Thursday, December 27, 2012

Four reasons to feel grateful in 2013

Most—if not all—vegans will tell you they're grateful for the opportunity to live their life this way.

Perhaps it was a friend or loved one who first raised their consciousness by example, in conversation, or by passing along a persuasive article or book. In many cases, it was a pet or other animal who helped inspire their veganism. Whether it was one or a combination of these influences that inspired your favorite vegan to make the commitment, it's likely she or he is quite grateful for them.

For me, gratitude is the most powerful of feelings—as consciously seeking and expressing it can, by itself, lead to happiness. "You cannot be both grateful and unhappy at the same time," goes the old saying. (If you have evidence or personal experience to the contrary, please share it below as a comment.)

This new year, despite the ongoing onslaught of bad news, let's think about four very real things we have to be grateful for—and try to connect that gratitude to new challenges for 2013.

[1] Our veganism. It fortifies us, strengthens our resolve, and makes the difficulties of life easier to bear. Can we notice someone who has questions about our way of living? Can we offer to support him or her in trying it out for a day, a week, a few days a month, or for a few weeks at a time?

[2] Our past. Even though some of our past may be lost—loved ones who are now gone, favorite places we'll never again be able to visit—we can consciously reflect on our past and feel grateful for the love we've been fortunate to share in it. Can we think more often in 2013 about the hard-earned wisdom we've acquired, both in formal and informal educational settings? How might we might pass it along to others?

[3] Our present. Despite what we might have had and lost in the past, the material bounty we enjoy now makes even the poorest of us richer than most kings who ever lived: They'd consider our heat, transportation, running hot and cold water, ovens, refrigeration, medicine, and libraries nothing short of magical. And that's just the material stuff. What non-material things can we seek more of each day? Laughter? Fellowship? Love? Fresh air?

[4] Our future. No matter what happens with the economy or in our personal lives, we'll probably be able to find ways to eat, stay warm, and show love to others this year. A great way to challenge ourselves this year might be to consider who has most been an inspiration to us in our formative years. In what small ways can we endeavor to better further their legacy in 2013?

Gratitude returns us to a warm state of completion. It also reminds us how lucky we are to be in this world—no matter how bad the news gets, and no matter how much time we have left to live. Remember that! In the meantime, best wishes for a warm, safe, healthy and happy new year.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Remembering Tosia

During the close of a long Thanksgiving weekend filled with warmth, delicious food, family from out of town, and so much else to be grateful for, our little girl left this world, comfortably resting on my lap, slipping quietly away from a lifetime that inspired people from four continents to live, laugh, and love more fully than we ever could have without knowing her.

I was already vegetarian for many years when we adopted Tosia from a no-kill shelter in Queens, but I came to veganism in large part thanks to her, as she quietly and unknowingly helped me to understand the right all human and non-human beings have to live—free from usage for human endeavor, and free from any unnecessary pain, suffering, and fear.

She was first brought to that shelter, we believe, because someone found her being used as part of an abusive breeding operation. Her belly skin dragged on the floor for weeks. Initially, I was the only man she trusted, though that gradually changed with time.

During her early years with us, Tosia inspired a young boy who helped us to take care of her to become a young man who is now working towards becoming a veterinarian. Though tiny, she spent hours running, right in step, to, from, and around the Cunningham Park running loop in Queens.

For most of Tosia's extraordinary life, she traveled extensively with us through the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, winning human and canine hearts everywhere she went. She loved returning to all of her "vacation homes," and always settled in quickly, taking charge of favorite spots and ensuring everyone she loved was within reach for hours of licking, playing, and snuggling.

Emotionally, she kept people who were struggling to understand their path in life connected—to the outside world, and to each other—and always, somehow, made the worst pain easier to bear. She never failed to bring a smile to a troubled heart, and never failed to erase worries with her unusual playful habit of rocking forward onto the back of her neck while grabbing her face. Though she never went out of her way to acknowledge other animals, for the last year and half, she was always kind towards (and even occasionally curious about!) our newly-rescued younger dog, Smooch.

In more recent years, as Tosia slowly lost her vision and developed a serious heart condition, she slowed down, but her capacities to play, to love, and to be loved were as great as any other living being I've ever been fortunate to know. Two local organizations—an exceptional emergency animal clinic, and an amazingly kind pet funeral home—made the difficult, unexpected end of our journey with her slightly easier to bear, as I was allowed to stay with her throughout this difficult time.

We've received so many helpful messages these last few days reminding us of Tosia's huge heart, filled with gratitude for the light she brought into your lives. Thank you. Your notes remembering her tiny beauty, as well as your thoughts and memories of your own beloved pets and how their passing still, all these years later, brings pain and sadness, is something we completely understand and very much appreciate.

Thanks to James Howard Kunstler for inspiring this remembrance with his own story of Chloe.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interview: Gary Smith, The Thinking Vegan

Interview by Tom Epler

Known to many in virtual vegandom as The Thinking Vegan, Gary Smith makes it a priority is to acquaint readers with animals' pain, suffering, and fear of death, regardless of how shocking and terrifying the awful truth of their treatment and slaughter can be.

Smith's website and associated Facebook and Twitter accounts are direct and unapologetically abolitionist. Not surprisingly, they sometimes draw scorn from non-vegans and vegans alike. Whether or not you agree with Smith's message or how he delivers it, in a society like ours where the consumption, use, and abuse of animals is the norm—and those of us who refuse to participate in it are a tiny minority—Smith's is a position we must, at the very least, consider, if not adopt and embrace.

