From “Bad Vegan” to “King of the Hill,” how pop culture “others” health food


At the climax of the Netflix docuseries “Bad Vegan,” restaurateur Sarma Melngailis is arrested in a Tennessee motel after her ex-partner Anthony Strangis ordered a Domino’s pizza, a transaction that alerted police to their whereabouts. At this point, the couple had warrants for their arrest after allegedly making off with nearly $2 million of restaurant funds and were facing charges of criminal tax fraud and scheming to defraud investors. 

The media, of course, had a heyday. 

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

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

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

He continued, “It’s almost like a guru sitting on a rock just breathing and minding his own business trying to get in touch with a higher power, right? He’s literally not causing anybody any harm, but somebody might look at him and say, ‘Hey, why are you judging me?’ Sounds silly, but I think that’s the same thing. People feel like [they are] judged by vegans.” 

In both pop culture, and American culture in general, health food has long been positioned as “othered.” This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

This isn’t a surprise. In both pop culture, and American culture in general, health food has long been positioned as “othered.” This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement during 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 increased industrialization in the U.S., including within the military, by changing how they ate. Pre-industrial food — sans cans and plastics — like organic vegetables, sprouted grains and soy protein became 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 global hunger, the environment and capitalism,” Kauffman said in an interview with CUESA. “It was a huge shift.” 

Indeed, the idea that health food is actually “hippie food” stuck, a correlation that has been represented in film and TV over and over again to the point of becoming an enduring trope. In November 2007, the “King of the Hill” episode “Raise the Steaks” first aired. In it, Appleseed, Hank’s hippie acquaintance, convinces the Hills to give the CornuCO-OPia co-op a go after Hank is disappointed with the quality of the steaks at the big-box Mega Lo Mart. Unsurprisingly, the organic steaks and tomatoes are noticeably better, which sets off 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 the stereotypical hippie character. Fourteen years later, Netflix’s “Chicago Party Aunt” introduced viewers to Feather (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), a spacy juice shop owner who incessantly peddles wheatgrass shots and reframes body odor as natural pheromones. In many ways, he’s simply an updated Appleseed. 

Running parallel to those depictions of the people who sell or work in health food is the commercial positioning of health food as aspirational, which is another way in which it appears to exist outside of the mainstream. Take a quick scan of the food section of Goop, for instance, and you’ll find the page is packed with write-ups of $60 tubes of smoothie “superpowders” and recipes staggered between advertisements for Tiffany and Co. In this context, health food is akin to a diamond bracelet. It’s a frivolity or a luxury — something that’s largely inaccessible to the masses. 

I think of the episode of “Broad City” when Ilana is informed by the manager of her co-op that she hasn’t completed any of her work hours for the current “moon cycle.” If she doesn’t knock them all out in one shot, she’ll be banished from the co-op. 

The bodega vegetables, which are readily accessible, are a punishment for the hoi polloi, while the organic co-op produce is reserved for those deemed worthy enough to enter.

Unfortunately, Ilana (Glazer) has a pressing doctor’s appointment that day, so Abbi (Jacobson) attempts to help her find a workaround by masquerading as Ilana for the day at the co-op to complete her hours. Unfortunately, a hot co-op worker rats them out, and the disgruntled manager (played by Melissa Leo) lashes out, deeming them SPs (“sh**ty people”) and condemning them to a lifetime of eating “bodega vegetables.” 

The bodega vegetables, which are readily accessible, are a punishment for the hoi polloi, while the organic co-op produce is reserved for those deemed worthy enough to enter. That idea of who is “in” or “out” also gives rise to a pop culture depiction of health food restaurant or store staff that is distinct from the stereotypical “dirty hippie.” 

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

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This mimics the character from HBO’s “Bored to Death” for whom Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) falls. In that series, Jenny Slate plays Stella, a co-op employee who is radically different from Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby). Where Suzanne was portrayed as being pretty buttoned up, Stella has some manic pixie dream girl vibes. She smokes weed, plays Nerf basketball and propositions Jonathan for a threesome under the guise of it being “all love.” 

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

In both the real coverage of the Melngailis case and the fictional depictions of the people who create, sell and market health food, it’s clear that America is still split between being drawn to and put off by the culture surrounding “hippie food.” That said, author Jonathan Kauffman points to ways in which foods that were once considered countercultural are becoming increasingly mainstream. 

“What was really remarkable is, to look at 1970 and what nutritionists were saying about things like whole-wheat bread and brown rice, and they were sort of pooh-poohing the nutritional value of all those foods, to now, and the USDA nutritional 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 it’s because that generation, their ideas about health were . . . there was a lot of soundness to it, and science ended up backing them up.” 

However, it will likely be a while before our pop culture depictions of who eats health food — and who it is for (aka everyone) — finally change. 

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