A few years ago, I reported a couple of stories about Josh Tetrick, the founder of Hampton Creek. Now known as Just, the company had gotten journalists like me to write somewhat breathlessly about its plans to make egg-free mayonnaise. The way they (okay, we) spun it, the world had never seen such a thing, and would henceforth never be the same.
Except that I did know that the world had seen such a thing, and that it was called Vegenaise. Made by Follow Your Heart, Vegenaise has been around since the 1970s, back when the company’s founders were running a lunch counter in the back of a natural foods store in Southern California. It was a product born of deceit: after discovering that the egg-free mayo used on its avocado, tomato, and sprouts sandwich tasted so good because it wasn’t actually egg-free, FYH’s founders were forced to come up with their own replacement. And so the world got Vegenaise.
I was initially leery of Vegenaise, in part because I had tried and failed to enjoy Follow Your Heart’s vegan cheese shreds, and in part because fake mayonnaise, at least in the circles I ran in, was considered an embarrassing thing to eat. Real mayonnaise was where it was at, particularly if it was actually aioli or a food snob-approved brand like Kewpie or Duke’s. Hampton Creek was given a relative pass because it was dressed up in Silicon Valley drag: it was not fake mayonnaise but a disruption.
Here I should mention that while I am not a vegan, I do care enough about animal welfare to avoid eggs from heinously mistreated hens wherever possible. So the idea of egg-free mayonnaise never struck me as some kind of abomination, regardless of my peers’ opinions on the matter. For a while, I ate Hampton Creek’s mayo on the sly. But then Hampton Creek turned out to be kind of awful, so I began searching for an alternative.
It wasn’t much of a search. Vegenaise was right there, just as it always had been. And, lo and behold, it was far better than I’d expected it to be. This is not damning with faint praise: It’s got a mild, pleasing tang and creamy texture and goes well with pretty much everything, just like regular mayonnaise. That said, it’s lighter than regular mayo — you don’t get that eggy, super-unctuous texture. That’s fine with me; it just means I can eat more of it, which I do. I spread it on sandwiches, mix it with other condiments to make sauces and dressings, and sometimes, if I feel like it, I just eat it straight from the 32-ounce jar.
I write all of this with pride, but inside that pride lurks a hard, stubborn seed of lingering shame. No matter the strides that so-called plant-based eating has made in recent years, I still hold memories of the times my eating habits have been questioned or criticized by fellow food media people. Although I’m not vegan, I don’t eat meat, which has led more than one colleague to ask me how, exactly, I can do my job. The default mode for the average food person is assumed to be Eat Everything; if you don’t, then not only are you not part of the fun, you’re antithetical to it. While I don’t feel particularly oppressed by this, it is annoying and insulting to have your legitimacy questioned simply because of what you do or don’t choose to eat. In some ways, Vegenaise represented that for me, an ersatz food masquerading as the real thing.
No condiment should be asked to assume the weight of someone’s psychic baggage, though I’m guessing Vegenaise has borne more than its fair share. Arguably, it’s well-equipped to do so, having stuck to its eggless guns for almost half a century, through the thick and thin of eating trends and shifting cultural mores. Even as plant-based food has taken on the appearance of fashion, Vegenaise has retained an unapologetic whiff of the natural foods store. It now has a number of competitors, including an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em concession made by Hellman’s. While some of these brands boast better aesthetics, only Vegenaise recalls a time when products like Qorn and Tofutti could wave their freak flags with little concern for the tastes of the mainstream. No matter how many flavors of Vegenaise there are (you can now buy chipotle or organic garlic aioli Vegenaise if you are so inclined), it will still sound like something that belongs on a slice of Ezekiel bread, buried beneath too many sprouts.
Sometimes when I eat Vegenaise, I think about vindication, and what a fool’s errand it is to wait for it, much less need it. Okay, that’s a lie: I think about a lot of things when I eat Vegenaise, but vindication isn’t one of them. This is, after all, a highly processed blend of expeller-pressed canola oil, brown rice syrup, and various flavorings; it can inspire only so much existential reflection. And yet: It is inarguably great to stick around, to abide without compromise, to keep doing your thing regardless of anyone else’s opinions about it. There’s nothing fake about that.