Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Oregonian's Grant Butler is Going Vegan (Sorta)

Who? Grant Butler is a an arts and food writer for Portland's The Oregonian. Where two weeks ago, he was talking up chicken soup as a weapon against winter colds, Butler's since decided to take the plunge and eliminate animal products from his life "... for a while" and for "at least the month of February (hmmm ... the shortest of the year -- a convenient coincidence?)". His "main reasons" given to do so?

  • Veganism is a fast-growing part of Portland's food culture, and The Oregonian's barely scratched the surface of all the bakeries, restaurants and food carts that cater to vegans.
  • As a cook, I love a good challenge, and going vegan presents a big one. [...]
  • It's a greener way to eat. [...]
  • While attending last fall's Veg Fest, a fantastic annual event celebrating all things vegan, "compassion" and "kindness" were buzzwords. These are values I aspire to in other aspects of my life, so why not embrace them in the way I eat?
  • Let's face it: I'm fat! [...]
I was skeptical that his decision to "go vegan" was presented right off the bat as being something temporary and that it seemed limited to involving changes in diet. I was also a bit disappointed in the emphasis on trendiness and thus the significance of covering it in The Oregonian, weight-loss and the environment with the only only reference made to ethics was the mention of "buzzwords" representing "values". I decided to forge ahead and read further articles post by Butler since he began the series on February 1. What followed was a mix of good and not-so-good.

On February 2, Butler wrote about re-stocking your pantry once you've made the decision to go vegan. He mentions looking for hidden animal ingredients and then stresses avoiding products "swimming in sodium and fat" (which isn't a bad idea, honestly). Alongside processed foods like Tofurky and Coconut Bliss ice cream and Earth Balance, he managed to pick up nuts, lentils, hummus and cannellini beans on his shopping trip. There's no mention of produce, but this initial shopping trip was likely meant to be understood as a one where animal products in your kitchen are replaced with things just as enticing. Butler wrote about his experience in an upbeat and optimistic way and I thought it bode well for the rest of the series.

Somewhat perplexingly, on that same day, The Oregonian published a Super Bowl snacks article of Butler's that suggests feasting on things like tuna salad, crab chowder, Indian-spiced meatballs, meat empanadas and cheese-sprinkled popcorn. In one fell swoop, he promotes eating: tuna fish, crabs, the flesh of cows/pigs/turkeys/lambs/chickens and various forms of dairy (yogurt, butter, whipping cream, cheese, et al.). Granted that the article could have been written before Butler's decision to experiment with an animal-free diet, but seeing it there really undermined the bit of hope I had of Butler's experiment's steering clear of most of the usual mixed messages and stereotypes about veganism that come with food writers' recent (temporary or half-hearted) forays into the exploration of the ethics of consumption.

On February 3, Butler wrote about a trip to the bookstore to pick up some vegan cookbooks for "inspiration". In this post, he mentions Mark Bittman (mister "Vegan Before Six", himself) as an author who caught his eye and in the pile of books pictured in the article's accompanying photo is Bittman's Food Matters. Another book in the photo is Pat Crocker's misleadingly named The Vegan Cook's Bible (find out why here). The one book he discusses at length is Dynise Balcavages's The Urban Vegan, which he praises for "leav[ing] out the food politics of being vegan," adding that "there's plenty of that elsewhere". I find it curious that Butler would purport to have been looking for "inspiration" and would have turned to books by someone like Mark Bittman (i.e. foodie darling of the "conscientious omnivore" movement) to find it, but then felt the need to single out for praise a vegan cookbook's not mentioning "the food politics of being vegan", as if it's somehow distasteful to discuss ethics beyond environmental concerns.