New Vegan Age: Tell us about your childhood and teen years. What formative experiences with people and animals shaped the vegan activist you would become as an adult?

Gary Smith: I was born with cerebral palsy and have walked with an exaggerated limp my entire life. Being seen as “different” in the public is good practice for being a vegan. It also helped me to be more aware of the suffering of others. Other than that it’s hard to think of any formative experiences as a child or teen that shaped me as an animal rights activist. I was a pretty insufferable as a child.

In college I took a political science class. On the first day of class, he made a comment about how most of us were privileged, that our parents were paying for us to go there and that we were mostly the product of the white middle class. After getting over my initial rage at what he had said, I began to see the world differently. There was a shift in my thinking.

The next real shift was when I went vegan the first time. One night I heard a radio show in which the host mentioned “Diet For a New America.” I bought the book and started thumbing through the first few pages. I was horrified by the photos of pigs in crates and other images of animals in factory farms. I went vegan on the spot. I had no idea what I was going to eat, but I knew that I didn’t want to take part in the exploitation of animals.

That decision quite literally changed the way that I perceived the world. All of my long-held beliefs just sort of fell by the wayside. I saw politics differently. I saw the environment differently. I saw animals differently. I saw and experienced myself differently. My views and beliefs changed so rapidly that I became somewhat frightened. I went from feeling very stable in myself and how I perceived things, to being quite unstable.

Still in college at that time, I took a class on the study of nonviolence. I remember the first day of class very clearly. The professor put on a film about Gandhi and it was as if the world stopped. Everything that had been shifting, causing me to loose my footing, became clear. I went from being afraid and feeling crazy to being totally at peace.

I became very friendly with the professor and spent a lot of time discussing the world and nonviolence with him. I gave two lectures at a local community college and assisted him in researching a book he was working on about poverty. This is where my worldview was formed.

It would be a few years later that I would become focused, and dare I say obsessed, with suffering. My focus was on human suffering for years and then shifted more acutely to animal suffering. They both go hand in hand, of course, but my energy is mostly focused on animal rights because they don’t have nearly the amount of advocates working on their behalf.

NVA: You have a lot of followers, but you seem to work outside the bubble of [a] vegan celebrities, [b] the well-known vegans who associate with them, and [c] the "everyday vegans" who spend much of their time flattering them. Without that mainstream approval and exposure, how have people come to learn about you and your work?

GS: There are in fact a lot of vegans and activists who focus on veganism as a social justice movement rather than a consumptive, mainstreamed, pro-capitalist lifestyle. Many people don’t support the focus on veganism as a diet, as a way to lose weight or look prettier, as a way to manage a disease or other superficial or selfish reasons. They’re looking for kindred spirits and a community.

I think that people are finding me specifically because I’m not talking about or advocating veganism in that manner. On my blog, I’ve primarily kept the focus on ethics. Also in my PR agency, I’m working behind the scenes by design, so my clients get mainstream exposure – I am not a public figure nor do I want to be one.

I understand why so many people hold up celebrities as examples of “veganism” (though most are at best “dietary vegans”) because the culture is obsessed with celebrities and to a certain extent, it is understandable to use them. Corporations pay millions to celebrities to endorse their products. Why? Because it is successful. The problem is a social justice movement is not a product.

NVA: It's easy for a newer vegan to feel like part of something exciting, even glamorous. Soon enough, however, we don't care to read about another celebrity black-tie vegan fundraiser gala, or about the starlet who reveals her veganism on the cover of a fashion magazine. Being vegan is not a fad for us; it's an imperative, and we're energized by the opportunity to make real, vegan choices in our real, everyday world: How we bathe, how we shop, how we cook, how we talk to people, and so on.

What, for you, is intensely personal about being vegan? What is more grounded in community, in the shared experience of being vegan?

GS: Veganism changed me as a person, has affected what I do for my career, has created some of the deepest and most meaningful friendships in my life, has given me a passion and meaning, given me Frederick and Douglass, our beagles rescued by Beagle Freedom Project from a vivisection lab in Spain. Veganism is nearly everything to me.

Though vegans may disagree with each other, sometimes quite vigorously, we all have a common bond and shared values. Whenever I meet a new vegan, I am astounded. I can’t believe that anyone would actually stop eating and using animals because it is so outside of the norm, so outside of the values of this culture. I feel an instant connection.

That is probably why I don’t feel as connected to people who are “vegan” for health reasons or for the environment, and especially not as connected to plant-based eaters and celebrities who view veganism as a diet or trend. As you said, veganism is not a fad to those of us who care deeply about animals and the ethics.

NVA: One word that comes to mind when I think of your work is "unpopular." You're following an unpopular path (veganism) through life. You tell unpopular truths about the cruel, short lives of farmed animals in a blunt, direct manner. Your posts and tweets aren't intended to be sensitive to the emotions and do-gooder sensibilities of many people. (To many of us, they're refreshing, for exactly that reason.)

Do your critics respect you for standing up for animals, even when they disagree with your message or with how it's conveyed? How do you feel about your critics?

GS: How I feel about my critics depends on their criticism. I think activists must engage in philosophical, strategic and tactical discussions to serve the cause. However I think we need to do it respectfully, and there are a few rhetorical tactics in criticism I can’t abide by, such as the “tone” accusation. Too many vegans have been told by non-vegans, as well as some other vegans, that the reason that the world isn’t vegan yet is because of our “tone.” They seem to believe that there is some magical tone or approach that will make the other 99.5 percent of the population go vegan when they hear it. If there was, the world would be vegan already.

