The Purple Tree

purple tree

I drove into town to get the oil changed in our car today, and on the way home to the parsonage, I saw a family of six walking along the side of the road, every one of them decked out in red and white Santa hats.  Every last one of them, including the baby in the stroller.

Wow, so it’s really Christmas, huh?

As a New York boy, it never seems as if it’s really Christmas here in northern California.  The mild weather fools me every time.  With all the falling leaves, it feels more like October.

Sac fall color

I took this photo of downtown Sacramento’s fall color from halfway up the office tower in which I am currently employed.

All in all, this was quite a week.  We started out on Sunday with brunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.  They have veggie fajitas right on the menu . . .

fajitas

. . .which I proceeded to make into tacos, thanks to the vegetarian black beans.

veggie tacos

This may not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, it is.  It’s delightful for once not to have to ask the server to have the cook make up something special, and no butter (no, not even margarine), and by the way, what type of oil do you cook with?  Congratulations, you have instantly become a problem customer.  Just don’t admit to being a vegan, whatever you do.  Better pretend to have severe food allergies.  Or tell them that you’re an Orthodox Jew and have to follow the kosher rules.  Hope they don’t ask you where your “Yamaha” is.  (Out in the parking lot, doofus.  It’s the one with the twin cams and the Star of David).

Monday was pay day, also a big deal when you only get paid once a month.  Pay bills, pay tithes, buy groceries, figure out the budget for the month.  If you really want that vegan coconut milk “ice cream” that costs four and a half dollars for a thimbleful, now’s the time to speak up.  Next week, there won’t be any money for it.  (Don’t cry, there’s always next month.)

Monday was also the first day back at work from our four-day break (Thanksgiving is the one and only time of year that we have one).  Down came my paper turkey from the dollar store and up went my purple Christmas tree, of similar pedigree (see photo above).  Matching purple bows were pinned up both inside and outside my tiny cubicle domain. Fa la la la la…

Although it rained for most of the trip down to and back from the Central Valley for my father’s 81st birthday last weekend, my coworkers report that there was barely a sprinkle here.  Tuesday, however, the heavens opened up over Sacramento.  The entire area instantly turned into a big soggy mess.  “The crops really need it,” I would hear a dozen times a day.  “Finally, a break in the drought.”

moon

As I left work on Tuesday evening, the nearly full moon attempted to show itself through the mass of clouds that had been watering the fields and roadways all day.

By Wednesday, immense puddles had formed all over the area.  We had a brunch at work for an employee returning from maternity leave.  I was able to help myself to orange juice and fresh fruit, and I brought in bagels for everyone to enjoy (along with some hummus as my personal substitute schmear for the cream cheese).

I wanted pasta and hot soup for dinner, so I asked my wife to bring Pastor Mom along when she picked me up from work.  We had a wonderful dinner (“Yes, the cook says we can make the sauce without cheese.  Yes, you can have olive oil instead of butter with the bread.”) and made our way northward toward home without incident, despite the continuing rain.

Thursday morning, many of my coworkers reported that they had a heck of a time getting home.  One person who works on my floor talked about having seen four cars literally floating down the freeway.  Welcome to California.  Dry or wet, it’s always a disaster.

At noontime on Thursday, it was still pouring down rain, but in the early afternoon the clouds parted a bit and the sun struggled to come out.  One by one, we all began to wander over to the picture window on our floor to gawk.  We were treated to this:

double rainbow

The photo does not begin to do this double rainbow justice.  It was a huge arc that gave the appearance of wrapping all of Sacramento in a giant embrace.  This was among the largest rainbows that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Noah saw when God promised never again to destroy the world by flood.  Brighter times ahead.  Yes!

Thursday evening, we all took my sister-in-law out for her birthday.  We had a wonderful time (veggie tacos, hooray!), my niece and nephews showed up, and my two year old grandniece was in high spirits.  She wouldn’t stay in her high chair very much, so we passed her from hand to hand and only had to run after her once when she made her way down the steps and headed toward the restaurant exit.  When it was time to leave, our dear little one, entirely unprompted, offered each of her hands to my wife and myself.  Hold my hand and walk with me, auntie and uncle.  I will cherish this photo forever, my friends.

Hayden Donna Aron

Thursday night, I went to bed a happy boy.  And so, life being what it is, things proceeded directly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Friday.  Finally, the end of the week had arrived, so let’s go out with a bang, now shall we?  I won’t get into the details of the Friday follies that transpired at work (I am shaking my head just thinking about some of it) other than to describe the celebration we had in honor of the birthday of one of my coworkers.

On Thursday, some people were out, and those who were at work couldn’t decide whether we should have a brunch for my coworker or take her out to lunch.  The last I had heard, it was decided that it was too last minute to do anything.  And then on Friday, as noon approached, I was informed that we would be bringing in Vietnamese pho for lunch to celebrate my coworker’s special day.  Did I want beef or chicken?

Nooooo, not again!  I happened to be working away in my cubicle at the time, crunching on fresh radishes (hot ones!) dipped in hummus.  “I don’t eat meat at all,” I explained.  “I’m a vegan.  See? This is what I eat.  Carrots, radishes, hummus.”

“Oh, I was a vegetarian for six months once,” came the reply.  “Maybe just the noodle soup without the meat?”

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Also, we had a meeting at which my boss (who is among the best supervisors I have ever had and whom I appreciate dearly) announced that he has found another job and is leaving.

I think I’ll go with crying.

And, uh, merry Christmas.

A Slip of the Lip

Well, I finally did it.  At work, I confessed to being a vegan.  No time better than the day before Thanksgiving for that, right?

I hadn’t planned on it.  Like so many impromptu disasters, it “just happened.”  I guess I was in a holiday mood when I mosied up to the workstation of one of our secretaries and began a conversation about something totally unrelated to food and diet.  We actually discussed a few different things before she asked me whether I will be cooking the turkey this Thanksgiving.

