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Ethan Todras-Whitehill
Punch-for-Punch: In Defense of Meat and Fire
8 Comments | posted May 29th, 2007 at 01:08 pm by Ethan Todras-Whitehill

Flaming meatNina Planck, an author and former vegan, published an op-ed in the Times last week decrying vegan diets and their effects on children. She cites the examples of three vegan couples who were convicted of manslaughter when their children died of malnutrition, and she asserts that “you cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.” The letters that followed contradicted her, and I have no idea of the truth of the science.

But I do think this: restricted diets such as veganism and raw foods are our modern-day asceticism. What do these people have against meat and fire?

So my bias right up front: I’m a carnivore. If I don’t have meat everyday, preferably twice, I get grumpy. So feel free to ignore everything I’m going to say on those grounds alone. Or, you can keep an open mind (which you might not think I’m doing). Another disclaimer: I am not generalizing to all vegans or all raw food people. I am talking about the subset of people I have observed and heard about who choose this lifestyle. Obviously, not everyone is an ascetic although I believe it is a strong current.

While reporting for the Times on barefoot hiking in Minnesota, I went to a raw foods dinner at the house of friends of the freelance photographer they assigned me for the article. The idea of raw foods, I believe, is that heating foods over 116 degrees makes the food less nutritious. Again, I’m ignorant of the science and won’t argue the point. Dinner was “hamburgers,” or a nut pate between two leaves of clamshell lettuce topped with tahini and…more…er…different lettuce. The guacamole and the lemonade–made not with processed sugar but agave nectar–were spectacular, and the “burgers” weren’t half bad either. Of course, I had a stomachache the whole next day, as my tummy wasn’t used to having to do the work of cooking in addition to digestion.

These people were very nice and warmly welcomed me in their home. We even had a hippie drum/harmonica/guitar/yoga chant circle afterwards. But like many vegans, I believe, they were ascetics. They were all yoga instructors, and their house had the barest minimum of furniture, allowing newly sanded wooden floors to dominate. In every room, there was space for at least two simultaneous downward dogs.

There is a curious puritanical streak connecting these two diets. Vegans, in large part, choose not to eat animal products in order to protest cruelty to animals. They don’t like the inhumane ways in which farm animals are raised, or perhaps they just think it’s cruel to kill an animal for our own consumption. They’re harkening back to the days before we figured out how to tie a sharp stone to a long stick. Raw foods people go a step further, bringing us back to when flint and tinder was a radical new product from the company who brought you such exciting inventions as “breathing” and “sex.”

Asceticism has always existed in Western culture, at least since the days of Jesus on the Cross. This idea of self-denial for a larger cause–particularly the afterlife–was more firmly enshrined in Christianity than in Judaism or Greek or Roman Polytheism. The concept of a martyr was born, giving us equally suicide bombers and monks who starved themselves to death while wearing itchy hair shirts and beating themselves with cat-o-nine-tail whips. Obviously, these people were/are zealots and sacrifice their bodies for deeply held (if to some people misguided) religious beliefs.

But many Westerners these days live in a godless age. We’re not driven by those same religious beliefs, and yet lesser forms of that same asceticism are cropping up in our diets. Is it the same religious feeling, just manifested in a non-religious form? I mean, back in the day would that group of yoga instructors have committed themselves to a monastery and taken a vow of silence? With a different culture around them, would those people who sought to purify their baby by feeding it only soy milk and apple juice instead given it to a secret, occult priesthood to raise?

I guess I find asceticism scary. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how I believe a major human struggle is figuring out which natural desires to indulge and which to transcend. Well, I’m fully aware of the various aspects of self that people deny for the sake of their religion, and that makes a certain kind of sense, given the strength of belief behind it. But choosing to deny oneself all animal products, forcing oneself to eat only at specific restaurants and to obsess over food, or to deny oneself the simple precept of cooking food because of a slight nutritional increase–that doesn’t compute.

And why diet? Why not shelter or relationships or sex? Why is godless asceticism in popular culture so focused on food? Well, I think Courtney’s book asks a similar question: why do women express their emotional troubles through their food intake?

I guess the simple answer is that it is the most consistent, present aspect of our lives. We eat three square a day, consuming a greater portion of our waking lives than perhaps any other activity. Maybe it’s more natural to express one’s religious feeling, one’s asceticism, in that way rather than in prescribed rules of sexual conduct.

Of course, there is another option. This may not be self-denial at all: they may just not like steak.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 29th, 2007 at 1:08 pm and is filed under In The News, Health, Career/Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 8 responses

  1. clark

    Ok, so for the first time I feel really compelled to comment here. Because you’re WAYYYYYY off-base with this one. Veganism/raw foodism has absolutely nothing to do with self-denial for most vegans/raw foodists (I say “most” because there are some individuals with eating disorders who choose to pursue one (or both) of these diets as a means of further restricting food intake, but this is by no means the majority). Raw foodists believe, simply, that raw foods are very nutritionally superior to cooked foods (which, in general, they are - cooking food *does* break down some of the nutrients) and therefore feel that consumption of raw foods is essential to their health. We all make choices to deny ourselves certain things for health reasons. I’d love to eat cupcakes three meals a day, but my arteries probably wouldn’t thank me.

