Sunday, December 20, 2009

I'm kind of a chicken when it comes to eating chicken.

There are multiple perspectives from which to make a decision to stop eating meat. The most obvious and visible is animal cruelty. However, anyone concerned with animal cruelty should probably be leading a vegan lifestyle, as some of the most cruel practices have nothing to do with putting meat on the table. Less visible perspectives include the environmental impact of current methods of producing food and, generally speaking, health (public and personal). From each of the three perspectives, choosing a diet that excludes animal products is overwhelmingly more appropriate and advantageous.

A note here: If you break down the three general categories above (cruelty, environment, health), there are endless sub-topics within each. It is difficult to imagine a pro/con list in any of those categories in which a diet inclusive of animal products would come out on top. It is my opinion that most arguments for continuing to eat meat come from three powerful places: tradition, flavor, and convenience. These are hard to overcome.

Anyway, back to the reason I started this post. The general topic of health covers all sorts of ground. Today's focus is simple. Is it safe to eat chicken? Should you risk feeding it to yourself and your family because you've always done so, you like the way it tastes, and you know you can pick it up on the cheap and have dinner on the table quickly? As I am sure you have guessed, my answers to those questions and no. It seems obvious to me, but I also understand that I have managed to get past an emotional attachment to any particular food. In other words, it is unlikely that you will ever hear me say, "I could probably stop eating X, but there's no way I could give up Y and Z...I just like Y and Z too much" (vegetarians reading this will recognize this phrase from every conversation they've ever had on the topic of becoming vegetarian).

Here is why it should be obvious to everyone. It is a fact. Consumer Reports helps sort it all out in a report in its January 2010 issue. I encourage you to read the article. It starts out like this:

You would think that after years of alarms about food safety - outbreaks of illness followed by renewed efforts at cleanup - a staple like chicken would be a lot safer to eat. But in our latest analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought at stores nationwide, TWO-THIRDS harbored salmonella and/or campylobacteria, the leading causes of foodborne disease.

(I added the emphasis)

The chickens tested by Consumer Reports came from more than 100 supermarkets, specialty stores, and mass merchandisers in 22 states and included three "top" brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, and Tyson), 30 "non-organic" store brands, nine "organic" store brands, and nine "organic" name brands. Shockingly, the most contaminated (with more than 80% testing positive for either one or both pathogens) were the big guys, Tyson and Foster Farms. Though, in fairness, all of the producers results were woeful (at least as far as this consumer is concerned). The cleanest big-brand chickens came from Perdue, who managed to get 56% of their chickens to consumers free of disease (how about a round of applause!).

An alarming detail that I found in this report was that 68% of salmonella and 60% of the campylobacteria organisms analyzed showed resistance to one or more antibiotics; largely as the result of the fact that chickens (and other farmed animals) are fed antibiotics to speed growth and to prevent or treat illness. That means that the bacteria that are being treated evolve and become immune to antibiotics and become less effective to treat people who got infected from eating the meat that came from the animals that were being treated with the antibiotics. If that sentence sounds absurdly circular, rambles, and doesn't make alot of since, don't blame me.

Throughout the report, the author gives tips to stay safe when eating chicken. Let's remember, this is Consumer Reports, not PETA. No hidden reason to discourage eating the stuff, just do it in a safe way. Here is how the article concludes:

Whatever bird you buy, one slipup and you're at risk. Most important is to cook chicken to at least 165° F. Even if it's no longer pink, it can still harbor bacteria, so use a meat thermometer. The Polder THM-360, $30, and Taylor Weekend Warrior 806, $16, were excellent in our tests. Other tips:
  • Make chicken one of the last items you buy before heading to the checkout line.
  • Choose chicken that is well wrapped and at the bottom of the case, where the temperature should be coolest.
  • Place chicken in a plastic bag like those in the produce department to keep juices from leaking.
  • If you'll cook the chicken within a couple of days, store it at 40° F or below. Otherwise, freeze it.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in a refrigerator, inside its packaging and on a plate, or on a plate in a microwave oven. Never thaw it on a counter: When the inside is still frozen, the outside can warm up, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. Cook chicken thawed in a microwave oven right away.
  • Don't return cooked meat to the plate that held it raw.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
Whoa. It's like the owner's manual I got with my camera...if there were a chance that hitting the wrong button on my camera would give me diarrhea and make me vomit.

