Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.



We Don’t Value Life

The 14 county employees who were killed by an armed-to-the-teeth couple in San Bernardino this week hit us hard at the state agency where I am employed.  Although I did not know any of the people involved, I do have professional contacts in San Bernardino County who emailed me to let me know that all non-essential county offices were closed for the remainder of the week.

This latest horror occurs right on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Paris in which so many lost their lives.  Indeed, the media now tell us that the San Bernardino murders had terrorist connections as well.

All the presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican, have now been addressing the issues of gun control and stamping out terrorism.  Perhaps I am too jaded for my own good, but I am not so sure that there is much that can be done about either one.

Let us not forget that we have now reached the third anniversary of the mass murder of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  And then there was the mass killing in a church in Charleston, South Carolina and so many other scenes of loved ones ripped from us in an instant by bullets.

Most gun murders barely make a blip on the local news due to the fact that, typically, only one or two people are killed, and they are usually family members.  Then there is gang violence about which we throw up our hands and chalk up to the breakdown of the American family.

I don’t think there are any easy answers for us.  In other countries, ownership of firearms is illegal.  Despite the gun lobby screaming that if owning guns were a crime, only criminals would own guns, the murder rate is far lower in most other nations than it is here in the United States.  As an article in The Washington Post recently pointed out, Congress will never make any significant move toward gun control due to its effect on liberty interests (in other words, the Second Amendment).

So I guess this means we are stuck.  Placed in social context, however, our propensity for murdering each other should come as no surprise.  The sad fact remains that there is no longer any respect for life in this country.  Any society that sanctions abortion, capital punishment and hunting is obviously just as happy to have dead corpses in our midst as it is to have the company of living beings.

I am constantly appalled by the way we treat animals, from the terrible abuse of pets to the murder of cows, pigs and birds so that we can eat their flesh.  But, really, it all makes sense.  How can we hope for any respect for our fellow creatures when we don’t even value the lives of those of our own species?


Pardon Me, Turkey


The Vegan Files

You know it’s getting close to Thanksgiving when memes like this one get passed around online.  I suppose the intent is to cause the viewer to laugh at such a preposterous proposition.  You’re dead, turkey!  I want to see you plucked, stuffed, roasted and on a platter for my personal enjoyment!  That’s right, I want you dead so that I can carve you up and enjoy eating your rotting flesh.  The fact that you want to go on living, associating with others of your kind and raising future generations of birds means nothing to me.  Tofu??!! Yuck!

It would be particularly sad if I thought that we had no regard at all for our fellow creatures.  I know that this is not true because of the billions of dollars each year we spend on our pet dogs and cats.  Even when it comes to turkeys, each year the president “pardons” two of them to live out their lives well taken care of on a farm.  A couple of years ago, I read that this farm is in West Virginia and that the birds seldom survive for more than a few months past the date of their pardon.  This is because commercially raised turkeys are fed a diet designed to increase the size of the breast to grotesque proportions in order to satisfy consumer demand.  While there is such thing as free-range turkeys, for the most part, the birds are raised in tight spaces that prevent them from moving around much so that they can be fattened up that much faster.  By the time they are ready for slaughter, they are so large that they can barely move even if they wanted to.  They are so unhealthy that they are beyond benefitting from the freedom of a farm and veterinary care.

Whenever I hear that the president is getting ready to “pardon” two turkeys, I hope that perhaps he is referring to certain members of Congress.  Certainly the turkeys have done nothing wrong that would cause them to require a “pardon.”


The other theme of the meme above has to do with tofu.  How laughable that a turkey should plead for its life by asking us to eat such disgusting stuff instead!  While I know numerous people who profess to dislike tofu, the unfortunate fact is that most Americans (with the possible exception of those whose moms engaged in traditional Asian cooking) have never even tried it.

The turkey is right that tofu is “really good.”  While much has been written about the possible health dangers of eating too much soy (we won’t talk about the firm connection recently made between eating meat and colon cancer), the fact remains that it is a solid source of protein and one that requires much less of a carbon footprint to produce than, say, poultry.  Plus, tofu doesn’t have bones to deal with, doesn’t have a carcass to dispose of once picked clean, and doesn’t need to be roasted for hours (or fried in peanut oil, a cause of multiple house fires each Thanksgiving).  My own favorite thing about tofu is that it has a very mild flavor and goes with anything.  Even if baked in the oven, it doesn’t stink up the house.  I am not much of a cook, so I most often prepare tofu by simply dicing it and serving it over baked potatoes with carrots or spinach.  I also like it in soup, what I call “faux pho.”  And, yes, I have been known to eat it straight out of the package.  Sure, there are fancy faux turkey roasts, but the great thing about tofu is that you don’t have to cook it if you don’t want to.  If you like it hot, slice it and heat it in the microwave or dice it into an oil-coated pan with some mushrooms or broccoli.  Otherwise, toss it onto a salad and eat it cold.  Its diversity can’t be beat, and I like the fact that, if I haven’t prepared any lunch one day, I can throw a package of tofu into a bag with some bread and fruit and I will have a protein-packed, satisfying meal.

