Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dear Mr. Pollan, we need to talk.

To Mr. Michael Pollan, investigative journalist and food expert in the public eye,

Hi! How's it going? Hope all is well with you and the fam.

So... um... here's the deal.

You don't know me from Adam, and I have the interviewing skills of a tenth grader. You're also a pretty busy fellow and I think you now live on the west coast. So I doubt you'd really want to spend your time hanging out with some vegan blogger in NYC. For these reasons, I'm not attempting to contact you to have an interview or even an in person conversation. (I'm also just a bit chicken, if you'll pardon the pun.) But I'll put my thoughts to you out into the cloud just to see what, if anything, comes back - it feels a bit like a modern day equivalent to tying a message onto a helium balloon and releasing it to see if anyone answers. (Except now I know I won't be killing any turtles.) My balloon is red. What color is yours?

I'll start by saying that I am a huge admirer of your work, and while I don't always agree with your point of view I genuinely appreciate your journalistic, show-all-angles approach. "What would the apple think? How do the cows feel? This guy might be a right wing republican, but he's a person too...", and so on. I'm also quite jealous that you seem to be pretty chummy with Marion Nestle, who's sort of a hero of mine. Your writing is always engaging and informative, and you don't seem to have any sort of misunderstanding that you're a scientist, which is nice. We have more than enough pseudo-science skulking about these days, but in all of your articles and books that I've read, you seem to have kept your true credentials in mind. Lucky for us, you have things to tell us about foods and the food environment that no scientist ever bothers with - too subjective, not numberey enough. You're serving an important function as a different kind of expert, and for the most part you're doing it very well.

I want to speak with you particularly about your book "The Omnivore's Dilemma". This isn't your only book, or even your most recent book, but it's the one I finished reading not long ago. I had to wait for it to stop selling so darn well and finally come out in paperback, and I'm also a slow reader. Anyway, for the most part it strikes me as an excellent work. I spent many a subway ride deeply absorbed in its pages; you actually made me miss my stop. Twice. The descriptions of your time on Polyface are vivid and telling. The hunting stories are honest and without self aggrandizement. And I love the section on mushroom hunting - fungi are amazing, and now I can't go into Dean and Deluca without poring over that section of produce and wondering just who it was that harvested the chanterelles and morels.

And then, near the end of the book, I got to the chapter on the ethics of eating animals. Of course it had to be coming; how could you talk about hunting in this day and age without mentioning animal rights, and by association vegetarianism? Impossible. I knew going in that you and I would be coming from very different standpoints on the subject, you an established boar hunter and I a dedicated vegan. But I expected no less than what you've regularly delivered in this piece and others - a fair and diverse discussion of the subject.

So how surprised was I to find nothing of the sort? The more I read, the more distressed I became. OK, sure, you read Peter Singer... while eating a steak, to challenge yourself. An interesting start, to be sure. He is, definitely and without argument, one of the leading voices (if not THE leading voice) in the animal rights movement today. But he's also a bit of a crackpot, God love him. Obviously the notion that we should stop animals in the wild from predating each other is completely insane. The man goes overboard; this isn't news. He didn't become famous by being moderate. His philosophical arguments are regularly studied by college students as examples of flawed logic. So when you refer to him as if he is the example to which all vegetarians aspire, it makes me sort of want to stop reading your book - so that I can throw it at your head.

So you became "vegetarian" for the blink of an eye. I'd say good for you, except that you didn't even do it. You were still eating animal flesh, and I don't care whether those animals had faces or not. Did they have organs? Would they have tried to protect themselves from you if you found them in the wild and tried to scoop them up? Did they potentially come from food processing systems that are destroying ecosystems and poisoning our food? They did, they would, and they did. As far as you justifying eating meat by killing it yourself, I'll give you the pig hunt on that one, though shooting something with a gun isn't exactly fending for yourself. I'll even give you chickens from Polyface, since you've had their blood on your hands, despite the fact that you didn't have to work real hard to find them. But do you really think you can use those experiences to justify picking up a shrink-wrapped T-bone from the Safeway? Or even from the gourmet butcher shop? Sorry, but that will require at least a one-month turn on the kill floor.

