Friday, September 21, 2007

What I wish I'd said to that vegetarian

One co-worker was saying to another, "I never had duck. I hear it's supposed to be really fantastic. I do regret that. I regret not having had veal, or rabbit. Duck, especially."

I swiveled in my chair and asked, playfully, "Why don't you try it, and then you won't have the regret?" But I realized as I was speaking, why not. He must be a vegetarian.

"Because they're made of dead animals," he said. He and the co-worker he was chatting with -- also a vegetarian (and should've been another clue for me) -- laughed.

"Oh, got it," I said.

The second guy picked the thread back up: "I never had a brat. I used to really regret that. But you know, now when I see one, I just think it's really disgusting!" They both laughed.

A "brat," short for bratwurst and prounced to rhyme with "lot" and not "hat," is the summer cookout staple of Wisconsin. When people cook out, a brat is as likely to be found as beer or pop (that's the local term for soda). As likely, no less.

A brat is fatter around, much darker in color, and a little longer than a hot dog. In texture, it's more rustic than a hot dog, also; the meat is not ground into a smooth pate, but has more of a coarse, meaty quality. When grilled, broiled or fried up in a skillet, its skin becomes crispy, giving way under the teeth with a satisfying pop. Outside of Wisconsin, bratwurst I've seen in supermarkets tends to be pre-cooked and ivory white; here it's meat-red in the store and dark brown after cooking.

"I had a brat for lunch, thanks," I said.

"Oops! Sorry!" said the guy dissing brats. We all laughed. "But it's still disgusting," he said.

"Well, I don't get the kind with all kinds of junk in them," I tried to explain. "They're all natural."

The first guy said, "Right, all-natural floor sweepings!" Both thought this was funny.

"Nooo! We get all our sausage from Usinger's. They use old-world recipes and traditional ingredients. It's just ground meat, with spices."

Silence for a moment. Finally the first guy spoke. "But it's still dead animals. With spices." He shrugged and shook his head as he said it. Both laughed. It was the definitive word. I saw his point of view: If dead animals are not proper food to begin with, the preparation is irrelevant.

"Yes, in natural intestinal casing." So we could all laugh together. I played along.

Now for what I wish I had said.

That is, had I made this connection at the time, instead of hours later.

The day before, I happened to look at something the "disgusting brat" guy had on his desk around lunchtime. It was an individually wrapped snack, a "Fiber One Chewy Bar." The Oats and Chocolate variety. I can't remember what compelled me to inspect somebody's lunch, what made me curious about this particular bar, but I asked him if I could pick it up and look at it. "Oh, sure," he said. "These are really pretty good."

The way it was wrapped, I had to fold up part of the wrapper to reveal the ingredients. They were horrifying! I also found them online at the General Mills web site for this post.

Fiber One Chewy Bars, Oat and Chocolate Ingredients: Chicory root extract, chocolate chips with confectioners shellac (chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, milk fat, soy lecithin) ethanol, shellac, hydrogenated coconut oil), rolled oats, crisp rice (rice flour, sugar, malt, salt), barley flakes, high maltose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, canola oil, honey, glycerin, maltodextrin, palm kernel oil, tricalcium phosphate, soy lecithin, salt, nonfat milk, peanut oil, cocoa processed with alkali, natural flour, baking soda, color added, almond flour, peanut flour, sunflower meal, wheat flour, mied tocopherols added to retain freshness. The nutritional information panel listed 4g fat, 29g carbohydrate (9g from fiber and 10 from sugar) and 2g of protein.

Is this what people think is healthy food? A lot of the stuff in here is horrible, and just the fact of hyperprocessing all these ingredients, and then hyperprocessing those components together with each other, ensures that the end product will be completely devoid of any wholesomeness or vitality, regardless of whatever the individual parts were. But one thing jumped out at me.

"Shellac?" I said. "Hey, vegetarians can't eat these bars. They've got shellac."

"What?" he said. "What is shellac, anyway?"

"It's made from insect wings."

Well, not quite. The Wikipedia entry, which he called up, told us this: "Once it was commonly believed that shellac was a resin obtained from the wings of an insect (order Hemiptera) found in India. In actuality, shellac is obtained from the secretion of the female insect, harvested from the bark of the trees where she deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk."

The secretion of an insect -- that part doesn't bother me in itself. Honey answers to the same description.

I did notice one other thing. In the course of the conversation, the guy picked up the bar to read the ingredients. He started reading from the nutritional panel first. It was a few seconds before he realized that it wasn't the ingredient list. Not like he was dense -- but like he wasn't familiar with the distinctive layouts that make those things instant visual giveaways. That is, like somebody who isn't in the habit of reading those labels. Then he fumbled a bit before he could find the ingredient list. Again, not like he was dense -- like he wasn't familiar with the customary ways that these labels are commonly tucked here and there on packaging.

A corollary to that thing. Once he had looked at the ingredient list, what he saw didn't seem to bother him.

I was amazed and appalled. Amazed that anybody would eat such a piece of junk. Appalled that this such a product even exists. It was disgusting. I didn't say so, because I thought it would be impolite. Maybe I should quit thinking that.

I'm not a dietary purist, but I would not eat that disgusting thing if you paid me. OK, fifty bucks. I'd eat one of those bars if you gave me fifty bucks to do it. Maybe a hundred fifty.

So ... what I wish I had said the next day. After the general agreement over the unsuitability for dead animals as food.

"The entire animal kingdom agrees that dead animals are, in fact, food. At least I know better than to eat shellac."



  1. There are vegetarians who don't read labels? Wow. How can you eliminate an entire category of food from your diet and not read labels? What if that foodlike bar had contained rendered beef tallow or something?

    Oh, but of course, it wouldn't. Because vegetarianism is so politically correct that a food manufacturer would never put animal fat in any product that wasn't obviously a meat product.

    I love your comeback - even if you didn't use it.

  2. I suppose it's the phenomenon Barry Glassner talks about in The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong. He calls it "doctrine of naught," where food becomes good by virtue of what's not in it.

    Mollie Katzen talked, author of the Moosewood Cookbook and other vegetarian cookbook classics, to me about this sort of thing when I wrote about her in 2006:

    "I think the early health foods movement was a lot about not eating this or that. People would say, “I’ve stopped eating meat.” And their friends would say, “Oh, good, you’re healthy now!” And that would be the end of the sentence. You’d wake up healthy the next day. It was a culture of denial."

    By the way, she herself is not a vegetarian, as she explains in the article.

  3. But, more to your point, yes. The blind faith is stupefying.

    Especially in a person who is otherwise against corporations and who is consistently vocal against McDonalds and Wal-Mart and such.

  4. Thanks for sharing your interview with Katzen. I had no idea she wasn't a vegetarian - that would almost be like learning that the Pope isn't Catholic.