Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The True Meaning Of Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving, or so they say, was the fourth Thursday in November, 1620. It being a legal holiday, Irving Schwartz had the day off from his job as an account manager at Plymouth Bank and Trust and was bumming around the woods with his muzzle-loader. He came upon a wild turkey (not the whiskey, but the bird) with a broken wing and, without thinking, blasted the poor beast into the next life. Now it happened that this turkey was the largest and most beautiful bird Irving had ever seen, much less shot. (Actually it was the only bird Irving had ever shot—having been a tailor in London until a few months before.) He ran home trailing the carcass behind him and shouting
triumphantly, but his wife Mabel (people were really named that back then) stopped him at the door. "Clean that bloody thing outside," she said. "I just did the floors."

That afternoon the Indians were in town for a doubleheader. A potluck was scheduled between games and Irving proudly brought his turkey. "Want some?" he asked Rich Garcia, captain of the Indians.

"No thanks, kid, I never touch the stuff," Garcia responded as he stuffed beans into a corn tortilla.

A little dejected, Irving took the platter with the turkey on it over to his cousin Bernie at the other end of the table. "Try some of my turkey. It's real good," he said. As if to demonstrate he took a bite out of a drumstick and broke his front tooth on a piece of shot.

"Nah," Bernie responded. "I can't handle the cholesterol. I'm sticking with the salad."

And so it went all afternoon on that first Thanksgiving—neither Irving nor his turkey had a very good time amongst the early vegetarians of the New World. Of course in time the simple way of life of those early settlers was lost, and we all know the ensuing years have not been kind to our feathered friends. No longer do most people crave the bean enchilada or salad. No, ask Americans what they like best about Thanksgiving and you'll get the same answer from all of them: football.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Food Rut (or, “I’ve sunk so low I have to reach up to scratch the belly of a snake”)

Witness these facts: I've got a Cuisinart, two pasta makers, and duplicate sets of fancy French and German cooking knives. I've got 72 (or at least it seems like that many) vegetarian cookbooks, and a thick file with thousands of other recipes. I'm constantly pontificating on the endless variety and excitement of a vegetarian diet. I make fun of boring meat eaters who insist on eating the same four animals two or three times a day, every single day of their lives.

Mr. Big-Shot vegetarian, huh? Yeah, well it's easy to talk a big game. But if the truth be known, when the peanut butter hits the fan (the salad hits the colander, so to speak), I'm a fraud.

Yes, it's true. While I smile and extol the virtues of vegetarianism to everyone I meet, inside I'm tortured by a bitter reality—I haven't had a creative food idea in years. I'm in a food rut.

When I think about it, maybe it's always been this way. After all, there was that time when I survived for the better part of two years on nachos and beer (or was it Scotch?). But I was young and foolish then, and things like that had some appeal. What's my excuse now? There's no time to shop? No time to cook? Have I gotten lazy in my old age, or is my right brain just on vacation in Fiji?

I swear I've tried to break out of this rut. I've gone through every kind of bean I can find, but they all seem to taste the same. Ditto for greens. I bought a bottle of pickled watermelon rinds the other day, hoping for something different. But there they sit in the back of my refrigerator. I even bought a can of tomato aspic, the only food I hated as a kid, willing to give it one more try. I still hate it.

Everybody probably gets into food ruts now and then, but you'd never know it talking to my friends. The meat eaters I hang around with are either bragging about the new Tasmanian restaurants they've found, or tossing the names of rare mushrooms and snooty French wines into casual conversation. They don't seem to lack for excitement at the dinner table.

The vegetarians I know are even worse. They're all so upbeat about their diets. Take my friend Melissa, for example. When she hosts a dinner party she makes twenty (count 'em!) exciting new dishes—all vegan! Why can't I cook like that?

Next weekend I'm going to beat this thing. I'll dig out one of those 72 cookbooks and find something really unique to fix. Time, trouble, and hard-to-find ingredients will be no obstacle. I'm throwing out my motto that if it takes longer to cook than to eat, it isn't worth it. I'm determined to blaze gastronomic trails.

With my luck I'll like whatever it is. I'll like it so much, it will be on my dinner table every night for the next 6 months.


 

You know you're in a food rut when...

1. You've memorized your grocery list, and you carry exact change to the store.

2. Your cat "Bushwacker" no longer shows any interest in the sound of an opening can.

3. Your freeloading cousin Bernie turns down a dinner invitation.

4. You start to cook before you decide what you're making.

5. You go shopping for a microwave oven with a "memory" function.

6. Your kids decide to move into their own apartment...and the oldest one is only 13!

7. Your husband comes home and says, "I ate at the office."

8. You learn to perfectly synchronize your lunch preparation with the commercials on Oprah.

9. Your dog "Wrecks" begs to go out at dinnertime.

10. Your child surprises you by learning the word "barf" in 27 languages.

11. You find yourself wearing one of those cutesy aprons that says: "I'm only filling in while the cook gets treated for the plague."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Fair Lady-2—The Sequel

Last time, in this very same space, we met Anita, a delightful woman whom I cruelly singled out for attention for only one reason: Anita has one of the world's worst diets. It is a diet consisting almost entirely of animal-based foods, and dishes made with them. Indeed, the only strictly vegan food that Anita consumes on a regular basis is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Even there you can't be too sure—what with all those horror stories you hear about rodent hairs getting into peanut butter.)

Anyway, after learning about Anita's diet I, in a demonstration of typical vegan patronization, decided to play Prof. Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, and teach her about the joys of vegetarianism. (This all seemed appropriate, given that My Fair Lady is based on a play written by a noted vegetarian.) So, for the past two months I've been bringing assorted samples of odd vegetarian foods for her to try out. And, of course, I promised to report the results back to you.

So, did everything work out just like I hoped? Was Anita amazed at the wonderful bounty of tasty vegetarian foods? Did I have her eating out of my hand (ha!—just a little joke to see if you're still paying attention) in no time? Did she decide to give up the pepperoni and pineapple pizzas (say it three times fast) she loves so much? Is she a vegetarian now? Vegan even? Did she quit her job to sell food dehydrators on late-night television?

It may shock you, but the answer to each of these questions is no. What did happen is considerably less dramatic. Anita learned about some new foods, and perhaps expanded her horizons a little bit. I learned some things too. Here are the highlights...

February 5: I bring Anita some of the curried tempeh salad I'd made over the weekend. Needless to say, she's never seen tempeh before. She's never eaten any kind of curry either. "Not too bad," she says, cautiously tasting it. "Spicy... Crunchy... I could eat that again ...but not every day. I'd rather have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich." An hour later she has her lunch—pepperoni and pineapple pizza with a candy bar.

February 9: I offer Anita some grapefruit from my folks' tree in Florida. She won't try it. "Too sour!"

February 12: I bring Anita some carry-out from the Chinese joint around the corner. Eggplant with hot garlic sauce and moo shu vegetables, hold the egg please. It is still early, and after her breakfast of Pop-Tarts I wonder if she'll be hungry. "It looks disgusting," she says immediately, "What's this stuff?" I tell her that it's eggplant, and she pokes at it disdainfully with her fork. "I've had eggplant, but it's been awhile," she says. "Can I just eat the rice and carrots?" Finally, after more coaxing, she decides to humor me, and guess what? She likes it! Except for the plum sauce, that is. It's too tangy for her. ("Maybe just regular barbecue sauce would be better.") I ask her about the tofu. "It's not bad," she says, "I thought it was squash." I consider this acceptance of tofu to be a major step in Anita's conversion. But that triumph is quickly followed by the inevitable setback. She's reluctant to try a piece of red pepper. After I assure her that it isn't hot she takes a tiny taste and isn't impressed. "There's nothing to it, and I don't like the skin on it. No, I'd pass on the pepper."

February 23: I bring Anita some killer chocolate pie. I figure she'll love it, and then I'll spring on her the fact that it's made with tofu. She hates it. "Too strong," she says. "I really don't like chocolate."

March 7: "Today's your lucky day," I say, putting a bowl of miso soup in front of Anita. "I'm hungry for something," she responds, "...but I don't think that's it." She takes a sip and makes a face. "It hits the buds! That soy sauce is kind of salty—you have to have a beverage beside you." I ask her about the tofu, which, by this time, is nothing new to her. "It doesn't look real appetizing, but it doesn't taste bad," she says. "It looks like compressed puke to me." The peapods get a less favorable reception. She tastes one and looks like she's going to die on the spot. "The peas has got to go!" she screams. "Those peas has got to go!"

By the end of March I was starting to detect a pattern in Anita's reactions to foods. She clearly preferred the bland to the spicy, with as little texture as possible. That figures, I thought. Most meat and dairy products are mild tasting, and have nothing in them that remotely resembles fiber. They just kind of slide down the throat on a slick of grease. Once folks get used to eating that stuff, even something like a peapod could be a challenge. Maybe the simple facts that most vegetarian foods have distinct flavors and textures are huge factors inhibiting their popularity. Sadly, these are the very things we vegetarians love.

This is a depressing thought. The more tasty we make our vegetarian food, the more unappealing it might be to meat eaters. Maybe vegetarians and meat eaters will just have to "agree to disagree" about the majority of foods, and settle for whatever common ground they can find. ("How about that peanut butter and jelly, huh?" "Yeah, how about that peanut butter and jelly!")

