While researching the veg-friendly restaurants in the DC area that I would have to visit over the summer, I came across sustainability-centric Founding Farmers on both HappyCow and VegDC. My deep adoration of the farmers market and all it represents (more on this in an upcoming blog post) initially attracted me to the fact that a nationwide group of farmers collectively owns the modern American eatery, as well as to the restaurant’s devotion to environmental sustainability. Moreover, I wholeheartedly appreciated the acknowledgement on FF’s website that “it isn’t always about ‘local’, or ‘organic’ — sure, when it makes sense, those are great things, but local doesn’t always means the smallest carbon footprint, and ‘organic’ can also refer to broccoli that comes from China.” Too often do advocates of farm-to-table cuisine ignore the fact that only purchasing food produced within their 20-mile radius does not always constitute the most environmentally friendly decision, failing to holistically consider the other energy-consuming aspects of food production unrelated to transportation.
Unfortunately, when I surveyed the FF menu, I discovered a barrage of bacon, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, meatloaf, chicken and waffles, steaks, and “sustainably caught or raised fish” (as if that even exists). Appalled by this veritable ode to all things meat and dairy, I sincerely questioned the decisions of both HappyCow & VegDC to award FF the title of “vegan-friendly,” even considering the generous (please sense my sarcasm) 4.2 percent of the menu that didn’t contain animal flesh and secretions. Clearly, FF (like a countless number of other farm-to-table establishments) neglects to acknowledge the environmental, ethical, and economical complications associated with small-scale, non-industrial animal agriculture, as well as the fact that all animal agriculture, regardless of size, poses “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from global to local.” Their commitment to sustainability thus falls quite short of its potential range.
Of course, as an animal activist first and foremost, my grandest complain stems from FF’s claims of animal welfare: “Animals are treated humanely and respectfully and are well cared for. They are permitted to carry out their natural behaviors — such as grazing, rooting or pecking — and are fed a natural diet appropriate for their species.” Sound familiar? This harmless-sounding rhetoric parallels that of many other proponents of small-scale animal agriculture—individuals who recognize the egregious suffering endured by non-human animals on factory farms, yet, thanks to cultural carnistic conditioning, refuse to reject the notion of animal agriculture as necessary. However, the rhetoric lacks meaning. For example, FF touts the eggs they use as “cage-free,” which simply means that the hens laying said eggs live uncaged among up to thousands of other birds in barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. The cage-free label even permits forced molting. In regards to animal welfare, the meaninglessness of terms such as “free-range,” “small-scale,” and “family-owned” extends far beyond the mistreatment of chickens. Indeed, during a recent visit to the magnificent Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary, I received the intriguing information that every single one of the sanctuary’s nearly ten rescued cows came from so-called “small-scale family farms.”
Even on farms that receive praise as employing the most humane of practices when raising animals for food, quite ethically questionable procedures take place. Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich offer a succinct summary of this idea in The Animal Activist’s Handbook:
“For example, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007), Michael Pollan endorses eating animals from Polyface farm, where ‘animals can be animals,’ living, according to Pollan, true to their nature. But what is Polyface really like? Rabbits on the farm are kept in small suspended-wire cages. Chickens are crowded into mobile wire cages, confined without the ability to nest or the space to establish a pecking order. Pigs and cattle are shipped year-round in open trucks to conventional slaughterhouses. Seventy-two hours before their slaughter, birds are crated with seven other birds. After three days without food, they are grabbed by the feet, up-ended in metal cones, and, without any stunning, have their throats slit. This is the system Pollan proclaims praiseworthy. In the end, Polyface’s view is the same as Tyson’s—these individual [animals] are, ultimately, just meat to be sold for a profit.”
Not only does FF aid greatly in perpetuating the myth of humane practice and environmental sustainability surrounding small-scale, non-industrial animal agriculture, it also (no matter how unintentionally) alienates and delegitimizes its vegan customers who recognize and work to combat the carnistic system that allows the pervasiveness of such a myth. Upon arrival at the restaurant, I sensed rather awkward an unwelcome. The entrance foyer’s bookshelves featured literary titles that extoled the virtues of “humane meat,” such as Temple Grandin’s Humane Livestock Handling, immediately othering the restaurant goers attracted to the meatless section of FF’s menu. Actually, deeming it a “section” of the menu proves rather false, as customers must specifically request that their server bring them a separate meatless menu, as if to warn the FF staff of an outsider’s presence. The heading of the meatless menu reads “developed for those who enjoy true food,” but the fact that FF has relegated its’ vegan and vegetarian entrees to an entirely different menu implies that the restaurant does not regard these dishes as on par with their real notion of “true food.” The lack of hospitality FF displays to its vegan customers extends even to the silverware—every diner’s napkin encases an ivory-handled steak knife and a fork decorated with cattle brand designs. Needless to say, I harbored much wariness toward FF by the time our server appeared to take my family’s order.
