Thursday, December 17, 2009

Your Guide to Rationalizing Away the Holidays—A Christmas Tree for Guilt Ridden, Tree-Hugging Vegetarians

It just doesn't seem right, but many vegetarians will spend the holiday season wracked with guilt again this year. For these folks Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a tree. But the thought of chopping down a perfectly good evergreen, just for their holiday decorations, is something they find most distressing.

Guilt over Christmas trees isn't limited to vegetarians, of course. For some reason lots of people—even those who don't give a second thought to what (or who) might be on their dinner plates—are troubled by the annual slaying of the conifers. But it may be worst for vegetarians, especially when we consider that having a tree may mean at least temporarily putting aside some of our vegetarian values—you know, those pesky little values like environmental sensitivity and not wanting to kill things.

Is there a solution to this problem? If you're starting to feel guilty just reading this, can you rationalize your way out of this dilemma and still enjoy the holidays? Of course you can!

In fact, there are at least six ways that you, the sensitive vegetarian, can have a Christmas tree this year, and you shouldn't feel guilty about any of them. (Well, not too guilty anyway.) Here are your options:

Option #1—The Real Chopped-Down Tree. Yes, you can join the multitudes and purchase a real, beautiful, made-out-of-wood tree that someone will be happy to chop down for you for a price. You can bring it home, decorate it, and watch it turn brown and die before your eyes (and maybe even catch your house on fire). You won't feel guilty about any of this if you keep a couple of things in mind. First, even if Christmas tree farming wreaks wanton environmental destruction, this destruction pales in comparison to the good environmental deeds you do all year long just by being a vegetarian. Really!

And you needn't feel guilty about chopping down this poor defenseless conifer either. Remember, you became a vegetarian because you think the lives of plants are inherently less valuable than the lives of animals. By necessity you chop down plants all the time to nourish your body. Nourishing your soul is equally important.

Option #2—The Real Live Tree. Okay, maybe the rationalization you have to go through for a cut tree is just a little too much. The simple way to ease your guilty conscience may be to buy a live tree this holiday season, and then plant it out in the yard after New Years.

While this sounds great in theory, there are some potential drawbacks. Live trees are small, expensive, and heavy (roots, you know), and you can't keep them inside too long. Then, of course, there will be all the work involved in planting a Christmas tree in your arctic, frozen yard on January 2. Digging through granite might be easier.

Since you're planting this tree in the middle of winter it's likely to die by February. Will you feel guilty about that? Extremely. But hey, at least you can say you tried!

Option #3—The Phony Christmas Tree. If you're still feeling guilty about a real tree, you can always opt for the aluminum or plastic variety, and that's fine too. Sure, there's even more wanton environmental destruction with a phony tree, but that's okay—remember, you're good the rest of the year. Anyway, this baby will last forever, so your grandkids will still be enjoying its "beauty" (I use that term loosely) in the year 2068. Heck, by that time someone will have figured out how to recycle it.

Option #4—The Benson Branch. A few years ago one of my very clever vegetarian friends (or was it her husband?) came up with a very clever idea. She found a huge branch that had fallen off a tree, brought it home, and decorated it to the nines. It was gorgeous. If you're adamant that killing shouldn't be part of your holiday tradition, and you're particularly good at decorating things (there's a lot of empty space in a dead branch) this may be the option for you. As long as you avoid the aluminum tinsel, there's no guilt here. No-sir-ee (Bob).

Option #5—The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The Christmas special featuring all those zany characters from the Peanuts comic strip has been on TV every holiday season since the Revolutionary War (although many of us would swear we've seen it more often than that). Remember when Charlie Brown picks the mangiest little tree on the lot that nobody wants? Remember how the children decorate it with all the gaudy ornaments from Snoopy's doghouse, and then everybody decides they love it, and it symbolizes the real meaning of Christmas? Well, this could be you!

This year you could go out on Christmas Eve and buy one of those poor scraggly trees still left on the lot that you always feel sorry for. (I bet the Christmas tree person will want to get home early, and will even give you a discount.) Then you can take this poor little tree home and have a wonderful Christmas Eve with your family decorating it, drinking soy "egg"nog, and getting into the spirit of the season. And instead of feeling guilty, you'll feel good about yourself, because you'll know that if you didn't buy that little tree it would have been chopped down for nothing, and would have gone in the dumpster the day after Christmas.

Option #6—Someone Else's Christmas Tree. Being inherently lazy as well as a cheapskate, this is the option I usually choose. It just makes sense. Why go to all the trouble and expense of putting up your own tree when someone else will do it for you?
That's right, you'll enjoy the holidays more this year if you spend quality time with your friends' and neighbors' trees!

To make this a reality, all you have to do is schedule a few "chance" encounters at the supermarket with folks you know during the month of December. During each of these "chance" encounters you will say something like this: "Gail, what a surprise to see you! You know, I was going to invite you and Jim over for a holiday party, but with everything going on at work and with little Johnny having that foot disease, I just haven't had a chance to decorate. Boy, it sure would be great to spend some time with you guys…"

Now, if Gail is any kind of a decent human being at all, you know she's going to invite you over to her house, where she'll have a beautifully decorated tree (not to mention a fire, food and drinks) that you can enjoy without feeling guilty. Play your cards right and you'll be getting four or five invitations like this every week. You won't even notice that you don't personally have a tree.

Isn't sharing wonderful? Isn't this the true spirit of the season?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Veggie Avenger Spends a Holiday at Mom’s House

Just when you thought you were safe, we return to the adventures of the Veggie Avenger, our vegetarian superhero of superheroes, with a look at how the tactless spend their holidays.

The Veggie Avenger is at home feeding his pet turtle Sammy when the phone rings. It's his mother.


"Yes, mother." He hates it when she calls him that.

"We're having Thanksgiving supper dear. Your Uncle Lou and his family will be here."


"So I expect you to come."

The Veggie Avenger gives Sammy the international symbol for gag me with a backhoe. "We went through this last year mother," he shouts into the phone. "I don't want any part of your vicious, death-mongering holiday celebrations!"

"That's fine dear," his mother says politely. "We'll expect you on Thursday at 2:00."

On the appointed day our hero reluctantly shows up at his mother's house. Uncle Lou is there with his wife and their pubescent twin girls Sharon and Cheryl. The girls giggle hysterically every time they look at the Veggie Avenger. Then, while Lou carves the turkey, the Veggie Avenger puts on a black arm band and reads a funeral mass. Sharon and Cheryl stare wide-eyed.

"Dies irae, dies irae..."

"Dish yourself up a helping of yardbird, son," Lou says. Everyone's plate is heaping with food, while our vegetarian superhero is making due with string beans and cranberry sauce.

"No thanks," the Veggie Avenger answers. "I don't eat my friends, even on holidays."

"Your mother makes a mighty tasty turkey," Uncle Lou persists. "Be polite and give it a try."

"I'd rather be polite to the bird." Our high-strung hero starts the funeral mass again, and begins genuflecting wildly, taking out the salt shaker with his elbow.

"If he's not going to eat the turkey, neither am I!" Sharon suddenly declares.

"Me neither!" shouts Cheryl.

"Now, now, girls," Lou says.

"Just ignore him, dears," Mom adds.

The girls push their plates away and look defiant.

Lou glares at the Veggie Avenger and mutters something about the progeny of unmarried dogs.

Mom glares.

The Veggie Avenger just shrugs. Inside he's beaming. Once again his unconventional tactics have paid off. He's taught his two nieces to think about what they eat and make their own decisions. He's proud, but he has to say something to break the tension.

"Anybody want to phone out for Chinese?"

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Special Handling Instructions Instructions

There I was. It was Sunday afternoon, and I and my two mangos and my steak sauce (don't get the wrong idea—it's great on seitan) were all in the Express Check Out line at the grocery store. Actually, that was wishful thinking. It was more like the "Slow Crawl" line.

As I waited I couldn't help but notice that the "14 items or Less" [sic] being purchased by the guy in front of me included three particularly large and particularly grisly looking pieces of meat. What joy, I thought.

Then I noticed something peculiar. I saw that each of these offensive items bore a label with the title "Special Handling Instructions." Looking closer, I found that these labels warned buyers of the bacteria in meat and gave them instructions on how to handle it, lest it poison them and their families.

Now, I realize this is probably old news to most people. I may be the last guy in America to discover that meat contains these warning labels. The reason for this, other than my being dim-witted of course, is that I can't stand to be around the stuff. Whenever I find myself anywhere near the meat section of a store my standard procedure is to divert my eyes, hold my breath, and walk in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I haven't been up close and personal with a package of meat since that night 20 years ago when a vegetarian friend and I took gag photos at an A & P in Chicago. (Trust me, you wouldn't want to know the details.)

