Saturday, March 14, 2009
E's Gone Vegan
I've had a number of people say to me something to the effect of, "Eric, you're nuts. Why are you on a vegan diet?". Well, I thought i'd try and explain that here. I'll also try to answer the other question i've been getting which is, "Eric. What exactly do you eat???". Some people ask because they are curious, and others are asking because they want to try the diet themselves, even if only on a partial basis. If you'd like to just see what i'm eating then feel free to just jump to the bottom. Ok, so here goes:
For the first 15 years of my life, vegetables were things that I did not understand. Mostly, I did not understand why people ate them. Pithy, grainy, bitter... Yucky, I believe was the term I would have used back then. Out of the vast cornucopia that is the modern day supermarket there were 4 vegetables that I would so much as touch as a child. Potatoes, iceberg lettuce, ketchup (yes i'm counting ketchup as a vegetable), and an occasional can of del monte canned green beans. But ONLY the canned stuff. You couldn't buy me enough video games to make me touch a fresh green bean. And NOT mashed potatoes. Mostly just french fries. And even many fruits were blackballed. The foods I would eat were basically threefold: salami sandwiches, steak, and burger king. Yes, it was a limited list, but to me it was more than enough. I saw no reason for anything else. What more could one need? Some of the items I refused to eat (and this is no exaggeration) included: any non-iceberg lettuce, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, berries of all types, SPAGHETTI (who's italian?), seafood of any kind, avocados, PEANUT BUTTER, jelly, olives, tomatoes (besides ketchup), SOUP, CORN... CORN!!!??!!? Yes I was a jewish mother's nightmare. (plus, I not only didn't want to be a doctor, I wanted to be a mechanic like my hero the Fonz).
My wonderful parents, however, cannot be faulted here. They tried. I refused. Adamantly. Until I was 15!!!! They would diligently make sure there was one of the big three or little 4 at the dinner table while everyone else ate what was for dinner. When I hit 15, I was at summer camp one day when I found myself piling a small scoop of spaghetti on my plate after watching everyone else in my bunk do the same for zillionth time. I drew a forkful to my lips. "Hm. Not so bad..." I thought. Soon after came corn, soup, tuna, and others. Before long, my aversions began giving way to passion. Through college I found myself becoming adventurous even. As school progressed there soon seemed to be nothing I wouldn't eat (I won't go into details of what I agreed to eat while pledging old AEPi). I had done such a 180 that I became a human garbage can of sorts who basically liked everything! (though I was still very much meat focused).
When my dear older brother Daniel died at age 26 after a long battle with cancer, I decided that perhaps my unrefined eating habits could use a makeover. I felt that having lived all those years on basically meat and meat by-products alone, my health might do well with an equally stringent few years of veggie only living. And also, I hoped it would open up my palate to a new focus. I slipped into it rather easily. I found myself a bit of a "cheese and potatoes" vegetarian, but also I found myself slowly awakening to the wonders of the vegetable. Spinach with garlic... who knew? Eggplant! Mushrooms! Squash! I lasted for about 2 years. I cheated a bunch. There is an "infamous" story I don't tell where at a pool party I ingested a dangerously large combination of Captain Morgan and Nicorette. (Ok, I hated cigarettes, but wanted to know what all the fuss over nicotine was about). Drunk (yet strangely relaxed?) I could not stop myself from eating about 10 hotdogs as my friends taunted me for breaking my veggie vows. I then proceeded to throw up captain morgan, nicorette and hotdogs all over some poor stranger's bathrooom. Not long after, I gave up the vow for good. However, the 2 years of veggie living had served to fully open me up to love for my veggie friends and I had become well acquainted with their various incarnations. I would describe my eating habits as "veggie focused" since then. Basically this means that I would usually eat vegetarian but was not too strict. My reasons for the focus were still health related. I found the reduced animal cruelty I was supporting a nice, but quaint side-effect. Though I had never owned a pet in my life, I had had the usual contact with the neighborhood dog, and the best friend's cat. I believed that animals felt pain and fear and had rights, and so it seemed nice to not be hurting such folk, but I don't think I really thought about it much more than that. I think I just imagined that the animals lived relatively happy lives, maybe on a large farm somewhere and had a moment of pain at their demise and basically didn't know any better, so what's the big deal? Its especially easy to gloss over when there's a side of bacon looking up at you.
Flash forward to 2008/2009 when three things converged to inspire the jump from being "veggie focused" to vegan. The first was my new experience of living with an animal. Actually 4 animals in a 1 bedroom NYC walk-up. The first being my girlfriend Faith's cat Isabel, followed soon after by the three 1-day old kittens she found abandoned and on death's doorstep along the side of a road. The kittens were supposed to stay a month or 2 tops and then be given away (4 cats in a 1 bedroom? come on!). We're going on 7 months now and I am deeply in love with all of them. They have made me remember how much animals are like ourselves. I'm sure other dog or cat owners relate. I don't feel like animals that are socially acceptable to eat, like cows or pigs or chickens, are terribly different. They may exhibit different behaviors, just like a cat exhibits drastically different behaviors from a dog, but they all feel pain and fear, and love for their children.
