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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vegetarianism–Why Bother?

A number of years ago while living in India, an American development economist named Jack Brundle, toured villages in rural Maharashtra to monitor child health programs.  He took advantage of the opportunity and went to the most remote and inaccessible communities, assuming rightly that they too would soon become electrified, linked to modern communications, and quickly leave the 19th century.  He was certainly the first non-Indian the villagers had seen since that last British District Collector had gone on tour to adjudicate disputes, show the Union Jack, and inaugurate a well.


He was always shown great hospitality.  A lunch always followed the welcoming ceremonies and was often vegetarian.  Most villages at the time were doctrinally pure and ate no meat, fish, or eggs.  Because most of these rural communities were quite poor, the feast in his honor was an occasion for plenty. There were curries, pulau, chapattis, dhal, rice, and a delicious sweet called shrikand.

Brundle  had often travelled through Gujarat and had seen Jain priests sweeping the way in front of them to avoid trampling any living thing.  Jains were meticulous about preserving all life, and went to extreme measures to avoid killing whether deliberately or otherwise.

Image result for images jain priests sweeping road in front of them

Vegetarianism was an important part of a religious philosophy which preached the sanctity of life.  Although one might understood that every glass of water contained worms, amoebas, bacteria, and a variety of lesser parasites, their gestures were sincere expressions of their respect for all living things.

Like many young people, Brundle's son became vegetarian when he was 13. By now Jack had learned how to cook vegetarian food from a Gujarati whom he had met in Bombay and who was writing a cookbook on Gujarati cuisine. Her specialty was the vegetarian thali, an assortment of small portions of food corresponding to the basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It was delicious, and in her kitchen on Breach Candy Road, she prepared rich curries, homemade mango chutney, freshly-fried puris, fragrant dishes of cauliflower, potatoes, and onions, all garnished with salty capers, and finished with Gujarati sweets.

Jack's son could never articulate why he had become a vegetarian, nor did his father expect him to, swept up as he was in the fad of the day; but it was he who ironically challenged Brundle's orthodoxy. Jack had been the one who, after years in India, had introduced the idea of Jainism and non-violence to his son.  If was so enamored of the way of satyagraha and universal respect for life, why did his father wear leather shoes, take antibiotics, or swat flies?

He was unremitting in his criticism.  Man has eaten meat ever since he came out of the trees, he reminded his father.  Cooked meat meant less massive mandibles and jaw muscles which allowed for more room in the cranium, a bigger brain, intelligence, and intellect. Vegetarianism is a step backward, despite spiritual claims to the contrary.

The Plains Indians of the Midwest always thanked God for the bounty of the kill, and prayed to the spirit of the departed elk, moose, or prairie hen, asking for understanding and compassion. 
It has been many years since Jack's son’s vegetarianism and honest appraisal of its legitimacy.  Few vegetarians or vegans care about splitting philosophical hairs and considering food as an element in spiritual evolution.  It is the environment which counts.  Cattle emissions pollute the air with methane.  They eat tons of fodder for every kilo of meat.  They have become repositories for hormones, antibiotics, and growth stimulants, all of which are excreted back into the West Texas and Nebraska range. 

All of which may be true, but without animal protein it is hard to maintain the amino acid balance which promotes growth, immunity, and strength. For all Jack's competence in the kitchen, getting enough balanced proteins into his son without filling him with carbohydrates was always a challenge.

Ironically, America is becoming animal-friendly without vegetarianism.  As long as chicken, pigs, and cows are treated well, it is OK to eat them. There is a famous sketch on the TV series Portlandia where the server in a politically correct restaurant introduces his diners to Bruce, the dead, roasted, and stuffed chicken which he places before them. “Bruce led a good life”, the server says. “Respect, free range, organic, and killed humanely”.

As in all things American, there is no underlying principle or philosophy behind all this. Vegetarians come of age in Junior High, supplement their original grainy, rugged diet of fruits, vegetables, and unrefined flour with eggs, then fish, then chicken, then finally and unsurprisingly, go back to red meat. More environmentally-conscious farming of fish, poultry, and meat draw vegetarians back into the eat-everything fold; and those few thousand pukka vegetarians left do so out of dimly-remembered reason.  America is all about inclusivity, identity, and self-image.  No one cares why you are a vegetarian; and if your reasons include the environment, animal rights, Frank Perdue, or Eastern meditation, so be it.

Because Jack Brundle had lived and travelled in India for five years, yoga meant only one thing to him – physical discipline to achieve spiritual enlightenment.  It was a way of taming the body to serve the spirit.  Only with absolute control over breath, muscles, and thought could one attain the only goal of life – unification with the Divine.

Hot yoga, popular in the United States at first seemed apostasy, a corruption of spiritual and philosophical ideals.  Until he reminded himself where he was.
The genius of America is that we never let well-enough alone.  We are never content to settle, and must always improve, invent, and modify.  Who cares if yoga has been distorted from a principally spiritual experience mediated through physical discipline to a physical exercise with a bit of New Age spirituality thrown in?

Vegetarian cooking features significantly in Jack Brundle's cuisine for no reason other than variety. Spaghetti with fresh basil, garlic, and Parmesan is light, fragrant, and wonderfully simple. Garbanzo beans sautéed with dried mushrooms, celery, garlic,basil, and Swiss chard is a complete meal.  Fettuccine a la crème with red pepper and grated Romano, accompanied by roasted beets in olive oil is delicious.

Jack's father was famous for his homilies and Confucian-like sayings.  “Everything in moderation” was his favorite, and as a doctor of many years in practice he saw health and nutritional claims come and go.  More of this, less of that; Atkins, South Beach, Dukan’s diet.  More zinc, Vitamin C.  Avoid fat, saturated fat, trans-fat. High-carbo, low-carbo, ad infinitum ad nauseam. Free-range goose, seaweed, lichen, moss?  He was unimpressed.

There are really no compelling reasons to become a vegetarian and even less a vegan.  Without solid evidence that these diets improve the quality of life over sophisticated, varied international cuisine, and keep death away for more than just a couple of years, most Americans stick with a meat-based diet. Life is to be enjoyed, and who can ignore the pleasures of slow-roasted lamb shanks with rosemary and whole garlic? Or pulled pork and ribs?

One of Gary Larson’s funniest cartoons is of a pride of lions devouring a kill on the veldt.  One lion raises his head above his feasting mates and says, “Boy, I could use a good salad”.  Everything in moderation.

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