Friday, March 30, 2018

Do You Really Want to Go Back to 1995?

An Open Letter to a Vegan Who Dislikes “Processed” Vegan Food,

Hi! How are you?

So…now that the pleasantries are behind us, can we talk about something?

I know you will only eat the most noble and wholesome of healthful foods and that nary a speck of “unnatural” food shall ever pass your pristine lips, but I want you think of something. I want you to think of the numbers 1-9-9-5.

I picked those exact numbers because that was the year I went vegan. Nineteen ninety-five. It even sounds old-timey. It was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the year that Alanis Morrisette drove me to distraction with her kitchen sink approach to the meaning of irony. It was also the summer after I went vegan. The years have passed by quickly but I can clearly remember a time that there was very little by way of vegan convenience foods in 1995. It was a totally different, and much more barren, landscape. Before then, things were way worse in terms of accessibility. So when you disparage vegan convenience foods as “junk,” “processed” or “gross,” all I can think of is 1995.

Things are still not much better in many small or even medium-sized towns but depending on where one lives, today is a whole different ballpark for living as a vegan and it is so much better. I think I need to emphasize this with the magic of italicization: so much better. When you disparage vegan products, are you aware that in 1995, there would be no such variety to complain about? Are you really thinking you want to return to an age when vegan convenience foods were not available for the most part and if they were, they were awful? And because vegan convenience foods were so scarce and so bad, our numbers didn’t budge at all, which meant that we were in a holding pattern for years in terms of progress. I have to ask, how can we change the world if there are few food options anyone but the most diehard animal advocate is willing to try?

So the next time you want to say something negative about a vegan food product that isn’t up to your dietary standards, I want you to think of these numbers: 1-9-9-5.

Because here is what it looked like in 1995

You had to do much of your shopping at specialty health food stores, which were generally dusty hippie shops with limited options or faith-affiliated shops with limited options and it was much more expensive than today. Soymilk, tofu, you name it: you couldn’t get that at a regular grocery store for the most part and all the tofu was either shelf-stable or in one variety: mushy. Prior to my era, though, people would have to scoop their tofu out of open barrels where soy blocks were floating around in germs and who knows what else and I don’t even think about it now without wanting to puke so I will just leave it at that. Be grateful. That is all.

Speaking of vegan milks, it was basically singular because we had one kind and it was an aseptic soymilk carton that, I swear, came in a flavor that can only be described as Extra Beany. Maybe that was even a selling point. It was what beige would taste like if it had a flavor. I was part of a lucky time, though, because before that, dairy abstainers had powdered soymilk. Is this really a bygone era you want to return to, dear vegan?

There was vegan processed food you could buy at an aforementioned hippie or religious health food store, things like wienies in a can and boxed, dry burger mix, in other words, items that were frightening close to what you might find as the last remaining options in a survivalist’s bunker and they would make you the loneliest person at the family grill. No one wanted that shit! And now you’re complaining that we actually have items that could be tempting and appetizing to a meat-eater???

In 1995, if you happened to live in a city where there was a vegetarian restaurant, they generally only knew how to make brown rice and bathed everything in Bragg Liquid Aminos. None of your non-veg friends would eat there with you. Hell, you couldn’t blame them. But, oh no! Now we actually vegan restaurants that can create amazing food and desserts that look great and taste better. How horrible it is to be us!

Speaking of, if you weren’t at a vegetarian restaurant, you would be very lucky to find menus that could serve vegans at all, let alone options beyond hummus and portobello mushrooms awash in the dreaded Bragg Liquid Aminos. You would have to decipher a menu with surgical precision to engineer a dish without animal products and sometimes you’d be lucky to get plain white rice. Lucky! Get off my lawn!

Speaking of hummus, it was our mayo. It was also our butter. Hummus was a condiment. WE HAVE MAYO(S) AND BUTTER(S) TODAY, as in a plurality of them. Don’t like this fact? I have a really novel idea that just occurred to me: Don’t eat them. I am an expert problem solver.