In retrospect, I should have just laughed and said “Oh, no, I don’t cook.”  I could even have pulled out one of my fabled stories about being able to cook anything, badly, in the microwave.  But no, I had to open my big mouth and say “Oh, I don’t eat meat.”

“You’re a vegetarian?” she asked me, incredulous.  In this day and age, I should think that admitting to be a vegetarian would be somewhat less than shocking and perhaps even just plain boring.

“Even worse than that,” I added.  “I’m a vegan.”

“A vegan?” she responded, “What’s that?

I explained that I don’t eat meat, dairy or any animal products.

“You don’t?!  What do you eat?  Grass?”

Oh, great, here we go again.  I’ve ridden in this rodeo many times before, and it’s never pretty.  As I often do, I responded to this idiocy with some self-deprecating humor.  “Just take a look at me and you can tell that I find plenty to eat.”

I am kicking myself now for not being sufficiently quick-witted to have asked whether she’s ever seen a skinny cow.

After that came other Thanksgiving related questions, including whether I eat mashed potatoes or marshmallows.  I explained about the dairy in mashed potatoes (skipping the part about how great they are prepared with almond milk).

“What’s in marshmallows?” she asked.  “I just bought some little ones to put in my hot chocolate.”

I told her that marshmallows are mostly sugar, held together with gelatin.  That’s when I threw every bit of caution to the winds and explained that gelatin is most commonly made from horses’ hooves.

The poor woman frowned.  “I’m eating horses’ hooves?”  She seemed saddened.  “You mean Jello is made of horses’ hooves, too?”  I assured her that it is possible to purchase gelatin desserts and even marshmallows that are made from vegetable sources, effectively eliminating the giddyap factor.  “They’re usually kind of expensive and I’m not really interested, so I just don’t bother,” I added.

“What about cakes, cookies, candy and chips?”  I could see she was getting alarmed now.  I looked around to see whether anyone else was listening.  I didn’t see anyone in our immediate vicinity, but I’d bet a nickel that ears were perked in numerous nearby cubicles.  “Plain chips are often meat- and dairy-free,” I told the bewildered secretary.  “I don’t eat cakes and cookies.  Fortunately for me, there is some very good non-dairy dark chocolate out there.”

“You don’t eat cakes and cookies!” she cried.  The woman could barely believe what she was hearing, particularly since I am, well, obese.  “I guess you can’t have one of these then,” she remarked, bringing out a little Baggie containing two chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  “This is all I have today because I forgot my lunch at home.  Left my eggs right on the kitchen table.”

“Are those cookies made with butter?” I asked.

“No,” she told me, “but you can’t have flour, right?”

I assured her that I do eat flour.  “Is there an egg in that?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, it does have eggs,” she admitted.

I nearly blurted out something about refined sugars and the dangers of diabetes, but I managed to stop myself just in time.

The poor woman was shaking her head.  Fortunately, we were each put out of our respective miseries at this point by the receipt of a phone call over her wireless headset.  I took the opportunity to make my escape.

I now have four consecutive days off work for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Hopefully, that will be enough time for my department secretary (and all the unseen eavesdroppers) to forget that this little conversation ever happened.

Yeah, right.

Monday should be interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful readers.  I am extremely thankful that you keep coming back to read the drivel that I regularly dispense in this space.  May you enjoy a lovely holiday filled with family, food, love and laughs.

Recommended:  Don’t Fear the Vegan at Your Thanksgiving Table

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Schizo

I never heard of schizophrenia until eighth grade health class.  Along with learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the obligatory, highly embarrassing sex ed curriculum (from which my parents refused to excuse me, despite my entreaties), we plodded through a unit on mental health.  When we covered neuroses, I knew right off that the teacher was talking about me.  But it was the psychoses that were really scary, and I wondered whether I could secretly have one of those.

When we arrived at a discussion of schizophrenia, I was shocked (pun intended) to learn about such strange phenomena as multiple personalities, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, catatonia and hearing voices.  Alone in bed at night, I prayed to the Lord that I would never be afflicted with any of these horrors.

Mental illness, schizophrenia included, was still on the pedagogic menu when we were once again subject to the tortures of health class as juniors in high school.  By that time, I understood that I was not psychotic and was able to relax a bit.  I went on to take two psychology classes before I graduated, one of which included a visit to the local mental hospital.  My father humored me by driving me to the Vassar College library on quite a few evenings, where I researched a term paper on schizophrenia until the librarians threw us out and locked the doors.

Even today there is stigma associated with mental illness, but it was much worse when I was a teenager back in the seventies.  This was the era of Psycho, The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  My fellow junior high and high school students were openly derisive about anyone who appeared to deviate from the norm in any way, and never more than when it came to mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we didn’t like something that someone did, they were “retarded,” “psycho” or “schizo.”  We bandied these terms about indiscriminately in the same way that many continue to demean the sexual preferences of others by saying “that’s so gay” (sadly, still “dropped on a daily,” Macklemore and Lewis notwithstanding).

It’s good to be able to say that some things have changed in the past forty years, however.  While the causes of mental illness have by no means been locked down, advances in scientific research have made inroads in our understanding of the nature and treatment of schizophrenia.

Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to me today when I learned that bacteria, of all things, are now being implicated as one possible cause of schizophrenia.  New research estimates that about one-fifth of all cases of schizophrenia may be attributed to infection by Toxoplasma gondii.

Now, wait a minute.  I know about toxoplasmosis.  When my sisters (both of whom have always had cats as pets) were busy having babies, my mother warned them to have their husbands clean the cat box.  It was known that cat feces could contain Toxoplasma, and that if this microorganism was transmitted to the blood of the fetus, the baby could be born with horrific brain deformities.

Turns out cat boxes are just the beginning, however.  Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis long after they are born.  T. gondii can also be transmitted through eating undercooked meat or by drinking contaminated water.  It is estimated that as many as 60 million Americans may currently be infected with T. gondii, and that some of them will develop schizophrenia as a result of the protozoan’s effects on their brains.