Your discussion of vegetarianism was stunningly one-sided. You seem to be laboring under the delusion that animal rights ideals are the only motivation for vegetarianism. I'll grant you that plenty of people do go veg for a minute or two strictly because they get upset about the treatment of pigs or cows, but in large part these people tend to be young, not very well informed, and short lived in their efforts. They just got tired of trying to save the whales and have now moved on to fighting global warming with such earth-shattering methods as using different lightbulbs. More to the point, people who do go vegetarian or vegan for animal rights reasons who are more mature and are actually educated on the subject don't necessarily believe the things that Singer does. He is not our God; he is just well published.

There are many reasons for becoming vegetarian or vegan that "Omnivore" barely addresses. According to you, in fact, it seems that people like me don't even exist. I find it just fascinating that, despite chapter after chapter in which you discuss the problems with CAFOs and monocropping, explaining how these things are bad for people, land, animals, and food, it didn't occur to you that some of us are vegan because we've simply opted out of the whole mess. As efficiently as we know how, at least.

As far as vegans like me are concerned, the only way to be sure we're not contributing is to... not contribute. And it's not just as simple as not buying animal products. It's knowing about companies and who owns who and who makes what (Tofurky [self-owned private company] vs. Smart Deli [made by Con Agra, who also makes Slim Jim], etc.); it's knowing the code words that the industry uses to disguise animal products in things like shampoo. It's researching food production methods so that we know we are making the most sustainable choices possible even with our vegetable-based items when we make purchases of groceries, or anything else. It's a lot of work that we do, because we want to live conscious lives. But to you, we're all just worked up because cows are so preciously cute, and we can't stand to see them upset? Hardly a fair assessment. Not to say that we don't care about the welfare and suffering of the animals, because we certainly do. But that's just a part of a much bigger whole, and all of it just as ugly.

Do I wish I lived a ten minute walk from Polyface Farms, or some comparable place where I could get animal food that I could feel good about? Yes, yes I do. I don't think I'd eat flesh, because frankly it just freaks me out and I'm healthier without it. But I'd love to have fresh milk and eggs from happy, healthy animals. If I could do such a thing - go shake hands with Farmer Bob, go out back and pat Bessie the Cow on the head, and buy a quart of her milk that she contentedly doled out that morning - as a regular part of my life, I'd say hell yes to that. But I don't live near an amazing dedicated farmer who loves his animals and his land. I live in New York City, and I don't have a car. I'm sure there are great, family-run organic farms in upstate New York, and I'm really happy that they're there. I'm glad that there's a developing niche market for them. I'm not it.

What do I have? I have an amazing vegetarian market just three blocks away, stocked largely with items from smaller privately owned companies, staffed by people from the neighborhood and owned by a friendly and highly dedicated couple who live across the street and with whom I am on a first name basis.

Frankly, Mr. Pollan, I'm disappointed. I expected so much more. You missed a fantastic opportunity: to call us vegans out as a community for the elitist snobs that we can sometimes be, to discuss all of the various levels of vegetarianism and reasons for such, to address the health ramifications of vegetarian diets (positive when done right, negative when done wrong), to discuss the enormous environmental impact that modern animal food production methods are currently tolling. Instead, you took one angle, didn't even fully explore that one, and basically left us looking like marginalized fools to the thousands upon thousands of people that grabbed your book off the bestseller racks. Why?

There is some redemption in the final paragraph of the chapter:
"The industrialization - and brutalization - of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end - for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve."

Well said, and yet so much left unsaid. I'm sorry to say that our relationship has been permanently damaged by this transgression. I'll never feel the same way about you again. I won't be able to recommend your books as wholeheartedly as I have previously, if I can bring myself to recommend them at all. There's really no excuse for this nonsense; an hour of internet research would have told you about a whole legion of other vegan concerns. Hell, just my views on the matter would have provided another entire world of thought. But apparently either you or your editors or both didn't feel it was worth even a single page.