One criticism that I find appalling is a variation on “If you’d only be nicer, I’d go vegan.” It makes them feel better to lay their regressive and destructive choices on me, as if it’s my fault that they want to continue eating and exploiting animals. I wonder if they know how horrible that makes them sound.

I also don’t care for criticism that is positioned as “if you don’t agree with my opinion, you’re harming animals.” This is childish and unproductive. But a healthy debate, which I love and welcome, can only help move us forward to more effective activism.

I’m not necessarily trying to be blunt, although on Twitter it’s hard to be anything but blunt because I have to be concise. With the blog, I’m interested in exploring the issues and encouraging people to challenge their understanding of those issues – and of themselves in the process. So it does bother me a lot that people comment and criticize when they don’t bother to read the actual post. They form an opinion based on the title or the summary or what other people are saying, without reading the article itself. This was very clear when a post I wrote about Bill Clinton got a lot more attention again after a recent speech of his. I was very clear in the blog that I congratulated him on changing his diet and turning his health around. However a lot of people whined that I was criticizing him, so it was obvious that they wanted to argue with me rather than read my perspective.

One of my other pet peeves is being criticized for sticking to the original definition of veganism as described by Donald Watson in 1944, in brief, “a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom.” People want to invent their own definitions of veganism based on their personal preferences or passions, or based on current fads, and it’s irritating that my attempt to use the term properly causes controversy.

The vast majority of the comments I get on my blog and even Facebook posts are respectful, even if they’re critical. I think the biggest criticism I get is that I won’t pet people. I won’t pet people for eating less meat or buying cage-free eggs or whatever other baby steps someone is taking to make themselves feel better about their exploitation, or whatever they are trying to get me to congratulate them for. I stick to my position that the only ethical choice, the only choice that works for animal liberation, is veganism.

NVA: How've you been able to pursue a real-world career without worrying whether you could support yourself and your family if bosses and others cut you off based on your public pronouncements about veganism? How did you make—how are you making—it work?

GS: My wife and I started our PR agency, Evolotus, back in 2006. Our work is very focused on clients that work for animal rights and veganism. My concern is much less around losing my job for speaking my truth, as it is in earning a living trying to promote justice and fairness in the media when it comes to animal rights and vegan issues. So I don’t see my activism as in conflict with my work – it’s part of my work, just like my work is a form of activism to me. Getting mainstream attention for animal rights issues is one way I can introduce people to anything from a vegan food product to a documentary or book to a successful animal rescue to an important campaign.

We have worked on several documentary films around animal rights and veganism: Skin Trade, Earthlings, Bold Native, Got the Facts on Milk, Simply Raw and Forks Over Knives.

We have worked on a few books around animal issues: That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, Vegan is Love, Letters to Pushkin and The Lucky Ones.

We have worked with many animal protection groups and campaigns: Mercy For Animals undercover investigations and their Farm to Fridge tour, the Fur Free West Hollywood campaign, FARM’s 10 Billion Lives Tour, ADI’s federal bill to ban animals from the circus, Beagle Freedom Project, ARME and Stray Cat Alliance.

We have worked very hard to make issues relating to animals, veganism and animal rights respected in the mainstream via media. Obviously my outreach with individual members of the media is separate from my outreach on The Thinking Vegan. I will say that I have had many fruitful discussions about veganism with media contacts who show interest.

NVA: What's next for you? For The Thinking Vegan? Any advice to your friends, followers, and fellow vegan bloggers?

In terms of the blog itself, I’d like to be more consistent with blog posts. In addition to writing more, I’d like to do more of the features I call “The Thinking Vegan Pop Quiz” and “The Thinking Vegan Consortium.” The Pop Quizzes and Consortium are a way to bring in other voices to discuss topics relating to veganism and animal rights, particularly voices that aren’t necessarily leaders or authors or people who have platforms of their own. There are a lot of activists out there whose work I respect, who have a lot of insight and experience, and I enjoy being able to include them in the blog because I think there is so much people can learn from them. I think the ingredients are there, I just need to carve out time and be more consistent.

We are always busy around here with Frederick and Douglass, our beagles who were rescued by Beagle Freedom Project from an animal testing lab in Spain last Thanksgiving. I hope I will get to go on many more rescues in the upcoming months. I’d like to send your readers to the website:

We’re in an interesting place with our business because we have a lot of great opportunities, but we’re often constrained because it’s only the two of us and we have to manage our time really expertly to give all our clients the right level of service. There’s so much more work we’d like to do if we had all the time in the world.

As to advice to friends and followers, I would say that you should never feel like you have to apologize for your veganism and activism. We are in the right. There is no reason to feel uncomfortable by other people’s reactions towards you. Those reactions are not about you. I think it’s important to be respectful, but you must also be truthful, honest and strong in your convictions. This isn’t really about you, it’s about the 56 billion land animals, trillions of fishes, millions of animals in labs, millions of animals killed for fashion and millions exploited for entertainment. Your voice, your behaviors, your actions are necessary for their well being. Do whatever you need to do to become more confident in using your voice and then use it.

NVA: Thank you so much, Gary. All our best to you as you continue your important work!

Interviewer Tom Epler has been vegetarian since 1997 and vegan since 2010. A returned Peace Corps volunteer, he has written for a number of organizations and causes through the years. Tom completed his undergraduate studies at Ursinus College and holds Master's degrees from Hunter College and Baruch College of the City University of New York. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn or email him a comment or question using the Contact form at right.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Yelp: A vegan's best friend?

