January 25, 2008

Vegan FST*

*An FST is like an FAQ, but for Frequently Said Things that are not necessarily questions. Also, it doesn't feel obligated to be polite and helpful when the Things are patently stupid or mean, although some of them are perfectly reasonable and the FST strives to acknowledge that. Unfortunately it's written by me and I am a cranky bastard, so its loving reasonableness may get patchy in places. Read at your own risk.

  • "I could never do that." YOU ARE TOTALLY RIGHT. I have superpowers that you do not possess. I'm glad you recognize this. Actually, you'd be surprised; it's one of those things that gets pretty easy if you just have a reason to care about it.
  • "I tried eating vegan and couldn't make it work for my personal nutritional needs." Neat. I'm glad you tried it and I'm sorry it didn't work out for you. Eat what you need (but, you know, feel free to still eschew the animal products you don't actually need).
  • "I ate only carrots for three weeks and felt like crap, which is a totally appropriate experiment from which to conclude that dietary modifications are unwise." Okay. What the hell were you thinking?
  • "But no see I have proved veganism doesn't work." Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. Or maybe I'm just dizzy from six years on a starvation diet of big well-balanced dinners and lots of cookies. Do I really have to explain to you why your single experience doesn't establish a universal truth about this?
  • "Anyway, I could never give up (X)." Well, that does suck sometimes. I mean, an omelet would be pretty tasty right now. But people go without things they like all the time, for all kinds of health and financial and practical and ethical reasons. This isn't really any different.
  • "I could never give up caffeine/the microwave/wheat/garlic/frozen foods/salt/something else that isn't actually unvegan." It's disturbing to me to think that you may actually believe your microwave runs on tiny ground-up hamsters. Or that the caffeine in your coffee beans (keyword: beans) was squeezed out of some kind of animal. You must feel like you're living in a really gross universe.
  • "You can't be a healthy vegan without lots of artificial supplements!" What do you think those vitamins A & D are doing in your milk, anyway?
  • "Don't you need protein?" Hummus beans tofu nuts soymilk peanut butter seitan tempeh TVP. Totally. I'm a fiend for that shit.
  • "Cows need to be milked!" Okay. If you have a happy cow with a surplus of milk not being used by her calves, you go right ahead and milk. But it is ass-backward to use that to justify the factory dairy industry, and you know it. Or, if you don't know it, please do some research and discover it.
  • "I don't have the time/energy/expertise to cook for myself all the time." Amen to that. I don't either. Who the fuck does? This is why we have frozen tamales and soup-in-a-can. It's also why we live in Portland, where if we're tired and hungry we can just go have a corn dog and a slice of pie at Paradox.
  • "That's a really extreme lifestyle choice. Not the pie, I mean the veganism." Maybe. It depends on where you are and what culture or subculture you operate in, I think. There are places where putting cow milk on your breakfast grains would be considered deeply weird.
  • "We're biologically adapted to eat meat!" Well, yes. We're also adapted to sleep in caves and scavenge abandoned leopard kills. We are adapted for all kinds of things, but that doesn't actually mean they're all mandatory. Some we can, and do, choose to skip.
  • "I know, I know, going vegan would be healthier for me." Not necessarily -- if you live entirely off of junk food from Food Fight, you can have exactly as unbalanced and stupid a diet as anyone else in contemporary America. It's a privilege that I kind of cherish.
  • "I hear vegans never get sick!" I wouldn't bet on it. When they were handing out the super mega resistance to absolutely everything, my immune system was picking its nose in the corner and didn't get any, so I get every damn thing that goes around. YMMV.
  • "But I just love food too much." I totally hate it. That's why I eat three or four meals a day, talk about food constantly, think about it when I'm not talking about it, and own lots of cookbooks with glossy, sexy pictures of delicious foods. Man. Food is lame.
  • "It's too expensive/I'd probably save a lot of money." No it's not/yes it is/no you wouldn't/yeah you might. It depends way more on how expensive your local grocery is and how much you cook from scratch than on whether you're eating meat and dairy.
  • "I only eat vegetarian cows, ha ha, come on, it's funny." Hey, you're right, it is funny! Because actually beef cattle are getting fed all kinds of disgusting animal-based crap and they're not vegetarian at all! Wait, no, that's not funny, that's terrible.
  • "Small animals get caught in plant-harvesting machinery!" Ye-e-es. And people with standard American diets are harming those fuzzy animals too, plus a whole lot more. It's a harm-reduction issue; the effort can be imperfect and still be vastly preferable to the default.
  • "OMG fuzzy animals." Okay, I'm cheating. The imaginary speaker here is totally me. I bought my co-worker a calendar of sleeping puppies today because I just could not resist. OMG, they're fuzzy.
  • "Hey, wait, don't you buy meat cat food?" Yeah. My cat can't meaningfully consent to any health risks involved in me dickering around with her diet, and I'm not confident that I can make her a perfect vegan kitty diet or know how to adjust it if it's not adequate. I'm arguably weighing her life against the lives of other animals, which is unfair, but I've yet to find a better policy.
  • "Do vegans eat honey/sugar/X/Y/Z?" Yes maybe no? There are enough vegans in the world that they get pretty non-unanimous around the edges. I myself get kind of non-unanimous around the edges. Everybody's got a slightly different idea of the boundary between reasonable adherence and total insanity.
  • "Speaking of that boundary, I grow all my own foods and reuse everything and invest a shit-ton of time and labor in all kinds of anti-agribusiness, ecologically-sound awesomeness." I take my hat off to you. I don't suppose you have some happy backyard chickens and want to give me some delicious delicious eggs, do you?
  • "Er, no, sorry." Fuck.
  • "Hey, what about me? I only eat free-range beef. Take your hat off to me too." I did make my own bed with this harm-reduction argument, and so I have to at least give you a nod. But you might be kind of disappointed if you looked into the regulations about free-range livestock; they don't enforce anything close to healthy conditions or minimal suffering.
  • "Enough about that. I made you some vegan cookies. Do you want one?" YES I DO. NOMF NOMF NOMF.
Posted by dianna at January 25, 2008 04:36 PM

