Celebrating the Cycle of Life with Death

Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest urban farm,  is celebrating Earth Day this year by roasting a pig, as they do every year. When vegans have questioned this in the past, their response has been “circle of life”. So while spring is in bloom and the air is full of the scent and colors of life bursting forth, Americans celebrate the circle of life with death. 

Meanwhile, Iranians are currently celebrating our new year. Norooz falls on Spring Equinox and revolves around the sacredness of the circle of life. Before Norooz, we grow sprouts (sabzeh) for the haftseen, a table with symbolic items which will be laid until the end of the celebration. 

The cyclical renewal of life is celebrated with the vibrancy of life growing from seeds and creating a lush tapestry of green. On our haftseens we also place hyacinths, apples, and other symbols of abundance, health, life and nature. Norooz is celebrated for thirteen days, during which time the haftseens are a joyful backdrop, and people take pride in the beauty they’ve created. Then comes Sizdah Beh Dar (“thirteen to the door”); on the thirteenth day of the new year, friends and families spend the day in nature. The sabzeh is brought along for a final ritual. People tie little tufts of sprouts into knots as they make a wish for the new year and then throw them into a river, looking forward to the gifts that the river will bring back to them. 

All the while in my city, young Americans are choosing to honor the Earth and the circle of life by gathering around the body of an animal who will have wanted nothing more than to stay alive. This pig’s life will be violently ended by people who have absolute power over him or her and who have no need to kill to sustain themselves, but who choose to do so anyway because their entitlement trumps their empathy. Domination and death are the values upheld as Alemany gathers around another broken body. 

These daily choices and rituals call upon us to question our culture and the connections between the local and the global, the individual and the collective. 

Consider that the United States military is a bloated killing machine that receives more than a third of total global military spending. With bases around the globe and the wanton slaughter of civilians in criminal wars, it is the main source of terror in the world. Consider that last year American police killed a thousand of their own citizens and this year we’re already close to 300. This is summary execution at home as abroad, condoned by the legal system and the masses. Consider that in a country of extreme wealth, many die from lack of access to housing, healthcare and basic healthy foods. 

As parks became parking lots, as processed and packaged foods replaced fruits plucked from a backyard tree, humans are not the only ones to have suffered. Insects are dying off, the fish are dying off, mammals are dying off. Every corner of the Earth is poisoned as we pursue domination and profit.   

Tomorrow for Sizdah Beh Dar, I will bring a plant-based picnic to Golden Gate Park and will spend the day enjoying the sun, the grass, the trees, the flowers, the birds. I will take my sabzeh to Mission Creek and make a wish of liberation for the hundreds of thousands of pigs who are killed every day in the US, most of whom never see sunlight or touch the earth. I will reflect on how we can foster a culture in which we meet life with awe and tenderness, not destruction. If we are serious about Earth Day, nothing else will do. Those who attend pig roasts dressed in feel-good language think that the artisanal butchery of an individual pig raised outdoors can not be compared to the grotesque excess of industrial animal farming. They are wrong.

This equation of destruction and killing with the cycle of life, the logicking out of one’s own compassion, the rituals of domination that make up the fabric of American social life: these are the very basis of the culture of violence that has spawned horrors at home and abroad. The entitlement over the life of another is the same entitlement that drives the trashing of the planet, as we commodify every last part of nature. Kindness is the basis of sustainabilityany true celebration of Earth Day will require genuine soul-searching as we begin to change our culture at its very core.

 

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Cruelty Finds Justification

A pig is a dog is a cow is a cat.

Pig being transported to slaughter. Photo Credit: Toronto Pig Save.

Nothing justifies sending a terrified animal to slaughter. Yet through the increased popularity of the food movement (which is positive in some ways), animal cruelty has a renewed appeal.

It’s not that the food movement is “worse” or that they are more attached to meat consumption than your average person (save in the case of people who are themselves linked to animal husbandry through family/community tradition). Rather, the food movement legitimizes and anchors society’s natural resistance to change. But, their main arguments are nonsense:

Necessity
We are often told that what we’re being sold is necessary because it’s harder to argue against necessity than against preference. A good example is milk; the dairy industry got us by instilling the fear that without milk, our kids were missing something essential to their normal development. So these days, the argument is that we NEED cows to save the soil, we NEED manure to grow sustainably, we NEED beehives to pollinate the crops and so on. Don’t believe it. They are tapping into our Eurocentric biases to make cruelty appear unavoidable and enlightened.