One day, when I was feeling especially depressed by all of this, Anita dropped by. "You'd be proud of me," she beamed. "We took some raw vegetables, and we steamed them! Sure, we had to put just a little bit of cheese on them, but let me tell you, it was deeeelicious! I said to my husband Jeff, 'We should have this more often.' Of course we did have chicken for the main course, but you've got to start somewhere."

I couldn't hide a big smile. Yeah, I was thinking, you've got to start somewhere.


 

Anita reacts to your favorite foods...

  • Orange Juice: Only if it is canned or frozen. She doesn't like the fresh stuff because the pulp sticks to her teeth.
  • Tofu: "Nasty... Slimy... Reminds me of something someone who didn't have any teeth would eat."
  • Chinese: "I've eaten sweet and sour pork."
  • Spices: Absolutely none, other than pepper. Except garlic bread is okay.
  • Fried pork rinds: "I have to be in the mood, and one's enough."
  • Onions: "Ugh!"
  • Brussel Sprouts: "Oh, my god!"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

My Fair Lady

When I tell people I don't eat either meat or dairy products they screw up their faces in disbelief and say, "What's left???" I can't get a decent meal at the vast majority of the restaurants in the United States. I don't dare go to a neighborhood potluck unless I eat beforehand.

All of this is distressing, to be sure. But it has also left me with an interesting thought: I bet there are people in this world, probably right here in River City, State of Confusion, USA, who have diets so different from mine that the two don't overlap at all. Let me say it another way: If there are vegans who don't eat any animal products, there are probably other people who never eat anything that doesn't contain animal products. Wow, just like Mr. and Mrs. Sprat! It's a sobering thought.

I must say that I've had a morbid fascination with this for the last few years. The idea that someone out there is eating at the totally opposite end of the spectrum from me has increased my awareness of the diets of people around me. I haven't actually found anyone who's food choices meet my criteria of "nothing without animal products passes these lips," but I have found some folks out there who come darned close. People with really horrible diets.

(Before going on I should explain that when I use terms like "really horrible" and "gag me with a pipe wrench," my comments are totally subjective, and do not necessarily make any value judgments. Indeed, as a guy who has in the past defined the four food groups as "sugar, chocolate, alcohol and nicotine," folks might well be healthier if they stay away from my dietary suggestions.)

It's been quite an experience to discover people who's diets seem as strange to me as mine must seem to them, and over the past couple of years I've found some doozies. First there's my friend Blake who washes everything down with a quart of cow's milk. Then there is Greg, who won't eat anything all day but pastries and candy. Just when I thought I'd seen everything though, just when I thought it was safe to go back in the supermarket, I met someone really, really special. We'll call her "Anita," since that's her real name.

Some background information is probably in order. Anita is an attractive, thin, 27 year-old blonde who is both intelligent and charming. She grew up in rural Indiana, (no doubt with parents like mine, who believe vegetarians are communists), married a man with a background similar to hers, and is now enjoying a normal, happy lifestyle. Normal, at least, with the exception of her food choices.

Anita admits to being a "fussy" eater, a trait that apparently started at an early age. "I definitely ate fatty, fatty in high school," she says, referring to her daily lunch of four candy bars and a pop. Since then her diet has become more varied, but not by much. She obsesses on her two favorite foods, macaroni and cheese and pizza, and it is as a topping on the latter that she consumes the only fruit that she'll eat: canned pineapple. Anita won't eat fresh pineapple because it isn't as sweet, and the texture reminds her of (god forbid!) an apple. If Anita had been in the Garden of Eden humankind would never have fallen from grace.

Anita is just as discriminating with her vegetables. The only ones she'll eat are corn and potatoes. (The spuds are instant, from a box. "We have real potatoes about every 4 months.") Cauliflower and broccoli are okay, but only if there's dip available.

Four years ago Anita took a major step forward in her dietary progress. That was when she ate her first salad. Now she doesn't mind them, as long as they're limited to iceberg lettuce, carrots and croutons, with French or ranch dressing. "I've gotten very experimental in the last four years," she says.

Anita's meats of choice are hamburger and pot roast and chicken breasts. She also likes "Rice Krispie treats," which are apparently snacks made out of cereal and marshmallows. Strangely, though, she claims no interest in other creations of American culture such as marshmallow cream, Cheez-Whiz, and Spam.

Many of Anita's dietary intentions are admirable. She worries about fat now because of cholesterol problems in her family, so she buys only skim milk and "93%" hamburger (apparently that's the "low fat" stuff). She even likes "wheat" bread better than white. Unfortunately, her favorite sandwich is "mayonnaise." Mmmm.

When Anita gave me the details of her diet, my immediate reaction was: "I can enlighten this misguided soul!" (Yeah right, as if I could enlighten anybody!) For a fleeting moment I envisioned myself as a Rex Harrison type (a fair comparison I think—after all, we both have gray hair and speak English) meeting an Eliza Doolittle type. She'd be a real challenge, but if I could get Anita to like vegetarian foods, that would prove that it's possible to convert (or at least influence) any meat eater.

If I could cook for this woman for three months, I thought, I might have a chance of saving her. That, of course, wouldn't be practical. I did, however, promise to bring her samples of the foods I eat. In return, she didn't exactly promise to eat any of these foods, but I am pretty sure she'll at least look at them.

That's a start anyway. In the meantime, I'm already making progress. I've already found that we actually have one food in common. Both Anita and I like peanut butter and jelly.

(Next time: Mark sings "The Rain in Spain..." and reports back on how the conversion process is going.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Meat World 2100—A Fantasy?

I should have been more careful. I was fooling around with the electrical circuit breaker panel behind my house, and as soon as I poked the screwdriver in underneath the switch I knew I'd done the wrong thing. There was a loud cracking sound, and then everything went black and I felt my body floating in air. "Whew!" I said to myself, "It sure smells like something's burning."

The next thing I knew I was in a long tunnel, walking toward a bright light. A kindly gentleman who looked like Jimmy Carter greeted me and led me into a lavish office. "Mr. Reinhardt, we've been waiting for you," he said, bringing my picture and vital statistics up on a giant computer screen hanging on the wall and offering me his hand. "My name's Rodney. Rodney St. Peter. I see that you're a vegetarian..."

"Is this heaven?" I asked.

Rodney laughed. "Not yet—but the next best thing, you lucky guy. Your next reincarnation is going to be in Meat World 2100—the perfect future on Earth as created by the joint efforts of the American Meat Institute and the American Dairy Association!"

He must have seen the terror in my face. "Oh, don't worry," Rodney said immediately. "You're going to loooovvve it! Look, your guides are here now for your orientation."

I spun around and saw a stocky man and a blonde woman in western suits and cowboy boots. They introduced themselves as "Mr. Bertram" and "Jan," and no sooner had one of them said "come along with us" than we were climbing into a flashy car with the softest leather upholstery imaginable.

"I think you'll find that Meat World 2100 addresses every concern you vegetarians may once have had," Mr. Bertram said as he swiveled the front seat of the car around to face me. "Here, have one of our official pins."

Before I could object Mr. Bertram had pinned a tiny holographic picture of a smiling cow to my shirt. He was beaming with pride at the man-made environment around us. We were on an elevated, computer-guided highway, cruising through a landscape of skyscrapers and "Super-Mega Wal-Mart" stores.

"You vegetarians were right in pointing out the problems with eating animal products... we can admit that now," Jan elaborated. "But by the end of the twenty-first century, when Meat World 2100 was being planned, we'd already addressed most of those concerns. We developed pills to counter the effects of cholesterol and fat in the body, and other pills to simulate the effects of anti-oxidants and quistines in fruits and vegetables."

"Quistines?"

"Oh, they didn't know about them in your time—but they're very good for you. Anyway, we can do it all synthetically now, with petrochemicals. So eating steaks and hot fudge sundaes is every bit as good for you as the plant foods that humans once consumed. Would you believe it, our school lunches now consist of hamburgers and ice cream, with lots of milk!"

"They did in my day too," I answered.

Jan and Mr. Bertram took me to one of their "food processing facilities" for a tour. It was a sixty-story building that went on for blocks. Across from the entrance was a McDonald's restaurant, still with the ugly golden arches. The sign read: "More billions served than even we can imagine!"

Our first stop was the chicken processing line where square blocks of featherless birds stretched as far as the eye could see. "These chickens are genetically engineered to be 95% breast meat," Mr. Bertram told me. "See how we've been able to shrink the wings and head down to almost nothing? And we make them square so they take up less space."

"What are the tubes going into them?" I asked.

"Life support systems. All their food, water and oxygen flow in through those tubes, and the animals' waste flows out for recycling. Genetic engineering pushes the limits of living systems, you know—these birds couldn't live for a second in the ambient environment."

"Removing the tubes is our method of humane slaughter!" Jan chimed in proudly.

My two hosts took me to see the dairy cows (which looked like small tanker trucks on hooves) and the "all prime tenderloin" steers before we went back to the training room for a debriefing. I was starting to feel sick by that time, but Jan still wanted to talk about science. "Isn't genetics wonderful?" she asked. "Within the next five years all babies born in Meat World 2100 will have blonde hair, perfect teeth, and noses like Shirley MacLaine."

