Vegan Tamales Bring It All Together

To celebrate Cesar Chavez Day a couple years ago, I developed a vegan tamale workshop that explores social justice along the food chain. As participants cook together, we discuss the issues faced by various demographics and anchor them in the different components of the tamales, e.g. masa=farmers and relleno=farm workers.

Partnering with the nonprofit 18 Reasons (2017)

Conversations on food justice often focus on one group, like farmworkers and low-income consumers, so this approach allows to build on the pre-existing knowledge of participants and to expand their understanding of our food system. We stress the interconnectedness of the issues facing everyone along the food chain, and by extension, the common solutions and the need for a radical approach in working towards social justice.

All hands on deck (2016)

Participants also get to cook and eat vegan tamales, which seems to be the main draw. Whether they care about animals or their health, veganizing tamales is something that people get excited about. And what we show them is that we are not creating a novel dish but rather a more traditional, pre-Columbian one. As we peel away past European influences, we see how they echo the very changes happening today through forced migration and the corporatization and Americanization of Mexican food systems.

This workshop has been a perfect Cesar Chavez Day celebration, as we wanted to include animals in our consideration of those suffering in our food system. Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American farm worker and a labor and civil rights organizer. After his death in 1993, he became a major American icon. Cesar Chavez Day became a national holiday (San Francisco has a yearly Cesar Chavez Day parade) and a movie was even made about his life. Sadly and predictably, most accounts fail to mention that he was a vegan and a strong advocate for nonhuman animals. At a farm conference in 1996, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said “Cesar took genuine pride in producing numerous converts to vegetarianism over the decades. You’re looking at one of them. He felt so strongly about it that sometimes I think he took as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as he did to trade unionism.”

Co-facilitator Chema Hernández Gil at our first workshop in 2016

It is not always clear from accounts whether Cesar Chavez was vegetarian or fully vegan. Chema Hernández Gil, who teaches the vegan tamale workshop with me, met Cesar Chavez’s niece last year; she confirmed that her uncle was vegan and told Chema that Cesar Chavez was so passionate about animal rights that when people would eat meat in his presence, he would make animal noises to unsettle them.

Learning about food justice as the tamales steam (2017)

The past two years, we partnered with non-vegans in organizing this workshop, and seeing their openness to a vegan message has been heartening. Next month we will present this workshop (slightly modified as it will be a demo) at UCLA. This time, a vegan professor invited us. I don’t know whether many of her colleagues are vegan, but the workshop has elicited wide support. I look forward to learning about the interests of students and faculty and connecting these with Seed the Commons’ perspectives on decolonization, radical food activism and animal liberation.

If you’re in SoCal, don’t miss it! Find out more.

Kneading tamale dough is serious business (2017)
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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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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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Vegans and junk food

Having been a vegan for 21 years and vegetarian for 24, I’m thinking that this blog could be a fun place to compile some of the fallacies I come across time and again. Less of the “where do you get your protein?”, more of the pseudo-well-thought-out commentary from those who agree that factory farming is wrong but hold that rejecting all animal agriculture is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In a friendly conversation a few days ago, a comment came up about the supposed idiosyncrasy of vegans who eat potato chips. The commenter was amused by what he deemed to be a contradiction. Of course, there is no contradiction because veganism is not about health. It’s about deciding that animals’ lives are not ours to take and that their bodies are not food.

I’ve lived on a farm with cows. I’ve seen a piglet being chased by three men while s/he shrieked in frenzied panic. I’ve witnessed a goat get her or his head cut off while the body continued to shake violently. I feel empathy for cows, pigs, and goats, and hence I don’t think they should suffer cruelty. Whether or not I decide to put a donut in my body is neither here nor there. It’s as simple as when a Westerner sees a dog crying in a car and thinks that the dog shouldn’t suffer cruelty. The fact that the Westerner wouldn’t make a dog into a meal doesn’t lead to reflections on their potato chip habit, and my choice of leaving animals off of my plate is no less straightforward.

Some would retort that humans are animals, therefore if vegans care about animals they should also care about their own health. Again, the problem here is in taking a straightforward connection between our empathy for another and our treatment of them, and making the issue into something larger and more abstract. There’s nothing wrong with including oneself in one’s circle of compassion, in fact it’s beautiful. But to expect that compassion for farm animals must necessarily be part of an entirely different sort of lifestyle is to maintain the line between farm animals and other animals that is the problem to begin with.

Kindness – or lack of cruelty – to a dog, a human, or an injured wild animal is judged on its own instead of being a starting point to comb through a person’s lifestyle and find inconsistencies in how they treat themselves as a fellow animal or human. By jumping to a different framework when our empathy is directed towards a farm animal, we muddle the issue and keep a psychological distance with their suffering.

While the potato chip critique is flawed, the more important point is that people frequently try to point to some proof of inconsistency, incongruity or hypocrisy on the part of vegans. In always making comments about vegans, they steer the conversation away from veganism. The questions hovering in the air are always the same – is it ok to kill and eat a sentient being? Why do to a pig what you would never do to a dog?

Ad hominem arguments against vegans protect the status quo by helping people avoid to even engage on the issue. Whether they’re dispensed with affection or aggression, they serve to detract from questions that are difficult to answer, to protect social norms that don’t hold water.

As vegans, we tend to bite at logical fallacies and follow people down the rabbit holes of irrelevant topics. We go on the defensive, write about why eating potato chips does not make us hypocrites, why we are not actually preachy or crazy or too green or not green enough. Even if we were all these things, what bearing does it have on the animals being slaughtered? It’s about them, not about us.

When you are faced with a cow about to have her throat slit, what difference does it make that a vegan somewhere is smoking a cigarette? At that moment, the relevant question is the one posed by veganism: what entitlement do we have to kill an animal who, just like our dogs at home, feels love, joy, pain and terror?

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Casa Vegano Sol

I’m staying at a guest house called Casa Vegano Sol. The owners encourage guests to keep a vegetarian kitchen and while they are not completely vegan, they aim their diet in that direction. Their son eats vegan at home and only drinks the milk that he receives at school. Indeed, Mexico has an extensive “Desayunos Escolares” program of which milk is a main component. In fact, the precursor to Desayunos Escolares was a program called La Gota de Leche – “The Drop of Milk”.

The couple who own this guest house both grimaced when I told them I was here to study Liconsa, a social program that distributes milk to vulnerable populations. We’ve spoken a bit about food in Mexico and I’m looking forward to hearing more of their observations around the food system in Chiapas. The wife is from San Cristobal, so it will be especially interesting to hear more from her about changes since her childhood in the city and surrounding communities, where much of her family lives.

This is a picture, badly taken I realize, of the husband painting a sign advertising vegan tacos. He is helping out an older lady who lives nearby and who will start selling vegan tacos next week. I know how I’ll be helping out the local economy…
IMG_20160115_072336797

And here’s the completed sign.
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