The second thing that I believe had an impact, was my interest in recent years in meditation and buddhist flavored philosophies. People often assume that buddhism has a "rule" that you must be vegetarian. Not so. The buddha himself would eat meat if he knew that the meat was not prepared specifically for him. Its really more that vegetarianism follows naturally from the buddhist's practice. Buddhism, or meditative practices in general are really about one thing. Paying attention. Retraining your mind to stay aware of what's going on around you and not get lost following the rush hour of thoughts that race through our minds. Sounds simple, but its not. In fact, not paying attention is why I believe I found it so easy to gloss over thinking about where that side of bacon came from. As you pay attention more, a natural side effect is more compassion. Compassion for people, your noisy neighbor, yourself, your boss, your parents, and yes animals. It seems to me that when a mind isn't so busy moving on to the next, and keeping up with whatever its keeping up with, the human compassion that is naturally in us all finally gets a chance to focus on what's in front of it. Just happens, ya don't even have to try. Also, when you're in a state where you're not having many thoughts, I think its easier to catch a glimpse of what its like to be an animal, because presumably this is more like what its like for them. Their brains are wired incredibly similarly to our own, minus some of the higher thought centers. I think it must be so that animals feel pain and fear exactly as we do. And when I say exactly, I really mean exactly. As we all learn in biology, pain and fear arise in our "reptilian" brain. This is the primitive part of our brain that is called "reptilian" because it has not changed or evolved much since then and most vertebrates have the same structures. Thus, it seems that the actual way it feels to be afraid and under stress and pain as an animal should not feel any different than it does for us. Our bonus is that we also get to stress and think thoughts ABOUT the pain. Like, "oh shit that hurts! Is that going to leave a mark? Well great, won't a bruise go just perfect with my big ass and varicose veins." and so on ad infinitum...
The third of the three convergent factors was the kicker that put me over the top. I started working on a documentary called "Fresh" which I sometimes like to call "Omnivore's Dilemma: The Movie" (for those of you familiar with Michael Pollan's masterful book and exposé on our nation's agricultural practices of the same title). In fact, Michael Pollan is one of the talking heads in the film. "Fresh" is not a film about veganism by any stretch. But it does show the underbelly of the livestock industry (actually, the industry is really mostly underbelly, there's not much else to it). It juxtaposes the harsh realities of the industry with a few pioneers who skillful demonstrate the way things COULD be done. It demonstrates how these pioneers are able to raise animals for slaughter in a much more humane, really beautiful way. It shows us how it can be both more profitable and relatively simple to adopt such a system and the wonders it could do for our environment, our pocketbooks, our health, and animal welfare. And it shows that the reason we're not adopting these practices is at least partially due to the influence of 3 mega corporations and their lobbyists protecting their interests. The thing that really hit me in the heart, and how it came to be that I decided to go vegan while watching a film that still was about killing animals (albeit humanely), was this gorgeous scene on one of the "good" farms. A pig had just birthed a litter of piglets that morning and they were all running around freely and happy and were just the most innocent, curious, cutest things. They truly reminded me of my kittens, and it made me cry each time I saw it to think of all the piglets born into the hell that is the factory farm. Being confused and unaware and subject to such a life of torture. On a factory farm, pigs and chicken and cows live out their entire brief life in cages often just big enough for a single animal to fit in, unable to even turn around. Tails are chopped off (or beaks if you're a chicken) without anesthesia to prevent animals from damaging each other under the stressed conditions. Pigs are neutered while wide awake, also without anesthesia. Babies are separated from their mothers at birth. This is just the beginning of it. Its horrifying really. Anyway, as an editor, you need to watch a film a few thousand times over the course of a project and by the second week, I just felt I didn't want to support our backward system anymore in any way. I also learned that eggs and milk producers treat the animals no better than they do animals raised for meat (and they are eventually all used for meat anyway). And, I found that the "free range", "grassfed" or even organic labeling when it comes to meat or dairy products is basically a load of chickenshit (pun intended) and is marginally better than a factory farm if at all when talking about animal cruelty. So, I slowly started trying to avoid milk and eggs. I've been doing it for maybe a month or 2 now where i've been slowly phasing them out and trying out alternatives. For a little over 2 weeks now i've been able to be completely vegan. Its feels great and now I see its totally something I can do. I gotta say, its not so hard! I'm not saying i'll never eat meat or dairy or eggs again (especially if more humane meat becomes more widely available). I don't think being able to "say" you're 100% vegan is the point. The point is to do what we can. If that means taking one meal a week where you focus on eating less meat, then wonderful! If that means eating less meat whenever the thought, "well, I could get the ceasar salad without the chicken strips..." pops into our mind then wonderful! Mark Bittman, award winning chef / author of "How to Cook Everything" and NYTimes columnist has recently found supreme benefit in being a "Vegan till 6" (or in other words, being vegan until dinner, and then eating whatever he wants).
