Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

First, the usual disclaimer: while we keep a vegan diet (with the exception of honey), we do not live the “vegan lifestyle,” eschewing wool, leather, etc. Thus the categorization pseudo-vegan.

Ozark cavefish/The vegan in the popular imagination.

Ozark cavefish/The vegan in the popular imagination.

Before we adopted our diet about a year ago, I suppose I shared many of the conscious and subconscious biases against vegans. Weird, weak, anemic and self-righteous zealots they are, in the minds of your average omnivore, who may not have met many vegans. When we started eating this way, we got a moderate amount of apparently well meaning push back, mostly from people who feared we would slowly waste away, devolving into blind cave-fish with translucent skin and a wan, pinkish hue for lack of animal products. Turns out, that hasn’t happened! Here are a few things that have happened, and that no one warned me about.

1) Our fridge filled with bags of strange hippie foods like nutritional yeast, farro, bulgur, vital wheat gluten and chia seeds. I like chia seeds. But what no one tells you is that, after eating a nice helping, when you go off for a public speaking engagement, some of the tiny seeds will quietly migrate up along your gum line and lodge there, slowly hydrating in your saliva, expanding, lying along your teeth like tenacious leeches. Or flatworms.

2) Some vegan products meant to resemble animal based products will be surprisingly, worryingly convincing. Faux chicken nuggets and chicken fingers for instance. This will make you wonder about what was in all the breaded chicken products you ate all your life long. Others, like soy yogurt, will ooze out of the container in a gelatinous shudder and lie in your bowl, gray as old underwear. And no amount of chia seeds will cover it up.

3) The high fiber content of all this bounty of grains and vegetables will clean a person out like a brush-wielding Dickensian chimney sweep. This is great, unless your enthusiastically vegan, Kalamata olive loving, straight miso paste eating almost-four-year-old is not toilet trained yet. Then it is a horrifying thing.

I will probably think of some more tomorrow I meditatively shovel several feet of snow away from the cars and house and chicken coop. Or as I run 15 miles in preparation for my 20 mile race in March. How many Ozark cavefish do you know that can do that?

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In biology, there is an organizational technique called cladistics. Cladistics uses a bunch of characteristics to group organisms in a “cladogram”  based on whether they possess or lack each of those characteristics. To make a cladogram, you look at your list of characteristics and your list of organisms and you say things like, “Does this thing have jaws? If yes, proceed. If not, branch off into an out group spur.” Same for “lungs? yes/no” and “fur? yes/no” and so on until you get a rough family tree like this:


In this example, the hagfish would be considered the ultimate “out group” because it lacks ANY of the characteristics used to generate the tree. The hagfish is an eel shaped creature that can tie its sinous body in a knot and will eviscerate its dead (or not quite dead) food source by squirming inside it and slurping its way out.
The innermost “in group” in this cladogram example is the mammals. Humans are mammals, and very tribal. And therefore somewhat xenophobic. Believe me, no one wants to be the slime secreting, jawless, carcass sucking hagfish.

The hagfish.

The hagfish.

And yet, when I contemplate the cladogram of social acceptability, I find myself in the hagfish slot sometimes. I call myself a vegan since it’s a quick way to get my point across. I’m not actually a vegan since I wear animal products (leather, wool, silk) and I eat honey (produced by animals). But other than that, I don’t eat any foods made by or from animals. This can be, as you might expect, socially awkward. Sometimes people hear that I’m a vegan and visibly flinch. And since no one wants to be the hagfish, I find myself qualifying and backpedaling, and otherwise trying to hurdle a few rungs over on the cladogram of Americanism, which I think works out like this:


So, if I don’t want to be less American than Communists, I have to say things like, “Oh, no, I’m not one of those vegans who join PETA and shame other people and self-flagellate and are totally ridiculous. I’m ok, really, I’m cool, I think it’s cool that you eat meat, really! In fact, I kill animals all the time, I just don’t eat them.” Because if I don’t want to be in the ultimate outgroup, then it’s imperative to find some even outter out group. This requires making someone else seem weird and ridiculous. My vegetarian friends do it too: “Yeah, I’m a vegetarian, but don’t worry, I eat cheese. I mean, my God, who gives up cheese?” Weirdos. Vegans.

