Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vegantines Puzzle

The local Alliance for Animals puts on an annual "Vegantines" event, with dinner and speeches and dancing, to benefit the organization's mission of promoting ethical, compassionate treatment of all animals.  I'd been wanting to go this event for a while, so this year, with a little help for our friends, Justin and I gussied up (or as close as we ever get to gussying up) and headed out:


The whole affair was interesting on many levels (maybe I'll leave it to Justin to write more about the ethos of the speeches we heard...), but I was particularly intrigued by the puzzle that the menu offered.  A lettuce salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives.  Eggplant parmesan with vegan cheese and a side of corn and lima beans. And a vegan chocolate cake for dessert with canned, saccharine, bright-red cherries.

It all tasted just fine (although the woman at the table next to us certainly didn't think so, berating the servers about the low quality of the chocolate cake, flinging the frosting at her plate to display the goopy consistency), but the values this food represented reminded me how shockingly fragmentary the whole food politics scene really is.  I mean, lettuce? tomatoes? cucumbers? corn? eggplant? How much more non-seasonal and clearly non-local can you get? Processed vegan cheese?  

Yes, it was all vegan, but this seems to have been the priority at the expense of so many other values associated with food that I have come to cherish and that embody much more of the Madison food scene.  I'm just constantly puzzled at how food activists can care about one set of issues, while ignoring others entirely. Perhaps this speaks to a larger shift that I've made in the last few years, from identifying myself primarily as a "vegetarian" to thinking of myself as a "discerning consumer who wants to support sustainable, local agricultural practices" (or something like that). 

But I just haven't understood at all how people like Tasha at Voracious (this vegan blogger who recently "came out" as a meat-eater to a hail of extreme criticism and support--I kind of even don't want to link to her because I find her so annoying) can abandon one kind of diet to shift to the radically other side, without considering how to embody a similar set of values, even with a modified diet.  Yes, veganism isn't for everyone, but if you're going to abandon veganism, why not shift to eating only animal products that have been produced in a humane and ethical way? Why not begin lower on the food chain, with crustaceans and fish and birds (animals whose ability to feel pain isn't as well-documented), than jumping right in to eating mammals? Why not continue to care about your food sources, even if you change the species you're willing to eat?

This is the Vegantines puzzle.  Anyone have ideas on putting the pieces together?

4 comments:

  1. "...but if you're going to abandon veganism, why not shift to eating only animal products that have been produced in a humane and ethical way? Why not begin lower on the food chain, with crustaceans and fish and birds (animals whose ability to feel pain isn't as well-documented), than jumping right in to eating mammals? Why not continue to care about your food sources, even if you change the species you're willing to eat?"

    This reminds me of former activists of the left who abruptly jump ship in one of two ways -- they become ardent conservatives (many of the personal histories of the neocons shaping foreign policy in the W. Bush administration fit this bill) or they become completely politically apathetic. It also reminds me of people who were raised Christian who grow up to have a belligerent chip on their shoulder against religion.

    I don't think that veganism is a bad idea, but it is definitely an intense lifestyle that requires fervent belief to consistently maintain. I think that for many people it's hard to dial back that sort of commitment to something less intense -- conversions are by definition radical, a 180 degree shift.

    As far as the other contradiction you mention (the nonseasonal and processed food at the dinner), it's really interesting. The way you frame it reminds me of the rift between animal rights theory and "deep ecology" theory within the environmental left. I think that it's the nature of belief to continually fragment and splinter and that there is no easy resolution other than to argue for your own values.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment, samtron77e! I've been rolling it around in my head quite a bit over the past few days, even as I've been down at the capitol rallying and protesting and jumping all around. I won't respond here as thoroughly as I'd like to be able to, but I do think this question of drastic conversions and of people's shifting from one extreme to another can be seen throughout our social and political landscape. As my Papa pointed out, this is also germane to the political situation going on in Wisconsin right now--if we hadn't elected Walker and his legislative cronies in the first place (as a response to the 2008 election, many speculate), we wouldn't be in this mess. Oh my.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Anna,

    Very nice post, and you raise some really important questions. For Valentine's Day, my partner and I decided to splurge at one of NYC's fanciest vegan restaurants, Candle 79. The food tasted incredible, and we left with plump bellies and big smiles on our faces. I wouldn't replace it with anything. On the other hand, the food was made with all sorts of imported ingredients I'm sure, not everything having been grown within a 100-mile radius.

    In reading your post, I realize that vegan cuisine is an art, and like many forms of art, the proximate sense experiences often takes precedence over more larger issues such as cost, or consumption of energy/natural resources. We can eat at Candle 79 once a year -and perhaps you and your husband at Vegantines once a year - to support "high" veganism, to admire the art of the chefs, and that nice feeling of being fancy and vegan at the same time, thus challenging the stereotype that vegans are all dirty hippies who would rather chew on seeds and nuts than eat a good meal.

    But let's eat the other 364 days of the year elsewhere: in our own kitchens, at friends' and families' kitchens, or at restaurants that try less hard to be so chic but give that extra inch to be more sustainable, to connect us with the bounty that our local farmers have produced.

    Point is: don't feel too bad about Vegantines. It is one part of the larger vegan cultural puzzle, and it plays an important function on the "higher" end of our shared mission to promote more humane behavior.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Gregory! I think you're absolutely right about the function of the high-end vegan restaurant, and I'm all for what that sort of venue can do to expand popular notions of what "vegan food" is. But one thing that was striking about our experience was that the food didn't even taste very good! And it was certainly not very high quality. (we did not leave with plump bellies and big smiles on our faces--at least not because of the food!). So, it seemed like they were sacrificing not only the values of supporting local economies and considering the social/environmental impacts of food choices, but also the value of eating delicious food that provides sensual pleasure. It was as if the ONLY important point was that there were no animal products in the food--but that is surely not the only worthwhile consideration when choosing food. I eat for pleasure--both sensual and moral. And this meal only fulfilled one small segment of that "moral" part. Still puzzling over it...

    ReplyDelete