The author (at right), who yelps "to help other vegans and to
encourage the veganization of restaurants of every stripe."

By Kim Stahler

When my journalist spouse reminds me that people should be paid for writing rather than giving it away for free, I pause and think about my frequent contributions to Yelp, currently the most popular website for reviewing restaurants. Yelp offers a one- to five- star system, with as much writing space as you can fill.

Yelp is now a public company (not exactly taking the financial world by storm, at least not yet). So my regular writing on this site helps generate corporate profits. That doesn’t make me particularly happy, but I justify it by exploiting Yelp to promote vegan restaurants. I Yelp in order to help other vegans and to encourage the veganization of restaurants of every stripe. Alas, Yelp has become a verb.

I found Yelp several years ago when searching the Internet for vegetarian food, and I have routinely received great advice from the reviews of other vegans. Yelp has also clued me in to hidden vegan menus, introduced me to restaurants I would not have otherwise known about, and shown me pictures that help greatly when visiting a place for the first time.

There are other sites just for vegans, namely Happy Cow and VegGuide, but Yelp is king right now. Because it seems most populated by Millennials, there is a growing ethical veggie sensibility there that stands up against foodie elitism. Even the omnivores seem generally appreciative of and sensitive to plant-based foods.

One of the most Yelpable places on our planet.
Speaking of elitism, one particularly silly aspect of Yelp is its awarding of Elite status to people who write a lot of reviews. Since Yelp doesn’t pay its writers, it offers this status to the status-conscious, conferring little but party invitations and a badge on one’s profile. I can see the appeal to twenty somethings who are unfairly stunted by a horrific economy and student loans: free food and drinks abound. However, I hear things can get pretty drunken and competitive in such an environment. Even though my profile states I am uninterested, I have been offered Elite status repeatedly.

I have also felt the sting of having reviews removed when I did not follow Yelp’s guidelines, and this no doubt means someone complained. While companies are smart to hire people to supervise their online reputations and respond to problems, Yelp says it will not remove bad reviews unless they violate its policies. One of my violations was commenting on a restaurant situation when it was clear I had not visited (like the tipping arrest controversy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; it appears the people arrested for not paying the included tip got all their friends to Yelp-bomb the restaurant with tons of 1-star reviews). Another was giving an inside scoop on a place I had worked. However, if you rewrite and repost your review according to their guidelines, they will usually leave it alone.

Restaurant owners can contact reviewers who post of their disappointments. I’ve received messages after lamenting the lack of plant-based food, usually with the not very thrilling answer of “We can make you something.” But that is a start to a good conversation on how a restaurant can actually become appealing to alternative eaters. See my open letter on this blog for more about this.

Another positive: Yelp does not allow direct comments on reviews, so it has not become the hotbed of nastiness that you see with online newspapers. You can mark a review as cool, funny, or useful, and you can send compliments or comments to writers, but the writer controls which comments show, and you can block people and flag those who are harassing. And writing from a vegan perspective does occasionally inspire a nastygram, but not nearly as often as it inspires sweet notes of support.

Yelp offers a similar friending mechanism as Facebook. It seems mostly for collecting and status purposes, because you don’t need to be a friend of someone to read their profile or reviews. So friending is not that important to me on Yelp.

Yelp’s smartphone app is particularly useful to vegans and vegetarians, especially when traveling. I love how they show when a restaurant is open and that you can call the restaurant right from the Yelp app. Because the search seems to work more by keyword than category, it is important to mention descriptive words such as vegan or gluten-free in one’s reviews. However, this means that when I complain that there was not even one vegan item on a menu, that restaurant will show up in a keyword search for vegan. Sorry about that!

Yelp seems to have a lot of room for pictures too, both in restaurant listings and in the writer’s profile. This can make you into that annoying person who is constantly photographing her food. It’s up to you whether you want to show your face on there. I was once paying the check at a local place, when the owner said to me, “If we take credit cards, will you give us another star?” I remembered that I had gone on about his credit card policy in my Yelp review; uh oh, a Yelp moment. I’ve also had waiters come up to me and comment on my reviews after recognizing me. This might not work out so well if you return to places you have savaged...

Yelp claims that four-star reviews are the most common rating, which makes sense because people usually go to restaurants they know they will like. Most of my five-star reviews are reserved for vegan-only restaurants, but there are some exceptions. Maybe it is where I live with its lack of options, but I follow the Bell curve and most commonly give three stars. Yelp allows writers to update and edit reviews any time, a welcome feature.

You can enjoy a bigger influence if you live in a less-Yelped geographic area. Because I don’t live in a big city, my reviews are more visible. Sometimes, mine is the only review. In the major markets of NYC, Philly, and so on, interesting restaurants typically have hundreds of reviews. Yelp used to organize them to show the most recent first, though they now use some confusing algorithm to determine the order. This has gotten them accused of manipulating content according to whether the establishment has advertised with Yelp. It supposedly went like this: “Buy some advertising, and we’ll move those bad reviews to the bottom.” Anyway, small communities benefit from user-generated content that is not influenced by ads, since most small newspapers and magazines won’t risk losing advertising by publishing critical reviews. I always hope my (mostly) polite urging for vegan food will make a difference or at least make vegans more visible as people trying to spend money.

So Yelp gets me to write for free, but my payback is using it for my food activism. Do you check Yelp for vegan options? Do you get good advice? Do you contribute?

