2011-11-08

The Veggie Challenge, Veganism, and Me

disclaimer: this is a tad long but the bulk has been sitting as a draft for long enough.  At least enjoy the cute pictures!


Veggie Challenge
So, the first day of the Veggie Challenge has passed!  We had a few short of 300 participants register for the Veggie Challenge on campus.   That's more than double last year.  The sign-up table was pretty constantly busy both afternoons it was out, and we repeatedly had to run off to go print more sign up sheets and tracking ballots.
my infamous poster :)

I was pleased by the number of vegetarians that also signed up to do their own Vegan Challenge, and the vegans that signed up to do their own raw/organic/local food challenge.  Two of my typically omnivorous friends surprised me by opting to go straight for veganism for a whole week!  I'm giving them some tips. :)

Vegan challenge, and having help, and challenges
Having help is handy.  I'm not sure I'd have been able to adapt to veganism since September if not for friends like Sylvia.  I was originally just going to learn how to make some vegan dishes and desserts for entertaining friends.  It quickly evolved into running a vegan household to keep things simple.  Then I finally realised I could actually reconcile the inconsistency in my vegetarian ethics and just practise veganism all the time.  Sylvia, who had authored Vegan Advantage (now gone), helped point out many ways in which I could have a healthy and straightforward vegan diet.  Straightforward and simple is key to success!

One hard thing was the transition: my eating habits had been pretty strongly tied to dairy and egg consumption.  The other hard thing was my wants: ice cream has been my favourite food and greasy eggs my favourite breakfast.  Another hard thing is social: how far to accommodate others when eating out or being hosted.  I'll discuss these three challenges more in sections below :)

It was pretty necessary for me, though.  One of the several reason I became a vegetarian was because I'm not comfortable with obliging animals to spend their lives for my pleasure.  At this point, it's certainly not for survival anymore.  However, dairy and even free range eggs in Canada still drive undesirable treatment and unnecessary death of living animals.  You impregnate a cow to get it to lactate, and then you take away the resulting calf and turn it into veal, into a beef steer, or into another lactating cow.  After five years when a cow's output is suboptimal, you cull it.  Free range chickens still live in densely packed situations with dirty environments and can suffer lovely practises like debeaking.  When they're output is no longer profitable, you cull them.  I'm not an abolitionist: I'm not opposed to humans and animals interacting, and I don't think it's always exploitative.  If I owned my own cow and chickens, or could be confident that they were treated well and their lives respected, I would probably be fine consuming their dairy and eggs.  But that's not the case right now, and it's an awkward position to be in, to have ethical reasons for vegetarianism but still consume dairy when you know what must happen to the cows and their calves.
my uncle's chickens, next door to my cousin's abattoir

But it's still hard.  The inconsistency has been on my mind for a year until I finally felt able to do something about it.  Pursuing veganism right now has been a little isolating: it definitely removes me from the world of Food at large: dairy components exist in so many things, even when it's not necessary.  Egg too.  But it's not hard to actually do.  I'm eating more healthily now and feeling better: I make more of my own food so I save money.  I don't eat as much junk food, as most sold in stores isn't vegan.  I'm paying more attention to my B12, protein, calcium, and iron intake.

