Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Won’t Anyone Consider Vegetarianism?

Omelets, glasses of water…

and Uncle Charlie smells like a cow—

At last count, and this was several years ago, there were about 1.2 billion cows in the world. (There are probably even more now, although I suppose for the most part they are different cows.) Now, it seems that each of these animals, by belching and by various other means, which we cannot mention here, emits about 14 cubic feet of methane gas each day. This makes cows a major source of air pollution, and a large contributor to the "greenhouse effect."

At the U.S. government's agricultural research facility in Beltsville, MD they put cows in Plexiglass cages and study the amount of methane that is produced. The idea is to alter the cow's diet and other conditions to come up with a "clean cow" that won't pollute so much. This would, of course, make barns smell a whole lot better, and would make many farmers very happy. I'm sure it's a terrific use of our tax dollars. Still, I wonder if they've thought about vegetarianism?

For years scientists have been working on ways to preserve milk so it can endure long periods without refrigeration on your cupboard shelf and still be drinkable. More recently, they've developed ways to raise chickens to produce eggs with less cholesterol. These are exciting ideas and make dairy farmers and omelet lovers very happy. But do you think they've considered vegetarianism?

In Zimbabwe they have a problem with preserving wildlife. As is the case in so many other countries, raising cattle is a status symbol there. As the population gets wealthier and more westernized, the expanding cattle ranches displace wildlife habitat. The government has come up with a program to charge hunters big bucks (that's the money kind of bucks) for every lion or elephant they shoot, and to funnel these funds back to the local villages. This gives the rural population an incentive to preserve habitats and make sure game is there for the rich tourists to hunt. Pretty clever idea, huh?—hunt the game you're trying to save. But wouldn't it have been better just to promote vegetarianism?

In California for the last couple of years there has been a water shortage. The problem was so bad last summer that restaurants in Los Angeles could be fined if they served a glass of water to a customer without it being requested. Of course, it took 2500 gallons of water to produce the steak that same customer would eat. Did anyone consider vegetarianism?

It seems that so many of the world's troubles— from depletion of rainforests, to drift nets killing our oceans, to your Uncle Charlie's evening flatulence— could be solved by humans simply giving up eating animals. Instead, though, people prefer to labor for years to find politically acceptable compromises or miracle scientific "cures" for these problems. And of course no one gives vegetarianism a thought.

To ask that people give up their ham sandwiches would require too much of a sacrifice, I suppose. Our meat eating society would rather live with dirtier air and water, faster global warming, massive climatic changes from loss of the earth's vegetation, extinction of species, soil erosion, more heart disease, more cancer, higher food prices, etc., etc. Not to mention ugly golden arches and pictures of Colonel Sanders on every corner.

Getting back to our consideration of cows and their gas, though, I may have a solution to this methane problem. I once knew an agricultural engineer who told me food could be recycled four times through a cow. The trick, he said, is to mix in a little molasses each time. (Apparently a cow will eat anything if it's covered with molasses.) I figure digestion of food four times— actually four cycles times four stomachs equals sixteen times— will help this mess. If it doesn't, I haven't a clue. Unless, of course, someone wants to consider vegetarianism.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reflections on an Un-Turkey Thanksgiving

When I was a child, Thanksgiving was turkey day. By the time we got to my grandparents' house in the early afternoon, the smell of the roasting bird reached clear out to the car. I'd run into the house, excited, and open the oven door to see it. Despite the fact that it looked done to me, it would always take what seemed like an eternity to get everything ready to eat. My job was mashing the potatoes that would serve as the receptacle for turkey gravy. It was a simple procedure, but one entirely dependent on adding just the right amount of milk. A more complex task, left to my father and grandfather, was dissection of the great bird. I was convinced that it was a job that required not only my constant supervision, but also my occasional nibbling fingers to remove small pieces that fell by the wayside and would otherwise go to waste. When we were finally ready to eat, there would be the yearly battle between my great-grandmother and me over the parts of the turkey we liked best. She always let me win.

After the main course, I have memories of multiple pieces of pie with whipped cream and card playing on the big round table—once it was cleared. Then, later that night, and for some days thereafter, there would be turkey sandwiches, always on white bread with mayonnaise.

I look back on the Thanksgivings of my youth with mixed feelings. I remember at times I would think about the turkey as a real animal rather than just a meal. At those times, I would feel bad, wondering why this bird had to give his or her life for the sake of our supper. I would ease my conscience with the thought that Thanksgiving and turkey were synonymous—you couldn't have one without the other. Not only was turkey the whole point of Thanksgiving, but it was something that everyone, including my family, subscribed to—it must be right! But even if it wasn't, there was nothing a young boy could do about it.

