Month: November 2007

The Truth About Foie Gras?

This “enlightening” piece by John Mariani in Esquire magazine leads off with:

Animal rights activists say duck liver is evil, the by-product of an abusive system. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Mariani doesn’t know what he is talking about. First of all, actual animal rights activists consider the consumption of duck liver–and all animal-derived products–to be wrong because doing so involves the totally unnecessary commodification and exploitation of another living being, not because conditions for producing foie gras are simply inhumane. Mariani is confusing rights with welfare, which is no surprise considering how many animal rights activists do the same thing.

Then the article actually gets started, spending its focus entirely on the relatively high welfare experienced by force fed captive ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ massive operation in the Catskills, where he “didn’t see any of this suffering those crazies are screaming on and on about.” Regardless of how foie gras is produced at this or any other facility (clearly not all facilities are the same), rights violations are occurring. This article conveniently forgets (or does not care) about whether the ducks have an interest in living in their natural environment, expressing natural behaviors and doing something other having their livers fattened up so they can be slaughtered as a “delicacy.”

Animal activism that fixates on welfare standards inevitably comes down to stand-offs like this one: “Hey, man, these animals are treated better than a lot of people. Get off our backs so we can get on with eating them.” Sure, the animals most people eat most of the time are treated atrociously, and the only way to make sure one avoids this cruelty is to avoid eating them. But this path does not lead to respecting animals’ rights. It implies rather that it’s acceptable to eat a hamburger (or foie gras, for that matter) if you know the “food animal” led a life comparable to your own “companion animal”, even though you’d never consider eating your companion (voila: moral schizophrenia).

“…there’s no need to feel guilty,” Mariani concludes. But he has not made that case at all. He has simply put forth another weak attempt at justifying unjust behavior by making it seem harmless (note that he doesn’t focus on the slaughter, though). He’s succeeded in making welfarism look foolish, but he has not even begun to understand animal rights.

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eat, drink & be vegan

As our vegan cookbook selection expands–for that matter, as the selection of vegan cookbooks on the market expands–my wife and I find ourselves using certain cookbooks more and some less… or not at all. As with vegan restaurants in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, simply existing isn’t good enough anymore. You’ve got to be good to be competitive. This development is good for consumers and for veganism, since there’s no tolerance for lousy, difficult vegan food when there is plenty of good eating to be had.

eat, drink & be vegan, Dreena Burton’s latest cookbook, tops even her own first two books, The Everyday Vegan and Vive Le Vegan!. Dreena excels at concocting practical recipes that taste satisfying and–oh, by the way–happen to be pretty darn healthy. Bonus!

ED&BV is attractively designed and, like her previous books, focused on the practical, featuring dozens of helpful tips on getting your kitchen equipped (hint: none of these are fancy-schmancy Williams Sonoma items, and will serve you well no matter what book you’re cooking from), food preparation, and cooking and baking notes. Most of the recipes come with helpful tips and recommendations on pairing with other recipes in the book, as well as serving suggestions. Dreena will have you putting meals together like a pro.

While some ingredients may not be available in just any store (quinoa, agave nectar, arrowroot powder, etc.), overall ED&BV is one of the more accessible vegan cookbooks out there. The book doesn’t rely heavily on ingredients like these and, besides, most can be found at Whole Foods Markets, which are more ubiquitous than ever.

What I liked most about the recipes I read through and tried was how healthy the focus was. Dreena keeps it simple and focused on feeding yourself well without too much fuss. Even the sauces and gravies recommended to season things up rely on maple syrup instead of refined sugar, for instance. I feel like I could eat anything from this book and not have to worry that I’m splurging all the time.

My wife and tried a few entrees, including the Quinoa Chickpea Confetti Casserole (p. 140) with Balsamic Maple Sauce (p. 76). All I can say about that sauce is, move over teriyaki! It really made the dish. While the casserole itself is hearty and filling, it was relatively plain, but the recommended sauce knocked it out of the park.

I also really enjoyed the Roasted Red Kuri Squash with Gnocchi (p. 141). We did have one hiccup on this one, as the directions offer a range of 1-3 pounds of squash without adjusting the recipe according to the amount you have on hand. For people as literal as my wife and I, this meant that our 1 pound of squash was slightly overwhelmed by the rest of the recipe, particularly the lemon. However, it was still really good (we used linguine instead of gnocchi), and the Back to Basics Balsamic Vinaigrette (p. 77) we had with our side salad was the best I’ve ever had from a recipe, so I think we’re finally ready to stop buying bottles of dressing.

[UPDATE: Dreena has posted some helpful ED&BV edits to her cooking blog, including an explanation for the squash confusion. The publisher is already getting ready to do a second printing, so future editions will incorporate these corrections.]

ED&BV is definitely another everyday classic. I know my wife and I will be exploring this book from cover to cover for a long time to come, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to develop his or her repertoire of tasty, wholesome dishes you can feel good about, both for the animals and for your health.

With the recent release also of Veganomicon and The Joy of Vegan Baking, 2007 has proven to be a watershed year for vegan cookbooks. And, hey, just in time for the holidays!

Fish have personalities (duh)

SOURCE: The Vancouver Sun: Nothing fishy about personality traits in animals, study finds

Of course, in typical fashion, researchers note that wild fish may have personalities, then they decide to grab a bunch of them for their study. Evidently, in their minds, having a personality has no relationship to having an interest in being left alone.

McLaughlin and student Alex Wilson found that the personalities stayed distinct even after the young fish, still just two to four centimetres long, left their natural homes.

For instance, he put the fish in a dark tube in the aquarium. The more active fish were always the ones that emerged into the main body of the tank first. They were more ready to take risks, and less afraid of unfamiliar objects in the water.