So I’m working on doing that less. Because people can ignore my food choices, or not care about them, or judge them to be patently ridiculous if they want to, but I don’t need to try to win social acceptability by mocking anyone else. That’s pitiful, pathetic, weak behavior (and yes, I hear your jokes about how I wouldn’t be so weak if I just had a steak once in a while. Believe me, whatever your joke about vegans is, I have heard it. Because they are all. the. same.)

So, I’m trying to catch myself before I throw anybody else and her diet under the bus. After all, there’s plenty to mock about my diet. I mean, even the hagfish isn’t vegan.

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Death day for chickens

A little before Christmas, my dad, who keeps chickens (as we do) asked me to kill his birds. He had only three, and they’re about that old, so their productive laying days are at an end. Of course, they could live on into their dotage another ten years or so, eating feed, requiring cleaning, and taking up space that could be occupied by young, producing birds. That will not do. So, die they must.

Layer birds of a certain age like this are no good for eating. They are stringy, tough, and gristly. They could be boiled down for stock, but that’s not worth the effort of plucking and cleaning their leathery old carcasses. Therefore, there was no need to kill them via axe or knife, so I did what I know best and euthanized them veterinary style, with a needle full of viscous pink liquid. The first bird was sickly anyway, so no hard feelings there. But the second bird was amply fleshed (obese) and spry. This is always harder. No farmer takes pleasure in killing animals. It’s not tragic, nor is it emotionally scarring, but it is a grim necessity, and one you know will come even as you’re watching the peppy springtime chicks scratching around in their little box. You know that one day, you will have to kill them. Whether for meat, or to make room.

Backlit on the windowsill, the Virgin Mary of the Coop.

Backlit on the windowsill, the Virgin Mary of the Coop.

I have never had trouble euthanizing things. It makes me feel useful. When I interviewed for vet school, I said I liked doing euthanasias most about small animal practice. They still let me in. I meant only that it’s generally the merciful thing to do, and it’s a great opportunity for empathy toward animal and owner (if there is one). I have long experience euthanizing wild things, and that is always because they are gravely injured or ill. There are no sobbing owners to contend with either. I have euthanized family pets too, and my feelings toward the animal are similar, though it requires a great deal of mental distraction not to fall in with weeping children and old men, in particular. The chickens are somewhere in the middle. Not wild, but not pets either. We don’t shed a tear over these chickens, but it’s not without some sadness. I had to chase the second bird around a while, and finally caught her, saying “Jeez bird. You act like someone’s trying to kill you,” to lighten the mood a bit. Then it was the needle for her too.

The third bird looked up at me as I reached for her, then she looked down at the coop floor and proceeded to moonwalk its entire length. I burst out in bewildered laughter and my dad told me that’s her signature move. It’s harder to kill a bird with a signature move, but kill her we did.

So now, his coop is empty, awaiting spring and a flock of new girls. My own elderly hens are on a reprieve, mainly because my neighbor is very attached to them and looks at me with horror when I bring up their approaching demise. Strange in some ways that we’re vegans keeping (and occasionally killing) chickens, but the explanation for that is complicated and will have to wait for another post. Until then, take solace, as the chickens certainly did, that Mary, Mother of God, was gazing down, feather dust and manure besmirched, from the sill of a coop window on their last day. And her serene smile is unwavering.

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Setting off for Lonesome Lake: the last time Simon’s feet touched the ground for 1.6 miles.

This morning, after breaking camp at the Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch, NH, I found myself unable to resist the little brown signs beside our campsite with yellow letters reading “Lonesome Lake Trail —>”

I’m a sucker for a —>, so, turning to Christophe, I asked if he was interested in a hike. His words said, “…yeeeess?” but his face said, “Please God no. Didn’t we just hike yesterday? How can I get out of this?” So, I let him off the hook and Malcolm, Simon and I followed the —>.