Challenge 1: Initial transition: conceptual change and shopping
One of the hard parts was the initial conceptual change: accepting that I have to operate out of normal social eating habits.   Most restaurants have vegetarian options other than salads, but not so for vegans.   However, in a modest town the size of Guelph and on its campus, there are a number of places that do cater (that is, have many delicious items, even if not all) to vegans: The Cornerstone, Zen Garden, the University's "Nature's Best" and the Bullring.   In Toronto it's even easier: there are dozens and dozens within walking distance of the downtown.  Grocery shopping can seem difficult at first, as I'm used to just shopping for a lot of prepared things at No Frills.  (I already get most of my produce from the Farmer's Market for social reasons.)  However, once you know what places sell vegan-friendly supplies, it's not bad.  I still get to eat ice cream with the fantastic coconut-based varieties sold at the Stone Store in Guelph, and the Metro and Zehrs carry a nice selection of fake meats (need to get my B12 from somewhere! (just ask where they get the B12 from, though!)) and non-dairy cheeses.  In fact, as far as home cooking goes, life carries on, minus egg breakfasts.
niece's dairy-laced birthday-cake, declined :(
Challenge 2: Giving up what I don't deserve: favourite foods that obliged others' livesIce cream, cheese, chocolate milk, egg breakfasts.  These have been some of my most favourite things.  Salami and ham were too once.  But as I could no longer let myself enjoy eating the flesh of animals killed for my pleasure, I can't really continue with dairy and eggs and like myself.  (I may seriously acquire pet chickens at some point, though!  What respectable lives they will lead!  All in monocles and top hats.)  Substitutes have helped.  They're not the same.  Sometimes, they're not as good to me (soy cheese's flavour (the texture is great)).  Sometimes, they're better (coconut milk ice cream!).  But like veggie dogs, they let me continue to enjoy much of what I liked about the food it replaces.  I can also continue to eat cookies, cake, pie, brownies, cupcakes, and muffins using vegan-friendly ingredients, and honestly in these cases, I can't tell a meaningful difference: dairy and egg are not necessary for legitimately great desserts (though I'm sure some variants aren't quite possible without them).  
respectable chicken, suitable clip-art
found via St. Peters United Church
So, on one hand, I've given up eating conventional variants.   I've turned down birthday cake (sorry K), lemon loaf (sorry S), and losher cookies (sorry L) made by friends.  But on the other, I'm not missing out on so much, as I've baked like a devil, the oven has been kept so hot, and it's been great, save for one disastrous batch of brownies (greasy and crispy, just like bacon) which were a hit at a bake sale anyway (what?).  And I finally don't have to wonder about the living cost of my cookies. :)

Challenge 3: Society
This is the reason why I'm writing this post.   Whereas friends had been very understanding about my vegetarianism, many have been less so about my recent veganism.  There's friendly chiding, which I don't mind at all.  But then some have been actually offended and sought to argue with me about it in unconstructive ways.  I really don't want to offend people.  I don't want to debate your diet (though I'd gladly discuss it friendlily :D).  I'm sorry each time I disappoint a friend by declining to sample their hard kitchen work.  I'm sorry for the hassle as I delay orders by asking a waitress a dozen questions about a menu.  (If it was neatly marked everywhere, I could be imperceptible!)

The hardest person to tell was my father.  He took my vegetarianism seven years ago so hard.  I didn't even tell him that this Thanksgiving was intentionally vegan.  It was awkward sitting in our regular breakfast seats or at Eggcetera and not ordering my meatless egg breakfast and coming up with excuses over the past few weeks.  However, he took it surprisingly well and thoughtfully when I finally told him last weekend.  He enquired about the health consequences, and I let him know that I was taking that seriously (more seriously than I did with vegetarianism!), and I was very delicate about explaining the ethical motivations (I never want him to feel like I disapprove of him, even if I don't agree with his lifestyle (heavy on the meat and he hunts!, but I love him, traditional habits die out gradually)).  He quickly understood my ordering decisions going back a few weeks and then he was happy and surprisingly supportive.  My father is amazing.

I hope friends of mine reading this can respect this.  Please continue to invite me over for meals or invite me out.  I'm really happy to enjoy a beverage and a light salad in a restaurant if it means I can socialise with you!  If you're hosting, I'll bring delicious dishes and cookies!  It's in your best interest to support me :D  I will try to not be difficult!  I will not be offended.
Yes, it is a vegan ice-cream sandwich! 
Freshly baked vegan cookie + coconut ice cream = love
This is actually one of the reasons I started practising veganism, as noted above.  I've made a lot of vegan friends this past summer (K, L, D, S, C, A, and A!) all over the place, and I felt bad that I wasn't able to accommodate them easily.  I didn't know how.  I could see how often they could not partake in something because it the standard was not vegan-friendly.  I don't mind that for myself, but hopefully I can make their days a little brighter.  (So many cookies... :|)