I'm on a terminal at a board game club event right now, so I don't have time to read this whole post, but I can give an enthusiastic nod to just your first FST!. I will have more substantive comments, and doubtless more nods, once I can get home and read this.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at January 25, 2008 11:19 PM

"Small animals get caught in plant-harvesting machinery!"

A variation on this is the one that bugs me the most. Something to the effect of "You're currently living on land that used to be pasture! By living in modern society, you're existing on land that, but for civilization, would have lots of animals, which makes you complicit in those animals demise!" Which is followed by its natural, logical corrolary: "I just want you to know that you're responsible for just as many, if not more animal deaths as us meat-eating folks, so you have no claim whatsoever to moral superiority!"

This is the only strain of argument that truly angrys up my blood (and, coincidentally, is generally delivered from 6 inches in front of my face by someone who has had his or her own blood angried up, as well). What's interesting is that I'm probably the least judgmental vegan you could meet; I don't let people know I'm vegan unless necessary and I never really preach to people. Yet as soon as I do mention it I'm treated as though I'm silently judging them. Which I'm not! Unless, of course, they decide to get defensive and angry about their meat-eating as a pre-emptive strike, in which case I probably will judge them. Quelle Ironique!

Posted by: MoltenBoron at January 26, 2008 01:06 AM

I'm not at all the kind of person to try and convince someone that they should change their lifestyle choices. Especially not when I generally agree with their lifestyle choices. Even if I do not necessarily make precisely the same choices myself. But I am the kind of person to play Devil's advocate.

So what do you think about the idea that there are certain animals that no longer have natural predators, and require some manner of population control? Specifically I'm thinking of deer and feral pigs in the United States. Obviously there is caveat upon caveat here, such as the fact that deer do not have natural predators primarily *because* of humans, the fact that wild pigs in the U.S. are overpopulated because humans introduced them to a foreign ecosystem, or the fact that most Americans do not eat and have never eaten venison (or pork from *wild* pigs, for that matter).

I tend to be skeptical of many arguments that favor fixing the environmental problems we've created by artificially tweaking ecosystems further, but I'm also willing to entertain the argument that human hunting of certain overabundant species constitutes an ecosystem service. Since we're acronyming (and apparently also verbing), I'd be interested in your POV.

Posted by: Chris at January 26, 2008 01:17 AM

I'm interjecting long enough to insert a Big Fat Nod to Di. What the hell is YMMV?

Oh, and to say that if I had to pick one thing that makes me utterly insane, it would be something from the list of Frequently Appended Smug Gestures And Paralinguistic Behaviors. Imagine a conversation among several people, one of whom is vegan. Either the subject of food has innocently come up, or the vegan has just been offered a piece of food.

Vegan: Oh, I'm vegan, actually, but thank you.