It has been well-reported that the only vegan cheese available in 1995 was basically food-grade (???) plastic but it’s also worth remembering that the only ice cream was frozen sugar + milky water and it always tasted like it had freezer burn even though it rarely would freeze but we happily ate it up because that was what we had. Do you love your raw frozen banana “nice cream” and want to point that out every time someone posts a picture of vegan ice cream? Here’s the thing: I have no hate for frozen banana confections. In fact, I have more than a couple of recipes for it myself. But I also love that non-dairy ice creams are slowly nudging dairy-based ones out of available shelf space at the grocery store and that I could give my non-vegan friends a scoop of Chocolate Cherry Chip from Trader Joe’s and know that they will love it. Guess what? Dairy cows would probably appreciate this and not tsk-tsk us about the sugar.

I must take a quick moment now to let you know that in 1995, lard was still very much a thing you might come across on a label or in a restaurant.

Don’t like processed foods? Good, because if it’s 1995, if you go out with non-vegan colleagues, family and friends, you will be eating a lot of plain salad. You might even have to ask for no cheese and/or eggs on it. In 1995, you will hit the jackpot if a restaurant has plain baked potatoes because even though it’s boring as hell and your server has to ask you 27 times if you really want just a baked potato with nothing on it, it’s at least filling. Sometimes you might even find salsa on the menu to dress it up and, hey, salt and pepper are vegan. Woot woot! (Damn these forsaken companies that make it possible for a vegan to eat a regular meal at a restaurant that doesn’t generate furtive looks of second-hand embarrassment and pity from our dining companions. Damn them all!)

In 1995, nobody knew how to pronounce the word vegan, partially because it was before the Internet but also partially because it was so fringe and rare, not many people had heard it spoken, including vegans. Do you really think it’s helping the animals if veganism is so uncommon you don’t even know how to say the word?

Speaking of, because vegans were as rare as unicorns, unless you lived in a city, you were often on your own. If you did live in a city, vegans were still so few and far between that you still had to hang out with people you otherwise had nothing in common with just because they were vegan, which for me included this one guy with spiders tattooed on his face who always went to the circus protests and ran after cars and this other guy who I was half convinced might have been the actual Unabomber for a while.

Still want to go back to 1995? You’ll have to wear Keds or Converse shoes all the time and order “dressy” shoes from a catalogue. Most shoes were a very hard plastic, uncomfortable and very unstylish, kind of like polio shoes. If you wanted to wear anything but sneakers to the office or a wedding, these were your option. Speaking of dressing up, if you were looking for cosmetics, you’d find better quality make-up in a picked over Spirit Halloween store discount bin on November 1.

Traveling as a vegan meant you had your VRG restaurant directory or Tofu Tollbooth directory and a prayer that when you drove 300 miles to the closest option listed in Oklahoma, it was still open for business. Or else, yeah, it was nothing but miles and miles ahead of you. Gas station potato chips were your main source of sustenance.

So, dear vegan, does all this mean that I’m saying you shouldn’t eat fruits and veggies? Of course not. Eat what makes you feel your best! But don’t disparage these options because they are a sign of how far we have come with building a vegan movement that is accessible for everyone. Don’t like those things? Easy. Don’t eat ‘em!



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie with Matthew Prescott

t-based cookbooks keep getting more and more impressive and one that recently arrived on our doorstep is no exception. Food is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World by Matthew Prescott is an ambitious undertaking, Full of informative chapters on how animal agribusiness harms animals, people and our planet – and plant-based diets help all of the above – Food is the Solution concentrates on persuasive arguments in the first half and great recipes in the second half. All is lushly photographed, well-organized and written for people to absorb in bursts, though it’s hard to resist the temptation to thumb through from start to finish. With accessible recipes for beginners to slightly more experienced home cooks, the dishes span the globe from Sourdough Panzanella (Italy) to Coconut-Lemongrass Curry with Rice Noodles (Thailand), Pistachio and Sunflower Seed Dukkah (Egypt) to Spicy Chocolate Milk Shake with Whipped Coconut Cream (Mexico), relying on flavorful, fresh ingredients but occasionally assisted with some convenience foods like packaged vegan cheese shreds and proteins. In all, it’s a cookbook with a mission: wake people up to the reality of what is happening to our planet and her inhabitants but it’s a lot less doom-and-gloom than that. Mainly, Food is the Solution reminds us that the keys to our future are solidly in our possession and it will not take sacrifice and scarcity to make things right. With the abundance of rich and flavorful plant foods, there has never been an easier time for conscientious people to transition away from supporting animal agribusiness and with Matthew Prescott’s Food is the Solution, it is just that much more within reach. I am honored to feature Matthew as this week’s Vegan Foodie. 