Terrified pigs before slaughter

Culture
Another favorite of enlightened foodies and food activists. Why yes, liberating animals does go against almost all of our cultures, there’s no denying it. And we don’t have to deny it, because culture should not trump ethics and tradition should not be dogma. A double win of doing away with this nonsense justification is that we can also stop treating people of color (especially the “Native American hunter in touch with nature”) as Noble Savages, which is another manifestation of racism.

Only industrial animal agriculture is harmful
This is where the food movement and the animal rights movement are speaking at crosshairs. It’s true that factory farming is not representative of all animal husbandry, and that traditional forms may well be much better… for the environment. But this is not about the environment. If someone were breeding and killing puppies on their land, we wouldn’t say “That’s wonderful because this sustainable puppy farm sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity”. These pigs feel happiness, pain, joy and extreme terror just like dogs do. There is no rational justification for treating them differently.

Why Do We Love One, but Eat the Others? by Pawel Kuczynski
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Farmers’ Love and Soy Myths: More Nonsense to Retire in 2018

No, veganism doesn’t require destroying the Amazon, and no, farmers’ “love” for animals doesn’t justify killing them.

The Guardian published an article titled Cows are loving, intelligent and kind – but we should still eat themIt follows Rosamund Young, a farmer who wrote The Secret Lives of Cows. She bonds with her cows, observes the richness and complexity of their social and inner lives, and even provides this memorable quote “The animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare.” She also brings her cows to the slaughterhouse, despite this being the most extreme and violent opposition possible to the decisions that cows would make for their own welfare.

Allgäu Ruminant Dairy Cattle Cows Cute CowThis trope of the farmer who loves their animals and has a zen-like maturity about death has been fed to us for a loooong time. Already in 2000, I remember meeting a guy who, upon learning I was vegan, told me he had been vegan for a while. He had started to eat meat again when he met a farmer who really, really loved his animals – but would kill and eat them. He figured that if the farmer, who really, really loved his chickens, still ate them, it was a green light for him to also eat animals. We’re supposed to see farmers as the example to follow, since they are actually in close communion with animals whereas us urban folks have led a disconnected life of Disney movies and supermarket food.

It would be just as ludicrous to look to men who beat and rape their wives as experts on the validity of women’s emancipation or on how to treat women. They live with them right? And they love them. So if they think patriarchy and male domination of women is ok, then it is. There is so much to deconstruct here in the concept of “love” when applied by a dominant class, but what I want to comment on is the soy – yet something else that is peddled out like truth again and again.

Rosamund Young justifies killing animals because “Britain’s climate and geography make meat production the only truly sustainable land use on its grasslands. Her slopes are too steep to grow crops and vegan diets dependent on imported soya beans from ex-rainforests don’t appear to be sustainable”.

First, vegan diets do not necessarily depend on soy. I spent most of my years as a vegan living in Switzerland and for the most part I ate very little soy. When I did, it was not imported from monocultures in South America; it was organic soy that was grown in Europe. When small farmers and other anti-vegans of that milieu speak of the evils of soy in the Amazon, they conveniently omit that most of that soy goes to feed cattle. Granted, they are not advocating for European cows to be raised on soy either, but that is the inevitable result of the consumption levels in the West today. Grass-fed “beef” is land-intensive. Its proponents sometimes give lip service to the idea of decreasing meat consumption but never center that message in their work.

512px-Ful_medames
Egyptian breakfast with the fava-based ful medames. Delicious, vegan, and lo and behold! Not a soybean in sight.

Going back to soy, people love to wag the finger at vegans but genetically engineered soy is ubiquitous in processed foods consumed by non-vegans. On the other hand, even in the United States, many of the soy products marketed specifically to vegans are non-GMO. And it’s not like pulses don’t grow in the UK. Before they were snubbed as low-class, beans and peas were staple British foods. They’re still grown – now as feed for cattle and for export. Britain is one of the largest exporters of fava beans and Egypt, of all places, is one of its main markets. It’d be wiser for the British to learn to make the delicious Egyptian ful medames and keep their fava beans at home.

