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.