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

When I was about 10, my father and I built a small garden in our backyard, planting peas and carrots and peppers and squash. That was my first introduction to real food, and I fell in love. From there, I started preparing my own dishes—simple kid foods like microwaved pancakes made in a mug. I took great joy and pride in organizing our spice cabinet. I even once took my mother’s favorite recipe clippings and pasted them into a homemade book made from construction paper and illustrated with crayons—my first cookbook, if you will. On top of that, my family always ate meals together around the table, which really fostered for me a love and appreciation for eating and mealtime.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

I ate what I think was a fairly typical diet as a child. We’d host BBQs and order pizza and have taco night—the usual. We did always have a lot of fresh produce—and barely any junk food—in the house, which in hindsight was pretty atypical for the 1980s, when everyone else seemed obsessed with convenience foods and sugary cereals and such. We’d also have a big salad most nights with whatever else we ate—something I still enjoy today. Growing up in coastal New England, we also ate a lot of seafood, which admittedly hasn’t been easy as a vegan. But that’s changing, with companies like Good Catch Foods and Gardein making met-free fish, and with so many delicious recipes for vegan chowders and other dishes that might normally contain seafood. I like those products quite a bit, and I still really enjoy preparing vegan versions of the things I ate as a kid: grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers and tacos and all the rest. I think the way we eat when we’re young really influences how we eat as adults, even subconsciously, and I was fortunate to have a mostly-healthy (though far-from-vegan) and quite varied eating experience as a kid.

3. It’s late at night and you just got home: What is your favorite quick and simple vegan meal?

Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers. Whatever that may be. If I’m getting home late, it probably means I have a drink (or three) in me, and I go straight to the fridge for leftovers.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

I’d love to make a vegan Reuben sandwich for my (Jewish) grandfather, Ben – my mother’s father. He died when I was very young so I never got a chance to know him. I’d love to sit down and chat over a nice, sloppy Reuben. 

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

I think the mistakes in vegan cooking tend to be the same types of mistakes made in other forms of cooking – using too many ingredients, going too heavy on the spices, making things more complicated than they need to be. I prefer simple, fresh meals that focus on a few choice ingredients to really make the flavors pop.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment? Also, what ingredients do you always like to have on hand?

As someone who became vegan in the 90s, I’m especially psyched about all the dairy-free milks and cheeses and ice creams out there – made from a variety of ingredients like nuts and oats and so much more. Twenty years ago, we had one brand of ice cream and nearly every milk and cheese was made from soy or rice. Today we can cook with almond milk ricotta and make milkshakes with cashew-based ice creams. We can make heavy cream from nuts and even Parmesan cheese from sunflower seeds. I tend to keep on hand a range of nuts and seeds to turn into these types of ingredients.

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?

If I’m traveling, Thai – because most cities have Thai restaurants and they all carry tofu, which I love. I could eat Thai food every day for the rest of my life and be happy. I also really love Ethiopian food a lot, and am fortunate enough to live close to two Ethiopian restaurants. (If you’re ever in Austin, go to Habesha and order the “Veggie Dulet” – a vegan version of a classic Ethiopian dish that’s essentially a pile of spiced ground beef and jalapeno peppers.) And if I’m going for comfort, there’s nothing quite like Italian food.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

From a culinary perspective, I was turned onto meat-free eating by my sister, who came home from middle school one day and proclaimed herself a vegetarian (after learning something about meat production in science class that apparently didn’t sit well). That had a lot of influence on me, because I was then opened-up to many different types of foods I’d have otherwise probably not even thought to try. So I was able to see from an early age that there’s a whole wide world of ingredients and produce and proteins out there, and that by sticking with a meat-and-potatoes diet, I was really limiting myself. From an ethical perspective, probably the first vegan-centric film I saw was the 1977 British documentary, “The Animals’ Film.” I watched that when I was about 16, and it made a huge difference in my evolution as an activist.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Food, of course! Food itself is a major social issue, since how we eat impacts so much of the world around us, and ourselves. Food is an extension of what it is to be human, so when we change our diets to better reflect our morals—whether we care about the planet or animals or health or basic principles of kindness—we can really begin to transform the world around us.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, vegan food is…"

…delicious and everywhere! J

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Vegan Fat-Shaming: Not Kind. Not Helpful. Not Okay.

