Monday, February 02, 2009

Vegetable Karma

I have found myself having conversations I recognize. I have bored my vegetarian friends with these same conversations for years. Only now I'm on the receiving end. I'm not even vegetarian.

A few weeks ago, I started changing my eating. Changing my eating habits, as they say in the diet and nutrition industry. I read an article about Mark Bittman's book Food Matters, where he talks about his own decision to be 'vegan until six.' He lists a number of reasons; his own health, the cruelty that industrialized livestock raising perpetrates on animals, the fact that we eat so much meat that to not factory raise animals is impossible. (He does the math and it turns out there isn't enough land in the world to pasture feed the beef and chicken that we eat or get eggs, milk, and butter from.) I worry about cruelty, but what really attracted me was his claim (which I have no reason to doubt) that he lost 35 pounds this way. Whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, try to avoid refined flour and sugar, and then in the evening, eat the way you're used to eating.

This had a lot of possible advantages for me. For one thing, it wouldn't much inflict my latest food weirdness on Bob. He would go to the office, design marvelous mechanisms all day, and come home to the kind of thing we usually eat for dinner, like Thai style chicken stir fry with noodles. And for me, I thought, no big deal. I tend to make a big pot of something at the beginning of the week and eat it for lunch, now that big pot would involve whole grains and beans.

Mark Bittman makes it clear that he is not vegan. This is a guide. He says if the cucumber in creamy dressing look good at the salad bar, he doesn't hesitate to pick them. I'm not vegan either. I still use Worcester sauce, oyster sauce and honey, and I don't know if my high fiber bread is vegan. I doubt it is. On Saturdays, when we meet friends for breakfast, there are no vegan options on the menu and that's fine with me. I have eggs and a short stack. With butter. But during the day I don't use butter, milk, cheese, or meat. I do use olive oil and canola oil. Peanut butter. It's not about calories. Although it turns out that if you go mostly vegan and avoid white flour and refined sugar, the calories tend to fall all by themselves.

I feel quite smug at the grocery store, loading up my cart with vegetables and fancy beans and quinoa and wheatberries. (Quinoa and wheatberries are just grains, like rice. Using them is a lot like using rice. They're fun to experiment with, and they're that thing that nutritionists and diet people are always going on about, 'whole grains.') But the cooking is different and it's a stretch. It also means that going out to lunch has become a little complicated, at least for the nonce. Because for now I'm trying to be fairly strict.

The biggest difference is in the way I look at food. The way I think about food prep. The way I think about eating. I'd like this experiment to have some lasting changes. I'd like it to make me eat healthier. I worry about the possibility of diabetes's. My dad died of heart disease. You know, all the usual things. Being fairly strict (although, as I said, not completely rulebound) forces me to find other ways of doing.

What I didn't expect was the way people would suddenly talk to me about food. People have explained to me that veganism is unhealthy (the actual truth; sometimes yes, mostly, no.) People have defensively explained their own relationship with meat. (I want to say, 'I may be having tofu and swiss chard for lunch but I'm making beef short ribs for dinner with company--I eat meat, too. Just about 1/3rd of what I used to eat.) I hear coming out of my mouth the same things vegetarians have been saying to me for years. "Everyone has to come to their own accommodation about eating." And, "Yes, a diet that's inflexible is probably a bad thing."

I know part of the problem, because it's always been my problem. When someone mentions that they are vegetarian, I am forced, again, to confront my own relationship with food and killing. I am uncomfortable with that relationship, so I project that onto the poor vegetarian. And while I am certain there are sanctimonious and judgmental vegetarians out there, everyone I know really doesn't seem to think less of me because I eat meat. I don't think less of people who eat more meat than me. Au contraire, I am more than a little defensive about standing in front of my fridge at noon thinking that the butter is off limits until 6:00 pm. I don't like the fact that my lunches are looking more and more like that stuff they serve at the co-op, even though, in fact, a lot of it tastes pretty good. (And the stuff that doesn't I don't make twice.) I am sensitive to the whole homeopathic, hemp-sandal, crystal gazing possibilities of 'alternative lifestyles.' And vegan is alternative.

I did find some places of true vegetarian intolerance. It turns out that what a certain kind of vegetarian really saves their judgment for is...other vegetarians. I went on a vegan bulletin board looking for recipes. The flame wars that start when someone says something like, 'I'm mostly vegan.' Half of the board erupts in an 'you're either against the exploitation of animals or you're not and if you drank milk, you're not!' while the other half launches into 'it's stupid that one bite of animal products means you're not a vegetarian, would anyone say that a non-vegetarian is now a vegetarian if they ate a vegetarian meal?' (Which would make eating your Raisin Bran at breakfast a radical act.)

The other weird thing about vegan is that many vegans are protesting what they see as the over-commodification of the world, the fast food, frozen dinner, junk food excesses of the American diet. They're not alone. Michael Pollan has written some really interesting books about the way agribusiness has altered our eating, to our detriment. (A hundred years ago, there were still many Americans who worried about getting enough food--now we are most likely to die of the effects of our excesses--heart attack, stroke, diabetes.) Corporations are in the business of finding our sweet spot--the places where we can be tricked into feeling that we need/want/have to have more. That sweet spot is, in humans, actually sweet. And fat-laden. Pollan suggests shopping the periphery of the store--the fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and dairy that line the outside ring of grocery--and skipping as much as possible, the central aisles, where food is usually processed. But, as he points out, there is still a lot of stuff that is processed and unhealthy even at the edge of the grocery--most of what passes for yogurt, which is coming more and more to resemble ice cream. So he also proposes that you try to buy only things your grandmother would recognize. And only things that have five or fewer ingredients--and you should know what those ingredients are, no calcium propionate, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite, potassium hydrogen sulfite etc.

First of all, neither of my grandmothers would have recognized tofu, but that reflects their ethnically European origins. Second of all, vegan recipes often seem full of animal product analogues--soy cheeses, soy milks, cashew cheese, Boca burgers, and wheat gluten 'chicken'. Here's the list of ingredients for Tofutti Mozzarella Soy-Cheese Slices (TM) Water, Partially Hydrognated Soy Bean Oil, Tofu, Soy Protein, Carrageenan, Maltodextrin, Vinegar, Calcium Phosphate, Potato Flakes, Salt, Guar and Carob Bean Gums, Nondairy Lactic Acid, Adipic Acid, Dairy Free Mozzarella Cheese Flavor (derived from vegetable source) Natural Color and Potassium Sorbate. It is, I would say, as processed and commercial a product as KFC. With the important distinction that no animal products were killed in the making. And this is an important distinction. But it's a scary list.

We all have rules about what we eat, about what is strange and what is not. Those rules are deeply embedded in our sense of who we are. When I lived in China, the thinks that were most fundamentally disorienting were language, of course, food, and manners. (We think our manners make sense, but honestly, they don't--but that's another post.) We are most comfortable when our food choices are reinforced by the people around us. Food choice is often a source of rebellion.

I'm going to keep doing this, at least for awhile. I've lost two pounds, which is part of it. I feel better--simple carbs make me sleepy and a little dull. And I feel better about my carbon footprint, and all that. I reserve the right to go out and get a hamburger for lunch if I want to. And to eat vegan for dinner if I want to. And frankly, I don't mind if you eat meat. Even for breakfast.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Dreamlike, Lovely