My Benefits: health, money, environment, conscience
I mentioned earlier the effect on my own health: for some people, it can be tricky, especially if they're naturally deficient of something harder to obtain from a vegan diet.  But I'm fortunate to have a pretty sound body with no known natural deficiencies (or allergies :D), and some minimal attention has left me feeling confident that I'm not becoming malnourished.  This has left me cooking more at home and eating less junk food, and in general feeling quite good.  I even have maintained the energy and strength to pursue a variety of sports. :D  My sister-in-law has teased my brother that he'll put him on a vegan diet if it would make him more like me. :D  At this rate, I'll never be obese. :(  Also, after acquainting myself with where I could get ingredients and what dishes I still wanted to make in the first couple of weeks, cooking has been easy. :)

Some things cost a bit more, like buying soy milk cartons and coconut-milk ice cream (4x the price of dairy ice cream per millilitre!), but eating out costs a lot more than making your own food.  And habits of buying snacks make it still worse. 

Something I didn't elaborate on above was the impact on the environment.  Raising animals for meat is a very inefficient way to produce food and meet nutritional requirements.  Keeping cattle around to produce dairy also doesn't help.  The consequences of current activities on the environment is somewhat controversial, but at least the appeal of efficient food production should be obvious given accepted food insecurity problems across the world, and if you accept that there is some limit to what activity the world can sustain, any trends that help keep us keep away from such limits is probably good.  (Global population is now estimated at seven billion!)

And yah, my personal conscience.  Some people are happy taking the lives of animals, they even like to do it themselves, hiding in a bush and waiting with a gun to kill a deer as it wanders by.  It's traditional, it's historical, it's natural.  For me, it's unnecessary, superfluously for pleasure, and regardless of how awesome it tastes (I do recall the sensations of eating my favourite salamis), I can't justify requiring their lives, no matter how comparatively "stupid" or instinctual an animal's existence is.  (Note how I still happily eat plants for survival despite plant-psychology, so sufficiently different than my own that I'll accept their sacrifice for my survival ahead of creatures whose sense of suffering I glimpse directly.  This leads into a tangent, though!)

Tangent on animal welfare versus human welfare and doing what you can
On a tangent, someone recently tried to suggest that caring about animals so was flawed in part because I still owned used shoes and a coat that had been manufactured by comparatively poorly paid workers in China.  Besides the notable flaw that such an argument suggests "if you can't do everything right you'd like to, you shouldn't bother with anything," I don't think the Chinese workers had their hides skinned for my (synthetic) shoes, Chinese economics are complicated and having western money flow into China helps improve the situation, many Chinese labourers want the poor jobs we wouldn't tolerate so they can have some income to support their family, and the situation is reportedly improving.  Having fair trade economics in all purchasing would be great, and it would be nice for people to pay the full price for their luxuries (smart phones and electronics especially included, even if this would slow civilisation's progress), but it's not like supporting animal welfare directly with my diet makes human welfare worse.  I mean, I'm already buying most things second hand (reducing consumerism and slowing the new-goods economy (which isn't that bad, as money is still moving, which is important)) and supporting local business where possible.  Fascinatingly, my relative poverty as a student does prevent me from doing of the things I'd like to do: many local alternatives I simply cannot afford.

Good night!
Ha, I'm surprised if you made it this far!  Why did you read this?!  Anyway, I'm not going to write much about veganism or use this blog to try to convert people.  I'll probably mention the odd GSETA (Guelph Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) activity that I'm involved in.  But there you are.  I've been vegan for a while now and it's working well for me.  Here's a partial list of first names that have been influential and supportive of me:
  • Kelsey, Danny, Laura, Anna, Kathryn, Amanda, Ariel, Ashley, Chad, Chani, Sylvia, my dad (ha!), Terri, and GSETA.
my oft-shared sentiment,
as borrowed from a CD cases

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I am aeronautical, vanship-style.  I am olympic and mythical.  I rest on my laurels.