Friday, September 28, 2007

The Porcine Persona—Some Highly-Forgettable Pig Facts

Most people I know love pigs. (Note that I am also speaking in the non-gustatory context here.) There's just something charming about the looks and personalities of these wonderful animals. If you are a "pig person" like I am (again in the non-gustatory context), here are a few facts about our porcine brethren (and sistren?) you may find interesting:

· The pig was among the first animals to be domesticated, probably as early as 7000 B.C. Pigs were first introduced to North America in 1539 when Hernando de Soto brought them to the Florida mainland.

· Pigs are remarkably smart. Professor Stanley Curtis of Pennsylvania State University has taught pigs to play computer games by using specially-designed joysticks and offering food rewards for winning results. The pigs like it too. "Nine times out of 10 we have to terminate the session," he says. "Otherwise, they may play all day."

· 277,000 pigs are killed every day in American slaughterhouses.

· A 250 lb. live weight hog will yield approximately 120 pounds of "take home" meat. By-products from the rest of the animal might show up around the average American home in these products: antifreeze, artist's brushes, bone china, buttons, cellophane, cement, chalk, crayons, fabric dye, fertilizer, floor waxes, glass, glue, insecticides, insulation, matches, ornaments, plastics, porcelain enamel, rubber, upholstery, water filters, and weed killers.

The University of Nebraska offers these helpful hints to America's youth: "One basic task involved in the 4-H Swine Project that continually provides difficulty to many 4-H members, leaders and parents is properly ear notching project pigs. While for some this is a matter-of-fact task, others have great difficulty understanding the purpose or practice of notching. …If pigs can be notched when their tails are docked, or at 1-3 days old, the task is much easier. If you allow pigs to become large (100 lbs), the task can become considerably demanding mentally and physically. …When combining ear notching with other pig processing, consider doing the notching last, as it tends to cause more bleeding than other procedures, such as teeth clipping, naval care, injections or tail docking."

"The main job of a pork producer is to make sure the pigs are healthy, comfortable, and well fed." —from the National Pork Producers Council's "Farmtastic Voyage" presentation for kids.

· The PIGVISION Institute in Melbourne, Australia has a project they call PORCONTROL (Pig Operated Remote Control), which will install the switch (button) of a pedestrian traffic light in a piggery in Australia, and link it via the Internet with a set of traffic lights in Europe. During a 24-hour event, which will be run in conjunction with an art festival or symposium, pigs in Australia will effectively stop traffic in Europe.

· From "Ask an Expert" from Porknet at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: "Pork from boars, or uncastrated male pigs at slaughter weight, may have an odor during cooking that is very offensive to many people. This is called a 'boar odor' or a 'tainted' odor. This is the primary reason for castration of male pigs destined for slaughter…"

· Speaking of odors… Manure Matters, a newsletter addressing livestock environmental issues, is now available on the web at (Wouldn't you love to get a business card from the editor of Manure Matters?! I wonder what their corporate logo is?)

· The National Pork Producers Council brags that a three-ounce serving (that's tiny!) of "pork tenderloin" has only 4.1 grams of total fat. They don't mention the fat in those cuts of "pork" much more likely to show up on the average dinner table. The same size serving of "ham", for example, would have 12.9 grams of fat (60% of its calories from fat). Three ounces of "bacon" would have 15.6 grams of fat (77% of its calories from fat).

· Pigs may not get representation in the hallowed halls of Congress, but the people raising them do. The Pork Industry Congressional Caucus (Pork Caucus) is an informal bipartisan group of 26 Senators and 48 House members considered to be "pork industry friends", and who routinely assist the industry on important legislative, regulatory and political issues. I guess this is where the term "legislative pork" comes from.

· According to the lore of the Maine seacoast, it's bad luck to paint a pig on a boat. The boat will sink.

