Unlearning Vegetarianism: A Journey To Situational Omnivorousness

Eating is the catalyst and the conduit for so many cultural and social experiences that I hated missing out on as a vegetarian. I was born and raised that way- both of my parents became vegetarian years before I was born and my entire family remains committed vegetarians.  Over the past few years, I have departed from this value system, receiving responses from my sisters and parents ranging from bewilderment to concern.

When I was young, I would say, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat Big Macs and chicken wings!”  (I also, for the record, desperately craved squishy white bread and creamy peanut butter to replace the crumbly whole wheat home baked loaves and oily separated natural peanut butter I was served). Of course once I was autonomous, I was disgusted by the thought of any of it and could not imagine putting those processed dead substances in my body.

When I began actually trying real meat, at first I was frustrated with how little I could handle.  I could taste little bites but was still too weirded out by the texture of flesh in my mouth to eat much of it. Now I am grateful for this sensitivity. I am horrified by the thought of eating unclean, unhealthy animals who were brutalized. However, even ethically raised or harvested animals are still living beings whose lives are being taken and this always has been and will always be a heavy, complicated process – one that I will never engage in casually. So as I have been unlearning my vegetarianism, I have been learning as much as I can about the processes by which animals end up as food- different slaughtering and butchering techniques and traditions, the differences between grass fed and corn fed beef, the ways that unseasonably warm waters on the west coast affect the taste of the oysters, the impact of overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean on sea species central to sushi production…if I was not eating from the ocean I guarantee I would not be as attuned to the crises playing out there. I feel more plugged into the planet now that I eat (some) meat and seafood.  I pay attention more. I feel the affects of what’s going on in our ecosystems and food production systems more than ever before. I also feel more connected to the people of the past in this place I live- Brooklyn, Long Island, the coast of the Atlantic- a place where the indigenous people, and then all of the colonizers and immigrants following them, ate from the ocean because it’s right here!  (If I were still living in Ohio, I would not be as passionate about learning how to eat from the sea responsibly because the responsible thing to do there would be to not eat from it). Feeling more plugged into the planet through consuming meat feels somewhat ironic for me because I know my mother, who is so disturbed by my digression, is vegetarian precisely because of how plugged into the planet she feels.

A proto-omnivorous moment I had years ago took place in the home of a Palestinian farmer family in a village near Jenin. I had been helping their cooperative sell their fair trade olive oil in the States and was being hosted by this family during my first visit since the collaboration began. It was Id and they had just slaughtered a lamb and grilled it, serving it in small dark juicy chunks accompanied by a mouth-watering array of sauces, dips, spice mixes, pickles, yogurt, bread, and veggies. I ate a small amount (I remember exactly 5 pieces but may have projected that number onto the memory in retrospect). It was a space within which my commitment to vegetarianism did not feel as important as gratefully participating in the intimate, generous experience of this family’s celebration. I had been concerned that my stomach would be upset given that it had never had such things in any substantial quantity. I was totally fine.

Years later, I had the privilege of visiting the tiny magical universe of Sutton Island in the Gulf of Maine. My friends kayaked out to the big rock near the dock in front of our house and harvested some mussels. After they cleaned them on the front porch, we made paella with them, throwing them into the large pot, covering it, and as they were coaxed open by the steam, we smelled their oceanic juices seep out and infuse the rice and vegetables.

I knew that if I were to ever try eating mussels that THIS was the moment- mussels harvested by my friends’ hands in a small and sustainable amount, in the cleanest water I had ever been in. And I asked myself if eating a plastic-wrapped processed soy product could in any way, spiritually or nutritionally, feel better than eating these sea creatures freshly plucked from a rock. The answer was no. Thus began my more deliberate mission to expand my food experience to include animals. These were both experiences in which the values and logic of what was right to eat came into focus as more layered and complex than any YES/NO position on meat could encompass.