In any event, I was pleased to discover these new meat labels. I assume, without really knowing, that they are the result of the infamous Jack-in-the-Box scandal a few years ago. Somebody's lawyer probably talked to somebody else's lawyer, and everyone suddenly realized that meat was crawling with E. coli and other bacteria, and that these labels better go on before people started filing lawsuits.

The "Special Handling Instructions" labels are a step in the right direction, and maybe they'll even save a few lives. It's doubtful, though, that they'll change anyone's purchasing habits. Rather, it seems to me to be a tribute to meat's addictive properties that people will continue to buy the stuff and feed it to their children despite the fact that it advertises itself as being covered with harmful germs.

Of course, we vegetarians know that exposure to potentially deadly bacteria is just one of the hazards of eating meat, and a small one at that. The current labels don't go nearly far enough in our opinion. Everyone gripes about cigarettes (and rightly so), but meat has long been the most under-labeled product in existence.

Considering the mountain of damning evidence and the almost universal agreement that this product kills more people than handguns, it's incredible that we don't even insist on nutrition information on the package, much less any serious health warnings. What if a six-year-old wants to buy a package of bacon with her allowance? Any butcher in the country will hand it over the counter in a brown paper wrapper—no permit, no waiting period, and no questions asked.

I want to change this outrageous state of affairs. I'd love to see the meat industry come to us vegetarians and ask us to redesign meat labels. (Yeah, this is likely!) We could come up with some great ideas. Here are a few examples of the "Special Handling Instructions" I'd like to see on meat packages. You can probably think of lots more.


  3. WARNING: BIOHAZARDOUS WASTE—PLEASE DISPOSE OF PROPERLY [preferably by burial with full honors]

If we put all these very truthful labels on meat packages maybe the public will finally get the idea that meat doesn't only require "special handling." It requires no handling at all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Religion, Politics and (of course) Food …what really matters is Speed

"Americans don't dine. They gobble, gulp, and go."—A 19th Century European traveler, quoted in The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! by Dr. Otto L. Bettman

"I love most things from the US except McDonald's, your football and this fiasco of electing a president."
Graham J. Weeks

I'm sitting here reading a news story about ConAgra, the huge food conglomerate, recalling 1.45 million pounds of corn flour and other products because they may contain StarLink biotech corn. That corn, in turn, might possibly cause allergic reactions in some people. Now, while I certainly don't have any problem with such a display of concern about the public's welfare, as a vegetarian I do have to wonder why ConAgra doesn't also recall its "Big Mama" pickled sausage, or its "300% hotter" cousin, "Tijuana Mama". After all, those products, along with countless other ConAgra "foods," contain ingredients (animal fat, nitrates and nitrites, etc.) that, without a doubt, cause cancer and heart disease.

Hmmm…. A company recalls products that are possibly linked to allergies, but leaves products on the market that are certainly linked to much more serious diseases. Why?

Well, I could chalk it up to the craziness of meat-eaters, but I think the real answer is speed. Allergies manifest themselves right away, while heart disease and cancer take a lot longer. And in modern America if something isn't going to occur quickly, we really don't care. Call us when it happens.

Of course, nowhere in our culture is the "need for speed" more apparent than in our food industry. I stopped at a grocery store this morning in search of oatmeal, and was surprised to see that even the Quakers (not known to be the fastest group of Americans!) were promising me hot oats in only 5 minutes. If that wasn't fast enough, I could opt for "quick" oats that cook in only 1 minute, or "instant" oats that must cook even before a person can get the package open. Judging from the product selection at my store, it's pretty clear that most Americans want their oats instantaneously.

Even as they race to copy us, the rest of the world makes fun of this American preoccupation with speed. Sometimes their criticism even gets serious, like just last week when a prominent Catholic theologian criticized McDonald's in an Italian newspaper. In an article endorsed by the Catholic Bishops' Conference, Massimo Salani denounced the eat-and-run culture promoted by McDonald's, and warned that eating a Big Mac with fries was the antithesis of receiving communion. He said fast food "completely forgets the holiness of food," should be spurned by Catholics, and is appropriate only for atheists, or possibly Lutherans.

Wow, those are strong words! There's obviously a "whopper" of a gap between the laid-back, family-oriented Italian Catholics, and those crazy, mile-a-minute, American Quakers! As a Lutheran, I may only be one French fry away from eternal damnation, but I must admit that I share Mr. Salani's views about McDonald's being unholy. Their speed, though, would not be my #1 complaint.

In a culture known for doing things fast, it seems ironic that as I write this nearly two weeks have already passed since the enormously entertaining election of 2000, and we still don't know who the next President of these United States of America is going to be. (Yes, I know that as you read this you know how the election turned out—but that's just the advantage you have of living in the future!)

The election didn't represent a Constitutional crisis, but rather a technological crisis. (When the ballots cast for each candidate are closer than the inherent margin of error in counting those ballots, its pretty hard to identify the winner, no matter how many recounts you have!) In any event, it certainly was a turn of events that for once Americans were the ones keeping everybody waiting. Again the world criticized. (Do they secretly love our speed, or do they just hate whatever we do?)

However the 49 recounts eventually turn out (only you know for sure), the message for America seems clear: what we need in this country are faster elections and slower food. Now, you may think the solution to all this is to ship all the bigwigs at McDonald's to a monastery in Italy and let the Quakers run our next election. Sure it sounds silly, but I'm with you.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Word About Restaurants

Dining out as a vegetarian can be a gratifying experience. There's a real thrill in finding a new restaurant with an array of creative vegetarian dishes. And, at those places we frequent, there is a certain satisfaction and sense of place to be experienced, knowing that we, along with the rest of the vegetarian community, constitute an important part of the clientele and keep the vegetarian items on the menu.

It goes without saying, however, that the negative side to restaurant eating for the vegetarian looms very large. When navigating the uncharted menu of a new or unfamiliar restaurant, hazards abound for the unwary vegetarian. For every new restaurant that holds some promise, there are at least five others with no redeeming social value. Dinner at one of these can mean an evening of anger, starvation, embarrassment, or all of the above.

As a fairly frequent traveler, I have the fortune, or misfortune, to try lots of new restaurants around the country. Since most of my travel is on business, the choice of these places is often not my own, and the choices are often not the greatest. Below, I've compiled a list of a few disasters that regularly befall the vegetarian restaurant diner. You can probably think of lots more.

1. There's nothing on the menu I can eat. I can't begin to count the number of times this has happened to me. Nor can I describe the sense of horror and panic in sitting down with a group of people and finding nothing (I mean nothing!) on the menu without meat in it. It usually means that one is relegated to the "old standbys" an iceberg lettuce salad and a baked potato. The "old standbys" have saved many a vegetarian from starvation. I once lived on them for a week in Texas.

2. I bet there's nothing on the menu I can eat. This may be the only thing worse than #1 above. It usually happens when you're with a group of people, you're starving, and everyone decides to go to a restaurant with a name like "The Branding Iron" or "Ed's Steak Pit." Not only are you likely to have a miserable meal, but you'll have to spend a couple of hours worrying about it beforehand.

3. My God! There's meat in this! Let's say you find something on the menu that looks all right, and you breathe a sigh of relief and order it. You're still not out of the woods. Restaurants seem to delight in subtly slipping meat into almost everything, especially when it isn't mentioned on the menu. This, of course, is most common in Chinese eateries where shreds of beef are hidden beneath the bamboo shoots and pork invades the egg rolls. But it happens in many other restaurants too. I've found chicken broth in pasta primavera, beef gravy on top of fettuccine Alfredo, and lots of Italian restaurants that put pepperoni in their salads.

4. The "Local Color" Syndrome. It can be said that restaurants in sophisticated big cities will be more likely to have good food for a vegetarian than restaurants in small towns or rural areas. While I've found this to generally be the case, it isn't always true. I've had wonderful vegetarian food in Wyoming and North Carolina and found absolutely terrible, uncreative (and very expensive) restaurants in Los Angeles and New York.

An almost foolproof way I've found to weed out a huge number of undesirable restaurants is to avoid any place that hints of having any measure of "local color." This category of restaurants obviously includes steak places in the Midwest and seafood restaurants along the coasts. But it also includes every restaurant that serves "American Cuisine," has the word "grill" in its name, or has been in the "same location for 20 years." And it includes almost every place with red carpeting and black vinyl chairs. In short, if the "locals love it," a vegetarian won't.

No matter what "local color" restaurant you go into, you'll get the same waitress. Her name is Marge, and she's worked there since she was 17 (she's about 50 now). Marge is pretty saucy and prides herself on being a "colorful character." She thinks vegetarians are communists (see #5 below).

Since you won't see anything vegetarian on the menu, you'll have to ask Marge what vegetables are available. She will curtly respond, "We don't have any vegetables," and will try to make your evening miserable from that point on. She won't even smile when she brings you the "old standbys."

