Archive for the ‘Bowls over Plates’ Category

Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?

» October 14th, 2014


My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.

All that said, here we go.  I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.

Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.

As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.

Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.

Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.

The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.

Radical Nutrient Density

» October 7th, 2014

There are innumerable ways to eat a healthy diet, but plant-based, when done right, is undeniably one of them. For me, a longtime marathoner, the litmus test of my nutrient intake and balance has always been the quality of my running. Since transitioning to a plant-based diet, the quality of my running has not only improved as I’ve gotten older, but it has exceeded my performance when I was in peak shape back in my 20s (over 20 years ago!).

Official proof of this improvement came last Saturday when I ran the St. George, Utah marathon three minutes faster than my pervious personal best (done back when I was 25). When I crossed the finish line I was stunned. Simply unbelieving. I was even more stunned when I looked at my mile splits and discovered that the last 7 miles were faster than the first 7 miles. Freakish. Reflecting on my preparation, I kept coming back to a decision I made a week before the race: I was going to eat meals that were radically nutrient dense.

Meals like this (quinoa, amaranth, cashews, sunflower seeds, bananas, blueberries, mint):






And this: (peppers, zucchini, okra, quinoa, onions)






I think these made the difference. These foods are not only radically nutrient dense. They are radically sustaining, keeping me strong well after the race and into the recovery period (with the help of some delicious IPAs), which has been pretty mild. The real beauty of these meals is how simple they are to prepare, cheap to buy the ingredients for, and tasty to eat. No animals required. One should never be smug about much of anything, especially something as variable as diet. At the same time, when it works for us we should say so.

My 3:11 marathon speaks volumes for the virtues of plant-based eating.

(Sorry for the gaps here; I have no idea how to get rid of them.)

Veganism As Culinary Liberation

» December 3rd, 2013

Here’s a tip for those who are not vegan but are flirting with the idea. Done right, and done without a huge amount of effort, being vegan means that your world of flavors will expand more than you ever imagined. Contrary to the idea of a plant-based diet being a radical sacrifice, it is, in fact, a radical indulgence, one that enhances health and happiness.

The removal of meat, cheese, eggs, and other dairy products from your diet—in addition to the processed foods that these animal products often comprise—clears space for a cornucopia of new whole foods that are healthier, more ethical, and perhaps even tastier. Integral to this shift is a corresponding sense of empowerment that comes from taking charge of your diet in a beneficial way.

For me beans have been a boon to culinary happiness. As a perusal of Rancho Gordo makes clear, the heirloom varieties of beans are endless and, in my experience, delicious. The names alone are seductive enough: scarlet runner beans, pinquito beans, rio zape bean, black calypso, etc. Order a batch, cook them up, and you’ll realize that fresh beans obviate any need for a cut of meat or the texture of cheese. Really.

A curious vegan will also discover, and find sublime pleasure, in choosing to eat a broader range of vegetables. Greens–collard and mustard–entered my diet after becoming vegan, as did turnips and parsnips, both of which I find delicious without the habitual adulteration of butter or cheese. I eat a magnitude of lentils and chickpeas and find that cilantro goes well with virtually everything. Oh, and don’t get me started on brussels sprouts. Words can’t do them justice.

Then there are grains. The world derives about 80 percent of its plant-based calories from 5 plants: white rice, millet, wheat, corn, and sorghum. This is crazy, especially when you could be eating teff, quinoa, amaranth, pearl barley, brown rice, and host of grains that are out there waiting to be discovered. Of all the new grains that I now eat, amaranth is perhaps at the top. Amaranth porridge in particular. With cinnamon.

I generally eat out bowls rather than off plates. In a bowl, foods and flavors and textures mix. I use a little olive oil but very good olive oil. I snack regularly on avocados and about a dozen kinds of nuts. I drink smoothies made with almond milk. Food makes me happy, I feel good when I eat, I can eat as much as I want, and my running times, distances, and recovery periods have all dramatically improved, even as I’ve aged. I could keel over tomorrow, but I’ve never felt better.

