Friday, February 25, 2011

The Emotional Pipeline of Food

Going down this very well traveled road of exploring food and emotions, I may as well start by saying that I was not a very happy child growing up. Or I could amend that to say that I was happy as a young child but went through a very dark time that lasted for years due to circumstances I couldn’t control. Tempers were unpredictable, confusing undercurrents influenced everything and most people couldn’t be trusted, so food became a source of consistency and reliability. When others failed, food was there for me. Coffee tables could easily be upturned in a fit of rage and my mother might have been pacing the house crying, but food was always a trusted companion. While life was uncertain, the top of a Hostess Cupcake would still always lift off in one piece, Wheat Thins would always taste exactly the same, one after the next. Food also helps to smooth over the edges, distract and numb us; it is an opportunity to feel better, or at least less bad, if only briefly.

Beyond the palliative effect food seems to have on most of us, the familiar tastes and scents of our childhood foods contain vivid memories and give us easy access to our emotional wiring. Jay’s potato chips will always make me think of my mother. Her favored snacks have always come from the salty-crunchy food group: sweets, she can take them or leave them, but popcorn, tortilla chips, corn chips and, most of all, potato chips make her feel instantly better. Potato chips bring to mind greasy paper plates and summertime, comfort and frustration fused together.

Catching a whiff of Hershey’s chocolate syrup instantly reminds me of my father, of drunkenly constructed sundaes at the kitchen table, of richness and bitterness swirled together. I remember the cans of Hershey’s syrup with triangles punctured into the lid, chocolate globs dried on top, always in our fridge. My father sought out sweet flavors like it was a genetic imperative: he had no interest in my mother’s bags of crunchy things, but if there was cake or brownies or ice cream in the house, he couldn’t help but devour the whole thing like a tornado. Whereas my mother has that enviable ability to eat ten potato chips and call it a day, my father was voracious in all matters and had no inner-mechanism for quitting once he started doing whatever it was that made him feel better. So when I smell Hershey’s syrup, I also think of desperation.

The influence of a Jewish grandmother who showered her family with love and home cooked meals probably cemented this merging of food and emotions together for me. Nothing will ever compare in quality to even her simplest grilled cheese sandwiches. I cannot think of my grandmother and not associate her with the smell of sizzling potatoes in vegetable oil, the intoxicating steam of matzo ball soup, perfectly crispy-and-chewy ruggelah, It is hard to think of her and not remember the comforting smells of her kitchen, of sitting at the kitchen table with my feet wrapped behind the chair legs, grating potatoes and onions, cracking eggs into flour and sugar. Her kitchen was a place to escape, a place where I was not simply accepted but adored. Even though her hands prepared it, her food was imbued somehow with my feelings toward her and my sweet grandfather: uncomplicated love and devotion, bites of gratitude and contentment that warmed me from a hollow place in my belly like a hot potato wrapped in foil. It’s no surprise that I have her photo up on my kitchen wall, along with her grater, rolling pin with the chipping red handles and ceramic set of containers. I’m not much of a collector of mementos, but one room in my house is different. Food is full of memories and emotions at times: my kitchen reflects that.

Not unexpectedly, when I became a vegetarian and later a vegan, I felt that schism from my past pretty profoundly. It was one thing to distance myself from unhappy times associated with food – I am glad to never eat a lamb chop again for many noble reasons, but self-centeredly, I’m glad because they remind me of Sundays, which remind me of when my father was home from work, which reminds me of tension, fights and tires peeling out of our driveway - but going vegetarian meant separating from comforting, warm memories as well. It meant saying goodbye to my grandmother’s Jell-O, always reliably ready for my brother and me. It was just Jell-O, a powder bought in a box, totally artificial but it was perfect because it was from my grandmother. The first thing we would do when we went to her condo was open her fridge and grab our cups of Jell-O: consistency, care and blessed predictability could be found in that wobbly gelatin. Giving up meat meant no more corned beef and meltingly tender potatoes that only my grandmother could make. Chicken noodle soup, kishke, raspberry jam dot cookies: gone, gone, gone.