5. Everybody hates me. As if the hazards set forth above aren't enough for the restaurant-going vegetarian, there is one more: by the end of the meal everyone will hate you. Even if you're lucky enough not to get Marge for a waitress, whomever you do get may be just as bad. You can't really blame the country's waiters and waitresses. After all, they've been trained to think their restaurant's prime rib is the absolute height of gastronomic perfection. And even if the vegetarian isn't directly insulting the food, he or she probably is creating some additional work.

If the people you are eating with aren't vegetarians, don't expect them to love you either. They'll be almost as embarrassed as you are when you ask if the soup of the day is made with a chicken stock or if the manicotti sauce has meat in it. While the vegetarian is desperately trying to find something to eat, everyone else at the table will be wondering to themselves why a simple thing like ordering dinner has to be made into such a production.

Sometimes it all gets to be so discouraging that I feel like eating at home the rest of my life, and packing a brown bag whenever I have to travel. But it's usually when I'm at my most demoralized that I get some encouragement—like the time in Wyoming that I found a whole list of fresh vegetables on a steak house menu, or the seafood restaurant in Florida that had wonderful black bean soup without the meat stock. Sometimes it's just a nice waiter who will take pity on me and go out of his way to see that I get fed. When something like that happens, I think maybe, on the whole, restaurants aren't so bad after all.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Save the Meat-Eaters

[Editor's note: The following is the text of a television advertising campaign recently produced for the Save the Meat-Eaters Foundation. Over the coming months it will be rolled out in 37 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.]

Off-Screen Announcer: "Half-way around the world, in America, millions of children face malnutrition every day. Won't you help?"

The camera focuses in on an eight-year-old boy dressed in khakis, a polo shirt and Air Jordan sneakers. He has a plaintive look on his face, a half-eaten hamburger in one hand, and dried ketchup at the corners of his mouth.

Announcer: "This is Conner. He lives in the village of Westport, Connecticut with his parents and younger sister Megan. Shockingly, Connor's diet consists almost entirely of hamburgers, chicken nuggets and cows' milk—a diet severely lacking in necessary vitamins, minerals and fiber.

"The story is the same for millions of children across America." [At this point the picture shifts to a group of children eating pizza at a Chuck E. Cheese franchise. A six-foot mouse in a purple shirt and baseball cap looms in the background.] "Left to the mercy of the US school lunch program and their tacky suburban parents, these children will almost certainly grow up fat, unhealthy, and totally lacking in good taste.

"Fortunately, the future doesn't have to be so grim for Connor and his friends. The Save the Meat-Eaters Foundation has helped thousands of meat-eating children like these to enjoy fruitful (and vegetableful) lives." [The picture changes to smiling children shoving string beans up their noses.] "Won't you help? For a donation of as little as $2 a day you can give a six-year-old girl in Indianapolis her first taste of mustard greens, or send a lentil pilaf to a young boy in Scarsdale.

"And when you sponsor a meat-eating child, you will get a picture of that child and receive letters in his or her own handwriting…"

[The camera zooms in on a cute blonde girl reading from her letter. "Dear Mr. Gupta, Thank you for your generous donation of the basmati rice and the dal. All the kids at school said it was the best dal they ever had. We don't miss hamburgers at all anymore, and tomorrow Mrs. Godfrey, our Save the Meat-Eaters counselor, is going to teach us to eat artichokes. God bless you, Mr. Gupta! With help like yours us American kids have a chance to grow up just like kids do in the rest of the world."]

Announcer: "Yes, we are blessed to live in a land where good food is plentiful. But in the United States, a country with a long history of war, privilege for the wealthy, and governments that cater to the agricultural special interests, the choices are limited. Here there is no national health-care program, and doctors are untrained in nutrition and preventative medicine. …Sadly, children are often the first victims." [A screen shot of teenagers drinking Pepsi and eating fried pork rinds in front of a Quickie Mart is accompanied by ominous music.]

"Please call the number at the bottom of your screen today. Save the Meat-Eaters will turn your generous, tax-deductible contribution into whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and rush them to the places where the need is most critical—Nebraska, Idaho, and (god help us!) Texas. Just imagine the joy on an American teenager's face when he eats his first carrot. Imagine the sense of accomplishment young mothers in Save the Meat-Eaters' training classes will feel when they make their first salad without iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing." [The music turns bright and perky, and the camera shows a smiling mother serving frisee tossed with walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette to her smiling children.]

"It's not too late to make a difference in the life of a meat-eating child. Call the number at the bottom of your screen right now, and support the Save the Meat-Eaters Foundation. You'll be glad you did!"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Ramblings

This column isn't about anything at all. (Are they ever?) It's just a collection of miscellaneous junk that has been taking up space in my brain (limited capacity you know—something's got to go) for the longest time. There are some questions here (mostly rhetorical) and, of course, a few unenlightened observations. None of them rated a whole column, but I'll feel better getting them off my chest, so here goes.

  1. I've been annoyed for years that the dairy industry gets away with blatantly lying about the fat content of its products ("2%" milk is really about 34% calories from fat), but I'm really disappointed that the producers of plant-based milks (soy, rice almond, etc.) use the same deception. It doesn't stop there, either. I recently read the label of a "fat free" salad dressing from one of the health food companies and found that 25% of its calories were from fat. That's fat free? Can't these people make money without lying to their customers?
  2. And isn't it also annoying that for whatever reason (economies of scale, government support) we have to pay more for those plant-based milks than for cow's milk, when in reality they have to be much simpler and cheaper to produce?
  3. Speaking of finances, how come restaurants never give us vegetarians a discount when we ask them to exclude the meat and/or dairy ingredients from their meals? After all, when we order the "linguini with shrimp marinara, hold the shrimp," we're saving them big bucks. Couldn't they at least offer to throw on a few artichoke hearts?
  4. Wouldn't it be nice if there was at least one kind of universally-accepted vegan sandwich that we vegetarians could always count on? Something that we know we could find on the menu at every sandwich shop, deli or truck stop we might walk into? Is that too much to ask? It would make life much easier for us when we're looking for lunch in, say, Jersey City or the suburbs of Des Moines. We're not fussy--a black bean burger or hummus sandwich would do just fine. (No, peanut butter and jelly doesn't count!)
  5. Does the Department of Agriculture ("DOA") have an obscure regulation somewhere mandating that all prepared foods must have at least one dairy product in them somewhere, even if totally unnecessary? Does someone out there get some kind of perverse pleasure from thinking about us weird vegetarians perusing the ingredients lists on the sides of packages, knowing that we'll invariably find "whey," or "non-fat milk solids" or "caseinate" listed as the 39th item down? (Sure, it's better not to eat prepared foods anyway, but I'm not always up for baking my own crackers.)
  6. Three cheers for all the folks with lactose intolerance! They probably outnumber vegans a dozen to one, and they create most of the demand for what few truly non-dairy products we can find on our smiling grocers' shelves.
  7. What would happen if basketball players spit through the whole game the way baseball players do?
  8. It occurs to me that, despite the availability of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary in the local paper every day, most people still believe meat and dairy products are good for them (at least they believe the good stuff outweighs the bad), and that these "foods" are necessary in their diets. Consider a meat eater and a vegetarian eating side-by-side. Each of them looks over and makes a mental assessment of the other's meal...

    Meat-eater: A person can't live on that. My dinner is healthier.

    Vegetarian: This person is committing suicide. If he lives 'til dessert it will be a miracle.

  9. At the observation of the most minor health imperfection (a cough, a sniffle, a heart attack), meat eaters simply cannot resist teasing us vegetarians with the line: "If you ate a good steak once in a while you'd be healthier." I know they are being very witty, but the next time I hear this I'm going to scream. I think if I ever did "eat a good steak" I'd certainly be dead.
  10. Speaking of which, it is a terrible burden on us vegetarians to represent our minority to the rest of the world. We have to be healthy and vivacious all the time. Sometimes I just don't feel like it.
  11. Yesterday I noticed the slogan on the front of my local health-food grocery. It said: Helping you to make healthy choices. I wish it said: Helping you to make ethical choices.

    There. That's it— that's all I have to say. I feel a lot better now.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

So Much for Being a Vegetarian… It was Nice While it Lasted

I went off my vegetarian diet yesterday. Yes, it's true. I ate an animal. One that was alive—at least until I ate it. Now it's dead, and I feel bad, in more ways than one. It wasn't even tasty.

It's not that I intended to become a meat-eater again, mind you. It was just something that happened. I was in the park at the time, riding laps on my bicycle. There's one place where the road goes uphill, and I was gasping for breath, trying to keep up my speed against a stiff headwind. That was when this unfortunate creature, whatever it may have been, apparently mistook my open mouth for an inviting cave, and flew right in.

