Monday, September 22, 2014

Ersetzen wir's!

Greetings to the Elizavegan community! Desdemona’s domestic partner here, with another in my series of biennial guest posts. I’m pretty excited (well, quite excited) by her 2014 MoFo theme of World War I austerity. As a Canadian expat living in the US, the WWI centenary has brought me a lot of feelings about nationalism, sacrifice, and ways of remembering

As a school kiddie in a grade too distant to remember, I wore the poppy, memorized and recited the poem (John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” of course), learned the main narrative and the battles as the books told them, and attended very solemn Remembrance Day assemblies which, remarkably for ceremonies with small children involved, actually did make me think very seriously about the important issues at hand without generating too much boredom or mockery. (Really, the only thing you could call mockery was the traditional taking of the red plastic poppies, turning them inside out, and putting them into our mouths to simulate a lady wearing lipstick, which was well off the WWI topic but frankly hilarious to this day. I have definitely done this in the last five years.)

Later this year, Desdemona and I will visit the “Tower of London Remembers” installation, which has distributed 888, 246 poppies in, on, through, and around the Tower of London, spilling out of windows and into the grassy moat. That’s one for every British and Colonial military fatality during the war. (If you have £25 to spare and care to buy a poppy, the proceeds go to charity.)

As a previous post noted, the promotion of wartime austerity involved a certain amount of semantic freedom in bandying about terms such as “pie,” “loaf,” “roast,” and “pudding.” If you were a propagandist of the newly-created Ministry of Food or the author of The Win-The-War Cookery Book, you would have had a strong interest in convincing your audience that they could cut out the meat, most of the fat, and the entire crust, and still call it a pie. 

This idea started me thinking about the concept of food substitutions and replacements in times of both war and peace, and the linguistic gestures involved with selling them. The German noun Ersatz, from the root verbs setzen “set, put, place” and ersetzen “replace,” conveys no more disapproval than its English counterparts “substitute” and “replacement,” and indeed the word made its way into English in the late 19th century with a mostly neutral connotation. 

But the word spread during World War I and spiked even more during WWII, and as many countries introduced austerity and food rationing, “ersatz” increasingly connoted an inferior replacement, specifically one foisted on consumers in a deliberate attempt to deceive. Ersatz coffee was ersatz coffee; one might have chosen or been forced to drink it for the sake of the war effort, but coffee it was not. Ersatz’s semantic range quickly expanded beyond the food kingdom: a 1918 review of an art exhibition at the Imperial War Museum complained that the artist had “an ersatz rhythm, too mechanical and academic any longer to suggest true movement.”

This line of thinking led to the increasing availability these days of products intended to imitate, simulate, approximate, or replace foodstuffs that some eaters avoid for ethical, health, or environmental reasons: examples include a huge variety of “faux-meat” products, usually made from soy or wheat protein, that simulate, or claim to simulate, or try to simulate hamburgers, hot dogs, beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, ham, and any number of other animal products; cheeses made from soy, arrowroot, or fermented cashews; egg replacers with various stuff and things in them. 

Less deliberate and more ambiguous are products like tofu, seitan, and nut and rice milks that may seem like substitutes to those who consume meat and dairy but probably just come across as normal food to most vegetarians and vegans. [Parenthetically, the English word “meat” meant simply “food” for more than four centuries before it was restricted to animal flesh, and “milk,” although it first referred to the traditional mammalian secretion, was used for liquid made from nuts, flowers, and plants from around 1400.]

In manufacture as in etymology, the Germans preceded the English in the matter of food replacements. During World War I, the city of Cologne, like the rest of the country, was hit hard by the British blockade. In the face of the wheat shortages especially, mayor Konrad Adenauer (later the first postwar chancellor), devised a wheat-free bread made from rice, barley, and Romanian corn flour; when Romania's entry into the war dried up the supply of corn flour, the inventive Adenauer came up with a soy-based vegetarian sausage dubbed Friedenswurst, or "peace sausage." 

Adenauer applied for a patent with the Imperial Patent Office in Germany but was turned down on the grounds that if it didn't contain meat, it wasn't actually a sausage. Strangely, he had better luck in Britain, where he obtained a patent for the sausage in June 1918. I haven't tracked down the ultimate source of this information or the ins and outs of a German getting a British patent in 1918, but I suspect that the Brits saw the possibilities for vegetable-based sausages as a relatively appealing wartime austerity foodstuff.