I recognize missing my grandmother and the emotional connection with her is more significant than missing the specific foods she made us, though I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss that for a time, too. What she cooked for us felt sublime because it seemed to be infused with her spirit and the awareness that when I was eating it, I was happy: I was safe, away from my worries and I was with her.

I think we do a disservice to people struggling in their transition to veganism when we downplay or overlook how emotional food memories imprint themselves upon us and our psyches. I consider becoming a vegetarian at fifteen the best decision I ever made because it paved the way for so many other blessings in my life, but I have to acknowledge that there was a loss there, too. Just as giving birth to my son, the light of my life, was an incredible gift that I cannot overstate, there was a loss with it, too, of independence, of the freedoms I enjoyed before he come into my life. This is not to say that I ever for a moment regret having him but that things are not always so relentlessly upbeat.

Someone’s memory of fried chicken might be deeply intertwined with childhood and carefree summers at her grandparent’s farm. Another person might associate hamburgers and milkshakes with a particular restaurant, just him and his dad once a week, or, to someone else, chicken noodle soup with Ginger Ale was something her mother always gave her when she was home from school with a fever. Chicken salad sandwiches aren’t just chicken salad sandwiches: they are picnics with your cousins, a chance to see your parents smiling and turn your world upside-down by rolling down the hill. Corned beef sandwiches with mustard on rye are you and your papa sitting side by side at the lunch counter, him taking your cole slaw and giving you his potato chips, the way his breath always sounded, steady like an engine. Little Debbie snack cakes were you and your best friend, hiding out in your tree house every day that July: not as decadent as Hostess, but perfect for what they were because they were the food that transformed you into superheroes. When we eat these foods, we not only revisit familiar tastes that comfort us because we recognize them, we revisit familiar feelings that comfort us because of our memories.

A way out of the mental trap that our past is our destiny is to recreate the tastes and flavors you grew up loving. We are so fortunate to be living at a time that this is possible. There is a cookbook for every taste, from raw salads to comfort foods, as well as all manner of ethnic cookbooks within the vegan sphere. A trip to a well-stocked library is a great starting point. Asking an herbivore if he has any particular recipes will probably result in you getting a dozen variations – we vegans love to be helpful! – and I think that with an open mind, patience and a willingness to experiment, you could find a good staple of recipes that fulfill what you’ve been missing. Plus, there’s everything from egg-free mayonnaise to dairy-free melty cheese now to help you on your way, products not necessarily created for the vegan market but for people who have to cut down on animal products for health reasons. These are designed to taste as close as possible to what you grew up eating.

The first time I had matzo ball soup again after a twenty-year embargo, it was a revelation, like all those years melted away and I was with my grandmother again, sitting in her little yellow kitchen. The broth didn’t come from chickens and the matzo balls didn’t have eggs but that didn’t create any barrier to my grandmother. That place in my belly, no longer hollow but missing her sweet spirit, filled again, not with food so much as with her particular smile, voice, vibrant energy. I feel the same way when I use her rolling pin, creating things that nurture and nourish my family, make them smile. I hope that my son will grow up to continue the tradition, also feeding the people he loves delicious, nourishing, peaceful food.

Perhaps what is most important is that if we are craving the feeling of nurturance of long ago foods, we look inside and ask how we can create that sense in a more lasting, rooted way in ourselves beyond food. Veganism shouldn't be a barrier. When we think that we’re hungry for a specific thing – an omelet, a French dip sandwich, whatever - often we’re hungry for feelings and a time in our past. Can we cultivate an inner-source of nurturance, love and joyfulness that meets our deeper needs? If we can’t access that, nothing will fill ever us up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tough Love in the Confessional Booth

(I understand that nuns do not run confessional booths but I'm a feminist so I'm going to run with it, okay?)