Rather by default ordering the only two vegan items on the main menu as our appetizers, my mother, father (both vegans of almost eight months now!), and I began our meal with the Pickled Seasonal Vegetables and Johnny’s Nuts. Considering ourselves somewhat of pickle connoisseurs thanks to the pickle platter of daikon, kimchi, escabeche, beets, and sometimes even blueberries offered at Graze back in Madison, my father and I did not regard the standard dilly cucumbers and their one-note flavor as too impressive. However, my parents and I all quite enjoyed the crunchy-chewy-sweet-spicy combo offered by the roasted peanuts and golden raisins tossed with a BBQ spice mix.
Daringly opting to modify one of the meat-centric main menu items, my mother ordered the Farmers Salad without parmesan cheese, looking forward to a fresh, texturally contrasting salad of baby lettuce, avocado, dates, tomatoes, red grapes, and almonds in a champagne vinaigrette. Upon hearing that my mother did not want cheese, the waiter informed her that the dressing may contain dairy, and proceeded to inquire, “Well, how vegan are you?” As the phenomenal ladies at Our Hen House discussed on a recent podcast episode, veganism explicitly denotes the avoidance of consuming, wearing, or in any way using animals in one’s daily life. There exists no “spectrum” of veganism that includes the “sometimes vegans,” “half-vegans,” and “vegan-before-6:00’s” of the world—one is either vegan, or they aren’t. Period. That our waiter committed this now-common fallacy further demonstrates FF’s unwillingness to understand or truly serve their vegan customers. Whatever, my mom liked the salad. They dressed it with olive oil and vinegar instead.
My father and I both chose the Many Veg Meatloaf from the meatless menu as our entrée. A thick slab of veggie meatloaf slathered with wild mushroom gravy lay upon a pile of mashed potatoes, accompanied by a ketchup-y tomato-cider glaze and grilled broccolini, and topped with crispy fried onions. While the presentation promised an enjoyable dish, I found the meatloaf mushy and lacking in depth of flavor, the mashed potatoes oh-so dry and flavorless (I couldn’t even finish them, and that makes quite a statement considering my monumental appetite), and the broccolini vastly undercooked. The unctuous mushroom gravy, tangy tomato-cider glaze, and crispy fried onions saved the dish from complete failure, but only served as small portions of the entrée (besides, who could mess up deep-fried onions?).
The halfheartedness with which the FF team composed this dish again spoke to their implicit feelings toward vegans—inconveniencing, illegitimate, and ideologically completely wrong. Reflected by the fact that sorbet (the most uncreative vegan dessert of all) served as FF’s only dessert in which my father would happily partake on his birthday, FF’s marginal, almost antagonistic consideration of vegan customers proves wildly tangible.
After hearing rave reviews of FF from various native Washingtonians and glimpsing a line out the restaurant’s door while walking by, I truly wanted to enjoy my experience at FF. However, as do vegans in many other daily interactions, I felt judged and belittled, even in this so-called “vegan-friendly” establishment. I often experience the most hostility from non-vegan proponents of the sustainable food movement—a phenomenon that confuses me immensely considering the fact that both the vegan and sustainable food movements seek to preserve the environment, improve the lives of animals, and foster healthy living through diet. Why must there exist such an enormous chasm between two ideologies that harbor the same goals at heart? I yearn for a dialogue—a truly thoughtful conversation during which to discuss the differing definitions of “humane,” the notion of animal agriculture as necessary, and environmental implications of raising animals for food. I know that my review of Founding Farmers may indeed read as a frustrated rant, but this is only because I sincerely feel that any chance for dialogue disappeared as soon as I set foot inside FF’s doors. I do hope, however, that FF and restaurants like it prove me wrong. Let’s talk, with an open mind, heart, and spirit.
Until next time, Ali.