Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ew! There's a Dead Chicken in My Chicken Soup: The Cognitive Dissonance of Disgust

This is an open letter to Nicole Montgomery, a.k.a., the lady who discovered what looked like a chicken embryo in her chicken soup.

Hello, Nicole!

You don’t know me but I saw your video online last week, you know, the one with the alarming chicken part in your Campbell’s Chicken and Stars soup. I have to admit, it was kind of a shocker. By that, I mean that I found it kind of shocking that you were shocked. But then I realized that, yeah, you were not expecting to see that. I can forget sometimes that people have what seems to be irrational standards of what they do and don’t want to see when it comes to what they eat. You told the reporter, "I opened it up, and there was this speck in there -- I was like, 'What is that?' I looked a little bit closer and I was like, 'Oh, that looks like a dead chicken.'”

You did realize that there were dead chicken pieces inside that can of soup when you bought it, right?

I know that seeing that embryonic shape was not exactly what you were expecting but the other various chicken parts in the soup that you were going to feed your daughter were probably not much older than an embryo, most likely barely over six weeks of age when slaughtered. Still, I imagine that you might have been relieved to hear that what you discovered probably wasn’t an embryo. According to an employee from the lab that analyzed the “strange object” in question, you can rest assured that, “The odds are it’s just a veiny portion of the chicken. Those chickens are going to be pretty much de-boned and emptied before they’re ever taken apart to go into a soup product.” 

That can of soup product likely just had a more veiny than usual piece of chicken flesh bobbing around in it. That’s supposed to be a reassuring.

I am curious, though: Was it the little body-shape that unsettled you the most? Was it that it drew your attention to something that you’d rather not think about when you eat or feed your child? I mean, the soup you purchased is called Campbell’s Chicken and Stars Soup. There is no fraud about what’s in it. (Oh, except the stars part.) I’m guessing that you were expecting the flesh to be in uniform little off-white chunks and seeing that unexpected veiny piece resembling an embryo was a disturbing moment. I don’t blame you for being disgusted, honestly. The food industry does such an excellent job of keeping us from remembering what we’re eating that when the usual obfuscation around a dead body is removed, it can be a pretty shocking moment. 

I am going to ask you to think about using that disgust and shock and turn your experience into something very different than just a sensationalist news story that is quickly forgotten. I am going to ask you to consider turning that disgust and shock into something that can transform the world. 

We shouldn’t be comfortable with eating anything that we wouldn’t want to eat before being “de-boned” and “emptied.” We shouldn’t be comfortable with eating anything that must be presented in a particular way in order for us to not lose our appetites. Your gut reaction told you that this was something to not feed your child. Every time that veil is lifted, it’s an opportunity. The veiny piece that managed to make it through the machinery to appear in your can of soup was a gift, really. It was a chance to wake up, face reality and refuse to accept what we know is not fit for consumption.

Maybe we feel it’s not fit for consumption because it disgusts us. Maybe we feel it’s not fit for consumption because it unnerves us. Maybe we feel it’s not fit for consumption because it reminds us of something that we’d rather not think about. Whatever is the impetus, I hope you will use that and continue to question the status quo about what you want to support and what you don’t want to support. Birds, fish, pigs, cows: they are are made with blood and bones, organs, skin, cartilage and, yes, veins, just as we are. The only way to forget that is to take apart the body in a specific way. Getting the animal parts into soup cans and stomachs is a necessarily violent process and it’s naïve of us to expect it to be a bloodless journey stripped of all viscera.

So, Nicole, I am asking you, mother to mother, woman to woman, person to person, to do something different. Ask questions. Take this opportunity to think and expand beyond where you were before you opened that can of soup. This matters. This means something. It’s up to you, now, to not deny your gut. No one should silence their discomfort with eating death, whether the veins show or not.