You can run around in circles justifying cruelty, but the litmus test is this: would you be ok with dogs being raised and slaughtered like cows? If not, it befalls you to explain why you draw a line between cows and dogs.

There are plenty of veganic growers in the UK, in fact I’ve been told that one of the reasons veganics are more accepted and developed in the UK than in the US is precisely because of the relative lack of land. I hope to see the Guardian start covering their proposal for a compassionate and sustainable food system.

Visit Veganic World for interviews with veganic farmers.

Read my short Defense of the Humble Bean.

 

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#YesAllBurgers

Brown Calf
This picture was originally captioned as “veal”. This is an intelligent social animal who feels pain, fear and love. Not a commodity, not a food, not “veal” or future “beef”.

The food movement has long been pushing for small-scale, local and organic animal agriculture. Their idea is that while factory farming is obscene and harmful, traditional forms of animal agriculture are a whole other ballgame. The message that not all meat is equal has morphed into the enthusiastic endorsement and promotion of animal agriculture.

This summer, Friends of the Earth (FoE) launched The Better Burger Challenge. They’re calling upon chefs, food advocates and all eaters to grill up “better burgers” that replace at least 30% of regular burgers with vegetables and the rest with local organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised beef. FoE does not present this move as a way to cause less damage to the environment. Instead, they label Better Burgers as “environmentally friendly” and the ranching practices that produce them as “sustainable” and “regenerative”. They go so far as to trumpet that Better Burgers can “transform the iconic, resource-intensive American hamburger into a force for better personal health, good farming practices and animal welfare”.

This is total nonsense.

Yes, not all burgers are equal in terms of environmental impact. That’s true, and more vegans should understand this because you can better refute a point if you are first willing to understand it. But burgers are never good for the environment. Before industrial agriculture, animal agriculture was already destructive simply because it uses more resources. That’s why it always was – and remains today – a food for the relatively well-off. Add to that the fact that cows are an invasive species in the Americas and you start to see that this is about protecting culture, not the environment.

Image from The Vegan Outreach Project
Image from The Vegan Outreach Project

Secondly and far more importantly: ALL burgers are equal in that they are all made from the flesh of animals who did not want to die. If you wouldn’t eat local, grass-fed, holistically grazed, humanely slaughtered dogs, why do you do so with cows? How are they different? [Commence sound of crickets.]

The vegan movement also needs to be clear that our movement is not fundamentally about food or agriculture, any more than it is about fashion or entertainment. We are a movement that aims to change how we relate, socially, to other beings. And because those beings are currently exploited in food and agriculture (as well as fashion, entertainment and so on), it just so happens that animal liberation changes the parameters within which we choose what we eat and how we farm. So to the endless chorus of #NotAllBurgers, I emphatically counter #YesALLBurgers. Because animals’ lives are what matter.

Cows Sonoma
In the Bay Area, local organic meat and dairy companies present the agricultural region north of San Francisco as a pastoral paradise. In reality, ranching is driving the disappearance of native wildlife and biodiversity.

 

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Carnism as Cultural Appreciation

The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley sells what foodies consider the right type of meat: grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free, happy animals, all that jazz. They offer daily sandwiches with ingredients like roasted corn tapenade, soft-boiled duck eggs, herbed aioli and nepitella (I had to look it up too). They also offer butchery classes, where those who are seduced by the esthetic of artisanship can learn to hack away at the corpses of pigs, chickens, fish, even deer. Happily, these classes have been the object of protests by animal liberation activists.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.40.38 PMOn July 10, The Local Butcher Shop posted this picture to Facebook with the caption “Bastille Day is this Friday, July 14th, and we’ve got you Francophiles covered: French onion soup, garlicky Toulouse sausage, Boudin Noir (blood sausage), Crépinettes, pork rillons, duck rillettes, duck confit, whole rabbits & chickens. Call us to place an order! Vive la France!”

I really hope that in 20 years we will look back on this gleeful barbarianism in disbelief. And even while the food movement has been turning ex-vegans into carnists, the renewed vigor of the animal liberation movement has me hopeful. Last week in San Francisco I participated in our city’s first March to Close All Slaughterhouses, and intrepid open rescue networks as well as a slaughterhouse vigil movement are compelling the world to finally empathize with farm animals.