Out in the hall behind my hosts I caught sight of a small man jumping up and down and waving wildly to get my attention.

"I think I need to use your rest room," I said suddenly.

"Down the hall to your right," Mr. Bertram pointed. "Take it easy with the high suction tubes, though. If you aren't used to them they can turn you inside out."

When I got out the door the little man grabbed my arm and pulled me into an elevator. "I'm Eddie," he said excitedly. "Thank goodness I found you."

"Where are we going?" I asked as he hit the down button.

"Veggie World 2100, of course!" He handed me the small holographic picture of an eggplant. "Here, have one of our official pins."

Eddie's car looked like a 1987 Honda I once owned, but magically, a second after Eddie put it in gear, we were traveling over a landscape of forested hillsides and valleys thick with grasses. "Is this Veggie World?" I asked.

"That's right," Eddie said. "And I'm taking you to meet the number one, big honcho veggie himself—he goes by the name of Rumim."

We found Rumim sitting by himself in a comfortable apartment on the outskirts of a small town. He had a bald head and a white robe, and he sat cross-legged on the floor with a serene look on his face. Somehow he must have been expecting me, because he greeted me warmly, and then tried to address the questions I had.

"Veggie World 2100 may appear similar to the world you once lived in, but there are overwhelming improvements." He motioned for me to sit down, and then went on. "You see, at the end of the twenty-first century we decided to form a society based on a very simple principle—reverence for all life. No one could have imagined what a difference it would make! War was eliminated overnight, as was virtually all crime. Of course, disease went way down and the quality of our environment improved dramatically. Now we spend the money that used to go to warplanes and hospitals and jails on education, music, art and Tofumatics."

"Tofumatics?"

"They're advertised on our late-night TV," Eddie explained. "For $79.95 you can make tofu at home—in twelve exciting flavors."

"We've fared a lot better than our counterparts who took the other course and started Meat World 2100," Rumim went on. He shook his head sadly. "They've been plagued by disease, environmental contamination, and the continual unrest brought on by the struggle for domination over other creatures—non-human and human. They live in poverty now, and their numbers have almost died out..."

"But that's not true!" I said. "I just visited Meat World 2100. It was creepy, but it certainly seemed successful."

Rumim and Eddie laughed hysterically at that, and it was several seconds before they calmed down enough that I could ask what the joke was.

"That wasn't the real Meat World 2100," Rumim explained. "What you saw was their virtual reality cyberspace demo. They just made that to lure in new members!"

"Wow..." I thought about what might have been my fate. Thank goodness Eddie rescued me. "Well, I know I'm going to like living in Veggie World 2100," I said. I was already thinking about getting one of those Tofumatics.

Rumim shook his head.

"No?!!"

"You can't stay here," he told me. "You have to go back to your life at the turn of the twenty-first century. The work all you vegetarians did then was necessary in laying the groundwork for Veggie World 2100. ...I'm sorry, but we still need you there."

"But what can I do? I'm just a bozo!"
I protested.

Rumim nodded. "We know. But everyone counts."

When I awoke I was flat on my back. "What a vivid dream!" I thought. Then I saw the two holographs pinned to my chest, and I sat up in a bolt. So, maybe it wasn't just a dream.

Suddenly I felt as though I had a lot of work to do, although I wasn't sure exactly what it was I should be doing. I've got to get started, I said to myself. After all, it's up to us—bozos included—to assure the great vegetarian future.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The History of Meat!

"The hopes, disappointments, triumphs and failures of our civilization can readily be seen in the gristle of a T-bone steak."—Hank "Bull Moose" Carter, Enid, Oklahoma, May, 1949
 

The author of this column has recently completed a project exhaustively researching and chronicling the entire history of human meat eating on our planet. As you might imagine, a project of this magnitude was not easy, and required almost several minutes in the library. Nevertheless, the effort was well worth it, and I am pleased to present here, for the first time, an exhaustive discourse on this important topic—The History of Meat!

• Distant Past— First, humans are gatherers. Then humans learn to sow. Thus, the early human beings gather and sow. As a consequence, many of their clothes are pleated.

• Pretty Darned Distant Past— Fred Caplinski becomes the first human being ever to eat animal flesh (and also the first person to barbecue) when he cooks the remains of a dead squirrel over the fire in front of the family cave in central Africa. When Mrs. C and their two daughters come home from a shopping trip to the mall Fred proudly declares: "This is 'meat.' It will be very useful in the coming ice age!"

"That's gross daddy!" says Fred's younger daughter Megan.

"Gag me with a spoon!" says Fred's older daughter Ashley.

"We have no spoons; we still eat with our hands," observes Fred's wife.

• Late Pleistocene Age— All meat-eaters of this period are Neanderthals.

• 10th Century B.C.— King Solomon meats out justice.

• Spring, 21 A.D.— A rescue party reaches a brigade of the Roman Army which has been cut off all winter in a remote mountain pass with dwindling supplies. The men are promised fresh meat and a change of underwear. They rejoice until they learn they must change with each other.

• 1546— English king Henry VIII poses for reporters with a glass of mead in one hand and a giant drumstick in the other. Later in life he would be forced to admit his mistake. Dying of syphilis, his last words are: "Yeah, other than that drumstick I always lived a pretty clean life."

About this same time under the developing common law in England "meats and bounds" becomes the accepted method of describing real property.

• 1849— German immigrant butcher Oscar Meyer gets an idea for a new product in a most unusual way. Seeing his pet dachshund char-broiled by lightning in a field behind his house, Meyer exclaims, "Now, that's a hot dog!"

• 1904— The Saint Louis World's Fair opens, with its theme song "Meat Me In Saint Louis."

• 1963— Dr. Scholl sues the McDonald's hamburger chain, claiming he first used the term "Golden Arches" in conjunction with his orthopedic merchandise. In ruling on the case, the court notes a remarkable similarity between fast-food burgers and "shoe-lining products."

• 1973— In an effort to combat rampant inflation, the President of the United States issues an Executive Order freezing retail meat prices. The next day newspaper headlines throughout the country proclaim: "Nixon Holds Rising Meat."

• 2096— Jerry Caplinski (Fred's cousin, 43,257 times removed) becomes the last human being ever to eat meat. At the time meat has already been banned by all countries for nearly 14 years on ecological and ethical grounds. But Jerry has kept a can of Spam in the back of the cupboard in his Brooklyn apartment for all that time. He opens it, and with great expectation takes a bite. Just then Mrs. C and their two daughters come home from a shopping trip to the mall, and Jerry must quickly dispose of the evidence. Although her husband refuses to tell her what he was doing, Mrs. Caplinski swears she hears him say under his breath: "Jeez, it's even worse than I remembered. You'd think after a couple million years they could do better than this!"

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Further Prurient Tales of the Veggie Avenger: “Love Beyond the Golden Arches”

The Veggie Avenger is at his friend Stu's house, watching the ballgame on television and drinking beer. Our hero is still recovering from bruises sustained when he was kidnapped by the "little old lady," and had to jump to safety from her 1958 Plymouth Belvedere.

Stu's sister Maureen walks into the room. The Veggie Avenger has been sweet on Maureen ever since that day in junior high school when she told him he was immature. He straightens the collar on his faded tee shirt and tries to look casual.

Veggie Avenger: Hi Maureen.

Maureen [batting her eyelashes]: Hi Florian. [Now you know why he goes by the name of "the Veggie Avenger".]

The inning is over with the Big City Ramblers leading 5-4, and a commercial comes on the television.

Stu: Look, it's the new McDonald's ad.

Veggie Avenger [reacting to McDonalds' commercials in his usual way]: No! No! [he jumps up and down on the sofa]

Stu: I read somewhere that they make their burgers and milkshakes out of seaweed.

Veggie Avenger: No! No! The seaweed was just a binding ingredient. Most of their products are hideous, bloody, dead animal parts.

Maureen: Yuck!

The Veggie Avenger looks at her with new hope. She's a vegetarian at heart, he thinks! He's more in love than ever. He wonders if she wants children.

Maureen [continuing]: How can anyone eat seaweed? Yuck!

With that comment the Veggie Avenger is crestfallen. On television smiling families are biting into hamburgers to the sound of patriotic music. Our hero can stand it no longer. He takes off his shoe and throws it at the set, knocking the television backwards off its stand. There is a flash of light and a puff of smoke. The music stops.

Stu: Well, that'll cost you about three hundred dollars.

Veggie Avenger [head in hands]: Oh, no... What have I done?

Maureen: I'm hungry. Anyone want to go out for a hamburger?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Battle of Veg*an Hill

"I have ridiculed people for not being vegan and I have been ridiculed for not being vegan enough. To tell you the truth, neither position feels very good."—Elaine Budlong, Here Come the Vegan Police, Vegan Forum, Summer 1999.


 

I guess I was just sitting here fat, dumb and happy (Note: the emphasis is on "dumb"). I thought everything was as groovy as can be in the world of vegetarianism, and that we were all getting along splendidly. Then I heard from a more astute friend of mine about the battles being fought between ovo-lacto vegetarians and vegans. Well, maybe "battles" is too strong a word—but at least heated disagreements. I was dumbfounded. (Again, the emphasis is on "dumb".) How can this be?