All the best,


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On Alice Walker and History as Destiny

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” - Stephen Covey

I grew up with parents who weren’t keen on cooking in an era of processed convenience food, thus I grew up on salami and Kraft singles, frozen dinners and Lipton Chicken Noodle Cup-a-Soup. The one thing my mother made that actually involved washing a mixing bowl was brownies (Duncan Hines, yes, but it still had a couple of steps, so it was pretty much homemade by our standards) and my father would sometimes make a big pan of fried potatoes on the weekend. That was it. I’m not saying this to whine but to give a little background: I did not grow up with a cornucopia of colorful produce that helped to pave the path for my eventual vegan evolution. I grew up on convenience food for the most part, but I also had a grandmother, on the other hand, who made pretty much everything from scratch, so a couple of times a month, I would get homemade matzo ball soup and brisket, rugelach and kugel. She is the one who taught me how to cook. I grew up on the junk foods of the 1970s as well as the homemade Eastern European cuisine that I associate with the person who I loved the most growing up. I have nostalgia attached to both, especially to the latter. 

Naturally, all of us were raised with different food traditions and habits. Whether that was junk food, ethnic dishes from our heritage, the popular food of our time or a mix of everything, we were all raised with some kind of distinctive food culture, but most of that is still familiar to one another. In other words, the food environment we were raised in is unique to us but the differences are not so vast in any given culture. This makes us both distinctive and, well, sort of like everyone else. Unless we grew up in a very unconventional way, we are more or less like everyone else in terms of what we were raised to eat. In other, other words, we may not be the special little snowflakes we imagine ourselves to be.

I was reminded this the other day when my friend Robert Grillo (of the amazing group, Free from Harm) posted part of an interview with famed Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and feminist Alice Walker, expressing disappointment that she, who once wrote very movingly of how humanity’s cold betrayal of the animals compelled her to stop consuming them, has resumed eating animals again. The same Alice Walker who once wrote, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men,” apparently no longer agrees, at least in her actions, with this stated view. In an interview after the publication of her book of essays inspired by her life with her flock of backyard chickens, when the interviewer expressed surprise that she eats birds, Ms. Walker said, “I know, I know. It's a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I've been a vegetarian, but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that.” In direct opposition to her powerfully articulated position years before, it seems that now, the chickens were “made” for her and this is justifiable because that was how she was raised.

She accepts how she grew up as an excuse to continue eating animals. I don’t. 

Like Alice Walker, I grew up eating chickens (and eggs and cheese and cows and turkeys and...) but that is not where the story ends. That was how I was raised, yes, but I have kept evolving. So have millions of other people who do not accept that our history is carved onto us as our destiny. Still, how many times have I heard people say, in an attempt to justify current habits, that they “grew up on the veal parmigiana that my Nonna made” or “I was raised in a family that ate a lot of meat,” or “Polish food is very meat-centric and that was how I grew up,” or whatever it is that they say? A lot. It’s especially saddening, though, when the person who gives voice to this tired rationale is so highly respected for her penetrating depth and powerful mind. If even Alice Walker, someone who once wrote about empathy in such a heartfelt and moving way, abandons her convictions because she “grew up on chicken,” I’m going to hazard a guess that the concept of history as destiny is a pretty ingrained one that many of us hold as true. 

Here’s the thing, though: Unless you grew up on a vegan commune, most likely, you grew up eating a lot of meat and animal products. I honestly don’t think I had a salad until I was in high school, and certain things (including most of the mainstays of my diet today), I didn’t have until college and beyond. I was well into my twenties before I learned that kale was something people actually ate, not just an inedible decoration on a buffet table. Nutritional yeast was the fairy dust that wouldn’t blow into my life until my late twenties. I grew up on all the same familiar stuff that every kid on my block grew up eating in that era. A raspberry Pop-Tart for breakfast. A bologna and cheese sandwich in my lunch box. Spaghetti and meat sauce with that weird frozen garlic bread that I loved for dinner. I also grew up on the ethnic dishes of my grandmother’s cooking. This was my food environment. 

When people say that they grew up eating animals as if this gives them a pass to continue doing so, to me they are implying that those who currently do not eat animals didn’t grow up the same way - but this is untrue. Also, in addition to our food culture, there are other family legacies we may have been raised with in our households. Legacies of abuse. Legacies of addiction. Legacies of all sorts of things we don’t necessarily want to carry over into in our own lives. These legacies may feel comfortable to us because they are familiar but if they harm ourselves or others, how can we justify not trying our best to break the cycle?  