Just think of it:  One in five schizophrenics could have avoided a lifetime of misery and incapacity by avoiding infection by Toxoplasma.

Still want that steak done rare?

Sounds to me like yet another argument in favor of the vegan life.

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Avocado’s Lament

avocoadoes for a buck

Pastor Mom’s friend from Mexico, who recently visited with us for several weeks, tells me that avocadoes go for about a quarter apiece just the other side of the border.  I am dark green with envy.

Lately, avocadoes have been selling for about a buck each here in California.  I think I need to grab me some pesos and take a little road trip to Mexicali.

I am beginning to understand why the wonderful taqueria just across the street from the parsonage does not serve guacamole.  To obtain any kind of reasonable ROI, they’d have to sell it at a price higher than most of the clientele (well, the sane ones, anyway) would be willing to pay.  And they certainly wouldn’t be setting any out on the salsa bar with the jalapeños or adding it to tacos and burritos as a condiment.

I am told that money doesn’t grow on trees, but I have it on good authority that avocadoes do.  So why they’ve turned out to be some kind of green gold remains a mystery to me.

If anyone complains about the price or quality of produce around these parts, the answer will undoubtedly be “it’s the drought.”  I am used to it being dry here in California, so it rarely occurs to me that Mother Nature hasn’t been particularly cooperative for the past few years.  You can tell I’m a city slicker, not a farm boy.  I’m told that the crops have to be watered and that bringing in water costs money, thus jacking up food prices and pissing everyone off.  Apparently, irrigation leads to irritation.

As we just had our state elections, I keep hearing that it’s all the politicians’ fault.  I suppose Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein should be performing a rain dance on the floor of the Senate.  The legislators up here in Sacramento might want to join in, too.  If nothing else, it’d be a good photo op.

This is the season of the year when observant Jews add the Hebrew phrase mashiv ha’ruakh u’morid ha’gashem to our daily prayers.  It’s a reference to God, “who makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”  For centuries, imploring the Lord for rain was a serious matter.  Without it, the people and animals would go thirsty and then nothing would grow, so we’d go hungry as well.  In Biblical times, drought meant death, and often prompted mass migrations to areas where potable water was available.  That’s how Jacob and his sons ended up in Egypt, a land irrigated by the Nile.

I wonder if there were avocadoes back then.  If there were, I imagine that they may have been split open against the rocks, after which the insides would be scooped into an earthen bowl and pounded with a mortar.  I don’t know whether we had tortillas, and matzos weren’t invented until the day we finally left Egypt following 400 years of slavery.  But we do know that dough was kneaded and left to rise on hot stones, so perhaps my forebears did know the joys of the guaco taco.

Somehow, the avocado never seemed to make it into classic Jewish cuisine.  I don’t recall having even heard of avocadoes until I went away to college and spied those funny-looking things at the local food co-op.  Was it a fruit or a vegetable?  Are you supposed to peel it?  How do you even spell it?  Pluralized with an –es like “potatoes?” Nah, that doesn’t look right.  I was told that avocadoes are used to make guacamole, an explanation that I found singularly unhelpful.  I had no idea what guacamole was.  I just nodded and smiled rather than further reveal the depths of my ignorance.

Some forty years later, I am still relatively ignorant when it comes to avocadoes.  When they are affordable, my wife buys avocadoes that are in a hard, unripe state and then softens them up by allowing them to sit in a paper bag for a few days.  Then they go in the fridge.

Sadly, the last batch of avocadoes we bought ended up going in the trash.  On the day I got out the lemon juice and garlic, I split open our lovelies only to find that they were completely rotten inside.

You can feel sorry for me now.  I’m singin’ the Uncle Guacamole blues over here.

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A Vegan Does Thanksgiving at Work

leaves

In most of the United States, the leaves are off the trees and winter has set in.  But here in northern California, November is the height of autumn.

Thanksgiving is generally the worst day of the year for vegans.  As if everyone eating turkey weren’t bad enough, most of the so-called trimmings aren’t fit to eat for those of our ilk.  In my case, I am extremely blessed to have a wife who humors my prandial proclivities.  She always prepares something for me in advance, which we carry to our family functions.

But tomorrow is our annual Thanksgiving pot luck up in the penthouse at work, which I anticipate with more than a bit of trepidation.  The turkey and gravy is being provided, with employees bringing the fixings.  I hope I don’t end up having to discuss veganism, but I don’t know that there will be much way around it.

I can just see it now:  “Have some turkey, there’s plenty!”

“Um, no, thanks.”

“Why not?  It’s Thanksgiving!”

“Um, I don’t eat meat.”

“Ohhhh, that explains it.  Well, have some mashed potatoes!”

“Thanks so much, but not right now.”

“Why not?  There’s no meat in that.”

“Milk and butter.”

“You can’t have dairy either?  Oh, you poor thing!”

“Yeah, I’m vegan.”

“Really?  Well, have some green beans.  Have some sweet potato casserole.”

“Bacon.  Dairy.  Sorry.”

“Aren’t you going to eat anything?  At least have some pumpkin pie!”

At which point I bolt for the elevators, heading back to my cubicle to get some work done.  Hopefully, by that point, many of my coworkers and bosses will have seen me, so that I’ll have made an official “appearance.”

I’ve been trying to think of alternatives.  I could bring my lunch with me along with my usual gallon of iced lemon tea in my big handle bag that I pull behind me.  I could bring a sandwich or a plastic container of tofu and vegetables up to the penthouse with me.  Perhaps if I dump the contents onto a paper plate, it will look as if I’ve helped myself from the buffet.

Alternatively, I could hide out in my cubie and hope that no one notices my absence.  The last time I tried this tactic (at another employer), it blew up in my face.  “Your absence was noticed,” my boss informed me frostily the next day.  I was officially “not a team player.”

I suppose I could always take a sick day.  Three-day weekend, anyone?

Update: I did not attend the event, instead opting to hide out in my cubicle with my lunch brought from home and get some work done.  Several of my coworkers did the same.  No one has complained.

