I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are vegan and some who are vegetarian. They are currently involved in a big social movement and national debate over “ethical eating as a moral issue.” I know I am being catty (upfront disclaimer), but I’m waiting for the day to come when science discovers that all life forms with cellular structures, including plants, experience pain and suffering. So when that happens, what will vegans and ethical eaters do when it comes time to harvest plants for food? Will omnivores gloat and say “Gotcha!?” Just my way of opining – “there is no perfect solution, so moderation is key.” I say this with mock sagacity, while munching a brownie. I hope no third world chocolate or cocoa beans were harmed in the making of said brownie.
In the old days, the Indians (native Americans) and other indigenous peoples used to say a prayer to the beast they were about to kill (a buffalo or a bear), to thank it for giving its life that they might have nourishment. We might have lost something along the way. What prayer do you offer to a soy bean for giving its life that we might have tofu, or edamame, Boca Burgers, falafel or hummus? When that happens, and we realize we have caused pain to plants, will sucking air become the new mode of ethical eating? Will oxygen atoms suffer when we get to that point?
I know many in this group who are espousing ethical eating, and I know they mean well and are very earnest. Some of them are protesting the treatment of animals in factory farms – chickens in battery cages who can’t even spread their wings and end up pecking each other in frenzy, cows in pens in deplorable conditions, especially young calves who are slaughtered for veal. You see videos in documentaries and still photos in books that make you wince or turn away. I truly don’t mean to make fun of those who are well-meaning. However, I’ve never been one to espouse extremes, on any front. So that puts me in a quandary. What’s a centrist to do? Eat free range chickens and their eggs and farm raised fish, and organic vegetables? To the exclusion of everything else? I think that works when you are at home and eat most of your meals at home. You can buy locally grown produce from a farmer’s market on the weekend. But if you have a social life and eat out a lot it gets complicated. Then you get into boycotting certain eateries and chains because they raise their cattle in the rain forest, or they use pesticides on their produce, or buy vegetables harvested by migrant workers who aren’t paid a fair wage and are forbidden to unionize. Pretty soon you arrive at a point where you are afraid to eat anything because you don’t know where it came from, how it was grown, by whom, whether any animals suffered in the process, in what state or country, if immigrants were involved, if someone’s civil rights were violated or some greedy capitalist is making a huge profit, or some organization in the production/delivery chain is involved in price-fixing or corrupt practices. And then, add to that the growing concern over genetically modified vegetables, including genetically modified potatoes and soy beans. Makes you almost not want to get up in the morning.
And the issues mentioned above don’t even address the health issues of certain food choices. There is a whole other camp of individuals who eat vegan or vegetarian for health reasons. Meanwhile, while a well-meaning group wrestles with the ethics of buying and eating consumable goods, a very large number of traditions, mainstays of American diet and culture, are being called into question – pot roast, backyard grilling, turkey at Thanksgiving, gravy (made with milk and cream), creamed vegetables, creamed soups, bacon and eggs for breakfast, sausage, ham and Canadian bacon, luncheon meats, most baked goods (because they contain eggs and/or milk which are animal products), ice cream (except for frozen desserts made with soy milk). Good bye Jimmy Dean, Oscar Meyer, Farmer John, Zacky Farms, Foster Farms, and Jewish delis. Good bye pastrami sandwiches. Good bye nachos smothered in cheese. It pretty much leaves grains, rice, peanut butter, potatoes and other vegetables, salads, fruits and nuts. And popcorn. As long as you don’t serve any of them with butter or mayo or sour cream (which contain animal products).
One exceptionally committed vegan that I know well advocates eating tofurkey for Thanksgiving. No white meat OR dark meat OR giblets OR gravy. Just this spongy ellipsoid glob of beigy, spongy soy, carved into yummy slices. Or, imagine a tasty casserole of tofurkey and bulgar wheat, or cous cous with TSP (textured soy protein that can be prepared to look a lot like ground hamburger and have a similar texture). And a pumpkin pie made with soy milk instead of old fashioned evaporated milk. But you can still have a green bean casserole, as long as you make sure they are not genetically modified, or served with butter or margarine.
I remember those Thanksgiving days when my mother would put the turkey in the oven to bake early in the morning, and it would cook slowly until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. All the while, heavenly smells would waft from the kitchen all through the house and raise your anticipation to glorious heights. I just couldn’t wait until we would sit down to the actual meal. My mother had a real knack for roasting a turkey so that all the juices stayed in the bird, and the white meat was moist and succulent, and the dark meat so tender it would almost fall off the bone when you separated one of the drumsticks as you readied your knife for carving of the breast meat. Now, instead, I’m trying to imagine my anticipation over tofurkey and bulgar wheat, with sliced cranberries and mandarin oranges. It actually doesn’t sound too bad as a side dish, but as the main event? It is about the same as waiting for hours at a fine Paris restaurant to be seated so you can order chicken cordon bleu, written up in a fine dining review as the greatest in the world. And then when you arrive, instead, you are served sliced tofurkey. “Oh,” they tell you, “we feel morally obligated to serve meals that don’t involve any harm to animals. It is the responsible thing to do.” And you just crossed the Atlantic for this.
I’m going to have to continue wrestling with this. At least for health reasons, I should eat more grains, veggies, nuts and berries. Beyond that, I don’t know that I will arrive at a point where I develop angst over every political and moral aspect of every forkful of food and its origins, or the nature of the path it took to arrive at my plate. I’m already dealing with global warming, recycling, driving a hybrid car, conserving energy by buying those curly light bulbs and separating my trash. I’m watching my sodium intake, caffeine intake, and taking a statin drug. I’m trying to include more fiber in my diet. I meditate to relieve stress and lower my blood pressure, in addition to taking blood pressure meds. I’m trying to smile more, to be slower to be angry at people who annoy me, and to treat everyone with the worth and dignity they deserve as members of the human race. And as a reward I should eat tofu instead of filet mignon? I’ll let you know in another few months if I have made any more progress on the moral scale of eating.
Until then, if anyone wants a prayer or grace before a vegan meal, try this one on for size:
Dear soy bean,
Hallowed be thy shoots and roots, the fruit of thy growth cycles, and participation in photosynthesis. We thank thee for giving thy life that we may have nourishment that prevents clogged arteries and certain cancers. Thy genus and species are awesome. Thy cell division be exalted. We vegans give you thanks and praise. All the animals of the earth owe thee great thanks. You have given your life that they might live.
Amen, Namaste, and blessed be.