I don't want you to think that we can't still be friends though. I continue to think of you as a great writer. I sincerely hope that you'll do some more investigation into this subject, gain a better understanding. In my wildest dreams, you'll publish a book discussing all the nuances of vegetarian culture. It's a hot topic, you know. I'm sure it would sell. If you need any advice, please feel free to drop a line. We'll get together; I'll bake cupcakes.

Melissa Bastian

P.S. - To Mr. Singer and his devotees, I mean no disrespect. I state only opinions, and you should take them or leave them as you will. I have great admiration for the level of dedication and the sheer quantity of time and effort that he has put forth on a very important topic which obviously means a great deal to him. I just have a bone to pick with Mr. Pollan.

P.P.S. - To Mr. Pollan, have you read "Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf" by Peter Lovenheim? Highly recommended reading. He did the whole buy a calf and watch what happens as it moves through the industrial food system thing several years before "Omnivore" came out... only his calf's story doesn't end quite like yours does...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Challenge: to dine out every night, most afternoons, and some mornings for a week... with our parents.

Yes, this week my fiance and I have our parents in town, both sets. Jonathan has been vegan for six or seven years now, and I have for a bit over two. Nevertheless, the parents don't always quite grasp what we do and do not eat. (Do y'all eat wheat? Well, what about fish?) Our primary interest is keeping them happy, and having them in town is truly a test of our standard statement that we can find something to eat anywhere...

Jonathan's parents arrive in the afternoon. We head down to Little Italy for an early dinner at a place Dad remembers from a previous trip. I order spaghetti al pomodoro, Jonathan orders linguini with maranara. Translation for each: pasta with red sauce. We lucked out here: the bread was not covered in garlic butter, the tomato sauce was not cooked with any kind of meat stock, and cheese was added to the dishes at the table, not in the kitchen. So alright, one down.

Met the parents at the hotel around 1pm. Mine were to be arriving around 3. In the interim, we went to lunch... at Johnny Rockets. Jonathan's parents love a good diner, and they think the JR is just great, with its shiny counters and its nickel juke boxes at each table. New York is really not quite their speed, since they actually live deep in the mountains of western Virginia, so we like taking them places that they're really comfortable. So. Being extremely nervous about my parents' impeding arrival, I only ate onion rings. (I later found out that they contain whey, which is aggravating, but I'll probably live.) Jonathan had "the streamliner", a Boca burger piled high with lettuce, tomato, and grilled onion. They do, supposedly, use the vegan Boca. (And anyway why, pray tell, is there a non-vegan Boca? But that's a discussion for another day.) We escaped largely unscathed, and hey, at least we're encouraging them to keep the vegetarian items on the menu.

A side note... Checking it out later, I found this on their website:

A Note for our Vegetarian Guests
At Johnny Rockets we strive to meet the needs of all of our guests. The Boca Burger patty that we use in our Streamliner is their Original V35 and is manufactured as a vegan product. Our spec hamburger buns should not contain any dairy nor other animal-derived ingredients. Our American fries also should not contain ingredients which are of animal origin and are always cooked in 100% vegetable oil. Beef tallow, or flavorings derived from animal sources, are never intentionally added during the manufacturing or cooking process. However you should be aware that, due to the proximity of the manufacturing equipment to sources of animal protein or oil from animal sources there is the slight, though extremely unlikely, possibility that traces of these unwanted products may be accidentally transferred to our American fries during their production. For this reason, and this reason only, we feel compelled to list beef tallow as a possible (however extremely unlikely) ingredient.

Please be aware that we designate a special area of the grill on which to cook only the Boca Burger and we do everything in our power to keep the area free from other materials. We also have special color-coded turners and tongs which help to keep cross-contamination to a minimum. However due to the limited space and tight kitchen layout at Johnny Rockets we cannot guarantee that there will not be unintentional contact with some small amount of material from an item which is of animal in nature.

You know what? I appreciate the fact that they seem to be trying, and that they're fairly forthright about what they're doing. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're on the level and are actually doing what they claim here. They do, of course, mainly exist as a business that thrives on selling animal products. But I'd still rather people eat there than at, say, McDevil's.