In retrospect, it's not hard to see how friction between vegetarians might arise. Vegans feel their diet is more beneficial than an ovo-lacto diet from both a health and ethical perspective, and with the best of intentions they see fellow vegetarians as likely converts. (It's an old fundraising trick—ask the people who have already given to give more, rather than wasting your time finding new donors.) On the other hand, many ovo-lacto vegetarians already have their hands full trying to balance their diets with the demands of meat-eating family and friends. They rightfully think they deserve praise for their efforts, rather than the scorn of "holier-than-thou" fellow vegetarians.

Of course both sides in the Battle of Veg*an Hill are right, but merely saying that doesn't help solve the problem. We need to remember the basics.

We're all on a continuum.

It's been said before, and it's true. Humanity can be viewed as being on a continuum—a giant scale on which the vegetarian ideals we all know and love are measured. At one end of this continuum are folks like Gandhi and Mother Teresa (okay, so maybe neither one was vegan, but you get the idea—they had the right attitude). At the other end of the continuum, of course, are the bad guys—the American Meat Association, Ted Nugent, and the "People Eating Tasty Animals" web site. The rest of us are all somewhere in between. There are no perfect vegetarians, and there isn't one of us whose diet and lifestyle couldn't stand improvement. None of us have bragging rights.

We're all weak…

Sure, we all want to get to the end of the continuum where Gandhi and Mother Teresa are having a cookout, but sometimes it's tough going. More often than not it's just human nature to be weak, lazy and self-centered.

…but vegetarians are pretty remarkable.

Fortunately though, even the weakest vegetarians have done some pretty remarkable things, especially when it comes to thinking for themselves, acting on their beliefs and being an example for others. On the values that the strictest vegans hold dear, even a rookie vegetarian is in the top 1% of the population as a whole. But let's not dismiss that other 99% either. Remember, we don't all start with the same advantages of genetics, education and encouragement. The real measure of character may not be where on the continuum we end up—vegan, vegetarian, or even meat eater—but how far we had to travel to get there.

We have to get along with others.

We are social animals, and in our culture, where very few people are vegetarian and very few people can even comprehend veganism, it's hard to fault anyone for continuing to eat meat, much less dairy products. So let's not do it! Whether it's vegans trying to influence ovo-lacto vegetarians, or ovo-lacto vegetarians trying to influence meat-eaters, negative energy rarely does anything but make enemies. On the other hand, don't underestimate the power of getting along with people. Who does more for the cause of vegetarianism—a vegan who alienates others with his proselytizing or an ovo-lacto vegetarian who others admire and want to follow?

We need everybody!

We need everyone we can get in the vegetarian movement. We need those seemingly "perfect" vegans, who we can all look up to as the very embodiment of human health and the epitome of compassion for the earth and its creatures. Maybe we resent them a bit because they make it look so easy, but vegetarianism would be weak and undisciplined without them, and its promise would be unfulfilled. Just as much, though, we also need the housewife who, in her first unsteady months as an ovo-lacto vegetarian, smiles and tells her friends "it isn't so hard!" and then tries to find vegetarian dishes her family will like. Without people like her the movement would isolate itself and die.

On the great continuum of vegetarian ideals I've just barely crossed over from the "Gandhi" side of ovo-lacto vegetarianism to the "Ted Nugent" side of veganism. I haven't given up on being invited to the soiree at Mother Teresa's place, but I know I've still got a long, long way to go. (Boy, do I have a long way to go!) I'm counting on all those vegans, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and even meat-eaters who may be a little further along on some of the "vegetarian ideals" than I am to help me out. I want them to point out my flaws, and I want them to challenge me to do better. But I want them to do it with love and respect. In turn, I'll try to do the same for those coming up the path where I've just been.

Life is a continuum and we all need to keep moving in the right direction. It shouldn't be hard. If we encourage and care about each other, all of us will win the Battle of Veg*an Hill.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Vegetarians in Hollywood

You wouldn't know it by looking at my humble exterior, but I happen to be an avid and discerning amateur scholar of the motion picture and television arts and sciences. …In other words, I really like to watch movies and TV. …In other words, I'm a couch potato.

Now, before you form any judgments as to the value of this activity, I would like to point out that it benefits my vegetarianism in at least two important ways. First, being a couch potato affords me with plenty of time and opportunity to consume vast quantities of vegetarian foods. (A complete record of such foods is preserved between the cushions of the aforesaid couch.) Even more important, the diligent study of such current art forms as Entertainment Tonight and such classical forms as Blockbuster's Favorites puts me in the perfect position to assess the changing image of vegetarianism and vegetarians in our popular culture.

Did I say changing image? Well, I guess that's correct. The fact is that 25 years ago vegetarians didn't even exist on TV or in the movies. Things have come a long way since then. The good news is that as we burrow into the new millennium vegetarian characters and references to vegetarianism are now commonplace on both the big and little screen. The bad news is that the vast majority of these characters and references exist only for one purpose: to help meat-eaters feel smug about their dietary choices.

Let me put it this way. Remember when the only African-Americans in the movies and on TV were actors like Stepin Fetchit and characters like Amos & Andy? Well, that's still where we vegetarians are.

See if you recognize some of the ways Hollywood stereotypes vegetarianism.

  • The Hopeless Hippy—The most common stereotype is to portray vegetarians as losers, wedded to outdated values and unable to function in our society. A great example of this is the totally unsuitable blind date Hugh Grant is fixed up with in Notting Hill. I guess the message is that vegetarians may be harmless enough, but jeez—nobody would want to date one!
  • The Victim—Hollywood reflects (no, maybe it creates) the "kill or be killed" mentality in our society. On the African veldt herbivores get eaten and carnivores triumph, so the logic is that the same hierarchy should apply to human characters on the screen. Maybe the 400th James Bond movie will finally portray the spy as a vegetarian, but we're not likely to see it in our lifetimes.
  • The Casual Reference—Casual references to vegetarianism abound in the movies, but invariably lead to nothing. Consider Walter Matthau's comment to Audrey Hepburn as their characters walk by a meat packing operation in Charade: "It's enough to make you a vegetarian." Apparently it isn't. Those same characters share chicken and liverwurst sandwiches. The fact is that movies want to show big slabs of "beef" (we all remember the scene in Rocky) because of the visceral effect they have on the audience.
  • Thank God You're Not a Vegetarian—A favorite Hollywood trick is to have one character offer another some disgusting dead thing to eat. When the second character balks, there's the question: "You're not a vegetarian [said with distain] are you???" The thought that he or she could be aligned with such a group invariably causes the character to down the offensive item to prove his/her valor and immediately bond him/her to the audience. See, for example, all of the Indiana Jones movies and the entire Survivor television series.

    Isn't there any good news for vegetarians coming out of Hollywood? Actually, there is. There's a growing group of actors endorsing vegetarian and animal rights causes (Woody Harrelson, Pamela Anderson, Alicia Silverstone, James Cromwell, etc.), and there have been some popular movies with surprisingly strong vegetarian themes.

    Of course the bad news is that those vegetarian themes are only implied, and never stated (the latter would be box office suicide). And while vegetarian ideas in movies may eventually catch on and be effective, for now they seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. Consider this recent dialog on the Internet:

    "First Babe, now Chicken Run. Is a vegetarian conspiracy underfoot to brainwash youngsters against meat-eating?"

    "For what it's worth, both of my kids were hungry for chicken after seeing Chicken Run."

    As a vegetarian and movie lover I try to remain hopeful, despite Hollywood's track record and the even less enlightened state of its audience. In the recent movie The Contender I really found something to cheer about. That movie (one of the very few to actually say the word vegan) uses meat-eating as a metaphor for corruption and evil. The heroine, a vice-presidential candidate who "doesn't eat meat," has her political status threatened by an evil Congressman (Gary Oldman) who loves the stuff. There's even a great scene of a political newcomer being corrupted by none other than a fish sandwich (I think they stole this plot from Genesis). The scenes of Oldman, sneering and nasty as he savors his steak dinner, are classic.

    Finally! I thought. Now there's a real Hollywood bad guy!

    Some Vegetarian TV and Movie Trivia

  • Only one movie has ever had the word "vegetarian" in its title: Vegetaren ("The Vegetarian"), a 1992 Swedish short subject.
  • "'Vegetarian' is an old Indian word meaning 'I don't hunt so good.'"—Reg Hunter, The Red Green Show (1991).
  • "Oh my God, are they vegetarian? That's not in the book!"—Counselor Deanna Troi, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998).
  • From Return of the Swamp Thing (1989):

    Swamp Thing: Me? Your Boyfriend?

    Abby Arcane: Why not?

    Swamp Thing: You said it yourself: I'm a plant.

    Abby Arcane: That's okay, I'm a vegetarian.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Green Salad, Today Only

I saw the sign as I was driving down the boulevard near my house, taking a movie back to the video store. It was out in front of one of those chain restaurants—the one that's been in the news recently for only hiring waitresses with large... er... silicone-enhanced appendages.

"Green Salad, Today Only."

What did that mean, I wondered? Were they really trying to lure customers into their establishment on the promise of something crunchy and green? Would they really be out of salads tomorrow? Wouldn't they at least have iceberg lettuce available to top their customers' burgers? Couldn't they make that into a salad in a pinch? (If they had to, they could always mix some mayo and ketchup together to make Russian dressing.)