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Apples of Autumn

apple

Autumn is the time of year when I start obsessing about apples.  I don’t know whether an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, but I do know that my daily apple is a dose of happiness.

Growing up in the New York City area, the only types of apples that I knew anything about were Macintosh and Red Delicious.  If any kid pulled an apple out of his Superman lunchbox (Not a stupid apple again!  Anyone got a Devil Dog or a Ring Ding?  Anyone wanna trade?), it was pretty much guaranteed to be one of those two.

The produce section at Waldbaum’s also carried these funky-looking green things that probably weren’t really apples at all.  Green apples from Mars, I called them.  Mom said their proper name was Granny Smith, but I thought she was joking.  They were horribly sour and I had a grandmother named Granny Smith and my mother hated her guts, so I figured Mom was just calling the mother-in-law a sourpuss.  Anyway, she’d buy a few of those weird green things once in a very great while when she was getting ready to bake an apple pie.

Many years later, when visiting Mom in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, I discovered the local favorite apple that went by the moniker of Rome Beauty.  But it wasn’t until I moved to California that I discovered an entirely different kind of apple.  I fell in love with the Fuji, the Pink Lady and the Gala.  These small, crisp, heavenly treats are something like biting into a juicy candy.  They are by far the sweetest apples I have ever tasted and it’s hard to believe that such a snack is actually fresh fruit that is good for you.

Although it’s been some time since I’ve owned a Superman lunchbox, my noon meal at work never seems complete if it does not have an apple to serve as a final flourish like a sweet punctuation mark.

And no, I won’t trade you!

Not even for a Ring Ding or a Devil Dog.

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A Vegan’s Guide to Gratitude

I am still a few weeks early for Thanksgiving, but definitely getting into the spirit,  My wife suggested that, for the month of November, I prepare an alphabetical list of things for which I am thankful, and post one letter each day.  I liked the idea, but found myself writing about too many other topics.  As the Thanksgiving holiday tends to be a difficult time for vegans, I decided instead to take this opportunity to compile a list of the some of the vegan foods that I most enjoy and for which I am extremely grateful.

avocado

Avocadoes.  With a name like Uncle Guacamole, this should come as no surprise.  Lately, they have been rather expensive here in California, so they have become more of a treat than a staple.  In addition to using them for guacamole, I like making avocado and tofu sandwiches, to which I add tomato slices, green olives and Dijon mustard.  Delicious!  Oh, and pass the chips, please.  Honorable mention to apples.  I eat one with my lunch at work nearly every day.  The sweet California Fujis and Galas are like candy.

Blueberries and Bananas.  I grew up picking very tart reddish-purple blueberries from the bush in my parents’ backyard.  We also bought them at the supermarket, where they were reasonably priced all summer, thanks to our location about five miles from New Jersey, the blueberry growing capital of the world.  These days, I see tiny packages of blueberries selling for three to six dollars, which is a bit too rich for my blood.  The frozen berries from the supermarket tend to be a bit mushy, so I hold out for the prices to come down on the fresh ones (except when I get a terrible craving).  My favorite way to eat blueberries is with a little almond milk poured over them.  In the absence of blueberries, we are fortunate that bananas are reasonably priced most of the time.  I enjoy sliced bananas in my oatmeal, but mostly I just tear one off the bunch and throw it into my lunch bag.  I am grateful for my afternoon snack!

Cucumbers and Chocolate.  I eat a lot of salads, and they just wouldn’t be the same without cucumbers.  Uncle G has a black thumb, but as a teenager the only things I could successfully grow were beans and cucumbers.  You have to be grateful for something so delicious that comes out of the ground with minimal effort.  As for chocolate, I don’t think any comment is needed.  I am fortunate to have discovered an extremely dark chocolate bar (85% cocoa) that is non-dairy.  Far too bitter or most people, but a hot cup of tea just isn’t the same without it.  Thank you, Trader Joe’s!  Honorable mention to chick peas (more below at hummus and vegetable broth).  Chick peas are a super source of soy-free protein and hence a staple for many vegans, myself included.  I’d have a much more difficult time getting enough protein without them.

Bubbies

Dill Pickles.  There aren’t too many things that my wife and I will both eat, but when it comes to being aficionados of the dill pickle, we are in firm agreement.  They are the perfect accompaniment to almost any meal.  I even dice them and throw them into cooked vegetables for flavoring.  My favorite pickles are Bubbies, which are technically garlic pickles, but do contain dill.  They are more expensive than most brands, so they’re a treat.  Oh, and I recently discovered peanut butter and dill pickle sandwiches.  Before you say “eeeeewwww!” I dare you to try it.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

DiCicco's

Eggplant.  My favorite way to prepare eggplant is to just slice it, douse it with garlic and oregano, pour tomato sauce over it and bake it at 400°F for about 40 minutes.  We don’t even peel it.  Easy peasy.  Although my mother didn’t buy eggplant, I grew up being treated by my Italian food loving Dad to eggplant parmagiana hero sandwiches at the local pizzeria.  It isn’t necessary to douse eggplant in egg and bread crumbs to fry it, however.  My creative wife discovered that it is great diced up and thrown in a pan with olive oil and rice.  I can’t walk through the produce section of the supermarket without checking the price of eggplant.

French Fries.  Some fast food places now claim to use 100% vegetable oil for frying their potatoes, which is a boon for vegans.  The frozen ones from the supermarket are not bad, either.  My favorite, however, is the French fry, salsa and jalapeño burritos from the little taqueria across the street.  I call these “change cup burritos” because they charge me only two bucks each for these, which I typically pay in nickels, dimes and quarters.