But back to the turkeys.  My father is quick to point out that almost all turkeys currently alive would not exist at all if they weren’t commercially raised for slaughter and thence the freezer case at your local supermarket.  This fact seems to me a lot like playing God.  We get to decide when they live and when they die.

When my little grandniece was visiting with us last week, I began singing Christmas songs with her.  “It’s not even Thanksgiving!” my wife noted.  “But I don’t know any Thanksgiving songs,” I protested.  Later, while my grandniece and her cousin were running amok in Chuck E. Cheese, I repeated the story to my sister-in-law.  She admitted to knowing only one Thanksgiving song:

Gobble gobble gobble, fat turkeys, fat turkeys
Gobble gobble gobble, fat turkeys are
We’re not made for living
We’re made for Thanksgiving
Gobble gobble gobble, fat turkeys are we.

(With thanks to Ghost Academy for confirming the lyrics)

Suffice it to say that I will not be singing this song with my grandniece.  “We’re not made for living?”  Seriously?  If you’re not going to treat your dog or cat like a mere thing that you can kill and dispose of at will, I question how you can countenance doing the same to a cow, pig or turkey.

To make things worse, I hear that the above ditty is sung in schools, thus indoctrinating children into feeling nothing when it comes to our fellow creatures.  Surely, there is a more compassionate Thanksgiving song about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans together giving thanks to God over maize and yams?  (Notwithstanding the fact that the ready availability of deer indicates the likelihood that venison was also on the menu.)

Too bad those landing at Plymouth Rock did not bring tofu across the ocean with them.

While it is unfortunately a myth that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird (he actually referred to the bald eagle as “a bird of bad moral character”), I love the story and wonder whether, if true, perhaps we’d eat roasted eagle with gravy and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  That is, if we found a way to force-feed the eagle and sing that it’s not made for living, just eating.

Tomorrow:  The Joy of Receiving

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logonanopoblano2015dark

Do Dogs and Cats Have the Right to Live?

I guess I’m a hypocrite.

As much as I hate to saddle myself with such an imprecation, it would be dishonest for me to say otherwise.  You see, I haven’t been practicing what I preach.  Last time, I wrote about our duty to care for stray and abandoned dogs, cats and other animals, yet I myself live a pet-free life.

But, as I mentioned previously, not everyone has the proper living situation or adequate finances to take on the responsibility for caring for a pet.  So what’s my excuse?  We spent years living in apartments that did not permit pets (not that we didn’t see the occasional illegal dog being walked).  We also developed a fairly active lifestyle that involved a lot of traveling on short notice.  Every time we thought about adopting a pet, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go for work or pleasure.  Then we moved to the parsonage of a church.

There’s also the little detail about being unemployed for more months than I care to think about.  I am always amazed when I see a bedraggled homeless guy sitting up against a wall with a sign begging for food — with his best canine friend seated right beside him.  I guess they’ll be sharing that hamburger that we give him.  Maybe we’d better get two.

It’s not just dogs, either.  Back when we lived in Fresno, we knew that almost any time we visited a particular store on South Blackstone, we’d be greeted by a homeless woman and her overflowing shopping cart — with her black and white cat curled up atop her belongings.

Thus, I am forced to admit to hypocrisy.  It’s hard to make excuses after seeing the homeless care for their quadruped charges.  For some of them, I’m sure their animal companions are their only friends.

There’s also the laziness factor.  Although I’ll be the first to try to find a home for a pet that needs one, I know I wouldn’t give the pet a very good home myself.  The thought of having to walk a dog or clean a cat box simply does not appeal to me.

At least I know myself well enough to realize that a dog or cat would not have a very good life with me.  Too many people, however, take on the care of pets (and children!) without considering how much time, attention and money such a commitment involves.  Perhaps this is why we see so many abandoned pets wandering the streets.

I believe that these homeless dogs and cats, roaming about in search of a morsel of food or a drop of water, are at minimum, entitled to be accorded the decency owed to all living things that suffer and feel pain.