About 50% of the time, the non-vegan person to whom this remark is addressed responds as follows: He gets a little smirk, cranes his head under the table (or under the bar, around the other peoples' legs, around the bike, etc, etc), and looks pointedly at the vegan's shoes. Now one of two things happens:

1. The shoes evidence leather/suede/microfiber/pleather/mad-made materials that look like they might be animal based, at which point the bastard cracks an open grin, raises his head, locks eyes with the vegan, and does the eyebrow-wiggle thing.

2. The shoes are manifestly not made of animals, at which point the bastard raises his head slightly, looks toward the vegan's midsection, and asks, "Is your belt made of leather?"

The vegan then sighs/glares/throws something, and is generally too over-it and pissed off to deliver The Speech that she's practiced for just this occasion, in which she smartly exposes and denounces the bastard's defensiveness and impulse to police her, while also pointing out that while she's made private dietary decisions for herself, she's never said a word about the bastard's eating habits or policed anyone else's diet/clothing in her life. She rehearses The Speech several times later, however, while stomping home.

What the fuck? More than anything that anyone ever says, it's the immediate policing gesture that's always made me want to punch them right in the face.

OK, back to the regularly scheduled conversation.

Posted by: katie at January 26, 2008 11:34 AM

YMMV: your mileage may vary. Katie, I hate that Frequently Used Smug Gesture and/or Paralinguistic Behavior also. I hate it so much I can't believe I failed to include it here, although it makes for a really obnoxious acronym. My boss did it to me a few months ago when I had merely mentioned the irony of my having the only leather desk chair in the department, and I wanted to scream. And I do still own some leather shoes, and I have all kinds of thoughts on why immediately throwing out usable leather items as soon as you go vegan is not necessarily the most compassionate course of action, and I never fucking want to get into this with the smug jerks who are eyeing my, thankyouverymuch, vegan stompy boots that are mysteriously magnetically attracted to smug jerks' shins.

You know, the thought that the only people who really inspect my footwear are the people trying to police my veganness makes me tempted to paint something like "are you being petty right now?" or "none of your damn business, actually" in little letters on the side of each boot.

Posted by: Dianna at January 28, 2008 09:42 AM

Chris, your diabolical advocacy is appreciated. It seems like a valid question, though a little bit of a red herring for the dietary choices of the urban-living 79% of the United States population (as you say, most people who eat meat in this country eat about as much wild game as I do).

One of the many possible answers here has to do with my sense that for myself, and a fair number of other vegetarians and vegans, the way that meat is produced is as much of a turn-off as its basic nature. What I mean by that is that the outrageous cruelty involved in the factory meat/dairy/egg industries, and the ability of the consumer to shut it all out while buying neat cuts of meat packaged with pictures of happy cows, is a major source of aversion and creeping-out for a lot of people. If that system weren't in place and animal foods were gotten by the historically dominant processes of "hey there's a deer we have a need for meat and hide I will shoot it sorry deer I really appreciate this" (with occasional "hey there's a deer oh shit I missed hey those antlers look really sharp run run run") or "hey it's 4:30 a.m. time to let the cow out and clean up her sleeping spot because we need her to stay healthy and give us milk", I personally sincerely doubt I would be vegan. Maybe not even vegetarian; until I find myself in front of an edible animal holding a deadly weapon I will have no way to know how I would make that ethical choice.

Where I'm going with that is that if someone lives in an area with unchecked wild deer and pig populations, and wants to be the one to take that spot in the food chain and kill and eat those animals, I'm not really prepared to say they can't do it. But it's a very different question than whether or not to eat meat that comes from the grocery store in styrofoam packages, and answering the one doesn't necessarily even suggest an answer to the other.

Posted by: Dianna at January 28, 2008 10:35 AM

Sigh. I just realized that as usual, Chris is asking ecological questions and I am trying to answer moral ones. Oh well.

Posted by: Dianna at January 28, 2008 10:39 AM

Fun facts: As of 2000, California was tied with New Jersey for having the highest percentage of the state population living in urban areas (94.4 percent). The lowest are Vermont and Maine (38.2 and 40.2 respectively). Oregon, at 78.7, is the closest of any state to the national average. We are a microcosm!

Posted by: Dianna at January 28, 2008 10:49 AM

I don't think there's as big of a gulf between the moral and the ecological as you seem to suggest. I'm extremely sympathetic to your position, in that I find the manner in which meat is produced to be a major turn-off. Of course, I happen to find it's nature to be rather delectable, so of course that's an area in which we differ a great deal.

