Thursday, December 31, 2009

Red Bamboo Brooklyn Goes Red Meat - NYiG declares FAIL.

If you're vegan and living in the NYC area, you've likely already heard that Red Bamboo Brooklyn will be closing its doors at the end of the year. What you might not know, however, is that it's actually just changing over. In 2010 it will re-open as "Poppa's Place," under the same management and with the same cook, as an omni restaurant. (Disclaimer: I did not take the photograph.)

Why? Steven Brown of the Brooklyn Paper postulates that it's because vegetarianism is "on life support". (I'd love to chat with him about that erroneous idea over brunch or dinner one Saturday at any of the dozens of thriving veg restaurants in the NYC area, but I just get so impatient waiting for a table.) Owner Jason Wong seems to be attributing the switch to a combination of economy troubles and a decline in demand for the processed mock meat fare that has heretofore defined the restaurant's menu.

But it's also personal. Wong has given up his own vegetarianism, and believes his restaurant will do better offering "humane" meat. "I am ready to serve meat," he stated. Well Mr. Wong, I am ready to no longer patronize your restaurant. Maybe reheating soy cutlets from May Wah is not the best business model, but is Happy Meat really the best you can come up with? Did you pause to wonder how so many other restaurants have been able to develop diversified, crowd-pleasing menus without depending on either mock meats or flesh? Meh, no need to worry about it, bring on the dead animals (and the profits)!

According to at least one source, both Red Bamboo locations are owned by Wong, son of Philip and Lulu Wong who in turn own Vegetarian's Paradise 2. The Red Bamboo West Village location will remain vegetarian... for now.

Red Bamboo Brooklyn is having a Closing Party / New Year's Eve celebration on December 31. I, for one, will not be in attendance: to me, even to show up is to give more support than I feel this restaurant owner currently deserves.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Vegans Drink! Erm, that is, Vegan Drinks!

It has been far, far too long since I've posted. But here I am! You can all rest easy now.

I'm here to tell you that I finally, finally made it out to Vegan Drinks! You see, for ages now I've believed that they held a not-too-secret vendetta against me. Vegan Drinks is held on Thursday evenings - the last Thursday of the month, generally, to be preciseish - and see I have a longstanding appointment every Thursday evening. What conclusion is there to come to, other than, they did this on purpose so that I can't come? It seemed clear enough to me.

Well this week I thwarted their maniacal little plan and showed up anyway! And what do you know - they were just tickled pink to see me. It seems that they actually schedule the event as it's most convenient for the organizers and the location - Angels and Kings in the East Village - and has nothing to do with me at all. What are the chances? Anyway, as it happened, this Thursday was one of the biggest NYC Vegan Drinks events yet - more drink specials (rum nog!), more food (empanadas from V Spot served up by Danny himself, chocolate from Compassionate Confections), a whole ton of giveaways (including books from the Post Punk Kitchen dynamic duo and jewelery from Evolve Accessories)... It was quite an evening!

There were so many to people to talk to, and the DJ rocked it out all night long. She kept playing songs that I thought only I remembered and loved - the mark of a truly good DJ, I must say. I will definitely be making it back for the next Vegan Drinks, January 28, 2010! OK, I'll definitely be trying to anyway. ;)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Eating Animals: Slices of Paradise / Pieces of ____.
The sixth chapter in the new book by Jonathan Saffran Foer

This sixth chapter of Foer's book Eating Animals, more than those preceding it, seems to have a theme: differences that matter. This can be an important concept when one talks about animal rights. Many changes could be made to the living conditions of a battery cage hen - she could be given three more square inches of living space, for example. But is this a difference that matters? Or just a thinly veiled attempt by industry to get do-gooders to shut up about animal welfare and go away, without industry having made any real change? This idea ties in nicely with one of my personal mottoes: better is not the same as good.

