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.