I mention all this because I seem to have been inundated of late with the “how can you do it?/It must be sooo hard” comment about my diet. Imagine eating in a way that is good for your body and good for the planet and good for animals. Imagine eating in a way that’s–although I hate the term–proactive and expressive of personal agency. Imagine eating a way that undermines the industrial food system at its core. And, finally, imagine eating in a way that expands your exposure to a spectrum of flavors you were too full of meat and dairy to once explore.

What’s so hard about that?


Turkey News

» November 27th, 2013

Thanksgiving is obviously a rough day for the birds. Years ago, Calvin Trillin suggested we scrap the whole turkey ritual and serve pasta carbonara. Although I love the idea of radically bucking tradition, Trillin’s meal hardly helps on the ethical front.

A friend recently raised the idea of a vegan “minimalist Thanksgiving,” a stark paring down from the conventional tableful of fat-laden glop that weighs down most Thanksgiving Day tables. Her suggestion led me fantasize about a rice and beans Thanksgiving, with some homemade guacamole, hot sauce, and cilantro as seasoning. I’m visiting my parents, so that will not be an option—although vegan options will be in ample evidence.

In addition to dreaming up alternatives to the mass slaughter that subsidizes our thanks, many others are taking concerted action to help the birds. Karen Dawn is heading up her annual turkey rescue. Check out the details here.  At Free From harm, Susie Coston clarifies the popular misunderstandings about turkeys while Ashley Capps reminds us why it’s a very bad idea to eat turkeys. Farm Sanctuary, under the guidance of Gene Baur, continues to promote its own turkey project. It’s been doing so for almost 20 years. Kudos.

My own take on turkeys ran three years ago in The Atlantic: 

“Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.

The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.

Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.

Read the rest here.

The ultimate irony to remember about turkeys and thanksgiving, as I explained here, is that the tradition’s origins have nothing to do with turkeys. In fact, there considerable evidence that the pilgrims gave thanks by fasting. I like that idea a lot better than causing unnecessary suffering to feel good about how fortunate we are.

I [healthy heart] Veganism?

» July 15th, 2013

Yet another study is showing that a vegan diet correlates with lowered LDL cholesterol and, in turn, improved heart health. Read all about it here. As health conscious vegans rush to high-five each other over the seemingly good news, my reaction is a big yawn.

So what if veganism correlates with heart health? I’m non-plussed over this news because the benefits, technically speaking, have nothing to do with veganism per se and everything to do with the choice to eat more plants, fewer animals, and a greater diversity of whole foods. Take away most animal products, replace them with kale and quinoa, drink some smoothies and trash the Funyuns, and you’ll get healthier. Big whoop. But veganism isn’t required.

I know this topic can be a contentious one with many vegan advocates. I also know that approaching the general public with a health-based message makes veganism a better sell. But let’s stay away from the snake oil.  The problem here is that it’s simply disingenuous to argue that veganism per se is the determinative factor in achieving better health.

The fact of the matter is that a run-of-the-mill vegan could eliminate vegan junk food and substitute small amounts of lean fish or even beef and end up eating a diet better for her heart. When we are discussing health and food, in other words, vegan and non-vegan matter less than healthy food and non healthy food. We gotta face it: some animal products, in moderation, can be healthy.

This is not to suggest we shouldn’t highlight the correlation. Let’s just not get too excited about the exclusivity of the causation. We need to make our case with hard facts rather than vague connections.


Note: As it turns out I became so used to blogging that, like an addict searching for a vein (sorry, unpleasant analogy, but I just watched Trainspotting), I find myself swearing it off and then coming back for more. My current project is to sort of feel my way into more generalized food-orientated discussions and topics. Veganism will be at the forefront, of course, but a larger framework will become, I hope, gradually evident. To initiate this change, I will soon be calling my blog “The Pitchfork.”