There is nothing surprising to me about using Francophilia to sell meat. In recent years the vegan movement seems to have exploded in Europe, but when I was a kid in Europe it truly was more difficult to be veg*n, and when I would visit the Bay Area, it felt like such a breeze. Then a reversal started around the time I moved to the Bay Area (2010), largely due in my opinion to different streaks of identity politics. One was the idea that Europeans are more nuanced and sophisticated, and so instead of rejecting all animal products, they eat the right kind.

Under Bush, many Americans felt self-conscious and strove to imitate Europeans in an effort to distinguish themselves from all the other “dumb Americans”. Appreciation of local cheeses and artisanal sausages soon conveniently fell into this fold. Veganism was another example of misplaced zeal from Americans who, untethered to tradition and lacking nuance, swing from the extremes of fast food to fat free. San Franciscans especially seemed to have something to prove. After traveling to New York and witnessing an amazing vegan scene, I moved to San Francisco to see vegan businesses shutting down, ex-vegans popping up en masse, and carnism as a new enlightenment.

The problem was that people accepted a framing of the issue that is wrong. Veganism is not about refraining from a type of food entirely versus consuming with distinction and moderation. It’s about rejecting the entire notion that certain animals are food. When I lived in Europe, not a week went by without someone dropping the thought-terminating cliché “faut manger de tout” (“one must eat of everything”). I don’t have much of a problem with that message per se; the question is, what constitutes “everything”? The word everything is used as a synonym for “every food”. In my opinion, animals are not food. In the opinion of those people, certain animals are. Discussions should have centered on this difference, instead they were dismissed.

When a European travels to Asia and sees dogs raised for food, they don’t nod appreciatively and say that some dog meat in moderation is a wise food choice. No, they constantly lament the fate of the dogs (I speak from the experience of having traveled in Asia with Europeans). They wouldn’t be very open-minded if a local told them “faut manger de tout”. Where vegans departed from the mainstream is that we questioned why society doesn’t afford the same empathy to those defined (in the West) as “farm animals” as it does to dogs. Not coming up with a good answer, we changed our ways.

Veganism is about changing our social norms and social relations with other animals, and I think Bay Area folks should have been proud of our willingness to do this.

Now the Bay Area is stirring again. As a result of the above-mentioned protests, The Local Butcher Shop agreed to post an animal liberationist message on their window front; a likely first in the history of all butcher shops. The Bay Area is marching towards animal liberation; let’s be unwavering this time.

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Earth Day at Alemany Farm

 

“In the spirit of earth day bring reusable cups…” but let’s go ahead and roast a pig.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.31.01 AM

When Seed the Commons organized the first People’s Harvest Forum, I invited one of the founders of Alemany Farm to come speak about land and urban gardening in San Francisco. I explained that this was a forum that promoted veganic farming, and he was ok with veganics as long as it isn’t promoted exclusively, or in his own words, as long as it was “without dogma”.

Compassion is such a very dogmatic thing, of course. No, wait, it’s only dogmatic when it’s the compassion of the minority. The compassion that the majority has for dogs and cats is not seen as “dogmatic” (even though the majority second-guesses themselves much less). When vegans apply our ethics to our actions in the very same way that the majority does, we get dismissed as dogmatic.

This is a double standard that serves to insult us and to detract from the challenge that we present to dominant social norms. Because the question that needs to be answered is this: why should we treat a cow or pig differently than a dog? If there is no good answer to this question, it follows that we should farm veganically, and it is no more dogmatic than farming without dogs or cats. To maintain the status quo of animal commodification, the question is skirted.

We must liberate the class of animals known as “farm animals”. People will resist and insult and try to avoid ever engaging in a discussion on why farm animals are uniquely suited to their lot. This is normal. We are fighting to change social norms, and it’s always an arduous task. Humans protect the status quo and especially their own privilege. Those who farm, roast or eat pigs want to protect their entitlement to pigs’ lives and bodies, and all the better if they can be self-congratulatory about it. At Alemany Farm, they justify their celebration of domination with the trope of the “circle of life”, but nobody uses this argument to justify cruelty to animals that are deemed to matter.