Is fatphobia one of the final frontiers where people feel comfortable publicly voicing and exercising their prejudices? Depending on the company one keeps, I wouldn’t go that far. We are a pretty bigoted species. The justifications used for upholding discriminatory attitudes toward people in larger bodies are unique and noteworthy, though. Not many people boast about their racist views, but I have observed many proudly describe the hate and discrimination they direct towards people in larger bodies as nothing less than a public health service. Could veganism actually offer the perfect cover for such bigoted individuals to hide in plain sight? I believe so. First, though, I want to address a word and suggest an imperfect replacement for it.

The word is one I’ve already used. It is fatphobia.

I started out using the word fatphobia because, while it isn’t as common a term as homophobia, it is an established word and it is intuitive: you hear it and are more-or-less able to discern its meaning with its tidy marriage of prefix and suffix. That said, I think it is a sloppy word in the same way that “homophobia” is: excep
t for rare cases, it is not a true phobia but a form of oppression and discrimination. A phobia is an extreme, irrational fear that is outside of one’s control and phobias can be very personally challenging to those who have them, often resulting in severe anxiety and avoidant behaviors that can impede a person’s ability to move about in the world. Discrimination and hate directed at those who are in larger-sized bodies, however, is not really a phobia any more than discrimination and hate towards homosexuals is evidence of an actual phobia: it is a form of bigotry. (There are no doubt real cases of phobia here but they are the exception rather than the norm.) Thus from this point on, I am going to use the word “size-bigot” and its various forms as well as some other terms because to me, they are more accurate and we need to stop making excuses for what is in fact discriminatory behavior, not phobic behavior. Language is powerful.

Size-bigotry is a natural byproduct of diet culture, something we are so steeped in, we usually don’t even notice it. It is the air we breathe and the water we swim in; steeping in it like tea bags, diet culture is what we absorb. Press us and diet culture is what we will express. It is so pervasive, though, we can scarcely see it.

Diet culture is a complicated shape-shifter of a concept and it is aided and abetted by our collective denial about it, but I will try to describe it with the help of the work of Registered Dietitian and intuitive eating counselor
Christy Harrison, whose incredible Food Psych podcast has been an invaluable resource for so many people, myself included. Diet culture is a system of beliefs that aligns slimness with health, value and moral virtue, as well as connects larger bodies with poor health, diminished personal value and moral virtue; diet culture also promotes weight loss and slimness as a necessary means for social elevation and increasing one’s moral status.

Diet culture tells people that we have less value and that we’re lazy, indulgent and gluttonous unless we hew to a certain narrow size range and then - if we are even able to attain it - our worth hinges on this very shallow and fickle factor, often requiring vigilance to maintain, if it is even possible. Diet culture makes us hate and judge ourselves and others; it both magnifies and invisiblizes people in larger bodies. It harshly judges and it swiftly convicts. Diet culture makes us obsessive. It diminishes us. It limits us and distorts our worldview. As Christy Harrison has aptly characterized it, diet culture is a life thief, robbing us of our time, our money, our resources, our relationships, our peace and our happiness.

According to the
National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will have an eating disorder - from anorexia to binge-eating, bulimia to compulsive exercise - in their lifetimes, and the best-known environmental contributor to the development of an eating disorder is the sociocultural pressure toward thinness.

Why then would vegans, who seemingly believe in compassionate living, reinforce attitudes and biases that contribute to real-life harm? If they believe that shaming will result in the greater good by creating slimmer, seemingly healthier, bodies, perhaps
research proving that weight-stigma actually results in more eating and less physical activity, presumably the opposite of what size-bigots profess to encourage, should matter but it usually does not. It is proven, though, that weight stigma has negative physiological and psychological health outcomes for people in larger bodies, generates health disparities and, in fact, these attitudes of bias and discrimination encourage detrimental outcomes. The negative health consequences of the stress of living as a part of a stigmatized population is noteworthy in and of itself, but chronic stress and anxiety are actually linked to abdominal weight gain, driven by physiological mechanisms that increase appetite and diminish satiety so, in fact, weight-based discrimination can actually exacerbate the factors that lead to stigma. In other words, you cannot shame someone into weight loss because it simply doesn’t work and, there is a lot of research proving, in fact, that this kind of prejudice actually encourages the opposite to happen.