Garlic.  After a year of being a vegan, I am finding that a lot of the food I eat (tofu and most vegetables, for example) are more than a bit bland.  Enter the glorious bulb known as Allium sativum.  As I do not use salt for health reasons, I season nearly everything with copious amounts of garlic powder.  I am as grateful for garlic as my readers undoubtedly are that they are not exposed to my dragon breath.

hummus

Hummus.  The white bean variety is not bad, but the type I truly enjoy is made from the garbanzo bean (chick pea).  I use it on sandwiches and to dip raw veggies, crackers and chips.  One of my current favorite dishes is hummus and green olives on toasted sourdough.  The price of store-bought hummus is highway robbery and the homemade kind pales by comparison.  I try to eat it slowly and savor every bite.

Italian Ice.  My favorite frozen dessert is coconut milk “ice cream,” but it is only in stock occasionally at the only area supermarket that carries it (and it’s over $4 for a small one).  Second choice is Italian ice, with my favorite flavor being lemon.  It’s not like the fresh stuff scooped up by our neighborhood bakery in the New York town in which I grew up, but I’ll take what I can get.  I find it interesting that I do not miss “real” ice cream nearly as much as I thought I would when I first ventured down the vegan road.

Jalapeños.  Like garlic, jalapeños are among my go-tos for flavoring my frequently bland food.  Before migrating to California, I wouldn’t touch the things.  I believed that I had a delicate stomach and that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate anything that spicy.  Now, I can’t imagine food without them.  I’ve already waxed poetic over the jalapeño burritos from across the street.  I may be sad when we eventually move from our current location.

Kiwi.  These funny green fruits from New Zealand do not make it onto our grocery list, although I indulge in them regularly thanks to the salad bar at one of my favorite local restaurants.  See Quinoa.  By the way, I first became familiar with the kiwi as a kid when my parents would buy a special dessert from the local bakery when we had guests visiting.  It was called a “tropical fruit pie,” and was actually a custard tart topped with kiwi, pineapple, blueberries and strawberries.  Sweet memories!

Lemon Juice.  I am grateful for lemon juice because I drink about a gallon of iced tea daily, which I find entirely tasteless without a liberal dose of lemon juice.  Also, I couldn’t make a decent batch of guacamole without it.

mixed vegetables

Mixed Vegetables.  Yes, the canned kind.  Okay, don’t laugh.  Sure, they contain a lot of sodium, but the amount can be greatly reduced by draining the liquid and rinsing the contents of the can.  I use these in soup, with rice, over potatoes, or just thrown into a Rubbermaid container and heated in the microwave for lunch.  My favorite part is the tiny lima beans!

Nuts.  Walnuts, pistachios, Brazils, cashews, almonds — I can’t get enough of them.  I keep a jar of mixed nuts stashed in my desk drawer at work.  A handful of nuts is one of my favorite snacks.

olives

Olives.  My favorites are the green manzanillas stuffed with pimentos.  Black olives just seem flavorless to me.  Soy “cream cheese” and olive sandwiches are among my favorite standbys.  Like dill pickles, olives make any meal better.  I am very thankful for olives!

Potatoes.  Thanks to the marvels of the microwave oven, baked potatoes have become one of my mainstays.  Call me weird, but I like them for breakfast!  As for mashed potatoes (prepared with almond milk and vegan margarine), my mother-in-law makes the best.  Honorable mention to pineapple, and I am referring to the chunks in the can.  This is an easy dessert that satisfies my sweet tooth.

Quinoa.  My favorite local salad bar feature quinoa-pineapple-kiwi salad.  What a wonderful combination!

radishes

Radishes.  My grandfather taught me to love radishes.  As a kid, whenever I had lunch at his apartment, a dish of sliced radishes undoubtedly found its way onto the table.  Here in California, the Mexican style is to marinate radishes in lemon juice and douse them with salt.  I, however, eat them raw and whole as a snack.  You never know whether any particular radish will turn out mild or hot.  The hot ones are the best!  Honorable mention to rice, particularly when fried with veggies in a little olive oil.

Salad.  Start with red leaf lettuce, slice up some tomatoes and cucumbers, thrown on some green olives, sunflower nuts and raisins, then douse with olive oil and vinegar.  Juicy and delicious!

tofu

Tofu/Textured Vegetable Protein.  Soy has obtained a bad rap lately, but it remains an important source of protein for many vegans, including this one.  My favorite tofu is the extra firm nigri style that can be sliced and used for sandwiches.  As for TVP, my vegan “hot dogs,” “beef,” “chicken” and Boca Burgers are definitely on my gratitude list!

Vegetable Broth.  I recently discovered that Swanson’s vegetable broth (although not its vegetable “stock”), sold in a box, is vegetarian.  Throw in some garbanzos, black beans, carrots or mixed vegetables, and you have a quick, hot meal in the microwave.

Watermelon.  Although the kind imported from Chile is available all year at inflated prices, we wait until the California grown kind becomes available in the spring.  This is one of the few foods that all of us here can agree on, and it’s always a happy day when we pass the bowls of watermelon chunks around.

All in all, I am very thankful for the bounty of God’s green earth and proud to be a vegan.  I am still learning about ways to maintain a balanced diet, but let me assure any of you who may have thought of going vegan that it is definitely possible and not as difficult as may seem at first.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo

NaNoPoblano

Revenge of the Carnivores

I find it interesting that some people find vegetarians annoying.  And when it comes to vegans, it’s even worse.  We are pegged as morally superior, self-righteous food snobs who not only harbor deep-seated psychological problems that prevent us from enjoying the finer things in life, but who are also sanctimonious creeps who insist on making our carnivorous brethren feel bad about their dietary choices.

I have noticed that this animosity toward the veggie community has begun to generate something of a backlash among the meat-eaters.  I first got a whiff of this several years ago, when Jessica Simpson appeared for a photo shoot in a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “real girls eat meat.”  Then Lady Gaga appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards in her now famous meat dress.  While this was likely created for its shock value and was more in the nature of a career-boosting publicity stunt than anything else, I suspect that, at some level, it was a pie in the face of vegetarians.

