These days I’m less connected to the animal rights movement and less present on social media, so I’m not on top of trends, but for a while intersectionality was a BIG THING. It’s always been bullshit, but I thought people had moved onto different framing, different language…. like “radical veganism”. I guess I was wrong. Getting back on facebook has me coming across pro-intersectional posts from vegans, so the bs still needs pointing out.
I see the appeal of the punchy, self-righteous language, but this is empty virtue-signalling. The people who popularized “intersectionality” in the animal rights movement are in no way fighting against ALL oppression. Or even the most widespread oppressions. Who right now is organizing against the wars in the Middle East? What vegans are working with the labor movement? And don’t get me started on how the “intersectional” crowd is purging women who speak up for women from the movement.
These messages are harmful because they shame people away from their activism. Single-issue activism is completely fine as long as it doesn’t serve to oppress others. Yes, your animal rights activism should not become a vehicle or an excuse for racism. This is not the same as saying that if you spend time on animal rights activism you must also spend some time doing anti-racism activism. Basically, this is an All-Lives Matter response to animal rights or whatever other activism is being shamed (typically animal rights or women’s rights; other movements are more often left alone to do the limited good they do).
Colombia offers a sizeable number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, especially in larger cities, as well as natural food stores and delivery services that sell vegan products. Be vigilant however: there are a few products that are fraudulently labeled vegan.
I bought this “vegan” cheese at Ceres Market in Medellin. The fat-free claim and ingredient list struck me as odd but I bought it anyway, vaguely thinking that the list might be false or incomplete without considering that the product might not be vegan.
I’ve been a vegan for so long that when I first tasted the cheese, the flavor didn’t tip me off. I then threw some in a pan of zucchini I was sautéing, wondering if it would melt. It melted immediately. It had barely touched the zucchini and it was already a puddle. I’ve cooked with many vegan cheeses and never saw one melt so quickly. The cheese was also extremely stringy, something I have again never seen in a vegan cheese.
I texted a local animal rights activist a picture of the package and asked if she knew the brand and whether she thought it was vegan. This was her response:
“We don’t consume it because we don’t think it’s vegan. They used to use the Follow Your Heart label, later someone contacted Follow Your Heart and was told that they had taken legal action against this company. The packaging used to say “vegan cheese” and now it doesn’t say that anymore. Anyway, there were several inconsistencies and we prefer not to consume it, especially since we’ve tried many vegan cheeses around the world and none of them are like this one, whereas it is exactly like non-vegan cheese.”
So this seedy company is using the vegan trend to scam people into paying a premium on cow’s cheese. Needless to say, this is wholly unethical. Of course, selling cheese made from cow’s milk is always unethical due to the unavoidable cruelty to the cows and calves, but this is also cruel towards humans. People who eat fake vegan cheese might be intolerant or allergic to milk, and/or are being made to support an industry they find morally abhorrent.
This incident also recast a doubt on an earlier incident, when I got a vegan tamale to go from a vegetarian restaurant in Medellin. Eating it the next day, the vegan chicken struck me as very different from any other mock meat I’ve eaten. I threw away the tamale, emailed the restaurant to ask what brand of veggie chicken they used and never got an answer. In the meantime I found a Colombian online vegan store that sold tamales that seemed to be same ones I had eaten, so I decided that my concerns had been unwarranted. I think this is the chicken they use. However, after the cheese incident, I’m less inclined to automatically trust that something is vegan just because it’s labeled as such.
For the most part, I haven’t had concerns with vegetarian and vegan restaurants, with the exception of the tamale and a couple times when my soup had a suspiciously meaty flavor. If the food looks like it’s made from scratch – and it usually is – there’s probably nothing to worry about. I don’t think anyone is adding non-vegan ingredients on purpose, but in the case of the soup I think it’s possible that some meaty bouillon made its way there unnoticed. Another criteria is whether the owners or workers are veg*n themselves. It would be obnoxious to ask this at every restaurant you go to, but if you’re already making conversation you can take the opportunity to find out. If the people running the restaurant are vegan and/or if they are making food from scratch, I would not worry. I still wouldn’t worry if that’s not the case, but I think that while mistakes are unlikely, they can happen.
One final note is that, like elsewhere, replacements of common foods are not always vegan. I recently visited a natural foods store where there were two cheese alternatives: the fraudulent ones from the brand above, and an almond-based cheese that contained casein. There was no dishonest marketing with the latter but it said “almond cheese”, so it’s a reminder to always check the ingredients. Also, not all plant-based milks in Colombia are vegan, as they may use animal-based vitamins or additives. Before buying a new brand of milk, it can be useful to contact the company or check to see if the product is featured here. I’ve noticed however that many of the coffee shops that offer almond and soymilk use Silk, which is vegan, so this isn’t often a problem.
While Colombian food is typically meat-heavy, it’s also easy to travel here as a vegan. Just avoid “Badem”* cheese and remember that if something seems off, it just might be.
* Badem means almond in Persian.
Update (Nov. 6): I’ve come across some Colombian restaurant reviews that warn that recipes labeled vegan – with vegan cheese – were not vegan. In one case, posters with lactose intolerance experienced strong symptoms after eating a lasagna with “vegan” cheese. The restaurant in question has both a vegetarian and meat-based menu, so this is the problem that I touched upon. No doubt, the owner’s intention was to create vegan dishes, but not being vegan or vegetarian himself, he did not do the research to ensure that the cheese he buys is really vegan. In these cases it’s best to stick to simpler dishes that don’t contain meat or dairy substitutes.
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.
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 sustainability–any true celebration of Earth Day will require genuine soul-searching as we begin to change our culture at its very core.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.