I remember hearing about Pure Food and Wine in the early days, probably shortly after they’d opened in 2004. Arriving before the era of social media but sharply predicting it with their beautifully-plated raw vegan dishes that called out for proto-influencers and their cameras, the buzz around Pure Food and Wine was hard for someone who tracked vegan culture to avoid.
It was a raw foods place, yes, but elevated to an almost comically paradisiacal level, showcasing dishes that were not plates of beige, tangled sprouts and zucchini splashed with Bragg Liquid Aminos but something altogether different. Somehow, they single-handedly and immediately transformed any outdated hippie associations: Using mandolines, blenders and the ingenuity of very talented, visionary chefs, raw fruits and vegetables were suddenly sexy, they were global, they were works of art on a ceramic canvas, they were voluptuous and they were sleek, they were tantalizing, they were It.
You could see the lifestyle promised in the cookbook collaboration between Pure Food and Wine’s original founders, Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis, the once-golden couple whose images were scattered on the glossy pages like so many macadamia nuts: A shimmery duo with colorful and alluring recipes that seemingly pulsed with radiant plant lifeforce, which might also be bestowed upon those of us who prepared their recipes. It was not just food, but jewel-toned juices and kicky cocktails in elegant glasses. And not just food and beverages but a peek inside Pure Food and Wine with its leafy patio dotted with pretty lights, a magical place to gain entry. I never had a chance to go but from my home in the Chicago suburbs, I leafed through their cookbook, which managed to elevate raw foods to new heights, no small task, something we hadn’t managed to do yet with just regular ol’ vegan food. I don’t know if I ever made one of the recipes but I sure felt the inspo before I ever heard the word.
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Like so many others, I have just watched the new four-part documentary series on Netflix, Bad Vegan, which documents the downfall of Pure Food and Wine and Sarma Melngailis, as well as many others whose investments or paychecks were tied to the restaurant and its offshoot business, One Lucky Duck, all due to the maddeningly incomprehensible influence of a scammer seemingly straight out of central casting, hired to play a Looming But Still Pathetic Bad Guy in a direct-to-video production.
Oh, at this point I should say that spoilers abound here. Heh.
There are too many dizzying details to go into here but the long and short of it is Sarma – smart, level-headed, everything-going-for-her Sarma – became entangled with this man, known at first as his alias, Shane Fox, and later by his birth name, Anthony Strangis. Perhaps it is her overall flat affect, but Sarma, in both her testimony and in recordings taken at the time, never seemed all that taken by him. In fact, many times she seemed as mystified as to what this man was doing in her life as did her employees, who seemingly admired Sarma and thought of her as a kind of cool mother figure. Strangis, though, preyed upon her vulnerabilities to the point where she could variously be both deeply skeptical and desperately hopeful that he would come through with his promises if she only met his demands for an endless supply of money transferred. Soon after the series starts, we learn that when Sarma and Matthew Kenney broke up and could not work in the same environment anymore, she was offered by their investor to buy Kenney out so she had a $2 million debt to him. This was hanging over her from the beginning but the restaurant was successful. Pure Food and Wine was making money from the start, and banking on Sarma’s allure and vision, a clear path ahead of lucrative but realistic opportunities and success was splashed out ahead of her and the brand like the proverbial Yellow Brick Road. She was on her way. Then, in 2011, she met Strangis.
On paper, none of it makes sense. In hearing the tale, even with the probing questions of an interviewer behind the camera, it remains frustratingly abstruse. Shane/Anthony was supposedly a mercenary type, working in black ops as a secret agent and paid handsomely for his dangerous operations work overseas. He would take care of Sarma’s debt and somehow grant Leon, her beloved rescue dog, immortality but first, she had to be tested, she had to prove her commitment. Sarma had to give him large sums of money, funneled directly from the restaurant. She had to submit to his seemingly random tests where “everything would suddenly make sense” and move on when it never did. She had to give him access to all her communication passwords, from her cell phone to her email. She had to do these things while he disappeared for weeks at a time. Marrying Strangis was the easiest way for the $2 million to be transferred to her fully, so at some point, she did that, too, though that money never arrived and her loans to him kept accruing.
It’s confusing for people, including myself, because Sarma was never a chanting, beatifically-grinning Manson girl or wild-eyed, obsessive Hubbard devotee to Strangis. She is almost unerringly dry and matter-of-fact with a little touch of gallows humor. He roped her in not by sweeping her off her feet with grand romantic gestures but with promises of settling her debt and making her business aspirations come true, which he intimated would make that initial $2 million debt seem like pocket change, and he strung her along, continually rearranging the goal posts and making ever-more outlandish promises and excuses, some as to be of epic proportion, to keep her supply of cash coming in. Because her business goals were also tethered to her passion for helping the animals and creating a better world, it was a heady combination ripe for manipulation: She was personally desperate to settle her debt to her restaurant investor, and she was mission driven to make her brands a success and her altruistic goals accomplished. The relationship was a transactional means to an end, not a romantic coupling, and she was at least clear-eyed about that. From the recordings, it appears he was clear on this, too.
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Things get fuzzy when other people without fault are pulled into the riptide of grifters like Strangis, especially as Sarma was the vehicle for him scamming them. She made some terrible decisions, the kinds of decisions made by people who are desperate and clinging to false hope. The choices she made hurt employees whose wages Strangis gambled away, investors to the Pure Food and Wine business and those close to her, like her mother. Ultimately, her entanglement with Strangis amounted to more than $6 million from the aggregate of those owed money. How could such a level-headed woman, one with a background in finance and an Ivy League education, one who gave the impression of being a mission-based entrepreneur, lead herself and those around her to such ruin at the hands of this common grifter?