Let's be honest here. I know what's expected of me, I am just not going to cooperate.

I know that I'm supposed to pat your hand, sigh deeply and nod.  The unspoken covenant between us is that in a sincere, supportive tone, I am supposed to tell you that I understand, it is far too difficult for you to do what I do. I am infused with something elusive to others, I have a preternatural self-discipline, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am monk-like, apparently, birds fearlessly alight on my robes as I gather roots and nuts in the garden for my Spartan meals. As a real-live vegan, I am often perceived as an eco-priest of some sort and since I'm friendly enough, I am supposed to relieve others of the burden of their guilt.

Let's get on with it, then, shall we?

You grew up in a meat-eating home.
Interesting. So did I. So did pretty much everyone I know.

You ate meat every day growing up.
Yes, that sounds familiar. Go on.

No, really, you ate lots of meat. Like, if you had the eight arms of Vishnu or the four-to-ten arms of Kali, each hand would be holding a plate piled high with meat. Your meat came stuffed with meat, with a side of meat and served on a bed of meat.
Whoa, that's a lot of meat but I get what you're saying.

And you really like the taste of meat.
You may find this hard to believe but I completely understand. For the first fifteen years of my life, my Grandmother's brisket was pretty much my favorite thing in the world to eat. I would race to her kitchen and grab a piece before dinner officially started, that's how much I loved my Grandmother's brisket.

But you don't like vegetables.
I grew up on the same sad iceberg lettuce salads as most people did in my generation with very little else but button mushrooms, Idaho potatoes and the occasional carrot thrown into the mix. I did not experience kale, parsnips, winter squashes, Japanese eggplant, and so on until I got The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook at a New Age bookstore - it still smells like incense all these years later - and the uncharted territory of the produce aisle suddenly appeared in front of me like the magical kingdom of Oz. I learned to like most vegetables by working with them and experimenting, not through osmosis.

Your blood sugar plummets if you don't eat protein! You feel weak. You become a raving lunatic.
I would too, I'm pretty sure. That's why I eat protein.

You don't like to cook.
I will admit that I do like to cook. I had to learn how to cook like anyone else, though, this knowledge wasn't bestowed upon me by my personal vegan faerie who appeared to me in the steam over my stove-top the first time I attempted to boil pasta. I do not and have never had access to any supernatural abilities to the best of my knowledge, though I'm pretty good at finding a parking spot and a seat next to the craziest person on the train. That's about it, though. Pretty much everything else comes from effort and learning.

The culinary traditions of your heritage and family make it very hard to imagine a life without animal products.
No kidding! The culinary traditions of my heritage include the aforementioned brisket, chicken noodle soup, kreplach, chicken Kiev, corned beef sandwiches and of course there was all the regular stuff of my generation: Oscar Mayer hot dogs and bologna sandwiches, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, cans of Chef Boyardee with mushy meatballs and so on. I was not raised on a back-to-the-land kimchi production commune in the mountains of Santa Cruz. I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago.

It’s too hard to find vegan food.
Okay. Back in the olden days when screeching Jurassic-era winged reptiles terrorized the land-dwellers and you could buy a comic book for a quarter, we herbivores used to eat soy protein weenies in a can. Jarringly beige, roughly approximating a cylindrical shape and perhaps constructed of pulverized flip-flops, we didn’t complain about them, either, because we were altogether too sincere and just too grateful to have an opportunity to eat yellow mustard again. I know that all circumstances vary and some are much more advantageous than others, but nothing can compare today, because, seriously, those hideous weenies were revolutionary to us then. This is why I occasionally glaze over when people tell me that it’s too hard to be a vegan. I'm just flashing back to those canned weenies and remembering how happy I felt just to be able to eat something similar to a hot dog again at a Fourth of July barbecue even if my stomach hurt for the rest of the night. Unless you live in Antarctica or a Biosphere-like setting, you should have decent access to some lovely and natural options as a vegan.