Nowadays, there are some carnivores out there who appear so intent on advertising their love of meat that they feel compelled to make public displays of it.  For example, I have now twice seen people wearing shirts bearing logos announcing “All God’s creatures have a place in this world:  Right next to the potatoes and gravy.”  Assuming that the wearers of this apparel are also God’s creatures, I have to restrain myself from asking them just when they intend to become an entrée.  I really want to know this so that I can stay as far away as possible from the secret cannibals among us who enjoy partaking of such a feast.  With Halloween coming up, I suppose anything is possible, right?

Then I visited the family restaurant chain Red Robin (where I routinely eat a lettuce-wrapped Boca vegan patty) and saw this displayed on the lobby wall:

Red Robin

I’ve always been told that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so perhaps there is some logic in the idea that the truest bovine love is manifested among devotees of the hamburger.  I have visions of them marching out into the pasture with knives and forks just to salivate.  (You can find me in the next field over, doing the same thing among the soybeans.)

Then, of course, there are the dimwitted/insensitive remarks that folks innocently or not so innocently make when they learn that you don’t eat meat.  This has led to more than a few postings online about ways to piss off/annoy a vegetarian, some of them from the veggie community (poking fun or venting at the stupid things people say) and others from the carnivore community (ways to get back at your neighborhood holier-than-thou vegan).  You can find a few of these here, here, here and here. (I particularly like the last one for its mention of Red Robin’s insensitivity.)

So what’s a vegan to do?  I thought of buying a PETA T-shirt, but when I Googled that, I found this.  Some days you can’t win for losing.

My current dilemma is how to “come out” as a vegan at work.  I eat at my desk daily, in the privacy of my own cubicle, so I am able to keep my food choices relatively private.  No one really knows what I have in that plastic container I am toting to the microwave in the kitchen area.

The problem is that I work with a partying crowd.  It seems that there is a celebration of something every three or four days, and that it always involves food.  Welcome the new employees.  Welcome a supervisor returning from leave.  Say goodbye to an employee leaving the agency.  Meetings.  Potlucks.  It goes on and on.

It started on my first day at work, when everyone gathered to welcome me.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, but also some fruit and orange juice.  “Aren’t you going to eat?” I was asked as I poured myself a cup of juice.  “Juice is good,” I replied.  After a few minutes:  “You’re not eating anything?”  I took a strawberry.

One possible strategy is to just grab something, plead an approaching deadline and rush back to my cubicle.  Not wanting to appear antisocial, however, I have been trying to avoid this.  So this week, it happened again.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, along with bagels and cream cheese.  “Aren’t you eating?”  I groaned inwardly, grabbing half a bagel and holding it up to show that yes, I actually do eat.  Anyone giving even a cursory glance to my girth knows that I do.  And regularly.

I know it’s just a matter of time before I am going to have to fess up.  I’ve been trying to think of polite, politically correct ways to do this.  I think I’ll begin with “I have three strikes against me.  I’m diabetic, a Jew who keeps kosher and a vegan.”

Somehow I just know that this is going to blow up in my face.

You know that someone expressing intent curiosity will ask me why I am a vegan.  In the past, my wife has suggested that I say “it’s a personal decision.”  I like that approach very much.  But I also know that my very kind coworkers, whom I truly appreciate, will demand further details.  There will be no end to it.  I will become the resident vegan.

And then what will I do?  Will I explain about the health benefits of veganism?  Will I explain that I don’t believe in visiting death upon our fellow creatures to satisfy my palate and stuff my gut?  Will I explain about the shameful and cruel way that commercially farmed animals are treated?  Will I explain that I harbor a weird personal preference for not eating the flesh of rotting corpses?

Will I then be forever pegged as a morally superior, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious, self-righteous ass?  I really enjoy this job and would like to keep it for a while.  I would prefer to piss off as few people as possible.  But I know the day is coming when the tofu will hit the fan.

As I’ve heard said:  You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.

Dealing With Family

Shofar

To paraphrase the younger generation’s pejorative, “oy to the vey.”

In all my years on this crazy planet, I still haven’t figured out how to deal with family.  When God gave us the Fifth Commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother,” I think he was putting us to the test.  And I think I’m getting a failing grade.

My wife tells me that it’s not my fault, other than perhaps my habitual failure to tell my mother to stop already when she gets into serious nagging mode.  “What did you ever do to her?” my wife asks me.

Well, if I were to trip merrily down the path of Jewish guilt, I suppose the answer to that question might take several hours.  For starters, I was born.  By all accounts, my mother had a hell of a time with that one.  It pretty much went downhill from there.

My parents are both eighty years old, and I can’t fathom what on God’s green earth we are going to do when they can’t manage by themselves anymore in that huge house of theirs out in the country.

My wife and I tried to dilute some of the bitterness that is always part and parcel of a visit with my parents by running into town to shop, eat some great restaurant food and visit with other family members and friends.

After synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, my wife and I snuck off to our favorite Italian restaurant, staking out our old table in the corner from back in the days when we lived in the area.  In updating its menu, DiCicco’s has pulled off a feat that is rare indeed:  Their food is now even better than we remember it.

As a vegan, it is next to impossible for me to find decent food when we are on the road.  It is a refreshing treat to be able to patronize a restaurant that is willing to adjust the way a dish is prepared in order to accommodate the dietary needs of customers.  This is a two-way street:  Some accommodation had to be made on my end, as well.  I am not among the dogmatic camp of vegans, although I do admire their commitment.  I consider myself “as vegan as I wanna be,” and I am willing to concede that even if my eggplant is fried in olive oil, that bread crumb coating is likely to contain some grated cheese.  Even the bread used to make my sandwich is likely to contain butter in the batter.  However, after eating a million salads without dressing and plain baked potatoes at restaurants up and down California, I am happy to be flexible enough to be able to start out my new year eating this:

DiCicco's

It was so amazingly delicious that we returned on the second day of Rosh Hashannah to eat it again.  This time, we invited my parents to come and experience the incredible right along with us.  My mother felt she had to decline the invitation, pleading orneriness on the part of my father.  “If I go, your father will want to eat out every Rosh Hashannah.  He won’t want to eat at home, and when I tell him it’s a holiday, he’ll remind me of the time I went out to eat with you guys when you were visiting.”