    Veganism is more complicated. People are vegan for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which is the cruelty inherent in the way we treat animals destined for consumption in this country. But environmental concerns and social justice issues play a major role as well. Many vegans see the struggle for animal rights as just another part of the larger struggle against the evils they believe are inherent in the capitalist system - racism, sexism, classism, oppression, environmental degradation, etc.. As such, many do try hard to avoid unnecessary consumerism. They are simply trying to opt out of a system they feel is evil and oppressive. But it has nothing to do with purposeful self-denial - vegans make every effort to continue eating the foods and using the products they love, albeit in a modified, animal-free form. I have an entire cookbook dedicated to delicious fatty vegan cupcakes. There are vegan substitutes for nearly every non-vegan product under the sun - vegan marshmallows, vegan ice cream, vegan shoes, vegan cheese… It’s not about denying yourself something you love, it’s about finding ways to still enjoy those things without the cruelty, and about being conscious that the choices we make as consumers have effects that reach well beyond our pocketbooks. It should also be noted that veganism is not strictly dietary - it involves avoiding ALL animal products and animal tested products to the greatest extent possible.

    Additionally, for many (most?) vegans, not eating meat is hardly a strain or denial. Knowing about the animal cruelty involved in the production of most animal products today, most are repulsed by the idea of consuming these products and don’t want to eat it anyway, as you suggested in your last line. Personally, having been vegetarian for about 12.5 years now, I have absolutely no desire to ever eat meat. To me, that would be gross. You’re not denying yourself something if you don’t want it in the first place.

    Sorry this was long. Since school’s ended, I’ve completely lost the ability to “think” and “make sense”.

    (And to clarify, the poor kid who died on a diet of soymilk and apple juice did not die at the hands of a vegan diet, but at the hands of idiot parents. Breastmilk is vegan. No kid can live on soymilk and juice alone. The parents are morons and starved their baby, and now veganism gets a bad name. Plenty of stupid parents eat meat, but we wouldn’t see a headline to the effect of “omnivorous parents kill baby”.)

    May 29th, 2007 | 6:07 pm
  2. Hey Clark, good to hear from you. Last point first: the writer says that the mother’s breastmilk was part of the diet as well but because of her vegan diet was unable to sustain the child.

    So I think you’re focusing on one aspect of asceticism–self-denial–and claiming that the linkage doesn’t exist by disproving that. And I think your arguments are good and well-reasoned. But asceticism is also purification and excepting oneself from society–two aspects of these diets that I think you illustrate quite clearly. Perhaps I put too much focus on the first aspect and not enough onto the other two.

    May 29th, 2007 | 7:29 pm
  3. As I write in the book, I think a lot of women turn to vegetarianism, veganism, and raw food lifestyles as a way to feel in control of otherwise harrowing and chaotic food choices three time a day every day. I also think it provides an easier way of eating healthy or less and not being judged by jealous observers. “You’re so skiiinnny! Why are you eating a salad again?” can be answered with, “Because I’m vegan.” End of conversation.
    However, I have to say, and I hope Kate will jump in since she commented on this after reading my book, I understand that lots of people have fairly pure political reasons for choosing these food lifestyles. Not everyone is trying to make the world less overwhelming or lose weight or feel better than thou.
    And I’m with you Ethan. Take away my bacon, egg, and cheese and I would be a very grumpy girl.

    May 30th, 2007 | 12:50 pm
  4. Nicole

    YAY MEAT!!!

    May 30th, 2007 | 11:09 pm
  5. Alexandra

    I’m a vegetarian, was vegan for about a year. Here’s why.(though of course I may be delusional, and actually, secretly, deeply inside of my subconscious self, be trying to emotionally balance myself through my food choices, or somesuch thing — but I don’t think so ;)

    1) I don’t like to eat dead animals. To put it quite simply, that’s just icky! Maybe you don’t find it gross, but it makes me feel really disgusting. I was always the kid who picked the meat I was given apart until most of it was disgarded on the side of my plate rather than in my stomach. It drove my mom crazy.

    2) Dairy, unless I only have a little, makes me physically queasy.

    3) Aside from those two things, I feel guilty about killing things with nerve endings (or lives of their own). Killing a cow is, in my mind, the same thing as killing a retarded child. Most people would be upset by this argument because they don’t ever want humans compared to animals, but I am not lowering human life here — I’m raising up animal life. It’s not about limiting myself, unless you think choosing not to murder is self-limitation.

