Monday, November 5, 2012

Hail Seitan: The Journey Begins (Part 3)

The third film Hubby and I watched on October 27, 2012, was the true eye-opener. Certain images I thought I could handle because of my background are forever burned into my mind.

Vegucated follows three New Yorkers as they switch--cold-turkey--from a diet of meat, cheese, and processed foods to a wholly vegan diet for six weeks. Again, I watched with interested skepticism. I'd heard the pro-vegan arguments in the past and frankly, discounted most of them. As I said in my previous posts, I grew up on a farm. I had no illusions as to where and how meat was harvested. (I'd like to take a moment here to state that I never personally took the life of any animal during my time on the farm. Yes, I witnessed it and helped with the process after the fact. For some this may be splitting hairs. At the time, it was simply a part of my life, but no longer.)

Hubby and I watched, and even laughed a bit, as the three new vegans struggled. When it came time to show some footage of how mass-market meat is gathered on big industrial farms to meet consumer demands, Hubby left the room. (He didn't grow up the way I did and is overly sensitive to graphic images.) I continued to watch. I was okay with the cows. The pigs were a little harder to watch. Then came the chickens. I started to squirm and feel a bit sick. Finally the film showed egg production...

I'll spare my readers the most graphic images. However, I can't continue sharing my journey without revealing some details of what I saw.

On my family's farm, we raised chickens. I mentioned this in my initial posting. We raised them for meat as well as eggs. However, they were free-range in the truest sense of the word. We didn't keep them cooped up, even at night. They roosted in cedar trees near our home. They roamed the yard and fields during the day. We kept no restrictions on them other than tracking where they laid their eggs so we could gather them. We fed them organic corn "chops" and made certain they had plenty of clean water. In fact, we did this for all of our animals--pets as well as livestock. We knew that if the animals were healthy, then the products they provided were healthy. It was a simple philosophy and it worked.

This is not Toughie. Unfortunately, no pictures survive of
my buddy. However, he looked very much like this little guy.
When I was about ten-years-old, one of our hens hatched a small brood when we failed to notice she'd taken to nesting. Unfortunately, most of then chicks were lost to predators along with the mother. Only one chick survived. Being a young child who'd grown up with animals, I adopted the little guy--a baby rooster I named "Toughie" because he was going to have to be tough to survive. I cared for Toughie. I fed him. Protected him. Worried about him when I climbed on the bus each morning for school. Every afternoon, I would run from the bus, calling for Toughie, and he'd come running--little feet kicking up tiny plumes of dust, chirping, and flapping his wings. I would hold my hand down for him. He'd hope into my palm and close his eyes, snuggling against the shelter of my cupped hands. Toughie and I were almost inseparable.

I still remember the day Toughie didn't meet me when I came home from school. I called for him. Searched the yard and the bushes along the fence row separating the yard from the fields. Then I found him...or what was left anyway. A predator had gotten him. It may sound stupid to cry over a chicken but Toughie was more than a farm animal destined for a table. He was a pet, a buddy. I still miss him even twenty-plus years later.

It was Toughie I thought of while watching the images of birds stuffed into small crates at industrial chicken farms. I thought of him as the film explained that male chicks are separated from the egg-laying females. Since the males are of no use to egg farmers, they are discarded--dumped into bins and left to die, or thrown  alive onto conveyor belts and "processed" for use in other products. It was this image--an image of a lost pet being callously discarded hundreds and even thousands of times a day that forced open the windows and doors of my mind. The hypocritical lunch I'd eaten no longer set well. The recently bought groceries in my kitchen screamed at me with the voices of the damned.

Hubby returned to the couch and we finished watching the film in silence. When it was over, I cried. I cried for Toughie, my long-lost pet rooster. I cried for the animals forced to live in horrible conditions to satisfy human desires. I cried for myself because I'd been blind to modern farming. It's no longer the small family operation like I knew. There is no respect for the animals. They're not living creatures. They're commodities...numbers...items to be tagged, bagged, and sold.