Now, you'd think that at the point the bug entered my mouth it would have realized its mistake and made a quick exit. ("Uh-oh, those stalactites and stalagmites look strangely like teeth! Mayhaps this isn't a cave after all!") But instead, he or she just compounded the problem by making a bee-line (yeah, I suppose it could have been a bee) down my throat. At that point all hope was lost.

I tried to keep from swallowing the poor thing, of course. I coughed and I spit (much to the chagrin of the other bike riders passing by), and I probably looked like I was having convulsions right there on my bicycle. But no matter what I did, I couldn't get rid of that "bug-in-the-throat" feeling. As a matter of fact, I swear I can still feel it the next day. Maybe that's the kind of psychological damage that meat-eating causes!

Before yesterday, I had been a vegetarian for almost 30 years. (Thirty years?! Is that possible? I must have been a very small child when I started.) Now all of that is history, and I feel deceitful even using the "V" word. I feel like all of those people who say they're vegetarian, but what they really mean is, "I've been vegetarian ever since I finished breakfast, and I intend to stay vegetarian right up until lunch." I used to make fun of those people, and now I am one.

If I was going to end my vegetarian diet I suppose I could have picked more pleasurable ways of doing it. I could have eaten lobster dripping in butter, or a greasy cheesesteak sub, or any one of a dozen things I loved back in my meat-eating days. But to tell you the truth, I have no desire for any of those things anymore. They probably would have grossed me out even more than eating that bug. At least the bug was small. At least I didn't get sick.

Of course it's tempting to rationalize my way out of this thing entirely. Last night my neighbor's daughter tried to cheer me up. "You don't know it was a bug," she said with the kind of optimism 14-year-olds often display. "It could have been a piece of a plant." Yeah, I thought for a second, maybe something just fell off of a tree and floated down into my mouth. Then I realized how unlikely that was. No, whatever I ate felt like it was going from point A to point B with a purpose when I got in its way. If it wasn't a bug exploring a cave, it was probably a bug intent on committing hara-kiri in the back of my throat.

So now I have to start all over again. Here's what I'm going to tell people: I'm a new vegetarian. I've been a vegetarian for almost 24 hours now, and I'm proud of myself. I intend to stay a vegetarian too. …At least until the next Oriental restaurant I eat at slips chicken broth into the sauce or hides a piece of shrimp in the "vegetable" spring roll. …At least until some well-meaning friend who doesn't read labels serves me something with gelatin in it. …At least until my next bike ride in the park.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oh, The Wonders of Those High-Protein Diets!

Everywhere I turn these days I'm reading about people eating more meat. Meat prices are soaring, and the "meat packers" (a euphemism if ever there was one) can scarcely keep up with demand.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the "millennium bug" (which, as we all know, turned out to be nothing more than an entomological hoax cooked up by former KGB agents now in the flashlight-battery business in New Jersey). I can just hear people all across America in mock despair the day after New Years: "Oh gosh, I bought 300 pounds of sirloin steak to get me through the Y2k crisis. Guess I'd better eat it this weekend before it goes bad!"

Of course the current trend towards flesh foods goes way beyond purchases made by America's 250 million militant survivalists the last 2 weeks of December. Indeed, if you look at the numbers you'll find that meat consumption in the US has been way up for some time. (It's a "bull" market, you might say.) The #1 reason for all of this is no secret: Everybody and his brother are on high-protein diets.

I first realized something was up when people started to react to my vegetarianism a little differently. Instead of the usual excuses ("Of course I'd be a vegetarian [sigh]—if only my Bohemian husband and sumo-wrestler son didn't have me chained to the stove boiling hot dogs…"), I started getting aggressive responses ("Vegetarian, huh? [sneer] That's fine for you, but a finely-tuned body like mine needs extra protein [more sneers]."). And my friends changed too. Suddenly, all they wanted to talk about was protein, and how they'd reached dietary Nirvana.

I decided I'd better learn more about these high-protein diets before I got left behind. Here's what I found out:

1. High-Protein Diets are the Latest Thing. Whereas vegetarianism is old news (Adam & Eve, and all that dusty stuff), eating protein is a new and exciting cutting-edge idea. It's the subject of dozens of new self-help books, so you know it must be the right thing to do for the new century. Funny though, I could swear I was on one of these diets myself when I was a fat little kid back in the 1960s. (I was still a fat little kid when I went off that diet, too.) And weren't high-protein diets fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s? (Do the names "Stillman" and "Scarsdale" ring any bells?) Whatever happened to all the folks on those diets?

2. High-Protein Diets are High-Tech Weight Reduction Programs. For years we all thought it was calorie intake vs. calories burned that determined whether we'd be overweight. Now we know better. As long as we don't eat those evil carbohydrates our bodies will burn fat. Isn't it great to discover that those stuffy old laws of thermodynamics don't apply anymore? (It sure makes me feel better about not paying attention in science class!) Of course, there are vegetarian doctors who claim to be able to prove that people on high-protein diets only lose weight because they (1) become dehydrated, (2) go into an abnormal and dangerous state called "ketosis", and/or (3) starve themselves. But what do those doctors know? The algebra they base their calculations on is hopelessly old-fashioned too.

3. High-Protein Diets Cure Diseases. In a recent interview with CNN, protein diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins said his diet, which includes rib-eye steak, roast beef, lobster and butter, cures diabetes and high blood pressure, and reverses heart disease. (With news like this it's no wonder he's sold 9-1/2 million books!) And to think—for so many years everyone (with the possible exception of Woody Allen in Sleeper) believed it was just the opposite. Thank goodness we've finally learned the truth! Thank goodness all those silly health organizations (the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, the American Cancer Society) that have been endorsing high-fiber, low-fat diets, have finally been put in their place.

4. High-Protein Diets Get People More In Touch With Their Bodies. This has happened to many people I know personally. My friend John, for example, found out from a "doctor" that his blood chemistry was practically screaming at him, demanding that he eat high-protein foods. (This isn't to be confused with the blood-type diet—my friend Sandy is on that one!) My old college buddy Lee, who's never been healthy a day in his life, has been on a hundred different diets over the years and swears high-protein is finally "it". His body is at peace now that he's given up fruit and grains entirely and eats 3 eggs with bacon every morning for breakfast.

And several of my friends claim to have "protein meters" in their bodies that tell them when they are running low. (Are these the same things "Morris the cat" has? How come I didn't get one???) My friend Patty went into virtual "protein shock" one day when she was visiting my house. She ran to my refrigerator for a protein fix and flung open the door with the highest of expectations, only to be hugely disappointed. ("Isn't there anything dead in here?")

5. People Love to Eat High-Protein Foods. Who can argue with this? Wouldn't everyone rather eat a high-protein meal (e.g., a hamburger—plain) instead of something they'd get on a stupid vegetarian diet (e.g., a veggie burger on a Kaiser bun with pickles, lettuce, tomato, onions, roasted red peppers, and a pile of fries on the side)? A while back I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant with a couple of high-protein dieters. After they carefully picked all the green peppers out of their beef stir fry (vegetarians in reverse!) they liked their food so much that they decided to take 90% of it home in a Styrofoam box so they could savor it later. Now that's enjoying a meal!

It's great that the news about the benefits of high-protein diets has gotten out to the masses. The meat industry is happy, the lobster folks are raking in the money, and I guess no one has to feel guilty about anything anymore.

I do feel kind of sorry, though, for all the older vegetarians out there who have already lived, say, 95 or 100 years outside "the Zone" on their outdated high-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol diets. The great news about protein may be coming too late to do them much good. As for the rest of us, though, thank goodness we've been enlightened. If we can just get our protein meters adjusted, we're fixed for life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

People (“People who need people…” and all that)

The other day I was talking to a friend in the animal rights movement, and I happened to mention that people are my favorite animal. I guess that didn't impress her. She looked at me like I'd been eating those funny mushrooms again, and said, "Oh, I don't feel that way at all!"

I can certainly see her point. A quick perusal of the local TV news on any given night will tell you exactly what kind of selfish and vicious animals humans are. Kidnapping, rape and grisly serial murders are everyday events—and that's just in your neighborhood! It's all become so commonplace we take it for granted. Just this past week a friend of mine came home from a business trip and found her house had been robbed. Most of what was taken had little or no value to the thieves, but represented huge sentimental losses to her. Who would do such a thing? People, that's who.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the horrors of the factory farm, the slaughterhouse and the medical research laboratory. There's seemingly no end to the violence and the suffering, and virtually everyone we know is in on the action. It's enough to make any vegetarian swear off the human race and spend the rest of his/her life cavorting with frogs and trees.

Okay, so it's no secret that humans are the only animals that commit "inhuman" acts. Sometimes, though, that reality can be overwhelming. It causes us to lose perspective, and that, especially for vegetarians, is a very bad thing.

