Tuesday, March 09, 2021

What Vegans Eat: Revisited

I was looking through old food photos I had posted here years back and actually felt kind of shocked at how humdrum my meal preparation has gotten over the past few months. I used to eat a LOT of raw fruits and vegetables, a lot of legumes and whole grains, a so much wider variety of seasonings and condiments. I am certainly no cooking expert. If anything, after a few decades of indulging in it as a hobby (and usually so when cooking for others in my life), the last few years have left me falling back on making a handful of the same simple dishes over and over again, or relying on processed convenience foods. 

It all started with a bad leak in the kitchen ceiling of the apartment I used to rent. The owners of the building couldn't nail down its source and by the time the situation was close to a resolution, I had gone a few months not wanting to prepare anything in what I was pretty sure was becoming a kitchen with a mold-infested wall adjacent to my stove. I gave my notice and moved and ended up in a tiny apartment with a tiny ill-lit kitchen, where everything was hastily-crammed into cupboards or makeshift storage containers. It's been over a year and I still try to remember where I put this or that food ingredient. I still remember exactly where I would have found certain things in my old kitchen (which had been brightly-lit and had so much more storage space to better organize things). 

So cooking (which used to be a spontaneous event where I could reach for just about anything I had on hand to improvise) has become more of a chore, usually involving the need for a plan, then the need to dig around a while to locate a few wayward spices or forgotten grains. The pandemic hasn't helped. Between not really feeling like doing much of anything on some days and my reluctance to hop out to the store to fetch a missing item or two more often than necessary, there's been repetition and food waste. I even tossed my sourdough starter a few months after lockdown after finding that I was spending more time fussing over it than actually using it in anything at all. As for plating and natural lighting to take great food photos? That's become a thing of the past, as well. I used to have a lot of fun with it, though. I may try to rig something up at some point if I get back into the hang of cooking more interesting things. In the meantime, here are some things I have been making over the past two years:

Ployes (a French-Canadian Brayon favourite--pancakes made with buckwheat flour) with maple syrup, Gimme Lean sausage patties and oranges.

Chickwheat! Seitan made using a take on the Gentle Chef's recipe.

Tacos with Yves ground round fried up with onions and seasonings and then cheddar Daiya shreds folded into it, avocado, coconut yogurt, salsa and green onions.

Rolls with smoked tofu, marinated carrot sticks, avocado and bell peppers.

Prolly one of the prettiest tofu scrambles I’ve ever made. I used onions, tofu, garlic, shredded carrot, tomato, Swiss chard, mini sweet peppers, turmeric, tamari, parsley, pepper and black salt.

RIP my first ever sourdough starter. The pandemic was too much for you.

Homemade dough. Sauce w/fennel seed, basil, oregano and crushed red pepper. 
Thinly-sliced Gusta Italiano cheese, Yves salami, crushed garlic, chopped up Gardein chick’n strips, oven-roasted sweet potatoes, garlicky pan-sautéed mushrooms, slightly caramelized red onion, 
pickled jalapeño peppers, seasonings.

Homemade falafel (the best I've ever had!) using a recipe from Tori Avey.

Orange bell pepper, spiralized beets and mushrooms on arugula, baby kale and baby spinach. Topped with croutons, sunflower seeds and dressing.

Kolhapuri masala using sweet potatoes, potatoes, tofu, Chinese eggplant and peas 
and brown rice.

Lasagna with almost everything coming from a package or a jar.

Whoopie pies.

Veggie dumplings with bibimbap (brown rice hidden beneath the sliced shiitakes, sesame-roasted asparagus, shredded carrot, blanched and seasoned bean sprouts and 
bulgogi-marinated seitan).

Clementines, cantaloupe, blackberries, raspberries, Kimmel bread and hummus.

Shanghai choy, yu choy, shiitake mushrooms, smoked tofu, scallions and a bit of kimchi in a broth made using miso and gochuang (spicy Korean paste).

Tofu vindaloo with zucchini and string beans, brown rice and chili poppadum.

Does it Matter? Well, Yeah...

Veganism, Plant-Based, Whole Foods, et al.

The UK's Cambridge Independent ran a piece by a plant-based restaurant owner today which purportedly sought to examine the question "Vegan or plant-based: What’s the difference and does it matter?". In it, Louise Palmer-Masterton positions vegans as having issues with the term "plant-based" because they view it as "ethically inferior". To her, she says, the two terms "mean the same" (although much of her piece ends up confirming that she thinks the opposite).

[T]he truth is, [my restaurant] is all about wholefood plant-based ingredients, ethically sourced, low carbon, circular, compassionate and cruelty free. So, is that vegan or plant-based? And what is the difference anyway?

Palmer-Masterton goes on to mention Donald Watson's coining of the term "vegan" but says that its final definition wasn't hammered out and "clearly defined" until "the 80's" at around the same time that Dr. T. Colin Campbell "coined the term 'plant-based'". He did so, she says, "seeking a term that described this diet without invoking ethical considerations". With a focus on health, he specified that a plant-based diet would also need to be a "whole foods" diet. So Palmer-Masterton sums this up by saying that veganism isn't health-focused, but that a whole foods plant-based diet is. Her restaurant, she says, is both.