“What they do in the field predicts what they do in the lab,” he said. “We were getting this sense that they perceive the environment differently, and the kind of things we measured are part of what people are starting to call personality traits in animals.”

Is it just me, or do some scientists occasionally act like little children, sort of like pulling the tails off gerbils just to see what happens? And, of course, we tell children not to harm animals…

Maybe this will get easier as more and more people recognize animals as individuals with distinct personalities.

The idea of personalities is starting to spread across our views of the whole animal kingdom, says Rob McLaughlin, the Guelph biologist who ran the study. This seems obvious in the case of dogs or chimpanzees, but less obvious among fish.

Of course it’s obvious, mainly because we have more experience with them, but there’s also the consideration that some animals seem more neurologically advanced than others. But people need to stop assuming that non-humans and humans do not share certain basic, evolutionarily-developed traits like pain, fear, affection (love) and even personality. The pressures applied to our respective species, and our ability to adapt to them as individuals, result in different outcomes for each of us. Look at the difference between feral cats and house cats for one patently obvious example of how one’s environment shapes personality in animals.

The more rational course, in my opinion, would be to work from an assumption that all animals are unique beings with fundamental interests and leave them alone, rather than exploiting them to find out where we are right or wrong. Because, when we’re right–when we do research on an animal and find that they do, in fact, experience pain and have personalities–it’s at the expense of another being that we now know didn’t deserve to be treated like an object.

My latest rejected Op-Ed

I submitted the following Op-Ed to the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. Perhaps it’s obvious why this wasn’t published. Perhaps not. I did edit this particular letter down for the blog, since I had incorporated time-sensitive information and a space-filling tangent to begin with. Anyway, these are just some Thanksgiving thoughts I didn’t want to leave buried forever in a long-forgotten Microsoft Word document:

This Thanksgiving, when millions of people across the country reflect on what to give thanks for over the past year, consider the centerpiece of your meal. While in times past a carved turkey or ham on one’s table may have signified that a family had enough financial security to celebrate a special occasion with a feast fit for kings, these days animal products symbolize excess consumption and cruelty.

Doesn’t it make sense to give thanks for what we have without doing so at such a great cost to others? Animals are individuals, sentient beings whom we all too often treat with indifference, except perhaps for our own animal companions. But turkeys and pigs are morally no less relevant than our furry friends. And, while we’ve known for some time that consuming animals is unnecessary, many of us don’t take the time to think about why we continue to breed and kill them, as if the taste of their flesh and secretions somehow trump the intrinsic value of their lives. Thanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity to reconsider this imbalance.

Fortunately, the wholesome staples of a vegan diet–grains, legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits–are widely available and, as consumers have become more conscientious about what they put in their mouths, grocery stores have begun catering to the rising demand for vegan convenience foods, including specialized products for Thanksgiving. These products are no longer consigned solely to natural food stores. Even Shaws has gotten into the action. Prefer to cook from scratch? Simply Google “vegan Thanksgiving recipes,” and start browsing! You’ll find an astonishing array of festive recipes that will have you salivating.

There are not many opportunities for the average person to make a difference in their world, but veganism is a powerful statement for peace that one can make at every meal, including one as full of resonance as Thanksgiving dinner. By removing the violence from our plates–meat, eggs and dairy products–we consciously choose to cultivate a more compassionate society, one in which animals’ interests are taken seriously, and that is something to be thankful for.

Make your Thanksgiving a compassionate one. Choose vegan.

It reads kinda weird to me with three paragraphs lopped off, but they don’t contribute anything to the core message, so you’re not missing anything (other than maybe a little better flow).

Happy turkey-free/free the turkeys day.

Read my guest blog at PBS.org

I was invited to contribute a blog as part of PBS.org‘s Remotely Connected project. They chose an episode of Nature for me to write about, Simon King’s “The Cheetah Orphans.”

As some of you long-time readers might expect, I ended up putting in something like 1,300 very earnest words, so check it out if you’re looking for some fresh animal-friendly content. “The Cheetah Orphans” raises some interesting questions, so maybe you’ll give the film a look when it airs this coming Sunday, November 11th at 8pm (check local listings). It gave me the opportunity to write about wildlife issues from the point of view of animal interests in a venue known more for conservation than for animal rights.

And, while you’re at it, check out some of the previous posts listed down the left sidebar. I’m a fan of Merlin Mann (43Folders.com), who wrote up a fairly humorous entry that is typical of his work.

I wrote some more letters

I write lots of letters. I’ve been kind of remiss in sharing them here, but I’ll post a couple that I just wrote, so you can see what keeps me awake at night.

This first one is actually a bit late in coming for the editor to consider publishing it now, so that’s all the more reason to post it here, in response to this piece from Australian newspaper The Age:

Your article asks, “You wouldn’t keep a dog in a cage so small it couldn’t turn around, so why do we think it’s all right to do it to pigs?” But the question doesn’t go far enough. The question ought to be: “You wouldn’t breed dogs for food and eat them, so why do we think it’s all right to do it to pigs?”

Pigs are morally no less significant than dogs. If people don’t see a practice as acceptable for one animal, than surely they shouldn’t see that same practice as acceptable for any other animal.

And here’s one for the foodies, in response to an article in the November issue of Common Ground Magazine called The Carnivore’s Dilemma (yeah, I know, shades of Omnivore’s Dilemma… what dilemma?):

In regards to Chris Cosentino’s quote in your article, “An animal is giving its life for you to eat,” need I remind your readers that the animals do not willingly give their flesh to us? It is taken from them, along with their lives. Rather than eating unconsenting animals, we ought to consider eating a plant-based diet. To quote Cosentino, “It’s just the right thing to do.”