Alas, there are those who do not agree, believing that dogs and cats do not have any rights at all.  For example, my fellow blogger at jewamongyou (who claims to be an animal lover and states that “animals should not be made to needlessly suffer”) posits that “we shouldn’t assign human rights to animals” because the very concept of “rights” is a human one.

While I do believe that this guy’s heart is in the right place, I have to wonder just what he means by “human rights.”  Does he mean that dogs and cats should not be accorded the right to vote?  I think that would be reasonable, as I doubt that the idea of representative elections would be very meaningful to our pets.  This is also why my one-year-old grandniece does not have the right to vote.

I have at least two points of disagreement with my fellow blogger, however.  For starters, I find it a bit of hubris to equate our species’ age-old fascination with “rights” with the idea that no such thing as “rights” existed until we called them into being.  For example, I love the following famous words from the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”   In other words, the existence of the rights about to be enumerated needs no source of proof; “self-evident” means that no reasonable person can contradict their existence.  The Declaration of Independence refers to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  This is a way of stating that basic rights are divinely or naturally granted (depending on one’s beliefs) rather than granted by humans.

Of course, the Declaration of Independence goes on to state that “all men are created equal” and have certain divinely granted “inalienable rights.”  My point, however, is that the basic rights of decency, whatever you believe them to be, are granted by God or nature, not by man.

Second, even if one believes that the concept of “rights” is a human one, why does this by definition exclude certain rights from being extended by humans to other creatures?

I don’t claim to understand what my fellow blogger means by “animals should not be made to needlessly suffer.”  I’m sure we would both agree that the disgrace that is animal abuse would fall under this category.  What exactly constitutes “animal abuse” is, of course, subject to debate.  Nevertheless, I’m sure we would agree that such barbaric practices as dog fighting and cock fighting would be included.

Is a dog or a cat made to needlessly suffer when it is abandoned to fend for itself?  I would argue that it is.  I would argue that an animal that is not provided with food, water and shelter is indeed being made to needlessly suffer.  Remember, unlike adult humans (and very much like human children), domesticated animals do not have the ability to do this for themselves.

What about when an animal is deliberately killed?  I would argue that this, too, constitutes needless suffering and that, if nothing else, an animal has the right to its life.  Historically, however, humans have treated other animals as chattel, mere possessions that can be disposed of at will.  This reduces a living creature to the status of a mere thing, just as if a dog or cat were an inanimate object such as a car or a table.  Just as the owner of a table has the right to sell it, give it away, abandon it or chop it up for firewood, historically the owner of a dog or cat (or cow or horse or sheep) had the right to sell it, give it away, abandon it or kill it and chop it up into food or clothing.

How this plays out is entirely cultural.  While animals are considered sacred in many parts of India, for example, eating dogs and cats is commonplace in certain parts of Asia (and elsewhere).  What may be an abhorrent practice in the United States may be standard operating procedure in another part of the world.

Thus, the social norms of a particular culture may grant animals more or fewer rights than those granted by God or nature.  Just as we humans have trampled upon each other’s rights throughout history, many cultures continue to trample upon the rights of our fellow creatures.

There will likely never be an end to the debate about what rights animals do have (by those who believe that such rights are granted by God or nature) or should have (by those who believe that animals have no rights other than those granted them by humans).

My favorite example of this ongoing debate is whether it is amoral to kill an animal “humanely.”  Personally, I nominate that one for the Oxymorons category in Zynga’s game “What’s the Phrase?”

Well, humans are animals.  Is it okay to kill a human if it’s done humanely?

Somehow, we fail to make the connection.

The fact that animals have rich, happy lives just as we do and suffer just as we do does not seem to resonate with most of us at all.  We simply draw a line in the sand between “them” and “us.”  While we celebrate our own higher-functioning brains, our free will and our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, we go right on acting in a instinctual black-and-white fashion as if we were the very animals that we continue to demean.

The bottom line, of course, is money.  Animals are treated as if they have no rights because there is big business in killing dogs, cats, cows, pigs and other animals and selling their flesh — because they taste good and people will buy these animals’ ground-up, hacked-up parts for their tables.

I think I’ve belabored the point enough.  Ultimately, everyone has to make their own decision.  However, I do want to close with a few interesting websites I’ve run across in the last few days (along with brief comments).  Food for thought.

