Today’s Lesson: Dessert Is Not Just For Dessert! [140813]

I love sweets and I love having dessert every night. The only problem is, stupid dessert makes me fat!

What I remembered today is dessert does not have to be an overloaded sugar-bomb. A great way to finish a meal this time of year is with some fresh, sweet corn-on-the-cob. If made right, sweet corn is truly a sweet treat without any butter, salt, or dressing. Delicious!

Thanks to our Vitamix, Nicole and I also enjoy an ice cream treat made entirely out of bananas. Google “Banana Whip”. If you have a powerful blender (like a Vitamix or Blendtec) it is 100% worth your time to try this amazing favorite dessert of mine that is… almost healthy!

In other words, think outside the box if you love sweet treats but are trying to keep your weight in check. A fresh fruit salad, banana whip, sweet corn, or even a green smoothie with some beets thrown in can rock your sweet tooth without wreaking havoc on your belly.

BUT… if vegan cheesecake is available, all bets are off. Just saying.


Today The Lesson I Learned Is: The King And I Would Not Hurt A Fly. (140726)

How would roads look if we built them with other animals and ecology in mind? Would they maybe have 3 or 4 foot walls to deter animals like deer, squirrels, woodchucks, dogs, and cats from straying into traffic?

I saw a dead deer on the side of the road as I drove home today. It had obviously been hit while crossing the road. I drive a lot for work and, sadly, I see a lot of roadkill.

The thing is, we do not give much thought to our impact on the world, and yet we are the default caretakers of both the environment and the animal kingdom. We are top of the food chain whether we chose to be or not, and we are the only ones with the power and foresight to take care of our planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves. It seems like this should weigh on us more than it does.

I am a firm supporter of progress, science, and taking control of our destiny, but it makes me sad when we build, dominate, or renovate with blatant disregard for our fellow creatures and fauna. It is not only an abdication of our responsibility as kings over this planet, but it is also an offense to our own minds and creativity. It is a choice to ignore the faculty of thought, planning, and foresight–the very utility that gives us dominion over the rest of the world.

So, today’s lesson is: Think about what small steps you can take to care for your world and the creatures you are responsible for (whether you chose to be or not). As the default king of the Animal Kingdom, what kind of ruler do you wish to be remembered as? Ruthless and merciless (because that has always worked well for kings in the past…) or honorable and merciful?

In every moment of our lives, we have the potential to be Hitler or Gandhi to the rest of the world. Choose.





Today The Lesson I Learned Is: Vegans Are SO Crazy… right? (140724)

Nicole and I had dinner at The Mitten, one of our favorite local pizza places with amazing vegan options. At one point, our friends became curious about our vegan pizza, so we offered a sample.

They cautiously tried a few bites before polishing off the last few slices. As they ate, they commented on every texture and flavor, ultimately deciding vegan pizza is not so bad. They would be willing to eat it again, in a pinch.

This happens a lot to vegans (people who consume no animal products). The veggie-curious will go out on a limb and try the crazy vegan food once, usually after explaining how they could never adopt a vegan diet themselves.

Because we are polite, vegans almost never point this out, but the funny thing to us is the food we eat is the same food as everyone else with the exception of 1 or 2 missing ingredients. Vegan pizza is just pizza with soy cheese instead of regular cheese, or tempeh instead of pepperoni. The bread, the sauce, the mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, olives, etc… are not special vegan versions.

You have steak, a baked potato, and green beans. I have a baked potato, green beans, and a side salad. Almost every vegan meal is just a normal meal with 1 or 2 ingredients missing or added. The longer you are vegan, of course, the more curious you become about food and the more exotic food you are willing to try but this, again, is no different from other foodies.

Anyway, if you are out with your vegan friends, I promise they will be excited to share their treats and prove vegan food is safe and just as delicious as other food (because it is pretty much the same food, just missing meat and dairy). If you do try a vegan bite, though, here is a tip to seem gracious and civilized to your veg-friendly friend… don’t act like you’ve never had food before.

