First things first. Though I expect it to be an excellent read and have intended to for several years, I have not read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It's on the shelf and waiting for me…but so are many other good books. They're all screaming my name like adoring fans, but usually I can only handle one at a time, so relax, books. Right now I'm easing my way through Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless, his journal entries from the making of Fitzcarraldo. Herzog rules.
While I admire Pollan, mostly due to his interviews and reviews, I think my wife has read all of his books, and I feel a little lame for not having read a single one…yet. Still, one of his most popular titles seemed appropriate for this post, so with apologies to Mr. Pollan, I’m borrowing it, minus the The.
Despite observing the experiences of several friends, family members, casual acquaintances, authors, actors, celebrities, chefs, infomercial denizens and ex-presidents, who over the years have attempted—with varying degrees of success—innumerable iterations of a plant-based diet (PBD) or veganism (no animal products), vegetarianism (no meat), pescatarianism (no meat but fish), fruitarianism (nothing but fruit), paleolithicism (pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer menu), anti-carbism (no carbohydrates), rawfoodism (only raw foods), juiceandberryism (only these), macrobioticism (ask Gwynneth), baconism (no meat but bacon) meatpotatobreadandcheeseism (yes, really), hallelujahbarleymaxism (green slime juice diet) and endless variations of these and so many other isms, I have always been and currently remain an ism-free omnivore.
It's just the way I continue to live. I’m not saying that my omnivorous status is better or worse or etched in stone, but that's an outdated metaphor anyway. Have you ever tried to read gravestones at a really old cemetery?
I’ve considered a few of these dietary strategies with serious interest but never jumped into any of them. As a vegetarian and vegan craze swept through my greater circle of friends in college, I wasn't moved to hop on the wagon. One punk rock couple I knew even became active Hari Krishna devotees, shaving their heads and wearing matching t-shirts marked VEGAN, accessorizing with spiked dog collars and bracelets, but I remained unmoved. A couple years ago, after learning more about the potential health benefits of eating only plants, I was thinking seriously about a PBD experiment of six months or even a year, just to see how I felt and what it might be like, but even with a strong interest and convincing evidence of health benefits, I never took the plunge.
I think it usually comes down to the fact that I like to have options. I like to think I have a somewhat adventurous palate, though nothing on the level of Anthony Bourdain (whose books Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour I have thoroughly enjoyed) or Andrew Zimmern (who seems determined to consume the nastiest bits from the four corners of the globe, even thought it is Bourdain who has written a book titled The Nasty Bits). Of course, most of us have far fewer stamps in our passports and fewer choices at mealtime, so it's important while musing on this issue to recognize the differing food-related challenges people everywhere face in their daily lives. Income, access to and the cost of various foods (not to mention education and access to information about foods, dietary choices and health) are impossible to ignore.
I love vegetables and regularly prepare vegetarian and vegan meals. However, I enjoy consuming animal products and sometimes even crave them. I find tofu and all meat substitutes to be reliably disgusting, and even my dog spit out the vegan "as if it were cheese" that my Mom once brought home as an experiment when I was in high school. Again, I love most veggies (and all beans, too), though I'm convinced that if I ever actually converted to a PBD, I would resolutely avoid processed meat substitutes. Have you ever tried a fake-meat hot dog? It's about as delicious as soggy cereal mixed with ground rubber erasers and chemical flavoring, dried out and compressed into a sausage casing. Please keep your soysage and seitan, your tofu, tofurky, tempeh and TVP to yourself. I'm glad you enjoy it, but I don't care how fancy it is; I'd rather eat a bowl of plain beans with hotsauce.
This food masquerade reminds me of diet soda. Give me the real deal or allow me to enjoy a delicious glass of water. Who wants fake ice cream made from soy and water? Not me. If your goal is to avoid meat, why bother to emulate what cannot be replicated? Why not just stick to all the wonderful options that vegetables and legumes offer without freaky, chemical-laden, overly processed frankenfoods? If you like soy so much, get some damn edamame. At least it's still a whole bean. Put some soy sauce on it. Isn't the point of eating a PBD to consume natural, whole foods anyway? I just don't get the whole meat substitute impulse, but I guess people simply must emulate things they can no longer enjoy or have banned themselves from. I'd rather just celebrate the differences between diets and highlight the best parts of them than strive for inevitably inadequate substitutes.
