"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Beyoncé–A Real Vegan

One of the most memorable scenes of my five years in India was that of group of Jain monks wearing surgical-type masks walking down a road, rhythmically sweeping the pavement in front of them.  The Jains of Gujarat – an ultra-conservative Hindu sect -  are such strict vegetarians that they take extreme measures to avoid taking life of any kind. Sweeping the path they are about to tread and wearing masks to cover the nose and mouth are symbolic gestures, signifying that the life of even the tiniest of God’s creatures should not be deliberately taken.

Recent estimates (2006) suggest that approximately 40 percent of Indians are vegetarians, although by no means as strict as the Jains.  Most of these eat a vegan diet, with a small percentage consuming non-fertilized eggs.

Vegetarians in India are motivated by one simple principle – that all creatures are in some stage of reincarnation and are simply passing through this life on the way to another, hopefully better existence.  The ant you crush could be someone you once knew.

I was tempted by this philosophy, and felt that of all the possible reasons for becoming a vegetarian, respect for all life was the most appealing.  

A few months after returning from India, I spent three weeks with a Mexican family in Oaxaca, learning Spanish in an attempt to improve my chances for a contract in Latin America.  One day I was sitting in a small sunny courtyard with my host, having a glass of wine. Slowly a spider began crawling up the wall towards a bee which had been caught in its web.  Without missing a beat or a phrase of conversation, Senora Gomez took off her shoe, splattered the spider and the bee.  After five years in India where no one swatted flies, squished mosquitoes, or killed anything, I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just let nature take its course, let the spider eat the bee.  It was an unprovoked and unconscionable act of barbarism.

A year later, back in Washington, I tried to live a modified Hindu satyagraha life. Doors and windows were left open to the air, butterflies, and bees.  One day a bee flew down my baby son’s shirt and stung him on the stomach. I pulled off his shirt and without a second thought squashed the bee into an unrecognizable gooey pulp.  So much for my pseudo, neophyte Hinduism. I was back in America.

When my son was a young teenager he, like many of his classmates, became vegetarians.  I had to give him credit, because unlike his friends who ate fish, eggs, and an occasional strip of bacon, he was pukka and ate no animal products whatsoever. I respected his wishes and learned how to cook vegetarian food.  It was not difficult, because a lot of Italian cooking is vegetarian – spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil; fusilli with peas and dried porcini mushrooms; rigatoni with a cream tarragon sauce. The list is endless.  However getting enough protein into a growing boy was a challenge, and I understood enough about nutrition to know that an amino acid balance was critical – milk, rice, and beans in some combination would do the trick.  I prepared mung beans, yellow dal, pinto beans, cannelloni, tofu, black lentils, Thai rice, and stewed Turkish figs .

One day I asked my son why he was a vegetarian.  Was it because of environmental concerns – too many steer and cow farts, too much overgrazing on too little land? Because of health issues – cholesterol, toxic antibiotics, hormones? Or because of satyagraha?

All of the above, I guess”, he replied. I let it ride for the moment, but later probed each factor – the benefits of animal protein, the cost-benefit environmental calculus of animal vs. vegetable protein, the questionable value of a vegetarian diet vis a vis a mixed Mediterranean one – but saved the best for last.

How did he feel about killing with antibiotics the staphylococcus that had almost forced an amputation of his leg? Why was he still wearing leather-soled shoes? Whacking mosquitoes, squishing roaches? Supporting the elimination of malaria, dengue, and yellow fever? In other words, I played the Jain card.

Not long after the discussion, I noticed that he began to eat meat.  “You were right”, he said. “There is no logic at all to vegetarianism”. 

There has been some flap recently about Beyoncé going to a vegan restaurant dressed in furs. Adding insult to injury, she went to another one wearing an all-leather outfit:

And lo, within days of the announcement, Beyoncé made the first and somewhat predictable stumble in her life as a vegan when she was photographed walking into one LA vegan restaurant wearing the biggest fur collar seen this side of the 1980s and then, soon after, entering another one, wearing – and there really is no other way to put this – an entire cow, from a cowhide top to leather trousers. Bey was widely, and many would say rightly, mocked for wearing a bunch of dead animals to restaurants that exist purely to refute the idea that animals should be killed for humans. (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian, 12.11.13)


Beyoncé defended herself by saying that she was acknowledging the important place that veganism has in the world and using her celebrity to promote it. Who cares if I dress in mink, alligator, snake, or pit bull? , she implied.  The end justifies the means.