In this chapter, Foer visits Paradise Locker Meats, a smalltime slaughterhouse doing things in a more "traditional" way than most of the bigger houses these days. Even so, he has a difficult experience.
"It's not just because I'm a city boy that I find this repulsive. Mario and his workers admitted to having difficulty with some of the more gory aspects of slaughter, and I heard that sentiment echoed wherever I could have frank conversations with slaughterhouse workers."
This discomfort is heightened all the more for Foer by the fact that the animals being slaughtered on the day of his visit are hogs - pigs, with their intelligence and particularly gutwrenching squeal (or scream, if you prefer). The visit comes to a head when, upon leaving, the abattoir staff are just dying to share with Foer the end product of their hard labors: a slice of glistening pink ham. Foer wriggles from this predicament by playing the Kosher card (he isn't, but he sure could play one on TV). Awkwardness ensues.

If you're going to discuss pig eating, or to put it nicely "pork", there's no way to avoid the name Smithfield, leading pork producer in the U.S. Run a Google search for "Smithfield Farms pork", and among the first entries (sometimes the very first) you'll find a Rolling Stone article entitled Boss Hog: Pork's Dirty Secret. As have many others, Foer has found this article to be particularly illuminating regarding the manure "lagoons" that go hand in hand with pig factories.

As Foer points out, the pits are filled not only with animal feces but also with "whatever will fit through the slatted floors of the factory farm buildings. This includes but is not limited to: stillborn piglets, afterbirths, dead piglets, vomit, blood, urine, antibiotic syringes, broken bottles of insecticide, hair, pus"... et cetera. No wonder, then, that neighbors get upset when an industrial pig "farm" gets built nearby? The presence of these lagoons shifts from nauseating to enraging when one understands that accidents do happen, and sometimes these cess pools "spill" into nearby lakes and rivers.

Foer goes on to discuss another major concern in the raising of commercial pigs: the gestation crate. This is a contraption which confines a sow, and is generally justified by the excuse that the mother pig may crush her babies if she is allowed to move.
What defenders of such practices don't point out is that at [non-industrial farms], the problem doesn't arise in the first place. Not surprisingly, when farmers select for "motherability" when breeding, and a mother pig's sense of smell is not overpowered by the stench of her own liquefied feces beneath her, and her hearing is not impaired by the clanging of metal cages, and she is given space to investigate where her piglets are and exercise her legs so that she can lie down slowly, she finds it easy enough to avoid crushing her young.
The chapter is concluded with a brief revisitation of the plight of fish. Fish do seem to be different to most everyone - we've all met the "vegetarian" who still eats fish. Perhaps it is the land/water divide that so separates us? Philosophical quandaries aside, there are no numbers kept for how many hundreds of thousands, or millions, or maybe even billions of fish and other sea creatures are caught and consumed each year. They count for so little that we literally don't even count them.

I've always known about that thing called "bycatch" - I'm old enough to remember the craze of dolphin-safe tuna, after all - but this section held a piece of information that actually shocked me. According to Foer and his fact checkers, 80 to 90 percent of the sea creatures caught by industrial fishing operations, even those businesses considered efficient, are thrown back as bycatch! Well, I had to check that out. While I couldn't find a reliable source to mirror those numbers (other than maybe Greenpeace, but I think they're biased?) I did find an FAO report on shrimp trawling that finds an average of 85% . Ouch.

I'm unsure why this section on industrial fishing was tacked to the back of chapter 6; nevertheless, it is most certainly good information to have.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Eating Animals: Hiding / Seeking - the fourth chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm wearing black in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. There are surgical booties around my disposable shoes and latex gloves on my shaking hands. I pat myself down, quintuple-checking that I have everything: red-filtered flashlight, picture ID, $40 cash, video camera, copy of California penal code 597e, bottle of water (not for me), silenced cell phone, blow horn. We kill the engine and roll the final thirty yards to the spot we scouted out earlier in the day on one of our half-dozen drive-bys. This isn't the scary part yet.
Thus begins the fourth chapter of Foer's book, the chapter entitled Hiding/Seeking. A lot happens in this chapter. As you may have gleaned, it begins with our hero pretty much breaking into a factory farming facility. He does so with a woman we call "C", who seems to do such things on a fairly regular basis. But she is not radical or extremist. We actually get to know how she feels about it, because it is in this chapter that Foer begins to use the device of personal narratives - that is, short segments actually written by various people he interacted with while writing the book (rather than just about them). Whereas his description of the event has the subheading, "I'm not the kind of person who finds himself on a stranger's farm in the middle of the night", her section, which immediately follows, is titled "I am the kind of person who finds herself on a stranger's farm in the middle of the night." {Emphasis added.} Get it?