(And, just to be clear, we’re never really offended; we all did the same thing the first time we tried our vegan friend’s food, too.)




Are You a Vegan Racist?!?

I had a interesting experience at a Biggby coffee shop. Most of the baristas know me there and know my usual orders. On this day, however, there was a new guy filling in.

I ordered a Earl Grey Latte with Soy Milk (the vegan equivalent of tea with milk). The young man behind the counter chatted with me while he made my drink. One of the regular workers behind the counter who knew me was also watching, making sure he had the order right. She mentioned I am vegan and asked the stand-in to be sure he used a separate container for the soy milk (which I appreciated).

Once he realized why I ordered the drink with soy, he made (I think) an attempt to show how vegan-friendly he is.  He said, “Yeah, I tried this soy stuff before. Had one of them Soy Chai lattes. It was good. I think I would do it again…”

It abruptly struck me this is the equivalent, to a vegan, of saying, “Yeah, I’m not racist. I invited a black over to dinner once. We had fried chicken. I think I would do it again…”

I know the vegan lifestyle seems strange to some non-vegans, but if you have vegan friends, just treat them like your normal friends. You do not need to impress them with how “vegan-friendly” you are (and most vegans don’t really care anyway; it is a personal choice not a social one). I joked on Facebook, “Just be normal around your vegan friends; it’s fine. We already think we are better than you. You don’t need to confirm it.”

The cure for Racism (of any kind) as I see it, is to refuse to acknowledge it. As long as you see vegans (or anyone) as a separate class of people, you are forcing them to be a separate class of people. And, by the way, if you had to pick a side, would you want to be part of the “murdering, carnivorous, can’t-control-what-you-stuff-in-your-mouth” or the “You-are-not-doing-a-very-good-job-of-hiding-you-are-a-bigot” group?

Of course, the barista did not mean to offend me (and, really, he didn’t–it was just an observation), but the point is he did not have to try to befriend me by showing he is half-supportive of something he does not seem willing to commit to or learn more about.

The coffee house guy was just letting me know he tried soy milk once, but I am guessing he did not let the next person know he tried coffee once. Maybe we could have just chatted about the weather?




The Lesson I Learned Today… 140606

People sometimes hide their most vile actions under the guise of righteousness and meretricious morality.

Nicole and I were strolling through the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts today. Nearly every food vendor was representing a religious organization and there were many signs that were anti-gay marriage or anti-gay rights, some even insinuating that AIDS only happens to homosexuals (hello, did you just hear about this new thing called “break-dancing”, too? Do you still think Michael Jackson is black… and alive?).

Watching these people celebrating ugliness and morally corrupt values—actually holding them as moral truths—was disheartening. It sapped my energy, seeing them hide behind an ancient text that can not withstand the simplest test of logic, reason, rationality (or even morality), trying to disguise their true hatred for themselves and others… just depressing. They are supposed to be fellow human beings rising up to explore the universe and raise the Human Race together.

From a vegan perspective, too, the world looks different. There was not a single intentionally vegan food option I could find at the festival—not one. Yet, the zealots preach for ME to take the higher ground and accept their moral code. Their moral code, by the way, literally promotes murder and celebrates pain, seclusion, racism, and ingesting suffering as virtues worth ascending to. This is what they are offering and asking us to aspire to! I know they mean it. I know they believe their dogma and I know they think they are doing right but how am I supposed to hear them preach they have found the light as they stuff their faces with dead animals?

The world will not be destroyed by bad people with bad intentions. The world will almost certainly be destroyed by ignorant people with good intentions.

Oh, and the other thing I learned today is that “meretricious” is now one of my favorite words to describe people that seem good on the outside, but upon closer inspection, are hiding terrible things. If you have never heard it, you should look it up.


The Perils of Eating Out Vegan

When you are vegan (do not eat or wear any animal products), eating out rather than cooking your own food can be complicated, even when going to mostly vegan restaurants. Some vegans become irritated when a restaurant makes a mistake with their meal. They may send the food back, chastise the waitstaff, or blast their ire over social media. I do not think vegans have any more right to be upset about their meal not being prepared correctly than anyone else does.