[Another parenthesis: Field Roast, which makes excellent vegan sausages, has recently had its products pulled from grocery store shelves in Canada on the grounds that they are selling a “simulated meat product,” which, if it is be sold legally, requires a Protein Efficiency Study ratio study conducted using live animals. The difference here, it seems to me, is that whereas the German sausage-makers astutely perceived a nascent threat to their livelihood in 1918, the Canadian sausage-makers astutely perceive a substantial and growing threat to their livelihood in 2014.]

Personally, I prefer to think of these new foods as analogues rather than replacements; pretty early in my life, I got the idea that dining maturity involved moving away from the idea that a meal was like a Broadway show with a big star (meat), a co-star (potatoes), and a supporting cast (vegetables). In my house these days, the analogues are occasional and interesting treats and variations rather than the centerpieces of an average meal. 

Furthermore, seven years on from the end of my meat and dairy era, I’ve sufficiently forgotten the exact tastes and textures to the point where I’m now just looking for new and satisfying gastronomic experiences rather than trying to recreate anything that my brain or taste buds could conjure up. I have noticed that some of my omnivore friends and acquaintances take exception and even umbrage when confronted with the idea of fake/replacement/substitute meat and cheese; a recent online comment described veggie-meat as “ignorant vegan slurry,” a phrase on which I have put a trademark in case I ever want to found or promote a band with that name.

Pondering the rationale, technology, and psychological justification for these kinds of foods makes me think that it might be time to rejuvenate the concept of Ersatz as a form of active engagement with one’s refrigerator, counter, stove, and table. Germans, Brits, and many other countries involved in the nasty business of war found it necessary to restrict some foods and make shift with others. Many people undoubtedly understood Ersatz not only as an inferior substitute, but as one foisted on them by a regime with a suspect wartime ideology. Nonetheless, a war was in fact on, and a lot of honest people, deceived or not, did their bit, with varying degrees of understanding, cheerfulness, and cynicism. The more neutral German meaning “substitute” or “replacement” simply conveys the basic idea that something is unavailable and something else needs to be there to fill its place.

If you are a person who chooses not to consume meat or dairy products, you are probably starting from familiar domestic and familial places inhabited by signifying foodstuffs that have meant nutrition, comfort, and loving goodness. Jonathan Safran Foer’s wonderful hybrid memoir/research project/jeremiad Eating Animals is largely concerned with the relationship between the food we eat and our continuing existence as individuals, families, and cultures. “The stories that are served with food matter,” writes Foer. “These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values.” In his Jewish family’s own terms, “eating and storytelling are inseparable – the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction."

In this context of rich metaphor and deep signification, meaning is what matters. In a world guided by a profoundly moral match between belief and practice, Foer’s grandmother, as a starving Jewish child on the run from the Nazis, refused to eat pork when it was offered because, as she later put it, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.” Logically, if not inevitably, the same woman in much later decades, heavily damaged by her wartime trauma, hoarding food in her basement, and stuffing her children and grandchildren to the point of bursting, happily vegetarianized her signature dish (chicken and carrots) to accommodate Foer’s on-again-off-again vegetarianism, still very much in flux when he wrote the book.

So what exactly is the point of Desdemona replicating economically and politically enforced WWI austerity in a privileged, postmodern vegan context? I’m sure more than one parent, whether or not they have known wartime or Depression deprivation, has despaired over a child’s willful refusal of nutritious, delicious, and hard-earned food. And indeed it may be a small number of people who make the analogy between their own sacrifice to a war effort or a country’s immediate needs and the next generation’s commitment to reducing suffering or saving the planet. The reason for restricting your diet might be imposed by the circumstances of war, the scarceness of resources, and the directives of those in power, with which you may or may not agree. It might, on the other hand, be an enactment of your personal beliefs or your wishes for a better world. And if some new combination of stuff that makes its way onto your plate, tastes good, helps you to do that, then by all means place it there. 
Ersetzen wir's!

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent. Such an intelligent and researched rebuttal to continued ignorance....I almost feel bad that I still just want to respond to the slurriers with a punch in the face. Almost.