All of these clichés – “the circle of life”, the rejection of dogma, the wisdom of moderation – have the veneer of sophistication, but they simply provide a knee-jerk defense of the way things are. I grew up in Switzerland, land of the middle ground. Rejecting “extremes” and lauding moderation is a national pastime. It’s not enlightenment, it’s conservatism. When people urge for moderation, they conveniently draw the contours of that moderation around what is normal to them. But if we persevere, veganism and veganic farming will become the new normal.

I’ve heard people – especially vegans – moan that vegans aren’t active enough around the political or social justice issues of our food system. I knew a vegan who used to volunteer at Alemany Farm and who left because every year they would roast the dead body of a sentient, intelligent, sensitive being. We should not have to betray our ethics to be able to engage in important community activism.

As vegans, we must set up our own urban and community gardens. Urban agriculture is too important for us to hold back until we achieve widespread animal liberation. Let’s reclaim the streets, grow our own food systems with a vegan ethic, and help build up a genuine people’s movement for land reform and a better world.

 

 

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Veganic en marche

I spoke about the importance of building the veganic movement at the Compassionate Living potluck this weekend and I will give a few more talks on this topic in the next months. It is wonderful to see interest in this issue catching on. When I decided to focus on veganics a few years ago, there was very little information on social media and even less interest. In Fall 2015, while organizing the first People’s Harvest Forum, I went to a local animal rights meetup to present on what I was doing and why, and I told them that even from a strictly animal rights perspective, activists need to prioritize veganic farming. As the food movement gained popularity, the image of animal-based sustainable agriculture that it put forth was serving to delegitimize veganism. But it seemed niche and abstract to speak about how food is grown, only relevant to food activists or gardening hobbyists, and there was no interest. Less than two years later, the same group is now organizing their own discussions on veganics.

It’s a good time to clarify what my advocacy of veganic farming is about. My message is not that animal agriculture can never be sustainable or that veganic is the only way to achieve the goals of the food movement. It’s great to debunk misinformation around the sustainability of organic and small-scale animal agriculture; I do a bit of that in my presentations and I plan to do more. However, I am primarily coming at this from a different angle. I aim to show that agroecology can exist within a vegan framework. We do not have to choose between agroecology and animal liberation, and we should neither stand for the delegitimization of veganism that occurs when only one version of organic is made visible, nor reject the positives of this movement because we believe it is incompatible with our ethics.

Within various approaches to growing food, veganic can be thought of as an approach onto itself, distinct from others:

Conventional
Organic
Agroecology
Regenerative
Veganic

But we can also think of it this way:

Non-vegan Vegan
Conventional Conventional
Organic Organic
Agroecology Agroecology
Regenerative Regenerative

Coming from this latter view, my priority is not to convince people that veganic is more sustainable than other organic approaches, and I do not want to reinforce the notion that agroecology and veganic are discrete categories. When veganism becomes mainstream, all types of farming will exclude cows, chickens, pigs and other so-called farm animals. Of course, we’ll no longer qualify this as vegan, just as we don’t use a qualifier to signal that we exclude dogs from our farming or cooking. As vegans, we don’t need to wait for the majority to get there. We can work within a vegan framework, where agroeocology is automatically vegan agroecology, permaculture is automatically vegan permaculture, and so on.

For some, what is written above is counter-intuitive because… don’t organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, and certainly regenerative agriculture necessarily include farm animals? It is this misconception that vegans must address. The Eurocentric image of idyllic farmland with cows frolicking around green pastures, and the erasure of models that do not center farm animals, reassures consumers and activists that animal exploitation is good and proper. They also imply, in a way that is often subtle but always powerful, that the only alternative to small-scale animal-based agriculture is a food system dominated by Monsanto and run on fossil fuels.

The thing is, this false dichotomy is now effectively a real dichotomy as far as consumers are concerned. Many vegans rightfully prefer to buy organic over conventional, but their dollars are supporting the factory farm system.* There is an immediate need to grow the veganic movement from this perspective, but more urgent and far-reaching is to work at a cultural level. We need to deconstruct and change the narrative. This is the project I’ve taken on.

For more information on veganic farming, check out Veganic World.

* For more details, read my interview with veganic farmer Matt Loisel.

