Archive for October, 2009

Bye-Bye Vegan Diet? Or, Little Cluck Cluck Meets the Axe

Could I be a killer? That is the real question. I know, I know, I sound like a bit of a whiner. Anything living ends up killing something even if the killing is accidental:  chopping up worms when I dig the garden soil, crushing ants as I cross the driveway, the endless smearings of flying critters spattering my windshield as I drive. What’s the big deal, right? The thing is, I feel bad about even these deaths – the deaths can’t control. I can only imagine how it would feel to intentionally slaughter something bigger than a bug – something with a distinct personality, soulful eyes, and a significant amount of blood.

I doubt that many hunters sob over the prostrate bodies of the animals they kill, but I can guarantee you I would. No victory dances for me, thank you very much.  On a PBS show, I once saw Ted Nugent prance wildly in celebration around a dead wild boar that he had shot with an arrow in one of his hunting videos. I found that disrespectful, disgusting even. To gloat over another living creature’s suffering and demise, shameful – especially since this animal was going to feed his family. This is the problem I have with hunting for “sport.” Hunting to survive is one thing and the animals should be respected in life and death, but “sport” implies the right to gloat, to preen and prance about as if it death for death’s sake is a victory.

One of the things that I’m a bit concerned about with the coming of peak oil…well, ok, more like panicked aboutis the possibility that I may have to eat animals or animal products again out of sheer necessity. While I’ve worked through my ethical concerns about eating the eggs of fowl that I would obtain from ethical sources and raise humanely on my own property, I cannot reconcile myself to dispatching one of my hens when she reaches retirement age. Thanks for the years of service, Henny, now into the pot you go! Knowing that our economic status would probably prohibit me from continuing to feed a “nonproductive” member of our household (kids not included), brings up all kinds of uncomfortable issues for me.

I understand the reason behind responsible animal husbandry – grass-fed, naturally raised beef, for example. I know the history of animal domestication and the reason why raising animals is an essential part of farming – especially organic farming. Grazing and foraging animals like chickens, goats, cows produce tons of natural organic fertilizer and, in small numbers, benefit the pastures they graze upon. The poop helps the grasses grow and can also be spread on garden beds to enrich the soil. The animals supply the farmer with one or more “crops”: milk, meat, eggs, wool. The animals live a good life and then bang (or whack), they feed the farmer’s family. The problem for me comes when you’ve spent months or years caring for the critters every day and suddenly it’s not an issue to send them to slaughter. I know farmers who talk as if they love and care for their animals yet still enjoy them on the dinner plate. I’ve read books and heard interviews with farmers – farmers whose general philosophies and practices I would mostly approve of otherwise – who have no trouble viewing their livestock as commodities – a crop (I think it was Barbara Kingsolver who put it that way). They gave them a good life and have no problem giving them a “good” death to feed their families or make a living. They aren’t sentimental about their animals even though they take the time to scratch a sow’s back or mingle with and pat the cows every day. Granted, these animals will die from natural causes or disease eventually even if they weren’t destined for dinner. I have a problem being the agent of that death.  What gives me the right to decide that a year or two is long enough for a cow to live when they might live to be 15? 

I’m also familiar with the idea that domesticated animals wouldn’t exist without us – true enough. However, I don’t buy into the thought, raised by some, that these animals have “thrown in their lot” with us and agree to feed people in return for the privilege of existing. I don’t believe animals would willingly sacrifice themselves so that their species can continue to exist. This is not to say that animals don’t have a sense of the future – just not the future in those terms. Faced with danger an animal will not choose to be killed and eaten if given the opportunity for escape. 

I do not disagree that in subsitance agriculture, animal products provide essential fat, protein and calories. However, Americans, most of us, are not living hand to mouth. It is the CHOICE not to contribute to animal suffering that keeps me returning to to veganism. If i did not have this CHOICE, if my family was dirt poor and a few chickens could make the difference between starvation and survival, yes, I could still choose to let my family perish, but that would seem pretty silly. Being vegan is a luxury allowed by our current somewhat “elite” (as compared to much of the world) lifestyle. Now, many people in the world eat very few animal products because they are costly and dear and this is how it should be. Instead, our society has cheapened animal products so much that we raise millions of animals in such nightmarish conditions that death is probably a welcome blessing for them. 

As long as I can, I will remain vegan (with the exception of a the few humanely acquired eggs I’ve mentioned in the past). Now, honey is another issue…and I’ll talk about that some other time.


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Next Year

I blogged yesterday about a few things I already do to try to lessen my impact on the environment and to ease my family into the hardships that may be coming. Now, I’d like to talk about the future.