I understand that we, as humans, take calculated risks every day. Some risks are common daily occurrences that are all but unavoidable (driving a car or taking public transportation). Some risks are thrilling (rock-climbing or skydiving). Here's the deal. Eating chicken is neither unavoidable nor thrilling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009



You heard it here first.

I heard it here. Thank you

And thank you, my 12 ounce amigo. It looks like we can continue to see each other.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is a "vegan," anyway?

I'm settling into my plan a little better after several weeks of big talk about being a vegan. That big talk comes from a very righteous place in my heart that I do not expect will ever change. However, I'm not sure that I will ever be comfortable calling myself a vegan. My discomfort does not come from second thoughts about a desire to exclude animal products from my life, but from a self-consciousness and self-doubt about my ability to fully commit to the ideas and principles of what I perceive as true veganism.

I arrived at this conclusion after alot of thought and a little digging around. I figured I should start by trying to figure out if my perception of true veganism was accurate.

Apparently, the word "vegan" came from the imagination of a man named Donald Watson in 1944. He was looking for a word to define his decision to be a "non-dairy vegetarian." He settled on the word "vegan," which was simply the beginning and end of the word "vegetarian." He founded the British Vegan Society with some like-minded individuals and launched the vegan movement. In a 2002 interview, Mr Watson had this to say when asked about a message to other vegans:

"Take the broad view of what veganism stands for – something beyond finding a new alternative to scrambled eggs on toast or a new recipe for Christmas cake. Realize that you're on to something really big, something that hadn't been tried until sixty years ago, and something which is meeting every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it. And this doesn't involve weeks or months of studying diet charts or reading books by so called experts - it means grasping a few simple facts and applying them."

This sounds simple and, frankly, liberating. However, being a vegan in a non-vegan world is hard work, requires constant vigilance, and can be isolating. In that same interview, Mr. Watson was asked about the most difficult part of being a vegan and he stated that it was "the social aspect-excommunicating [himself] from that part of life where people meet to eat." That word, "excommunicate," is powerful. Mr. Watson went on to say that the only remedy for that problem was for the concept to become more and more accepted until it one day became the norm.

These days, the label "vegan" can mean many things to many people. Some people hear the word "vegan" and picture a radical activist who would kill a man to save a chicken. Others define vegans as self-righteous and pretentious cult-followers who have lost their grip on reality. The American Vegan Society carries the motto "Ahimsa Lights the Way" and takes a bit more of a structured approach than that which Mr. Watson seemed comfortable with. Or maybe they just spent a little more time defining it. It is hard to say. "Ahimsa," by the way, simply means "refraining from harming any living being," which is nice to know, as I never really gave the word much thought and had been turned off by the new-age images it conjured in my mind.

I think, for now, I'm going to align myself with the father of the movement and adopt the philosophy of the British Vegan Society, which says that "veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose." I added the italicized emphasis to highlight the fact that veganism is much more of a journey than a destination. For now, I'm going to be an aspiring vegan, which means that I am going to "aspire to seek." The real key to a comfortable and successful vegan journey is going to be to figure out what the phrase "as far as possible and practicable" means to me. That will take some reflection.

In the coming weeks and months, I'm going to try to come up with some relatively defined guidelines on the issues that I find the most difficult and troubling: what to do with animal products I already own, how to handle restaurants and dining with friends, where to draw the line (honey, silk, wool, refined sugar, beer and wine, etc.). Hopefully, I will settle in a little more and find a way to appropriately balance this lifestyle choice against the realities of a 21st century existence.

On a related note, my wife made vegan pancakes this morning from the cookbook Vegan YumYum, which was a birthday present from my brother-in-law (read his blog on similar concepts here). I think I could tell the difference, but I don't care. I'll pass on some advice from Lauren Ulm, who wrote Vegan YumYum to tell you why: "[T]ake the time to learn how to make foods that you really love, not poor imitations of foods you no longer eat. That's the secret to being vegan and loving it."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Thanksgiving Sermon

I mentioned in an earlier post that I did not want to preach to friends about the sad state of affairs that has become the norm in the production of the meat that billions of people eat every day. It is universally known as factory farming. I'm not sure if those that do it call it that, but it is an apt description. It is a process in which an animal represents not an individual life, but a quantity of food. A process in which sustainable characteristics (like being able to walk comfortably, maintain an appropriate mass-to-body ratio, and reproduce naturally) are bred out of animals because those characteristics don't taste as good in meat. A process in which the industry controls the access to and standards associated with the gruesome operations such that you can only find out what really goes on by going undercover. A process in which animals are routinely fed a diet that they cannot possibly live on and medicine that they wouldn't need if they hadn't been so poorly "engineered" so that they will get fat at an unnaturally rapid pace so they can be pushed through the factory quickly to make room for the next generation of bio-engineered abominations. A process that is as bad for the environment as it is for the animals and those who eat them. It is a dirty secret that no one wants to think about when they sit down to enjoy their dinner (read this article from Time Magazine for a relatively light introduction to the realities of what factory farming is and why it has to stop).