I knew at that point I couldn't continue as a closet carnivore. Hubby listened to me as I told him I needed to transition to vegan, not only for my health but for my sanity. I couldn't ignore the effect the film had on me. I'd been "Vegucated." Since watching these films, I've started transitioning to a plant-based diet. I'm reading labels in the store, something I didn't do much other than to scan for allergens. I'm passed the egg section with averted eyes. I avoid the meat department altogether. I spend more time in fresh produce. I scour the internet for vegan recipes.

Because I live in the South, vegan foods are hard to find and restaurants may accommodate vegetarians, to a degree, and vegans are labeled "crazy hippies." But, I'm determined to make the change. It's hard. I knew it would be from the start. That's why I started this blog. To document my efforts. To prove that if I can turn vegan in the South, then anyone can.

And thus, my journey begins and continues...

Fakin' the Bacon: The Journey Begins (Part 2)

My vegan awakening came slowly, at first, and then it slammed into me with force of a 20-pound pumpkin chunked by an oversized BB gun.

I gradually converted to an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. I simply couldn't see myself giving up eggs or my beloved cheddar cheese. My husband joined my new diet plan and everything was going well--for the first six months or so. Soon the Call of the Wild Cheddar Bacon Cheeseburger sounded throughout our home. We did our best to ignore it, but as often happens, stress and "I don't feel like cooking" and "We don't have time to cook" slipped back into our conversations. Fresh fruits and veggies were passed over for paper wrappers and fried, dyed, glued, and processed "foods." We had fallen off the turnip truck and rolled back into the world of beef, bacon, and barbecue.

And our health was starting to reflect it. Hubby's blood pressure shot up to dangerous levels. Mine rose slightly but my blood sugar levels were in wild flux. We both gained back weight we'd been so proud to lose. We felt sick. Tired. Unhealthy. To make matters even worse, during our reversion, we told friends and family we were still actively working on switching to vegetarianism. But we were closet carnivores, greedily eating animal flesh in private. We even made a joke of it: "What are we having for dinner tonight? Hypocrisy on a bun!" Our efforts to "lighten" the moment didn't work. We were hypocrites. We knew it--and we loathed ourselves for it.

I knew I needed to change my diet, not just because I hated myself for my inability to control my cravings for meat, but I needed to change to save my life. Obesity runs in my family, as do diabetes, heart attacks, and some forms of cancer. I was in deep denial about my health, and my husband wasn't far behind me regarding his own. We both needed a wake up call.

As it turns out, we got three...

On October 27, Hubby and I were sitting on the couch, bored, and flipping through the available movie options on Netflix. We came across Forks Over Knives, which "examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods." We were intrigued. Maybe this would be the kick in the ass we needed to get back on track. We watched it...and we were impressed...and a little shocked...and a little disturbed. Could we reverse our health issues by changing our diets? Were we slowing killing ourselves simply because we'd been brainwashed from an early age to believe animals were the only proper source of protein?

Being the educated people Hubby and I believed ourselves to be, we searched for other films. Next on our list was Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. I wasn't convinced that I could survive 60 days--or even 7 days--on a pure juice diet. I continued watching with skepticism until Phil Staples, a 429-pound truck driver, melted in front of me on the screen. Maybe there was something to this planet-based diet, whether you incorporated juicing or not.

The wheels in my head were turning. Windows were opening. Light was returning. I was willing to accept that vegetarianism was a viable option. But I still wanted my cheese...and eggs...and maybe the occasional bacon strip.

Hubby and I took a lunch break before moving on to our third film. What did we have? Hot dogs made from Angus beef. At least that's what the label said. Yep. We'd just watched to documentaries on how processed foods could kill us, and we were bellying up to the table for some hypocrisy on a bun. (I should note that these were the last hotdogs from a single pack, and I was taught not to waste food as a child. I can happily report, however, no hotdogs have crossed our threshold--or our lips--since October 27, 2012.)