What I personally find most reprehensible about our food system is how classist it is.

Caveat: the argument that follows assumes that you eat meat, and as such, is not universally applicable.

Financially I am finally approaching the point where I can afford to eat in a more sustainable manner. Eggs offer a good example of what I'm talking about. Regular, plain-old eggs are like $2.50 a dozen, which seems very reasonable if you know nothing about the cost-saving mechanisms built into their production. Organic eggs are more expensive, but maybe $3.50 a dozen isn't so bad for that warm fuzzy feeling that you're buying food that tastier, better for you, and more sustainable and ethical. Until you learn how farmers barely skirt by the relatively lame USDA organic standards.

If you want eggs that you can feel good about you have to stop looking for buzzwords on the label, and look for full freaking paragraphs that describe in detail the situation on Old McDonald's farm. There simply aren't any specific, certifiable standards that guarantee your eggs are coming from chickens that don't live in cages, and eat actual chicken food, which is to say not corn. And those bad boys are over $5.00 a dozen.

The point is that if you're a normal American, with a normal job, you very likely don't make enough money to eat sustainable food. And that's fucking awful.

On second thought, I've decided to address my caveat, and in doing so potentially open myself up to criticism. I'm going to make an assumption here, and we'll see if the veggies/vegans disagree with me. Here we go: it's totally possible to have a healthy, well-rounded, sustainable, and inexpensive diet as a non-meat eater. But there is a requisite investment of time in order to do so. Empirical evidence follows.

As a long-time student of environmental science and enjoyer of indie music, I have a lot of veggie/vegan friends. They all eat well, they all probably pay less for food than I do, and they all are perfectly healthy. They also all know way more than the average American about food, nutrition, and health.

Thus, I address the caveat of my original argument as follows: not only can the average American not afford to maintain a sustainable non-veg diet, but the most financially challenged Americans are not even capable of switching to a veg diet (which would, in theory allow them to eat healthily and sustainably), because their economic situation so often forces them to work more than 40 hours a week, depriving them of the extra time that most veggies/vegans invest in learning about food.

In conclusion, the system is down, yo.

Alright detractors: GO!

Posted by: Chris at January 28, 2008 06:44 PM

"In conclusion, the system is down, yo."

That may be the most masterful summation of this country's existing systems of food production and distribution that I have ever heard.

Not only am I not going to disagree with your point, I am going to add that out of the most financially challenged Americans, the large proportion who live in shit-ass inner-city neighborhoods are further stymied in their hypothetical attempts to eat vegetarian and/or sustainable diets by the absence of full grocery stores with produce selections. Throw a rock in any poor neighborhood in any American metropolis and you will hit a half-dozen fast-food restaurants with meat-heavy dollar menus, a further half-dozen convenience stores selling animal-byproduct-heavy packaged foods, and nowhere to buy a fucking fresh vegetable. So even if the people in these neighborhoods did have the time to spend on learning about, and preparing, balanced meals out of whole foods -- and if they weren't generally working the most exhausting and emotionally draining jobs around and had the energy left over to care about what to eat -- they would still have to find the time and money to travel out of their neighborhoods just to buy their food supplies and bring them back to, frequently, apartments with poor kitchen facilities or none at all. And if I have trouble, while working my nice 40-hour-a-week university job with good pay and benefits and no dependents to strain my resources, and living within biking distance of one food co-op and one grocery that stocks primarily locally-produced and minimally-processed foods, finding the time and money to eat as sustainably and healthily as I would like to... it means a lot of less outrageously-privileged people are utterly screwed.

On the other hand, a co-worker of mine told me about some friends of hers who lived in the rural South and raised their children vegan because it was cheaper.

I think this is why for most of human history people have arranged themselves in low enough densities to maintain their proximity to food-production operations, and have grouped themselves into extended families that provide the humanpower for labor-intensive food acquisition and processing. But I don't particularly want to go live with my parents on an isolated farm in Nebraska, so what to do?

Posted by: Dianna at January 28, 2008 09:12 PM

While we're having this great dialogue and I have you paying attention to me, I'd just like to point out that I am in the process of having all of my old 35mm film professionally scanned to digital.

What this means for you: as soon as I get the discs back I will have a high-quality digital photograph of you holding a square plywood guitar. No more denying it - there'll be photographic evidence.

