Sunday, August 2, 2015

12 Years a Vegetarian

So, it's August now, and it's 2015, and that means it's been 12 years since I went completely vegetarian. Red meat was way the hell off the menu a while before that, and I'd never been big on eating any kind of sea creature, even though fresh beer-battered fish being cooked is one of my favourite smells. That's got to be at least partly because it reminds me of childhood vacations in and around San Diego, but I think it'd smell wonderful either way. Wonderful-smelling or not, though, I think I only ever ate occasional tuna and maybe whitefish as a kid, and had Long John Silver's popcorn shrimp a few times. 

Once when I was about ten my uncle tricked me into eating a bite of calamari, and instantly regretted it because he could see that I was genuinely upset. Other than that, though, I'm proud of the fact that I've never eaten crab or lobster, because those giant sea roaches are super interesting. I'm proud of the fact that the only lapses in my diet have been accidental and have occurred while I've been living in Asia, because this part of the world is obviously a fishy, meaty minefield where you have to be super careful and where most people don't get what you will and won't eat even if you can say it or show it to them in the right language. 

In Japan, "vegetarian" usually seems to mean, "No visible pieces of meat, but seafood is fine"; in Taiwan it seems to mean, "Right, no meat or fish, except when I feel like eating it sometimes"; and in Korea it's something like, "What do you mean 'no ham'? It comes with ham and ham is good for you. I'll sneak some in at the last minute because I can't physically stop myself and personally feel that you need the protein". I don't even want to guess about what it's like in China (-shudder-).

I remember vividly when I announced in Chili's the summer before I started high school that I really wanted to have the chicken enchilada soup one more time, but that after that delicious, cheesy bowl, I wasn't ever going to have anything meaty again.

Yep, here it is. This shit's delicious, really. (Source)

My mom understandably wasn't sure whether or not to take me 100% seriously because I'm a big talker and was just a kid at the time, but when it comes to the important stuff, I do what I say I'm going to do.
And she was glad, because chicken was the last thing I stopped eating and we'd both OD'ed on it pretty hard over the course of maybe a couple of years. For as much as a few years after that landmark lunch she could barely look at it.

Based on their appearance, occupation, course of study, beliefs, sexual orientation or other things, some people are forced to answer one question repeatedly during the course of every conversation with new acquaintances and friends, because the topic in which it's centered inevitably comes up. 

I try not to broadcast the whole, "I don't eat meat or seafood and have multiple shifting but non-life threatening food allergies" thing, but it's one of those ones that's going to come up whether you want it to or not. If you've successfully avoided it, your boyfriend or best friend or cousin (no accusations here, just examples; we're cool, guys) or whoever's with you is probably going to bring it up, wanting to share some interesting, relevant, innocuous info with your new companions. 

Le sigh.

So, here we go. Everybody be all like, "Why are you a vegetarian?"

And over the years I've trimmed it down to, "Eating animals isn't necessary."

That's it. It's just not. And it's really selfish to eat large quantities of animal products, because it's terrible for the animals and the planet and probably your arteries.

The scripted response: "But meat's delicious!"

Yes, okay, we all know how much the Internet loves bacon and and how eating huge portions of marinated pork is part of your culture, how it's sometimes hard to avoid eating meat even if you're trying, and how cravings are hard to ignore. But everyone agrees after a moment of arguing back guiltily even though I'm not all up in their grill (ha!) or trying to convert them or anything:
"Well, you're right, I don't need to eat it to survive and it's bad for the planet". 

Some people go a step further, though, and rationalise it by arguing that eating a vegetarian diet isn't much better for Earpf (ala DMX) in terms of resource and energy consumption, always pointing to the least prudent and environmentally-friendly crops that also happen to be in the news a lot, such as fatty nuts.

To be fair (and to come at this Stateside), yes, Virginia, growing almonds in large quantity the California desert is one of the dumbest ideas ever, we can all agree on that. Importing rice from naturally wet states in the deep South would be a much better idea than trying to maintain paddies in the Mojave, and in 25 years people sitting on permanently empty ancient aquifers are going to look back on this gross resource mismanagement and collectively facepalm.

I was going to cite some popularly circulated statistics on how much is required to produce, let's say, one pound of beef (we don't do metric in the overseas), but this is actually very convoluted and difficult to measure. For example, free-range beef is difficult to factor in and average out with cattle that are fed an all-grain diet. The largest and least efficient all-grain diets are the domain of the U.S., but these range from the amounts used by hyper-detrimental large-scale feedlot operations to those used in highly efficient smaller-scale ones that are much, much less common. 
I was also going to include a right-wing source in the form of a Forbes article that appears near the top of Google search results on this topic, but the article was snide, condescending, and straight-up douchey. Not only that, but the guy didn't use any relevant statistics whatsoever, seemed to mostly want an excuse to broadcast his annoyance with and possibly seething hatred for vegetarians, and the entire comments section ripped him a new asshole about how uninformed he was, so... 

