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Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND): July Discussion: Favorite Type of Nonfiction

Hi guys!  So the lovely Amy (of Amy Reads) let me know of a new organization of bloggers who love to read nonfiction–Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees.  The group has a tumblr, and basically the various members will post links to their reviews of nonfiction books as well as participate in themed discussions once a month.  You all know that I definitely partake in nonfiction periodically, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be involved!

This month’s topic is our favorite type of nonfiction.  I’d be hard-pressed to choose just one, so I’m going to cheat a bit and talk about, well, three of them.

First, the type of nonfiction that I continued to read even when working full-time and attending grad school at night was memoirs.  Memoirs hold a special allure for me.  Nothing connects me to people from different walks of life than mine quite like reading their first-hand account of their own life.  I especially love memoirs by people who suffer from mental illnesses or have survived abusive situations.  Memoirs simply never fail to touch me, even if I disagree with the author on a lot of points.  It is truly astounding how different and yet the same we all are.

Second, I love books on health for the layman, particularly books on vegetarianism and veganism.  I have a whole pile of tbr books just waiting for me about the health crisis in the US, such as Diet for a New America and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.  Knowledge is power, and we Americans certainly need to take charge of our health.

Finally, I was a history major in undergrad, and history books still appeal to me.  Currently I am reading a biography on Heinrich Himmler (the head of the Gestapo).  I particularly love history books on Native Americans, westward expansion, the American Revolution, Australia, China, Japan, and WWII.

So that’s the types of nonfiction I love! What about you, my lovely readers?

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 3 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It 

Friday Fun! (What’s Important to Me)

April 15, 2011 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking the last few months about what really matters to me.  I guess you’d say what values I hold dear.  I didn’t just stick with the ones I was raised with.  I’ve done a lot of research and soul-searching to figure out what’s important to me.  That’s what makes me stick so strongly to my guns on things I truly believe in.  The more time that has passed since I’ve gotten back on my feet from the awfulness that was winter, the more I realize that what it all boils down to, for me, is that I haven’t lost hope in the world.  I have hope that we can change the world.  I have hope we can make it a better place.  I have hope we can fix the trajectories of previous generations’ bad decisions.  I have hope that the cycles of violence, grief, and pain can stop.  We only have to want it.  I firmly believe that Gandhi was right when he said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That is at the core of my belief system.  I don’t have faith in a god or spirits to fix things.  I don’t have faith in government to fix things.  But I do have faith in myself.  I have faith that I can change for the better.  The cycles of violence and pain stop with me.  That basic philosophy extends out into everything else I do, from my firm belief in vegetarianism (that is gradually moving toward veganism) to my commitment to someday adopt at least one child.  And I just can’t be around negative people anymore.  I can’t be close to people who are willing to just give up.  Humanity didn’t struggle and evolve so much to just quit evolving.  It’s just that maybe the next step of evolution has more to do with our minds and our behaviors than how our bodies work.

Namaste, yo.

Meatfree Recipe: Whole Wheat Zucchini Muffins

Introduction:
I am very supportive of the Meatless Mondays movement, which is indicative of the movement in general to get Americans to eat less meat.  Although I believe in vegetarianism, I whole-heartedly support any movement in that direction.  Even if a person goes from eating meat at two meals a day to eating meat at one meal a day, that’s fewer animals being killed for food a year.  It’s a step in the right direction.  I’ve been wondering what I can do to support this, so I’ve decided to periodically blog meatfree recipes that I’ve made at least once and have enjoyed.  Although I will offer sources, I generally tweak recipes a wee bit when I make them, so if you would like to see the original recipe, definitely check out the source.  First up, zucchini muffins!

The Result:
This recipe yields 12 regular-sized delicious, low-fat, low-calorie muffins chock full of nutty protein.  They make a great breakfast or snack on the go, and are yummy warm or cold.

The Recipe:
1 egg
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups grated zucchini (squeezed to remove excess liquid then stuffed into measuring cup)
1/3 cup melted butter
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
3/4 cup white flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 cup chopped almonds (you can use walnuts or pecans, pretty much any nut you have on-hand)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grate zucchini by hand or using a food processor, then gently squeeze grated zucchini to remove some of the water. Measure 1 1/2 cups (packed) zucchini for this recipe, and if you have extra, freeze it for another time.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat egg, then add vanilla and sugar and mix to combine. Stir in the grated zucchini, then the butter. Sprinkle baking soda and salt over the top of this and mix in.

In a smaller bowl, combine white whole wheat flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir dry ingredients into the zucchini mixture, then fold in chopped almonds .