Hill Country Blues

» June 3rd, 2013

Author’s Note: I currently have a long list of very depressing animal issues to blog about. Sometimes writing about bad news day after day takes an emotional toll, especially when I finish blogging and turn to the book I’m writing, The Modern Savage. So, to help ameliorate this problem, I’m going to spend the summer dedicating every Monday post to running and vegan nutrition—issues that always give me a psychological boost. I realize that very few readers are runners, so I’ll ask you to forgive my indulgence. However, as I hope becomes clear, eating to live well is hardly linked to endurance running. It applies to everything we do to live an ethical and well-adjusted life. –jm

Yesterday some friends and I ran a 20-mile trail race in the Hill Country of Central Texas (part of the trail is pictured above). The scenery was beautiful but it was very hot, somewhat humid, and the terrain was, as they say in trail running, highly “technical.” Honestly, it was like running on hills and hills of bowling balls. No stretches to fall into a cadence. It was the running version of free-form jazz. Think Charlie Minus. The last 4 miles offered some of the most difficult running I’ve ever experienced in 25 years. My primary problem was hydration. This is not normally the case. I ran with a hand-held 8-0z bottle and refilled it at every aid station stop (every 4 miles or so) and still could not stay hydrated. The faster I poured electrolytes and water into my system the faster they seemed to leave my body. Sort of like running a bathtub with the drain on. I’m still a little miffed about it.

In runner’s parlance, I bonked. What bothered me the most about the bonk was that I hadn’t crashed like that in in a long time, certainly not since becoming a vegan. While I have to do some research on the hydration issue (salt tablets?), the good news is that my recovery from the run, especially given the pain I was in, was perhaps the fastest I’ve ever had. This is encouraging because the pounding I took yesterday was more grueling than any marathon could deliver—my body was truly wrecked at the finish. If there wasn’t a lake to jump into I’m sure I would have experienced mild heat stroke. It’s also encouraging because the source of my recovery, without question, was a nutrient-dense, plant based pile of delicious food.

Here’s what I have eaten in the 20 hrs since finishing the race: 3 pinto bean and Daiya cheese soft tacos with spinach and salsa and nutritional yeast, an almond butter and apricot jam sandwich on whole wheat, a tomato and basil sandwich, three tablespoons of hemp seeds, a peach, a banana, a plate of grilled asparagus with mustard vinegrette and toasted pine nuts, a blueberry/banana/strawberry/cocoa smoothie; a kale/ginger/peach/turmeric smoothie, collard greens with onions on white bean and garlic puree, black-eyed peas, kale, sauteed carrots/zucchini/onions/peas in nut sauce, a Thunderbird vegan bar (the company was founded by a former student of mine), grilled tomatoes with basil and sea salt, and, to stay honest, coffee and a few beers.

It is difficult for me to overstate the positive impact this nutritional binge had on my system. I woke up refreshed (zero stiffness in legs), did an hour-long recovery run with friends on a flat trail, and am now planning my next big trail run—looks like a two-day, 40-mile jaunt through the White Mountains this July. I can’t wait.

I’ve just got to figure out that hydration issue (any tips?).

Powered by Plants

» January 19th, 2013

Sometimes a long run is more than a long run. It’s social hour (well, three hours) and therapy, emotional recalibration and guided tour of one’s own backyard. This morning it was all these things and more. Twenty-two miles seems like a daunting distance and, no matter how much experience you have, it is. This morning’s training run was helped out by great weather (clear/40s) and, as always, endless discussion. As it usually does, the topic of nutrition came up. I was pleased to learn that my friend Yetik, who occasionally comments at Eating Plants, has reached the point of becoming vegan. Perhaps not incidentally, he looked and ran better than I’ve seen in at least a year. He’s big on almond butter.

The danger of the long distance run is that it can waste you for the rest of the day. The way to prevent this, I have learned, is through nutrient dense pre-and post-run meals. Fifteen minutes before a run I’ll eat a banana with a piece of wheat toast covered in avocado and a dusting of nutritional yeast. This morning I should have eaten a little more as I started to feel incredibly hungry at mile 20, so hungry that a slice of pizza sitting in the middle of the street looked really appetizing. After the run, I had the meal pictured above—a meal that I’m immodestly deeming the best recovery bowl of food ever: quinoa, amaranth, blueberries, flaxseed, nutritional yeast, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Delicious. Nutrient dense. Restorative.