She had to know what she was doing, seems to be the refrain I see again and again in the court of public opinion. She obviously was a scammer, too, just like him.
. . .
I am going to offer my opinion on this messiness with the caveat that I am not a psychologist. I am also not an expert on cults or abusive relationships. I can read and research as well as anyone else, though.
I think what we have here, among other things, is a case of coercive control and the sunk cost fallacy. Coercive control, which is a criminal offense in the UK, is described by Bristol, England-based Women’s Aid charity as, “...An act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.”
Have you ever tried to understand Scientologists when they describe why they’ve signed over their lives to be indentured servants to Sea Org? Did you ever try to listen to the more affluent ones explain why they’ve sunk millions into the organization? Why they isolated themselves from friends and family who were not Scientologists? I have watched most episodes of Leah Remini’s excellent series about Scientology and I am no clearer on what the organization offered in exchange except for some hokey fairy tales about personal liberation from a two-bit science fiction writer and grade A conspiracy theorist.
But why did you join? Why didn’t you leave? Was anyone holding you hostage?
None of it makes sense. Stop trying to make it make sense.
As I mentioned, I believe there is the added aspect of the sunk cost fallacy, which comes into play often with cults and abusive relationships. Sunk costs are not always drained finances as with Sarma, but often deep personal costs of time (“But I spent so much time there…”), the cost of a damaged reputation (“No one trusts me anymore…”) and/or sacrificed relationships (“I’ve alienated everyone and I have no one else left…”) that keeps people in cults and relationships that are steeped in coercive control. Want to better understand the sunk cost fallacy? Look no further than multi-level marketing scams like LuLaRose or Amway, a $35.4 billion industry in the U.S. where 99% of people not only never make money, they lose money, ever pulled in deeper by the money they have lost in pursuit of making a living.
I am not saying that Sarma Melngailis should not be held responsible for the bad decisions she made – and she made plenty – and the debts incurred during her time with Strangis. I am also not saying she should have no burden of personal responsibility or the trouble to her conscience because that’s not for me to say, though I do hope she finds a way to ease those and find self-compassion. Dismissing what happened as one woman’s foolishness is not only simplistic but losing an opportunity to learn more and try to understand the way that this kind of abuse and entrapment happens. (And let’s rid ourselves of the notion that smart people don’t get drawn into cults while we’re at it because intelligence has nothing to do with her situation or why someone would stay with an abuser or be attracted to a cult.)
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Speaking of losing people to cults, have you noticed that we are living at a time when whole families are ripped apart after losing children and parents, siblings and partners to QAnon and Fox News’ disinformation campaigns? Scams are not limited to strangers with aliases who want your money. Scams are also disinformation purveyors who continually move the goal posts to keep believers hooked to ever more outlandish stories of elite pedophile rings being run out of pizza parlors that will be busted when Trump reveals the Deep State and the baseless notion of a stolen election despite all evidence to the contrary and their own lack of substantiation. As I write this, the same people who were claiming – again, baselessly – that coronavirus vaccines implant tracking devices have pivoted to the notion that Ukraine is a Nazi training ground that Putin is bravely going up against. The suspension of disbelief here is, well, as unbelievable as the fact that smart, accomplished people like Sarma Melngailis could keep hanging on by her fingernails for a glimpse of what she’d been promised but that doesn’t make it any less real.
This is why I, with a background in the creative arts, someone who always felt more comfortable in the realm of the imagination than “real” life, am now fully allergic to anything that even has the merest whiff of disinformation and conspiracism. It is not innocuous. Disinformation is not a difference of opinion. It is an intentional attempt to manipulate, deceive and mislead. Disinformation warps your brain and gaslights you to the point of absolute brainwashing,
It is easy to look at Sarma Melngailis and tsk-tsk at her for what she did but when are we going to look at the deadly, deeply harmful disinformation that is now stitched into the webbing of our society and is often written off as a simple difference of opinion? My point is, does this so-called open-mindedness that is treasured by the people of this country make us all more vulnerable when a Strangis is at our personal door?
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Last, just a couple of small gripes with the documentary, which I think was, on the balance, well done. The title is clickbait, pure and simple. Sarma was a vegan, yes, but she remains dedicated to her vegan values and as she was under the thumb of coercive control, we should take that into consideration when we determine if the decisions she made when she was with Strangis mean she is a bad person. In addition to being clickbait, it points to the animus the general public feels towards vegans and the schadenfreude they delight in when we’re given our comeuppance or revealed to be hypocrites. It was also annoying to me when one of the people interviewed, the journalist who’d written about the debacle for Vanity Fair, characterized vegans as being inclined to believing crackpot notions. That is an unfair, broad brush treatment and thankfully it was short but should have been omitted as it was one man’s opinion that contributed nothing to understanding what happened with Sarma and Pure Food and Wine.
Oy, I see I have written a lot here. Anyway, lots of thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think.
But I have one last thought: Another important topic to explore is also the role of white privilege and investors’ obsession with the combination of conventional good looks and gumption that means people like Sarma as well as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Adam Neumann of WeWork, the dude-bros of the Fyre Festival and so on usually have no shortage of people eager to finance them and indulge their prosperity gospels.
Okay, I’m done.
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