Spray muffin pan or individual muffin cups with non-stick spray or vegetable oil, then divide batter evenly among cups to make 12 muffins. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

5 out of 5 stars

The “Eating Healthy Is Expensive” Myth

January 6, 2010 9 comments

There is this huge misconception in American culture that eating healthy is more expensive than eating junk food.  That’s the case if you don’t want to put effort into your meals and you want to buy gourmet food, but with a bit of effort it is simply not true.  I know about the dollar study where a guy went into a grocery store to see what he could buy for a dollar, and the worst foods had the most calories, aka “bang for the buck.”  However, I’m speaking from personal experience here.

Three years ago, I went vegetarian, and everyone told me how much more expensive my grocery bills would be.  You know what?  They aren’t.  On average, I spend about $50 every two weeks on groceries, and my groceries usually wind up feeding more than one person for around 5 nights a week.  That works out to approximately $100 a month, minus eating out, which happens about once a week.

For healthy eating, you need fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and other pantry needs necessary for cooking.  Whole grains are key, because they help your body feel full on fewer calories, and they are super-healthy for you too!  Let’s look at the facts on these food groups.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be a bit expensive, it’s true, but you just need to be a smart shopper when it comes to this.  Buy only what you will eat before it goes bad.  For me, this means I need to grab veggies once a week.  Also, store them properly, or they will go bad before their time.  If you really want to save money, buy fruits and veggies that are in season.  Produce that are in season are cheaper, because the stores can acquire them from closer sources.  I used this technique last night, and I found out that *all* of the produce I wanted was actually on sale, most of them for under $1 a pound.  A great resource for knowing what’s in season is eattheseasons.com, which also has an option for UK for my British readers.  For nights that you’re in more of a hurry, buy frozen fruits and veggies.  If you have more of a budget crunch, buy store brand ones.  These are cheap, and you usually can get two meals per bag.

Whole Grains
A box of whole grain pasta costs $1.29 at my local market.  That’s it, and I get at least 5 or 6 meals a box.  Whole grain rice appears expensive, but remember that a bag of it lasts a long-ass time, because it grows when it cooks.  Also invest in whole wheat flour and regular flour (you need that so it doesn’t get too heavy for some recipes).  A bag of either is around $2 in my market, and lasts months.  Any other whole grains you want are similarly priced.  It appears a lot to people, because they’re used to buying single-serving foods in the grocery store, but that $6 or $7 you’re spending on the bag of rice will make many many meals.

Protein
The most expensive proteins are the most highly processed.  This means that fake meats like tofurkey are the most expensive.  One box of tofurkey slices for sandwiches costs around $4.27 at my market.  You know what though?  It’s highly processed, and isn’t that healthy for you (though, healthier than meat).  A box of tofu, on the other hand, is usually somewhere between $1 and $2, and one box makes 4 meals.  Tempeh is similarly priced.  Beans, which you need to diversify from soy anyway, cost under $1 a can, and one can make around three meals.  If you want to go uber-healthy, you can buy bags of dry beans and cook them yourself, which is even cheaper than buying canned beans.

Other Pantry Needs
Since I’m not vegan, I do need to buy eggs, cheese, and butter, and these are usually the most expensive purchases I make.  However, one dozen eggs last me around 1.5 months.  Another purchase that, similar to the bags of rice, seems prohibitively expensive because of a single serving meal mindset is cooking oils.  Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils for you, and the bottle I bought last night cost $12 and some change.  However, one bottle lasts me at least 4 months.  Again, buy store brand.  The fact of the matter with all the pantry needs is their price can seem a bit high, but you use a little bit at a time in cooking–like with soy sauce for instance–so really per meal the cost is a few cents.

There you go. That’s my real-life shopping for healthy groceries experience.  Yes, you need to actually cook your meals instead of buying frozen and sticking it in the microwave, but trust me, it is not so hard to learn to stir-fry, sautee, and bake.  Stir-frying and pastas especially just require you to be able to stir things around in a pot.  Plus, you get the added benefit of burning some calories while making your food instead of just sitting on your butt on the couch watching tv waiting for it to heat up in the microwave.  It takes a bit of up-front cost to get your pantry equipped with the long-term use items like rice, but once you’ve done this, you’re down to buying a few quite cheap items a week, with the periodic need to replace the long-term items that never run out at the same time.  It is not too expensive to eat healthily if you know how to do it.

How to Successfully Become Vegetarian

August 17, 2009 10 comments

A twitter conversation this weekend with some would-be vegetarians made me realize that while there is a lot of information out there on why to be vegetarian, there isn’t very much guidance offered for those who have decided they want to make this life change.  Thus, this post won’t be a list of the many good reasons to become vegetarian; this post is directed at those who want to not only make the change, but do it in a healthy manner and make it stick.

