Monday, April 18, 2011

Not Moving to Alaska

I spend a lot of time writing for or thinking about this blog. And I also spend a lot of time wondering exactly why I devote this time to Dining & Opining. And although I haven’t yet figured out all the answers to this question, one resounding reminder of an answer came in the form of the comments on Friday’s blog post: because it feels damn good to start a conversation with thoughtful, smart, intellectually-honest folks even when there doesn’t always seem to be space for that kind of conversation in real-life interactions. 

I felt so stimulated by the responses to my meat substitutes post that I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, with the wheels in the brain turning more fluidly than they have in a while. Which isn’t to say that I have lots of answers to the puzzles posed during that e-conversation, but that my mind feels active and dynamic in the all the ways one could hope for. So, for that, I thank all of you who read and engaged with the thoughts I posted on Friday.

In general, the feeling that I was left with after mulling over the nuances of the environmental arguments for vegetarianism was one of overwhelming complexity.  It’s hard to make blanket rules besides, perhaps, “Try to know where your food comes from.” As Minkster’s comment makes so clear, most of these decisions are context-dependent; eating meat when the environment you live in supports meat-production more than it supports agriculture makes environmental sense, but not so much so when you live in agriculturally-rich areas where fruits and vegetables are more efficiently-produced than is grain-fed meat.  [Though, along with Megan’s point about the “habit” of vegetarianism and the loss of desire for meat, I don’t think I could easily switch to a diet of moose or salmon, deer or halibut, caribou or crab if I were to move to Alaska for a year or less, even if I knew it was more environmentally and culturally sustainable. If I knew the place would be my home for the long-term, however, I would likely convince myself to develop new eating habits…but I guess that’s why I think I’ll stay away from Alaska (because I don’t actually want to eat meat!), even if, according to my Alaska-dwelling friend JB, it looks like this:


Though, of course, Gregory's** comment about the wealth of local meat sources even in the lower 48 reminds me that sometimes those might be more sustainable than the alternatives--like the tofu and almond milk he mentions, which I also consume.] (can’t leave the bracket hanging!)

And to again bring forth the idea of context-dependence, as Mike from Korea* writes, the question about processed meat substitutes might be totally moot if you don't live in a country where veggie burgers are more or less forced upon non-meat-eaters, at least in many restaurant settings (as seems to be the case in the U.S.).  The fact that Mike's transition from “omnivore to vegan” was also a transition “from processed foods to whole ones,” makes me realize that that precise sort of confluence of dietary choices is the one I’m trying to champion here in this series of posts.  It worries me, I suppose, that the shape of vegetarianism in the U.S. sometimes leads in the direction of replacing low-quality meat with low-quality meat substitutes, though I understand that the latter can sometimes add an element of comfort or familiarity to those who grew up within a certain food culture (as Veganist Kathy Freston partially argues in this HuffPo piece).

As for Molly’s comments about the economies of scale of processed-food production and the fact that soy and corn are being produced in massive quantities whether or not Boca makes use of some of those products: these are excellent points. In fact, Justin made many of those same points last week when I was shaking my head at the ingredients listed on the back of a Tofurky package (even as I enjoyed the taste of this processed-food product and thought about how it might some day save our potentially-vegetarian potential children from lunchroom ridicule).  While it is true that the scale at which companies like Boca/Kraft operate probably makes their energy efficiency fairly high, it still seems baffling that a veggie burger should have 13-23 ingredients, depending on whether you count all the individual ingredients that make up the “Enriched Textured Soy Protein Concentrate Product,and that so many of them should be factory-produced ingredients that couldn’t be found in a home kitchen (Especially when it’s possible to make a delicious veggie patty at home with as few as 6 ingredients).

On top of that, I suppose that even if Boca’s energy efficiency is impressive or if there demand on conventional corn/soy isn't significant, I’m very motivated by the idea of “voting with my fork” and “voting with my dollar” and making food choices based partly on giving money to food producers who I trust and who I want to support in monetary ways.  Surely local Wisconsin farmers will make better use of my money, and will value it more, than the huge conglomerate that Boca represents.

I’ll end here, though I have much more to say about the fear of being a “preachy” vegan/vegetarian, about actually making food choices, and about the complexity of conscious consumption more broadly.  For future posts!

Thanks again, to you all, for being part of this conversation.

--
*You all should totally be reading Mike's blog, if you're not already. He writes perceptively and entertainingly about life, dietary choices, linguistics, and environmentalism in South Korea.
** On Gregory's point about Americans' fetishism of protein: have you seen this cartoon?

3 comments:

  1. Love the cartoon link! :)
    Since it is evidently possible - and even fun - to make your own meat substitutes rather than buy them at the store, I have some questions:

    1) We have made homemade seitan a few times before (by we, I mean my partner made it!!), and while I imagine that making it at home is more "sustainable" than buying pre-made seitan at the store, how can I really know this? We have a co-op nearby that sells seitan made in Brooklyn (within five miles!), so how do I know if those cool kids in Brooklyn making it on a large scale is more or less "sustainable" than us making it at home? In Madison are you able to procure a local, organic source of wheat flour? I'm always worried about where our wheat flour comes from, and whether making homemade seitan or homemade bread (which I love to bake) can really be a "sustainable" endeavor...

    2) What about tofu? It's obviously a popular ingredient among readers of this blog! But how intensive is its production? How easy or hard is it to find tofu made from local (yeah right!), sustainably raised soybeans? In China I saw peddlers making tofu in makeshift apparatuses on the street. Has anyone experimented with making their own tofu?

    I guess the thing is, that it still seems so much easier to "source" local meat - to go to the farm, meet the farmers, meet the animals, see the conditions, see the inputs and outputs, and know exactly where that meat is coming from and what it means to eat it. It seems infinitely harder to "source" tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc., whether we buy it in the store if even if we make it at home. What do you think?

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  2. All such good questions! I hope to tackle some of them soon in a post or two (after taking a day off to post some pretty photos of food--can't be all opining and no dining), but I think, unfortunately, that your closing point is right. It does seem much easier to source local meat than to source our less-processed meat substitutes. Although I do think that's partly an unusual circumstance given the foodie communities that you and I both live in, and the access to farmer's markets and co-ops and venues that provide a market for ethical meat producers. I'd guess that in most parts of the country, it's just as hard to find happy meat as it is to find happy tofu.

    But I do want to comment shortly about the local situation in Madison for tempeh, tofu, and seitan...

    Thanks for asking such thought-provoking questions!

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  3. For the record, I am just **in** Korea, not **from** it...right???

    I think that slip means we need to be Skyping more often!

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