I won't get into the story of my parents not turning on their cell phone, or my father's trepidation about riding the subway. Suffice it to say that they did arrive, and we introduced two and two, and once all hands were shook we corralled them all down to Spring Street Natural at the corner of Spring and Laffiette. We like taking parents here, since it has food for us and food for them and it's also nice and big and fancy. It also has a full bar.

Now, my parents are from New Orleans, and all my father ever wants to eat is seafood. I've tried to explain to him that New Orleans restaurants have different cooking and serving theories than do New York ones; basically that if you opened up a new restaurant in New Orleans and tried to get away with the serving sizes and cooking techniques that are commonly perpetrated in NY, the restaurant would go out of business in about a week. My mom saw the light of reason and got the goat cheese ravioli; goat cheese is something they know about in New York. She loved her dinner. But Dad, he can't stop trying. So he proceeded to order the shrimp bisque, (which he hated - there's only three shrimp in here!), and the mussels (which were no good), and the soft shelled crab (which was rolled in cornmeal, a deadly sin, and which there was only one of). (Hey dad, don't say I didn't warn ya.) Needless to say, he wasn't thrilled. And he wasn't quiet about it. Nor was my mother, the queen of tact.

So it's probably a good thing that this is the dinner when we told them about our engagement. Everybody forgot about their food, and my dad ordered a bottle of champagne.

Me and Jonathan, we had the corn crusted tofu, this time served with broccoli rabe and shaved jiccama salad. And it was delicious as always.

Sunday began with all four parents at Ess-A-Bagel. Now, I introduced all four of them to this place, because I freakin' love it. It's my contention that these are the best bagels in New York, which would actually make them the best bagels in the world. Literally. It's a classic Jewish bagel joint, and in New York there's a bit of a trend in Kosher establishments to offer tofu cream cheese - to dodge that whole mixing-meat-and-milk hedge law. Now, for me it has nothing to do with religion, but I do consider it a small miracle that I can walk into a place on third avenue in Midtown and be confronted with a choice of 6 different flavors of tofu cream cheese. (They actually have seven, but one of them is lox. And, um, no.) My parents, of course, went for the classic lox and cream cheese on a plain bagel. Jonathan's parents went the sausage and egg route. But me? I got my standard: whole wheat bagel, toasted, with herb tofu, lettuce, and tomato. A more perfect breakfast (or lunch or dinner, for that matter) never has been had.

We were planning to take them to Wave Thai in Astoria, but we never made it. Lunch was basically skipped that day; those bagels pack a wollop, and they weren't eaten until about 11am anyway. Dinner was had after the City Lights cruise that took us around the bottom half of the Island of Manhattan, with a crackpot tourguide who told us all about how the "graffiti movement" was started by Andy Warhol in the 70's... fascinating stuff.

We needed to eat close to the hotel, so we went to China Dynasty, the Chinese place that's actually the hotel restaurant for the Radisson down the street from where the parents are staying. The waitstaff there take themselves very, very seriously, hardly ever cracking a smile. But the service is good, and the food is excellent. There's one thing that bothers me immensely, though, which is that they serve shark fin soup. Granted, I don't know if it's the genuine article, but to even have it on the menu seems wrong. That's probably why I never consider eating there unless I'm desperately trying to feed parents who happen to be staying on the same block. (Oddly enough, Vegetarian Dim Sum house in Chinatown serves a vegetarian version of The Soup That Shall Not Be Named, an anomaly that I find just bizarre. Maybe that's why I've always preferred Buddah Bodai.)

Dynasty has a dim sum style menu as well as entrees, and what always makes me happy is that they have those little steamed bread buns with the stuff in them. They even have two for us - one with red bean paste and one with minced vegetables. They offer two kinds of bean curd, but when we tried to order the Ma Pau, the stoic waiter said, "with pork?" D'oh! "No!" Oh well. At least they told us - that's not the kind of thing you want to find out when the dinners are arriving at the table. House special bean curd times two it is.

And as this post is now officially excruciatingly long, I'll leave it...