But Veganism Isn't a Diet 

If a plant-based diet means one "free of animal products and/or exploitation" then one can say that a vegan's diet is plant-based. Using the term "vegan" to describe food (or other things) rather than specifying its use to describe actual people adhering to veganism has always been problematic in this sense, with many people choosing to self-label as "vegan" because a few times a week, they consume meals which don't contain animal ingredients. We end up with people trying to sub-categorize veganism to include animal exploitation (or conflating "plant-based" with "vegan") when they're all really completely different things. Palmer-Masterson seems to imply that vegans who point out this distinction do it as a condescending sort of nose-thumbing, adding that vegans will sometimes "have a go" at people who self-label as plant-based. (Mostly, I am guessing that vegans are simply again caricatured here as waving their fists angrily whenever they try to explain to someone that veganism isn't a diet. Everybody loves to perpetuate the "angry vegan" stereotype.)

Veganism as a Dirty Word

Historically, she says, veganism has always been very "fringe" and that its being associated with animal rights activism was uncomfortable for many in the mainstream. Because of this, she says, it was "unattractive" to the "average" person. That the term "plant-based" gained popularity and entered the mainstream "contributed significantly to the rise in popularity of veganism" she says. But did the term really contribute significantly to the rise in popularity of actual veganism? Or did it contribute to a rise in popularity of a watered down misinterpretation of veganism--one which leaves open the option to shrug off the ethics of animal exploitation where the sake of the animals themselves is concerned? Particularly those animals who don't end up on your plate.

Hold the Animals; Save the Planet!

She writes that current day environmental concerns are leading people to choose to lower their consumption of animal products. She asks whether they are "
eating more vegan food or more wholefood plant-based food" and proceeds to argue that consuming whole food plant-based food versus eating "a vegan diet containing processed foods" is better for the environment. But here she seems to be insinuating that 1) veganism is a diet (it isn't), 2) plant-based foods are somehow de facto non-processed foods (they're not) and that 3) "vegan" and "processed" go hand-in-hand (nope). I doubt many vegans would deny that eating fewer processed foods is beneficial to the environment, but the point she seems to be arguing is that someone's following a plant-based diet is more environmentally sound than a vegan consuming what's actually a similar diet and that simply makes no sense. 

When she wraps up and turns her attention to clothing, her focus remains on sustainability and the environment. Although she does point out that manufacturers are wrong when they claim that clothing containing animal products have been more sustainably or ethically produced, she states that "[t]
here has to be a deeper dive into production beyond simply avoiding animal derived ingredients". The truth is that many vegans do indeed understand and accept that going vegan is the least we can do--that it's merely a starting point and that we need to do more.

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Palmer-Masterton says that she sees "wholefood plant-based eating and veganism converging in the coming years". (Has she no idea that many vegans actually do consume a whole foods plant-based diet? There is overlap.) She asks that "wholefood plant-based and vegan people" make "peace" with each other as if there's a war going on and that everybody should just hug it out since we're all on the same team, fighting the same fight, changing the world for other animals, et al. 

The thing is that we're not all on the same team. We have different intentions, a different follow-through and some of us choose to continue participating in animal exploitation while some of us take the rights and interests of other animals seriously. Although vegans may consume a whole foods plant-based diet that's suitable for them, someone who consumes a whole foods plant-based diet may not give a fig about what happens to other animals (except solely in terms of the extended effect meat and dairy industries have on the state of the environment). Plant-based diet followers who aren't vegan often gripe about vegans in shared online or IRL groups because the dieters who continue to participate in animal exploitation simply loathe there being any mention of ethics. Vegans will generally gripe about plant-based dieters when the latter often self-label as "vegans" and get offended when told that veganism isn't 
a diet and they can't lumped in as some sub-category of vegan.

As for the whole foods slant on it? Many of these same discussion groups are littered with people who constantly health-shame (or even
body-shame) vegans for not adhering to a strictly whole foods diet. Is a strictly whole foods plant-based diet better for health and for the environment? Very likely. Could vegans benefit from incorporating more whole foods into their diets? Very likely. But veganism isn't a health movement. Additionally, shaming people who've already substantially lowered their carbon footprint by eschewing the consumption of animal products (particularly when the one doing the shaming chooses to otherwise participate in animal exploitation)? Well, it just seems a bit weird. At the end of the day, though, if the two movements do "converge", it has to be with the understanding that veganism is the starting point.

Friday, January 29, 2021

On Taking Advice About Veganism from Non-Vegans


It's that time again. Someone out there in the world decided that an article was really needed about their botched experiment with "veganism". (I use that term very loosely while writing about this, since in almost all of these cases, it's completely misused.) Whether it's a reporter for mainstream media or some university student writing for their school paper, these things pop up over and over again throughout the year. Thanks to Veganuary, January tends to dredge up more of them than usual since many of the large animal welfare organizations mount well-funded publicity campaigns to encourage people to "try veganism". What they invariably mean (and if you read the "about" section on the Veganuary website it's spelled out pretty clearly) is to "try following a plant-based diet for a month" for health, environmental and even ethical reasons.

