Archive for the ‘Eating Plants’ Category
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?
With the Thanksgiving feast finally on the wane, as leftovers gradually disappear, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the myriad challenges faced by vegans who participate in the non-vegan world.
By that description I mean vegans who choose, despite their veganism, to remain involved in extended non-vegan family dinners, often in other parts of the country, at other people’s houses, and in settings where vegans are akin to martians. Not bad people, just eccentric curiosities.
Well, that was me. Scenes at my parents’ house on Thanksgiving would make a sheltered vegan’s head spin. At one point I found myself in my parents backyard, sitting on the lowered door of my brother’s pick-up truck, a spread of hunting magazines around me, watching my brother dip a bird powdered in red dust into a vat of roiling peanut oil.
Mind you: if every person in the world went vegan, my brother, an otherwise very good guy, would be the last. The good news is that I have grist for about a dozen posts from that choice experience.
In any case, it was, in this setting, a sign of hope, and also a touching gesture, that many of the nearly 20 people at dinner brought vegan dishes on behalf of me and members of my immediate family. I ate extremely well on Thursday afternoon: Brussels sprouts, green beans, a spinach and walnut salad, a vegan wild rice stuffing, and a roasted yucca root (my thought she’d bought me a sweet potato). Wine.
The night before my sister-in-law, wife of the world’s most dedicated human carnivore, made me a superb vegan lasagna (she needed the personal assistance of a Whole Foods employee to help her find the ingredients), that I’ve been slicing away at for days. In fact, I just had some for breakfast.
One of the Thanksgiving desserts was a “vegan pumpkin pie” made by my mom. I almost never eat desserts, primarily because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. As a result, I’m rarely in the position to ponder the question that someone with a little more vegan knowledge than others asked, tactfully but out loud, away from the crowd: did mom use vegan sugar? Good question, that one.
Yes, there is non-vegan sugar. And, as it turns out, no, mom had no idea what kind of sugar she used. Mom had no idea she needed to even have an idea. This lack of knowledge, of course, meant that mom most likely used non-vegan sugar. Oh, and I should add, my mom made this pie not for Thanksgiving, but for my birthday, thus leaving me in the position of crushing mom’s feelings or eating a non-vegan pie.
“Awkward . . . ” as my kids would say. I gave the matter some thought, but not a whole lot of thought, before I ate the pie, thanking mom, digging in, making it official that vocal vegan advocate James McWilliams may very well have not eaten vegan on Thanksgiving 2013.
It seemed to me by instinct to be the right decision to make (although I can already anticipate reader disapproval) under the circumstances, and it’s one that, at this point in time, I don’t regret in the least. Made mom happy. Tasted good. Was well intentioned. Would have gone to waste otherwise. Etc. and so on.
And there’s the upshot: If vegans rampage through life holding our moral flags high and making people miserable—or making ourselves look like assholes— because of the purity of our principles, we’ll never make any headway in putting our ideals into action down here on earth, where decent people sit on the back of pick ups and read up on shooting deer while lowering a turkey into boiling grease.
Sure, I’d love it if the question of vegan sugar was a mainstream culinary concern, but it’s not. In fact, as a Thanksgiving event at virtually any house in America will attest, slaughtering and eating sentient animals isn’t even a mainstream culinary concern. Hell, it hardly registers. If I start yapping on about sugar in this setting, I’d be deemed insane.
So, unless you want to remove yourself from the culinary reality in which we live, forget the sugar when it makes sense to forget the sugar. Regrettably, if we want to make headway on the latter concern—that is, reducing the slaughter of farm animals—we’ll have have to eat some pie and start picking the low-hanging fruit.
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.
Here we are in New Orleans, having finished the second leg of a family road trip from Austin to Atlanta. The kids were already throwing elbows at each other before we pulled out of the driveway this morning, but peace ultimately prevailed and, with the exception someone’s occasional bouts of stealth gas (requiring all four windows to be opened in 50 degree weather), it was a mellow seven-hour Sunday drive (aside from a scary gas station stop in New Iberia). There’s something equally beautiful and cruel about being locked in a small space with family for an extended period of time. No. I take that back. Beauty has the edge. Barely.
