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Vegans and Meat Lovers: Truce?

Four new food books blur the dinner party divide.

By Michael LaPointe 23 Jun 2008 |

Michael LaPointe edits Tyee Books.

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Can we share the grill and get along?

We've all been there. It's a cozy dinner party, the wine is flowing, the guests are happy, when suddenly someone lets it drop. "I love meat." Everyone looks nervously to the vegan, who is already arming a retort. It's as if someone has just said, "I condone unilateral war." The typical argument ensues. Needless to say, the party is over.

But if the new school of vegans and carnivores is any indication, these differences may only be skin-deep. While the ancient debate rages on in dining rooms everywhere, four authors -- two vegan, two carnivore -- are calling on consumers to consider what they eat, and why.

Their central message: whether vegan, vegetarian or carnivore, eat thoughtfully. The once-clear battle lines are beginning to blur.

Sarah Kramer is one of the most visible personalities in vegan cooking. Tattooed and high-heeled, the Victoria-based author is a kitchen-savvy 1950s housewife turned rockabilly punk. "I was raised a vegetarian in Regina in the 1970s," she says. "I was a freak." Since making the transition to a full vegan diet in her 20s, Kramer has witnessed the rise of veganism first-hand. "Ten years ago, when I first started writing cookbooks, you had to explain to someone what a vegan was every time you went out," she recalls. "But popular culture has picked up on it."

Enough, at least, to make Kramer the best-selling author of three vegan cookbooks. September will see the release of her fourth, Vegan a-Go-Go. "The goal of my books has always been to make living a vegan lifestyle easier," she explains. "I look at them less as cookbooks and more as lifestyle books."

So what exactly constitutes a vegan lifestyle? "The sheer act of being vegan is a political act," Kramer says, "but I'm not here to be the Vegan Police." For Kramer, becoming a vegan is a way of placing the emphasis back on "eating locally, supporting small businesses, and choosing a cruelty-free lifestyle."

For feeling good, not looking skinny

With the surge of interest in veganism, the only fear is people choosing it for the wrong reasons. "Unfortunately, people are looking at veganism as a way to lose weight, which it's not," says Kramer. "I hope people will start to really explore and understand veganism, as opposed to looking at it as a way to get into your skinny jeans." While much of veganism has to do with animal suffering, its driving principle is that, as Kramer says, "You need to eat quality food to have a quality life. If you're eating crap, you feel like crap."

The same principle is at the heart of Jae Steele's new vegan cookbook, Get It Ripe. As a holistic nutritionist based in Toronto, Steele knows the peril of going vegan without the proper guidance. "Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs is technically vegan," she jokes. "People can attempt to live on toast and peanut butter, or pasta with tomato sauce, but that doesn't mean they're going to get any healthier."

For Steele, veganism is not political, it's a personal commitment to healthier living. This is why Get It Ripe, her debut cookbook, comes loaded with nutritional, rather than political information. "Nutritionally speaking, most of us should be eating vegan most of the time," Steele says. "I think many people get wrapped up in the politics, when veganism can just be about enjoying good food. The food in my book happens to be vegan, but it also happens to be delicious."

By placing the emphasis on whole foods, Steele hopes her book will be "a gentle, enthusiastic nudge toward better eating. I think the basis of food should be very natural, and we should eat things that are identifiably from farms, not packaging factories." As with Sarah Kramer, Steele's brand of veganism encourages consumers to make informed choices. "When I talk about the kind of food that nourishes us best, that's food that's grown locally and organically," she says.

To encourage wiser consumption, Steele focuses on "people's everyday realities around food." And while Get It Ripe is a decidedly vegan cookbook, Steele doesn't believe a pure vegan lifestyle is necessary for healthy living. "I'm not a poster child for veganism by any means," she says. "I'm more interested in being a poster child for good eating."

Ethical carnivorism?

Just what defines "good eating" is at the centre of the classic dinner party debate between vegans and carnivores. In response to the vegan position, several authors in Canada and the U.S. are leading a surge in ethical carnivorism, a movement aimed at returning meat to a good diet, and dispelling the stereotype that meat-eaters simply don't give a damn.

Although meat has certainly never fallen from the mainstream, for decades it lacked intellectual and ethical credibility. Susan Bourette, the Toronto-based author of Carnivore Chic, believes a meat-eating revival is long overdue. "Since around the 1960s, carnivores have felt guilty for eating meat, and have felt as if they have to defend themselves," she says. "People no longer feel that way. They want to eat meat responsibly and ethically."

To discover an ethical way to consume meat, Bourette travelled extensively, participating in the various facets of meat culture -- from hunting, to butchering, to a harrowing four-day stint in a Maple Leaf processing plant. "We have a very complicated relationship with meat," she says. "I began to think more deeply about what it is we're consuming when we eat meat, and why it's such an important part of human culture."

The result of her journey is Carnivore Chic, in which Bourette outlines a new philosophy for eating meat. "I learned how to be a more compassionate carnivore," she says. Perhaps surprising to many, Bourette's carnivore ethics deviate little from the principles of vegans such as Sarah Kramer or Jae Steele. "It's important for carnivores to get closer to their farmers, to learn where their meat is coming from, how it's grown," she says. "This is for your own health and for your own sense of comfort about how the animals are raised. If we're against factory farming, and inhumane treatment of animals, then we shouldn't shop for it."

Knee-deep in meat

Bourette believes the environmental impact of meat consumption is a major ethical pitfall. A 2006 UN report named global livestock farming as the largest producer of greenhouse gases -- more than planes, trains and automobiles combined. "That's the one obligation every carnivore has," she says, and for many the solution won't be easy: "Eat less meat. I eat vegetarian most days of the week. It's the only ethical way to eat meat."

While Bourette was hard at work on her carnivore treatise, New York-based author Scott Gold was hard at work on his. The Shameless Carnivore is the chronicle of Gold's epic Kerouac-trek across America, knee-deep in meat culture, sampling everything from alligator to guinea pig.

For a man who worships at the shrine of America's best meat dish ("The Cajun Boudin sausage at the Texaco gas station in Appaloosa, Louisiana"), Gold's meat-quest completely changed his attitude toward consumption. "I eat less meat now than I did when I began researching the book," he says. "Butchering a cow and going hunting were major life lessons. I gained a lot more respect for where my food comes from, and for the animals that have to die."

Gold believes that meat consumption has been vilified due in part to misguided health concerns. "The old idea was that eating meat was bad for you, that it would raise your cholesterol, make you fat, give you a heart attack," he says. "That was one reason people started turning toward vegetarianism. But that idea is ending." During his year of shameless carnivorism, Gold learned that, "Meat is actually very, very good for you, you just have to eat good meat, eat it less often, and control your portion size."

Think before you chomp

What characterizes the modern, ethical carnivore is informed decision, Gold says. "When we're afforded the luxury of choosing when and what and how we eat, instead of just eating everything we can, then those decisions become reflective of who we are." If carnivores wish to reflect good, ethical eating, then they must, "Think about where meat comes from. Buy meat that's humanely raised, from a good source. We need to encourage more responsible agricultural practices." Besides, as Gold points out, "The tastiest meat comes from the happiest animals. That's win-win."

Unfortunately, Gold says, "Good meat is more expensive. It's not affordable for a large section of the population." Thus it is imperative for carnivores to begin, as Susan Bourette says, "voting with their pocketbooks for things they believe in," to encourage a proliferation of ethical meat in the marketplace.

When carnivorism, like veganism, becomes characterised by an emphasis on ethical goods, the gap shrinks between your two dinner guests. If these four authors are representative of the future of food, then the vegan and the carnivore may not be arch-enemies after all.