I decided I was taking this sign too seriously. (After all, it wasn't like I was actually thinking about eating at this restaurant.) The sign was just a joke, that's all.

I drove a few more blocks before a new thought hit me. The sign was more prophetic than funny. In six syllables, the high school/summer vacation/minimum wage workers at this all-American chain restaurant had said something profound—something more profound than the rest of us self-serving vegetarian pundits have managed to put on paper in the last 25 years. "Green Salad, Today Only." It's everything that's wrong with the world's attitude, not to mention its food choices.

We vegetarians are justifiably proud of what we've accomplished over the years. There can be no doubt that, at least in North America and Europe, the philosophy behind vegetarianism is more popular than ever before. More people all the time are becoming aware of the ethical, health and environmental benefits that can be realized when we stop putting "beastly" foods in our bodies.

Despite all this good news though, some of us still worry that we may be losing the proverbial war. Here's why... In the United States per capita consumption of meat, poultry and fish has been steadily rising for decades. In 1963 the average American ate 185 pounds of these critters, but that number was up to 195 pounds in 1973, 208 pounds in 1983, and a whopping 222.6 pounds in 1993, the last year for which information is available. The American Meat Institute brags that, "Americans are not becoming vegetarians!" As more of the world's countries follow our cultural example, as rain forests are burned for cattle grazing and McDonalds restaurants spring up in Borneo and Namibia, one can only imagine the trend that meat consumption must be taking in other parts of the globe as well.

There's more bad news where that came from. A recent Roper Poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group found that, while 7% of Americans profess to be vegetarian, the number consistently shunning meat, poultry and fish is really somewhere between .3% and 1%. Yes, you read that right—point three
percent! No wonder nobody reads this column! With those kinds of numbers for vegetarians, the percentage of vegans in the U.S. might actually be negative! (Just kidding.) Indeed, with those kinds of numbers, it's not surprising that we can't find a good vegetarian meal in most restaurants, much less anything we can eat at the ballgame, shopping mall or family reunion. Heck, even Jane Fonda has gone from "saving the whales" to hawking buffalo meat.

Okay, so I'm feeling a little paranoid. But, as the prophet says, that doesn't mean they aren't out to get us. What we need to counter all this is something dramatic. What we need are some headlines that will put the vegetarian cause on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Here's an example:

Scientists Discover AIDS Transmission Through Animal Blood In Food

Scientists have isolated a new kind of HIV virus that may be transmitted to humans by consuming the blood of farm animals. "Anyone who eats meat or eggs is seriously at risk," explained researcher Dr. Frank Lee of the University of...

or maybe this:

"Mad Cow" Disease Makes A Comeback

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the fatal human illness believed to be linked to "Mad Cow" Disease is making a dramatic comeback in all parts of the world. And this time it appears to be linked to the consumption of a wide variety of farm animals, including animals from herds that displayed no sign of disease prior to slaughter "Anyone who eats meat or dairy products is seriously at risk," explained researcher Dr. Frank Lee of the University of....

You're thinking this is too grim, and you're right. This is just the kind of thing we're trying to avoid. What we really need is a headline that will motivate people in a more positive way before these evil scenarios have a chance to play out. Something like this:

God Visits White House—

Advocates Vegetarianism

The face of God appeared at a White House luncheon honoring Pope John-Paul II today. Onlookers reported that a bearded presence, which could not be captured on videotape, appeared to hover over the table where President Clinton and the Pontiff were seated. Both men dropped their forks into their salad Ni├žoise when the Creator, using a voice reminiscent of Charleton Heston, said, "Put down the flesh, go for the fresh!" in 128 languages simultaneously.

"He made a believer out of me," said the startled President, confirming that both he and the Pope intend to carry out God's order of vegetarianism. Republican presidential contender Bob Dole echoed these sentiments, adding that he would host a vegan fundraising dinner in an attempt to win God's endorsement. Congress was reluctant to give its immediate approval. Party leaders said they would appoint a bipartisan commission to study the matter...

Yeah, that's more like it. That's the kind of publicity we need, or at least something close. Until that happens I'll keep espousing the cause, but I reserve my right to be pessimistic. It's not that I don't think that vegetarianism will eventually be the preferred diet for humans on this earth. I just fear that the transition may be a long time in coming, and may only follow after lots of those grim headlines become reality, including some that deal with environmental degradation, starvation and other human suffering.

I hope I'm wrong, but I worry that until catastrophe hits, we may be in store for more of the same—people giving vegetarianism a lot of "lip service," but really leading a very different kind of lifestyle in private. I worry that until tragedy is upon us people will continue to
spend their time down at the chain restaurants, watching the well-endowed waitresses, scarfing down hamburgers and chickens' wings, and laughing at "rabbit food" and the people who eat it.

Green salad, today only

It says a mouthful.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Terrorism [2001 revisit to the issue]

"Terror": …violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands"—Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

"Even before his death, his entire life was devoted to animal rights issues... The methods he chose to achieve his ends, however, alienated him from any mainstream opinion. To most, only in the detail was he different from almost any other terrorist."—Journalist Charles Shoebridge, describing animal rights activist Barry Horne, who recently died from a hunger strike in a British jail.


 

Are you a terrorist? Do you support terrorism?

Of course not, you will probably say. It's not even something you'd have to think about. In fact, you've denounced it a million times since September 11.

But answer the following questions:

  • Wouldn't you like to see the cage doors of every mink farm, laying hen battery, and animal research laboratory swung open and billions of animals escape to whatever freedom they could find?
  • Would you really mind seeing every McDonald's sign spray painted to make the famous "golden arches" form the first letter of the phrase "meat is murder"?
  • How about slaughterhouses? Wouldn't you like to see every one of them leveled, and shrines for the dead animals put in their place?
  • Wouldn't you secretly (or not so secretly) root for someone who could make all this happen?

    The point here, of course, is that sometimes terrorism doesn't seem so bad if the "terrorist" activities support a cause we deeply believe in. In that case the "right" thing to do may shift, or at least become a bit murky. It's like the old question of whether you would have assassinated Hitler in 1933 if you'd had the opportunity to do so and the knowledge of future events. Would you?

    In our society terrorism—at least in the form of illegal destruction of property—is being conducted on a regular basis in support of animal rights causes. A report to Congress several years ago found hundreds of these "terrorist" acts, and there's even a federal law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 [ed. note: amended by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006], that was enacted to prevent them. (Most states have similar laws.)

    I've never met anyone who admitted to being an animal rights terrorist. If I did, though, I think I'd like them. For the most part these must be dedicated and brave individuals who have the vision of a better world for animals and humans. They are willing to act on behalf of their passions, and willing to help the suffering and the downtrodden despite the personal risks involved. I have to admire that.

    Of course I also think their actions are stupid and wrong.

    Terrorism, even for the most noble of causes, was stupid and wrong before September 11, and it's even more stupid and wrong now. Here's why:

  • Violence is inherently antithetical to what we stand for. You can't simultaneously condemn violence and practice it. And you can't harm one animal (people) to save another without looking like a hypocrite.
  • The ends don't justify the means. Sure, the people who harm animals for pleasure and/or profit promote terror themselves. They do it every day, and on an incomprehensively massive scale. But it is dangerous to say that a little bit of evil perpetrated against them is justified by the greater good it would accomplish. Where do you draw the line? Whose standards do you use?

    Just remember, everyone who exploits animals uses the same dubious logic—"the ends justify the means"—to support their actions. We know it's not true for them. It's not true for us either.

  • Most of all, violence makes animal rights activists, and their cause, easy targets. People are inherently fearful of new ideas. They'd much rather have an excuse to dismiss an idea outright than go to the trouble of actually educating themselves and formulating a position. Every time an act of violence (or even just something dumb) is committed in the name of animal rights it gives the public the opportunity to dismiss the whole movement and everyone in it—from the Animal Liberation Front to the cat lady next door—as "a bunch of fanatics." Why give them that opportunity?

    Of course everything I've said above is doubly true after the hideous events of September 11. There's little tolerance in our society for anything even remotely looking like terrorism, and average folks won't distinguish violence committed in the name of Islamic fundamentalism from violence committed in the name of animal rights (an equally unknown cause). Why should they?

    (If you don't believe that people will gladly equate folks who free research animals with folks who hijack planes and fly them into buildings full of people, it's not hard to find hundreds of postings to that effect on Internet bulletin boards. Better yet, look at the mainstream press. In the past few weeks the New York Times, USA Today and the Guardian (UK) (just to name a few) have published articles making exactly that comparison.)

    Lest anyone get the wrong idea about my caution against violence and lawlessness, I freely admit that there's lots of gray area here. Lurking in that gray area are many difficult questions that I, for one, can't answer: Is violence okay in pursuit of terrorists? What about that Hitler question? What about civil disobedience against unjust laws?? How do you keep from tearing the door off the cage when it's right in front of you and a helpless animal is staring out???