Kim Stahler has been vegetarian since 1990 and vegan since 2009. She works as a college librarian and lives with her spouse and three cats outside Philadelphia. Her other interests include worker advocacy, New Urbanism, buying less stuff, and writing letters with old fountain pens.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Watch Your Food: The Top 10 Food Documentaries

Although it's not a documentary, "Fast Food Nation" is a feature film with
a level of realism that sometimes feels like a documentary. The film's
depiction of the underside of the fast food industry makes it one of the
Top 10 food films. (Photo courtesy of FOX Searchlight)
By John A. Zukowski

Despite the largely unflattering vegan and vegetarian stereotypes in pop culture and the lack of information about food ethics in the news media, there’s an increasing interest in food ethics and healthy eating.

With a growing vegan subculture (and a lot of A-list vegan and vegetarian celebrities), more people are curious about plant-based diets. To fill the gap of information missing in the mainstream media, a number of food documentaries have been released since Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film “Super Size Me”—which kickstarted the food doc genre. Spurlock’s rejection of a fast food diet opened the gates for other filmmakers to take on the food industry.

These ten movies provide information about the modern food industry that would never be shown in the mainstream media—which is partly kept in business by advertising from the food industry.

However, most of them advocate for a vegan diet for health reasons. Perhaps this means the gateway for individualistic Americans to veganism is telling the public they will be healthier. The ethics of eating meat or animal exploitation is covered less often than health reasons. Some documentaries such as “Food Inc.” even stop short of vegetarianism and instead call for a return to local small farms as sources for meat rather than the corporatized meat industry.

Still, the success of these documentaries indicates there is growing resistance to the corporate agriculture business and meat-based diets. Here are the ten best food movies that cover ground the mainstream media won’t:

1. “Vegucated” (2010)—Three omnivores who are willing to try a vegan diet are rounded up. It ends up being the most watchable and convincing food documentary released in recent years. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson focuses on the progress of the three participants as they wrestle with challenges ranging from uncooperative boyfriends to learning how to cook vegan. Although it’s backed up with some health and ethical facts, it’s the realistic journey of these three people that stays with us in a way that no other food doc can match.

Two college friends plant an acre of corn and go on a sweeping
investigation of modern agribusiness in "King Corn."
(Photo courtesy of Balcony Releasing)
2. “King Corn” (2007)—Exploitation and corruption aren’t only in the meat industry; it’s in the corporate agricultural business too. Two college buddies move to Iowa and buy a plot of land to grow corn on. But they soon find out it isn’t an idyllic experiment in heartland farming.

They discover the enormous subsidies the U.S. government gives to the corporatized corn industry. This leads to subsidized U.S. farmers putting Third World farmers out of business when they export their ultra-cheap goods overseas, and has created the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup in far too many foods. A must see.

3. “Super Size Me” (2004)—Morgan Spurlock ignited the food ethics documentary genre with his notorious experiment of eating a McDonald’s-only diet for a month. His health plummets, and by the end of the month he’s rescued with a vegan detox. If nothing else it reminded the masses that fast food was unhealthy and uncool.

Morgan Spurlock went on a "McDiet" in the 2004 documentary
"Super Size Me." The month-long McDonald's diet ravaged his health,
but it started the recent food film trend. (Photo courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films)
4. “Fast Food Nation” (2006)—Not a documentary but a feature film inspired by Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book. It features three separate storylines about the ethics of the fast food business. The characters become disillusioned as they descend further into the demeaning reality of the industry. The best storyline is the group of high school students working at a local burger joint who become increasingly aware of injustice and exploitation.

A flawed movie, but with more of a dose of realism than many other feature movies have despite the celebrity cameos (Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne fizzle, but Ethan Hawke impresses as the slacker beer-chugging cool uncle).

5. “Forks Over Knives” (2011)—A vegan diet transforms several people wrestling with health problems. It also contains essential information from acclaimed nutritionists. If you have to convince someone of a vegan diet from the health angle, this is probably the movie to show them.

6. “Future of Food” (2004)—Expose of the strong-armed tactics of Monsanto and the biotech industry. They bully small farmers out of business by monopolizing the seed market and by unleashing genetically-modified foods and then persuading the U.S. government not to label GMO foods—which is required in Europe.

7. “Food Inc.” (2008)—A mixed bag, but still recommended. Good part: shows the corporationization of farms and helps smash the view that most farming is by small earnest farmers that treat their animals as pets. That’s so 20th century! Bad part: Does not advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet and is way too focused on Michael Pollan’s omnivore-centric food-elitest ideology.

8. “End of Poverty?” (2008)—Not really a food doc, but a documentary about world poverty narrated by all-around good guy Martin Sheen. Shows what the mainstream media hasn’t really covered: how colonization created a culture that left people incapable of growing their own food and made them disenfranchised and dependent upon corporate food policies. This remains in one form or another in most of the world. And you can argue that’s why most of us in American culture don’t know how to grow our own food or sometimes even cook basic meals. Although it’s sometimes too slow-paced, it delivers the necessary background about how we became disenfranchised from food in the first place.

9. “Dirt: The Movie” (2009)—Gets a little touchy-feelie at times and loses steam in the last third of the movie. But it still changes the way you view something you see and feel everyday, the earth beneath your feet that grows our food.

10. “Food Fight” (2008)—Continues the trend of detailing the agribusiness practices with the usual opinions from too-much interviewed Michael Pollan. But the strength of the movie is the call-to-arms about farmer’s markets and DIY gardening. It shows there is both a backlash against modern agribusiness and an alternative to it.