While I cannot summon the animosity with which Bourdain has eviscerated vegans and vegetarians, I tend to agree with his general outlook—that if you make these rules for yourself, despite your intentions, you are going to miss out on some seriously excellent culinary and cultural experiences, not just in Burma and Bangladesh and whatever exotic locale Bourdain might find himself in, but likely in a little dive in your own home town that specializes in something so magically delicious that it almost makes you cry.
Those places exist everywhere. Sometimes they might take some effort to find, but that perfect pizza, that distinctive steak-in-a-sack sandwich, or the most delicious of spicy cashew chicken dishes served up from a tiny trailer--they're out there and they're screaming at you like those unread books. If you don't indulge, you will miss out on social interactions, cross-cultural customs and the hedonistic pleasures of the palate unique to any region, and not only those experienced outside of America by the hosts of globetrotting travel food shows.
You know, if the PBD works for you, that's great. I'm glad, and I'm not trying to talk you out of it. In fact, I admire you for going after it, if you can make it work. But isn't there enough bad news in the world? Aren't we already stuck in jobs we don't love, slowly getting fat and old, watching actors travel to the places we can't afford to go and fake the adventures that we'll never have on our TV sets from the comfort of our climate controlled dwellings so that we can merely distract ourselves long enough to prod ourselves into getting up the next morning to make the donuts all over again? Do we really have to deprive ourselves entirely of the inherent pleasures derived from carnivorific works of culinary art, or at least of the occasional, glorious bacon cheeseburger?
Above all else, I respect an individual’s right to choose his or her own path in life—and this includes everything from religion to abortion sexual orientation to drug and alcohol use and whatever the hell you want to eat or don’t. My basic philosophy is Do Whatever You Want, but Be Cool, and Don't Bother Anybody. In short, don’t hurt other people or prevent them from doing with their bodies whatever it is they choose to do with their own damn bodies.
I can hear PETA and its acolytes (should they ever read this) attacking me for not including animals in my philosophy, so let’s go there. I love animals and have kept two dogs, a kitten and a rabbit as pets over the course of my lifetime. I did not eat any of these animals.
I did read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, an eloquent, depressing, ethical/philosophical treatise on the SAD (Standard American Diet) practice of eating our fine furry, feathered or otherwise featured friends from the animal kingdom, too many of which come from ghastly places known as factory farms. It was an excellent read and covered many of the reasons for not eating meat of which I was already aware (health, environment, disease, famine, factory farms, animal rights) but I was stunned that Foer's book did not even mention veganism or the fact that his philosophical and ethical problem with consuming meat apparently did not extend to the dairy industry and consuming eggs, cheese, milk, butter, etc...products that are still derived from exploited animals, often in questionable conditions. Maybe Foer just didn't want to go there, but how can I advocate for being cool to people but also for eating animals, Mr. Foer or PETA might ask.
How can the health argument trump all the other arguments? Don't I care about animals? Of course I do. Don't I hate to see them suffer? Yes. Do I feel like I can change the world by becoming vegan? Not in the slightest. People have eaten and will continue to eat meat, regardless of the PBD club, no matter how large it is destined to become. Animals and people will continue to be mistreated. Do I realize that as a consumer I am voting with my dollars and contributing to the problem as a meat eater? Of course, but the world is an ugly place, and the food chain has been around a long time.
I have reduced my meat intake and generally try to eat it in a more Asian way, as a garnish rather than as a focal point of a meal. It sounds like a cop-out, but I don't have the answers. In short, I don’t know the best solution...hence the dilemma and this post. I still like to grab a burger once and a while and enjoyed one a week ago. I never claimed to have this food chain/ecosystem/planet steward thing all figured out. I can list the reasons why it makes logical sense for a thinking, feeling, passionate person to stop eating animal products, but that’s been done over and over. I'm still thinking, evaluating, reading, learning...and eating animal products.
I attend an annual camping trip with four high school buddies. We hike into the woods and camp, fish, swim, cook, eat and drink but mostly just sit around and socialize, as we’re now spread into different cities and states and look forward to catching up once a year while relaxing in the woods. This will be the 16th year we’ve gathered.
A few years ago, maybe three or four, I remember a homebrew-fueled argument that, while civil, went on for far too long. One of my friends (a wildlife/fisheries scientist with an MS in fish biology) had recently started hunting and regaled the rest of us around the campfire with a story of his first duck hunt, a trip he had undertaken, as I recall, with his future father-in-law, an effort that began with two unfamiliar men getting acquainted in a canoe with shotguns on a lovely day and ended rather embarrassingly with a wounded, desperate duck, shot from the sky and flapping maniacally for its life in the water next to the boat, only to meet its maker at the hands of my pal, who eventually through some combination of his semi-accurate shotgun blast and a bit of blunt-force cranial trauma, choking and drowning, managed to dispatch the poor creature at long last.