Your family does not support you.
I do understand that this is not easy. When I became a vegetarian at fifteen, I was told that I was on my own in the kitchen: I could be a vegetarian but I'd have to cook for myself. Not exactly an enthusiastic show of support but it was what it was. For years after making the decision to be a vegetarian, I was treated as though my diet were indisputable proof of an eating disorder, my predisposition toward naivety, or blatantly mutinous behavior. I did not meet one other "out" vegetarian until I was a junior in college other than the Hari Krishna devotee with the shaved head who used to hand out copies of "A Higher Taste" while twirling around Grant Park. He seriously had little whirligigs spinning around in his pupils. Yep, that guy in the saffron robe WAS my community. This was before the Internet and meet-ups and message boards and a million other fantastic resources at most fingertips today. 

See? I would be a failure as a priest in a confessional booth. Failure! It's a good thing I'm a non-religious female of Semitic descent or that might really disappoint me.

I do understand obstacles, though. We all face them and it is part of life. What is a worthwhile, passionate life without the occasional challenge? If everything were laid out in front of us in an effortless, predictable, pre-masticated sort of way, wouldn’t that get boring after a while? To be driven by something outside of our customs and comfort zone, we are forced to stretch and grow. This is not to say that being vegan is difficult because I don’t believe that it is, but that swimming against the current requires some determination when the waters become choppier than we'd like. Constructing our lives to minimize harm to other animals - beings humans were almost universally raised to believe exist solely for our purposes - is a dramatically different way to live and perceive our place in the world. It would make sense that living with this perception and commitment would require some adjustments, given how deeply entrenched this attitude of human entitlement is and how our society conforms to it. The obstacles we face and overcome are essential to our continuing evolution, part of the process of honing in on and articulating what is valuable to us.

Given what so-called food animals endure and succumb to, given their horror-filled, unfathomably sad existences just to become a quickly forgotten turkey sandwich in a plastic bag or part of a gallon of ice cream, is what we go through on our path to compassionate, integrated living really all that big of a hardship? Is it really too big of a sacrifice that we occasionally miss out on a croissant at a café when most others don't think twice? It is a privilege. Even considering occasional challenges, living as a vegan is not a cloistered, monastic existence or a sacrifice: it is a joyful, engaging, passionate and deeply delicious life if we decide that is how we want to live. We are so profoundly fortunate to be able to live in a way that is consistent with our values. I am often blown away by what a privilege this is.

There are a lot of things one faces in life that are incredibly grueling. Having the opportunity to live our lives as best we can is just not one of them. So, no, I won’t absolve anyone of any guilt because I believe that being vegan is easy. I am understanding of individual differences in circumstances and I sincerely want to help but I will hold people to the level of honesty I’d want to be held to as well. I will not be complicit in propagating the idea that it's just too hard.

Playing games and lying to ourselves is difficult. Being vegan? Easy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Zombievore's Dilemma

Zombievore: An omnivore as the walking dead; an automaton. 

From the outset, let me just say that I don’t think that all omnivores are pernicious zombies without measurable brain waves. Clearly, that would be unfair, the sort of absurd overstatement people love to point to as further evidence of mean-spirited, wrong-headed vegan, feminist sedition. Of course I am not claiming that all omnivores are zombies, just a sizable percentage that has not been calculated yet. By Zombievores, I am referring to individuals who are not using the complex reasoning skills they were presumably born with and are instead idling, aided by their built-in societal privileges and tendency to allow others to do their thinking for them. An omnivore who has abandoned his or her critical thinking faculties in favor of meaningless word repetition and habituated practices, who lurches through life without regard for those who do not share the same privileges, is maintaining a Zombievorous lifestyle. If this description doesn’t fit you, then please, no need to be offended.