· Since pigs are genetically engineered to grow fast, casting for the title role in the movie Babe posed a special problem. Pigs were trained in several groups because they could only be filmed while they were 16 to 18 weeks old. To make all these animals look alike, makeup artist Carolyn Tryer glued a small tuft of dark hair to the piglets and dyed their lashes black to highlight their eyes. Many vegetarians praised the "subliminal vegetarian message" in the film, and actor James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in the movie/a vegan in real life) appeared at a number of animal rights events, including a tribute "Pignic" sponsored by the Farm Sanctuary in California. After seeing the movie, Oprah Winfrey was inspired to publicly question her consumption of "pork".

· In 1996, the year after the movie Babe came out, per capita annual consumption of "pork" in the United States was 45.9 pounds, down from 52.1 pounds in 1980. …Hey, that's a start!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


A lot of people claim to have a recurring dream where they find themselves naked in front of a large group of people. I've never had that dream, although I'm sure it must be a very exciting experience. I have had the other classic dream—the one about being unprepared for the big final exam. In my version, though, it's usually the last week of the semester, I haven't yet been to any of my six classes, they're always in impossible subjects (history, for example), and I don't even know how to find the classrooms. I wander around aimlessly, asking other students for help, and wondering how I got myself into such a fix. (Actually, this dream is remarkably like my real-life college experience.)

There's another recurring nightmare that I have, and this one involves vegetarianism. I don't know if other vegetarians share this problem, but I sometimes dream that I'm eating meat. The dream starts out simple enough—the meat is just there in front of me, and for some reason it seems right and appropriate to take a bite. Once I get it into my mouth, though, there's that moment of realization. "Oh my god," I scream, "what am I doing?!" I always wake up in cold sweats after the meat-eating dream, and after I calm down it strikes me as very odd that I could have a horrible nightmare about doing something most people do, with pleasure, several times a day.

I have lots of good dreams about vegetarianism too, but they tend to be of the "daydream" variety. Here are a few I've had lately:

  • I'm riding in a plane, and after we get up to altitude the flight attendant comes on the intercom: "Thanks for flying United Airlines ladies and gentlemen. We'll be serving lunch on our flight to New York today. In the main cabin our entrée will be rutabaga stew…" A few minutes later the flight attendants come down the aisle. On top of their cart is a huge pot of stew, and they ladle it out into bowls for the passengers, tearing chunks of brown bread off of big loaves to go with it. Wow, I think, this reminds me of the food service they must have had on trains to Siberia in 1927. It certainly is an improvement over modern airline fare!
  • I dream that the world has gone organic—but since we've all become vegetarians too, that means we use compost rather than cows' manure. In my dream I replace all the toilets in my house with DumpMaster 2000® politically-correct composting toilets. According to the advertising, it only takes fifteen minutes for the "special biological enzymes" in the DumpMaster 2000® to turn household sanitary waste into a "rich loam that's perfect for conditioning the soil in your garden, or for adding an earthy flavor to your favorite casserole." I'm so impressed that I become a successful DumpMaster® franchisee and make millions of dollars.
  • I dream that I'm on a white-sand beach by a shimmering blue ocean. Suddenly three young ladies appear in bikinis, with perfect tans. Even though they are young enough to be my kid sisters (okay, possibly they are even younger than that), I want to be polite, so I invite them over for tofu at my quaint beach shack. "Goody, goody!" they all coo in unison, following me with pitchers of Mai Tais in their hands. "Muscle-bound lifeguards are okay in their place, but we just love vegans."
  • I dream that I'm trying to buy health insurance at the offices of a stuffy insurance company. I'm looking across an intimidating wood desk at a stuffy insurance executive. "Our health policy will cost you a thousand dollars a month," he says sternly. When I ask him what medical costs the policy pays for, he says, "Nothing. But if you have our card in your wallet at least the hospital won't leave you to die in the lobby." I point out that coverage like that doesn't seem like a very good deal—especially for a vegetarian in good health. "Vegetarian!" he says. "Why didn't you say so?! Since you have lower risks, we have a special policy for vegetarians. Your premiums are free!"
  • I dream that I'm in a fancy restaurant for lunch, and I don't see anything vegetarian on the menu. "I'm a vegetarian," I say, wincing in anticipation of the reaction I will probably get. "Can I possibly order the salad niçoise without the tuna, anchovies and eggs?" My waiter nods. "We can do that…" he begins. "We'll add Portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and Italian olive salad, and we'll charge you $3 less." At that point I know I'm dreaming. Too bad I have to wake up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Vegetarian Travel Series, Episode #14: Vegan Dining in Big City