Becoming vegetarian is a life-style change.  It’s hard to change your lifestyle cold turkey.  You tend to make a mistake, revert to your old ways, then get discouraged.  Most people I know who have tried to make a lifestyle change cold turkey end up failing.  It works for some people, but it’s also not the healthiest option when it comes to relearning how to eat.  If one day half of your meals are made up of meat, then the next day you suddenly can’t eat meat, you’re prone to make unhealthy choices, such as subsisting on fries and coke.  😉  A vegetarian diet isn’t innately healthy.  You can eat nothing but chips, ice cream, and candy and still be considered vegetarian.  Thus, the approach I usually recommend is the gradual approach.

First, cut out red meat.  It’s the most unhealthy meat for you, and a lot of people can’t eat it for various health reasons.  It’s the easiest meat to tell people you don’t eat.  At this same stage, limit yourself to meat at one meal a day.  This will get you practicing on creating healthy, meat-free meals.  Pick up some books on vegetarian recipes.  My favorite for new vegetarians is Vegetarian Cooking for Dummies.  It explains to you how to make sure you’re eating a balanced, meat-free diet, whether you like to cook or not.  If you do like to cook, it has some fun, super-simple recipes to get you started.   This stage is the one I like to call the “ah-ha! Meals don’t have to revolve around meat!” stage.

Pre-set an amount of time for yourself to stay at the “no red meat and only one meat meal a day” phase.  I did it for six months, but each person knows herself the best.  However, whatever amount of time you choose, stick to it!

For the next phase, cut yourself down to only three meat meals a week.  I ate three dinners a week, but you can make them whatever meal you want.  Keep track of it though, and don’t cheat.  I recommend spreading them out over the course of the week.  Maybe eat meat Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  That gives your body a break between meat days and will leave you craving the meat less.  Continue to read up on vegetarian cooking and living.  There are books out there for everyone from the person who hates to cook to the person who loves to entertain with gourmet meals.  Read what suits you!

Some people like to step down from three meals a week of chicken and/or fish to three meals a week of fish.  I was never a huge fan of fish, so I skipped that step, but if you want to, you certainly can.  If you go that route, I’d say do three months of both, then three months of just fish.

Finally, you are at the year mark.  You are only eating meat at three meals a week.  You might surprise yourself and hardly even notice there being no meat in your other meals.  Horizons are broadened as you have learned of new foods you can eat, such as tempeh, couscous, wheat gluten, hummus, and more!  The final step is upon you: taking that last plunge, cutting out those three meals, being able to proclaim “I am a vegetarian!”

Choose a specific date as the day you become a full-fledged vegetarian.  New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday, so I made mine a New Year’s Resolution, but you certainly don’t have to wait for New Year’s! Pick whatever day you want.  The week prior to the official day, clear out all the remaining meat from your house.  I ate my final meat meal out at a favorite restaurant, but you can cook it for yourself if you prefer.  View it as a celebration, not a loss!  Maybe even buy yourself a few new pots and pans that you can look upon as your special, vegetarian pans.  On that day, wake up and know that you are now a vegetarian!

Since you made the transition gradually, you won’t feel such an immediate, gaping hole.  You’ll only need will-power periodically instead of at every meal of the day.  Be sure to pick up a Vitamin B12 supplement at this point though, as it is the only vitamin you cannot get from plant food.  (You used to be able to, prior to factory farming).  I won’t lie to you.  You will still get cravings sometimes.  About a month in, I almost caved and ate bacon.  In fact, most vegetarians I know caved once at some point and ate meat. Every single one of them followed it up by being sick to their stomachs immediately after.  Don’t feel bad if you cave once!  We are all human!  You’ll probably pay for it by being horrendously sick to your stomach anyway, no joke.  That’s another element of going gradual: your body gradually adapts so that it prefers the vegetarian diet.  It comes to view meat almost as an invader in your intestines.

Don’t be deterred though!  Even though you may periodically crave your own favorite bits of meat (for me, this will always be bacon, as there is no good vegetarian substitute), you will have new favorite foods!  I fell in love with hummus and tofu.  I also discovered the amazing No-Name at my local vegan restaurant The Grasshopper.  These are foods you would never have known about if it wasn’t for going vegetarian!  No matter what your reasons for going vegetarian, you’ll be healthier.  Studies have proven that vegetarians have a lower risk for various cancers, obesity, and heart disease.  Vegetarianism isn’t a diet you go on briefly.  It’s a new way of life!