The problem with not wanting to sound preachy is that this stuff writes itself. It is impossible to talk about what factory farming really is without sounding preachy. Seriously. It's like shooting fish in a barrel (ironically, shooting fish in a barrel is pretty much what factory farming amounts to...if the fish we're talking about are fat, sick, and unhealthy and stuffed into the barrel so tightly that there is minimal water).

Someone told my wife that he felt sorry for her because she did not "get" to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I know that the sentiment was heartfelt and genuine and was his way of expressing the cultural importance that has been placed on food as family and as comfort. Jonathan Safran Foer speaks to this issue throughout the book Eating Animals. But it did not take reading that book to convince me of the importance of the link between culture and family and food. I've been alive for just about thirty-seven years now.

So I do not take offense to someone feeling sorry for my wife because she is going to miss out on a turkey dinner. I do, however, question that person's awareness and perspective. If he needs something to be concerned about, he could read one book or watch one video describing the process of getting a turkey to his table from the day it was artificially conceived. He would learn that it is not just about cruelty. It is also about an unhealthy, unsustainable and unsavory method of feeding oneself. He might start watching what he ate a little more closely. He might even begin to demand a change in the currently unsatisfactory method of producing meat by changing how he consumed.

By the way, my Thanksgiving was not vegan. So, it is not without some chagrin that I proofread the paragraphs above. Some friends had us over and did a wonderful job of catering to our diets by not using any animal stock in the various side-dishes. We took a vegan chick-pea pot-pie over that served as our main course (see below). But I know that butter was well-represented in the mashed potatoes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fool me once...

I was cooking dinner a few nights ago when I realized that the pre-made sauce that I was going to use for the pad thai I was making had fish sauce in it. This is weird, because we are usually pretty careful about that sort of thing. And fish sauce is easy. It says the word "fish" and the word "sauce" right there on the package. But it managed to slip through the chinks in my armor. Many of the animal by-products found in your everyday foods, cosmetics, clothes, shoes, etc. are much more cleverly disguised.

I figured out a solution. I took a bunch of the various Asian sauces and spices that were in the fridge and whipped up a little impromptu pad-thai sauce concoction that turned out great as far as we were concerned.

So, you might be thinking that this was a small victory for an aspiring vegan. Well....not exactly. After I finished eating, I recalled that I had not checked the ingredients in each of the individual sauces that I used to create my masterpiece. So I pulled them back out and checked the labels. I got to the sriracha sauce that I had used and imagine my consternation when:

Yes, the label on that sriracha sauce says "fish extract." (Fortunately, the Huy Fong sriracha sauce that we prefer and normally use is vegan.)

Fish Extract?!! I'm familiar with the widespread use of fish sauce in thai food and have admittedly conveniently ignored it in the past. Recently, I learned that my new favorite local asian food place will make almost anything on the menu without fish sauce. I've never tasted any difference. I can't imagine that one in a thousand people could tell the difference between a sauce made with or without fish extract. It just seems silly. I'm glad that "dog extract" doesn't enhance the flavor of anything.

Back to my point: the joke is on me here. Despite my effort and my fleeting vegan victory, I let down my guard. This is sure to happen again as the result of laziness, or lack of vigilance, or frustration, or whatever. But I'm going to keep working on it. PETA has compiled a list of animal by-products to help people in my situation with our shopping. Check it out here and tell me that thing isn't a little overwhelming when you think of it in the context of walking down the grocery aisle reading labels.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Let's talk about leather (and vegan shoes)

Should I talk about leather? I don't really want to. I kind of have alot of it. The couch and chair in my living room represent both my first serious adult furniture purchase...and at least three cows (italian ones if the sales clerk was on the up and up). I have an assorted collection of shoes, boots, belts, and jackets that used to walk around without being attached to me. I think that every suit I own and all my favorite socks contain some percentage of wool fiber.

So, as an aspiring vegan, why would I not want to talk about it? Probably for the same reason that meat-eaters don't want to talk about factory-farming.