A lot of runners are addicted to gels and goos and power bars and such things*, but I’d gently suggest that real food can deliver as much, if not more, in terms of preparation for and recovery from one of the most satisfying and natural things a human can do: move through space, talk, breath, and enjoy the world around us.


* Ward, no offense intended here.

A Vegan Cafeteria in the Deep South

» January 13th, 2013

The College of Charleston has announced that it’s establishing a vegan (and kosher) cafeteria* to accommodate the interests of “ethical eaters.”  Needless to say, this is a sure sign of progress, a clear indication that veganism is edging its way into “mainstream” venues. One expects a place such as UC-San Diego to start a vegan cafeteria, but the College of Charleston? Well, not so much.

Charleston is a city whose culinary traditions are infused with the aroma of smoked pork, jerked chicken, beef, fish, and shellfish. It’s a place that has delicately blended the rich traditions of the West Indies and Carolina Lowcountry–where slaves once free-ranged African cattle in the pine forests—to create a carnival of carnivorism. The college, which identifies deeply with city, was thus a tough nut to crack.

The campaign to achieve the goal of a vegan cafeteria was initiated from the ground up, with the help of this form letter penned by PETA (which, indeed, can be a force for rationality when it focuses on issues germane to the planet Earth):

Vegan foods are more popular than ever at schools nationwide, including here at College of Charleston. As a student on campus, I am hoping to see more delicious, cruelty-free foods offered. With schools across the country such as the University of California, San Diego and the University of North Texas opening all-vegan dining halls within the past year, the very least we could do is offer a wide range of vegan meals in every dining hall.  There are so many delicious and eco-friendly foods available nowadays, from faux-beef tacos to vegan pizza, and College of Charleston could be doing so much more to meet the growing demand. I urge you to work with students to implement these changes.

I’m always encouraged when I see vegan progress at the college level. This is the crucible of adult identity formation for many people, a time to decide how to live a deliberate life centered on compassion and positive social change. A vegan cafeteria might seem like a symbolic “victory,” but for the animals not served there, it’ll be anything but. Should you feel so inclined, let the college know how proud you are of its decision. The President’s chief of staff is Brian McGee:

* As Tim notes in the comments, this is not an exclusive vegan cafeteria and I should have clarified that point in the post, but I may have swept away by the nugget of hope at the core of this development.


» November 2nd, 2012


This piece of mine ran in The New York Times on October 24, 2006. I thought it would be an appropriate post-Halloween post (and a light break from the heaviness of the Bill and Lou saga). I cannot help but note, in a nod to hometown pride, that when an Austinite hears the word Gourds, he thinks of one of the most innovative alternative folk/blues/rock/klezmer bands on the planet (and regrettably, probably the least likely humans on the planet to give up eating animals).

THIS time of the year, the windows of America are beginning to be dotted with carefully carved jack-o’-lanterns, but in a week or so, the streets will be splotched with pumpkin guts. Orange gourds will fly from car windows, fall from apartment balconies, career like cannon fire from the arms of pranksters craving the odd satisfaction of that dull thud.

There are, to be sure, more productive ways to deploy a Halloween pumpkin. Post-holiday, composting is a noble option. A pumpkin grower in Wisconsin once turned a 500-pound Atlantic Giant into a boat.

But what we almost certainly won’t do is eat it. First cultivated more than 10,000 years ago in Mexico, cucurbitaceae were mainstays of the Native American diet. If for no other reason than its status as one of America’s oldest cultivated crops, an honest pumpkin deserves our reverence.

The current batches that will soon litter the pavement, however, are for the most part irreverent fabrications, cheap replicas inflated for the carving knife. Food in name only, they’re a culinary trick without the treat. For those of us who value America’s culinary past, smashing a generic pumpkin is more of a moral obligation than an act of vandalism.

During the colonial era, the pumpkin was just one squash among dozens, a vine-ripening vegetable unmarked by a distinctive color, size or shape. Native Americans grew it to be boiled, roasted and baked. They routinely prepared pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin porridge, pumpkin stew and even pumpkin jerky.