The trail was easy to start, and populated by only a few other hikers. Then came a series of switchbacks and steep climbs, and several obnoxious people long on expensive gear and short on fitness. Fortunately, I found my own fitness to be spectacular since becoming a runner, and I was easily up to the task of carrying 40 pounds of Simon on my shoulders for the duration of the trip. Malcolm strode up the incline like a natural, with only occasional stops for water and to tearfully sob, “I want to see Lonesome Lake, but I’m not sure I can!” He could. We made it up to Lonesome Lake Hut in about two hours.

The view of Franconia Ridge across the lake.

Here, let me pause to cite a few points of trail decorum:

1) While hiking, don’t play a radio in your backpack that everyone else can hear. Your music is probably crappy and is not why we climbed 1,000 feet up the side of a mountain.

2) Don’t let your poorly trained, unleashed dog steal some five year old’s only snack. It’s his only snack up here! (Nope, not Malcolm; I punched that dog in the throat when it lunged for our only snacks.)

Malcolm traverses a bog bridge.

Lonesome Lake is beautiful, especially the boggy areas on its far side, which you get to traverse via narrow bog bridges that kids love. We circumnavigated the lake and headed back down the way we came up. Malcolm took some serious diggers, gouging both his palms, but he rallied every time. We passed tons of people coming up (I advise you to hike to Lonesome early in the morning if you are a misanthrope like I am) and my heart swelled with pride as we approached the trail head again. I reached up to high five Simon (still on my shoulders) and then turned to Malcolm. He hesitated to raise his bandaged hand, saying, “Mom. This hike was not a complete success.” No? I asked him. “No. There was some whining on the way up.” Aside from this crushing failure, seen as only a first born child can see it, I felt parental exhilaration over our 4 hour tour.

The Gypsy Cafe in Lincoln, NH can serve your vegan and funkiness needs.

Feeling a great deal of hunger and the familiar heaviness in my legs that only comes from slogging up and down mountains, I stopped to get us lunch in Lincoln, NH at a place called Gypsy Cafe. The service was a bit sluggish at first, but the food was fresh and even friendly to us pseudo-vegans. Spicy corn cakes, hummus, baba ghanouj and olives for me and Simon; a tomato and lettuce sandwich for less daring Malcolm. Yet he’s already begging to go back. Must have been some mighty fine lettuce.

The Lonesome Lake/Gypsy Cafe combo would have been excellent as a day trip. But we were camping in the Whites for two days. So what did we do yesterday? That is a story for another time, and another blog post. Stay tuned.

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What Would Malcolm Eat? It’s apparently a pressing question among the pre-K set–I’ve heard from a couple friends now that their kids sit at the dinner table musing about whether or not Malcolm would eat this thing or that thing. Since we became exclusively herbivorous several months ago, Malcolm has adapted readily to the change. Simon, on the other hand, threatens to slaughter entire cities full of people when we tell him he can’t eat a hot dog. But he does that over just about everything; after all, he’s not even three yet.

So full of plants, he may actually be capable of photosynthesis.

Malcolm has embraced the change, asking at restaurants and friends’ houses, “Is this only plants? Because we only eat plants.” Malcolm leads a charmed life, mostly. He doesn’t have celiac disease, or autism, or even Asperger’s, or ADD or a weird religion, or English as a second language, or anything that would set him apart and alienate him from his peers. Except that we’re mostly vegan. Which is weirder to people than most weird religions. And while Malcolm rarely complains about missing out on pizza parties, or having to decline the ice cream at birthday parties, sometimes he gives me just the slightest indication that he knows he’s different.

The other day, as I was preparing some weirdo vegan supper (pasta with spinach and asparagus), he came running in from the den where he was watching Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman. “Mom!” he yelled breathlessly, “Shreya, that girl on Ruff? She’s a vegetarian!” And then he ran back to the t.v., his eyes wide, to watch this kindred spirit–a little Indian girl on PBS. After all, no amount of reassurance from parents can compete with an actual kid who’s a vegetarian too.