John A. Zukowski worked for more than a decade as a feature writer reporting about pop culture, music and religion for daily newspapers. He's now a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with his wife Kim.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Vegans and Vegetarians in Pop Culture: "You don't win friends with salad"

By John A. Zukowski
Vegetarian/vegan characters and plotlines are showing up in more
movies and TV shows, including the post-modernist bratty animated
"South Park." Here Stan faces a moral dilemma when he sees baby cows
being bred to be veal when he goes on a school field trip to a farm.
(Photo courtesy Comedy Central) 

In recent years, a growing number of vegan and vegetarian characters are showing up in movies and TV shows. Many of these have similar character traits, which creates stereotypes. When stereotypes are repeatedly presented, people can start to think of vegetarians and vegans as they’re shown in pop culture.

All stereotypes are revealing because they indicate the dominant ideology of a culture. So it’s fascinating to see how vegans and vegetarians are portrayed in pop culture. Although I haven’t gone out of my way to watch anywhere close to all of the movies or TV shows that feature vegetarians and vegans, I’ve seen enough of them to detect some stereotypes. Here are three major ones.

#1: The Oversensitive Girly Vegetarian

In this stereotype a tween, teen, or single adult woman is overly fond of cuddly animals. They transfer this affection for cute animals into refusing to eat meat.

Molly Shannon plays a loner single woman whose
best friend is her dog Pencil in the movie "Year of 
the Dog." She is also a vegan who's just, well, so
sensitive about cuddly animals. (Photo courtesy
Paramount Vantage)
Not a bad idea to make that decision. But these characters are women and girls who are outcasts because they’re just sooooo sappy and sensitive about fuzzy little creatures. It makes them so peculiar that it’s considered to be a character flaw. In the movie “Year of the Dog,” Molly Shannon plays a mopey, sad sack 40-year-old single woman whose dog dies. The fallout from this and other events leads her to become a vegan, an adopter of an army of stray dogs, and an animal rights activist. But this is viewed as such anti-social and strange behavior that other characters question her sanity. By the end of the film she can no longer assimilate with her co-workers and neighbors who view her sensitivity as a kind of mental instability. She may have found a new calling and a like-minded romantic interest, but most of the people she knows define her sensitivity as unbalanced.

Lisa Simpson has an epiphany at the dinner table one night and
becomes a vegetarian. Her new diet disrupts the family's fragile
equilibrium and requires an intervention from Paul and Linda McCartney
to restore order. (Photo courtesy FOX Broadcasting Company)
In “The Simpsons” episode “Lisa The Vegetarian” Lisa Simpson goes on a trip with her family to a petting zoo. After spending some time petting a cuddly lamb, she goes home to a dinner of—you guessed it—lamb chops. Lisa makes a connection between the lamb at the petting zoo and the dinner in front of her. So she says she won’t eat meat anymore.

The other family members view it as a hyper girly sensitivity that is incompatible with family and school life. Although Lisa reaches a compromise with her father Homer at the end of the episode (more about that in our next stereotype), she spends the majority of the show being ridiculed and ostracized by her family and friends because of her sensitivity. After all, “you don’t win friends with salad!” as Homer chants while planning a backyard barbeque.

Male characters, too, can fall into this “girly” stereotype for being vegetarian or vegan. They are ridiculed for abandoning what seems to be an essential masculine trait of eating meat. This is illustrated well in the “Fun With Veal” episode of “South Park”—where, as  in “The Simpsons,” there is a school field trip that leads to a moral dilemma. The students see small cows at a farm that are chained up: In fact, they're the baby cows that will become veal. (Seeing cows slaughtered doesn’t bother the students, which reinforces the cute factor: There’s moral outrage about killing an animal only when it’s cute and young.)

Stan comes up with a plan to save the baby cows from being slaughtered. He and his friends smuggle them out of the ranch to Stan’s house. They vow to keep them until it’s promised the cow’s lives will be spared if released. However, after some food is sent to the boys during the standoff, Stan is inspired by the cownapping and refuses to eat the delivered meat. But Cartman warns him that “If you don’t eat meat, you become a pussy.”

Stan starts to get sick after he goes vegetarian. And although the boys end up saving the baby cows from being killed, at the end of the episode, Stan has to be revived back to health by being fed beef-filled blood intravenously. That’s to save him from being “a pussy” (the doctor says).

The emasculated male who doesn’t eat meat is also shown in “Seven Pounds,” where Will Smith’s character tells a blind vegan switchboard operator “I can’t imagine a blind vegan having sex.” In the animated movie “A Shark’s Tale,” the shark voiced by Jack Black is a vegetarian who is viewed as emasculated by other characters because of his non-killing lifestyle.

#2: The Killjoy of Communal Fun

Here, the vegetarian or vegan is a comic foil or an antagonistic force that disrupts a fun social event. It’s usually a communal meal that is threatened or ruined because of the vegetarian or vegan’s dietary requirements. Often the killjoy vegetarian is mocked by meat-eating characters that represent the social norm.

These vegans and vegetarians range from annoying inconveniences to high maintenance divas. They seem selfish or abnormal because they won’t conform to eating meat. And the meat eaters don’t seem to want to accommodate their diet. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the Greek bride tells her family members that her fiance is a vegetarian. The response? “He don’t eat no meat? That’s ok, I’ll make some lamb,” one in-law says.