Of course, it is just as possible that Beyoncé had no clue whatsoever about the philosophical conundrums that veganism poses or had never heard of Jains, Mahatma Gandhi, or non-violence.  All she needed to know was that veganism was cool, so why not embrace it. The problem with America is not contradiction, but the inability of pointy-headed intellectuals to hold two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time.

America if nothing else is a country of fads. Veganism and yoga go hand in hand.  Both are quasi-spiritual in origin and have little or no resemblance to their origins in India millennia ago, but who is looking up ancient Vedic texts before they open a yoga studio?

I recently asked an old Hindu ascetic what he thought of American yoga. He was not a true Indian mystic, for had he been, he would have been in a cave high up in the Himalayas.  He would have rejected maya, the illusory world of mundane human desires below.  He had chosen to remain in Calcutta, a penitential gesture, one designed to hasten his exit from the Wheel of Becoming – the penultimate stage in his spiritual progress to enlighten others. I met him through a Bengali friend who was interested in the worldwide yoga phenomenon.

“American yoga?”, he replied quizzically. “Oh yes, mats and very hot rooms. Not very good for the kundalini. Interruption in bodily flows. Overheating of spiritual mechanisms.  Likely regression to lower forms”.

He obviously had no clue about American yoga or the San Francisco classes which were basically all about gymnastic stretching – keeping young bodies in shape in a social environment.

The one great thing about America is our versatility. Because we have no culture – or at least not the Hindu 5000 year-old kind…or even the European 2000 year-old variety – we can believe whatever pleases us.  No one cares whether or not American yoga bears any resemblance to the ascetic Himalayan variety; or whether faddish veganism has any spiritual foundation.  We are happy as long as there are at least some exotic frills – recorded sitar music before yoga class, incense burning in the corner of the organic produce stand, copies of Kahlil Gibran on display in the yoga corner of Borders Books.

Vegetarianism in America has done nothing for our spiritual rejuvenation, but has done wonders for our cuisine.  Vegetables are taken seriously and even feature in many dishes by four-star chefs.  Danish chef  René Redzepi  could never have landed a position at one of Washington, DC’s top restaurants if it hadn’t been for his focus on local products, especially plant matter.  For dishes at his world-class Danish restaurant, NOMA, he harvested everything from lichen and seaweed to weeds and gorse.

As far as yoga is concerned, all those 30-somethings, blue mats under their arms, hurrying to class are at least getting off the couch in an era of obesity.  Who wants to work out at Gold’s gym, pounding away on a treadmill watching HGTV or Oprah, when you can elevate together with like-minded friends and neighbors, all of whom may not be able to articulate why yoga is special, but who feel a certain exotic exhilaration from its practice. 

So, I have no problem whatsoever with Beyoncé going vegan with leather and fur do-dads, or hot yoga shvitzing.  We Americans are  tops in cuisine, fashion, music, and dance because we never, ever let tradition and history get in our way.

Hadley Freeman, however, is irritated by all the faux spiritualism, and glitzy pop culture:

My local overpriced health food shop currently has a sign in its window asking "Why not go gluten free for Christmas?", as though this was a clever health choice for all and not something those suffering from coeliac disease are forced to do all the time. To limit one's diet, whether it's only eating plants or going on a juice "cleanse" or insisting on fresh organic offal, is a sign today of one's wealth and one's self-worth. To be difficult and high-maintenance is a sign of power. In his blog announcing his move to a "plant-based diet", Jay Z refers to it as a "spiritual and physical cleanse", and that is very typical of this kind of food elitism – to confuse one's diet with some kind of vague spirituality.

Faux spiritualism is fun and makes money.  I had never even considered the possibility of vegan nail polish, but there it was, advertised in a shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco:

There are vests made out of papyrus reeds from Egypt, the same plants that protected Baby Moses; blouses woven from the fibers of original American Prairie grass; shoes fabricated from Bangladesh sisal and hemp, grown on eco-friendly farms in the Chittagong delta.  Veganism has stimulated whole new industries of clothing and make-up.

The Pet Chicken rage is another unexpected outcome of Eastern philosophy. Chickens are not just dumb animals fattened for the slaughter in factory settings on the Eastern Shore, but benign, sentient beings worthy of love, attention and respect.  There are old chickens’ homes, chicken day care facilities, and chicken cemeteries – all bred out of a Hindu respect for all things living.

In short, while we should tip our hats to India for the vegan-yoga inspiration, we should thank our own enterprise, creativity, and endless appetite for change and transformation even more. America.  What a great country!

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