Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why Bloodroot is Vegan/Vegetarian

A recent issue of a feminist magazine we carry in our bookstore had a brief review of a book called The Vegetarian Myth, which criticized vegetarianism as environmentally unsound and unhealthy for women.  We were offended by the enthusiasm of the review, and returned copies to the publisher, Sinister Wisdom.  They were understanding and graciously requested us to respond and to discuss our beliefs. 
                            Here is what was published in Sinister Wisdom, Issue #85.

Why Bloodroot is Vegan/Vegetarian

I.  How we came to start a vegetarian restaurant 35 years ago, and why our menu is increasingly vegan.

In 1977, several friends and I started Bloodroot.  Why?  Because my change from housewife and mother to lesbian feminist meant that I needed to lead a life outside patriarchal morality away from husband and societal expectations.   I wanted a community with shared values (not all, but most), and I wanted to think and put into practice what was feminism for me.  This has been my 35-year work in progress shared by Noel Furie, and others who have been with us at Bloodroot.

So my "coming out" was not about a sexual choice, though it included that; it was not about getting married to a woman instead of a man and going on to lead a couple's life similar to that of heterosexuals.

It meant trying to lead a life that was better.  Better for people and creatures and the earth itself as well as for myself. *  We hoped for community.  And while of course there have been changes, mostly this choice, these choices have made that possible.

But how could we, Noel and I, keep doing this for 35 years?  We can because it is so deeply satisfying to us.  We like the people who come to be fed by us, very much.  We still like cooking very much.  We can't imagine a different life.  Perhaps it is because it evolved slowly, and perhaps it is because we never chose deprivation.  We never went "cold turkey" (except on meat, fish, and poultry!).  Gradually our menu became more vegan, since we admire the animal rights activists who come to us and we want very much to please them.  I want the food they eat here to be delicious and diverse.  We love the idea of eating what is in our gardens or at the farmers' market this minute, totally glutting on strawberries in June and apples in September.

But we are also thrilled to explore traditional people's comfort foods, and so will search out imported Haitian or Jamaican or Mexican or Greek or Korean ingredients to make the dishes of which our workers and friends have shared recipes.  The result is that we can look forward to each season's menus with many more options than those whose plates center on meat.

Our customers don't have to be vegetarians, and many are not.  But where can they get homemade bread like ours, or soups as satisfying?  We want to seduce them with delicious vegan food, and to encourage them to eat less or no meat.

II. The Vegetarian Myth

We can't help but be disgusted when someone like Michael Pollan who writes so well about the harm caused by industrial agriculture, then writes of hunting and slaughtering a wild (female) pig and how it was the best meal of his life.  (The Omnivore's Dilemma).  We're disappointed when someone like Barbara Kingsolver convinces her 10 year old daughter to not name her "pet" chickens so that she won't mind them being killed to sell so that the daughter can then buy a pony (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral) As you can imagine, we had no interest in reading Lierre Keith's " Vegetarian Myth" – but since I was asked to write about why we didn't want to carry Sinister Wisdom copies with a plug for her book in our bookstore, it became necessary to read it, and what an unpleasant couple of days it was!  Full of half-truths and outright lies, I would have had to spend too much of my precious days picking it apart sentence by sentence.  Luckily some folks have done a more than adequate job on the internet. **

But in general, Keith makes these claims:  First, that the advent of agriculture has gradually destroyed the earth's ecosystems and creatures.  Of course, Jim Mason's An Unnatural Order *** (1993, Simon and Schuster) discussed just this, and further that the rise of agriculture and religion made dominion over women, children, animals, slaves acceptable and right. He contends that animal husbandry in particular created patriarchal rule with these forms of oppression. His book expresses the paradigm of what we, as feminists believe in. So of course he came to a very different conclusion from Keith's.

Keith repeatedly speaks of her own ignorance and arrogance when she was a vegan.  Now that she is enlightened, the rest of us vegetarians and vegans must be ignorant and arrogant, since we have not learned from her pantheon of deniers of the benefits of vegetarianism.  She seems to blame vegetarianism for the huge monocultures of grain and soy (raised to fatten animals), and makes little or no distinction between this "agriculture" and small farms growing broccoli and carrots.

III.  Political Ups and Downs

Secondly, Keith blames her bad health on her 20-year vegan diet.  It would seem that every movement wanting to change things for the better contains individuals who at first are the truest believers and who become angry at any slippage. Then they suddenly become the backlash and despise all that they once believed.  The impossibility of perfectionism can be very disappointing.

We don't know whether Keith was a junk food vegan or not.  There are certainly lots of them, just as there are lots of junk food carnivores, and we know junk food can make us sick.  We also know that there are lots of folks (most often women) who feel virtuous about deprivation: fasting – omitting fats from their diets – omitting all carbohydrates.  Whatever.  It would seem that extreme mortification turns into extreme rejection.  Well, we don't do that.  We love food.  We don't want any deprivation.  We want our food to be sensuous and diverse and delicious.  We just don't want it to be made from members of our family . . . and that goes all the way down (down?) to fish.

IV.  Antidote

Anyway, as an antidote to Keith's book, I reread Jonathan Foer's Eating Animals.  It was healing.

Then I spoke to Jim Mason.  He talked about relative justice.  We can't do everything we might wish to do to make the world a better place. Maybe it is a hybrid car instead of a Hummer.  Maybe it is supporting a local farmer by joining a CSA.  Maybe it's eating meat once a week instead of three times a day.  Maybe it's not buying bottled water or not using plastic bags. Something.  None of us can do it all, but for our own sakes and health, we should try to do something.  As Jim says, “Justice is what equals least harm.”  And we need to consider which gurus we listen to.  If your need to eat meat is so great that you will take any justification, there are plenty of carnistic gurus out there.

I also talked to Lagusta Yearwood, who has been vegan for 18 years, and Stephanie Zinowski, vegan for at least that.  Lagusta and Stephanie used to work here.  Lagusta makes and sells fabulous vegan chocolates and Stephanie runs Wesleyan University's Vegan Cafe.  Their vegan friends are healthier than their carnivore counterparts.**** I am 77 years old and I seem to be physically in better shape than meat-eating peers my age.  Many customers come into our restaurant assuming we are a health place.  I know our food is healthy, but we are not interested in the latest health fads.  We are animal rights vegetarians and our intention and pleasure is to prepare and eat delicious diverse meals that change every season, and to share them with our friends.

We really are lucky!
                                    Selma Miriam
                                    Noel Furie

*  Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals) became a vegetarian when he became a father.  It
    seemed critical to him that fatherhood required him leading a moral life.

      Lierre Keith's Elaborate, Self-Congratulatory Excuse for Abandoning Veganism

***Re-released in 2005 by Lantern Books, NYC.  Mason is also the author, with Peter Singer,
      of Animal Factories

****As Colin Campbell's' China Study documents thoroughly.  The statistics in his book were
       collected in the 1980's and the diet and disease information therein not relevant to China
       today, but to a China where large groups of people ate very little or no meat.