Unlike the black bandanna-wearing members of the ALF that you sometimes see around NYC, chanting things like "We will drive the final nail!" (sorry guys, but what does that even mean?), C seems like a person you could comfortably take into your living room.
I am not a radical. In almost every way, I'm a middle-of-the-road person. I don't have any piercings. No weird haircut. I don't do drugs. Politically, I'm liberal on some issues and conservative on others. But see, factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue - something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth...

It's crazy that the idea of animal rights seems crazy to anyone. We live in a world in which it's conventional to treat an animal like a hunk of wood and extreme to treat an animal like an animal.
Well said, C. (But, you know, it's so convenient to treat them like hunks of wood.)

Foer, somewhat needless to say, is moved by his experience of witnessing conditions at the factory of animals. But what disturbs him most is the difficulty they have finding a door to the animal sheds that isn't locked.
We spend several minutes like this, looking for an unlocked door. Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm? It can't be because he's afraid someone will steal his equipment or animals... A farmer doesn't lock his doors because he's afraid his animals will escape. (Turkeys can't turn doorknobs.)... So why? In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.
The next section, surprisingly enough, has the heading "I am a factory farmer." Reading this is sort of like talking to a rational republican. You think, Well, I see what you're saying, and clearly you've thought it through. But I think you may be missing some things... For example: "Sure, you could say that people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat." No, many people do not want to eat less meat. People also don't want to go to school, work eight hours a day, pay rent or a mortgage, follow driving laws, have their teeth cleaned, go visit grandma in the hospital, clean the house, take the trash out, or pay their taxes. There are plenty of things that people don't want to do. But in order for society to function, and for individuals to remain safe and healthy, they do them. It is part of being a responsible adult on the planet earth which has an ever-increasing population. What am I really saying here? Sorry folks, suck it up. Your 99 cent cheeseburger has just got to go.

The chapter goes on to say a good deal about chickens. Given that an estimated 99% of chickens come from factory farms, they become a good icon for this system of creating food animals. (I have seen this number cited in numerous places, but unfortunately I can't find you an unbiased reference for it.) "As described in industry journals from the 1960s onward, the egg-laying hen was to be considered 'only a very efficient converting machine', the pig was to be 'just like a machine in a factory', and the twenty-first century was to bring a new 'computer cookbook of recipes for custom-designed creatures.'" *shiver*

The last segment of this chapter is one called "I am the last poultry farmer." It is written by a man who raises turkeys, and loves them as if children. Except, of course, that he eventually kills them so that people can eat them, which most people will not do with their children. He is, however, the first of the contributors to give a name: Frank Reese. He doesn't support or want to have anything to do with factory farming methods.
Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can't even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won't allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can't reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that?... What the industry figured out - and this was the real revolution - is that you don't need healthy animals to make a profit.
As you may have guessed, he raises what are now referred to as "heritage birds", rather than the genetically adulterated birds generally raised for commercial uses these days (i.e. for the past maybe 50 years). His birds can fly, and jump... and have sex. Frank makes a statement in his diatribe that I strongly agree with: "If consumers don't want to pay the farmer to do it right, they shouldn't eat meat." There's that 99 cent cheeseburger again.
Just the other day, one of the local pediatricians was telling me he's seeing all kinds of illnesses that he never used to see... Everyone knows it's our food. We're messing with the genes of these animals and then feeding them growth hormones and all kinds of drugs that we really don't know enough about. And then we're eating them.
Couldn't have said it better myself, Frank.

And people still wonder why I'm vegan?