So we went by ourselves again and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

Then we went to visit some babies.

On a residential side street, we saw an SUV prominently proclaiming “world’s sexiest husband” in the rear window, while the side windows were emblazoned with the vehicle’s apparent sobriquet:  Shaggin’ Wagon.

I guess that explains all the babies.

We drove out to the boondocks to visit my wife’s nephew and his girlfriend in order to make the acquaintance of Payton, their newborn daughter.  I had never before visited this Central Valley farm town, about ten miles from Lemoore, itself a backwater known for a military installation and an Indian gambling casino.  We drove by vineyards, citrus groves and multiple dairy farms.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many cows in one place.  The aging apartment complex, complete with rudimentary playground and barbecue grills, all sitting next to a tiny supermarket with  curved façade, reminded me of something right out of 1962 New Jersey.  All I needed was some Skeeter Davis on my headphones to transport me right back to the Baby Boom era.

Payton

My wife held the baby, fed her a bottle and gave her a good burp while Mama ran back and forth to her own mother’s apartment right next door.  We headed back to my parents’ for dinner, but we knew we had had about enough.  We had planned to stay another day, but when I found myself escaping the oppressive heat of my parents’ house by sitting out on the patio in the evening breeze, and my father tried to make dinner plans for the following evening, I knew I just couldn’t do it.  I surreptitiously texted my wife and told her we needed to get out of there.

And so we escaped, intending the make the nighttime drive up the Central Valley, all the way home.  We made it about halfway when my wife admitted that she couldn’t see straight anymore.  As I try to avoid night driving due to vision challenges, we ended up in a motel by the side of the freeway.  You know the kind I mean.  For $55, you get one tiny bar of soap that you can transport back and forth between the sink and the shower should you have the audacity to engage in such frivolity as wanting to wash your hands after using the toilet in the evening and to bathe the following morning as well.  I guess I shouldn’t be so picky.  When you’re traveling, you get what you get, right?

Our unscheduled overnight stop had the advantage of allowing us to visit another baby, Zoë, granddaughter of a couple who is among my wife’s oldest friends.  They are fun people and we took the opportunity to cut up with them at lunch and then spend part of the afternoon watching the local favorite San Francisco Giants have their way with the Padres on a big screen TV in our friends’ living room.  Our friends have adult kids and their spouses, grandkids and dogs all living with them, so my wife got to hold the baby while various human and canine residents wandered in and out, seeking our attention.

Our friends’ little grandson ran outside to pick two tiny purple blossoms, presenting one each to my wife and me as we got in the car to head home.  Somehow it seemed like a fitting ending to the holiday weekend and an auspicious start to the new year.

And that’s when I remembered the feeling that overcame me when, at services on Thursday, the rabbi unexpectedly called on me to come up to open the ark and recite the lengthy Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) prayer in English.  With my wife, my father and my mother all in attendance, I could not help but reflect upon the importance of family.

Yes, dealing with family can be a bitch and a half, but I need to count my blessings and remember the many out there who don’t have family with whom they can celebrate the holidays.

We have been blessed over and over again, no two ways about it.

My Crazy Vegan Life

I grew up as a carnivore but was a pesco-vegetarian (one who eats fish, eggs and dairy products, but not meat) for 23 years before I went vegan about ten months ago.  Veganism has helped me to lose weight and has yielded some (but not enough) improvement in my blood pressure and blood sugar.  Overall, I am pleased with the results so far.  But I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that I made the change for health reasons.

I went vegan for a combination of philosophical and pragmatic reasons.  I don’t believe that we have the right to kill our fellow creatures so that we can eat them.  I don’t believe that we have a right to appropriate the milk that cows use to feed their calves or the eggs that are chickens’ method of creating the next chicken generation.  But also, I am appalled at the cruelty and violence that occurs daily at abbatoirs and poultry farms around the world.

“And you think by not eating meat and dairy you’re going to change any of that?” I am frequently asked.  My answer used to be “Oh no, but I can’t control what anyone else does; I can only control my own actions.”  Nowadays, however, my answer is “maybe.”

Do I expect the beef, pork and dairy industries to give it up and shut down because I went vegan?  Hardly.  But I do maintain the spiritual belief that everything is connected and the practical belief that each of us exerts a great deal of influence over far more people than we might realize.  They, of course, influence the beliefs and actions of many others, and so on down the line.

So, no, I don’t expect to be able to talk anyone into going vegan.  However, I do hope to promote awareness that some of us have indeed taken the vegan leap, and to explain why.  I hope to help others realize that the vegan life is not some sort of utopian fantasy.  It is a possibility.

Being a vegan is harder some days than others.  When a well-meaning friend joked that he is “a second-hand vegetarian” because “cows eat grass and I eat cows,” that was a hard day.  When my 80 year old mother told me that my eating habits are “crazy,” that was a hard day.  When I happen upon websites that post dire warnings that vegans will die prematurely due to a lack of taurine and L-lysine in their diets, those are hard days.

When I hear people say that vegans needlessly limit themselves when we should be expanding our horizons and enjoying as much as possible of what the world has to offer in this short life, that’s a hard day.  When I hear people say that vegans are crazy ascetics and “holier than thou” self-righteous asses, that’s a hard day.  When I hear people say that we’re never going to change anything, that we’re just wasting our time and that we’re the ones missing out, those are hard days.

But when I check in with a blog that I’ve been reading for months and suddenly discover that the writer and her entire family are vegans, that’s a good day.  When it dawns on me that poor, unemployed people on Food Stamps (that would be me) can be vegans and still get their protein thanks to PEANUT BUTTER, that’s a good day.  And when my niece tells me that she’s decided to go vegetarian, that’s a very, very good day (even though she later changed her mind “because it’s too hard,” but hey, she actually tried it for a couple of months!).

