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.