From thentherewerethreeHeck, I will eat Donner and Blitzen, bring it on…I love wild game! I just like to know that my meat was off enjoying the sunshine, and frolicking with some pals, and feeling the wind on its face….before it came to nourish me and the Fam.  (Yeah, you’re all heart…)

From honkifyourevegan.comThe setup was in a supermarket where a guy gave customers samples of cooked sausage and then tried to get them to buy fresh sausage that he was cranking out of a machine on the spot.  Whenever a customer wanted to buy fresh sausage, however; the machine was empty. But this was not a problem because the sausage man had live piglets on hand. So for each customer, he put a piglet into the machine and ground sausage from it.  Despite the fact that no one had a problem tasting the cooked sausage, customers were horrified when the piglet was ground before their eyes. One woman even hit the sausage man with her purse.  It’s a gag, of course, and the piglet is not actually harmed. But isn’t it interesting?  (Not really.  You broke the social compact!  You’re not supposed to show us what we’re eating, silly!)

koreandogs.org (No explanation needed.)

As Vegan as I Wanna Be

veggies fruit

My adult niece, who has been staying with us for a few days, attached an interesting label to me today.  She called me a vegan.

Immediately, my wife sought confirmation.  “Are you a vegan now?” she called out to me from the next room.

I paused for a few beats before answering this one.  Have I really crossed that line?

“Semi-vegan,” I called out in response.

“He’ll eat an egg once in a while,” she explained to my niece.

I don’t really eat eggs anymore (I love the way the girl responding to Andrew Jones in Violet’s Veg*n e-comics refers to them as “things that come out of chickens’ butts”), but I must be honest and admit that I did eat an omelette to avoid looking totally foolish that time my boss took me out to lunch at a place that never heard of vegetarians, much less vegans.  Funny how I don’t mind sharing my vegan tendencies with all the world in this forum, but I did not feel comfortable explaining to my boss about the humane treatment of animals and what meat processing is doing to our environment.  Hmm, perhaps I should have discussed the debeaking of hens or maybe I could have gotten graphic about how male chicks are often ground up into pet food while they are still alive.  I’ll hazard a guess that she might have lost her appetite at that point.

Now that I am unemployed and have time to click around the blogosphere, I accidentally discovered that Tuesday was World Vegetarian Day.  I hadn’t a clue.  So perhaps this is as auspicious a time as any to “come out.”

Yes, I am a vegan.  Sort of.

I shop carefully and am fairly rigorous about what I eat at home.  Having grown up kosher, I am no stranger to reading product labels.  And I am slowly learning that many products touted as “vegetarian” or that have “veggie” in their cutesy names are not even close to being vegan.

For my protein needs, I am most grateful for those of Boca’s burgers and “chicken” patties and Yves’ textured vegetable protein (TVP) products (particularly their “deli slices”) that are vegan.  My wife humors me and regularly prepares some of my favorite meals, such as beefless stew, roasted vegetables, tofu with fried onions, and a zillion different potato dishes.  Thanks to her keen eye in the supermarket, I recently discovered tempeh and have found that I enjoy it despite its decidedly funky flavor.

Like most of my choices in life, however, I try to remain as low-key as possible about my conversion to veganism.  If my wife surprises me with one of those tiny sugar-free blueberry pies, or if I am offered a slice of cake at a family birthday party, I don’t say no even though those items certainly contain dairy products.  And when my mother makes potato lakes for Hanukkah next month, I am not going to turn up my nose even though I know that an egg went into the batter.  I figure that if I stand for kindness to animals, the least I can do is manage kindness toward the humans whom I love.

We dine out often, which I am finding comes with certain challenges.  Let’s face it:  You don’t really know what restaurants put in your food.  You certainly can ask, but you’re not likely to obtain very accurate answers from a clueless server or a cook that uses a lot of pre-packaged ingredients.  Just because the restaurant doesn’t add any meat or dairy products to the dish you are thinking about ordering doesn’t mean that none of the prepared ingredients are similarly endowed.

When we are on the road, I will often settle for a veggie burger dressed up with as much produce as possible at chains like Denny’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s or even Burger King.  Of those mentioned, only Applebee’s has a veggie burger that is vegan, and even then only if you substitute a Boca burger.  There is always the plain salad and plain baked potato option, but that can get boring after a while if you travel a lot.  Even the bread or rolls that the restaurant brings to your table — almost certainly made with dairy products.  The only way around it all is to bring your own food in an ice chest.  Again, not too much fun, and guaranteed to peg you as a party pooper and an insufferable bore.

So I suppose “semi-vegan” really is the best label to describe my eating habits.  I’m vegan for the most part, but I’m definitely not ascetic about it.  I’m as vegan as I wanna be.