Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Carnivore Politics (Part II): Reconsidering Veganism

When I was seventeen, my family went on vacation to the Cayman Islands, which I, as someone from rural Indiana, found to be an incredible area—clear blue water, good restaurants, and agreeable weather (this being a period without hurricane threats). Our activities included a trip to the Cayman Turtle Farm, and I loved having the opportunity to witness such a large concentration of sea turtles up close. Then I noticed the farm’s small indoor snack bar, with a sign in front of the door advertising that day’s special: “TURTLE SOUP.” Having naively failed to yet notice the clear implication of the word “farm,” I felt ashamed, and almost immediately asked myself a question that is common for teenagers becoming conscious of their diets: should I become a vegetarian? I had made the connection between the turtles—sixty percent of which the farm raises for food—and the snack bar, and wondered if my love for meat was wrong.

It didn’t take long for me to move past my ethical dilemma at the sea turtle farm, and I continued to regularly consume meat. If anything, I think I’m guilty of being overly defensive about being a carnivore/omnivore. I have vegetarian friends, and think it’s admirable that they’re able to make such a commitment to their diets. Yet my attitude has largely been along the lines of “Why would you want to do that?”—as if my own self-reflection in the Caymans was simply a youthful and silly matter. Things become even worse with regard to vegans, because I often conveniently resort to negative stereotypes as a means of safeguarding my own eating habits. It’s often been easier to espouse an attitude of “look at those crazy vegans!” rather than seriously consider the validity of their claims. Even when I read Michael Pollan’s respectful critique of veganism and its sustainability in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (you can get the general idea here), my own reaction was less gracious; it was as if I’d found a personal apologetic for eating chicken and pork. Besides, how can vegan food be consistently good anyway without the benefit of so many ingredients?

That last one is a stickler for me and for many others who aren’t vegan. No meat is one thing, but cutting out meat, dairy and trace animal-based ingredients (such as gelatin) is quite difficult, especially in the Midwest. I don’t tend to handle dairy very well, and many of the dairy substitutes I’ve tried have been disappointing; rice and soy milk are okay, but nothing seems to match the richness of real butter and cheese. I “cheat” every so often, but vegans don’t really have that option, and it leads to the question of how they approach certain types and categories of food. This is especially true for dessert, where milk, cream, and butter are traditional fixtures.

Enter Patty Cake Vegan Bakery. I became more curious about vegan cookies earlier this year after stumbling across a couple of bakery websites that offered several different varieties available for online ordering. Patty Cake was another accidental find, and, looking for an excuse to go to Columbus, my girlfriend and I first went there in October. She voiced the question that we both had on our minds—would this be good for being vegan? We collective purchased several cookies, buckeye bars, and whoopee pies, and took them home for the test.

Oh. My. Word.

Any of their cookies are just as good as their well-made and non-vegan counterparts, and two kinds in particular—the molasses crinkle (which is probably oil-based regardless of dietary concerns) and peanut butter chocolate chip—are easily among the best cookies I’ve ever put in my mouth. The buckeye bars and whoopee pies are equally excellent. On a recent return trip, my girlfriend bought two different types of cupcakes, and one bite of the first one (chocolate with chocolate icing) left her raving. I merely had what was arguably the best sticky bun of my life. Patty Cake single-handedly refutes the notion that vegan food can’t taste good; I can honestly say that I’m more willing to make the two-and-a-half hour round trip to buy their products than to search for something similar that’s closer to Dayton.

Yet Patty Cake also reminds me of how I’ve been wrong in my attitudes. Their employees are friendly, and though they’ve asked me if I’m vegan, it’s simply out of curiosity. (Another dumb assumption on my part—what else should I expect?) In a consumer society that encourages a “fast and cheap” approach to food, they offer the best kind of counter-example—an ethical business (organic ingredients, sustainable practices) that sticks to its convictions while selling superior product to believers and (initial) skeptics alike. This approach is educative to those of us who use and consume animal products. Even if we disagree with certain core tenets of veganism, it’s important to consider not only the merits of the “cruelty-free” paradigm, but also that adopting such a philosophy doesn’t mean having to sacrifice as we think it might. On a personal level, it additionally means that I need to more fully develop a critical awareness of how I view the food options of others, especially if those options are attempts to circumvent our unhealthy attitudes towards food.

Good cookies with a lesson? It’s hard to argue with that.

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