Every year, as the first frosts turn my tomato plants to mush (no worries, green tomatoes already safely inside), I start to make plans for next year: what to grow, where to put it, what didn’t work out. In the middle of winter, when the first seed catalogs start to arrive, I’m already rarin’ to go.

This year, I did much better about harvesting and using what I grew – even if that meant giving away some of our produce so that someone (other than our compost pile) could make good use of it. If I’d had a dehydrator, I would have been able to put up small quantities, but our tomatoes, especially, didn’t produce enough at one time to justify canning. Strange year. Lots of rain, but no real hot weather until the very end of summer. 

This upcoming year, I’d like to tackle some projects to make us even more self-sufficient and to ensure that we utilize our small harvest to the utmost. 

Plans for Next Year:

The Garden

  • Build trellises for cucumbers
  • Don’t bother growing my own melons
  • Expand herb garden to include chamomile, dill, and reintroduce lemon balm (in pot!) and borage
  • Get better at drying and using my herbs
  • Plant more plum tomatoes and can sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa, etc.
  • Try growing quinoa
  • Order more garlic for next fall’s planting (Music and Siberian varieties were delish
  • Plant at least double the potatoes I grew this year and larger varieties – keepers. Don’t bother with fingerlings (except for seed stock I saved this year)
  • Order two more raspberry canes (Caroline)
  • Order 1 – 2 more fruit trees depending on space and pollination factors

Building Projects

  • Build or acquire solar oven and dark colored pot to cook in
  • Build solar food dryer
  • Bees? Consider building top-bar hive over winter. Read up on this and be sure of city ordinances and safety factor for kids

In General:

  • Can more of our own produce or produce from farmer’s market 
  • Go to pick-your-own organic strawberry place and get enough for jam and dried berries
  • Host 2nd annual Kitchen Garden Open House
  • Paint some signs for our garden (once I decide what to call our “farm”)
  • Vermicompost?
  • Find bulk (hopefully local) resources for dried beans and some grains and order more
  • Build up enough food stores for three months
  • Put together my tofu press and try it out
  • Create more food storage areas in the house
  • Salvage, thrift, and garage sale more

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In all earnestness

I haven’t been able to blog in a few days – a week? Heck, when was my last post anyway? I have a two-year-old who hasn’t napped more than 20 minutes a day for a while now. I’m hoping today will be different. But then, I’ve hoped that for the last week…and well then I’d hear little feet making their way across the floor to my in-home library where I write. Darn it! So far, so good today. I’ll get on with it.

“Most of our citizens wake up in the morning and worry about the morning commute and getting the kids to school and paying the mortgage and thinking about a new car or vacation…and this is simply too narrow a scale of thinking to address the problems that we have.” – Joseph Tainter, professor and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (quoted from the documentary The 11th Hour)

I watched the documentary The 11th Hour the other day and have been inspired to get with the program and really take steps to ensure that our family’s carbon footprint is small – though our being vegan is already lessening our impact in a big way. Sometimes, other than shelling out $20, 000 to convert our house entirely to solar or kissing our cars bye-bye, I feel a little lost about how just to go about what I should be doing. I’ve read a couple of books, but they were more along the lines of Al Gore recommending we trade our incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. Done that, duh.

I’m also delving into Sharon Astyk’s new book Independence Days:A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation which arrived yesterday. She says, and I believe her, that we have a moral imperative to take on the actions that lessen our impact on the planet. And, gulp, that we owe it to our children and future generations to do without and experience a bit of discomfort (like lowering the heat) so that they HAVE a future. Now I really feel guilty about all of my excuses – how I don’t have time to preserve much food or hang the laundry; how I can’t stand the cold and keep my heat at a toasty 67. But, I should give myself some credit for all of the things I DO (or have done) and all of the future projects I plan to attempt in earnest. 

I recently emailed Ms. Astyk and told her how much I admired her efforts, but made some glib comment about how I bet my house is cleaner (she’s admittedly laid-back about housekeeping). So, when the real crises start to hit, my family will be freezing (we have no heat other than our boiler) in our very tidy house and begging for food. Her family will have adapted fairly well and have ample wood heat and enough food to last the winter. What an ass am I?

 So, in the hope that I am actually making progress in my goal of being more self-reliant and in lessening my impact on the environment, here’s a list of what I have already done.

