Why I’m Vegan: Ecofeminism

I’ve been holding myself up, preventing myself from writing about why I’m vegan and how central food is to my understanding of justice. I’ve been holding myself up because this writing feels especially important, like it needs to be good, and, therefore, is triggering my need to counter perfectionism.

I’ve also been holding myself up because it’s so damn hard to write about being vegan without re-inscribing notions of whiteness and privilege. Especially from my positionality as a privileged white woman. For example, check out the commentary “Here’s Why Black People Don’t Go Vegan” or the edited collection Sistah Vegan.

I’ve been holding myself up, too, because I want to amplify vegan voices of color and question how to put my voice in the mix. Vegans of color are explaining how meat is linked to white supremacy and an intersectional web of oppression. I’ve mentioned before the blogs Black Vegans Rock and The Sistah Vegan Project. If I could accomplish nothing else, I’d hope to send readers to these and other great resources.

Against this backdrop, I still want/need to explain why I’m vegan, and a sense of urgency is becoming clear. In just one week, I’ve had three different people ask me the familiar question: “Why are you vegan?” I’ve been invited to a vegan potluck, asked to provide vegan snacks for a campus event, and asked to support a student’s vegan activism. It’s clear I need to claim and explain why veganism means so much to me.

My first two answers to why I’m vegan—cookie dough and doing something small and sustained—are pieces of the larger puzzle. For this post, I’ll attempt to share a more philosophical piece: ecofeminism.

So, Why Am I Vegan?

Short answers include the following:

  • Veganism presents daily reminders for me to acknowledge and to counter violence in all its manifestations. It asks me to look at myself, my positioning, and how I’m relating (or not) with others.
  • Structures of oppression build on each other, and so I want to break down speciesism alongside and as part of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sizeism, etc.
  • I want to affirm rights, including human rights, civil rights, linguistic and epistemic rights, and—yes, animal rights.
  • I value “all my relations,” including with animals and the earth, and I continue to learn the wisdom of interconnectedness through Malea Powell’s and others’ scholarship on indigenous epistemologies and relational worldviews.

These and other answers have emerged over decades of thinking about and reframing many relationships, including with what I eat and why. I’ve been vegan for more than three years, since December 2013. Before that, I’d been vegetarian since 2000. Though the transition from vegetarian to vegan was surprisingly smooth, I still end up at restaurants and in gatherings where options are scarce and where people look at me with tilted heads in total disbelief.

I’m frequently asked the question at the center of this series: “Why are you vegan?”

Related questions include:

  • Was is hard to give up ______ (fill in a popular food)?
  • How do you get enough ______ (fill in any vitamin, mineral, or protein)?
  • Aren’t you still doing harm by eating ______ (e.g., quinoa, grapes, almond milk)?
  • Aren’t you still killing plants?

As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize in these questions all-or-nothing thinking—or the idea that only a perfect/complete solution is a solution worth seeking.

In contrast, I believe we must invest in small and sustained actions—in whatever form they might take and however they might look.

Clearly, I was vegetarian long before vegan, and my reasons for being vegetarian are largely the same for being vegan. This is why I start with my “origin story” of learning about and wanting to strive toward ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism

Perhaps the trickiest and yet most true answer to why I’m vegan is that I believe in ecofeminism, which is a feminist belief in the equity and rights of all beings. I believe in countering all instances of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. And in affirming all forms of justice, including social, racial, gender, and economic justice. Relatedly, I see instances of injustice/justice as intimately woven together. To begin unweaving the tapestry, I take a thread that’s possible to pull. This thread is my relationship with food.

In one of my first women’s studies courses, I remember studying a pyramid like this one:

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This hierarchical structure places god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth. It represents domination and helps with visualizing the interconnected nature of –isms. The closer to the god, the more godly, good, worthy, and worthwhile. The further from god, the more exploited, demeaned, undermined, and devalued.

The goal of ecofeminism, then, is flattening hierarchies. This means seeing all beings—god, men, women, children, animals, and the earth—as worthy and worthwhile, as all having innate value and rights. This means not prioritizing men over women or humans over animals, but asking tough and sticky ethical questions that imagine relations of equity and justice.

It was studying this pyramid and imagining flattened, interconnected relations that led me to become vegetarian while still in college. From this starting point, I have continued to learn, and the more I learn, the more I see the need for everyday practices—like eating vegan—that lead to more questioning, more learning, and more desire to make change.