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Double standards

The  “veganism is a cult” or “veganism is dogmatic” dismissal is about applying different standards to minority behavior. You feel empathy for dogs & never eat them? You are a normal, decent person. I feel empathy for cows & never eat them? I am absolutist, dogmatic, cultish, and lack the capacity or humility for nuance.

This double standard serves to maintain the status quo by delegitimizing instead of engaging with any challenge to it. And the challenge, again and always, is this: how are cows and dogs different? On what criteria are you basing your different treatment of these two animals?

If there is a criteria, it should be openly discussed. Instead, discussion is usually shutdown. And if there is no difference, vegans are not more dogmatic than any other homo sapiens who excludes certain animals from their diet. In fact, they are less so. The insistence that one animal is food and one is friend and that the foundation of this division can never be the object of dialogue is the dogmatic guarding of social norms.

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Persian Vegan Food

I didn’t intend to do food posts but I do wish that the search terms “Persian/Iranian + vegan” would bring up more results, so here it is.

A vegan Iranian friend invited me to celebrate Norooz at her house this year and this is the vegan dinner with which we celebrated new beginnings and the new year.

For Norooz, it is traditional to eat fish with herbed rice. We stuck to tradition – somewhat. Tradition is not an excuse for cruelty, so we upheld both tradition and compassion and enjoyed some mock fish. We also had ash reshteh, mast khiar, stuffed eggplant that’s not pictured, torshi, olives and other sides, salad and baklava for dessert. Let me say again for the search engines that this was an entirely vegan Persian dinner.

The main chef was my friend’s 73-year old vegan Persian mother, a woman who loves animals and has participated in several protests with Direct Action Everywhere. Protest is not only for the young, and veganism is not only for the West. There is a notion that elderly people, working-class people, non-Westerners, and people of color are stuck in their ways. They can’t understand animal liberation and they won’t give up their favorite dishes. It’s not true though, people from all demographics are choosing plant-based diets, for health, spirituality, sustainability, and for compassion.

A few years ago, I exchanged a few pleasantries with some students at work. One of them asked me where my name was from. I said Iran and without missing a beat, he asked if Iranian food had a lot of meat. It seemed like such a random question: he didn’t know that I was vegan and we were not in a place with food or any reference to food. He might have been speaking of food with his friends but from my vantage point his question came out of nowhere. Then again, not entirely out of nowhere.

At the time, San Francisco was experiencing the full force of the foodie obsession with meat done right and with the appreciation of tradition and culture as cardinal virtues come mealtime. I was working at a yoga studio that sold copies of the book Nourishing Traditions, which positioned Tradition with a capital T against the unbalanced and déraciné take on food of the modern West. It relied on a few meat-heavy traditions to convey a generic and universalist idea of Tradition and forgotten wisdom, and its populistic tone was effective in delegitimizing vegetarianism in the minds of many readers.

The man who asked about Iran was from Argentina, which is one of the few countries that rivals the US with its obsession with meat. This could explain his enthusiasm for meat and perhaps his implicit adoption of the notion that of course, all traditions are meat based. In the case of Iran, this isn’t true. While most Iranian dishes contain some meat or dairy, I contend that Iranian cuisine is one of the most easily veganizable. It does not seem to have been developed with meat as the central feature. If you take a steak dinner and remove the steak, you’re left with some potatoes and a sprig of parsley. On the other hand, if you take adas polo or ghormeh sabzi and omit the meat, you’re left with complex flavors and satisfying dishes in their own right.

Amongst the Diaspora and in Iran, meat is now consumed often and in relatively large quantities but this is a recent development, as in most of the Global South. The chunks of meat in khoreshs have gotten bigger and more numerous, kebab has become more than an occasional treat. I once asked my dad how often he ate meat as a child and he answered with the impatient tone reserved for stupid questions, “people didn’t have money in those days!” By the standards of a third-world country in the 1950s, my dad wasn’t poor. He had shoes and my grandfather had a decent white-collar job, but meat was not eaten daily. I might as well have asked if everyone had a car.

Remove meat and dairy from Persian food and you still have one of the most sophisticated and flavorful cuisines in the world. But perhaps you have money for meat and you want that umami richness – I get it. It’s a great opportunity to play with new ingredients. Make kookoo with chickpea flour and black salt, learn to make your own nut-based feta and seitan, and divert that meat budget to wonderful plant-based alternatives.