I very much understand the pull to continue eating the dishes that we associate with comfort, nurturing and love. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that food is deeply emotional to us. The food from my grandmother represented her in a way: it seemed to be suffused with her unique essence, the one I just wanted around me all the time. What I loved, though, wasn’t the chicken or the matzo balls: what I loved was my grandmother’s spirit and what she meant to me, how I felt when I was around her, what she represented in my life. I loved her, not the food. Still, to be able to call up her spirit whenever I miss her, I can eat the foods she used to make, but I can create them with my values of today. I don’t have to give up anything, and there is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve been able to recreate something she used to make - and the feeling it stirs up in me of viscerally remembering her again - without compromising who I am. 

Our history is not a straight line to our future and thank goodness for that. If it were, we’d have handy excuses for all kinds of behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others. The way we were raised leaves an imprint on us but doesn't obligate us to continue it. My grandmother loved me as I was and I feel that in not compromising while recreating the dishes she made, it is an active way of continuing to love her, to honor her memory and relive our time together. Love is dynamic and creative, it isn’t static and frozen in time like a museum piece. How we were raised is an influence but not the final word on how we are to unfold. When we choose to no longer participate in practices that we no longer agree with, we are not erasing our histories but we are taking an active role in shaping who we are to become. 

You grew up on chicken, Alice Walker. Well, so did I. I’m not going to use that as an excuse to compromise myself, though.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Loved Him Like a Champion: The Ones Who Shape Our Hearts

It was twelve years ago today, March 12, when I left Lenny to go to my birthing class for the baby who would be born exactly three months later, on June 12. When I left Lenny, he was resting on our balcony, his favorite spot in the home, enjoying the first day of gorgeously mild breezes and sun after a long Chicago winter. He wasn’t well, though.

After a completely ordinary Sunday morning and brisk romp in the park a few days before, Lenny became suddenly stricken with seizures and was showing signs of a stroke, but his vet wasn’t sure because not everything added up. It was a very difficult and heartbreaking time, right on the cusp on bringing our baby into the world, the new soul whom I couldn’t wait to introduce to Lenny, my first angel. That afternoon when I said goodbye to him on the balcony, Lenny had eaten a little better than he had the previous few days and as anyone who has cared for an ailing loved one knows, you cling to these small glimmers of hope like they are lifeboats in churning waters. Maybe he is getting better. Maybe it wasn’t a stroke but just a weird virus. The little mental tricks I played on myself, that reliable habit of magical thinking that Joan Didion wrote of in her memoir about dying, loss and trying to get an upper hand on uncontrollable circumstances, got me through those days. 

I hadn’t left Lenny’s side since he’d first become ill but that night was our final Bradley Method class after eight weeks. We were all going to be first-time parents and we’d developed a close bond over the weeks. We wouldn’t see everyone together again until after we’d all had our babies in mid-summer. John and I discussed it; with a heavy and conflicted heart, I decided we should go to the last class and come home early. Lenny was on the mend, I told myself. He had even walked to the balcony by himself. Before I left, I sat with him on the balcony, the gentle wind blowing on his fur, and he looked at me with weary brown eyes that were nonetheless full of love, gently wagging his tail a few times, another sign to me that I should be hopeful. I got as close as I could with my big pregnant belly to that face that I loved, kissing his soft muzzle. It was our last class, some of the women would be giving birth within a couple of weeks, but through the hugs and all the excited jitters, all I could think about was Lenny.

When we came home after class, something made me start calling Lenny’s name even before we were in the door. John and I both rushed to the balcony and Lenny was still there, exactly where he was when I’d left. He was lying on his side, stiff already, his mouth drawn back, the cool yellow light shining on him. I saw him for just a second before I started screaming. My Lenny, my first baby. He was gone.

Lenny came into our lives eight years before, scrappy, street-smart and grungy, from a negligent home that routinely let him run loose on the streets of his north side Chicago neighborhood. My friend, an avid animal rescuer, had been trying to catch him for weeks but he’d always managed to evade her. She saw him running in the street on the Fourth of July, terrified and disoriented by the fireworks shooting up everywhere. Not long after that, my friend managed to coax him close to her with some food and, using a slipknotted leash hidden behind her back, she was finally able to catch him. She couldn’t keep him so she asked me if we could foster him until he could be adopted. Yes. John and I went to her apartment and met the dog she had named Lenny. He had a BB pellet embedded in the top of his head that his skin had grown over, teeth yellow with tartar, and just had gone through a second flea bath. He was a muscular beagle-basset mix with a big, gorgeous beagle head affixed to a speckled, low-slung basset body, his front legs warped inward and paws pushed outward in a permanent plie position. Lenny was an unconventional looking fusion of a dog but he wore his uniqueness with a show dog’s grace and pride. He also had the most beautiful, soul-stirring eyes I’d ever seen on any species. The longer he lived with us, the more his dignified essence emerged. He grew into his natural self.