As one of the great cities of America, Big City has long been known for having some of the very best restaurants in the world. Today, as part of our ongoing travel series, we'll visit a few of the most renowned Big City eateries and see what kind of magic their incredible chefs can stir up for the vegan diner.

The very best place to begin our visit to Big City is with a hearty breakfast at Walter Brennan's. With its selection of incredible egg dishes and homemade pastries, Breakfast at Walter Brennan's®
has been a Big City tradition for more than 50 years. We settle into the opulent dining room with a strong cup of coffee (sorry, no soymilk available—they must be temporarily out) and ask our waiter what dishes would be good for vegans.


We explain what "vegan" means, and the waiter shrugs, pointing blankly at the menu. With a little more explanation he is able to offer some helpful suggestions and we're finally ready to order: the fruit cup and white toast, dry. "The cantaloupe is ripe," one member of our group points out. "Very evenly toasted bread," raves another.

After that delicious breakfast a shopping trip down Big City's famous 4th Avenue seems in order. It lightens our wallets, but also perks up our appetites for lunch. We decide to head downtown to the waterfront, and eat at The Seafood House, a quaint restaurant with a seafaring tradition that was once frequented by the likes of Herman Melville and Peter Benchley (though they weren't necessarily there together). We ask the waitress what kind of sandwiches they have.

"Soft-shelled crab and shrimp salad."

We smile and explain our dietary restrictions, after which she shrugs and points blankly at the menu. After a little more explanation she brings us French fries and coleslaw, hold the mayonnaise. The cabbage and potatoes remind us of Ireland, and the famous famine of the mid-19th Century. How colorful!

We walk off our delicious lunch by spending the afternoon hours in Big City's famous Linkletter-Carney Museum of the Arts. The collection is world-class, but looking at the many still lifes (lives?) leaves us hungry for dinner. After a brief stop at our hotel to freshen up, we take a cab uptown to Palms Up, the famous steakhouse where Herman Melville also used to eat. According to the sign, Palms Up prides itself on serving "huge cuts of aged, prime beef in an atmosphere of quiet sophistication." The big leather chairs are a bit heavy for one person to move, but after we get seated and our eyes adjust to the hickory smoke in the air, we enjoy the wood paneling and the jovial conviviality of all the fat people at the neighboring tables.

We know our vegan diets will be a welcomed challenge for the fine chefs at Palms Up, and we rely on our knowledgeable waiter Edward to guide us through a delicious vegan meal.

"What did you say you people are?" Edward asks.

After a little more explanation Edward shrugs and points blankly at the menu. Still more explanation and a discreet $20 bill (we find out later this is why they named the restaurant Palms Up) put Edward on the right track. He suggests the famous Palms Up salad (hold the bacon bits, hold the cheese, hold the hard-boiled egg, hold the dressing) and the famous Palms Up "twice-baked" stuffed potato (hold the butter, hold the bacon bits, hold the sour cream, hold the "stuffing", no need to bake twice). The dinner is very filling, and when it's time for dessert we're glad that the famous Palms Up cheesecake, when modified to be vegan (hold all ingredients), is remarkably light and airy.

Back at our hotel we're happy and tired after the first day of our visit. We've made wonderful choices, and we've had the kind of rare dining experiences one can only get in world-class establishments. We can't wait to see what culinary delights are in store for us tomorrow, as we explore more of the fine restaurants of Big City!