I haven't really gotten my head around the issue of how I'm going to deal with this. I'm pretty sure at this point that I am not going to get rid of what I already own...or maybe I will. I'm not even certain that I can completely eliminate all animal products from my wardrobe (though I'm pretty confident that I am done with leather jackets, as the ones that I own haven't seen the light of day in years). I guess it's important to figure this kind of stuff out before I start throwing around the word "vegan."

I can say this, though...I got me some vegan kicks this weekend.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Little Background (Part 1)

I decided to become a vegetarian in 2004 shortly after I started dating the wonderful person that I eventually married. As I look back on the decision at this point in my life, it is hard to say exactly what informed it. What I can honestly say as I write this, is that I do not recall at that time being indignant about the state of the meat industry. I do recall being willing to do anything to get closer to a woman that I felt myself falling in love with...and she was a vegetarian, so... it is safe to say that my decision was based in large part upon manipulation and desire. There you have it. I'm kind of a schmuck.

My vegetarian journey began in the early summer of 2004 when my girlfriend left Denver to live in Norfolk, VA for three months and work as a legal intern for PETA (that is a subject for a whole other blog). While she was gone, I decided that I would "practice" not eating meat just to see how I did. I guess I figured it was a good time to experiment and that I could do it without really putting any pressure on myself and without any cognizable goal. If she came back and I was a vegetarian, great. If not, so be it. The fact of the matter was that she never tried to force a change. I always appreciated that. I also always figured that was actually the best way to inspire change under the circumstances.

My carnivorous habits were well entrenched and had been cultivated and nurtured in a very "Beef, it's what's for dinner" sort of environment. I am originally from Texas. Some of my parents' closest friends were ranchers who raised and sold or slaughtered animals as a means of supporting their families. I am sure there were vegetarians around, but I either didn't know them or didn't care about such fringe-dwellers. I can't say that a meal without meat was an unthinkable premise, but I can say that the idea of all meals without meat was, most definitely, unthinkable in my family and among my friends...and still is (Hi family!).

As a child, I was an avid hunter with serviceable skills. In many of my fondest and most treasured memories of time spent with my dad, we are hunting together. I was introduced to the realities of hunting and fishing at an early age (killing/dressing/processing/eating) and grew up around and participating in those realities. I believe that my experiences as a hunter were built on a foundation that was ethical and humane almost without exception. While I may have struggled occasionally during specific instances with the idea of hunting and killing, I did not question its righteousness in general terms. On the most fundamental level, I still do not (that is probably also a topic for another time).

It is from this context that it should be clear that the thought of questioning the idea of eating meat honestly never occurred to me until I met my future wife. I loved eating meat. I can still remember what my family's home-cooked specialties (steak-fingers, chicken-fried steak, fresh fish, corned beef, etc. etc) tasted like and how it made me feel. I do not recall ever being concerned on any level with any of the myriad of issues (and I intend to discuss many of them in future posts) that I now count among the reasons that I have chosen to continue not to eat meat... And that have now caused this desire in me to go beyond even that.

In writing this, I am not by any stretch trying to cheapen or sully my childhood memories, or the image of my family, or the lifestyle that is still the norm for countless families that I still consider my closest friends. I am simply trying to provide a little perspective. I do not believe that my path to vegetarianism is completely unique or awe-inspiring. But I believe that it is a bit unusual. I guess what I am trying to say is that if I can do this, I feel pretty strongly that anyone can. Perhaps, unlike me, it could be a journey that begins for the right reasons.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vegan Roulette

I am playing Russian Roulette, vegan style. It occurs in this manner: your humble narrator gets hungry while running the rat-race. Obviously, I didn't prepare a lunch this morning, because that never happens. Another thing that I haven't gotten around to is cataloging and reducing to a pocket-sized list all of the vegan options at all of the various eateries that I might encounter as I forage for food in my urban environment. As the chamber spins, I walk into Einstein Brothers and order a bagel with hummus.

I guess I could have asked the proprietor, but really? Excuse me Mr. counter-clerk, I'm a pain in the ass. Are your bagels vegan? You don't know? Can you find someone who does? Sure, I'll wait over here while you help the three people behind me.

Was I prepared to walk if he'd said no or I don't know? I mean, I was hungry and I had already passed on about six places and decided this was my best bet...and I did not have all day.

I learned approximately 24 hours later (after a few minutes on the internet) that the chamber was empty. Same thing happened today when I ate a peanut butter sandwich and immediately panicked because I did not know what it takes to make rye bread. Turns out I dodged another bullet.