Unless you make or grow your own food, there is no validity to being upset at the mistake of a restaurant. If you have a severe food allergy or special diet restriction, then why would you trust any restaurant serving hundreds (or thousands) of people per week, expecting them never to make a mistake?

If you are vegan and choose to eat out, you can be explicit in your instructions and hope they get it right. If they do not, then it is fair for you to ask for (but you have no right to demand) another course or a correction to make your meal vegan. It is good that you let the restaurant know they goofed your order; they likely want to know so they can do better in the future. It is, however, not so good if you tarnish their reputation or cause confusion on the world’s most powerful social media sites or trash-talk about your experience to friends or family.

It is outrageously irrational to fault a restaurant for making a mistake on an order one time out of (let’s assume… more than a hundred?). Can YOU do anything a hundred or a thousand times without making a single mistake?

When I eat out, I can only rationally assume the food is not 100% vegan, even at a 100% vegan restaurant. For example, there are no clear delineating factors to determine what is vegan. Many vegans, to distinguish where they draw the line on the Animal Kingdom, go by the simple rule, “Do not eat anything that feels pain.” Oysters have virtually no nerves and almost certainly do not feel pain. Are they vegan? Most vegans would say they clearly are not because they are an animal. Broccoli, on the other hand, has a central nervous system–the only tell-tale sign that something feels pain. Is broccoli vegan? Most vegans will not hesitate to say it is, because it is obviously not an animal. Some vegans eat honey; some do not. There are many undecided areas–no restaurant can know every kind of vegan that walks in the door.

I do not expect every waiter or waitress I encounter to know if the rice was made with chicken broth, if the beans have lard, if the fries were cooked in the same grease as the chicken wings, if the soup base is water or beef broth, etc… Even when they claim to know the answers, I must assume they are sometimes wrong. I can easily see a waitress asking a chef, “Is our soup broth vegan?” The chef might not know because he did not prepare the broth, but it is vegetable soup, so of course it must be vegan. “Sure,” he says, “It’s sent to us in unlabeled frozen blocks from our corporate distribution center, but it’s vegetable soup. There’s no meat in it.” The waitress then might return to the table and say, “I asked the chef. He says it is vegan.”

Is it the chef’s fault for making a logical leap that vegetable soup is made with vegetable stock? Is it the waitresses fault for not probing deeper on your behalf? Is it your fault for not specifically asking to see the ingredient list for the soup, if there is one?

The bottom line is, if someone else is preparing your food, you are at their mercy. That is your choice. Don’t cry about it if it is not perfect. After all, there are humans cooking your food in the back. Sometimes lazy, forgetful, honestly mistaken, occasionally careless, stressed out, hurried humans. It is unreasonable to expect 100% perfection 100% of the time.

That is why we vegans have the option of making food ourselves and expecting humans to be human is the entry price for convenience.



Ruling Your Food



As a minimalist and vegan, I like to keep things simple, so here are my rules for eating right:

1. Do not eat anything that does not want to be eaten. You could rephrase this as “Don’t eat anything that feels pain” if you like, but the overall point is to avoid causing suffering. Most vegans make this distinction by not eating anything that has a central nervous system (the clearest indicator that something can feel and respond to pain). Put even more simply, “Don’t eat or wear animals”.

2. If it has more than five ingredients, do not eat it. It is an arbitrary number, but once you pass three to five ingredients, you almost certainly are eating junk mass-produced processed “foodstuff”. Bread requires nothing more than “(Whole Wheat) Flour, water, yeast, salt”. Think about that the next time you pick up a popular brand and scan the ingredient list.

