Coming Soon to a Diet Near You

If I remember correctly, I’ve been a vegetarian since 1994, though to be honest, it’s been long enough that I may not have the exact year straight in my head.  Suffice it to say that for the better part of two decades I have eschewed the carnivorous lifestyle.  I have done this as a matter of personal choice.

That’s the part I think almost no one understands.  Everyone wants to know the reason, and if you read enough student essays on vegetarians, you will know that there are always three possibilities for the reason — health concerns, animal welfare activism, and religious beliefs.  I can’t say that I have taken much of a stand for any of the three, nor have I ever really cared that I did.  I am a vegetarian out of personal choice.

I don’t have an argument to make here.  I don’t eat meat.  I just don’t.  This isn’t about what you eat or what anyone else eats.  I just don’t eat meat.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love animals, and I am squeamish about eating them.  I also believe in the health benefits of a plant-based diet.  I’m not opposed to the reasons commonly given for vegetarianism.  I’m just not committed enough to any one of them to claim one as the reason I don’t eat meat.  I have a brother who doesn’t eat spinach, and I don’t eat meat.  These are our personal preferences.  And the one thing you can’t argue someone down on is personal preference.   If you like blue and I like green, we can argue all day, and you will still like blue, and I will still like green.  Preferences are not positions supported with evidence, and thus they are not convictions people can be persuaded to or away from.  They just are.

This is why it doesn’t tempt me when you hold a steak up in front of me and say, “Don’t you just want one bite?”  I use this example because something like it happens every day of my life that I am around other people.  I am not tempted because I truly never wanted the steak.  I wasn’t sitting there depriving myself out of some misguided principle that you will be the one person to lure me away from with your clever ploys.  If I wanted to eat the steak I would.

But I don’t.

And despite the fact that I haven’t said anything about you eating it and haven’t even thought about what I think of you eating it — because seeing people eat things I don’t eat is no different from seeing people wear shoes I don’t wear —  my not eating it seems to bother you.  That’s why when you can’t tempt me, you take up arguing with me and/or ridiculing me.    And yes, I know this is what you are going to do because it happens at every meal, and has been happening at every meal for nearly twenty years.  My favorite line, by the way, is the one about the bugs in the rice.  You know you can’t really be a vegetarian if you eat plants because plants always have some bugs cooked in with them, and bugs are creatures too.  Yes, yes, I’ve heard that.

I say all of this to say that despite the fact that I have been a vegetarian all these years, I have never even attempted to become a vegan.  The very thought of social interaction as a vegan exhausts me.  The thought of the number of people who would try to feed me salad with ranch dressing on it, thinking that is what vegans eat, exhausts me.  The thought of trying to explain in restaurants in Mississippi what can and cannot be included on a vegan plate exhausts me.

I know it can’t be easy.  The social aspects of being a vegetarian have never been easy.  Almost no one can resist harassing the vegetarian.  The vegetarian in the room at any event involving food is always the kid whose mother dresses her funny.  Always.

Still, I can’t resist a challenge, and I have decided that I am going to go vegan for the month of September just to see what happens.  Last September, Robert St. John, a self-described devout carnivore did this.  If he can do it, I can do it.

Already my question is not “what will I eat?”  I expect I’ll learn a good bit about what is available for vegans, but I do have a pretty good idea of how to go about it, and I don’t think that what I eat will be the hard part.  I just dread dealing with what people will say.  I dread the renewed vigor with which people will try to sway me in my eating preferences.  I dread going to events at which the only thing vegan available is the iced tea.  I dread what other people will do to try to feed me at these events.

I dread it, but I’m going to deal with it.  The thirty days of September will be egg and dairy free for me because I want to find out what it is like to be a vegan for a month.

Details to follow…

Victory Gardens

Did you know there was a campaign during World War II to plant gardens for the sake of reducing the costs of transporting food and thereby for the sake of contributing to the war effort?

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I knew many people had gardens, and I knew that even schools often had gardens in efforts to be more self-sustaining (and to teach agriculture). I didn’t know there was a specific campaign for Victory Gardens.

Most likely I never heard this term because my grandparents didn’t call their gardens Victory Gardens. They were growing them anyway before the war and continued after the war. But they were country people. The Victory Gardens evidently really took off in urban settings.

Now, of course, if the Department of Defense asked Americans to plant gardens to reduce fuel costs and reduce the amount of money we’re spending on foreign oil that is just going straight into the hands of the enemy, ten food industry coalitions would sue, and political accusations would fling in all directions.

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The Victory Garden campaign was a success, though, with millions of new gardens planted. Even Eleanor Roosevelt got in on the act, planting a Victory Garden at the White House.

