My family and I stopped at Starbucks® for some coffee during a recent vacation trip.  While getting into line we chanced upon an ongoing conversation between the clerk and the gentleman in front of us; he was inquiring about the dessert offerings on the counter and their respective ingredients. 

He was informed they contained marshmallows.    As such, the young clerk pointed out they were inappropriate to eat:  “They’re not vegetarian.  I wouldn’t eat them.”  Needless to say, my interest was piqued by this interaction and instinctively I jumped into the fray.  (I just couldn’t help myself.) Tongue-in-cheek, I asked, “Vegetarian?  Or don’t you mean vegan?” 

The clerk correctly explained, albeit with contempt, that marshmallows were not appropriate for vegetarians because they contained gelatin.  However, the explanation should have ended there.   She proceeded to detail that gelatin is manufactured from the tissue of animals (also correct).  But her illustration is what makes all of this interesting and especially revealing:   “Gelatin is made from animal products – like horses hooves.”   

Our young vegetarian clerk is misguided.  One, gelatin is not derived from hooves (it’s produced from collagen, NOT keratin).   Two, U.S. horse slaughter ended with closure of the last operational facility in 2007 (the ensuing outcome of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act).  And since gelatin is a by-product, the likelihood the marshmallow bars containing horse-derived gelatin is negligible.  Great story – if only it were true; the clerk’s illustration is urban legend just being robotically repeated.     

Amidst the complexity and general lack of knowledge about our food system, establishing oneself as an expert usually goes uncontested; the general public often accepts such confident proclamations  as fact (like gelatin being derived from horses hooves).  The clerk’s pretentious bravado reminded me of last year’s Wall Street Journal book review (Paul Beston) of The Authenticity Hoax (Andrew Potter):     

For Andrew Potter, the ever-narrowing search for just the right kind of food has less to do with saving the environment or pursuing a healthy lifestyle than with achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more "authentic" self. Food is only one part of that broader self-definition. In "The Authenticity Hoax," Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game.  Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is "a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it." By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before….The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

Food legalism, meaningful or not, allows one to assert some type of social or moral ascendency.  But the horse-hoof illustration is a false premise.  The clerk’s been duped and now unknowingly duping others.  See, the pressing matter of the day, the serious business, is establishment and maintenance of her food identity:  “Vegetarian I AM.”  But in her zealous pursuit to be authentic, she’s fallen victim to the very trap she’s trying to avoid. 

That’s not unusual.   Survey data (Vegetarian Times, 2008) reveals that 42% of vegetarians are between the ages of 18 and 34.   Fast forward ten years:  what might happen when the young activist begins to understand the food system in a more meaningful way?  For example, perhaps she becomes enlightened about the unintended consequences of banning horse slaughter in the United States and the derived suffering it’s caused for many horses.      

One of two outcomes will occur.   She either develops some serious cognitive dissonance OR becomes disillusioned and begins to eat meat again.  The latter is more likely.  About three-percent of the population claims vegetarianism; but more importantly, only 57% of those have respondents have remained so for ten years or more.  Vegetarians – they come and they go.

My interjection wasn’t welcomed.  After all, she possessed expert status – a proud vegetarian.  And given the ready explanation and ensuing patronizing tone, it was readily apparent this would unnecessarily escalate into something unpleasant.   There’d be no joking or bantering about meat-filled diets (or the avoidance thereof).  There was no need to irritate the clerk any further or enter a contest of one-upmanship.  

There’ll likely come a time, though, when avoiding marshmallows, and winning further converts, no longer holds much meaning for our young friend.  And so my better judgment finally kicked in…I walked away leaving my wife and daughter to settle our coffee transaction.