We had eight years of purely joyful companionship together, complete compatibility. How often can we enjoy something like that? I told Lenny every day that he was my angel and I think he understood. It isn’t really accurate to call him my first baby, though, as he wouldn’t have that. He had to be an equal or he had no use for you. He was my canine soul mate and our communication was so effortlessly natural that words would have only served to complicated things.

There is something about that unique connection with another species, one where we have very little if any verbal language that can be understood between us, that can foster a deeper bond than we might with other people. Our human attachments can be so complicated, so fraught with insecurities, game-playing and misunderstandings, that being able to relax in an uncomplicated, loving companionship together is a rare stroke of great fortune in life. Having that bulls-eye met of truly recognizing and rejoicing in one another on an emotional level is even more rare and exquisite. Loving that immaterial, distinctive spark of another - what we call the soul - and having that love returned back to us is something that is clearly one of the most invaluable treasures in life. 

I believe that the concept of the soul as we use it is an arbitrary and romantic human construct. Excluding other animals from those who can possess souls is an example of our myopic arrogance. I also know that it would be hard to do to animals what we do to them if we agree that they have souls. It’s much easier if we think of them as soulless beings with just material forms and bodily functions. Anyone who has ever crossed the species’ barrier even briefly to connect with another on that emotional level should understand that this thing we call a soul - that spark within, that immortal, divine essence - is not exclusive to humans, though. I’d known this before Lenny came into my life but it was through our companionship that I really internalized it. Whatever this quality is that we call a soul, Lenny had it and so do billions of other beings not normally included within the parameters of what we consider capable of having one.

Being with Lenny molded, sculpted and ultimately shaped my heart into something altogether different than it was before we’d met. I like to think that I did the same for him. Before I left him on March 12, that ember was still in his eyes but, in retrospect, it was growing dimmer. We looked at each other, just being together, and I scratched his head, his velvety ears. He looked at me with such an expression of love that I immediately recognized my late grandfather in his gaze. It was exactly how my grandfather looked at me. That was our last communication before I left, a parting gift that I return to in my mind all the time.

I can say with all honesty that I have messed up many things in life but I loved Lenny like a champion. I gave him every last ounce of what I had in my heart and, surprise, surprise, I found there was always more. I’m so grateful to have been able to recognize that spark in him and he recognized mine. Through knowing Lenny, I will never again believe that souls are the exclusive province of our species.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Being Vegan in this Messy World

“...Perfectionism is very dangerous because if your fidelity to perfection is too high, you never do anything.” - David Foster Wallace

I’ll never forget how defeated I felt when I first learned that I could never be truly vegan. All because of a pair of shoes and a Shriner clown. I should probably back up a bit...

When I first went vegan in the mid-1990s, animal-free replacements weren’t as easy to find as they are today. That first year after I stopped purchasing animal-based items, I was in relentless pursuit of a pair of cute, leather-free shoes and, after months of fruitless catalog research and calling companies, I’d finally found the ones. (Imagine me in black-and-white footage if you will; this was how we rolled back in the quaint pre-internet days.) The shoes had a chunky three-inch heel (oh, how I love a good chunky heel), they were black (of course), they buckled (joy!), and, most important for vegan shoes, they weren’t Converse and they didn’t exude a humorless Christian missionary worker vibe (ding-ding-ding!). They were perfect. They even had a name, like the Charlottes, or maybe I named them that myself because I’m weird and they were that significant. I stared far too much at the picture I had cut out of my catalog and I think I raced home every day from work to see if the magical UPS truck had made the delivery until that amazing day when I spotted the box on our front porch. Usually this sort of anticipation leads to disappointment but these shoes did not disappoint. To the contrary, they were even better in person. They easily made the transition from casual to dressy; the first time I wore them, they felt like they were molded my specific feet. Just putting them on made me feel more confident of my core beliefs: every time another seemingly impossible challenge was checked off the list - in this case, stylish shoes made without animal skins - it seemed like a viable vegan future became closer within reach. These shoes symbolized the future of veganism to me, as silly as that sounds. That’s a lot of pressure on a simple pair of cute shoes.