3. Do not eat any ingredient you can not pronounce (or is not immediately obvious what it is by name alone). Monodiglyci-what? High Fructose Corn Syrup? Is that different than regular corn syrup? If you know what “high fructose” or other common lab ingredient names mean, it is probably because a scientist explained it to a reporter who wrote an article about it that you read once. There are so many (intentionally) obscure names for ingredients, either because they come from a lab or because marketers know you would never eat something if you knew what it actually was. “Cochineal”, for example, is that nice purple-red dye that colors many candies (like Nerds)… and is derived from the crushed shells of the insect by the same name, also sometimes called “Carmine”. Would you feed your kids a handful of crushed beetles? Would you eat them if you knew what they were?

4. If an ingredient has more than 3 syllables, don’t eat it. Pretty much the same rationale as rules #2 and 3. If it takes longer to read the list of ingredients than it does to eat the food, then this is probably a highly processed nightmare. In fact, you can really break down my rules 2, 3, and 4 into one easy rule: “Eat Simply.”

5. Leave something on the plate. This is the rule I admittedly struggle most with, but I overeat sometimes simply because I was taught to always “clean my plate”. However, if I cook when I am really hungry, or anytime I go to a restaurant, I always have more than I need on my plate. If you are eating at a restaurant, challenge yourself to always take something home. Most single restaurant meals are plenty for two people or two single meals.


One of my favorite food-books is Michael Pollan‘s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual“, which offers up many easy rules to help us navigate the complex multitude of food and food-like products in the world. One of my favorite examples is “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete shared his “Rules for Navigating Vegan Life in a Non-Vegan World” which reminded me I have several rules for eating, as well. Hope they help you eat right, feel right, and live right!




How “Vegan” Is Vegan?

I am sometimes asked if I ever cheat on my vegan diet. Of course I do; it is nearly impossible to be 100% vegan 100% of the time. There are animal products in the vast majority of things humans eat and wear. My goal is to be as close to 100% vegan as I reasonably can, but even that is challenging at times.

For example, when I visit a restaurant, I make a reasonable effort to ensure my meal is vegan (“Do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Do you happen to know if the rice was made with chicken stock? Can I have that with no mayo, no cheese, and no sour cream please?”). Often, the servers, and even the cooks, do not know how their food is made (“I’m not sure; it’s pre-cooked and shipped to us; we just heat it up. I think the beans are vegetarian. That bun was toasted with butter before we put the veggie patty on; were you trying to avoid all dairy?”).

Unless I grow the ingredients in my garden and make the meal from scratch myself, I do not assume any meal is 100% vegan.

The important thing is, to as close as possible, live up to my values and reasons for being vegan. For new vegans, I tell them, “If you cut meat and dairy from your diet and stop wearing leather, then you are 99% vegan. Everything else is just arguing over the last inch.”

That last inch can be debatable. Some vegans choose not to eat honey because it is made by bees. Insects are animals, too, and store-bought honey is mass-produced, causing the bees to work beyond exhaustion and suffer terribly. A few vegans refuse to eat broccoli because they believe it has a central nervous system. If it has nerves and a way to transmit the information collected by those nerves, then broccoli can theoretically feel pain. The ability to suffer or feel pain is one way many vegans determine what they will not eat. Ironically, there is no evidence I am aware of to support the claim of broccoli having a nervous system, so apparently, we vegans have our old wives’ tales, too.

On the other hand, oysters definitely do not have a central nervous system (since they are mollusks) and theoretically can not feel pain, yet I have never met a vegan who thinks oysters are not animals.

Another example of the fine line between vegans and omnivores is one of my favorite comfort foods. I love french fries. I avoid places that are known to use beef fat or other cheap, animal-sourced oil to fry their food, like McDonald’s.

Still, I know pretty much anywhere I order fries, they will be fried in the same oil as meaty foods like chicken nuggets, fish, or cheese sticks. It is highly unlikely any fast food or homestyle cooking restaurant can (or will) offer completely vegan french fries. Some places even batter their fries or other foods (like beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings) in animal products before dipping them in oil.

Some restaurants offer veggie burgers but fail to mention the patty is held together with egg or cheese, or that the bun has whey (a milk derivative).