    In our society we have the right of free speech, and the responsibility to exercise it liberally. No one who believes in animal rights, vegetarianism, or related causes should be shy about expressing his or her beliefs. We should make speeches, carry signs, and generally do what we can to get in people's faces and (more importantly) their minds. No one who ventures out onto a public sidewalk or street in America has the right to be sheltered from the ideas of others, no matter how offensive those ideas may be. Thank God (and folks named Jefferson, Adams and Washington) for that. And of course no one has a right to be sheltered from the consequences of their own actions. (If they want to eat chickens, by golly they should have to look the chickens in the eye first!)

    But let's refrain from doing things that are dumb, antisocial, and most of all violent. Our causes are too important for us to be summarily dismissed as "wackos," "fanatics," "anti-human," or "terrorists." Why let people who are abusing animals off the hook so easily? Instead, let's be accessible and inviting to the mainstream public. Let's not take ourselves too seriously. And instead of violence let's inundate them with civility, articulate arguments, scientific fact and, most of all, truth.

    The animals we want to help deserve no less from us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Violence [1986 original column]

When is violence, or other illegal activity, justified in support of a worthwhile cause? The question seems too easy. "Never," we might be tempted to respond. Violence is inherently bad and shouldn't be condoned under any circumstances. There are better ways to accomplish things.

Giving the question more thought, though, you might find that such a simplistic answer can't fit all circumstances. Suppose, for example, you found yourself in Germany during the Nazi regime. If by killing one Nazi guard you could liberate hundreds of people destined for the gas chambers, wouldn't that violence be justified? Many of us would say yes. In that situation the lesser of two evils would be done. Thus, in some cases a particular act of violence may be acceptable as a means of preventing a greater violence.

That brings us to the issue of vegetarianism. I personally have never heard anyone seriously advocate violence in support of the vegetarian cause. On the other hand, I question just how different our situation is from the Nazi Germany hypothetical I just gave. Haven't most of us felt some measure of glee and support when we've read the occasional news articles about animal rights groups breaking into laboratories and freeing caged animals? Wouldn't we secretly love to see vegetarian messages spray painted on the side of our local McDonald's, warning signs put up at the Safeway meat counter, or distributor caps stolen off of cattle transport trucks? (Would we or wouldn't we like to see slaughterhouses and laboratories blown up?)

Despite the satisfaction that it might give us, I don't think violence in support of vegetarianism is right. I feel strongly that it isn't the right thing to do now, but I'm not prepared to say that this will always be the case. Right now the vegetarian movement is too small and too fragmented. We simply haven't done an effective job of making the public aware of what we are saying. Thus, while violence certainly would call attention to the vegetarian cause, the message might be lost on most people.

Take, for example, the recent bombings of abortion clinics. In the minds of those who take a "pro-life" position, this violence is justified because it may prevent future violence (they might say it would prevent the "murder of babies"). But opponents of the pro-life movement, and most of the public at large, see only the violent and illegal act of the bombing. To them there is no greater evil that is prevented.

The analogy is much the same for violence in support of vegetarianism. If a slaughterhouse were bombed, for example, I'm afraid most people would see the violence done and overlook the violence prevented. As with abortions, most of the public-at-large doesn't view slaughterhouses as good, but does view them as necessary to prevent the perceived greater evil of doing without meat.

To me, then, acts of violence by vegetarians will only bring our movement negative publicity and create a negative image of vegetarians, at least until we are successful in educating the public that vegetarianism reduces the unnecessary and senseless violence that is already prevalent in our society as an inherent part of the meat industry. The Catch 22 is that once that job of education is done, I would hope our goals would be more readily accomplished without violence.

One more factor dictates against the use of violence. Vegetarianism is inherently non-violent. Even if we could achieve a vegetarian world through the use of controlled violence, we might not achieve the goal we originally sought. Many in the vegetarian movement, for example, believe that aggression against animals necessarily leads to other forms of violence in our society. If this is true—if violence is pervasive once let in the door—we risk the possibility that the ends of the vegetarian movement may reflect the means, and it behooves us to be true to those means.

I hate violence. And intellectually I know it would be bad for vegetarianism. But I have to admit there's an aggressive and revengeful side to my personality too. I just can't help thinking that someday, before I die, it sure might be fun to see a spray painted McDonald's!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Those Awkward Moments of Confession

There are many moments in the lives of us vegetarians that turn out to be, well, just plain awkward. It's dealing with omnivores that's the problem, of course. Let's face it, nobody ever said it was easy to be enlightened in a world full of dunces. (We can just imagine how awkward it must have been for those few, brave and visionary souls who prophesized—before anyone else knew the truth—that the world was round, that diseases were caused by germs, that Nixon was a crook, and that O.J. was innocent!)

For me, one of the awkward moments that keeps coming up over and over again is when I have to make the big confession to someone I've just met that my diet doesn't include the various items of muscle tissue, glandular secretions and reproductive matter that most people love to eat. It's always a shock to them, and it's always uncomfortable for me. I have to believe lots of other vegetarians must have this same problem.

Of course, awkward moments of confession are always worst when we have something riding on the underlying relationship. Consider, for example, these classic conversations:

Love

"Sally, I haven't known you that long, but already I can sense that we have something very special between us."

"You really feel that way Jason?"

"Yes I do. And I think we should start planning now for a blissful life together."

"Oh, Jason, that's wonderful! But I have to tell you that I'm a vegetarian. That's okay, isn't it?"

"Vegetarian???"

"Yes. You don't mind, do you? We could have beautiful little home, with a vegetarian kitchen, and vegetarian children, and a vegetarian dog. And every morning I'll fix you a delicious tofu and seaweed scramble, and a big glass of sprout juice—"

"Sally..."

"Yes, dearest?"

"…Have I ever told you about my several sexually-transmitted diseases?"

Jobs

"Farnsworth, speaking as President of Boxcar Industries, I have to say that a young man of your talents could go far in our organization. That's why I wanted to meet you here at Charlie's Steakhouse to have dinner and discuss your future."

"Thank you, Mr. Rumphorst!"

"And by the way, don't even think of ordering anything but the New York Strip here. It's fabulous, and is the absolute favorite of everyone on our Board. Yes, it's time you joined our little club, my son!"

"Oh, …gee. Actually, I think I may have to order the steamed vegetable plate..."

"Hrumpf. [pregnant pause] Farnsworth, you're really pretty much of an idiot, aren't you? As I was saying, we may have an opening in the mailroom. I'll have my secretary get back to you on that."

In-Laws

"So, you're Michael! You know, when you eloped with our Ashleigh we were pretty upset, but now all that matters is that we have you both home for the holidays."

"Thanks Mrs. Pillbottom!"

"Tonight we're having pot roast for dinner, and tomorrow I'm going to fix lamb chops—Ashleigh's favorite!"

"Actually, Mrs. Pillbottom, I'm a life-long vegetarian, and since we've been married Ashleigh has decided to go vegetarian too."

"Oh, I see. Michael, come out to the garage and help me with something, would you dear?"

"Sure Mrs. Pillbottom. …Gee, Mrs. Pillbottom, why are you starting the car? You know that's not very safe in a closed garage. …Mrs. Pillbottom, did you know you locked your keys in the running car? Where are you going Mrs. Pillbottom? Mrs. Pillbottom, you seem to have locked the door behind you. I'm sure it's all a mistake, but it's getting kind of cloudy in here, Mrs. Pillbottom. …Mrs. Pillbottom???"

Well, as you can see, these are all awkward moments for both the vegetarians and meat-eaters involved. So, how can we handle these situations better when they present themselves in the future? My suggestion is to be aggressive. Yes, I for one am tired of apologizing to people for my vegetarianism. It's the thing that I'm the most proud of in my life, and I've decided to flaunt it rather than be sorry for it. I think all vegetarians should take this approach.

Imagine how the situations above could be different with just a slight change in attitude:

"Oh Jason, I want to be with you too! But I want us to go through life as vegetarians. You know what that means Jason? More happy years together, better health, better breath, and better sex. Think of it Jason, sex all the time!"

"Mr. Rumphorst, I want you to know I'm a vegetarian, and I want you to understand what that can mean for the success of Boxcar Industries. It means I'm not afraid to be my own man, Mr. Rumphorst. It means that I think for myself and act decisively. That's the kind of man you need, Mr. Rumphorst. Yes, I've got my eye on that Executive Vice President's office next to yours, and you'd be crazy not to give it to me!"

"Mrs. Pillbottom, I want you to consider what vegetarianism can do for your daughter's future. Why, think of the money we'll save on food! Think how much healthier and more energetic we'll be when you and Mr. Pillbottom start drooling on yourselves and we have to take care of you! Put down that knife Mrs. Pillbottom, and stop being silly. You're going to like this, Mrs. Pillbottom. Trust me."

Yes, it's pretty clear from these examples that life can be better for us vegetarians if we're aggressive, confident, and blatantly self-righteous in our dealings with meat-eaters. Try it—I think you you'll like it. And the next time you find yourself in a locked garage with the power off and the car running, you'll be at peace. You'll be happy knowing you asserted yourself.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Successful Vegetarian Dating (Ha!)

Many, many years ago in this very space I wrote a column called The Great Vegetarian Dating Game, in which I bemoaned my experiences dating meat-eaters, semi-vegetarians, and even fellow vegetarians. I concluded that one might be able to find the perfect mate from any of these groups. On the other hand, there were plenty of good reasons why one might not.