As one might imagine, his story made for an animated and sad but nonetheless entertaining campfire tale. I don’t recall how we got into the debate, but I remember clearly what was said on both sides. When pressed to explain my views on hunting, I was clear. I said that while I had no problem with hunting for meat to eat and leather to use, etc., I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t really understand why anyone else wanted to do it, particularly at a time when American carnivores with financial means can easily access a wide variety of meats from a wide variety of sources that have already been dispatched, humanely or not. I went on to say that while I had no desire to stalk and kill an animal, I’m confident that I would not have a problem doing so if circumstances dictated that necessity. But they didn’t. And they don’t.
I will never understand hunting for sport or trophies. That to me is inexplicable and questionable, but I can respect someone determined to hunt and kill to feed him or herself and a family or group members, feeling like a real part of an ecosystem and living the definition of self-sufficiency. And I can enjoy consuming the fruits of these DIY labors without feeling as though I’m less of a man for not having killed the beast, scraped out its guts and dragged it through the woods. I suppose my argument relied heavily on circumstances, but my friend just didn't accept my point. I live in the city, not on a farm. I have access to supermarkets, butcher shops and community supported agriculture; there are sources of meat whose origins I can trace, and I have the privilege of choosing meats from various sources. Again, many people do not.
Isn’t this a key part of any food discussion? The privileges we enjoy as Americans. The fact that most people in the world make do with a lack of options instead of a plethora of choices. Sure, some cultures reject meat, but more still rely on it as a vital component of sustenance. To reject opportunities to connect with people because of restrictive dietary choices is obviously offensive to Bourdain, and he has alluded to this on his international journeys more than once. Though the essay isn’t focused on diet, he wrote movingly here about his transition between writing Kitchen Confidential with an angrier, more misanthropic worldview than what has evolved within him as he enjoys so many meals with so many people from so many different cultures, belief systems and ways of life around the world. Henry Rollins, I would argue, also experienced a similar lessening of misanthropy over decades of international travel.
Bourdain's basic view of humanity, one he once seemed to share with the late, great Bill Hicks, was shaken to its core and rewritten with a more informed perspective that travel inevitably catalyzes. For Bourdain, being open to whatever may be on the menu is a big part of this transition.
His point though, if I dare paraphrase a writer I admire, is that to reject the communal joy of eating certain kinds of foods is to reject people, cultures, ideas and experiences that are priceless and potentially transformational. That certain barriers can only be broken down by sharing a table, eating and drinking with someone, opening yourself to the possibilities that another person's table, cuisine and perspective can offer. That losing the ability to share this with others for your own selfish and likely privileged reasons is essentially to give up one’s status as a citizen of the world.
So I'm left pondering the books and movies I have read or viewed over the years, those that make solid points, either directly or tangentially, about adopting a PBD, those found in The Jungle, Fat Land, Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, The Future of Food, Food, INC., and particularly, the more recent and quite convincing Forks Over Knives. I think about the other books I haven't read but probably should, like The China Study, The Blue Zones, The Engine 2 Diet, etc...
I've nearly convinced myself that the way to remain healthy for as long as possible is to adopt the PBD. It seems clear now that if I were truly motivated to lose weight or to extricate myself from spiraling health, a reliance on medications, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, diabetes or something else equally or more awful, I would be hard pressed not to get more serious about this way of life.
But for now, I'm lucky. I'm not fat, sick, on drugs or diseased (as far as I know). I can afford the pleasure of enjoying a wide variety of foods, including animal products, because I continue to enjoy good health. Of course, many people continue to eat the SAD long after becoming sick and wouldn't even consider converting to a PBD.
Two of my grandparents lived well into their 90s on the SAD. I keep coming back to the idea of moderation, as it doesn't all have to be in absolutes. I can cut back on meat and dairy and still enjoy it just as much, and I have done so. But how do I reconcile the overwhelming evidence for a healthy, PBD lifestyle with the reality, which is that I choose not to adopt it?
I don't have any answers. I just have some information that I'll have to decide how to process as life goes on. It's still a dilemma. I'll just have to reserve the right to change my mind. I don't plan to ever stop learning...or eating. Meanwhile, it's nice to know that there's some common ground here, even between Bourdain and Foer.