Tonight: a huge plate of vegetable fried rice from my own kitchen. Completely vegan. Completely anxiety free. Way better than a bagel with hummus.

As I see it, I have three options: stay in my house, start asking, or accept the risk. I'm gonna need some time on this.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Second Thoughts...Already?!!

I have not kept track of my vegan activity very well over the last couple of weeks. I've been trying to be more conscious and to develop a vague set of guidelines. There is no doubt that I have slipped up, alot. But never in an intentional "F-this! I'm having an animal product" sort of way. I can confidently say that in any given situation, I would choose an animal-product free option over any other. Unfortunately, that is an oversimplification of serious magnitude.

First of all, that is simply not an option in every given situation. Secondly, it is not exactly easy to even know what animal suffering may have contributed to putting any particular product on one's dinner table, or around one's shoulders for warmth, or on one's feet to walk out into the snow and get the (cruelty free?) newspaper. Thirdly, was that suffering proportionally more significant than the benefit of whatever product it may have helped make available? Realistically, animals can contribute to society, right? Just not in a disproportionally cruel way? Or is any contribution (even if it comes with a reciprocal benefit to the animal) a no-no because it cannot be the result of a conscious choice? Fourthly, I'm a social guy. I can't leave my friends behind because I'm unwilling to compromise on their diets and life-styles (Sorry, Jim and Diane, we can't go out to dinner tonight because you are unwilling to go to our favorite vegan place for the 7th time in the last 4 months and we are not eating another "vegetarian lasagna" special, hold the cheese). And I'm not going to preach to them. Is my energy best spent leading by example and hoping, perhaps, to inspire? Fifthly...I could probably go on for several hours...

My point is that making the transition from vegetarian to vegan is much more challenging than its second-cousin, giving up meat. When I became a vegetarian, my goal was to stop eating meat. For the most part, that was black or white. Is it meat? Then get it out of my dinner. Going vegan is a war against a chaotically organized guerilla army. They are hiding in trees and rigging traps and violating cease-fires and throwing rocks when they run out of bullets.

From about Thursday on, I think my diet was almost completely animal-product free. I made my own seitan and mashed potatoes. I ate steamed chard. I made a delicious pot of lentils. I went to my favorite vegetarian/vegan restaurant and did not order cheese on my sandwich (even though I'm sure it was "organic" and "free-range," etc). I had the gnocchi and marinara at a big group dinner at an italian place with very little vegan fare but lots of delicious dairy to choose from. What I did not do was research the method used to produce the wine I drank or look at every ingredient in every component of my meals (even the ones I cooked - did you know that there are anchovies in Lee and Perrin's worcestershire sauce but not in the Safeway brand?). I wish that ignorance was truly bliss.

PS. I'm not having second thoughts. Just reeling myself in a little bit.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Step 1: The Resolution

I cannot be a vegetarian anymore. I realized this a couple of weeks ago as the result of a collision of circumstances over a few days. It started with a brief discussion with friends about a book. Though none of us had read it, its topic forced a little introspection and self examination. The collision culminated with a request from a close friend.

You know a book has some weight and power behind it when you haven’t read it, the people around you haven’t read it, you’ve never heard of the author or read any of his work, and yet a brief discussion about what is supposed to be found in its contents inspires you to consider a life-change of some significance. In this case, the book is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. As I type this, I now own the book and have read about a third of it. My initial thoughts regarding its power and weight stand for now.

Among the most potent catalysts for change in my personal life is inspiration from the examples of others; particularly those I respect, care for, love, or simply like. So, when my brother-in-law asked my wife and me for advice on removing meat from his diet, I was inspired and re-invigorated to examine my own reasons for being a vegetarian and consider whether I was doing the right thing in the right way. Incidentally, I later learned that my brother-in-law’s decision to alter his eating habits was based, at least in part, upon listening to an interview with the author of Eating Animals. This dashed my delusions of grandeur, as I had assumed that he had been watching me for years and finally decided that it was time to follow in the footsteps of a great man…anyway.

What I have learned over the last couple of weeks about myself doesn’t really surprise me. The fact is, something has to change. I’m going vegan.

The details of and reasons for this pursuit will be worked out over the next several weeks. My wife is supportive and is going to join me. I’m giving us a full year to do it. At first I figured it would be easy, as I have already been a vegetarian for over five years and my wife has not eaten meat in over ten. We're not vegan, but we we rub elbows with the concept pretty regularly. However, the tightrope upon which I have gingerly placed the ball of my right foot seems to get a little higher every time I glance at the danger below.