Failure as a Win

Of course veganism is so much more than a diet. And going vegan isn't something that one does temporarily, leaving open-ended whether or not to walk away from it after a set period. Without any forethought at all, without resources or a support system (if even only a single vegan contact) and, mostly importantly, without having made a conscious decision to reject participating in animal exploitation because one has connected the necessary ethical dots, it's just plain silliness to write about spending a month floundering and presenting it to an audience as an earnest attempt to "try veganism".

The writer of such an article is almost always setting themselves up to fail, but then it's probably a case of having the conclusion set before even putting pen to paper. (Do people even put pen to paper, anymore?) Since most of the writer's audience consists of non-vegans, that writer's reaching a conclusion that involves remaining non-vegan is probably the most satisfying to the largest percentage of their readers. So it's ultimately a win for the writer and a win for the publication.

Unfortunately, since so many people believe whatever they read, the frequency of these articles likely leaves people thinking that adopting a plant-based diet -- or actually going vegan -- is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal.

The "Experiment"

In the University of Warwick's purportedly award-winning student newspaper, The Boar, writer Shay Solanki decided to take a kick at the can. She writes that she decided in December of 2019 to reduce her meat intake and that she and her sister then decided to take the leap for Veganuary. While her sister decided to follow a vegetarian diet for the month, Solanki decided to "bec[o]me vegan". 

Just into her second paragraph, Solanki complains that "[s}omething, however, felt quite empty to [her]". She points out that she had been a daily meat eater and that "vegetarianism was mainly reserved for [her family's] older generation" and that although Indian food was "closest to home" for her because of her background and that she was a good cook, that she never felt truly "satisfied" when eating anything.

Describing how "restrictive" it had all been, she informs her readers that as soon as January ended, she "ran straight to fry some fish and felt relieved" and that she continued to eat it and "normal foods" (words matter here) for the following two weeks until she felt guilt and then stopped. But January had been "really tough", had left her "not feeling good" and she had taken it "too seriously", she adds. A friend of hers who had also "tried veganism" for Veganuary had apparently decided to stick with her newfound plant-based diet and Solanki writes that she felt a lot of "pressure" from her to do the same.

So the outcome for Solanki? She decided to take it easier on herself and to be "mostly plant-based" since if she ever traveled to another country "like Morocco or Lebanon" she wouldn't be able to find any food that was "culturally significant" and that it "would be a waste to not explore their culture" by eating food containing animal products. (I laughed at the mention of Lebanon, since it's widely-known that there are so many of what some call "accidentally vegan" traditional dishes to be had there.)

"Fake Innocence"?

Solanki begins to wrap up her article by saying that the worst thing about veganism for her is its "fake innocence". Veganism must be, according to her, simply evil.  She repeats that it purportedly restricts people from being able to experience other cultures and then  she gets really serious: veganism (gasp!) "hinders" you from being able to buy "certain cosmetics and clothes". 

She goes on to list a mishmash of some of the common stereotypical complaints against veganism. In researching its history, she says, 
you'd find its origins in the work of some white guy in the 1940s, but that if you research "properly" you'll find that its origins go back to "ancient Indians and other Mediterranean cultures". (Like Lebanon?) This recent "wave" of veganism, she says, has made plants and meat-alternatives' prices "surge" and that in diverging from its "ancient roots" (presumably by having been promoted by the aforementioned white guy in the 1940s), it has become exclusive and that this exclusivity is "unfair" and "not worth the hassle". 

This confuses me quite a bit since she wrote at the beginning of her article that she spent Veganuary leaning on Indian cuisine, since it was familiar and accessible to her. When I think of traditional vegan-friendly Indian cuisine, I think of chickpeas, lentils and mung beans. I think of potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and zucchini. I think of rice and wheat flour. How would this be too expensive or exclusive? It's such a worn and tired argument against veganism to insist that unless you can do all of your shopping at Whole Foods (or stuff your freezer with overpriced packages of Beyond Sausage), you can't possibly feed yourself as a vegan; it's particularly weird and out-of-place coming from someone who has knowledge of and experience with whole foods (lowercase!) Indian cuisine. 

Solanki then delivers that predictable final blow by attacking vegans directly. "It's a running joke" she says "that vegans are annoying and forceful". From her own expansive experience "it's entirely true in most cases". In fact, she says that (emphasis mine coming up) "as a former vegan, I've often felt guilt pushed on me by other vegans for eating fish". So she's a worldly and weathered vegan after a traumatic one-month stint* feeling deprived
for having limited cosmetics choices and having to rely on the the "accessible" dishes she said are basically relegated to her family's "older generation". And pissy vegans who reject animal exploitation didn’t champion (or sanction) her choosing to exploit other animals. (*At the very end of the article, she states out of the blue that she was "vegan" for six months.)

At the end of the article, after piling stereotypical excuses over each other, Solanski softens her tone to say that veganism might be OK for some. Ajuste in case she wasn’t emphatic enough about it in the article, she confesses to her readers that it just wasn’t for her