Malcolm is very open about our diet, volunteering the information to strangers. Today, we stopped by a plant/bake/book sale in nearby Brentwood, NH. A spry, wiry guy who looked to be about 55 years old assisted us with our plants. Malcolm informed him that we’re vegetarians, and I tensed, waiting for the usual New Hampshire guy response to news like this. But instead, the man crouched down next to Malcolm and began a monologue that was at times touching, and at times a little strange. As I remember it, it went something like this:

“You know buddy, I’ve been a vegetarian for fifty years. When I started pre-med, I changed my whole life. I stopped eating meat and ate cottage cheese instead. My friends called me The Cottage Cheese Man. My family made fun of me. Now, I’m seventy years old, and my doctor says I’ll be the healthiest man in the cemetery. Because we all have to die someday, but if you treat your body right, it’ll take care of you until the last moment of your life. And you know, after about forty years of being a vegetarian, my family finally came and apologized to me for making fun of me for so many years. Because they’d been burying my cousins, and they saw that what I was doing was the healthy thing to do. So you be a vegetarian, buddy, and you’ll be the healthiest guy around. That is, if you stay away from drinking, and drugs, and you get lots of exercise. And take care of your mom too. You do all that, and you’re going to have a great life.”

Malcolm endured this with his eyes cast down, but finally, a wide smile broke across his face, and he nodded and tucked his head under my arm, and we went home.

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So we only eat plants. So what?

My family’s recent decision to stop eating just about all animal based food is part of a small but growing trend in this country. While still largely considered wacky and fringe, plant-based diets are drawing a great deal of attention in the mainstream media. Probably because the mainstream media loves the wacky and the fringe.
We made this choice because we are convinced, based on science, that this diet is the only way to achieve the health goals we have set out which are:
1) Maintain a total cholesterol of less than 150.
2) Live forever.

We are somewhat flexible on 2.

Since making this change, we have had a lot of conversations with people who are just curious about it, some who want to try it, and some who are hostile toward it. There are a few common threads in those conversations, and here are my responses.

First: We are not vegans. Our family stopped eating all meat, eggs, and dairy. We still eat honey, and we wear wool hats, and leather shoes and so on. Vegans do none of those things, eschewing all use of animals whether for food or not.
Second: We did not make this choice as a political statement, and we did not do it to show you how superior we are to you. While I oppose the inhumane treatment of other animals at the hands of their human cousins, I do not oppose killing animals. In fact, I decline to try to tally all the animals I have killed with my own hands because they were sick or injured, and I do not lose a moment’s sleep over it. If an animal is killed quickly and humanely for someone to make into supper, it bothers me not at all. It’s just not going to be my supper.
Third: Yes, I am aware that bacon/cheese/butter taste good.
Fourth: If you want to try doing it, do it. I’m really bored of hearing, “Oh, I could never give up cheese/bacon/butter.” After all, I know I’m pretty awesome, but I’m not so much awesomer than you that I can do it but you just can’t.

The New York Times Well Column ran a piece on the many, many, apparently insurmountable obstacles to giving up animal based foods. The message appeared to be, “It’s hard, and people will think you’re weird. So it’s totally not worth it.” I have a hypothesis though. Every single thing you’ve ever really wanted in your life, that really, really mattered to you, was somehow challenging. Outside your comfort zone, to speak in the common vernacular. Here are some examples of diffcult things and weird things that are most important to me:

1) My husband and I have been together since we were 14. No, we never broke up, even for a day. (weird, not difficult)

2) I learned hypnobirthing so I could have my second son without drugs, yet without pain. (weird and difficult)

3) I went to veterinary school and got myself a degree. (very weird, and very difficult)

4) Took up running and ran two half marathons in the past year even though no one was chasing me. (difficult, potentially weird)

5) Balancing work that I love with time with my kids. (difficult, and my work is weird)

What they all have in common is that they are things that mattered to me enough not to give up when people looked at me funny, or rolled their eyes, or made snide remarks. This diet we’re on is the same. I believe this is our best shot at avoiding the early diseases and deaths of our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. If you don’t believe the same, that’s fine with me. Believe it or not, I don’t care what you eat. Just don’t assume it’s impossible. It’s possible. And you might even like it.  I like it even more than I liked bacon and cheese. Which was very, very much.

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