Archive for vegan

Successfully Alienating One’s Neighbors

I just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and now feel compelled to post offensive signs in my front yard in an attempt to change my neighbor’s minds about eating meat and animal products. Not, that the signs wouldn’t be true , but people get a bit uneasy when their ethics and habits are called into question.

I’ve been here before, when I first started on me journey of veganism – the confrontational vegan activist phase of my life. It was not something I enjoyed. Mealtimes became battle scenes. Family gatherings were awkward. I bought lots of activist literature to distribute and stickers to put on products in stores that were tested on animals (but was usually too scared to actually place them on products for fear of getting caught). I thought I had outgrown this episode in my life. But this book compels me not to be silent about the suffering of factory farmed animals. Taking a personal stance and changing one’s personal diet is one good step, but trying to get a few other people to join me would be better and is, in fact, necessary if anything is going to change.

But how exactly does one go about this without becoming the neighbor of nightmares? I don’t mind if people talk about me, but I’d hate to become the object of avoidance or to have my kids targeted because of something I did. I don’t, in short, want to become the wacko freak lady who puts signs in her yard. I have a decent relationship with quite a few of my neighbors. Our children play together. We have them over for dessert. They stop and chat with me when I’m working in the front yard garden. I don’t want this to change. They’re nice people. But they all eat factory-farmed meat and processed cheap food.

I am just utterly mystified that people who mostly like animals (I don’t know many people who don’t have a dog or cat at home) can so willingly fill up the pockets of those corporations that routinely torture, deform, and cruelly slaughter animals. Is it a case of ignorance is bliss? Or simply they’ve been duped by our terribly dysfunctional and unethical food system? I realize money is tight and most of these people grew up eating cheap, processed food. I did, after all. Lots of these people, my neighbors, probably can’t afford to spend the $150 – $200 a week on organic, muchly local, “health” food that it takes for me to feed my family of four (that expense also includes personal products and vitamins). But I also choose not to buy a lot of new clothes and thrift store shop, when possible. We don’t eat out terribly often and I cook most meals from scratch. In other words, if it means spending a bit more on food and opting out of cruelty, I’ll do it. Many argue that eating organic and vegan doesn’t have to be expensive. True. IF you buy only fruits, vegetables, and staples like dried beans, flours, oils and tofu. If you are buying processed foods, like breakfast cereals, crackers, cookies, canned soups, you can expect to pay pretty dearly. A trip to the farmer’s market to buy fruits and vegetables in the summer costs me about $30 – $40 a week, if I’m not stocking up on a case of peaches, for example. And this is only to supplement what I grow in our garden at home. 

My husband thinks I should take the environmental angle – “It takes umpteen thousand gallons of water to produce one steak” argument. Or, better just stick to the positive and put up a sign promoting the importance of gardening at home. Meanwhile, I’m thinking up more blatant, disturbing messages: “Eat Meat. Support Animal Abuse.” “Factory Farmed Animals – the New Holocaust.” “How many animals suffered to feed you today?” You get the gist.

I’m not one of those naive vegans who think it’s possible to convert the entire world to veganism. And, unlike most vegans, I don’t necessarily disapprove of local farmers who humanely raise and slaughter their own animals. If you’re going to eat meat, this is the way to do it. I would even argue that this is more natural than veganism. I just can’t make the leap myself from caring for and loving an animal to slaughtering and eating him. I’m not comfortable with blood on my hands or bloody hands on my behalf. But I think most rational people would agree that factory farming is beyond inhumane and is not sustainable. If the coorporate farms and slaughterhouses cease to exist, and people curb their insatiable appetite for huge quantities of meat and animal products, we would all be better off.

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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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Skinny

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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Vegan Path

A decade has passed since I became vegan – an undertaking that I saw, at the time, as a “project” that would distract me from my deplorable job and endlessly bland life. It was something I could research and immerse myself in and perhaps expand my universe a bit in the process. God knows, in my Midwestern, steak-infested city, I was not thriving, not doing well at all. Dating sucked. Job sucked even more. I needed something to devote myself to, something to feel passionate about. A new project. A new me. 