In “Everything is Illuminated,” an earnest but nerdy character played by Elijah Wood takes a trip to Ukraine. After repeated requests at a dinner outing for something without meat, he is served a plain peeled potato on a plate. The awkward silence indicates that he can’t bond with the other dudes at the table because he won’t eat meat with them. But after the potato falls on the floor and some comedy ensues, the guys manage to laugh together which creates a little male bonding. But the vegetarian is clearly the outcast.

In this stereotype, being a vegetarian also indicates elitism. A good example is in “Did You Hear What Happened To The Morgans?” when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character says she is a PETA member and vegetarian. It’s a character trait that shows she’s from the snooty Manhattan world which is more pretentious and misguided than the "down-home," "honest" rural setting where she is forced to live under a witness protection program.

But it’s up to the rebellious young girls to really display this stereotype.

Darlene on the TV show "Roseanne"
was a disruptive vegetarian who
challenged her family's business, which
served meat. The plotline of the disruptive
vegetarian stereotype is usually about how
to neutralize the troublesome anti-social
vegetarian. (Photo courtesy ABC)
In the “Lanford Daze” episode of the TV show “Roseanne,” Darlene sabotages her family’s restaurant that serves meat by drawing chalklines of dead cows in front of it. As punishment she is forced to work at a booth her family’s business has set up at an outdoor market. Darlene goes but refuses to serve meat. After an intervention by country singer Loretta Lynn, there’s a truce with Roseanne and Darlene agreeing to respect each other. But Darlene’s beliefs are shown as a threat to both the economic and social order of the Conner household.

Similarly, in the “Lisa The Vegetarian” episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa disrupts a neighborhood community event by trying to stop a pig roast at Homer’s barbeque. It takes an intervention by vegetarians Paul McCartney (what’s the deal with celebrity sages?) and grocery store clerk Apu to make Lisa reconsider her militaristic approach to being a vegetarian. In a kind of hippie-esque garden, McCartney and Apu mellow Lisa out by telling her she must learn to be tolerant of meat eaters. Lisa doesn’t abandon her beliefs; she just has to eliminate her frustration about others eating meat.

Much like Roseanne and Darlene’s resolution, Lisa and Homer later make a truce to respect each other’s diets. No one is converted or reflects on Lisa’s vegetarian beliefs. Being a vegetarian is ultimately tolerated, but talking about it isn’t tolerated. In other words, for the price of no longer being a vegetarian outcast and being accommodated, the cost is being silent about one’s beliefs.

It’s an ambivalent ending. While the show instills some healthy tolerance and patience for meat eaters, it also requires an unhealthy muzzling of Lisa’s moral outrage. It’s an effective episode about a vegetarian conversion, but the “Roseanne” episode has a more satisfying outcome. Darlene is still able to maintain her rebellious and subversive identity even while making a truce with her family about their conflicting diets.

#3. The Flaky Poser Hippie

In this stereotype being a vegetarian or vegan is just another characteristic of the hippie subculture.

In the “Fun With Veal” episode of “South Park” a group of hippies picket together to support the boys’ baby cow abduction. But being cheered on by “dirty hippies” (as Cartman puts it) is so horrifying that it nearly causes the boys to abandon their plan to stop the wide-eyed baby cows from being killed.

The character Shaggy in "Scooby
Doo" may or may not be a
vegetarian, depending on which
TV or movie version you see.
But most of the time the cartoon
world's most stoner character is a
vegetarian. (Photo courtesy
Warner Brothers)
The hippie/vegetarian stereotype makes it no surprise that the character Shaggy (long viewed as the cartoon world’s first version of a stoner) is a vegetarian in the 2002 big screen version of “Scooby Doo.” But this stereotype also shows the hippie vegetarians as flaky hypocrites who often don’t really have deep convictions about their veggie diet or their hippie way of life. Some of them abandon their diet when they grow out of their hippie phase. Or, being a vegetarian or vegan is a superficial trait that hippies adopt as a kind of outfit along with Birkenstock sandals and ragtag clothes.

For example, there’s the unsympathetic, ponytailed vegetarian rival to John Cusack in “High Fidelity” (played by Tim Robbins, who is dating Cusack’s ex-girlfriend). He masquerades as a soft spoken do-gooder, but the movie reveals him to be a manipulative hippie poser. In “Notting Hill,” Hugh Grant’s character goes on a disasterous date with a hippie “fruitarian” who only eats fruit that falls off of trees because she doesn’t want to kill anything. She tells him that vegetables have feelings and that she won’t eat carrots because they have been murdered. In “About A Boy,” Toni Colette is a hippie single mother who forces her high school-aged son Marcus to be a vegetarian. This is just one of several things that causes Marcus to be bullied and ostracized in school. Colette eventually de-hippifies her parenting. By the end of the movie she believes she’s being too extreme with her diet and tells Marcus they can eat at McDonald’s.

Which character on the TV show "Friends"
was the vegetarian? The flaky ditzy pseudo-hippie
one, of course: Phoebe (far left).
(Photo courtesy NBC)
The flakiest character in the TV show “Friends” is Phoebe, who is a vegetarian. However, in the episode “The One With The Fake Party,” Phoebe ravenously eats meat when she is pregnant. She devours it so intensely that it looks like she’s fulfilling a repressed desire to be a carnivore. This seems to indicate she too is a poser vegetarian.

In general, during the show, Phoebe’s friends view her vegetarianism as a pseudo-hippie trait they must tolerate. I say pseudo-hippie because Phoebe never is self-conscious enough to adopt an alternative lifestyle. She is portrayed as a childish ditz who dabbles in some superficial hippie traits, but never really develops them into anything distinctive or meaningful.