In those moments when I'm not too depressed about the state of the world, I try to focus my attention on the other side of human existence—the kind and good side of people. Take war, for example. (Yeah, war. There's something that makes me want to live out my life on a deserted island away from people!) But even in war, amidst the pervasive death and destruction, there are constant examples of humans doing extraordinary things. People who have lost everything find something inside them to reach out and give comfort to those in similar circumstances. People give their very lives for their countries and causes. (As misdirected as those efforts sometimes are, the act itself is noble nonetheless.)

And of course astonishing courage, valor and selflessness aren't limited to times of war. I see those values in the people I come in contact with every day—from my friends who are teachers and social workers, to cancer patients dying with dignity, to the retarded man who always bags my groceries with a smile and a cheerful greeting. I see it every day in my vegetarian friends too—people who care so much, and work so hard to eliminate the suffering and disease and environmental destruction caused by eating meat.

People are my favorite animal. I think that's because the same mental and physical capabilities that allow them to do so many horrible things empower them to do extraordinary things as well. And I love those extraordinary things! I can't watch a space shuttle launch without getting a lump in my throat, and when I listen to a Beethoven piano concerto… well, let's just say I've never been anywhere closer to God.

I hate it when I hear meat-eaters say to vegetarians: "You don't care about people." It's an easy cop-out that allows them to feel better at our expense, and it's never true. On the other hand, it's sad when vegetarians and animal rights activists and environmentalists get so caught up in their causes that they momentarily lose their goodwill for humans. Without people the world would be an awfully lonely and boring place.

"Speciesism" seems to be a bad word in the vegetarian and animal rights communities. But I suspect all animals are inherently "speciesist," and a little of that may not be a bad thing for everyone's survival. Maybe it's not so wrong to revel in our humanity, as long as we keep it all in perspective and don't lose our compassion. (Compassion—another one of those characteristics at which humans are capable of excelling!)

Human rights is a mere subset of animal rights, but it's a necessary subset. You simply can't have one without the other. When every human being on earth finally realizes that it's imperative to love animals and humans, that's when we'll see real progress.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The “Essence of the Oyster”

A number of years ago I had the exciting and all-too-common experience of being in an unfamiliar restaurant and having the waiter make recommendations he thought would be appropriate for a vegetarian.

"You should have the oyster sauce with your vegetables," he suggested.

"But doesn't that have oysters in it?" I asked naively.

"Oh no! There aren't any actual oysters in it. You see, it's just made from…" he held his thumb and forefinger together, as if holding something precious, and smacked his lips, "…the essence of the oyster."

"Oh." I pretended to consider his suggestion for a second. "Thanks, but I think I'll just stick with the essence of broccoli."

For me the essence of the oyster incident has become a metaphor for a whole series of bad experiences. How many times have I found meat lurking in the supposedly "vegetarian" entrĂ©e? Wasn't it just the other day I had to tell the restaurant to leave the essence of the chicken broth out of my pasta? Wasn't it just last week that I found out my favorite brand of bread is now contaminated with the essence of whey? Wasn't it just today that a friend of mine who is deathly allergic to shrimp found shrimp in her "vegetarian" spring rolls? It seems to be our lot in life as vegetarians—everyone claims to know what's best for us, but what they deliver rarely meets our standards.

My mother says I'm too fussy. She hates it when I meticulously comb the ingredients in everything she buys at the grocery store. And the last time I ate out with her she was mightily embarrassed when I sent my salad back to have the hard-boiled eggs removed, and then sent it back again to have the bacon and cheese removed. (Well, how was I to know they were hiding under the eggs???) She's probably right. Eating a little bit of something bad probably won't kill me nearly as fast as agonizing about eating a little bit of something bad.

There are people who agree with my mother—arguing that from a health standpoint it may actually be better to not be so strict in our vegetarianism. I once knew a nutrition doctor (okay, so he wasn't actually a doctor) who had studied all of the world's cultures with long life expectancies. One thing he found that all of these cultures had in common was that they were almost vegetarian. They all followed a vegetarian lifestyle most of the year, but every once in a while they'd have a big blowout party where they'd roast the prize pig and wallow in greasy food. This "doctor" surmised that those occasional non-vegetarian indulgences stressed their bodies and actually made them stronger in the long run.

I was recently reminded of this theory when McDonald's made their now infamous admission that the French fries they have for years been promoting as "cooked in pure vegetable oil" are not really vegetarian—that they contain the essence of the dead cow for flavoring. The same day I heard this shocking news I read about Mary Clark of Montrose, Colorado. Mary is 106 years old, in great health, and practically lives for her daily fix of—you guessed it—McDonald's French fries. (The McDonald's corporation is thrilled with this, and has promised Mary free fries until she is 150.)

Could Mary Clark's health actually have benefited from the animal contamination in her favorite food? Would I be healthier now if I'd only eaten that essence of the oyster sauce many years ago? Would all vegetarians be better off if only we weren't so fussy?

Somehow I doubt it. First of all, any vegetarian in our society is going to ingest unwanted animal products from time to time no matter how careful he or she is, thanks to the antics of Bozos like Ronald McDonald. If our systems need occasional stress we're sure to get it. More importantly, though, there's more to being vegetarian than our own health. And the commitment we make to lofty goals—even if they are loftier than we can ever hope to achieve in the real world—is one of the things that keeps us going.

I think I'll stay fussy, and continue to object every time I'm faced with the essence of the oyster. Maybe it's silly and obsessive and irks my mother, but somehow drawing a line and sticking to it just seems like the right thing to do. Somehow it just seems like the essence of vegetarianism.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Your Guide to Summer Fun—American Style!

When the warm weather comes along you and your loved ones are sure to be on the lookout for some good family fun. Fortunately, the fine folks in the good old U.S. of A. have never been at a loss to come up with exciting endeavors to keep us not only entertained, but well fed too.

You'd have to be a complete social dork, for example, not to be invited to a couple of barbecues during the summer where you can scarf down slabs of ribs, burgers and dogs. At the "high class" barbecues you'll be entertained by the sight of a whole pig roasting in a pit or turning on a spit above the hot coals.

But barbecues are just the beginning. Warm weather will also bring clambakes and crayfish boils, bull roasts and crab feasts.

Looking more for fun than food? No problem. How about driving the kids down to the traveling petting zoo that's sure to be making the rounds at the local shopping mall? Or you could take the family on a trip to Florida to visit any of dozens of roadside animal shows.

Small towns often sponsor much of the fun. Ever since the days of Mark Twain they've been holding frog jumping contests and various animal races, and in the West you can catch the rodeo circuit almost everywhere. There are even rattlesnake roundups where, for a small donation you can have the thrill of lopping the head off one of the little critters. More fun than a fast-paced game of donkeyball? You bet!

For really big-time entertainment, though, there are a few small towns that truly excel. Yellville, Arkansas is one of them. They have an annual turkey drop where live turkeys are thrown from an airplane to the delight of the crowd below. And don't forget the East Texas Fire Ant Festival held every October in Marshall, Texas. This year as always they'll be having the "Fire Ant Parade," along with a chili and barbecue cook off. (Barbecued ants! Yum!) Deming, New Mexico hosts the annual "Great American Duck Race" (unofficial motto: "You're a winner, or you're dinner"), and in the same state little Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico gets on the map with its annual "Rooster Pull". (We won't go into the details, other than to say that in the course of the action the roosters' bodies tend to get separated from the heads.)

Two favorites in the small town derby are Nucla, Colorado and Hegins, Pennsylvania. A few years ago, amid much fanfare from the press, Nucla inaugurated its annual prairie dog shoot. People come from all over to kill, watch, or protest, and the local chamber of commerce laughs all the way to the bank. Hegins is an old hand at this sort of thing. Every Labor Day for more than 50 years they've hosted a live pigeon shoot. The birds are released from cages, get about ten feet in the air, and are blasted to smithereens, apparently to the amusement of everyone. Young boys are used to pick up the remains, and wring the necks of any birds that somehow survive the buckshot.

Isn't America wonderful? Forget about producing goods and services, we'll all get rich exploiting violence!

Okay, maybe I'm getting a little carried away with the sarcasm, but the breadth of activities from which humans seek entertainment at the expense (usually considerable expense) of other animals is mind-boggling. We have to hope that one day the American people can find some better ways of passing the time on summer days than by glorifying brutality toward animals. Maybe everyone could plant a garden or take up water-skiing. (Maybe the folks in Nucla and Hegins can get real jobs!)

As for us vegetarians, you just might find us out at the ballpark with a bag of peanuts and a tofu dog. We'll take baseball over a rodeo any day. Of course, even our National Pastime isn't perfect. We'll be working to change the fact that the gloves are leather, and the ball is covered with "horsehide."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Light My Fire

It's summertime. The time we all put on our Ray Ban Wayfarers and head for the surf. Time for cruising up to the drive-in with Beach Boys music blaring from the radio. Time to engage in that great American warm weather tradition—the vegetarian barbecue.