When a tiny health food coop opened up just two blocks down the road from my apartment, things started looking up. There were hippies in Nebraska! Who knew? These were people who baked bread in the back room and had a small selection of organic (and slightly wilted) produce. I started exploring lacto-ovo cooking, but had a few meat-eating setbacks. It was hard to curb that craving for meat. Despite my ultra-thin appearance, I was a voracious meat eater. I always liked my veggies and fruits too, but a good steak or bbq ribs was my idea of a great dinner out. I started buying organic milk that I thought was from happy cows. I thought I was doing the right thing.

I had always been uneasy about vegetarians, not because I personally saw them as weird or “out there,” but because my family did. I remember one of my only encounters with a vegetarian was at a post-funeral luncheon where two of my relatives conspired not to tell the one-and-only vegetarian guest that the baked beans had pork in them. I felt bad for him. He was an outcast, a freak, and clearly, his motives were misunderstood. I don’t know that my relatives were trying to be mean, in fact, I suspect they weren’t, but they couldn’t possibly have known the difference it would have made to that poor guy to just tell him honestly what was in the beans he was about to eat. I didn’t know that non-vegetarians sometimes feel threatened or judged when a vegan or vegetarian is in close proximity  – as if their values and food choices are being questioned.

I started exploring a bit more deeply. After chatting with a vegan friend online about the milk and egg industry, I was impressed  enough to go cold turkey (excuse the non-vegan reference). He wasn’t judgmental, but had very sound arguments against eating animal products. I had no counter argument. I had always adored animals, but somehow thought that it was natural to eat them. Not that I could ever kill them myself. Until I started actively researching my food choices, I had no idea really how meat, eggs and dairy were produced. Meat, packaged and neatly wrapped at the store, didn’t seem like “animal” to me. What I didn’t completely understand at the time, was that my freedom to choose other foods (vegan foods) allowed me to opt out of cruelty. I could consciously select a palate that was more in line with my ethics. But Omaha was not a vegetarian’s dream. After all, the chain restaurants (and believe me, there’s little else throughout the Midwest) aren’t exactly catering to a crowd of vegetarians. My choices were usually something like a dry baked potato and a salad with no dressing.

I loved to cook, but I needed to learn a whole new way of cooking and did a lot of experimenting with foods I’d never encountered, like tofu and seitan. My first vegan cookbook was published in the ’70s, straight off the presses at a hippy commune – the Farm in Tennessee. I was inspired. I had found “my people.” I learned not to write off a food just because I’d had one bad experience with it. Sometimes, the food was a brand I simply didn’t like and sometimes, it was a poorly written recipe. I learned that there is a vast difference between refrigerated water-packed tofu and the kind that comes in an aseptic package, like Mori Nu. 

I believe veganism provided the impetus for me to get the hell out of Dodge and move out West to Denver. First, I flew to San Francisco to meet my online vegan friend. We had vegan sushi, a dinner at a raw food restaurant, lunch at a tiny Ethiopian place, another lunch at a vegan Buddhist Chinese joint, a divine and pricey dinner at the amazing Millenium Cafe. Back home, I was tired of the lunchtime critiques of my meal and felt like I was doing battle over my food choices. At first, I was an angry, defensive vegan. I felt compelled to buy activist buttons and stickers, to confront people about why consuming animal products was wrong. But that abated with time and experience. I started working out at a gym. I was surrounded by extremly obese (though nice enough), unhealthy people – people who could barely walk because of the oppressiveness of their weight. I was miserable at my job. Dating was a fiasco. I may have been the ONLY vegan in Nebraska. I was lonely!

So when my next big relationship ended and I was at loose ends, I became dissatisfied enough with the status quo to forge a new life – one that involved veganism and a job change. 

While I was applying to graduate schools for a Masters in Library Science, I met yet another vegan guy online who happened to live in Denver. He suggested a graduate program at a nearby university. I must have liked him enough to take the leap. He’s my husband now. And two kids and a Master’s degree later, here were are. While I was in graduate school, I worked at a large health food store and taught vegan cooking classes once a month. Our non-vegan friends and family praise my cooking.

What’s the next big project?

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