    June 1st, 2007 | 9:40 am
  6. Alexandra

    ps: The vegan parents who managed to get their kids killed with their diet/lifestyle were obviously not like the majority of vegans. Highlighting those families is like highlighting an omnivore who causes health problems for their kids by only feeding them fried things until they’re so overweight that they have to have surgery. It’s fairly impossible for anybody to know the truth of the science (I don’t claim to) because so many seemingly reputable sources claim both sides. However, I think it’s safe to say that both sides have good points and neither diet is the death trap or health saviour some people would claim for either.

    June 1st, 2007 | 9:45 am
  7. Sort of happened upon this piece and website actually. Thought I’d weigh in here as a stranger among friends. I’m apologizing in advance for the length.

    I’m a moderate vegetarian, I suppose. Meaning: I eat veggies and fish only. I’ve eaten this way for close to 15 years. I did the raw food thing (ie: ate @ 85% raw, took prep classes etc.) for 2 years, and still try to maintain a diet that’s a least 40% to 60% raw.

    I have a few observations/points I’d like to add.

    Like many people who self-identify as “carnivores” or “meat lovers” or whatever, Ethan you have what seems to be a reflexive defensive reaction to those who choose not to eat what you eat. Your piece is titled in part: “In Defense of Meat and Fire”. Since when do meat and fire need defending? Everything in society world-wide from a culinary point of view is pretty much designed to maintain the ‘meat & fire’ way of life. So many meat eaters act as if their world is crumbling. It ain’t. And it won’t… This is how humans eat. Meat & Fire is historically cemented in the world’s history. It’s a part of every countrys cultural/societal ritual and tradition. So, if you’re nervous about it… Relax. Hamburgers aren’t going anywhere.

    Although I find the statement and piece to be a bit alarmist, your claim that ‘raw and vegan diets are the new asceticism may well be true for you since you find such diets ‘restrictive’ and ‘ascetic’. That simply, is a result of you being ignorant of the science. The knowledge I gained eating vegan/raw diets gives me the freedom to make food choices (even if I chose to return to eating meat) and experience tastes that I never had imagined. Not eating meat has not been a restricition at all. What I find ‘restrictive’ is being forced through marketing, food/restaurant lobby groups and societal pressure to eat the toxic junk that most of the people in this world call food. Including meat. Whether or not veganism/raw diets are truly ascetic can only be decided for you once you’ve experienced them for yourself. Having a raw food nite at a friends house doesn’t really qualify as the full monty.

    I’d also like to point out that the your idea that the payoff for choosing a raw/vegan diet is a “small nutritional increase” - is, as your friend Clark says, ‘WAAAAAYYYY off base’.

    The nutritional advantages and protections to be found for humans in a raw vegetarian diet are extraordinary. These issues may not mean much to you now because you are healthy and in your twenties, but the diseases of old age (although most of these are starting to appear in younger people) : osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, acid reflux, colon cancer, arthritis, pulmonary disease etc. can all be traced directly or indirectly to a lifetime of meat eating. Sounds like bullshit. But it’s not. So the ’slight nutritional increase’ that you speak of is a bit misleading.

    Finally no one has pointed out that there is another reason not to eat meat along with the ecological or humanitarian ones. Many people don’t believe that the human body is designed to eat meat or cooked food at all, and that by eating them we are severely impacting the health of our bodies and the quality of our lives. Any quick google search can bring up the differences in digestive design between a true carnivore and humans. They are significant. And after years of eating alternatively and engaging in discourse such as this, my personal feeling is that ‘omnivore’ is a word created to explain and sooth our overwhelmingly meat eating way of life. For me we are, by biology, herbivores.

    To return to the point: ascetics/asceticism are found in all aspects of life. These diet choices might appeal to ascetics but it’s their personal life issues, experiences, personalities and vision that has brought them to a life of self denial. Raw food might appear to you as the new asceticism but as Clark said raw/vegan diets are not about denial (Neither are they new: Proponents of both have been around since history was recorded). Learn about these choices. Learn the science. Even if you’ll never stop eating meat, the knowledge gained will allow to you eat much much healthier.

    June 4th, 2007 | 2:46 pm
  8. Hey Bill!

    Thanks for stopping in. Long comments are always welcome. Especially ones chock full of information like this one.

    Yeah, I mean, Clark pretty much shot me down on the self-denial aspect of the asceticism. But I still think the parallel is convincing. While giving credence to the science you mention, I still find a strong undercurrent among the people of these groups I have met of wanting to purify themselves, except themselves from a problematic and unclean society in some way. Consider your own language with regard to the “toxic” junk we are “forced” to eat through marketing.

    And while I find asceticism scary, make no mistake, I respect it. If I had to choose between someone who indulges their every bodily whim and places themselves only in the moment (an animal) or someone who denies their desires and lives only for higher callings (a zealot), I’ll take the zealot everytime. I consider asceticism to be a behavior more towards zealotry than animalism, but I’d rather head in that direction than the other.

    June 6th, 2007 | 12:01 am

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