bodega’s vegetables, which are easily accessible, are a punishment for hoi polloi, while the cooperative’s organic produce is 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 workaround by impersonating Ilana for the day at the co-op to finish. his hours. Unfortunately, a hot co-op worker turns them in, and the disgruntled manager (played by Melissa Leo) lashes out, branding them SP (“sh**ty people”) and dooming them to a life of eating “bodega veggies.” ”

The bodega’s vegetables, which are easily accessible, are a punishment for hoi polloi, while the cooperative’s organic produce is reserved for those deemed worthy enough to enter. This idea of ​​who is “in” or “out” also gives rise to a pop culture depiction of restaurant or health food store staff that is distinct from the “dirty hippie” stereotype.

In this episode of “Broad City”, Abbi falls in love with Craig, an attractive, cooperative employee who loves Phish and art. He’s unlike any man Abbi has ever met “outside” the co-op, but she knows she’ll probably never see him again once she’s banished.


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This mimics the character from HBO’s “Bored to Death” that Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) falls for. In this series, Jenny Slate plays Stella, a co-op employee who is radically different from Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby). Where Suzanne was described as quite buttoned up, Stella has maniacal pixie dream girl vibes. She smokes weed, plays Nerf basketball, and offers Jonathan a threesome on the pretext that it’s “all love.”

And, in a case of life imitating art imitating life, the documentary “Bad Vegan” hints that actor Alec Baldwin, among others, was potentially infatuated with Melngailis. “My understanding of his relationship with Alec Baldwin is that he was a regular customer at the restaurant, and like many of the gentlemen who went there, he had a bit of a crush on Sarma,” Salkin said in the documentary.

In the actual coverage of the Melngailis case and in the fictional depictions of the people who create, sell, and market health food, it’s clear that America is still divided between being attracted and repelled by the culture surrounding “hippie food.” . That said, author Jonathan Kauffman points out the ways in which foods that were once considered countercultural are becoming more mainstream.

“What was really remarkable was looking at the 1970s and what nutritionists were saying about things like whole wheat bread and brown rice, and they were kind of making fun of the nutritional value of all those foods, until today, and the USDA nutritional values ​​guidelines recommend that we eat, you know, half of our grains should be whole grains,” he said in an interview with Here. & Now.”And I think that’s because this generation, their ideas about health were…there was a lot of rightness, and science ended up supporting them.”

However, it will likely be some time before our pop culture representations of who eats healthy foods — and who they are for (i.e., everyone) — finally change.

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