There are various categories of Zombievores. There are the Fast Food Zombievores, of course. There are the Custom-Fixated Zombievores, too. These first two types are easy to identify and avoid, unless one should happen to live within your own home. There is a classification of Zombievore that is usually more subtle and cunning than the others, though. They are best known for their ability to penetrate and assimilate into otherwise progressive spheres of society with a message that captivates and seems to be imbued with the spirit of positive change but, upon closer inspection, simply reinforces the established order. These Zombievores are generally affluent, urban, well educated and Caucasian though there are certainly exceptions, and their undisputed leader is Michael Pollan. To understand him and the particular sway he has over his order of Zombievores, one must first get a recap of his recent visit to one of Oprah Winfrey’s famous chairs.

Have you ever gone to a party that you're a little apprehensive about but your friends have been building it up in your head all week so you think that you should stop being such a sour crab apple all the time and just go with the flow? It might be decent, it might even be worthwhile, you think to yourself, psyching yourself up like the pompom girl you never were. You arrive at the party, though, and you can see from the start that it's pretty much what you already expected and feared: vacuous chitchat that you fail at both initiating and maintaining. Joyless tittering back and forth.

"It will be okay," you tell yourself. You remind yourself to smile, to unclench your shoulders, to get a drink. It's still early. The party hasn't hit its stride yet. Then you notice an energy shift in the room and you see him.

He's surrounded by disciples who chuckle as if on cue at his bon mots. When he is speaking of something poignant, the devotees mirror his sincerity, leaning in, nodding, creasing their foreheads with concern. When he is articulating his opinion, it is with the mien of an authority, and if the others surrounding him could, they would start taking notes. Despite the adoration, he considers himself to be humble, earthy even, and despite the salary he draws and his impressive résumé, he is one of the little people, at least in his own mind.

At this point, any shadow of the doubt is instantly erased. You're almost relieved because you now have proof positive that, indeed, nothing good can come of this assembly. This is because Michael Pollan is in the room and he is a Very Special Guest. This was the experience of watching Oprah’s “Let’s try on a new lifestyle this week like a new pair of awesome, pretty shoes!” – I mean - her thoughtful exploration of the vegan lifestyle with that avowed consumer of serenely, lovingly butchered animals, Michael Pollan, curiously stuck to her side for the entire hour like a human barnacle in an expensive suit. 

He is the Golden Prince of his particular classification of Zombievores, giving them sustenance and the drive to continue with his patently void nuggets of personal validation. Somehow his followers are able to extract enough from these little nuggets to sustain themselves but it is clear that they are not running on quality fuel. Too smart and ambitious to be a zombie himself, Michael Pollan has become wealthy writing books and telling affluent, greenish omnivores to keep doing what they're doing and telling aspiring affluent, greenish omnivores to do a better job (in other words, spend more money for ever-more exclusive animal products) at what they are doing. The stricken become Pollanated Zombievores. They repeat the catchphrases of their guru, dull-eyed and flat in tone, not an original thought firing their synapses: freeeee-raaaaaange, they lurch. Sus-taaaaaain-able, they growl. Graaaaaass-fed, they drone. Hu-maaaaaane, they bellow as they corner you in the room, humid, meaty breath in your face.

The Golden Prince of the Zombievores was planted by Oprah’s side the entire episode, her wingman, a designer security blanket, the yuppie habit apologist anointed to sanction meat-eating by waving his glittery green magic wand and making everyone feel better, even righteous, with his platitudes that do not stand up to reason.

Zombievores have been rendered insensible by the willful suspension of disbelief that the Pollanization process requires. The Pollanated have decided to stop thinking because it protects their privileges and they have elected to spout empty banalities instead that defy common sense.

“I want to help the small farmers,” they will assert. As though one can’t help small farmers who don’t kill or exploit animals.

“It’s my personal choice,” the Zombievores will rail. Their supposed right to take another’s life simply because they have the means and the privileges is the antithesis of a sound ethical argument. Next.