Okay, so maybe barbecuing isn't the thing most people think of in vegetarian summer activities. It does seem odd that health conscious vegetarians would ever want to coat their food with a possibly carcinogenic (and definitely not healthy) layer of soot. Nevertheless, we vegetarians do barbecue, and I think it's probably one of those things we do better than meat eaters. Think about it. Our barbecued meals have to be more creative than meat eaters', and they never suffer from the "Gee, Dad, how come this chicken's black on the outside and raw on the inside?" syndrome.

When I say "we vegetarians" do a better barbecue than meat-eaters I'm of course not referring to myself. Actually I'm lousy at it. I seem to have this one failing that severely hampers my barbecue ability—I can't light a fire.

Oh, I've tried. I've doused the charcoal with enough lighter fluid to have our patio listed by the EPA as a major hydrocarbon polluter. The treetops can singe off in our back yard but the charcoal never even gets warm for me. And I've tried that expensive kind of charcoal you're supposed to be able to light with a match, too. I couldn't light it with a blowtorch. My wife Susan thinks it's because I'm a Pisces. Water signs can never light fires, she says.

We barbecued the other night. I tried an electric fire starter I found at a garage sale. You're supposed to be able to plug the thing in and have a hot bed of coals in ten minutes. After about an hour my grill seemed to be warm and, even though I'd used enough power to cause a brownout in a three-county area, I was proud of myself.

I put the food on and sat back, awaiting those wonderful carcinogenic smells of barbequing food. About two hours later (I think it was almost dark) Susan began inquiring as to when we might eat. I checked the grill.

"Looks like this baby's done," I said, holding up a limp slice of onion. "Maybe we should keep it warm inside while everything else finishes up out here."

She looked sadly down at the grill and tried to feel if there was any warmth at all coming out of coals. Her stomach growled. I knew what she was thinking—maybe we should put it all in the oven.

"Today we barbecue," she said, growing suddenly philosophical. "Tomorrow we microwave."

That reminded me of the sayings of Confuscious, which I try to memorize for appropriate moments like this. "Many man bite," I responded, "but fu-man-chu."

My friends Fred and Blake (neither of whom is vegetarian) have the right idea about barbequing. Fred gave up on charcoal a while back and bought a gas grill.

"But how do you get that good carcinogenic barbecue flavor?" I asked him.

"Ah," he said, his eyes lighting up. "Soaked wood chips tossed in on the burner." The true modern solution to barbequing, I guess.

Blake doesn't use charcoal either. Instead, contrary to all local fire ordinances, he uses fireplace-sized logs in his grill. When he gets it fired up the flames go about twelve feet high and put out enough heat that he can comfortably barbecue nine months a year. How does he cook food on top of such a contraption? He doesn't bother.

Actually, I hope more vegetarians will take up barbequing, and that one day we can dispel its image as an activity dominated by meat-eaters. I have a vision of the suburban backyard of the future. A bunch of kids are playing on the swing set and some women are setting out potato salad and iced tea on the picnic table. Three paunchy, middle-aged men stand with utensils in their hands, staring blankly into a smoking grill.

"How do you fix your tofu, Ralph?" one asks. "Mine always comes out dry."


What to Cook

Almost anything barbecues well if you first brush it liberally with olive oil. My favorites:

  • leeks
  • corn
  • eggplant

Also try chunks of potatoes (cook inside until almost done) and onions. When brown, put in a bowl with more olive oil, dill weed, dill seed, pepper, and minced garlic. Serve hot. Wonderful!

For the traditionalist, all kinds of fake hamburgers and hot dogs barbecue well. Even better is tempeh. Slice it thin and use plenty of good barbecue sauce. (Look for molasses instead of sugar on the label.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Test Your Vegetarian Social Skills

No one will argue that we vegetarians often have a unique perspective on things. In a meat-eating world this can, of course, lead to the occasional social faux pas, possibly resulting in the death or dismemberment of the vegetarian in question.

But never fear, my fellow faux pas-ers. Help is on the way! As a public service of this column, and despite the total lack of cooperation from Miss Manners and Ann Landers, you can now test your knowledge of how the model vegetarian should handle him or herself in a variety of challenging social situations. Just answer the exciting questions below:

Situation #1—Dealing with Rednecks. You are at a stoplight in your trusty Yugo when five large men in hunting outfits pull up next to you in a pickup truck. Their tongues loosened by malted beverages, and their intellectual curiosity piqued by the bumper stickers on your car, they begin making such enlightened comments as "What's the matter—afraid to eat a little meat?", "Hey, is that tofu, or is that your face?" and "Your mother wears army boots." Do you:

a. Patiently explain your vegetarian philosophy, and ask that they join you and your mother for dinner (so they can see she really prefers Birkenstocks).

b. Get out of the car and show them your vegetarian biceps. Then quickly paste a bumper sticker on their truck and run like hell.

c. Refuse to engage in any incendiary dialog, at least until they offer you a beer.

You are correct if you answered b. Scientific studies have proven that people quickly adapt their own behavior to the values advocated by their bumper stickers. Had you followed this simple procedure you would have avoided conflict and had them drinking carrot juice before the light changed.

Situation #2—Dealing with Neighbors. You do a good deed for Mrs. Frupendorf, the sweet old lady next door. Later that afternoon while you're working in the yard she "thanks" you by bringing over homemade cookies and a big glass of milk. With an innocent smile she says, "I really want to watch you enjoy this!" Do you:

a. Patiently explain that you are a "vegan," and that means the butter and eggs in the cookies, not to mention the milk, aren't on your diet. (After which, she will stare at you blankly and ask why you don't like her cookies.)

b. Excuse yourself to answer the phone, and let her stand in your driveway until she gives up and goes home.

c. Pretend you are enjoying her gift, while secretly putting everything down your shirt.

The correct answer is c. Vegetarians should always be polite, even at the expense of some physical discomfort.

Situation #3—Dealing with Relatives. Your rich Uncle Hairy (his mother couldn't spell) is dying. He's never agreed with your diet, and now he promises to leave you $5 million if he can just have the satisfaction of seeing you eat a steak on his deathbed. Otherwise the money goes to the Friends of Pork Chops. Do you:

a. Eat the steak, hope you don't die, and ease your guilt by giving half the money to the vegetarian charity of your choice.

b. Take advantage of Hairy's failing eyesight by hiring a starving actor to eat the steak.

c. Explain the conviction of your beliefs one more time, and hope that Hairy will respect you enough to leave you the money anyway.

Don't even think about answering c! Vegetarians must be opportunistic if we have any hope of surviving in today's world. No, b. is the obvious choice here.

Situation #4—Dealing with Authority Figures. You are 17 and madly in love with Susie, the cutest girl at school. She invites you over to meet her father who, it turns out, is the infamous Marine Colonel Charley "Nukemal" Morris. When the good Colonel hears about the diet of the fellow dating his daughter he calls you a communist and threatens you with grievous bodily injury. Do you:

a. Beg his forgiveness and promise to start eating meat.

b. Change the subject by asking how he got the nickname "Nukemal".

c. Challenge him to a fight to the death over his daughter.

Answers b or c could be hazardous to your health. No, the correct answer here is a. We vegetarians are a peace-loving lot, and prefer even a tad of dishonesty to violent confrontation. Anyway, the Colonel is a control freak and will get a charge out of this. Just make sure you leave before dinner.

Score Your Vegetarian Social Awareness:

0 correct—Your vegetarian social skills are nothing like mine (thank goodness!) Congratulations!

1-3 correct—You are "average" in every way.

4 correct—You've been reading this column way too long. Get a life.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Piano Question

Several months ago I started the search to buy a piano. I'm not a very good musician, but I love to play, and I figured what the heck, the time was right to go from my little plastic keyboard to a real instrument.

I looked at a bunch of pianos and quickly found one I really, really liked. That was when the salesman spoiled my excitement by saying, "You know, this is a truly fine instrument. It has leather key bushings!"


"Uh oh," I thought, glancing down at my vegetarian-approved canvas shoes and nylon belt, "Here's a problem."

The Moral Dilemma

Like most vegetarians I've made a conscious effort over the years to try to avoid animal suffering in other areas of my lifestyle besides just my diet—and I think I've been moderately successful. I've decried animal testing, generally avoided silk and wool, and haven't bought a pair of leather shoes in a dozen years. But I wasn't prepared to face the fact that an otherwise perfect piano would have offending substances hidden deep in its bowels. I knew I needed help with this one, and I decided to query some of my super-proper, ultra-vegetarian friends. They're smarter than I am. They'd know what to do.

Susan Says No

"It's out of the question."

I looked at Susan incredulously and tried to gather my thoughts. I was afraid she would have this reaction. "But it's only a tiny bit of leather. I could give away the old shoes in the back of my closet and put more leather than that back into circulation. I could make a simultaneous donation to an animal-rights cause and everyone would be better off. And anyway, my organ donor card is signed—I'm planning on passing on a little skin of my own for a good cause!"