If it was good enough for Eleanor, it’s good enough for me. I think I’ll call my garden Peas for Peace, but first I’ll have to plant some peas.

The Fruit Stand

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It’s called Carol’s. It’s a few blocks and a pleasant walk from my office, and it has the best local produce in three counties. Okay, let’s make that ten counties. I’m feeling pretty good about Carol’s today.

I went through on a scouting mission this morning. They have peanuts and king cakes in abundance right now, which tells me they have their priorities straight. They also have potatoes, cabbages, and turnip roots. The freezers are loaded with pink-eyed peas and such that look like they were put there by someone’s Granny. I love it. Anyone on a mission to eat locally should seriously shop Carol’s.

I bought a couple of oranges and a hunk of hoop cheese today. Sorry, my friends, but this was only a scouting mission. I was on my way back to my office where I lacked freezer space to load up on garden peas. Even at home, I’ll have to eat a few Lean Cuisines and frozen pizzas before I can make way for many healthy, environmentally friendly options. But the trip to the fruit stand tells me it can be done.

Yet another point gleaned from Barbara Kingsolver is that local eating doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. You can do some good by only changing part of your eating habits. So what if you or I go to the fruit stand once a week before going to the grocery store? One small fruit basket of seasonal produce grown locally could become the basis for several meals through the week.

This means healthier, better thought out meals. It means supporting local farmers and a local business that goodness knows we would all suffer without. And it means reducing the number of food items we’re consuming that have to be shipped long distances to reach us. It’s a winning proposition all the way around.

If enough of us shifted even part of our shopping and eating habits to a local orientation, we could shift real economic leverage back to the small family farm and reduce our dependence on petroleum products by what Kingsolver claims is a stunning amount.

Something to ponder…

Plus, you should go to Carol’s anyway because Wal-Mart has nothing on their decor.

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To say nothing of the fact that somebody’s Mama right here in town made those chess bars.

Breakfast and the Art of Ethical Eating

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Yes, this is one of those annoying “eat this, not that” posts. I’m on a quest to reduce the chemicals in my diet, to reduce the amount of fuel used to bring my food to me, and to support the local farmer in my food purchases. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite figured out how to do all three at once yet, but we all have to begin to begin somewhere if we want to improve our lives and lessen our own impact on the world around us.

Today, I tackle the issue of breakfast. I like granola cereals and yogurt for breakfast. Yet, in reading the Barbara Kingsolver book I’ve been going on about for days, I was forced to think about the fact that not only do those cereals contain added chemicals, they also consist of multiple ingredients all shipped to a factory where they are processed, packaged, and shipped again to come to a grocery store near me.

Stephen Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband, recommends oatmeal instead. It may not be locally grown. It may have also been processed in a factory and shipped. But it consists of a single ingredient. Only one product had to be shipped to a processing center and shipped out again. Plus, the single ingredient on the nutrition label means no added chemicals. That has to be a good thing.

The picture above is of my breakfast this morning. Only one part of it came from a local farm. It is sweetened with honey from Smith’s Farm in Petal, Mississippi. Local honey is easy to find in stores here, and it is much healthier than sugar substitutes.

The strawberries are from Los Angeles. The sign outside the store said “Louisiana strawberries,” which was a big surprise to me in January. The packages said Los Angeles, California, which was not so much of a surprise. I bought them anyway, though they are bruised and battered from their travels. I love oatmeal, but I don’t want to eat it without fruit if I can help it.

For most of the year, I’ve eaten blueberries picked from my parent’s yard on my oatmeal and cereal. My freezer is now out of berries, but in the planning ahead next time category….More Berries!

In Search of Local Produce

Had I read ahead by a couple of chapters in the Barbara Kingsolver book that inspired me to investigate locally produced foods, I would have reached the part where she says, “January is not the time to start figuring out what to eat in January as a locavore.” Good to know.

As it turns out, Hattiesburg’s Farmer’s Market is open on Saturdays year round, but in January the selection is limited. Greens, sweet potatoes, nuts, home canned foods, and crafts make up most of the fare.

I bought these greens. They are wilting in a pot of steaming water at this moment.

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I didn’t buy sweet potatoes. I already had some grown by a local farmer known around here as Daddy. He’s been supporting my local living efforts for years, whether we called it that or not.

Sweet potatoes and greens are where my story ends for today. January is not the time to make the switch.

I’ve turned the sweet potatoes into this glob of stuff I call Cuban Sweet Potato Stew.

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It’s yummy. I promise. I don’t know what it’s really called or if anyone from Cuba would actually touch it, but I came up with the idea based on something I once ate in a restaurant that called itself Cuban.