I am not a stickler for authenticity. We’ve seamlessly incorporated tomatoes (“foreign berries”) from Mexico and potatoes from Peru into our khoreshs – why not also adopt the delicious mock meats that our East Asian neighbors have developed for centuries? This Norooz, my friend’s mom tasted mock fish for the first time and said “Why would anybody kill a poor fish when they can eat this delicious food instead?” Why indeed.

It’s often thought that non-Westerners can’t and won’t change their ways, but perhaps more questionable is the idea that they shouldn’t. Westerners have profited off the destruction of cultures and economies around the world and now want to be the guardians of authenticity and maintaining others’ traditions. For the benefit of whom? Somehow it’s always imperative to “experience culture” when it comes to tasting grilled llama or roasted pig but there’s less enthusiasm about partaking in the authentic experience of eating beans three times a day. The westernization of diets also doesn’t seem to concern many when it takes the form of skyrocketing milk and meat consumption, which is the problem that most people are actually experiencing. So what is this trend really about?

The former colonialists want to display their now-enlightened relationship to non-Western peoples by the gratuitous consumption of their folklore. Meanwhile, peoples’ food systems, livelihoods and lifestyles are still being eroded because imperialism has simply taken new forms. If you want to resist this, there are better ways to do it than fashioning yourself into an Anthony Bourdain and shaming people away from animal liberation.

Let’s not selectively uphold traditions – or our idea of them – to resist social change. The beautiful culinary traditions of the world can and should still be appreciated as we build a world where animals are friends, not food. As all living traditions, cuisines continually evolve, and what better reason to do so than compassion?

 

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Dogma

To never eat pigs, cows and chickens is not inherently more dogmatic than to never eat dogs, cats or dolphins. Vegans have often been told that they are dogmatic simply for following a different set of social norms than that of the majority. This is normal – it’s social conservatism in action.

Minorities are commonly portrayed as intransigent and extreme, but on closer examination, social psychologists have found that they tend to be less so than the mainstream. Minorities must make an effort to be likeable because it is so easy to ignore and dismiss them. Ideological or religious minorities often put effort into being amenable and moderate in the expression of their views, precisely to avoid scaring people away or being accused of fanaticism.

Someone who follows dominant social norms has no qualms in being strict and uncompromising when it comes to their ethics. Offer them dog meat and you’ll see what I mean. Traveling in a country where dog meat is consumed won’t sway them. A traveling vegan, on the other hand, will be fraught with anxiety over how to avoid animal products discreetly and without offending; they may even decide to “cheat” while traveling. If they stick to the behavior that is consistent with their empathy and view of animals, they are perceived as unwilling to go beyond rigid personal rules and dogma to partake in the local culture.

If a child were to tell you that dogs and cats are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not being physically violent with them, you would appreciate that their parents have taught them kindness and the capacity to care for others. If a child were to tell you that cows and pigs are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not killing and eating them, you might think their parents should hold off on instilling their personal dogma into their young children’s minds.

As vegans, the application of our empathy and ethics to our behavior is not more dogmatic than the way the majority applies their empathy and ethics to their behavior. They feel empathy for dogs – they don’t eat them. We feel empathy for dogs and cows – we don’t eat either of them. Straightforward. Consistency in one’s behavior is not dogma; to avoid questioning one’s behavior is. As a minority though, it’s hard to hold on to that consistency. Many vegans yield to the idea of moderation, in effect giving up veganism. Others become timid about expressing their views. These outcomes are the exact intended results of the dogmatic label.

When vegans are dismissed or made timid, relevant conversations are avoided. A relevant conversation would be about how we see our rightful relationship to non-human animals and why we draw a line between farm animals and other animals.

Dogma is the unwillingness to examine the norms and beliefs to which one subscribes. Ironically, dismissing veganism as dogma serves to uphold the dogma of animal consumption. The distinction between cat and cow does not hold up to reason or science, so it must be protected by avoiding discussion. As animal rights activists increasingly force conversations to happen, breakthroughs can only follow. Veganism will no longer seem a restriction of the foods one eats, but instead the common-sense recognition that animals aren’t food.

 

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