Things Done:

  • Replaced all bulbs with compact flourescents
  • Buy used clothing and household goods whenever possible (I could still improve a bit in this area and hunt out garage sales)
  • Cloth diapered my first son. Tried with my second, but no matter what I did, he got terrible rashes on his legs, so now I use 7th Generation diapers and feel guilty every time I throw one out. I tried a few times to switch back to cloth, but no luck
  • Vegan diet and lifestyle
  • I keep a pantry  – enough to last (I hope) about two weeks. Plus freezer in garage (obviously useless if we lose electricity).
  • Breastfed my kids forever (the first for 3 1/2 years, the second is currently two) thus eliminating the need for icky and expensive formula
  • I buy about 99% organic groceries and other products from our small health food store and try to avoid the mega corporations, though that’s next to impossible since they’ve all been bought out
  • I buy in bulk when possible (though our “bulk” commodities come pre-packaged)
  • I shop weekly at the farmer’s market to support our local growers and get to know them
  • I joined a CSA last year, but found that even a half share was too much for us with our own garden producing so much and I like being able to pick my own produce at the farmer’s market. Still, I recommend it for people who don’t garden or make it to the farmer’s market each week.
  • Tore up 2/3 front lawn this year and converted it to vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals (mostly xeriscape types)
  • Planted two apricot trees and raspberry patch(raspberries should give us a harvest next summer)
  • Four large raised bed veggie gardens, herb garden and strawberry patch in back yard
  • Raise 97% of my own vegetables from seed, including heirloom tomatoes
  • Took a class on herb gardening and herb use
  • Took a class on water bath canning
  • We recycle as much as possible
  • Canned and or froze a good amount of peaches, peach jam, red currants, raspberries, rhubarb, cherries, green beans and zucchini
  • Actually accomplished a fall planting of lettuces, bok choi, tatsoi, kale, and spinach this year!
  • Joined a local urban homesteading group. Though I an seldom attend meetings because of work/childcare conflicts.
  • Hosted our first annual kitchen garden open house – complete with heirloom tomato tasting and informational handouts
  • Am trying to monitor our electricity usage (checking out a wattage meter from our local library -cool huh?)
  • Am washing most of our clothes in cold water
  • Occasionally hand a load on the clothesline (could improve MUCH in this area)
  • Our cars are old (10 years or more) and we won’t buy new again. I’d get rid of one car if I could find a feasable way to accomplish errands without a car during the day. Biking isn’t safe for the route my husband has to take and he takes our eldest son to school with him in the mornings. Given enough time, however, I can bike to my part-time job at least part (or most) of the year. Working on that…
  • We take mostly driving vacations and usually fairly local in-state ones 

I could do more. And, I’m working on it. I need to take this much more seriously. It weighs on me. Every time I do something like throw away the last of the cherry tomatoes that didn’t get eaten or put another load of laundry in the dryer, I see Sharon Astyk peeking over my shoulder sadly shaking her head.

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Ok. So I knew I was thin…too thin for my tastes, but today at my annual Dr’s appointment, she confirmed it – “You know you’re a little thin, right?” She told me that I would have to weigh 136 to even be on her chart for a BMI of 19. I later got online to use a BMI calculator and came up with an actual BMI of 17.9. From what I’ve read, anything below 18 could be considered anorexic. Great. How attractive I must be, little skeletal me.I weigh 128 and am 5’11”. Sigh.

I told the doc I was vegan, but that really, I eat constantly. I do! I told her about the great egg experiment. I told her I’ve been breast feeding two kids for 5 years straight. She said she’s just concerned about what could happen if I get sick because I have absolutely no reserves. I agree. Wholeheartedly. If someone could just tell me how to put on a few pounds without contributing to animal suffering and cruelty, I’d do it. 

I looked up the fairy chicken lady again. Yep. She’s still around. (See my great egg experiment post). I could give it a try once more. I really don’t know what else to do. Clearly, my body needs some dense calories. 

Truly, I out-eat my husband easily. For lunch today, I had a generous bowl of lentil vegetable soup, a bagel with vegan margarine, vegan cr. cheese, three slices of vegan “chicken”, a bowl of collard greens, a cup of soy milk, and four chocolate chip cookies. It’s not like I’m low-cal or watching my fat grams. I say bring on the fat! 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I see kids “thriving” on over-processed junk food, they do continue to at least grow on less than ideal diets. So why can’t I stay at a healthy looking weight eating a wide variety of healthy food? Doesn’t make sense. Could be my metabolism just needs a few animal products? I don’t know. There are studies on veganism proprosed or in process, but nothing that would give me the answer to this question yet.

I would hate to eat something that goes against my ethics. I’m raising my family vegan, for christsakes. I feel fine. I’m quite strong – strong enough to rip up my entire front yard, haul dozens of wheelbarrows of soil and rock and mulch and then garden all summer. I don’t feel run down or weak.

I’ve had this weird, disconnected feeling lately though. That I’m somehow disconnected from the cycles of nature because I’m in my little “happy vegan life- pod” not eating any creatures or their products, not contributing intentionally to any animal suffering (exception: cat food for my cats), and thus removed from the natural cycles of life and death.  I want to blog about this issue separately. 