The next few days offered up a mix of short blurbs containing fairly good information. For instance:
  • On February 4, Butler churned out a really decent article on why honey isn't vegan. In it, he linked to information on vegetus.org about the exploitation of bees--a must-read for any vegan who shrugs off its consumption as being ethically insignificant.
  • On February 5, he wrote about dining out in Portland and how vegan-friendly a city it is. In it, he referenced Erik Marcus' website as "useful" (which is funny, considering how little time or energy Marcus spends on even promoting veganism).
  • On February 6, he wrote a little blurb about processed meat subs he'd sampled.
  • The next day, he wrote a brief piece about the encouragement he'd been receiving from vegans and "the role that community plays in making veganism work".
Now, this last piece really got me thinking quite a bit, because "community" is indeed key for vegans; rather than go off on a tangent to present limited thoughts on it now, I think that I'll flesh it out into another blog post over the next few days.

Sidetracked by considerations of this, I opted to catch up on the rest of Butler's vegan-for-a-month series later this weekend and blog about it some more, then, hoping to find that he'll have written more useful tips and that maybe through his research he'll have gained better and deeper insight into what leads people to actually become vegans in the first place. All warm fuzzies triggered by this dissipated, however, when the last thing of his I read on read a restaurant review of his published just yesterday, in which he discusses the deliciousness of waffles topped with "creamy gravy that’s studded with bits of spicy pork sausage" or "folded around three strips of smoked bacon and six pieces of Canadian bacon".

So I'm left wondering again whether the harms can outweigh the benefits when non-vegans position themselves as willing to try on and talk to others about "veganism". I've spent the past two days conflicted over whether something like this upbeat series of Butler's should be deemed a good starting point for some, or whether it ultimately sends out mixed messages by focusing on diet and by seriously de-emphasizing the most important reason of all to stop exploiting nonhuman animals. Are human health and the environment relevant factors to consider when deciding to go vegan? Of course. But it seems to me that anything that presents veganism as being mainly restricted to food, that does so in the form of a decidedly temporary experiment and where the writer publishes articles promoting animal products as delicious alongside his articles discussing an ethical framework that involves the eschewing of animal exploitation... well, it just misses the point. And I'm not sure how effective a tool can be in educating others about veganism if that point--that sentient nonhuman animals are not ours to use for our own pleasure since they have an interest in living out their own lives--is missed or altogether ignored.


x said...

It's disappointing that he seems to have gone vegan but still feels the need to write about non-vegan food, especially after talking about how he wants to be more compassionate.

We want people to realise veganism is easy, fun and delicious not something you get bored of after a few days.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this thoughtful, in-depth post on my ongoing series about becoming a vegan. I appreciate your analysis of what I've been buying, cooking and writing, and I accept your fair criticism that I've not emphasized the moral aspects of veganism. I want to assure you that compassion is a big factor in my reasons for converting my diet, though not the only one.

Regarding those other stories that mention meat: They were written before I made the switch, and editors aren't keen on deep-sixing stories once they've got them in hand. I don't think there are many more lurking out there beyond a story about French bistro dishes that's running sometime next month.

M said...

Hi Grant! Thanks for your comment.

I had figured that the other articles had likely been written before you decided to start the series.

I think that (from what I've read so far) what you've been doing is valuable with regards to teaching people how plentiful vegan options are and how easy it is to not consume animal products. Too many cling to the mistaken belief that veganism is "too hard", but as you've seen and have been portraying so far, avoiding animal products in what you eat--one huge aspect of consuming or exploiting animals--is, in fact, quite easy to do and leaves you with delicious and healthy alternatives. I love that you're writing about it in such an upbeat manner, too.

You mention that compassion is a big factor in your "reasons for converting [your] diet". I'm wondering if this could mean that you're considering doing this for the long haul (i.e. rather than just for the month of February, as you'd stated in one of the original articles). I'm also wondering if you intend to actually go vegan and eliminate other animal products (i.e. not food-related) and write about it as part of the series?

I look forward to catching up on the rest of your articles this weekend!

Vanilla Rose said...

These pseudo vegans want to have their fake and eat it. I need to work on that pun. But they do want to have it both ways, they're like people who want to be celibate and still have sex!

Cathie Joy Young said...

Looks like GB is still a Vegan. I wonder how one can remain a food writer and be vegan? Puts a limit on what you can review.