Monday, August 14, 2006

Two conversations I had recently about vegetarianism

1. As a thinking person I think too much (it beats the alternative)

2. Every time I say anything as if it is certain, I later realize that I was wrong in some important way, usually an error of omission of some sort.

The first recent conversation I had about vegetarianism was the kind that I don't like (which reflects badly on me as a thinking person, that's a story for another day), because it's the kind where I was asked a lot of questions, and I always have good answers ready for questions that people ask me but never the actual ones that they ask me. I think someone equated veganism with such practices as refusing to eat food if it had been prepared in any dish that had ever touched meat, eggs or cheese without going through some kind of cleansing ritual (implying one more sacred than the kind that goes on in the dishwasher). Yeah, I probably embellished that last claim a bit, this engineer calls poetic license. Anyway, I replied, "That's not veganism, that's idiocy," to the agreement of everyone there, but I was wrong, which I realized an embarrasingly-large amount of time later. Not everyone makes a case for their dietary choices in the hyper-rational manner that I do, some people *gasp* use human emotions to guide their sense of right and wrong. It is a good thing that different people use different processes to attack the same problems, because they can come up with very different answers that enlighten us all.

The second conversation was after the WWR with Jessica and made me think a bit, particularly Jessica's observation that when she was a vegetarian she ate a lot more processed and prepackaged foods and wasn't able to cook as much. I've noticed the same thing, but though I enjoy cooking it's not something I'm choosing to focus a lot of time and energy working on right now so I'd probably eat just as many
prepackaged foods if I ate meat. That is, it was a timing issue: I've been vegetarian for about the same interval of time that I've been cooking for myself. But this problem is larger than my coincidence, and on the plane back to San José I thought about it.

Since moving to the valley I've often heard a distinction made between Indian vegetarians and other ones. And there actually is a difference, at least statistically. Many Indian vegetarians refrain from eating meat for religious reasons, and have been vegetarian since birth, whereas most western vegetarians picked it up in college. Vegetarian dishes and the idea of eating vegetarian are passed like other cultural practices from parent to child in the prototypical Indian case. This makes the food "traditional" in the most useful sense of the word. In most of the U.S. this is not true at all.

Because vegetarianism and its food in the U.S. largely doesn't get passed on through families it needs something else. Activist groups (especially in and around colleges), vegan co-ops (shout out to Heather and her old housemates) and authors of vegetarian cookbooks pick up this slack. These things take a bit of time and energy to search out, of course. And the food isn't what you ate as a kid, so it requires an adventureous tongue. Harder still for some is the realization that mash-up of lentils, garlic, nuts, spinach and spices is a mash-up of lentils, garlic, nuts, spinach and spices. It isn't a hamburger at all, except in the sense that it's trying to squeeze itself into an American culinary tradition that it doesn't quite fit.

As an aside, that last sentance really reminds me of the claim that F/OSS doesn't innovate, that it just co-ops the ideas of the dominant COTS of the day in a way that doesn't necessarily fit the OS or its typical style of operation. The rest of this train of thought is left as an excercise for the reader.

Anyway, the other thing about western vegetarianism is somthing I was talking about earlier: the defense of it. When I tell people I'm vegetarian their first reply is typically, "Why?". (And my answer is often, depending on how familiar the asker is with my sense of humor, either, "Because it gives me less choices to make at restaurants," or, "Because it helps me distance myself from people.") I wouldn't probe someone upon their telling me of their religion, for example, or their political views. But maybe this in itself is fine. Vegetarianism in the western mold shouldn't be a choice made once and then followed, the way many people approach religion and even political choices. It is a choice made again at every bite of every meal, every time you order some food. Or in broader settings when you choose clothing and home furnishings. It's not a doctrine, it's a label for a particular set of lifestyle choices. Lots of us treat it like a doctrine and limit our application of the doctrine to where it's most straightforward and absolute. We mutter, "I'm a vegetarian," rather than asserting our choices as our desires, "I don't want meat on my pizza," in hopes that we'll be accepted in the fact-of-life style in which religions are tolerated in plural countries. Come on! This isn't about us personally: our society is doing something that we don't like in some way, for some reason, and we are supposed to be a dynamic vehicle for change, not a sleepy-eyed congregation mumbling the Lord's Prayer!

Also, WWR was awesome. It's late, and I can't tell if my attempt at persuasive wording in that last paragraph was too blatant or just plain bad. To paraphrase the Mountain Goats in a huge stretch, "Oh, this is what the 'Publish Post' button's for".

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