"You could do all that stuff without buying this piano," she said. "You're just rationalizing."

"Sure. But everyone rationalizes—it's practically required for human beings. You, for example, take photographs even though you know film has animal ingredients. And you feed meat to your cats."

"That's different," she said quickly. "I don't have a choice there. I'm not going to let my cats starve. If all pianos had leather in them the situation would be different."

"It would?" I thought about that comment for a long time, but couldn't quite see the logic. In any event, this wasn't helping my quest for the piano of my dreams.

Kristin Says No

"How could you, a vegan, even consider such a thing?"

I hadn't expected such a strong response from Kristin. After all, she's a college professor who teaches ethics and animal rights, and by profession she has to consider both sides of every argument. "But you sometimes buy leather shoes yourself!" I countered.

"Yes, but I thought you were more ethically consistent than I am on this issue."

"Me??? How come I have to set the example? I just want a decent piano to play."

"Well, buy a different piano then."

"Would it matter if all pianos had leather in them?" I asked.

"Sure. That would be different."

I still didn't understand this logic, but she was the professor. She must know.

Peter Says Maybe

"It wouldn't bother me. …But then, I'm not you."

Peter was being diplomatic, but his approach was helpful.

"We can't do everything," he went on. "The important thing is that we do what we can."

"But how do we know when we've reached the point where we've done all we can? Animal exploitation is involved in so many products, there's always something else we can eliminate from our lives. And there are always ways we can improve our lifestyles. For example, if we stopped using cars in the summertime we'd save the lives of a gazillion bugs who end up smashed on windshields and radiators—but I've yet to meet an ethical vegetarian who's willing to go that far."

"Exactly," Peter agreed. "You have to lead your life—and nobody expects it to be a life of sacrifice. You can only do what you can do."

The Plot Thickens

After talking with Peter I resumed my piano search, still pondering the moral question, but with a better sense of perspective. It was only when I did more research, though, that I discovered a new and tragic fact—all pianos have leather in them. All pianos??? All acoustic pianos, anyway. Little bits of leather get stuck into the action and the trapwork (that's piano lingo for keys and pedals). Nylon or plastic or rubber would probably work just as well, but leather is traditional, and in the piano business that seems to be pretty important. Now my dilemma had expanded from which piano to buy to whether I should buy a piano at all. Maybe I should even refuse to play anyone else's piano.

Casting the 'Net

It occurred to me that I probably wasn't the first vegetarian piano player to have this problem, and it turns out I'm not. On the Internet I found a vegan discussion group that had dealt with the issue. Unfortunately, they didn't reach any conclusions. There were comments everywhere from "it feels like I'm playing on a corpse" to the sarcastic "do you walk on the ground, or do you hover, to avoid causing needless pain to ants?"

A Resolution?

If you're looking for a resolution to this question, you've come to the wrong column. It seems to me, though, that Peter has a point—in a world that exploits animals at the slightest provocation, we just can't do everything. So maybe the trick is for each of us to find that combination of things (being a vegetarian is a really great start!) that minimizes our guilt, but still lets us lead an enjoyable and meaningful life. Rationalization is nothing to be proud of, but in a society where animal exploitation finds its way into tires and postage stamps, it may be necessary if a sensitive person is to keep his or her sanity.

No, I still haven't bought a piano. But I probably will at some point. When I do I'm sure I'll be making a little "extra" contribution to an animal rights organization for the privilege. Come to think of it, I probably won't be buying much film for a while either.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Understanding (?) “Supplements”

As a vegetarian, people are constantly asking me what kind of "supplements" I take. I grin meekly and try to change the subject. You see, I don't understand nutritional supplements. And since personal involvement with them is almost mandatory for vegetarians and others concerned with their diets, I feel left out. I'm somehow missing the attraction.

Everyone I meet seems to think life itself depends on taking some kind of supplement, or more often many supplements, on a regular basis. Consider my friend Lee, for example. At every meal he sits down with a little plastic bag filled with various kinds of pills. He claims that these little babies, combined with his new diet (lots of protein, no starch, no fruit) have brought him back from the very brink of metabolic disaster. I guess I can't argue the point. He seems pretty much like always to me though, except that he's getting thinner every time I see him. "No fruit?" I say. "Are you sure that's healthy?"

My friend Cheryl is awfully skinny too, although she'll never admit it. She drinks bright-green fruit shakes every morning that have algae something-or-other powder in them. I'm sure they're healthy as all get out, but how much healthier does someone who would never touch a speck of meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or refined anything really have to be?

I guess that raises one of the questions I have about nutritional supplements. How come the people who eat the healthiest diets and have the healthiest lifestyles are a zillion times more likely to buy these products than the folks who live on pizza and wouldn't know an antioxidant if it crawled up their shins? Why should it be us vegetarians, who already eat a diet that is by its nature steeped in vitamins and minerals, who buy all the supplements? If organic foods are so great, why do we need pills and powders and potions besides? Did the Almighty design humans wrong, or was it his/her design of food that was in error? How did people survive for the first 4 million years before the GNC store opened up in the local mall?

Okay, I know I'm getting carried away here. I know that the soils our food is grown in get worse every year, and our scientific knowledge of what our bodies need gets better.

And I know that I'm jealous too—because every time I have tried to supplement my diet with the latest recommended new and exciting vitamin or mineral I haven't felt a darned bit of difference. Nothing. Nada. Nil. It doesn't matter whether I'm megadosing (is that a word?) on vitamin C, or cramming down organic multi-vitamins the size of avocado pits. I can take a whole bottle of melatonin and still lie awake at night. I take the same echinacea and zinc cold remedies everyone else swears by, and all I manage to do is cut the length of my colds from a week to seven days.

I don't think it's because I'm doing anything wrong. I think it's me personally. My body is somehow stifled from all those years of living on beer nuts and New Coke. My special neuron-fired nutritional supplement receptors are all shot.

The other day someone recommended a new supplement that's all the rage. She claimed it would fix my lousy knees—guaranteed. I went to the natural foods grocery all excited. This time I was going to make it work.

I was only in the store a minute, though, before I realized there are two more good reasons why I don't take regular nutritional supplements. Most of the bottles of this wonder drug I looked at were replete with animal ingredients. Whoa! I thought. Maybe it isn't vegetarians who take most of this stuff after all. Or at least they aren't vegetarian when they finish taking it. The other big shocker was the sticker price. Thirty-six dollars for this tiny bottle of pills? What do they put in here? Is one of those animal ingredients Beluga caviar? Is each pill individually wrapped in mink??

I went over to the other side of the store and spent my $36 on good-old vegetarian food, and to console myself a pint of dairyless ice cream. When my knees get real, real bad I'll probably break down and buy some of that magic potion. Until then, let me pout and wallow in my cynicism. Maybe I'm not ready to understand supplements.


P.S.: Americans spend $5 billion a year on nutritional supplements. That's cheap compared to the $1 trillion we spend on non-preventive health care every year, but it's still an awful lot of money. (Heck, for that amount of money the government could buy almost a dozen screwdrivers and/or toilet seats. Even better, Hollywood could make Titanic II-The Resurrection.)

As this is being written, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing new rules that would prohibit supplements, which are not required to undergo rigorous scientific study, from claiming they can diagnose, treat, prevent or cure a disease or disease symptom. It may be time for some regulations like this, but let's not single out the nutrition industry. Hopefully the fine folks in Washington can work on the claims of the meat and dairy folks next!

Just for grins, I looked at some of the claims now being made by nutritional supplements in their advertising. It took me less than 5 minutes to find these:

• "strengthen the immune system, enhance memory and fight the effects of aging"

• "keeps your brain in shape"

• "earth's healthiest superfood"

• "fight the effects of pollution, stress, bacteria, and the passage of time"

• "provides you with what you desire most: energy"

• "achieve optimal health"

• "may serve as your body's own 'internal sunglasses'"

Wow! If all of these claims were true, why wouldn't I want to take all of these products, and many more? Wouldn't I be the healthiest guy alive? Wouldn't it be great to never have to worry about losing my sunglasses again? Of course, if I took all these products I know I'd be the busiest guy alive—just from swallowing all the pills. And at $36 a bottle, I'd probably be the poorest as well!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stalking the Enemy

It's a war out there. In the constant battle between us vegetarians (a/k/a, "the Forces of Good") and the animal agriculture and exploitation industries (a/k/a, "the Forces of Evil"), we have to be ever-vigilant. We have to know our enemy's every move lest we awake one day to find him (her/it) milking the innocent public or selling flank steaks on our very flanks.