Posted by: Chris at January 28, 2008 11:53 PM


I think I agree for the most part. I could quibble with some of the details in some areas, but the general thrust is right, I think (I get the impression that Harlem, for example, is actually well-served by supermarkets. But a few things make Harlem not the best counter-example: it's becoming increasingly middle-class; New York City is very hostile to chain restaurants, which helps grocery stores with a full range of produce survive better; New York's food-buying culture is toward lots of small supermarkets rather than a small number of big ones; and there's the within-New York City counter-counter example of The Bronx just a few miles up the road, where food provision is dominated by independent fast food outlets and snack-heavy bodegas). At least in New York City, I feel like the time-cost of actually preparing healthy meals (let alone vegan meals) is the biggest factor constraining the poor from pursuing healthier diets.

I'd just like to ask a clarifying question: I don't quite see the connection between the inconvenience/impossibility of purchasing healthy food for the urban poor and historic low-density human arrangements that focused on agriculture. That is, I tend to conceive of those agricultural arrangements are largely being because those were the only plausible ways to arrange themselves so they didn't die, rather than as a conscious decision to get more fresh food.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at January 29, 2008 09:44 AM

Well, I don't mean that all of our rural ancestors were only living on farms because they thought cities wouldn't provide them enough fresh food. But the hey-let's-live-on-farms approach probably did result in a lot more fresh food -- accessible without complicated distribution infrastructure -- than the hey-let's-live-way-the-hell-far-away-from-agricultural-activities approach is necessarily doing. So as an adaptive strategy, which doesn't have to be intentional to be strategically successful, I give it a thumbs-up.

I may be influenced in my thinking here by the fact that someone recently creeped me the hell out by raising the specter of a hypothetical breakdown of food distribution systems (I think it had to do with the fact that the Portland-area farm shares have waiting lists because they don't have enough produce for everyone who wants a weekly box to get one). So now I'm thinking about how complicated and tenuous this whole idea of living far away from your food is. On top of privileging storable, preservable, not-excitingly-fresh foods, it just seems to beg to be interrupted by emergency situations.

Posted by: Dianna at January 29, 2008 05:53 PM

Oh! That reminds me, I need to sign up for a CSA share before all of them run out of slots. I got screwed on that last year. Unfortunately, I don't know where I'll be living next summer/fall, so there's no way of telling where the most convenient pick-up location will be.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at January 29, 2008 08:32 PM

Dear Sir or Madam:

I know not your true identity, MoltenBoron, but you should be aware that you have done your good deed for the day. Your post reminded me to investigate the CSA farms in my new home of San Luis Obispo. And it turns out that there's a great farm very near my place with a really nice looking produce list and affordable CSA shares. I know what I'm doing this weekend.

So thanks, stranger.

Posted by: Chris at January 29, 2008 10:32 PM

Yeah, it is a good idea. I should try to get my roommates in on a share for the whole house, since fresh vegetables are pretty much the only thing that we actually all agree on.

Chris, since when do you live in SLO? What are you doing there?

Posted by: Dianna at January 30, 2008 04:20 PM

since I got a sweet job here and moved three weeks ago. Keep up, girl.

Posted by: Chris at January 30, 2008 07:54 PM

'Scuse me. I don't see anything about this on either of your blogs; there's just a lot of shit about saving the environment or something. I demand better information.

Posted by: Dianna at January 30, 2008 09:19 PM

Well then here's another update: thinkinginpictures is dead. I don't intend to update it again. Actually, I have a lot of old posts from the original thinkinginpictures that I'd like to put somewhere, and maybe that'll be organicmatter, but I also would love to redo organicmatter in a simpler engine than drupal. Sadly, there is no simple mechanism for porting content from a drupal blog to something simple and sleek like a wordpress blog. Goddamn testy Internet.

And yeah, I'm not sure how much personal information I want to put on organicmatter, although I thought I had alluded to moving or a new job or something on there. But whatever. Maybe I'll write something about that this weekend.

P.S. Facebook is not inherently evil, and would have provided you with this (and other!) important information.

Posted by: Chris at January 31, 2008 12:40 AM

Oh hey, speaking of vegany subjects, could you, if it's not too much trouble, maybe post the recipe for that vegetable korma you mentioned way back in the One Week thread? I got some chard and I am excited to kormize it.

Posted by: MoltenBoron at January 31, 2008 09:29 PM

Oooh. Unfortunately, I think that recipe was heavy on the pre-made bottled korma sauce that I found at my local market. But I do have two other excitingly new chard-y recipes invented just this very week, including a pretty phenomenal curry from last night. I will post those and possibly they will help you chardify.

Posted by: Dianna at January 31, 2008 09:43 PM