I tease my mother by calling her a fundamentalist vegetarian because she believes that everyone should be vegetarian all the time. There are no other points to be considered other than avoiding taking unnecessary life as she sees it. And this is a serious question- is it necessary for us to kill and eat animals? (“Us” being urbanized people living in the year 2013). The answer might, on a certain level, be NO. Not technically. But it all comes down to the interconnectedness of all the systems involved in what we eat- it makes it so that it is very difficult, and possibly not ideal, to maintain a pure and singular set of dietary restrictions if one’s aim is to eat most ethically and healthily, for planet and self. One meal might offer the choice between processed soy product and sustainably farmed fish, in which case the fish might be the most ethical and clean way to eat in that situation. In another context, one might have to choose between factory farm chicken and a vegetable dish containing avocado flown half way around the world with fossil fuel guzzling engines. In that situation, the harm and health dichotomy get complicated.  This might be a pick your battles situation, and one in which there’s no guaranteed clear winning position because either way, you are implicated in a losing food production industry. With an industrialized food system relying on so much fossil fuel, plastic, chemicals, and so on, eating vegetarian is not automatically a less harmful choice. It can be- if whole, local, seasonal, sustainably grown and produced foods are the boundaries around one’s eating decisions. But just going for the non-animal option at a restaurant or the grocery store doesn’t guarantee righteousness unfortunately.

Adding a different dimension of decision-making factors, there are contexts in which one is being offered special dishes prepared lovingly by people who are sharing their knowledge, their heritage or their home.  For me, fully experiencing different cultures and communities requires responding to such welcomeness with openness, curiosity, and gratitude. It is the only way to learn. And show respect. There is no room for rigid restrictions that negate the wisdom of a cuisine being presented.  There are dishes that are so central to cultures, classics enjoyed on sometimes obsessive levels by entire countries and larger geographic areas, that I feel must at least be tried.  Otherwise a significant element of a place that I am in will be missed. And I HATE missing out. (This is admittedly the most questionable of my reasons for abandoning vegetarianism personally.)

So I have developed a situational omnivorousness that I do not claim to be righteous but is at least an attempt to live fully and cultivate a multifaceted relationship to food.  I am sure it will continue to evolve, especially as our planet keeps changing and I learn more.

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CULTIVATE: Connecting Community through Meals and Media

Last Wednesday night on one of the hottest days thus far this summer, I took a steamy, crowded subway ride from work in SoHo to South Brooklyn for an evening presented and co-organized by The Big Ceci and SIGNIFIED featuring Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and the 718 Collective. The event, held in the basement of the Church of Gethsemane on a tree lined street in Park Slope, was a dinner by the 718 Collective, followed by the premier of SIGNIFIED’s second season episode featuring the 718 collective, an interactive presentation with Just Food and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and a community recipe exchange.

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As a recent resident of Brooklyn (I moved here just a little under two years ago from Boston via Mexico City), the idea of cultivating community in a city as varied and expansive as New York can sometimes seem like a daunting task. I have tried to foster relationships with people who share common interests, and have worked to become invested in certain elements of my local community. For example I joined a social-justice focused CSA and take an active role in working towards making the CSA accessible to lower-income families. And I am pleased to find that through my efforts I have been able to feel that I not only live in Brooklyn, but that I have found a space to give back and invest in my community.

The feeling of having a distinct community where I have laid down my roots has always been an important element in finding happiness in my daily life. Finding that community here in Brooklyn has been difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. While I do feel secure and rewarded by the space I have made for myself here, I am aware of the general demographic of those with whom I spend the majority of my time. While I actively try to be open to meeting new people and work to interact with those from different backgrounds, it can be easy to slip into a space of 20-something artists, writers, and activists who live in Brooklyn, ride their bikes, brew kombucha, volunteer for various causes, and care to know who grows their food. While my friends and neighbors are rich in creativity, experience, and understanding, rarely do I feel that I truly step into the shoes of those with very different lifestyles from my own. But cultivating a varied community just to feel that I have a diversified friend group can also be problematic. So how does one truly work to connect with a community different from their own, without it feeling strained or disconnected?