It consists of onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil, a leftover sweet potato baked a few days ago, a can of black beans, a can of Rotel tomatoes, and a little bit of stirring. I’m eating it over rice with greens on the side.

As an exercise in local eating goes, it’s a total bust. Most of the ingredients are local only in that I bought them at Corner Market, which is I believe a locally owned grocery store.

As an exercise in nutritious and delicious eating goes, I’m giving it higher marks. It has a very rich taste, and all those different colors of foods must mean I’m getting a variety of nutrients out of the deal.

Kingsolver tells me that if I want to eat local food in January I’m supposed to have canned it myself in June and July. Yes, well, isn’t that a pretty idea?

I think there are fruit stands around here that sell frozen peas from someone’s garden. I’m investigating that next. This ethics of local living is about supporting local farmers, not becoming one, right? Alas, the Kingsolver story is one in which she snaps her own beans and shells her own peas and cans her own tomatoes. That’s a very pretty idea. It makes all kinds of sense. You know exactly how your food has been produced that way. It ships to your kitchen only by the labor of your own two legs, and you get all of the exercise you need just from working your own few rows of vegetables.

As likely stories go, this will probably not be me come June. I own neither a tiller nor a mule, you see. I don’t even own a hoe. Still, I’m sold on the idea of basing my diet primarily around local foods. I can’t wait to see what the Farmer’s Market has this summer.

Ethical Eating

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I posted this picture of fruit to make it look as though I’m being all nice and healthy. In reality, I’m eating a piece of pound cake brought to the office by one of my colleagues today. It’s delicious.

I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not an evangelical vegetarian. I’m against evangelizing of all sorts. I think there’s a fine line between practicing evangelism and practicing emotional (and sometimes physical) terrorism. In my mind, Jesus was a teacher, not a preacher. Those who’ve taken up preaching, not teaching, in the name of Jesus have it all wrong as far as I’m concerned.

Preaching makes people believe that they, in all their very human weaknesses, must be right at all costs. It leads to a kind of intellectual dishonesty that is just as wrong as any other human failing and often far more dangerous than most. So I think it is with evangelical vegetarians as with any other group passionate in the spreading of a cause. It’s so hard to admit when you care so much that you might not always be right.

But that’s another article.

I’m brainstorming topics related to digital ethics for my students right now, and every way I turn I keep running into ideas and information related to the ethics of eating. Maybe that’s because I’m currently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I don’t know that I will ever love a book more than I love Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, but this one has me thinking.

Though I am a vegetarian and happy that I am I do not honestly believe everyone should be. This is a personal choice. I wouldn’t try to impose it on others, and I am not against, on ethical grounds, the practice of eating meat. What I am against on ethical grounds is the practice of mass producing meat. I don’t like the idea of killing animals, but I accept the need to put human survival first, and I also accept that some people would have difficulty thriving, if not surviving, on a vegetarian diet. People who work hard physical jobs, for example, would find it difficult to eat enough carrots and chickpeas to keep going. I’m good with that.

I do, however, believe that the process animals go through to reach the supermarkets and the fast food restaurants is unhealthy as well as unethical. Feed lots, chicken houses, and mass use of antibiotics are not good. They amount to cruelty to humans and animals alike.

That’s basically what this book is about. Kingsolver and her family embark on a year of living on as much home grown and locally produced food as possible. They allow themselves only a small list of grocery items–coffee, spices, whole grains–that they purchase from places that truck them in. Otherwise, they wait for the wild cherries and planted asparagus to come in. They are not vegetarians, but for meat they rely on their own free range chickens and turkeys.

This makes so much sense. It’s the way everyone did it before McDonald’s came to town. Though now that we live in a fast food nation, it requires extraordinary effort and an extraordinary sense of purpose to go about even eating in the way that is best for our bodies, our communities, and our environment.

I can’t do it. I can tell you that right now. My energies are required elsewhere. I ate a tangerine this morning. I don’t know where it came from, but this is January in Mississippi. Clearly, it was not locally grown. The only thing I can say in favor of the tangerine for breakfast is that it wasn’t a Pop-Tart. Perhaps, like Kingsolver, I would shudder to learn how much fuel had to be consumed to bring that tangerine to me, to say nothing of what conditions the fruit had to be grown in so that it would still be edible when I bit into it.

I can’t follow the path of this book, but it inspires me nonetheless. I do plan to purchase more food from local sources. Ellisville has a fruit stand that buys from local farmers. Hattiesburg has a farmer’s market. This year I plan to devote more time to seeking out not only healthy food sources but locally grown food. Who knows…maybe I’ll even plant my own tomatoes when the time comes. It would be the ethical thing to do.

Now if I can only find a way to parlay this into a digital ethics topic, I’ll be able to offer it up to my students as an idea. Hmmm…