What I am interested in understanding is why ethical vegans would compound the stress and suffering of another. Why compassionate people would marginalize and discriminate. Why those who reject the status quo in so many ways would be content to reinforce it here. Why people driven to take action against injustice would knowingly behave in ways that contribute to it.

Well, I’ve been paying attention long enough to know the rationales. Here are some…

I care about kindness to animals and if you are fat, you are doing harm to yourself. After all, you are an animal, too. This is why I speak up.

This one. Oh, this one.

How about this? How about not being so condescending, ignorant and presumptuous about the “right” size for someone else, the factors that contribute to that person’s weight and the notion that you have any right to assume one’s health (and presumed worth) by your visual scan or that your judgements are welcomed. You are not a compassionate person. You are a condescending, intrusive bigot. Go away.

But it’s because I care and I want to help!

If you knew that reinforcing stigma actually resulted in worse health outcomes, would that change your behavior? Because it does, in more than one way. Take the fear of seeing a weight-stigmatizing physician alone as just one example. It’s not an unjustified paranoia that causes people with larger bodies to feel mistreated by their physicians: Research has shown that doctors
reported that seeing patients was “a greater waste of their time the heavier that they were, that physicians would like their jobs less as their patients increased in size, that heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying, and that physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was.” Many people in larger bodies avoid seeing their doctors as a result of the stress of this stigma being directed at them; can you imagine the consequences of not getting adequate checkups and office visits? Do you see how fear of weight-stigma could actually lead to someone’s avoidable death in a way that has everything to do with the bigotry that diet culture promotes? (If you are looking for a healthcare provider who is committed to not discriminating, please check out this resource.)

There are starving people in the world! Fat people eat more than their share.

Okay. This is wholly irrational.

Food insecurity is caused by a complex, interconnected web of factors but the underlying issues are usually poverty and political inequality as well as other factors, like climate change and poor food distribution. This is not to minimize the role that consuming flesh and animal products has on world hunger - as noted, climate change and poor distribution, like redirecting grains to feed the animals people in turn eat rather than grains themselves, resulting in a great inefficiency, are drivers of food insecurity - but it’s not because “fat” people are being so damn greedy and gluttonous. It’s not as if all the food in the world is represented by a large pizza and the fat people eat six of the eight slices, leaving the poor just two pieces. That is not how how food disparity and hunger works, at all. Do not use the hungry of the world as a justification for your meanness. Educate yourself and develop some compassion.

I lost 100 pounds. Weight loss is a matter of discipline and not sitting on your ass, stuffing your face with junk food and being whiner. I can say this with authority because I used to sit on my ass, stuffing my face with junk food and being a whiner.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

I will ignore the growing amount of research now showing that different bodies do indeed respond to calories in different ways. (Well, I will ignore it but for posting a
link you can follow on to do some more research on your own.)

To the person who says this, well, good for you if weight loss was a goal you sought and accomplished.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to
say except to ask what part of “someone else’s body is not your business” do you not understand? It is not your business. Unless you are this person’s physician and you have talked together about weight loss strategies, someone else’s body is SO MUCH not your business it’s not even funny. I know you think people in larger bodies are lying around, withhold the world’s seemingly finite pizza supply from the hungry and then whining about being fat, but that is really not the case. How hard is it to stay in your own lane? Again, shaming and stigma do not help anyone so don’t even try to pull that nonsense.

You are a bad example to the public if you are a vegan in a larger body.

You know who’s a really bad example? Vegans who are self-righteous, self-absorbed, shallow, bigoted, nosy assholes. You are a really bad example to the public. You need to stop. This is your intervention.

We are in the midst of a reckoning that’s exposed the long-accepted culture of sexual harassment and gender bias in the animal advocacy movement, a reckoning that points out not only how pervasive the culture has been but also how many talented women have left organizations due to the injustices they faced as women. I would venture a guess that many more talented, dedicated people have silenced their voices and limited their outreach for the animals fearing that they would be called “fat” or “bad examples” by those who are entrenched in shaming diet culture. It cannot be overstated how profound this loss of talent and dedication is for the animals, who desperately need all hands on deck.

There is so much to say on this topic but this is already so long. You catch my drift. Stop being a size-bigot. It isn’t just. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t intersectional. And it most certainly is not compassionate.