I try to avoid the obvious pitfalls but I am not too hard on myself for ordering french fries when I am out with work friends and there are no better options available, or if I go to a restaurant and stupidly forget to ask the server if the guacamole is made with sour cream. Of course, I am much more strict when I am doing the cooking.

If you are a new vegan, vegan-curious, or a seasoned veteran who struggles with identifying what is or is not vegan and whether you should order a meal or send one back angrily (a HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way–if you choose to be vegan, then you give up your right to be mad when others do not understand exactly what that means or follow your explicit instructions–the solution is to make your own food or keep your mouth shut when you go to a restaurant–literally), keep in mind it is okay to give yourself a little slack.

That does not mean treat yourself to a steak now and then (of course that is an option but I would say it disqualifies you from the vegan club…). I mean it is okay to recognize the world is not built to meet our specifications.

Easy guidelines (even if you are not committed to a vegan lifestyle):

Be the best vegan you can be.
Cause as little suffering (both to yourself and others) as possible.
Live to your potential a little more each day.

If you do that, then you will be fine. You don’t have to give up your life to be vegan; you just have to give up taking others’.



How Can We Fight For Real Food?

How can we stand against a genetically modified industrial and political food complex?

I posted a snarky comment on FaceBook that sparked discussion about how to fight for real food. My friend Sharon was kind enough to ask what I think we can do about the situation. Here is what I think:

There are lots of ways we can take action. The best thing I think we can do is support local Farmers Markets and vegan, organic, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Here is something else: for the past few years, I have curtailed my support of multiple charities in favor of one or two I care deeply about. Shopping local helps me avoid some of the “forced charity” I already rail against (Big Box stores and brands should not dictate how much charity I give to which organizations). Rather than giving a dollar to the Salvation Army cup and a few cents in the cash register change cups for children with cancer or spare change for breast cancer, a quarter for people with MS, etc… I combine all my giving for maximum impact on one or two charities or projects I care deeply about and gave BIG donations to them. Last year, for example, it was to help make one of my favorite stores, Tree Huggers (a local vegan bulk grocery store that promotes zero waste), and Cult Pizza (a local vegan pizza restaurant being pioneered by Ryan Cappelletti who also started Bartertown, another vegan local produce restaurant).

Kickstarter is a great way to find or create local projects to support. You can contribute as little or as much as you want. In my opinion, I have more impact by making one or two large donations to one or two causes I am passionate about rather than donating to many small causes distributed across many venues.

Finally, I focus on living a minimal lifestyle with less consumer goods so more of my money can be used to enjoy organic and locally produced food. I don’t need a huge stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and jewelry. Those are not things that truly enrich my life or my health. Food and experiences shared with friends and family are far more beneficial. I can’t tell you about the video games I played in 2005, and none of them were really important, but I will never forget the trip to Lebanon I took with my father or the meal we ate high up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees. That was a much better return on my investment in both time and money than my X-box was.

So that’s a start, but it is also important to recognize we have a misconception about food. As Michael Pollan has pointed out eloquently in his books, many people wonder why eating organic or buying from Farmers Markets is SO expensive. That is the wrong question. We should be wondering instead, how on earth a burger from McDonald’s can be so cheap. A fast food burger is assembled from meat imported from many countries. A typical McDonald’s burger has more than 40 ingredients in it (follow the link–I counted them), including the bun, pickles, ketchup, mustard, meat, plus assembly, transportation to the restaurant, storage, and the overhead of the restaurant itself–lights, rent, utilities, wages, benefits, etc… How is it possible McDonald’s can afford to charge a DOLLAR for that, and still make a profit? What, exactly, are you eating when you are not eating local, organic, and real food? Yikes.