Dismantling systems of oppression involves, I believe, dismantling the hierarchies that are both internalized and normalized. And dismantling this pyramid is about not only countering sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also countering white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. This is similarly what intersectional veganism seeks to address.

Ecofeminism is why I embrace animal rights, while emphasizing and affirming human rights. People have historically been dehumanized by being associated with animals (e.g., “dogs” or “monkeys”). As a strategy to deny human, civil, linguistic, and other rights, the association of humans with animals assumes that animals are lesser-than and unworthy of having rights. If we affirm animals as beings who also have rights, then we can disrupt dehumanization and the related stripping of human rights. Black vegan feminist theorist Aph Ko has an AWESOME video about how animal oppression relates to human oppression.

There’s a LOT more I want to write about why I’m vegan, which is why this is just one post in an ongoing series. What I can say simply is that my commitments to feminism and racial justice relate to environmental justice and veganism. So, one answer—and the one that defines my origin story and shares my philosophy—is ecofeminism. I’m certainly on a path to live and learn more, and I look forward to following where this philosophy might lead.

Three Chocolate Smoothies for Fueling the Road Ahead

This week’s post picks up on threads about changing my relationship with sugar, rethinking self-care, engaging in everyday resistance, and refueling for continued action.

Over the past few months, as I dealt with energy loss and the mind-body split, I also found myself eating so much sugar—more sugar than even is typical for me. Now, as I move into summer and invest in resting, recovering, and restoring for what’s ahead, I’m also practicing a deeper self-love through a diet with lots of greens. (Green brings heart-centered energy that my body seems to be craving to detox, to feel, and to follow my heart.)

For me, summer is typically a time for fresh fruits and vegetables, for salads and raw foods, and for smoothies. The warm weather allows my body to be happy with uncooked foods. (In contrast, I seek everything HOT during the cold Wisconsin winter.)

we make the roadSummer is also a time when I think-while-walking—walking that allows me to imagine the world significantly changed, to tread on different paths, and to make the road by walking. All this walking needs fuel.

So, I share here three recipes for chocolate smoothies (all vegan + gluten-free).

These are three of my favorite smoothies, three I come back to again and again because they can be easily adapted with what’s on hand, resulting in many variations on the theme. These smoothies also provide sweetness without sugar, deliver greens with every sip, and help me achieve a nutritionally whole meal. (For more on smoothie variations, check out Carly Graftaas’s “Smoothie Formula.”)

For each, I’ll list the basic ingredients. I use a Vitamix (thanks, Mom, for this high-powered blender!) that will liquefy most anything, including nuts and seeds. For less powerful blenders, some ingredients may need to be ground before blending.

Smoothie #1: Chocolate Shake

  • Frozen banana. I peel bananas and break them into 3 pieces when freezing. I typically add a full banana (or 3 pieces) to most smoothies, though I add more when craving a sweeter smoothie.
  • Almonds. The more almonds, the nuttier the smoothie. I add between 10 and 25.
  • Spinach. A handful (or about a cup of spinach) doesn’t impact the flavor, but does add good stuff. My dad couldn’t believe there was spinach in this smoothie; he was sure it was just a chocolate shake.
  • Plant-based milk. 2 cups or more, depending on how chunky or smooth you’d like the smoothie. I often add 3-4 cups of unsweetened almond milk to make a larger amount that I then drink throughout the day.
  • Cacao. 1 heaping tablespoon. I like raw cacao, but also use unsweetened cocoa.
  • Dates. Optional! In this photo, I’m adding 2 dates because I want sweetness, but it’s fine to add 1 date, half a date, or no dates at all. Many possibilities.
  • Vanilla. Optional! ~ 1 teaspoon to sweeten.
  • Stevia. Optional! Up to 30 drops—again, to sweeten … A note about stevia: I like liquid stevia because it’s just stevia extract and alcohol. Many of the powders have artificial preservatives.
  • Other Protein Add-ins. I sometimes add hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, or more spinach to this smoothie. You could also try adding protein powders (I’ve just found that processed powders upset my stomach, which is why I stick with nuts and seeds).

Smoothie #2: Chocolate Cherry

This smoothie is the same idea as above, combining:

  • Banana. ~ 1 fresh or frozen banana.
  • Frozen cherries. ~ 1 cup.
  • Cacao. ~ 1 tablespoon.
  • Plant-Based Milk. ~ 3 cups or more of unsweetened almond or other “milk.”
  • Optional Add-ins. Spinach, kale, hemp hearts, nuts, seeds, etc.

Because the cherries add so much sweetness, I don’t add any dates, vanilla, or stevia.