Barreling through the American landscape at 70 mph can be like watching a film reel of American culinary culture unspool on fast forward. What strikes me most powerfully is how different regions of the country exploit “exotic” animal products to generate tourist attention. The moment we left I-10 and dropped south into the Bayou Teche (a less direct but more culturally rich route) was the moment we began to see massive signs for boudin, cracklins, and crawfish. The crass commercial appeal to backcountry culinary heritage was shameless. So shameless that the advertised product was typically being hawked by a cartoon rendition of the animal himself. How anyone gets away with this signification is a testament to the power of commercial capitalism to squelch all critical thought.
“New Orleans” and “vegan” aren’t words with a harmonious ring. We arrived late and opted to eat at the hotel cafe, negotiating the bacon-infused menu as if it were a minefield. The waiter seemed incredulous that one could order a pizza without cheese. But we did it. We showed him! And he learned something new. I just now googled “Whole Foods New Orleans,” “vegan New Orleans,” and I’m deciding whether it makes sense to introduce my kids to dixieland jazz on Bourbon Street before noon tomorrow. I think it does. More to come. Thank god coffee is vegan.
I’d like to think it was my incessant carpet bombing of the Austin City Council with emails that did the trick. However, with over 456 citizens registering to comment on the legitimacy of backyard chicken slaughter in front of the council, something tells me that larger forces were at work behind the council’s commendable decision to prohibit the insidious practice of backyard slaughter, one that, as I watched the debate unfold, some residents seemed all too eager to execute.
Reasons cited for the decision included noise and smells, as well as traffic, which becomes a problem when urban farms hold events celebrating the unnecessary killing of birds. Nothing was noted on how this practice might very well not be appreciated by the birds, but oh well. Reality is reality. Whatever the justification, animal loving Austinites can rest easy that their neighbor’s backyard won’t be turned into a bloody hellscape.
Things didn’t go as well in Gainesville, Florida. A Pitchfork reader from there tells me that the city commission voted to increase the number of chickens allowed to be kept in urban neighborhoods from 2 to 10. That’s a big jump. But it came with clear articulations of what are bound to be inevitable consequences. For example, the commission ordered that chicken feed be stored in “rodent proof” containers, that manure be regularly removed, and odors not be detectable by neighbors. Good luck with all that. Commissioners noted that they reserve the right to revisit their decision if these stipulations are not met. I hope they keep their word on this promise.
It was something of a coincidence—or maybe just evidence of how ubiquitous this concern is becoming—that yesterday was also the day I posted my Forbes piece on why it’s a bad idea to keep backyard birds. One comment caught my eye, so much so that I did something I rarely do: I responded. Here’s the exchange:
Completely disagree with all of their five reasons. 1. We got our chickens over four years ago and they are still laying. If we didn’t have our chickens we would have purchased dozens of dozens of eggs from commercial egg laying operations where chickens are not treated kindly or humanely. Our chickens are treated VERY well and have excellent lives. We have only bought 2 dozen eggs in over four years (when we were on vacation and out of town) 2. Lame reason, I have saved my chickens from being eaten or from being mistreated in a battery cage. I can’t be expected to save the world, but my chickens are a start. 3. Predation: also completely false in my experience. In over four year exactly ZERO OF MY HENS HAVE BEEN EATEN BY ANY PREDATOR. 4. None of our hens were miss “sexed” as roosters. So much for that reason. 5. Cost is minimal and we get fresh local healthy eggs, our chickens get cared for very well, we give them lots of our scraps to eat and it provides great fertilizer for our garden. Too bad this article tries to focus on fallacies and exaggerations. Shame on Forbes.
I’m genuinely happy to hear that you are able to avoid some of the problems that I discuss regarding keeping hens. I’m curious: where do you live? (not, as in, your address, but what kind of environment), where were your birds hatched?, and would you be willing to allow a curious writer (me) come visit and observe your hens being happy? (I’m quite serious, as I have thousands of examples from hen farmers supporting my claims and I’d be eager to see what makes you operation work, perhaps with the intention of writing a piece to that effect.)
Stay tuned. . . . (and feel free to join the convo at Forbes).