Some statistics that can be agreed upon, though, are the facts that about 40% of world grain and more than half of U.S. grain is used to feed livestock (source). Assuming an all-grain diet going into edible red meat and not including things that aren't popularly consumed in the U.S. such as intestines, it takes approximately 4.67 pounds of corn (source) to produce one pound of beef. I'm not sure about wheat, soy, and other grains, but a cow does not live on corn alone, right?

For the most-popularly searched for and damning statistic, though, we're back to water. For one pound of beef, 1847 gallons of water (source), or 2464 for California beef according to the Water Education Foundation. According to that first source about grain, which I think is the most reliable, beef requires a total (fossil) energy input to output ratio of 54:1. By comparison, chicken requires 4:1, turkey 13:1. In total, producing animal protein requires eight times as much fossil fuel energy than producing plant protein, but the animal variety is only 1.4 times more nutritious to humans.  

And then you have to take into consideration the huge amounts of clear land required to raise large grazing animals, the deforestation, the slashing and burning of huge swathes of the Amazon, the methane output, the antibiotics and hormones, the disgusting chemical-rich byproducts leaking into the ocean and other bodies of water, and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

After spending a month in Germany I became allergic to dairy and eggs for the second time in my life (the blood test results included a lot of other things, too, and were depressing at best), just as I had a month after moving to Korea. This second time the reactions thankfully haven't been as severe, so right now I'm supposed to be on a forced vegan diet as I was 2 1/2 years ago, but I've been cheating and just dealing with the inflammation, nausea, and acid reflux that follow a convenience store iced coffee or some melted cheese. 
But something I have been doing since moving to Tokyo is using almond milk in curries, oatmeal, and coffee, and to go back to the rationalising meat eaters' point about how wasteful fatty nuts are, I feel pretty bad about it. I mean, think about how much went into producing the almonds that were painstakingly crushed and milked to in turn produce this new watery, not-very-flavourful substance. And then think about the fact that the cartons were shipped via trucks, ships, and planes to the other side of the planet. Ugh. Not very responsible or sustainable. 
Sometimes it feels like you just can't win. Your new milk might be cruelty-free, but it easily guzzles just as much energy as its tastier predecessor. This is why people don't want to deal with altering their diets: it's complicated and a huge pain in the ass. It's the same reason people are losing their shit over Cecil the lion but don't have anything to say about ongoing Chinese poaching atrocities in Myanmar: people can't deal with every single relevant item in today's all-connected all-media all-sharing 24/7 world. If we think about the fact that additional fossil fuel energy goes into the transporting and melting down of recycled plastics, we'll go crazy. But that's still better than just throwing them into a hole in the ground or the ocean and seeing how many years it takes for them to break down and in some cases enter the food chain, right? Right?! 
Yes, we usually tell ourselves, feeling soothed for a few seconds, up until we realise that producing solar panels and large lithium-ion batteries probably requires so much fossil energy and does so much environmental damage that in the end, we're probably only breaking even, if that. Aaarrgh!

Why am I musing about this stuff and what is my point? Well, I guess it's that we should all try to be as conscious as possible of what we're using and where it comes from. It's hard, and I obviously don't live in a treehouse and cultivate my own organic local crops as a hemp-touting subsistence farmer who spends her free time actively protesting fracking and the building of new dams and oil pipelines, but fuck, who is? 
Those people are too extreme and annoying and out of touch for most of us to listen to for more than 30 seconds, even if we admire the strength of their convictions. I mean, militant vegans have even chewed me out plenty of times for not being one of them. Why the fuck would I want to be? You're the single most egotistical, condescending, irritating, socially inept person on the very planet you claim to want to save so badly. How? By driving everyone else so bonkers that they're forced to leave and start a new civilisation in another star system?
Once in a vegan restaurant in Seoul I listened to a white dude trying to pick up a Korean girl by telling her about how he was an empath, how he literally felt other peoples' feelings. Those people are worse than the dickbag who wrote that Forbes non-article, because at least Forbes guy probably knows how to have a good time. Good grief.

Don't even get me started on the ethics of factory-farmed but unfertilised chicken eggs versus organic and free-range but decidedly fertilised ones. That could go in circles for days, bringing to mind the popular neverending debate about which came first.

It's probably too late for much of the planet as we currently know it anyway, but that doesn't mean we all can't do our best to recycle and buy second-hand and thereby reduce not only waste but the demand for new products and the fossil energy needed to produce and transport them. It doesn't mean anyone should think it's okay to air condition their apartment or house to the approximate temperature of a meat locker or overheat it instead of using another blanket, because that's stupidly wasteful even when you can afford it. You know?