Just seeing before and after pictures of the guy could turn a person vegan.
The things I have found so far from being on the Vegan diet (after just two weeks)
• Lost the love handles real quick.
• Appetite in general has been reduced in half. Thus I am able to eat smaller portions which I have always found incredibly difficult. Ok, which I have always found impossible :).
• Feel great. Mentally and physically.
Also people have many misconceptions about getting proper nutrition as a vegetarian. Mostly about the need for protein. Google it. Its a myth. American's eat so much meat that they get over twice their protein needs (which can have bad health side effects in itself). The truth is that if you eat a diet with a variety of vegetables, then you'll get all the protein you'll ever need. Really. The only thing thing that I've found to be of perhaps legitimate concern while on a vegan diet (though the jury is still out) is vitamin B12. This is found mostly in meat we eat, but only because its made by bacteria that are found in the gut of the animals (so it actually has a vegan source). Its also made in our own gut, but its not clear if we absorb enough of it on our own. Our bodies require a incredibly minuscule amount of it and its actually been found to be the vitamin that we require the least of out of them all. Symptoms of a deficiency take 5-20 years to show up if they show up at all and can then be easily reversed (though if left untreated, serious damage can result). Its often fortified into vegan foods anyway, or you can take a weekly supplement. If you eat any kind of meat or dairy on a regular basis you'll be more than covered as I understand. Please don't take my word for it. Google it. (funny how google became the gospel isn't it?). And always consult your doctor before starting any kind of diet or exercise regimen. (that one I just threw in there because I thought it might be fun to say. It was kinda fun).
Ok, now info on what i've been eating and some tips about things that get me through the day:
I'm no gourmet and no foodie, much as I love to eat, I don't discriminate. I also don't have much time to cook these days (though i'm looking to change that). So this is what I do, but someone who does have time to cook can have a vastly wider range of options than what i will present (which you may still consider pretty wide).
Keys here are my milk and butter replacements.
• Butter - Earth Balance buttery spread. So yummy. Tastes like butter to me. This lets me have bagels or toast whenever I want. Also there are some good cream cheeses, but i haven't tried them yet.
• Milk - Not a fan of Silk or any soy milk. Yuck, but great if you are. I thought this might be a big problem early on, but Mark Bittman introduced me to other milks. I tried Pacific Oat milk. Bingo. Milk-like, mildly sweet, no weird aftertaste. Now I can have cereal too! Almond milk is also great.
Lunch - I work right next to Whole Foods, so this makes lunch a no brainer. Lunches there are exquisite. Elaborate vegetable dishes of many varieties are always available and always changing. I get a big lunch plate for maybe $8. Usually can't even finish it and so I save it for later, and its delicious. Also they have a hot salad bar with several vegan choices including indian food and veggie sushi. Can't go wrong.
Dinner - Often i'll make a big salad with fresh veggies and nuts and raisins etc. Yum. I'm good. However, if someone had told me that's what i'd be eating, I would have been like, "um. no." Also sometimes I'll have tofu dogs (key is a nice hot dog bun and condiments. I like Smart Dogs or Yves brand dogs). Also found a vegan cheese that I like a lot called Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet Cheese. I've only tried the mozzarella so far. Butter up some bread slices with Earth balance, and fry yourself up a grilled cheese. YumYum! Then there also local fare. My local pizza place Freddie and Peppers makes an incredible soy cheese slice, and the local hummus place("The Hummus Place") is bar none the best hummus i've had. And chinese food is always an option with lots of choices. I'll be coming up with more dinner options as I get further into it i'm sure. Any suggestions are welcome!
DESSERT! - Toffuti Cuties. These are little mini ice cream sandwiches. All vegan. I don't like the chocolate kind. I do like the vanilla kind. I LOVE the key lime pie flavor. It will hold its own against any key lime bar vegan or otherwise.
Uncle Eddies Vegan Cookies. Love these guys as well. Especially the chocolate chip ones. Amazing. Will hold its own against any cookie vegan or otherwise. I realize thats a bold statement. Ok, maybe its too bold. I'm just saying they're good damnit! Chocolate - If you like dark chocolate I like Tropical Source brand a lot. Haven't tried their other varieties.
So ya see folks, it ain't so bad. And living in NYC sure helps when you are unable to cook much. I've only barely touched on it in this entry, but you can help the planet, your health, your weight, your pocketbook, and spare some furry cuties from hellish oblivion through the simple act of reducing your meat intake. I could also certainly see people doing this diet for the money savings, weight loss and reduced appetite alone.
Hope that was of help, and lots of Love,
p.s. for those interested, "Fresh" is a movie directed by Ana Sofia Joanes, and will be released soon. Info to follow as it arrives.
The photo in today's blog is ©2009 Eric M