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During the CULTIVATE dinner I had a great conversation explaining quinoa and kale to the man sitting to my left who had never seen the foods before, and who, in turn, regaled me with tales of his fledging rap career. After a screening of SIGNIFIED’s episode, everyone at the event joined together for an exercise by the Brooklyn Food Coalition about the school food program.  The children of Brooklyn are a community that surrounds me, but with whom I rarely interact. While I live across the street from a public school, I rarely find myself in conversation with anyone under the age of 18 for longer than a few sentences.

The exercise entailed a woman from the BFC who would give out a word or fact that everyone in the room was then asked to free-associate and to write down the first word that came to mind. We then walked around showing off our answers and briefly talking to each other about the phrases that we were inspired to put down. Terms like “school food” brought out negative association words like “yuck,” “fatty,” “heavy,” and  “too expensive.” The fact “The NYC public school system buys the second largest amount of food in the United States, after the U.S. Military” brought out thoughts like “capitalism,”  “schools, prisons, military,” and “buying power.” It was unfortunate that many of the associations she threw out  with school food terms were negative and depressing. When the fact was read— “One parent working in the school food system has the opportunity to affect hundreds of children,” more positive words began cropping up — “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “stand up.” Because children are a community that, by and large, do not have the ability to stand up and advocate for themselves, it is up to those who are older to support, educate, and advocate. So while there can be negative associations related to advocating for communities that may seem disparate from our own, and while I do not yet have children of my own, it is up to us who have have a voice and an understanding of the injustices of our food system to take a stand for them.

While the community of children in Brooklyn may seem far away from my daily life, in reality, they are just down the block. They are a part of my community and as a fortunate child who benefited from healthy school lunches in Oregon, and from the tireless work of my mother, it is my job to help cultivate positive associations with the school food system for this new community of mine.

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See more photos from the event here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nora_chovanec/sets/72157630259177140/detail/

Presenting CULTIVATE: Connecting Communities Through Meals and Media.

Hey people – Naomi here, and I’m writing with some exciting news. It’s been a little over a year since we started The Big Ceci, hoping to create a space on the blogosphere where we could bring together our love for food and our commitment to justice. It’s been a beautiful year, and I’ve been excited and inspired by how many people have contributed to this blog – it’s truly been a community effort.

So, yes, blogging has been good to us, and we look forward to continuing in our second year and beyond. But the one thing you can’t do on a food blog is…you guessed it, folks – EAT!

That’s why this week, The Big Ceci is making moves – stepping out of the Internet and into the neighborhood – to present our first-ever event: a dinner-discussion-screening-salon-experience called CULTIVATE: connecting communities through meals and media.

Get ready, y’all…because this is gonna be a fun one.

CULTIVATE is a collaboration with the fabulous queer documentary project SIGNIFIED (please do the Internet equivalent of running-not-walking to their website if you haven’t already seen it…you need to). During this interactive evening of food and media, we’ll eat a delicious meal prepared by the talented chefs of 718 Collective, discuss food justice work in Brooklyn with Just Food and The Brooklyn Food Coalition, swap stories and recipes across the table, and get to see the premiere of the latest SIGNIFIED episode.

If you’re not catching my drift, people, let me put it to you this way: if you care in any way about alternative media, food justice, Brooklyn, hot queer chefs, or just really delicious food, you will want to find a way to get your butt to our table on Wednesday, June 20.

Space is limited, so we strongly encourage you to buy tickets in advance here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/252443

And of course, for more info, check out the Facebook event here and the Tumblr here.

We’ll see you at the table!

From sustainable agriculture to social justice in just two words

(Photo credit: Chicago Now)

As a graduate student studying food justice at a university with deep historical ties to the field of agricultural education (Michigan State University was the United States first land-grant university and served as the prototype for the entire land-grant system), I have encountered a wide range of opinions and reactions to the idea of racism actively existing within our food system. This past fall, I suggested that racism in the food system should serve as a topic of discussion in an introductory course for my graduate program. After finishing what I believed to be a thoughtful ten-minute presentation to my class about why I think this topic is important and relevant in our field of study, I received several discouraging comments from my classmates. One classmate in particular seemed exceptionally bothered by my presentation and approached me after class to explain to me why she thinks my logic is off because: “clearly this isn’t about racism, it’s about poverty.”

