Archive for the ‘vegan’ category

Meatless Monday and vegetarianism in the Guardian

June 21, 2009

When Hadley Freeman wrote last week about how awful it was for her to be a vegetarian, I was puzzled. If it’s so awful for her, then the only thing keeping her from eating meat is that she finds it revolting. OK, I can sympathise with not wanting to be evangelical about it – having once been involved in evangelical religion, evangelical vegetarianism is not what I’d want to stand for either.

Now that I think about it, what puzzled me the most was when she mentioned she had “crap hair” and somehow related that to her vegetarian diet. Crap hair can be the result of many things, but plant eating? Not likely. Nutritional deficiencies can result in poor quality hair – but you can be a meat eater and still have nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, folic acid and beta-carotenes. Drug abuse will eventually give you crap hair. So will unfortunate hair genes. Also: post-pregnancy hair loss; extreme stress; crap shampoo; too many perms and colourings; excessive blowdrying. But not a plant-based diet. Hope I’ve cleared that up. I have a full head of thick, straight hair (thanks dad…) and my vegetarian diet has not made it thin out or go frizzy. Granted, I still eat eggs and cheese, because I think that dairy and egg farming are at least potentially redeemable enterprises in animal husbandry. My hens are very happy to leave eggs for me in return for the shelter and food I provide, and they are especially happy to have the run of the yard. If I could work around the logistics of keeping a cow and milking her twice a day, I’m confident we’d work out a good relationship too.

I was glad to see a response in today’s Guardian, by Seth Freedman, one of those rare vegetarians by upbringing. He wrote a straightforward response, in which he says : “the worst thing about being a vegetarian is that most people aren’t.” I’d say that’s true – there’s nothing like contemplating going out for a meal at a restaurant, and then realising you’ll probably be eating a chef’s salad and a bun, again.

I appreciate the way he points out that some of the animals we see as pets are seen as food by different cultures. He is more direct than I’m able to be when he says:

There is no defence of eating meat or fish that stands up to the cold light of moral scrutiny. If there was, then people wouldn’t keep animals as pets or differentiate between which species are or aren’t fair game for slaughtering and consuming. When the Venn diagrams of friends versus food inevitably overlap (dogs being eaten in Korea, horses in France, and so on), the duplicity of the meat-eating public is plain for all to see. One man’s pot roast is another’s pet, and neither side has a leg to stand on while they refuse to take an objective view of whether there is something ethically wrong with tearing the flesh off a carcass just to sate one’s appetite.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, he has made a very important point about our relationship with animals.

Hadley’s column was in response to Paul McCartney’s promotion of Meatless Monday, an effort to encourage more people to consume less meat. A great initiative.

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Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

March 31, 2009

Every so often at suppertime, my 7-year-old breaks into gales of laughter when he sees me eat a few bites of meat. “Mum, you’re a veterinarian, you can’t eat meat! – I’m going to tell your boss on you!!” His 11-year-old brother rolls his eyes and tries to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between veterinarian and vegetarian. But for Z, it’s a running joke – I’m pretty sure he knows the difference – the words are too similar and the idea that an animal doctor would eat her patients is a crazy kind of funny.

The fact is, I’ve never craved the taste of meat. I prepare it, cook it, serve it, and eat it more out of cultural habit, convenience and concern for getting enough protein, B12 vitamins and iron in the diet, rather than zeal for its taste and texture. Last summer I put a name to my approach to eating meat, with the word flexitarian. Basically, there is no maximum amount of meat allowed for a flexitarian, which is handy. I came across this concept in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Pollan’s writing on food has been influential for me, from The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – not because I felt he exposes information that I know nothing about; quite the contrary. It is wonderful to read someone like Pollan, an American with the travel opportunities, journalistic skills and funds to flesh out exactly what I already know about the trends and changes I’ve observed since my early days in grocery-store foraging in the late 1980s and through my nitty-gritty experience on the working end of North American agriculture. I’m gratified that he’s noticed all the things I’ve seen and thought about over the years.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s finally time for me to ramp up my flexitarianism, and shift into a completely vegetarian diet. For the past nine or so years, I’ve only eaten local meat, provided by a neighbour who took over the small cow-calf operation that I ran with pain and misery for the first few years, or else from the sheep and beef farmer down the road, who also produces chicken, turkey and various flavours of sausage. I haven’t eaten pork in years – I’m angry at the way the pork industry has polluted wide swaths of southern Quebec, and its up-and-down globalized cycles have ruined too many farmers. I came out of my visit to a pork operation in my first year of veterinary medicine thinking that there is nothing ethical or healthy about eating pigs, in any time or place. I’m with Moses on that one.