Today I attended an award luncheon for William (“Bill”) Deresiewicz, winner of the 2013 Hiett Prize, offered annually by Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (I won this award in 2009 and, honestly, all I can say after seeing Bill in action is that I’m glad he didn’t apply that year).
Deresiewicz writes literary and cultural criticism for several top-shelf publications, including The Nation and The American Scholar. His thoughts are consistently well-wrought, quietly subversive, and often deeply inspiring. In addition to trenchant criticism, he’s also written A Jane Austen Education, a lovely book that I thoroughly enjoyed, although it’s one that, in its relative tameness, only hinted at the bomb of a message he set off today, in the middle of what was essentially a roomful of people embodying a genteel blend of intellectual curiosity and outsized affluence. The reception was at the Bush Library. The dish was salmon. Poached.
In his talk, Deresiewicz, lamented what he identified as a critical failure of higher education—namely its growing emphasis on technological proficiency and professionalization. This development, he argued, has not only cheated literature, but–more to the point—it has cheated the gift that taking literature seriously ultimately provides: an engrained habit of reflection.
On a number of occasions, he suggested that literature, and the wisdom it conveys, was not some sweet little cherry atop the real work of life. It was the real work of life. The applause after his talk thundered, but I couldn’t help thinking that more than a few attendees had benefitted materially from the educational approach that Deresiewicz excoriated as the foundation of a culture built on a foundation of cheap entertainment, mindless indulgence, and superficial wealth.
As Deresiewicz developed his argument, nailing it down with quotes from a range of writers and critics, I found my own endless frustration with not only higher education, but life in general, being uncannily articulated, empathized with, and explained. And potentially rectified. After all, the message was an empowering one: if we took art seriously, tried to “see” it in the truest sense, perhaps we might become more thoughtful and reflective human beings. Deresiewicz was offering a prescription, although he would be reluctant to see it that way.
With literature, we might start to “know thyself” and, at the same time, appreciate the wisdom conferred by knowing thyself. Again, Deresiewicz was hesitant to attribute concrete societal benefits to his message. But, given my own very precise sense that truly good (and highly educated) people do terrible things to animals because they don’t reflect on their actions, I left the talk waving a flag for literature as, in part, a pathway to animal liberation. I also kept thinking about Ivar, the Norwegian farm hand in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers (a book I’m now reading). Ivar wears no shoes, is considered by townies to be insane, lives in the barn, but is one of the most self-reflective characters in the book. Notably, he won’t so much as tolerate a human raising his voice at an animal.
Don’t reject the power of literature to elevate life to another level of consciousness, one where crazy change becomes a reality. I know, I know. That sounds dramatic. But I’m committed to the proposition, and it was beautifully clarified between 1:00 and 1:45 this afternoon. The Fumarole, the literary component of my blog, serves the purpose of helping me retreat from the frameworks that the dominant culture (or whatever you want to call it) assumes without question and promotes without shame. In achieving that distance, the problems I face as a critic of animal agriculture become clarified when I become a critic of literature, or at least engaged with literature. The entire intellectual and emotional process of confronting a novel—and, although it’s getting harder to do, discussing it with others— allows me to undertake my advocacy with deeper humility and compassion and, yes, even love for those who do not yet see the ethical implications of eating animals. Or even want to.
I don’t mean to suggest that literature serves the purpose of instilling within me a radical tolerance for compromise qua compromise. Not at all. A focus on people, on social relations, and on different settings and situations—all of which are endemic to reading novels (“time and space” said Bill)—illuminates the human capacity for change, for redemption, for revolution. But, as Deresiewicz reminded me with rare eloquence this afternoon, we can’t do it without books.
Readers have heard it before. But it never hurts to try and distill it to its essence. Please visit the article here at Forbes. At the moment all the links are dead. Not sure why.
My daughter Cecile, who is nine, has been working on some drafts for a fantasy billboard that we’d like to rent in Austin. One of them is a bit too busy for that venue, but the other might not be. In any case, I think they’re insightful drawings and wanted to share them with you. Cecile is also open to any ideas you might have regarding how art can convey the message that we should love animals and not eat them. Thanks.
There’s a kind of truth that hits you out of the blue.