I believe that there is much to be said about the politics behind why my white classmate was particularly “bothered” by my discussion of racism and the subsequent implication of her identity in this system of inequality. There is also much to be said about the silence that filled the classroom after my presentation was over. As a white woman, I have experienced and will continue to experience moments of discomfort and shame when talking and thinking about racism as it relates to my work as a graduate student. But as an individual committed to building a more just and fair food system, I believe that the conversation needs to happen.

As Malik Yakini, the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network recently said in his keynote address at a food democracy conference in Lansing Michigan, “we can never get past racism if we choose not to address it.” It is with this understanding that I choose to continue engaging in these conversations with my fellow learners, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be. I believe that if we can agree that food and agriculture never exist outside of social systems, but instead within a specific social and historical context, then it will become possible to view food as a lens for social justice.

(Photo credit: Community Alliance for Global Justice)

So, I am sharing my presentation about why I think racism in the food system is an issue worthy of discussion, with the hope that at the very least it will encourage more conversation about the role racism plays in the ever-growing sustainable agriculture movement we see today.

……………….

Within the sustainable agriculture movement, racism is not often cited as a barrier to success. Lack of access to healthy, fresh food is often viewed as the product of poor economic conditions or the industrialization of the American agricultural system, which has left local food systems fragmented in its wake. Yet these conditions embody just two pieces of the big broken food system puzzle. Recently, ‘food insecurity’ has risen to the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement as a pressing problem and concern for many urban American communities. But what exactly is ‘food insecurity,’ and what does this term have to do with racism? The structure of the industrialized food system in the United States remains largely obscured from public view, which makes it even more difficult to see where the pervasive hand of racism plays its part. So in an effort to gain some clarity from maze of farmers markets, supermarkets and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, I’ll attempt to break down some of the “buzzwords” floating around in the sustainable agriculture movement and try to point to at least one place where racism is situated within this system.

Food security is defined as the ability of a community or an individual to have access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food at all times. This definition implies that the lack of access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food can also be described as food insecurity, whether on an individual or community level. Food insecurity can only be measured if it occurs within well-defined geographical boundaries; hence, following suit with this cartographic rendering of the food system, a food insecure area within these boundaries is called a food desert.

(Photo credit: Slow Food USA)

Food deserts are typically described as areas where geographic and/or economic barriers prevent access to affordable, nutritious food. Yet this definition of food deserts renders the notion of race insignificant in relation to space and place. Instead, it emphasizes economic conditions alone and fails to account for the historic role of racism in shaping urban spaces and the production of racialized urban geographies.

Consequentially, what is often missing from the discussion of food insecurity, is an acknowledgement that in the United States, an individual’s ability to access to healthy food is shaped not only by their economic ability to purchase it, but also by the “historical processes through which race has come to affect who lives where and who has access to what kind of services” (Alkon et al. 2009). In other words, food deserts are linked to the racialized geographies of urban spaces, and food insecurity in communities of color exist as the product of these historical processes.

Unfortunately, the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole has continued to focus heavily on the environmental benefits of organic, locally grown food, and has “often ignored the role of race in structuring agriculture in the United States. Although the term sustainability includes both ecological protection and social justice by definition, sustainable agriculture activists have primarily aligned themselves with the environmental rather than environmental justice movement” (Alkon et al. 2009). The consequences of this can be seen in a local, sustainable, fresh food movement that fails to acknowledge its responsibility in addressing the root causes of hunger, poverty and oppression, and instead just aims to treat the symptoms of a broken food system.

In working towards a more sustainable food system, it is vital that all people involved in this movement work to connect, symbolically and literally, the sustainable agriculture movement to a larger struggle for freedom, justice and equality. I believe that the concept of food justice has the power to do this by addressing and confronting issues that have been previously overlooked by the sustainable agriculture movement. By serving as a bridge that links sustainable agriculture to social justice, the food justice movement illuminates the path towards cultivating change and creating a more equitable and just food system.

(Reference: Alkon, Alison Hope and Kari Marie Norgaard. “Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food Justice Activism.”)