Lunch sat in our stomachs like twin ghosts of Jacob Marley dragging leaden chains and bemoaning past sins. And, like a couple of Scrooges, Hubby and I tired to ignore the guilt gnawing at us. To distract us, we switched on the third film, and like Scrooge facing the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, our fate was sealed...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pass the Bacon and Diet Coke: The Journey Begins (Part 1)

Like most journeys, mine has humble beginnings. I was raised on a small family farm in Mississippi. We grew most of the food we needed--vegetables, fruits, and yes, animals. At any given time, my family had cows for meat and milk. Chickens also served dual table purpose (meat and eggs) in addition to keep down the flea, tick, and insect population around the house. (Our chickens were definitely free-range in every sense of the term.) Other livestock included pigs and goats, and a well-stocked pond of catfish, bass, and brim. The yearly gardens yielded corn, peas, beans, peanuts, greens, squash, tomatoes... just about anything you can find in the grocery store. Peach and pear trees were great for fresh fruit and climbing. Wild plums made the best jelly, as did the wild blackberries and huckleberries. Blueberries were always in cobblers with freshly churned ice cream. Living in the land of beef, bacon, and lard, I didn't give much thought to what I ate beyond whether I liked the taste or not.

Even after I left home and married the love of my life, I kept my childhood eating habits. For me, hamburgers were yummy; broccoli was yucky. And, let's not even discuss Brussels sprouts and zucchini. Steak. Chicken. Fish. Pork. Eggs. For thirty-plus blissful years, this was my world.

Then my world shattered.

In March 2010, I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. I'm sorry to say it wasn't a great shock. By this time I was consuming more carbs and processed sugars than even my beloved animal proteins. I literally lived by the phrase "Not a veggie in sight." I wasn't blind to the damage I was doing to my body. I simply didn't think about the consequences. Diabetes was something that happened to "other people." Now I was the "other person," and I didn't like it.

I went to classes to learn to be diabetic. I learned not all carbs are bad. I learned portion control and moderation. The importance of protein--specifically lean meats--to offset the carbs were stressed. I also learned about "free" foods: vegetables with so little carb content that I could eat as many as I wanted and not feel guilty. This is when a light flickered in my brain. If these veggies are "free," why not simply eat more of them to keep my blood sugar in check?

Vegetarianism sparked my interest. I'd known some vegetarians in my life and none of them were overweight. Since I needed to lose a lot of weight (and sadly, still do) I researched the variations, and immediately discounted veganism as too extreme. Remember, I grew up on a farm. In Mississippi. Sweet tea was a religion, and bacon was a food group unto itself. Making a change wasn't going to be easy. However, I was determined and finally settled on ovo-lacto vegetarianism as the best match. (Basically, I could eat veggies, fruits, healthy carbs, and the occasional egg or dairy product.) My husband agreed to join me on this new venture, and we eagerly embraced it.

Several months later, we were sitting at Five Guys Burgers and munching barbecue bacon cheeseburgers and fries. Hey, I had a Diet Coke so I thought I was keeping in line with my new diabetic menu... sort of. I won't say our efforts were futile or a failure. I was eating more veggies and fruit than I had in the past thirty-odd years, but animal protein was still a part of my diet and it was becoming a larger and larger part. Carbs and refined sugar were also creeping back into my food. And the scale was reflecting it. My initial success with vegetarianism--dropping an amazing 53 pounds!--was reversing. I was gaining back the weight. My blood sugars were on the rise. Stress was making me overeat, and I was falling back into old habits.

Fast forward a year or so to October 2012. By this time I'd been yoyoing with my weight and had worn out the same ten pounds--lose, gain, lose, gain, gain, lose, lose, no change, gain... The cycle was endless. I was driving myself insane. Something had to give. Vegetarianism was still a viable option but I didn't know how to break the stranglehold meat had on me. I'd been raised to believe that if we weren't meant to eat animals then they wouldn't be so damn tasty when battered, buttered, fried, and grilled. Also, like most Americans, I believed that animal protein was the best source of protein. I was warring with myself and both sides were losing.

It was at this point that I had my vegan awakening...