So anyway, if anyone who wants to eat less meat for the reasons touched on above or any others has happened upon this and has followed me this far, here are my 9 most satisfying, nutritious, and versatile foods that will serve you well, not taking into account their environmental impact and/or ethics:

These things are full of vitamins and protein and can all be sweet or savory, breakfast, dinner, or dessert. Mushrooms of all types, lentils, black beans, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers are also at the top of my list.
Skeptical? Well how about a delicious quinoa bowl for breakfast, broccoli salad, tofu cream, putting yogurt in your hearty lentil soup, or concocting a sweet spinach smoothie? I don't know about you, but all of those make me hungry. You at least have to look at the photos.

If the issue with eating less meat and less processed food in general is that you can't really cook, well, then, you have to learn sometime. People will try to tell you that constantly buying fresh ingredients is more expensive that going for quicker, more processed, or already-prepared things, but they're full of shit. Especially if you're buying in-season. I'm the most frugal person I know and can assure you that fresh, at least semi-local veggies are cheaper than meals in a box, even if preparing and cooking them is also quite time-consuming.

If you're concerned about getting enough protein, iron, and other essential nutrients, consider that my iron levels were described by my doctor as "surprisingly robust" shortly after I started eating eggs a few years ago, and thanks in part to dark green leafy things. Everone's nutritional needs are different and it's possible that a few people who for some reason need more protein than average would basically need to eat meat or fish from time to time, but if you're an unhealthy vegetarian, you're doing it wrong, friend.

B12 is the only essential nutrient a vegetarian diet could chronically lack and the only case in which I personally believe it might be necessary or at least prudent to take something in vitamin tablet form. For a little while I thought I had a B12 deficiency, but the same blood test that described my iron levels as very good described my B12 levels as being on the lower end of normal; ultimately, I think it was an anxiety issue but never knew for sure. 
A deficiency in this key vitamin can have far-ranging consequences and can be quite difficult to pin down, so it's probably better to err on the side of caution, especially if you've decided to raise your children with or switch them to an animal-free diet.

This spinach pan frittata is probably one of my favourite recipes of all time; it's easy, fast, low in calories, and requires very few ingredients. This amazing quinoa bake, these risotto-stuffed mushroom caps and these stuffed bell peppers are a couple of others.

Maintaining a vegan, gluten-free, and supposed-to-be-soy-free (that last blood test man, damn) diet in Japan is driving me up the wall, but my ridiculous shifting allergies are one of many reasons why it's good to know how to cook. You may not have any, but they can come and go, so you never know. Here are my favourite completely vegan (except for one that can easily be made so) things I've made since we moved here:

Chickpea, sweet potato, pumpkin, and spinach curry with soft crumbled tofu and soy milk.

Lentil soup and oversized spicy home fries.

Mexican rice! 
This was an important discovery: you put a can of diced tomatoes plus just a little water, salt and pepper into the rice cooker. Saute finely-chopped bell peppers, onions and garlic in a pan, then add kidney beans and sweet corn. Then dump in the tomatoey rice and mix it all together. Serve with sliced avocado arranged on top and a dollop of spicy salsa taquera.

Non-breaded vegetable croquettes, composed mainly of a mix of potato and sweet potato with medium-sized chunks of sweet yellow bell pepper and green onion inside for texture variation.

Atsuage (deep-fried tofu) with bok choy and twice-baked new potato halves filled with a mashed mixture of the scooped-out potato, onions, garlic and finely-chopped mixed mushrooms. The tops have such a nice consistency from the broiler because I put a wee bit of mozzarella cheese on them. That salad dressing is also clearly not vegan; it's the creamy garlic one from Ikea. 
BUT you could just, like, not sprinkle mozzarella and do balsamic instead.

Veggie quinoa and refried black beans with green chiles.

So, you see, if it's not only possible but delicious for someone with allergies (that they admittedly have the luxury of ignoring a little bit) in Japan, it's stupidly easy in a country like the United States, Canada, Australia, or Germany. It's been a long and interesting ride for me, and those who don't need to avoid wheat products would do well to check out couscous and the many delicious wheat-based meat substitutes readily available in supermarkets in Western countries. They were shit ten or fifteen years ago, but because there's an increasingly large market for such things, competition forced the biggest companies to step up their game.

Beyond eating a healthier and more sustainable diet (minus the imported almond milk and quinoa I'M SORRY), it's important to understand the supply chain so we know that big business isn't poisoning us or forcing 11 year-old Vietnamese kids to work 11-hour shifts stitching together things we similarly do not need. Thinking about all this stuff might be cumbersome and sometimes stressful and frustrating, but that's the price of living in this new world where everything is connected all the time. Maybe you shouldn't buy Chilean papaya in Nevada in December. I don't know, it just doesn't seem like these kinds of things can possibly last for very long. Let's keep what we've got as beautiful and tasty as we can while we've still got it. 

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