I’ve spent much of the day thinking. Thinking about GMOs, labeling, privilege, love, sex, death, A Farewell to Arms, how it’s possible to spend $44 on duck tape, why I can’t play barre cords, why expensive wines satisfy me less than cheap ones, if the woman who said she knew every farmer who provided food to her restaurant knew the farmer who grew the wheat that made her bread, why there are so few woman micro-brewers, why so many male brewers have beards that would have made cavemen feel impotent, if there’s a connection between the last two themes, and why my “all natural” piece at Forbes was such a flop. Anyway, thoughts.
None of these thoughts admit of easy answers. But then you get hit–out of the blue (wherever that phrase comes from)– with something that requires no thought, no answer. Just a mindless observation.
My dog barked. I’d forgotten that I’d left him out back. He barked to be let in. I opened the door. He walked in. He’s a sweet guy, goes by George, has never so much as bared his teeth, and has his own script for human Xanax (thunderstorm anxiety). And he stood next to me. No apparent reason. He just stood there. And I leaned down to scratch his neck. He stinks, I thought. And then he looked at me. Tilted his head and looked. He has these perfect orange eyes. It was unusual, but he just stared at me.
And this is when it hit me of out of the blue: how is it that we even have to debate killing animals? Why so many overwrought discussions? Why do I travel hither and yon and visit architecturally gothic campuses to say it’s wrong? It’s so obvious that it’s wrong. No philosophical reasoning required. No lectures needed. Just orange eyes and a honest gaze and the knowledge that sentience is sentience.
George refuses to submit to a photo, but my son got him above, actively afoot, fleeing the camera, enjoying the experience of being George, pursing the glory of being alive, oblivious to the admiration in which he deserves to bask. Doing exactly what George wanted to do.
Photo cred: Owen McWilliams
Do we have a right to know how our food was made? Seems like a fairly self-evident question. But in fact it’s one that the more I think about the more complicated it gets, especially in the context of the ongoing effort to label foods made with GMOs. I’m writing about this issue now for publication, so I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but I do want to explore this deceptively simple idea of having a right to know about the food we eat.
Adam Merberg, a Ph.D student in mathematics at Berkeley and a very thoughtful blogger on food issues, recently expressed skepticism about the “right to know” argument as it applies to the GMO labeling debate. Building on the work of ethicist Chris MacDonald, he writes, ”it’s not hard to think of bits of information that almost nobody would claim to have a right to.” Do we, for example, “have the right to know the exact temperature at which a loaf of bread was baked?,” he asks.
Of course, a knee-jerk objection to such a question might be that GMOs carry risks that baking temperature does not and, as a result, consumers have a right to know about GMOs because they have a right to know about the risks they are taking when they choose to consume a food product.
This objection is complicated by at least two factors. First, contrary to common anti-GMO thought, there is no hard evidence that GMOs are any more or less dangerous for consumers than the conventional hybrids that make food food. The world’s leading health organizations have all come out and declared GMOs safe.
Second, let’s say there were scientifically documented questions regarding the safety of GMOs. This factor alone would not necessarily justify a label. The food supply chain is riddled with danger points. There are innumerable risk-oriented aspects of food production that, if GMOs made the cut, would also qualify for a label. In time, food labels would carry dissertations of information that, like dissertations, nobody would read or even pay attention to.
Do we have a right to know, for example, if the farm that grew the food was located hear a petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the manure that was used on an organic farm came from a factory farm? Do we have the right to know if the conventional fertilizer used on a conventional farm contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know, a la Portlandia, if our chicken (“Colin”) ever had a cough? All of these aspects are common in agriculture. But there’s no way we could reasonably expect this level of detail on a label.
I’ll end with two thoughts. Advocates of GMO labels might very well have a case to make for labeling. But thus far, because it has been a case rooted in ideology rather than science or consumer interest, it has not been in the least convincing. Second, when it comes to a right to know what’s in our food, the hard reality is that we sacrificed at least some of those rights the moment we left the land and entrusted others to bring food to our plates. And even when we were in charge, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, much less did we have a right to comprehensive knowledge about the infinite steps required to turn the natural world into food.
Eating is an inherently risky act. Good luck to you.