What to do? What to do?

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The Egg Experiment

This year, after 10 years of being a vegan, I embarked on the Great Egg Experiment. The factors leading up to this were two-fold. First, I had grown extremely skinny. The kind of skinny that isn’t attractive on most women. I felt gaunt, bordering on holocaust victim in appearance. This comes, perhaps, from a combination of nursing on a constant basis for the last five years, chasing after two kids, and my natural propensity for leanness. It’s not for lack of good food, I assure you. I’m a great cook and make nearly everything from scratch. However, a vegan diet is not calorie dense. It takes fairly large quantities of food to even get close to 2000 calories a day. Second, this spring, after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and a handful of other books about eating locally and raising your own, I was inspired to research the possiblity of keeping our own hens for eggs.

I picked out possible names: Midred, Bessy, Turtle. I searched the Web for sites on backyard chicken-keeping. I talked to neighbors about the prospect of adding a few hens to our yard. I checked out ever book from the library on chickens that I could find. I made plans for the perfect coop. I dreamed of all of the recipes I could now make that simply cannot be adapted to vegan – brioche, popovers, eclaires. I envisioned quick fried-egg sandwiches for lunch and hard-boiled eggs for snacks. I would gain a few healthy pounds. I would join the ranks of true urban homesteaders. If my husband hadn’t put the kabosh on the project, there would likely be three hens happily pecking around in my back yard right now.  

We decided to take baby steps. Just to test whether I could become an egg eater after nearly 10 years as a vegan, we found a local source on Craigslist for humanely raised, organic, truly free-range eggs. I talked to the lady on the phone and she understood my dilemma and welcomed me to bring my family to see her hens and decide for myself. She had started with what was supposed to be 25 chicks from a mail-order hatchery (something I don’t really support), but instead, 50 chicks had arrived. Now, she had about 100 because she let a few of the hens raise chicks each year. She had one rooster who mostly lived apart from the hens. She said she never killed the hens and that even after they were retired from egg-laying, they lived out their natural lives with her. She took them to the vet when they were sick and she found homes for any cockerels that she hatched out, though she couldn’t say honestly what their ultimate fate was. 

It sounded like the most ethically sound operation I could possibly hope for, other than raising my own hens who had been “adopted” from a farmer who no longer wanted them. The kids, to say the least, were excited to see so many chickens. One faithfully followed Cedar, my four year old, around the back yard step-for-step. The “yard” appeared to be several acres, including a wooded ravine area where most of  the chickens were milling about. Despite the number of chickens, there was no odor and the yard and hen houses were immaculate. Just a few smatterings of chicken poo here and there, which would be expected. The chickens all looked healthy and happy and we even went into the hen houses and observed a few hens laying. The lady picked up one of the hens who had been purring at her for attention and stroked it while we made the tour. We left with six eggs (her refrigerator was overflowing with them!) for $1.50. 

I talked with my sons about how beautiful the eggs were  – some white, some brown. On the car ride home, they held them carefully as if they were jewels.  

I should tell you that I have a “thing” for chickens. They are cute in a obsurd, exotic way. Reptilian feet to match reptilian eyes, jerky head tilts, poufs of feathers. I have chicken stationery and chicken stickers to match. I get books from the library about exotic breeds of chickens. I am predisposed to imagining myself as one who keeps hens. I do not, as it turns out, particularly enjoy eating eggs. 

We tried them in pancakes. We sampled them scrambled. My husband and kids weren’t thrilled. In fact, I think the kids maybe had one bite each. My husband, to humor me, ate them, but without any enjoyment. We then bought a dozen more to dye for Easter – something we’ve never done as a vegan family. The kids loved that. Then, mommy ate a few of the hard boiled eggs. Surprisingly, this was how I liked them best. 

In the end, I think we had about three raw eggs that sat in the refrigerator for two months until I finally threw them in the compost pile.  The reality is that I wanted the hens more than I wanted the eggs. I still do. I guess I’m just “too far gone” to undo being vegan on a permanent basis. I’m sure many vegans, if there are any reading this, are appalled. But I wanted to test whether there was such a thing as an ethical egg – there is (see below). And, whether it’s possible to be an imperfect vegan and still be able to live with myself. I find, I can. 

Perhaps, one of these days, I’ll attempt the grand experiment again…maybe next Easter. But mostly, I just want a few hens to keep me company in the garden.

Ethical egg:

  • adopt unwanted hens from a local farmer (thus saving them from slaughter?)
  • provide hens with all of the henly amenities (good food, forage, free range to stretch wings and legs and be chickenly, warm coop for safety and cold weather, love)
  • keep hens for their natural life span
  • if the chickens produce eggs, either eat them, feed them to cats, or compost them
  • use manure in garden

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