As a public service of this column, (and as a way to make up for past damage), I maintain a large and talented staff of professionals who constantly monitor our adversaries and report back in exhaustive detail. …Well, actually, I just manage to check a few press releases every couple of years. But with the thought that some information is better than nothing, and with the added thought that "This page intentionally left blank" makes lousy reading, here are a few of the things the Forces of Evil have been up to lately (oh yeah, I've added a few comments of my own, too):

• The National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Beef Quality Assurance program has some exciting new research underway. In one program at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, one hundred breastfed infants are being studied to document the "advantages" of the early introduction of beef as a weaning food.

Are there no child abuse laws in this country???

• In another study the "cattlemen" are trying to show that some bacteria in ground beef may actually help reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7.

Sure, we know that ground "beef" is full of bacteria, but using these little guys as a way to enhance the "quality" of this "food" is something only the meat industry could come up with.

Fur Age magazine reports that increased international demand for mink pelts is outpacing supply, forcing prices to skyrocket. That means the price for even "entry-level mink" coats has risen to $4,000 to $5,000 at the retail level.

Aren't you glad you have other things to spend your money on?

• The American Egg Board tells us that a blood spot on the yolk of an egg is an indication that the egg is fresh.


• "British Meat," a group from you-know-where organized to promote you-know-what, publishes "healthy eating" information and recipes under the slogan "The Recipe for Love…Meal solutions for every occasion."

If this is love, I'd hate to see what their "hate" recipes are like.

• In its official position on vegetarianism, the National Pork Producers Council describes that industry's killing of animals as "the pork industry's supposed destructive impact on a hog's right to 'hogness'."

Euphemisms get more euphemistic every day!

• And while we're on the subject of "hogness," the Wild Boar Farmers of Alberta want us to know that the use of a marinade or cooking sauce and oven temperatures no greater than 325°F will maintain a moist product and tenderize "The Meat fit for a King."

Does this mean that cooking it any other way may leave you with "the shoe leather fit for a soldier?"

• According to Lab Animal magazine the government breeding program for captive chimpanzees has resulted in significant surplus populations. Since the cost of maintaining a chimp over an average 25- to 34- year life-span is approximately $300,000, industry and government researchers have a real problem, and they are now encouraging animal-protection organizations to take them off the hook by developing sanctuary facilities for chimpanzees.

Sure, but are they willing to send money? Is this one of those "I told you so" situations?

• A survey of American eating habits commissioned by the American Meat Institute finds that more than 99% of Americans eat meat, and "self-reported meat avoiders and vegetarians" consume only about one ounce per day less meat than other folks.

Yes, but we vegetarians always lie to pollsters.

• That same survey, known as EAT II (really!), also finds that while most Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, we aren't (surprise, surprise!) eating too much meat.

And just how fat do they want us to be???

• By the time you read this the Veal Committee of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association will have introduced their new "veal" advertising slogan and logo. The tagline is "Veal. Eat Smart. Eat Well."

I guess if you can't manage to say something substantive, you may as well make up something silly. Hey, these guys should write this column!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Selling the Vegetarian Cause—Moonies, A Yawn, and No Respect

Some time ago I was at a party with a bunch of other vegetarians. One of the guests was bemoaning the fact that it was hard to make meat-eaters see the advantages of vegetarianism. "They don't get it," he kept saying. "They just don't get it."

At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say. You either "got it" or you didn't, as if vegetarianism was some kind of counterculture religion, or maybe the latest pop psychology trend? But the more I've thought about it, the more I feel that guy was exactly right. Just like religion, vegetarianism is a hard sell, and those who aren't buying really aren't buying.

Everyone in the world has a cause these days. But not all causes are created equal—at least in the eyes of the public. There are some things that almost everyone supports. Tell someone you're a Big Brother or you work for the Special Olympics, for example, and they'll immediately warm up to you.

On the other side of the spectrum are what I call the "love/hate" groups. They get an immediate reaction—pro or con—from almost everyone. Examples that come to mind are Planned Parenthood, the Neo-Nazis, and those "feed Jane Fonda to the Whales" people at the airport. And remember a few years ago when people were accusing the "Moonies" of brainwashing their kids? Not many people could remain neutral on that issue.

Most causes, though, are less controversial. They have their followers, and in some cases their detractors, but the majority of us don't really think much about them. I think for the most part vegetarianism as a cause is in this largely ignored group. But as the movement gains momentum I get the feeling we may be drifting into that small group of causes that people either love or hate. It seems that lately when I extol the virtues of vegetarianism I have been getting a stronger and stronger reaction.

It happened again the other day. A woman at work asked me why I'm a vegetarian.

"Well...," I said, giving her my most sincere smile. "...Let me just tell you."

I launched into my canned 10 minute speech on the merits of vegetarianism. Unfortunately, I didn't get far—maybe forty-five seconds into it—when I saw her eyes glaze over and she stifled a yawn. Knowing I was going to lose her if I didn't do something, I skipped straight to the end of my speech where I get to the heavy stuff like veal calves and world starvation. The bored look turned to terror, as if I was carrying a bomb or (even worse) asking her for money. She started taking large backward steps, and I suddenly felt about as welcome a Bobby Seale at a DAR convention.

I guess the message is clear. Everybody knows we vegetarians are around, and most of the time they don't really care. To the average meat eater out there our cause is about as important as the Rochester Worm Museum, of the Albanian Home for Aging Soldiers. When we really press the issue, though, it gets personal. At that point the meat eater will either "get it," or treat us like a Moonie hanging around the local playground. It seems that just like the Moonies and those other love/hate groups, we don't yet have the respect of most of those who disagree with us.

The early days of the anti-smoking movement must have been like this. Those people probably encountered lots of hostility from smokers and industry lobbyists. Their persistence paid off, though. As people started to learn and accept the facts, they became much more receptive. Even though there are still plenty of smokers in the world, the anti-smokers are generally acknowledged as having a legitimate cause, and being on the "right" side of the issue. Truth won out in the end.

Hopefully it won't be long before vegetarians get that kind of respect. I know the day will come, because vegetarianism is such a great cause. After all, look at its attributes: it doesn't cost any money to participate, we don't advocate the violent overthrow of the government, and we won't even try to brainwash your kids.

If only people knew.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Still More Pathetic Tales of the Veggie Avenger

"Store Wars"

When we last left the Veggie Avenger, our favorite vegetarian activist was shamelessly accosting meat-eaters in his jobs as an elevator operator and waiter. Unfortunately, those jobs didn't last long. Employers, it seems, were quick to realize that a tactless vegetarian superhero was not their ideal choice in interacting with the public. Nevertheless, the Veggie Avenger remains undaunted. "Hey," he says with a shrug, "why be subtle if you know you're right?" Yes, it's clear that this is a man of principle—at least until his unemployment checks run out.

The Veggie Avenger has been spending his free time (actually, all of his time is free time) pasting nasty stickers on the meat packages at some of Big City's supermarkets. The stickers have sayings on them like: "My name was Elsie, and I had brown eyes," and "Beef: Real Food for Morons." The Veggie Avenger is very proud of himself for being so clever. Suddenly, he senses someone behind him. He turns around to see a butcher the size of Delaware, with arms like fir trees.

Butcher: So, you're the guy who's been treading on our tenderloin!

Veggie Avenger [articulate, as usual]: Who, me??

The butcher grabs our hero's throat with a blood-stained hand and starts pulling him down the aisle. There's the sound of Converse All-Stars squeaking as they drag along the linoleum floor.

Butcher: I've got a meat saw in the back I want you to get acquainted with.

Veggie Avenger [unable to breath]: Arrghh!

Just then a little old lady shopper whacks the butcher in the ribs with her cane.

Little Old Lady: Hey fatso, what are you doing with the geek?

Butcher: I'm going to soak him in meat tenderizer 'til he dissolves.

Veggie Avenger: Arrghh!

By this time several shoppers have gathered around to watch the commotion. The store manager comes over to intervene.

Store Manager: What's going on?

Little Old Lady [pointing to the butcher]: Arnold Schwarzenegger here is trying to deep-six this pathetic hippie.

Butcher: He's the one who's been putting the stickers on our meat. I'm going to lock him up in cold storage for a couple of days.

Veggie Avenger: Arrghh!

Manager: Hmm. Sounds like a violation of Federal product tampering laws to me. I'd better call the FBI.

Veggie Avenger [by this time turning blue, with his eyes bulging out]: Arrghh! Arrghh!

Little Old Lady: Let me take him home with me, boys. I'll straighten him out.

Manager: Lady, if you promise to keep him out of the store, he's yours.

Reluctantly, the butcher takes his hand off the Veggie Avenger's throat. Our hero, breathing again, knows he's won another battle. Air returns to his lungs. A confident look returns to his face, and he smirks at the butcher and store manager. He's just about to thank the little old lady when he feels her iron grip on his arm and the rap of her cane on his shins.

Little Old Lady: Now come along with me, sonny. I'm going to fix you a nice bowl of chicken soup.

Veggie Avenger: Arrghh!!!