Maybe Monsanto and similar companies have a place in the world, though it is debatable. They may seem evil from where we are looking but they have an opportunity to create “food” through bio-technology that can end hunger in the world. If we can show Monsanto, Cargill, and others through conversation and action that they do not have a market or profit margin in the U.S. big enough to warrant their mono-culture take-over, then we might be able to persuade them to find other ways to generate revenue with absurdly cheap “sort-of” nutrition in places where it might be considered a boon. Perhaps then we can all win. Technology and Politics are not inherently evil; it is what we do with them that matters.

But, you know… it takes action and conversations with and through our senators and local artisans and farmers to make significant transformation happen. As with any major change–personal, political, local, or global, it can be done. We just have to be willing to do the work.




How Do Vegans Get Enough Vitamins?

When I decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle, one of the first concerns I read about was vegans not getting enough vitamins–protein, B-12, iron, etc… There are many variations of the “How do you get your protein?” question.

Let me put the basic fears to rest first: there is not a single vitamin, mineral, or nutrient that comes from an animal source that can not also be derived from a plant source.

Even if my vegan diet made me a little deficient in one vitamin or another, is this really a concern for non-vegans? When I ate meat and cheese, I ate basically the same foods day in and day out. My diet was as predictable as snow in Alaska. For me, I had meat and cheese at every meal. Breakfast: sausage and eggs, cream cheese bagel (or a sausage McMuffin with Cheese). Lunch: Hamburger with cheese, and fries (or a couple Double Decker supremes). Dinner: Steak and cheesy mashed potatoes (or pizza). If I had greens, they were always the same greens: iceberg or Romaine lettuce, spinach, green beans, and maybe parsley.

As a vegan, my diet has expanded far beyond my old eating habits. I have found more diversity and pleasure in food than I ever thought possible. Now, I eat things I never would have considered trying on my former diet. Breakfast: fruit smoothie with flax seed, cashews, and raw oats with Agave nectar. Lunch: Grilled tofu and avocado with brown rice. Dinner: Kale or Arugula with orzo, heirloom tomatoes, and nutritional yeast flakes.

Those foods and many others would never have made it into my former diet. The way I ate before, I would never have heard of things like Lychee, Quinoa, or Chia seeds. I ate burgers, steak, and kabobs–that was pretty much as exotic as it got.

Vegans listen with wry cynicism when curious mono-food culture friends suddenly become arm-chair nutrition experts.

I understand when someone asks, “How do you get your protein?” they have probably never asked themselves the same question. Most non-vegans believe protein comes from beef, which is not a very good protein source. Spinach has more protein than steak.  I think when someone asks about protein or feigns concern over vitamins, it is not really because they are interested in becoming vegan (which is fine; I probably did not ask them to). I think it is more because people are fearful of what veganism stands for and are interested in defending their NOT being vegan. “How do you get your protein?” is another way of asking, “How can I keep eating what I want and have no guilt about it? How can I get away with it? How can I keep doing what I want to do instead of what is being presented as a better choice?”.

It is okay. Vegans are used to it; we usually think it is humorous.

Instead of reacting from fear and defensiveness, though, just remember if you decide to live a vegan lifestyle and it turns out being vegan is just not for you, or you really do become deficient in a vitamin that you have probably never checked to find out if you are deficient in already… well, it is not like losing an arm. You can go back to being non-vegan anytime and catch up on all the steak and cheese you missed.

For me, I make the choice to be (or stay) vegan each time I eat. The beauty of being vegan is that it IS a choice, and each meal, I am choosing my health and choosing not to cause pain and suffering to my fellow animals. It is a choice to stand for me, for my values. I love it; I love that I get to choose standing for ME every time I eat. If I were suddenly to become deficient in a vitamin or decided I could not live this way, though, I could always just go to McDonald’s.

The fact is, if I went back to my former eating habits, I would be getting a lot fewer vitamins and much less variety in my diet than I do as a vegan. I wouldn’t enjoy all the great new foods and tasty ways to create exotic meals that I have found. I wouldn’t enjoy the weight I lost, the alertness I gained, or the peaceful living that comes with my vegan lifestyle. To me, it is a no-brainer. Being vegan is a powerful choice and one I am happy to make at each (happy) meal.