Smoothie #3: Chocolate Orange and Other Twists of the Theme

Continuing with the theme, add banana and cacao with other fruits or veggies:

  • Banana. ~ 1 fresh or frozen banana.
  • Orange. ~ 1 medium or large orange.
  • Cacao. ~ 1 tablespoon.
  • Plant-Based Milk. ~ 3 cups or more of unsweetened coconut or other “milk.”
  • Optional Add-ins. Though it sounds strange, I love adding fresh mint for an orange-mint-chocolate combination. Alternatively, I sometimes add spinach or hemp hearts.

Instead of oranges, I also use berries, peaches, or even carrots (whatever the summer brings).

Why Smoothies?

  • I love smoothies because they are so adaptable and forgiving. Rarely are precise measurements ever needed.
  • The combination of ingredients helps me satisfy sweet cravings, while giving me sustenance to carry me throughout the day.
  • There’s little mental energy or time involved in their creation, freeing up head-space and hands-space for other meaningful work (e.g., self-care, writing, and activism).
  • Like cookie dough, smoothies represent what can be gained by eating vegan—delicious and life-giving foods that aren’t about limiting but expanding options.

Why I’m Vegan: Cookie Dough!

To start a series of posts on why I’m vegan—answering this question that I’m so frequently asked—I’ll begin with perhaps the silliest answer: cookie dough!

Since I was little, I’ve loved cookie dough. I’ve also been cautioned not to eat it: “Beth, stop! You could get sick.” The risk of salmonella from uncooked eggs loomed in the air as I stole spoonfuls of raw dough. Though I never got sick, the fear certainly hampered my enjoyment.

Since I’ve been vegan, however, I’ve realized that I can eat cookie dough. As much as I like. And without fear of illness. (Well, except for self-inflicted illness from sugar overload, as sugar is an ongoing issue for me and likely why I think of “cookie dough” as an immediate BONUS for being vegan.)

I keep handy this explanatory equation: vegan = cookie dough!

chocochipcookie-4

I start with this simple and silly answer because it helps me respond to another frequent question I’m asked: “How do you eat only plants? I could never give up cheese or _____ (fill in the blank).” What if we could focus on what we get or gain instead of what we give up when going vegan?

There’s a LOT to unpack about being vegan, including how the vegan movement has deeply entrenched racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, even while working to address speciesism and environmental justice. There’s a LOT to unpack about how food factors into our everyday lives and is, therefore, central to the everyday-ness of attempting to live for justice. There’s a LOT to unpack about how food choices bring me back to myself and my commitments. There’s a LOT motivating a series of posts titled “Why I’m Vegan,” each unpacking a little more.

For now, let me begin here—with the joyful answer of cookie dough. An answer that my inner child enjoys. An answer that my exhausted, end-of-the-semester, sugar-craving self finds delicious. An answer that asks us all to imagine what can be gained (and not given up) through aligning with justice.

Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free): Finding Comfort in the Growth Zone

These days I’m experiencing a lot of stress, finding myself quick to cry, and noticing both tightness in my chest and shallowness of my breath. Undoubtedly, this stress is both personal and political, particular to me and shared in our collective. Conversations throughout the day address concerns about the Muslim ban and travel restrictions, ongoing deportations and abuses of power, challenges to health care, an unwillingness to look for missing black and brown girls, and countless other injustices.

At the same time as trying to understand these matters and to take action (and too-often feeling small and powerless in the process), I’ve got a lot going on and getting churned up in my personal life. As I approach my year of “up or out” for tenure and promotion within the university, I’m reminded of one mentor’s insight: “No one gets tenure without getting black and blue.” And here’s the interesting thing: my body is covered in bruises.

You see, when I had acupuncture and cupping earlier this week, my body bruised at almost every needle point. The cupping left darker circles than usual, and I’ve been adding to these bruises by bumping into furniture, walls, and other physical objects. I hadn’t made the connection to my mentor’s line about “getting black and blue” until my Reiki teacher, Marty Tribble, pointed out this literal, physical manifestation.

So, I looked in Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body app, and I found this information for bruises:

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As is so often the case when I look in this app, the “probable cause” feels right. I am feeling (and internalizing the feeling) of many little bumps. And I am being awfully tough on myself: from scolding myself when I walk into walls (like I’ve done over spilled milk) to holding deeply onto ideas that I’m not doing enough (even when I’ve got sticky notes around my home saying “I am enough,” “I do enough,” and “I am worthy”).