So in movies and on TV, vegetarianism and veganism are largely portrayed as lifestyle choices resulting from oversensitivity, selfish pretention, or just one of the flaky characteristics of the hippie lifestyle. Interestingly, the animated format of “The Simpsons” and “South Park” provides the deepest examination of meat ethics because the shows graphically illustrate how meat is produced. But most pop culture steers away from such territory and portrays meat eating as the accepted social norm and the vegetarian or vegan as a problematic agitator, dopey hippie, or oversensitive outcast. Usually, the most that vegetarian and vegan characters can hope for is a truce to be accepted for who they are. But transformation of other characters to a vegetarian/vegan diet or overtly challenging the meat industry is for the most part impossible.

John A. Zukowski worked for more than a decade as a feature writer reporting about pop culture, music and religion for daily newspapers. He's now a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with his wife Kim.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegans are good for your restaurant's business

This mock duck made of
seitan is a vegan choice at
Wild Ginger in
Huntingdon Valley, Pa. 
(Photos by Kim Stahler)
By Kim Stahler

Dear restaurant owners,

I need your help, because I think you want my money. And I want to give it to you. I love to eat, but your menu offers nothing for me as a vegan, and there are a lot more people like me than you think.

I am officially done with patronizing restaurants that don't put even one plant-based entree on the menu. I am looking at you, seafood restaurant, Italian bistro, everyday diner, and fancy New American place. Isn’t veganism all over the news? What if Bill Clinton or Ellen & Portia come to dine? Trained chefs don’t just learn to cook dairy and meat, right? Creamy, savory, rich, spicy, flavorful food ideas crowd the pages of the plentiful vegan cookbooks out right now. There are French ones too. And don’t forget dessert!

Why should you accommodate me, when I am the minority? Well, I bring friends, kind and considerate friends who usually want to go somewhere that does not exclude me. In fact, when my colleagues or family plan a meal out, I am often the one asked to pick the spot. Restaurants with nothing for my spouse and me lose out on business not only from us but also from these considerate omnivores, a sort of vegan veto. It happens a lot. We want to pay you for your culinary knowledge and creativity! Just give us a plant-based dish or two or three—we’ll come back for the others and bring our friends.

Before I visit you, I will check out your menu online. If there is nothing I can order right off the menu, I usually move on to another choice. See, you just lost me (and my group), and it didn’t have to happen. I occasionally call or e-mail to see if you have an alternative menu not listed online. I want to know whether there are any vegan entrees, NOT which dishes can be altered. Paying full price for a dish with the savory items removed is not desirable, because I know that chefs create dishes with flavors and textures to complement each other. Vegan food on your menu shows that you get it.

“But we can make you something.” I hear that a lot. I used to be happy about that but no longer am. Going out in times of limited money means, for a few hours, a carefree oasis with friends, and I have no desire to call attention to my diet in this environment, especially with work colleagues or in-laws—or to negotiate when I am trying to relax. There are too many questions to ask and too many dishes that end up falling far short of even my own fledgling cooking skills. I can see from the other items on your menu that there are plenty of ingredients that could combine to make something tasty, but no one should have to rely on my underdeveloped ability to create something. You are the experts.

A vegan dessert like this one at Sprig
and Vine in New Hope, Pa. would
please an omnivore.
I have worked in plenty of restaurants, and I know how cooks and servers dread special instructions. It isn’t an unwillingness to accommodate but rather the increased risk that things will be forgotten, misunderstood by the cook, screwed up, be sent back, and so on, risking the tip. I don’t care to put staff through this, nor do I want my dining companions to have to deal with it. Dishes that are ready to go are easier on your staff. If you label the dish as vegan, I will love you even more, because I don't have to pester my server. If I am forced into the position of being the high-maintenance one, I will just go elsewhere.

Restaurant owners may believe that no one will order a vegan dish; I agree that no one will order a boring bland one. Plenty of omnivores enjoy a good vegan meal and seek it out, for the lack of cholesterol, lower calories, and maybe the good karma. My dad has had a heart attack and appreciates a cholesterol-free dish, but he would never ask for one. I know many part-time vegans and vegetarians—some people don't want to be labeled but simply love vegetables and the nutrient blast they pack. But most such people don’t find yet another pasta, salad, or grilled veggie dish appealing, nor do they want to pay $15-20 for it. How depressing that this ends up representing vegan food to them.

It's always good for a restau-
rant to label the vegan choices
like in this menu from Thai
L'Elephant in Phoenixville, Pa.
Restaurateurs, you don’t have to accommodate us, but you are losing out on a rapidly growing sector of eaters, and their friends, if you don’t. Meat consumption is on the decline. Creative vegan dishes on a traditional restaurant menu wave a flag of welcome to alternative eaters, and you can be sure we will tell everyone we know.

So for now, my spouse and I rely on a small group of ethnic restaurants: the local Asian and Middle Eastern places. Special occasions send us to Philadelphia, but we would love to spend our money locally, with you. There are thousands of vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts out there waiting to be showcased, and you will be contributing to better health in your community. And I will bring my friends, family, and colleagues.

Kim Stahler has been vegetarian since 1990 and vegan since 2009. She works as a college librarian and lives with her spouse and three cats outside Philadelphia. Her other interests include worker advocacy, New Urbanism, buying less stuff, and writing letters with old fountain pens.