“It’s sustainable,” they will allege. For real? Given the amount of space these animals would naturally, normally claim in nature, it is a mathematical impossibility to provide the landmass these billions of beings would need thus we have concentrated feeding operations. Given human consumption habits and the lack of adequate landmass to support that, any allegedly sustainable animal product is a luxury item produced for a relatively elite, affluent few. The Pollanated plan is clearly an untenable model for meeting demand, thus it is willful ignorance. Given the sheer amount of animal products people consume, the only model for meeting demand is an industrial one, and that doesn’t sit right with Mr. Pollan and his adherents who vastly prefer an aesthetic of exclusivity. It doesn’t matter if his model is steeped in an illogical, idealized reality: the fairy tale is all that matters here. A drastic reduction in consumption is the only way that this model could realistically function.

“The animals do not suffer,” they will claim. Because getting a bolt in the skull, a knife slashed across the throat or a bullet in the brain always feels fabulous, especially when it is unnecessary. Being forcibly impregnated, getting their milk stolen from them, their babies taken from them and often killed, having their ears notched for identification purposes because we enjoy exercising our personal choice to enjoy their “product” is unkind. Pollanated Zombievores are loath to admit this and even more loath to admit that these are standard practices on many of the beloved, pastoral small farms they believe in with the blind trust of a child putting a tooth under her pillow in anticipation of a winged Tooth Fairy.

So Zombievores. They walk among us. You will find them at the farmers market, at the bookstore, at fundraisers and at the beach. They are everywhere.

To put it plainly, if you value your time, your best defense is to simply walk away. Engaging the afflicted tends to yield scant rewards though even the most seasoned of us occasionally will forget this cardinal rule and attempt to break through. Pollanated Zombievores have everything to lose with honestly evaluating their deliberately cultivated naïveté – their ethics, their creature comforts, their privileges, their integrity and character – and so they must maintain their position at all costs, even if it makes no sense.

If you feel that you have the time to spare, by all means, it is your prerogative to engage such a Zombievore. Remember that they are thwarted by logic and reason. Don’t be scared. The thing about the Pollanated variety of zombie is that they don’t want to eat your brains: they only want to eat heirloom quality, rare, specialty, sloooooow-fooooood-approved brains. You should be fine.

Concerned that you might actually be among the stricken? Ask yourself some questions: Have you referenced the “snout-to-tail” movement without irony or wanting to vomit? Do you fetishize the ovum of your backyard hens? Is your quest for obscure, artisan quality paté leaving you exhausted, stressed out and broke? Do you become anxious when you are fresh out of bone marrow for spreading on your morning baguette? Do you feel an ever-escalating pressure within the ranks of your friends to consume possibly life-threatening viscera in order to fit in?  If so, you may very well be a Pollanated Zombievore.

I don't claim to be an expert in the field of Pollanated Zombievore recovery, but my recommendation is to stop immediately because, seriously, you are tedious. You must simply put yourself on a strict diet of avoiding the works and wisdom of Michael Pollan. Those first few weeks are the most critical and they will undoubtedly be the most rough. The old friends will try to lure you back with promises of nouveau butcher shops, charcuterie and out of the way barbecue joints. If you feel the old bloodlust rise up inside you again, grab a beet, drink some cranberry juice. Fill your home and body with fresh produce. Spend some time outdoors, breathe in the fresh air. Take notice of the birds, the dogs, the squirrels, how they live simply for their own reasons, not for our purposes. Think of how much free time you have to actually bring good into the world now that your brain waves have started to fire up again and original thoughts have begun trickling in. Imagine how liberated you will feel when you're no longer lurching from meat counter to meat counter, shoveling internal organs into your mouth.

You know that you are free when believing self-serving fairy tales has lost its appeal, when empty platitudes ring hollow and critical thinking has been restored. You are free when you recognize that your fleeting desires and tastes do not have primacy over another being's right to live. At this time, the process of Pollanization will have been reversed.

You're welcome.