I believe—no, I know—that self-love is of critical importance, especially for confronting white fragility and dismantling white supremacy. I know that “Only love can heal the wounds of the past” (hooks 5). I know that I can’t show up for others (in classroom, online, or activist spaces) if I don’t show up for myself.

So, I affirm new thought patterns:

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Seeking Comfort as an Act of Cherishing Myself

Comfort isn’t a word I gravitate toward, as it seems to communicate stasis or a sense of being OK with the world as it is, instead of as it ought to be. I remember first becoming concerned about “comfort” when realizing that students sought this within classrooms, a space where “discomfort” is more typically the goal. As a colleague taught me during graduate school: “There’s no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.”

Now I share this mantra often when teaching and mentoring, as it communicates the importance of valuing openness to learning, change, and growth (even when growing involves growing pains). As a learner and teacher, I want to be growing, striving, challenging myself, and reaching beyond what is to imagine and enact what could be. I believe there’s power in prioritizing growth for learning and unlearning, making and remaking, writing and rewriting. And the goal of growth typically runs counter to the goal of comfort.

More recently, I’ve begun questioning how my attachment to growth (and growing pains) may actually be a form of harshness or hurting the self. I cringe when I hear the line “there’s no gain without pain,” but I think I’ve subtly/subconsciously been holding onto this idea in my body. (Sorry, body! Sorry, Beth!) I’ve been willing to experience pain for productivity. I’ve been willing to push myself beyond boundaries (physical, emotional, and relational boundaries) that play important self-protective roles.

Seeing Louise Hay’s affirmations to be kind and gentle toward the self, I realize just how much I’ve been craving—truly, truly craving—a little comfort, as in snuggling closely and cherishing myself within a warm comforter (quilt/blanket). This isn’t to say that I don’t value growth or that I’m settling with the world as it is. In fact, quite the opposite: I hope to recognize and affirm the right to desire comfort, especially at a time when discomfort and growth are already defining everyday life. I suspect this is part of recognizing when greater kindness and gentleness toward the self is needed. I suspect this is part of self-care.

Finding Comfort in Food

So, if I’m seeking comfort, what is it?

Comfort (noun): a state of physical ease, freedom, contentment, or coziness; the easing or alleviating of grief or distress (example: “I found comfort and solace among friends.”)

Comfort (verb): to ease, console, support, strengthen (example: “The crackling fire comforted me after being soaked by the cold rain and gale-force winds.”)

When I think of these definitions, I see that comfort can bolster or build the strength, support, and readiness needed to make change, to grow, and to act on commitments. The trouble is if we stay with contentment or want only coziness. This sort of sheltering is what my colleague’s mantra warns against. The trick seems to be avoiding all-or-nothing thinking about comfort: not settling and also not disallowing.

Clearly, I don’t have the answer about when comfort is desirable and when it’s obstructionist. But I do have a strong sense that in the midst of current turmoil, I’m craving some comfort as a bolster. And the sort of comfort I’m especially craving is “comfort food”: those foods that are carb-loaded and heavy; those foods that remind me of the best, most loving memories from childhood; and those foods that fill me up and leave me feeling full.

Comfort foods” are so often associated “guilty pleasures” that I’ve internalized a sense that craving these foods is bad or wrong. They’re typically often less nutrition-dense and less colorful. Yet, if I let go of these negative associations (like my negative associations with “comfort” more generally), I can appreciate my body’s wisdom.

Specifically, I crave comfort foods at times when I feel ungrounded, disoriented, or overwhelmed—as though too much growth has me tilted off balance, threatening my ability to stand firmly rooted and tall. And comfort foods (at least for me, and I suspect for many others) tend to include potatoes and other “root veggies” as well as tomatoes and other red foods. What’s so interesting is that foods from the ground (roots!) and foods that are red similarly represent the root chakra. I am totally amazed at my body’s wisdom in asking for the foods that will provide grounding support, that will help me get connected to the earth, even if only by feeling weighted down.

Recently, for example, I’ve been eating the following comfort foods (all vegan and gluten-free):

  • Grilled cheeze-and-tomato sandwiches with tortilla soup
  • Refried beans with roasted root veggies
  • Tomato and pea stew
  • Cherry and cranberry smoothies
  • A favorite potato and kale casserole—a vegan twist on my mom’s “ham, cheese, and potato casserole” that I enjoyed as a kid.

It’s this casserole I’d like to share with you, as it’s been nourishing and healing me these past few days. (And how appreciative I am for leftovers as I write!)

Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free)

Ingredients:

  • Several potatoes (3-6, depending on size and type)—sliced for layering
  • Bunch of kale—pulled apart into bite sizes
  • 1 cup of shredded vegan cheeze—my favorite for casseroles is Daiya cheddar shreds
  • 2 tablespoons of vegan buttery spread—my favorite is Earth Balance
  • Creamy sauce—when I don’t have time to make my own, I use a full jar of Victoria Vegan’s Alfredo Arugula Pesto
  • 1 cup of almond or other plant-based milk—to pour lightly over each layer
  • Salt and pepper—to lightly cover each layer
  • 1 teaspoon of safflower or other high-heat oil—to grease casserole dish

Optional Add-ins:

  • Additional greens (e.g., spinach, chard, or a larger amount of kale)
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions, shallots, and/or leeks
  • Crumbled tofu or tofu ricotta
  • Textured vegetable protein
  • Crushed nuts or no-harm parm

Preparation Time:

  • 30 minutes, including time cleaning vegetables and slicing potatoes

Cooking Time:

  • 1 hour at 375F covered and then 15 minutes uncovered at 425F degrees

Instructions:

  1. Wash and then thinly slice potatoes.
  2. Wash and pull apart kale into bite-size pieces.
  3. Rub safflower oil, other high-heat oil, or even the buttery spread along the bottom and sides of the casserole dish.
  4. Spread a thin layer of the creamy sauce along the bottom of the casserole dish (just enough to moisten the first layer of potatoes).
  5. Begin to create layers: first, by laying out potatoes side-by-side, as shown in the photos below.
  6. After this first layer of potatoes (and after each additional layer), distribute 8-10 dollops (small bits) of the buttery spread across the potatoes.
  7. Sprinkle salt and pepper atop this layer, and then add either another layer of the creamy sauce or the vegan cheeze.
  8. Add a layer of kale (typically I use half the kale, though it’s possible to have a single, fuller layer of kale and to use it all at once).
  9. Then lightly pour the almond or other plant-based milk atop the casserole so that it soaks down into existing layers.
  10. Create a new layer of thinly sliced potatoes.
  11. Repeat steps #6-#9—adding buttery spread, salt and pepper, creamy sauce or vegan cheeze, and kale; then lightly covering the full casserole with plant-based milk.
  12. With remaining potatoes, create a top layer (typically, my casseroles have this third/top layer of potatoes, but if you’re running short on ingredients, you can certainly adjust the recipe and create two layers).
  13. Finish the casserole with salt, pepper, and a top layer of vegan cheeze. Be sure to add enough cheeze shreds to cover the potatoes so that the top becomes crispy.

Rationales:

  • Casseroles are incredibly forgiving. Both ingredients and cook times can easily be adjusted. Only a couple of potatoes at home? No problem: make fewer layers.
    Want more veggies? No problem: try variations. Need to cook at a particular oven temperature? No problem: just leave the casserole in for more or less time. In the past, I’ve seriously over-cooked casseroles, and they’ve still tasted great. I’ve made them both skinny/thin and stuffed/spilling-over-the-edges, and they’ve forgiven the poor composition.
  • Casseroles allow a lot of flexibility. In addition to being easily modified with different ingredients, cook times, and compositions, casseroles can be prepared hours and even days ahead of time. If I make a casserole Saturday morning, I can cook it that evening or on Sunday or Monday. And because casseroles make a good amount of prepared food (at least in my household of two people), we can eat leftovers for a few days. This means we can enjoy the casserole now, later, and both now-and-later.
  • Casseroles invoke memories. Growing up, my mom would cook on weekends, and I have memories of Saturday evenings around the fireplace, often wrapped in a heavy blanket—an actual comforter. Among my favorite meals were chili, lasagna, soups, and this potato casserole. To this day, I associate casseroles with Saturday evenings. I know it’s a blessing that I can associate food with love, and for that blessing, I am grateful. Stepping into gratitude, I see how privileged I am (in both the negative and positive senses of the word privilege) for the ability to seek comfort and to create vegan-friendly comfort food.
  • Casseroles are filling. At times when I’m seeking comfort food, I’m often feeling vulnerable, shaky, off-balance, and in need of support. Because casseroles are tasty (so I eat a lot) and heavy (densely packed with carbs and fats), they leave me feeling filled up and full—literally and metaphorically weighted down. Through grounding, I regain my footing. And with firm footing, I’m ready to root down to grow tall. I’m ready for more growth. I’m recommitted to the long haul toward justice.

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