Since writing that first column a lot has happened to me. I married a wonderful vegetarian woman, had a sadly less-than-wonderful marriage, and then found myself single again—this time in a strange new century! Now that I'm older and wiser (all right, I'm just older) I figure it's time to bemoan again, and to update my original column with advice for those who might be dating in the new millennium. Here's what I've learned so far in my brief foray into this modern world of romance…

  • Everyone is Online! Without a doubt, the biggest change in the dating world in the last several hundred years must be the fact that it's all done online now. This isn't just another option that people have for finding someone—it's the only option. Everyone, it seems, is too busy to go out on real dates anymore. With the computer, single people can accumulate multiple paramours (one woman proudly confided to me that she had vast numbers of "strategically placed men") and keep them happy indefinitely with form-letter emails. Of course you can't gage "chemistry" over the computer, but that doesn't really matter. Nobody ever actually meets anyone. And of course virtual dating has many advantages over the traditional method. It's easy to lie about your qualities (I know a guy who digitally doctors his photos before sending them out), you never get weird diseases, and dumping a person is as easy as hitting the delete key.

    For vegetarians, online dating is especially exciting. First, we can go to the big dating sites, where we can instantly search a huge database of potential mates for the word "vegetarian." That will reveal to us that, out of millions of single people with computers around the world, three of them share our dietary preferences (while an additional 87 say that they are specifically not interested in vegetarians). A similar search on the word "vegan" reveals that there are 518 people in the database from Las Vegas!

    Dating sites that specifically cater to vegetarians are perhaps more promising. Here, as a friend of mine puts it, the odds are good, but unfortunately the goods may tend to be a bit odd. Good luck.

  • The Universal Experience As bad as dating on the Internet is, it can be even worse in the real world. The first thing I notice when I take my search for a potential mate off-line is the universal experience shared by all single people over 30: "I can't meet anyone!" It doesn't seem to matter whether you are male or female, straight or gay, veggie or meat-addicted, the perception is always the same: anyone you come across who might otherwise be the slightest bit appropriate is already taken. I can't tell you how many parties I've been to where I end up with a group of men standing around the kitchen, grousing about the lack of single women. When I got divorced my friend Ray (also recently divorced, so he knows about these things) gave me a bottle of malt liquor and a paper cutout of a Barbie doll with the words "…for those lonely nights" written across it. How right he was.
  • The Power of Dogs? People I respect a lot tell me that the way around the "I can't meet anyone" problem is to get a dog. Dogs are "chick magnets" my friends say. Having a dog at your side not only makes you seem instantly likable (ax murderers don't have pets?), but dogs can also be trained to "accidentally" slip out of your grip and run over to people you find attractive. Most importantly, when you eventually strike out, dogs are always there to make you feel less like a loser.

    I don't really want a dog, but I would like to check out this phenomenon. If I can borrow your basset hound sometime for a spin around the park, let me know.

  • Fatal Flaws (of the dietary variety) People are always asking me if I could ever date a meat-eater. "Sure," I tell them, "but only if we otherwise had a lot in common." It's true too. But then again, I suppose if we had a lot of other things in common I might not expect her to be a meat-eater for long. Of course that doesn't reflect reality. It's just my fantasy of a way to save the world: one date at a time.

    My father constantly tells me I'll never get anyone interested in me as long as I'm a vegetarian. He's probably right. As strange as it seems, I think it's much more difficult for a meat-eater to be happy with a vegetarian than the other way around. I don't blame them a bit. If you're addicted to meat and dairy products and want to use those things on a regular basis, it must be a real drag to hang around with someone who finds that behavior unhealthy, gross and/or immoral. One woman I met told me outright that she had no intention of giving up meat, and that she considered my vegetarianism to be a fatal flaw that would prevent us from ever having any kind of a romantic relationship. Oh well—at least she was honest!

    Finding a great relationship is tough for just about everyone. But I think it's especially difficult for us vegetarians. I keep telling myself not to despair though. There must be someone out there who can appreciate a fellow with a healthy diet, who's kind to animals and to the environment as well. That seems like a pretty good package to me—even if it does include having to put up with a weirdo vegetarian.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Great Vegetarian Dating Game

If I become a vegetarian won't my love life be ruined?

Yeah...Maybe.

So, you're single and you've decided to become a vegetarian? Congratulations! Your field of potential mates has just been reduced by 90%.

Oh, the joys of being a single vegetarian! The good news for you single folks who decide to become vegetarian is that you'll be healthier because of it. Vegetarians are known for their good skin, trim bodies, etc. Not to mention their energy and stamina—assets that can make you legendary in the romance game. The other good news for single vegetarians is that you can date anyone you want: meat-eaters, semi-vegetarians, or vegetarians. Each of these groups has a lot to offer in the search for a potential mate. The bad news is that all three of these groups present some real challenges as well.

With that in mind it's time to play The Great Vegetarian Dating Game. Let's open that first door and see who we find.

Bachelor/Bachelorette No.1—The Meat-Eater

When you're a vegetarian the advantage to dating meat-eaters should be obvious: just like cockroaches and dandelions, you'll find them everywhere. The odds are good that the blonde at the bus stop or the macho hunk you've been eyeing at the water cooler doesn't share your vegetarian philosophy. But if you find them attractive you'd like to be able to go out on a date without having to grill them in advance about their eating preferences. Now, that's all well and good until the problems arise. And they will arise.

The Big Confession

The first obstacle you will have to overcome is explaining to your meat-eating date why you are a vegetarian. Since you'll probably be eating on your first date, the chances are good The Big Confession will come early. If you want to make it to date number two, you'd better handle it well. The best advice is to do it in a way that minimizes the differences between the two of you, and makes it seem very acceptable that both of you are the way you are. This is no time to use your conversion tactics. As we'll see below, that comes later.

(I, of course, always took the coward's way out when dating meat-eaters. I would invite the woman in question over for dinner. That way I could control the food, and I didn't even have to point out that it was vegetarian. This little trick was usually good to delay The Big Confession until our next time together. Given my luck with women, I often didn't have to worry about when that would be.)

The Barbed Wire Fence

Let's say you make it past The Big Confession and find that you and your meat-eating friend are getting along just great. In fact, you are really starting to like each other. Uh-oh. That means you are just about to hit the next obstacle—The Barbed Wire Fence. This is when you and the meat-eater start to throw little barbs at one another about your respective diets. At first it will all be good-natured, and you might even see it as a sign that you are feeling more comfortable with each other. You'll have this conversation over dinner:

"Hey meathead, want to try a bite of my buckwheat noodles in miso broth?"

"No thanks, tofu face. I prefer to eat food."

As time goes on, however, both of you will get more serious about your barbs, and The Barbed Wire Fence will become more annoying. It will come to a head the night your date takes you to dinner at his or her parents' house. Afterwards you'll have this little discussion:

"You didn't eat any of my mother's chicken."

"Come on, you know I don't eat that—I'm a vegetarian."

"Well, it would have been the polite thing to do, you know. She was nice enough to invite you to dinner."

"I'll die before I'm that polite."

The Meatball Sub

With every romantic relationship come instances of aesthetic disappointment. There is the time, for example, when you find out that some of her best assets only exist thanks to the miracle of space-age plastics, or the day when you discover that he's been wearing the same jockey shorts for two months. Since the meat-eating culture is inherently un-aesthetic to many vegetarians, there is even more potential here for friction between you and your meat-eating date. For example, you may have trouble snuggling up to his leather jacket or her fur coat, or maybe you'll be grossed out the first time you find your date has left the remains of a Big Mac in your refrigerator.

My meat-eating girlfriend and I were crazy about each other, and we'd been getting along well until that fateful day when she had to have The Meatball Sub for lunch. Yuck! After she finished she looked up and said, "Kiss me!"

I looked at her, the grease still dripping down her chin, and hesitated. "I think I'll take a rain check," I said. I handed her a napkin, and our relationship was never the same again.

Of course The Big Confession, The Barbed Wire Fence, and The Meatball Sub are all manifestations of the same problem: vegetarians and meat-eaters have a major philosophical difference between them. Physical attraction can be wonderful, and maybe they'll even have a number of common interests, but these things can wear thin when two people disagree about something as basic as food. Most folks eat three meals a day. When a vegetarian is with a meat-eater that creates three golden opportunities to fight.

We hear a lot about "mixed" marriages of vegetarians and meat-eaters, and I've known several such couples myself. They are all wonderful people. They have to be. For many less tolerant vegetarian souls, though, looking for Mr./Miss/Ms. Right from the ranks of meat-eaters can be frustrating at best. At worst, it can keep them looking for a long, long time. Sure, Bachelor/Bachelorette No.1 is great for the vegetarian who needs someone with a good smile to take to his or her high school reunion. For more serious relationships, though, there must be other choices.

Bachelor/Bachelorette No.2—The Semi-Vegetarian

Undaunted by our experience with inter-diet dating, we continue to play The Great Vegetarian Dating Game. This time we'll meet Bachelor/Bachelorette No.2—The semi-vegetarian. The prospective dates in this group are all those who have "just about given up red meat", or who feel they "really should be a vegetarian". In short, this is everyone sympathetic to the cause who hasn't yet changed his or her lifestyle to vegetarianism.