About a week after they arrived, I was at a circus protest, strutting around in my still-dazzling Charlottes. It was a pretty intense day, the last performance of the run there, and clowns from the Shrine Circus - I’m not speaking pejoratively as they were actual clowns - were outside and more aggressive than usual, openly hurling invective at the activists. One particularly hostile clown in a blue wig really had it out for me and trailed me as I leafletted. Being a sucker for the absurd wherever I can find it, I saw the humor in the situation. It’s not every day you have your own personal clown in a blue wig and red nose following you around and yelling, which was actually scaring the parents and their children more than anything in the leaflets I was handing out would do. The calmer I was, the angrier he became. In other words, it was going exceptionally well. Or it was until that awful turning point.

As I went back to get more leaflets, he continued shadowing me, this time loudly engaging another clown so I could hear him. “What a hypocrite,” he spat. “Look at her wearing shoes that come from animal skins.” I turned around and told him that that wasn’t true, these weren’t leather. “Oh, but what about the glue in the shoes,” he sneered, as much as a clown can manage a sneer with a big foam nose getting in the middle of his face. “Glue comes from animals. Don’t you know that? I guess those animals don’t matter.” He had me. That had never occurred to me; I tried to smile and shrug it off but in truth, I was devastated. Even after working as hard to find them as I had, my shoes were still drenched in suffering. The luster was off my Charlottes. I was humiliated but, worse than that, I was demoralized. I went home, put my shoes back in their box like I was placing them in a coffin and cried for a good hour.

That night I questioned if it was possible, this dream, this ideal. I wondered if it was just another one of my utopian dreams. Having been called naïve since my earliest recollections, was my passionate vegan ideology just another display of my gullibility? For a perfectionist like me, I knew that if I couldn’t do this thing all the way, it would nag and tear at me until I just gave up the ghost and admitted the obvious: it was impossible. Veganism was impossible. Before this thought could really take root, though, another followed close behind and this was what both freed my spirit and allowed me to continue on this path as I have for nearly twenty years. 

We live in a flawed world and I am doing my best in it. 

From the wool sweaters we inherited from our late grandmothers to car tires with stearic acid, there are seemingly endless points of entry through which both blatant and covert products of animal origin can enter our lives, even those who live with borders that are carefully maintained to keep them out. In that moment when my despair turned around, I was no longer feeling defeated but relieved by acknowledging the facts: we live in a world that is profoundly rooted in animal exploitation. As the world has become more ensnared in animal agriculture specifically, more outlets have been found to find a place for every last molecule the industry can extract from an animal’s corpse, which is why the use of animal products is so pervasive to the point of being impossible to completely eradicate from our personal lives. That night, I realized that I didn’t have to choose between the present and possibility. The present could peacefully coexist with possibility as I worked toward my ideals in this imperfect world. Like those who wait and wait (and wait) for the perfect conditions to line up in order to go toward their dreams, it is this notion that things have to be just so in order to move toward our goals that is the fantasy, and it is a destructive fantasy that keeps us leaden, stuck, and hemmed in.

Ever since that day, I have messed up, I have made mistakes, I have realized that animal products have sneaked past my guard but I always try to learn and do better. Each time it happens - infrequent these days - I am reminded that there is a lot of work to do in this flawed world. The disappointment inspires me to push ahead with this very important work. Hanging my head in shame and beating myself up does nothing for the animals or creating a new, bold, integrated way of living. So today when someone tries to imply that because we can’t be perfect, we should just give up trying, this is what I say, “We don’t live in a vegan world yet. I‘m working on that. What are you doing to create a more compassionate life for yourself and others?”

We live in a flawed world with deeply entrenched, often hidden systems of violence woven through it. Vegans didn’t create this but we are actively forging creative solutions to it. I can find peace in this. I hope you can, too. And my Charlottes? I wore them until they fell apart six months later. (Damn those early vegan shoes...)