I've learned a lot since then. I know now that, while it can't be denied that a certain amount of tradition has evolved around eating a turkey as the main dinner course, and while that tradition holds memories for lots of us, that doesn't make it right. Eating turkeys is not the whole point of Thanksgiving. The slaughter of a bird is no closer to the meaning of the holiday than are the Macy's parade or the football games on the majority of our television sets. There are other traditions to be had for the asking that can be just as enjoyable and even more meaningful. I also know that what matters to me now about those Thanksgivings long ago is not what we ate, but what we were—a family with an opportunity to be together, to share our support and love for one another.

While many of the family members I shared my early Thanksgivings with are now gone, in many ways the holiday itself means more to me now than it ever has. Part of the reason is that I no longer have to endure those tugs at my conscience—there is no turkey on my table. While I once felt powerless to defy tradition and change that one aspect of the holiday that bothered me, I now know that my Thanksgiving is whatever I choose to make it.

This year at our vegetarian Thanksgiving feasts we will all have a great deal to be thankful for. We'll have the opportunity to celebrate the fruits of the harvest, and to revel in the bounty that the earth provides without the necessity of taking life. There will be good food and good friends.

This year I'll have my eye on the children, and I'll admire their parents for raising them as vegetarians. Together with vegetarian families across the country they will be creating new Thanksgiving Day traditions—traditions that carry with them a message of reverence for life that can be passed from generation to generation.

Thanksgiving is a special holiday for vegetarians. This is particularly true for vegetarian children, as their Thanksgiving will have only the joy and the love—without the killing, and without knowing the guilt. What a fine Thanksgiving that is!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Being More than We Ever Thought We Could Be

The good news is that I can still comfortably wear several of the items of clothing I wore in college. …The bad news is that they are all shoes.


A study that appeared last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the average American gains about one pound during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday, over-eating, season. That doesn't sound like much of a weight gain, considering the amount of pumpkin pie, gravy and stuffing most Americans stuff into themselves during those six weeks. The problem, though, is that despite our best New Year's resolutions, we never seem to lose that extra pound. And a one-pound-a-year weight gain can really add up. By the time we reach middle age we find we've gone from a "size 2" to "the size of 2."

I used to think that we vegetarians were immune from worries about being fat. I thought all vegetarians were skinny. Of course, that was back in the days when I could see my neck above my shirt collar. That was back when I could zip up my pants.

Now I have to face the fact that even my vegan diet won't save me from the inevitable. No, I don't eat gravy and stuffing, or even pumpkin pie—at least at the non-vegetarian holiday parties I go to. Instead, I stand by the nut bowl and consume 47 handfuls of roasted cashews. Gads. The net effect is just the same. I'm a veritable poster boy for the American holiday weight-gaining experience. It's amazing I don't gain two pounds every year.

Sometimes I wonder why all vegetarians aren't fat. If there's one thing we all have in common it's a love of food. And we all eat way more than the "normal" human beings around us. Last week, for example, I went to dinner with a group of vegetarians. We were at a restaurant known for large portions, but that didn't slow us down a bit. Between the 8 of us we ordered 12 entrees. (Count 'em—12!) Then we went out for desserts. I felt like we should have had a warning sign for other diners: "We're vegetarians. Don't get between us and food!"

Of course, I'm bad even by vegetarian standards. The other day at the office I was trying to squeeze the lunch I'd brought in onto two full-size dinner plates when a friend said sheepishly: "Gee, isn't that a lot of food?" I guess it was. No wonder I can't see my feet anymore. No wonder my parents just sent me sweat clothes big enough to house the circus.

Things have gotten so bad lately that I've started to look at the processed foods grocery stores stock for fat people. I've already tried vegan "lite" (grocers don't think we fat people can spell) mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. Not bad, but not exactly health food either. I had my eye on a jar of "Santa Cruz Fat Free Guacamole" until I read the label and realized it wasn't really guacamole (no avocados!) and it wasn't even fat-free (canola oil was a listed ingredient!). Grocers must think we fat people are stupid too.

I'm not sure what to do next. I looked into one of those weekend fasting retreats, but the price they quoted me was kind of high—and that didn't even include meals. Maybe I'll join a health club. Then again, maybe I should just resign myself to my place in history. I'll be the one in the back row, between the Michelin Man and the Goodyear Blimp. I'll have a spare tire around my waist too.

The year 2000 census tells us that there are now more than 283 million Americans. Nearly 55% of us are already fat, and collectively we're gaining 283 million pounds a year.

It's amazing the whole country doesn't just sink into the ocean.