And despite the naysayers, I’ve actually expanded my culinary repertoire by learning to enjoy a whole pantheon of protein-rich soy-based foods.  Some items I found I didn’t like, but at least I tried them.  I do wish I could get everyone to try hummus at least once.  And (trust me on this one) if you’ve never tried chocolate flavored coconut milk “ice cream,” you don’t know what you’re missing!

Going vegan has improved my eating habits in at least two distinct ways:  It has caused me to cut down on my consumption of junk food and it has helped me to alter my decidedly unhealthy relationship with food in general.

Don’t get me wrong.  At some level, I will always be a junk food junkie.  I love potato chips and pretzels.  I’ve discovered a non-dairy chocolate bar that may yet be my undoing.  But just today I read a blurb about how most Americans consume an inordinately high percentage of their daily calorie intake in the form of commercial baked goods.  Let’s just say that I can relate.  For years, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster had nothing on me.  At the moment, we still have two boxes of cookies left over from Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday party.  As I pointed out to my wife, prior to my vegan days, those cookies would have been long gone.  Most commercial baked products, however, contain dairy and eggs (and even meat products, in some cases).  It’s hard for me to believe that I don’t miss them.

I’ve noticed that the way I approach food and eating has changed somewhat.  I have been obese since childhood and I still have a tendency to overeat.  I reject the term “food addict,” at least until such time as a healthy means of going cold turkey (cold tofu?) is discovered.  Now that I can’t just grab almost anything out of the refrigerator, however, I am forced to become more aware of what (and how much) I am putting into my body.  This is from a guy who would once eat eight eggs or an entire package of cheese in a single sitting.  I am much more unlikely to eat an entire package of tofu or celery in a single sitting, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much damage.  (If I have coconut milk “ice cream” in the house, however, all bets are off.)

Then there are the challenges associated with dining out and travel.  There was a time in my life when I ate one meal in a restaurant (sometimes even two) nearly every day.  Even after those years, a day would seldom go by that I wouldn’t wish I were eating in a restaurant.  Now, I find eating in a restaurant to be more of a chore than anything else.  It is usually difficult for me to find anything I can eat other than a baked potato (hold the butter, hold the sour cream, hold the bacon) or a salad (hold the cheese, hold the croutons, hold the dressing). In an Italian restaurant, it may be possible to order what Alex of Ox the Punx refers to as “eggplant parm without the parm.”  But at a chain such as Olive Garden, even without the “parm,” the breading in which the eggplant is fried contains cheese.  One can always resort to a Chinese restaurant, most of which serve some type of tofu and vegetable dish, often called “Buddhist’s Delight.”  Of course, you have to ask for it steamed (not fried), no sauce, to even approach a vegan entrée.

Some restaurants claim that one of their soups is vegan, but unless it’s at Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation or a small, local place with a separate vegetarian menu, I take such claims with more than a grain of sea salt.  As for condiments, well… I occasionally carry my own soy margarine (to avoid eating dry toast) or almond milk (to avoid drinking black coffee) into a restaurant, but you can’t get away with that everywhere.  In general, it’s just easier for me to eat at home.  Think of all the calories and money I save.

When I can’t eat at home because I’m on the road, I am faced with another entire set of headaches.  As Shannon from dirtnkids so elegantly pointed out recently, there are things you can do if you’re willing to take food with you or stop in supermarkets along the way.  Things like hummus burritos, PB&J, bananas, nuts, avocados.  I’ve had more than a few experiences with eating bread and hummus in motel rooms or struggling to open a little individual package of tofu with a plastic knife and my car keys.  Sometimes you even luck out (as Shannon did in Colorado Springs) and find a restaurant with items on the menu that cater to the vegans in town.  My guess is that this doesn’t happen too often in places like the Midwest or Texas.  I’ll never forget the time I walked into what turned out to be a steak place in a tiny town in the Big Bend area of south Texas around lunchtime.  The place was full of men in Stetsons and boots eating enormous slabs of meat.  I wanted to hide under the table when I ordered “just the salad bar, please.”

Shannon also referred to the black bean burgers at Cowboy Café in Dubois, Wyoming.  She didn’t happen to mention whether those are vegan.  One of the great things about California is that the majority of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, have some sort of veggie burger on the menu.  In the course of my vegan journey (and many road trips), however, I have discovered that most of these are not vegan.  You can generally count on them to contain cheese and nonfat dry milk.  It is no exception to this rule when a restaurant refers to their “black bean burger” (the family restaurant chain Chili’s, for instance).  The only chain restaurant that I can count on to have a vegan burger is Red Robin.  If you happen into a local place that caters to vegetarians, of course, you may get lucky.

Then there is the matter of French fries.  I recently noticed a post online in which the writer jubilantly rejoiced in the fact that “French fries are vegetarian.”  Well, sort of.  Potatoes are vegetarian, yes.  I am a big fan of fries, too, but whether they’re vegetarian or not (never mind vegan) is largely a product of what type of grease the potatoes are fried in.  If you just assume that it’s pure vegetable shortening, you may want to think again. You may be surprised at how often commercial frying oil contains beef tallow and/or lard.  You can always ask what type of oil is used on the fries, but the server won’t know and the cook may not know either.  He just uses the bucket of gloop with which he is provided.

I’ll conclude by relating a little story about my visit to Red Lobster back in my pesco days.  My father, a huge shellfish fan, harbors an intense love for Red Lobster (he claims that, upon his death, he wishes to be cremated with his ashes scattered over Red Lobster) and takes my mother out to eat there once each week.  Once, when I was visiting my parents, I joined them for dinner at RL.  Now, my mother grew up kosher and still tries to keep a kosher home (more or less… no longer as strictly as she used to).  She doesn’t eat pork or shellfish.  But she does enjoy Red Lobster’s filet of sole.  On this particular evening, she and I were both going to order the fried sole, so just for kicks and edification, I asked the server what it is fried in.  Canola oil, she assured me, “with just a touch of lard for that crispy goodness.”

Uh-huh.