Right now, my freezer contains a one-pound bag of ground beef, a single turkey thigh, and some fish from last summer’s catch. I didn’t ration the meat at all during the winter, in fact I was relentlessly emptying the freezer and cooking all kinds of stews and meat dishes in anticipation of reaching the End of Meat. For the past few weeks, noting the coming penury, I’ve been buying and preparing cans of different bean varieties, some whole barley, lentils, falafel mix, and a package of tofu, which I breaded and baked (not bad, but could be better).

I have no idea if a steer will be slaughtered in the coming days or weeks; that would surprise me because this is the wrong time of year. Any young steer that was born too late in the 2008 season for slaughter in the fall would be too slim after a winter in the barn, and I’d like to think he’s looking forward to a summer in the fields. I certainly don’t want to deny him that pleasure after a long, dark winter in cramped conditions. Buy meat from the grocery? Ha, no. When you’ve had meat from the farm for so many years, grocery meat is not an option anymore – especially not chicken.

If it were just up to me, I’d make the shift relatively easily. I’d go by trial and error, cook up spicy and flavorful dishes with all kinds of vegetables, legumes, tofu, seitan and other items I’ve never even tasted before. But my main hurdle is the kids. Even at the best of times they don’t think much of my cooking (they still treasure fond memories of the food at their daycare babysitter’s, a real professional when it comes to making nutritious kid-friendly food). Anything too exotic, sticky, limp, fishy, colourful, chewy, spicy, or overly bland is automatically suspect. And since they’ve become a part of my life, I haven’t thought about food and cooking in the same way. For starters, I don’t think about what I would want or like to eat, instead I think about What They Will Eat Today; it’s a mindset I can’t shake, a fact of life that defines the way I move through the day, even when I try to pour myself fully into something else altogether, like work. When I buy fresh fruits or vegetables, as I do a few times a week, it’s not so much to eat them myself, it’s to make sure they have enough for their snacks and lunches at school and to ward off any searching for easy, junky food and candy, which they manage to eat enough of anyways. Their health is my quiet obsession: I think about the bodies they are growing into and the young adults they will be in a few years, and when I look at the young men in the world out there, I am frankly worried. What I see are too many dough-boys: large shapeless faces and guts that overhang trousers, oversized clothes and over-taxed joints. Guys in their early 20s! Obviously I’m getting old, because the young men I remember from 20 years ago didn’t look like that, or if they did, they were the exception. And when I look at old pictures of my dad’s contemporaries, men circa 1940 – they were all wiry and scrawny, nearly to the last man. OK – they were eating British army rations at the time, which were notoriously bad, but to me they look healthy and muscular, in spite of their small size. Kind of like the vegans and vegetarians of today – those people out there whose faces have definite shape and contour, and who have the kind of leanness and vitality you don’t see as often in young people anymore, unless you’re looking at the ones running in the Olympic triathlon.

Oh dear, it looks like the “ethics” of not eating meat is overshadowed by my concern for human health. I can’t help it – that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I was trained as a farm animal veterinarian. One of my professors in bovine medicine and surgery proudly proclaimed, every chance he got, that he became a farm animal veterinarian “to feed the world”. After the second time my eyes would automatically roll, but the message stuck. Milk, eggs and meat: the foundations of industrial civilisation, and that’s what you are working for. Your job is to make sure they are always available, as cheaply and as abundantly as possible, in spite of what that might do to the animals who provide, in spite of how we continually betray the ancient unwritten and non-verbal contract of domestication. If I had the chance to respond now, I’d say that we’ve fed this part of the world too much, and not nearly well enough.

It’s just possible that this veterinarian has come to the end of meat. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I have a feeling there’s a whole world of food out there that I know very little about…