Europeans readily incorporated the pumpkin into their own diet. Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting colonial America, wrote approvingly about ”pumpkins of several kinds, oblong, round, flat or compressed, crook-necked, small, etc.” He noted in his journal — on, coincidentally, Oct. 31, 1749 — how Europeans living in America cut them through the middle, take out the seeds, put the halves together again, and roast them in an oven, adding that ”some butter is put in while they are warm.”

One would be ill advised to follow Kalm’s recipe with the pumpkins now grown on commercial farms. The most popular pumpkins today are grown to be porch decor rather than pie filling. They dominate the industry because of their durability, uniform size (about 15 pounds), orange color, wart-less texture and oval shape. Chances are good that the specimen you’re displaying goes by the name of Trick or Treat, Magic Lantern, or Jumpin’ Jack. Chances are equally good that its flesh is bitter and stringy.

In contrast, pumpkins grown in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the hybridized descendants of those cultivated by Native Americans — were soft and rich tasting. They came in numerous colors, shapes and sizes and were destined for the roasting pan.

The Tennessee Sweet Potato pumpkin looked more like a pear than a modern pumpkin and, as its name implies, was baked and eaten like the sweet potato. The Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, first introduced in 1893, became so popular for pies that it posed a fresh challenge to the canned stuff. These pumpkin varieties, and scores of others, were once the most flavorful vegetables in the American diet.

Fortunately, the edible pumpkin is not completely lost. While akin to endangered species, heirloom seeds are only a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. By growing heirloom pumpkins, you can have your jack-o’-lantern and eat it too. More immediately, you can search out heirloom pumpkins at some farmers’ markets.

Of course, advocating a shift in any holiday tradition seems like a futile exercise in a nation that (perhaps because we’re so young) takes its traditions rather seriously. But it’s not as if there’s much of a Halloween tradition to violate. Halloween is relatively new to America. The Irish brought the holiday to the United States in the 1840′s (and used turnips as jack-o-lanterns). But Halloween didn’t become profitable enough for commercial growers to produce decorative pumpkins until the suburbanized 1950′s.

Edible pumpkins were driven near extinction in the early 1970′s when a farmer named Jack Howden started to mass produce a firm, deep orange, rotund pumpkin endowed with thick vines to create a fat handle to hold while carving. The $5 billion a year industry that developed around Howden’s inedible creation is, historically speaking, still in its infancy.

And thus the ”tradition” is ripe for improvement. Next year, let’s do something not so different. Let’s replace a fake pumpkin with a real one. The face you carve into it might be more distorted, and it might cost a bit more, but there will finally be a credible reason not to smash the thing at the end of the evening. And most important, as Peter Kalm observed back in 1749, we could once again split it open, roast it, add butter and remind ourselves that some traditions — like cultivating vegetables to eat — should never be destroyed.

Vegan Food

» October 13th, 2012

A number of runners in my running club in Austin, upon learning that I’m vegan, have asked the question that every vegan gets all the time: how do you possibly do it? Although I find the question especially ironic coming from heroic souls who run marathons for fun, I love this question because it provides an opportunity to introduce great sources for vegan recipes. In this post, so as not to overwhelm readers with the tyranny of choice, I’ll recommend two of my favorite sources for superb and accessible vegan recipes.

The first comes from a friend, and a woman who is, in my opinion, the best vegan cookbook writer in the country. Her books, many of her recipes, and her 30-Day Vegan Challenge (an amazing menu course/vegan education) has changed the lives of many people I know. Her name is Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, and what she has to offer can be found here. After trying Goudreau’s recipes, you’ll more likey be asking how can I possibly not go vegan? 

Another source I’d recommend is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Although vegetarian, the book provides literally hundreds of recipes that can be altered to be vegan (and a lot are already vegan). Anyway, an invaluable source in my kitchen.

I’ll follow up in future posts with more excellent vegan sources as well as some vegan recipes for recovering from long runs. Today, after running 20 miles, I healed my muscles with an avocado-cucumber-spinach soup followed by a banana-hemp seed-almond butter-almond milk smoothie (with the help of Vitamix). Throw in a bean quesadilla with nutritional yeast and a handful of pistachio nuts, and  . . . .you’ll be ready for another 20 miles the next day.