Theoretically, this group should provide an ideal hunting ground for the single vegetarian. There are plenty of people around who fall into the semi-vegetarian category, and because they are already sympathetic to vegetarianism the potential for fireworks (of the bad kind) may not be as great as with a confirmed meat-eater. Unfortunately, things are never as easy as they seem.

The Prickly Hedge

If The Barbed Wire Fence describes the obstacle between vegetarians and meat-eaters, then between vegetarians and semi-vegetarians it's more like The Prickly Hedge—not as high or as sharp, but potentially even more deadly to a long-term relationship. The reason is that the semi-vegetarian will be receptive to the vegetarian's lifestyle, but the committed vegetarian won't be able to return that receptivity. It will always be the vegetarian's inflexible diet, for example, that dictates mutual food choices. And the barbs, however subtle and unintended they may be, are likely to continue from vegetarian to semi-vegetarian. The semi-vegetarian who, for whatever reason, isn't ready to convert is likely to feel oppressed in this situation. Not the best thing on which to base a relationship.

The Phony Conversion

What about the semi-vegetarian who falls in love and decides to convert to vegetarianism? Well, that's great if he or she is really ready for the conversion—go straight to Bachelor/Bachelorette No.3. But if the conversion is prompted more out of guilt, or a desire to please the vegetarian, it isn't likely to last long. It may just lead to more feelings of oppression (and the overwhelming desire on the part of the semi-vegetarian to end the relationship so he or she can finally get a decent—i.e., "beastly"—meal again)!

The Big Tease

Let's not forget the feelings of the vegetarian in all this. If you are dating a semi-vegetarian you will likely be very excited by the possibility of converting him or her to a vegetarian lifestyle. If it doesn't work out, The Big Tease can be emotionally devastating. You might even be tempted to go back to Bachelor/Bachelorette No.1. At least with a confirmed meat-eater you knew where you stood from the beginning.

Bachelor/Bachelorette No.3—The Vegetarian

When he or she has been going out with meat-eaters and even semi-vegetarians, your average veggie might be amazed at how easy it is to date a fellow vegetarian:

"I just love Tom's Tasty Tofu Emporium."

"Really? Gee, that's my favorite restaurant too!"

Then again, sometimes it won't be so easy, and both parties will end up asking themselves: did I expect too much? Do vegetarians really do it better? Does the heart really lie just behind the stomach?

Under Every Stone

There is a problem most veggies will encounter right away in trying to date a fellow vegetarian—finding one. Let's face it, we don't meet that many real vegetarians in our day-to-day lives, and those we do meet may not exactly be the Greek gods or goddesses of our dreams. Vegetarian and related organizations can help a lot in the search. (Sometimes having a "cause" can do wonders for a person's social life!) But don't count on this. In most cases you can expect the hunt to be a lot of work, and don't expect success overnight. While there may indeed be a vegetarian Under Every Stone, it's turning those stones over that's the hard part.

The Three Points of Disagreement

If you are persistent and a little lucky you will eventually find a vegetarian you actually want to date (and even more important, who wants to date you). Now, since you won't have all the problems you encountered with meat-eaters and semi-vegetarians, you and Bachelor/Bachelorette No.3 have it made, right? Wrong.

Vegetarians are such a diverse group that you can't rule out the possibility of serious compatibility problems arising. Indeed, after years of painstaking research (note the emphasis on painstaking), I've isolated three potential areas of disagreement between vegetarian couples:

1. their reasons for being vegetarian

2. their diets

3. everything else.

An example might be beneficial. Suppose you've got an evening scheduled with your new vegetarian friend. Both of you are really looking forward to it. The problem is that your date is planning on eating a raw vegetable salad and being in bed (and asleep!) by 10. It seems that he or she has to get up early to train for the Boston Marathon. You, on the other hand, envisioned staying up late over coffee, smoking cigarettes and planning your next animal rights march. You've got problems already, and you don't even know yet if you both like Clint Eastwood films.

When it's all said and done a vegetarian will probably encounter many of the same problems whether he or she is dating another vegetarian, a semi-vegetarian, or a meat-eater. In The Great Vegetarian Dating Game what really counts, of course, are the individuals involved. With a little persistence and some measure of tolerance any vegetarian should be able to find Mr./Miss/Ms. Right, whether he or she is Bachelor/Bachelorette Nos. 1, 2, or 3. So just keep playing The Great Vegetarian Dating Game and happiness awaits you.

Well... maybe if you're real lucky.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Latest News from the Exciting World of Meat

It's time once again to check in with all those fun folks out there who are selling and eating meat. Yes, like a cleaver striking home in a fat-laden pork roast, the meat industry and its customers are always on the cutting-edge of science, lifestyle and ethical behavior. We meager vegetarians can learn a lot! Here's the latest news…

Weenie Wars in the Midwest— Claiming the record for the "world's longest hot dog," the Vienna Beef Company unveiled a 37-foot, 2-inch weenie at the Taste of Chicago festival to celebrate the start of "National Hot Dog Month." The giant frank (gosh, I'm glad my name isn't Frank) was topped with, among other things, a gallon of mustard, a gallon of "bright green" relish, and 4 pounds of chopped onion.

Not to be outdone, a mere 2 days later the fine folks in Campbellsport, Wisconsin (a town 50 miles north of Milwaukee, where apparently they have nothing better to do) grilled a 48-foot-long bratwurst. This fine collection of ground snouts and ears (remember, they don't call it "wurst" for nothing) was paraded through town on a flatbed semi-trailer with police escort and a high school marching band (how sanitary!) before being eaten by townspeople in 160 portions. According to the Associated Press, it was topped with 400 ounces of ketchup and mustard, four gallons of relish (color not specified) and "more than a pound" of onions.

While the drama of a "who's got the biggest sausage" competition between the mighty city of Chicago and a small town to the north is certainly compelling, one has to agree that the burning social question that emerges from these stories is why are the people of Campbellsport so chintzy with their onions? (A measly 1/10th of an ounce per serving!) Are they more concerned than Chicagoans about their breath, or was it just that they didn't have any more onions in town?

The "McToad" Salad— Here at On of Off the Mark headquarters we're always excited to find new salad bar items. The latest comes from Dorinda McCann of Hanson, Massachusetts, who found a live, two-inch-long toad in a takeout salad bought at her local McDonald's restaurant. Evidently Ms. McCann didn't fully appreciate the extra protein and exotic new taste the McToad salad offered. "I was sick," she told local reporters. "What if I had salmonella poisoning?"

These stories about toads, worms, human fingers, etc. in the food seem to come out of the fast-food restaurants all the time. The kids with minimum-wage summer jobs at these places must have a good sense of humor. And of course we vegetarians find it all rather droll. After all, is there really that much difference between these things and the "food" these restaurants intentionally sell (yeah, lots of those snouts and ears, not to mention dead chickens that are almost always laced with salmonella)? All we can say is, don't take yourself so seriously, Ms. McCann! Go with the flow! If you're going to be a carnivore, dang-it, be a carnivore, and enjoy the variety the meat-eating world has to offer! You wouldn't want your cat calling you a wimp, would you?

Civilized Behavior Abounds— According to a recent study done by UC Berkeley anthropology Professor Katharine Milton, the addition of meat into our early ancestors' diet was a crucial catalyst for human development and evolution. I know this theory must be true, because everywhere one looks in our society today meat-eating is inspiring human civilization to new heights. Just take the average TV commercial for a "meat-lovers supreme" pizza, for example (racially-diverse group of young men eat giant pizza topped with 12 pounds of ground beef in messy apartment, while good-naturedly competing against one another in video games). You know they're appealing to advanced thinkers. And one need only watch the Tribal Council's maggot-eating contest on reality television's Survivor 17: New Jersey to realize we've advanced the arts just about as far as they will go.

If you need more proof, consider these fine examples from the recent past:

  • Nationally-renowned barbecue champion Paul Kirk had his van and an attached $18,000 custom-made grill (!) stolen in Roeland Park, Missouri. Also gone were several chickens, a half-dozen slabs of ribs and a dozen pounds of brisket. The van and grill were recovered three days later, but there was no sign of the meat. The national media reported that the thief was "no vegetarian."
  • A worker at a meatpacking plant in Kansas City, Kansas killed five fellow employees and wounded two others before committing suicide.
  • Research at the University of North Carolina showed that more than three-quarters of "red snapper" samples from eight states turned out to be different, cheaper species of fish. Not only did this cheat consumers by several dollars per pound, but the researchers noted that product mislabeling distorts the status of fish stocks, contributing to a false impression that they are keeping up with demand. Seafood industry executives called the study "overblown."
  • Two concrete pig statues were stolen from Mary and Bobby Romine of Gallatin, Tennessee. A ransom note signed "the big bad wolf" was left at the site of the abduction. A day later, the Romines received a fried pork chop and a second note that read, "Cooked the pig."
  • The summer fad among young people at one sandbar location in the Florida Keys was to skewer themselves with meat hooks and dangle from a bamboo tripod. While Coast Guard officials were initially concerned, they found that the practitioners were already heavily pierced and tattooed, and were simply enjoying the afternoon. "It looked like a daily routine for them," a Coast Guard spokesperson said.

    Yup, whether we're eating the stuff, or simply trying to "hang" with it, meat really brings out the best in all of us!