Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ice Cream!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's hot. As Robin Williams said in Good Morning Vietnam, "It's damn hot!" 

Each evening the little tinkering sound of the ice cream man innocently floats through our neighborhood, resulting in the panicked screeches of elated children. My own memories of chasing down the truck resurface every time I hear the tinny tunes. There was nothing like summer ice cream and sitting with your friends -- and sometimes enemies, since ice cream provides a much-needed truce, right? -- on the still-warm sidewalk in the evening, slurping on your carefully chosen and melting treat. I was prone to get the red-white-and-blue rocket (impossibly heavy and sticky!) or the cone-shaped plastic thing with the orange sherbet and a gumball at the bottom. Don't even pretend you don't remember that wooden spoon.

It's at times like these, when the dairy-eating folk look at each other wisely and think, "Those weirdo vegans are missing out!"

What they don't know (yet!) is that those summers of yore just got better. Way way better.  Cow's milk is a bad choice, both for the cows and for us, but there are treats out there that far exceed their cow-milk counterparts. (I'm not pulling your leg. I'm pretty honest about taste. For example, I will admit I haven't found a vegan cheese anywhere near to my liking yet.)

So are you ready for the unveiling of the first fabulous secret?

You sure you can handle it?

Because once you start eating these things, you'll be addicted. I'm not fooling around here.

Ok. You were warned. 

The company name is So Delicious and their products are made from coconut milk. I cannot believe how good these things are! I promise you that they taste naughty and wonderful, and I highly suspect you will feel guilty eating them in a "well, you only live once" way! They're rich and creamy and the chocolate part of the sandwiches and bars is .... so indescribably decadent. In short, they're good!

Ryan and I both went gaga over them (and you may be familiar with Ryan's discriminating taste, in both food and choice-of-wife). My Dad and Stepmum sampled them recently and were surprised and pleased at how yummy they were! I found these at Whole Foods, though I suspect they're making a showing at other groceries as well.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a much-beloved and often-imitated Eddie Murphy scene on ice cream... (Now if we can just get the ice cream man to carry these products!) (Though Ryan and I have both discussed the many merits of a Margarita truck driving through our 'hood...Any enterprising folks out there want to get started on that?)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy Cow!

Today I saw this lovely story and I just had to share! On June 18, 2011 a young cow named Kayli was about to be slaughtered just outside Philadelphia. She made a break for it and escaped but was ultimately caught by the police and returned, though not before the story got out. Local activists pushed for her release and, after a lot of work and cajoling on their part, she received a "pardon" from the governor. She was brought to The Woodstock Animal Sanctuary in New York to live out her days in peace. :)

Here is the video of her release three days ago. Look how happy she is! And I love the way the other cows get excited. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Truth About Eggs

Eggs. Isn't forgoing eggs going a little far? How could one possibly argue not eating them? A chicken (or other birds) lays eggs, you take the eggs, and the chicken continues on its merry way. No harm done. That's what we're raised to believe, anyway, and that was my way of thinking until I dug a little to find out what really goes on. (And honestly, "dig" is an exaggeration. Just do a google search on "egg industry" and you'll have plenty of educational material to enlighten you.) As with the dairy post, I'll describe the way our egg industry works in terms that educate, but I'll do my best not to get too graphic and "splash" you. (Though even just stating the reality can be admittedly jarring.) I'll include a video that is intense, so if that is the kind of thing you don't feel like you can watch right now, I totally get it. Just skip the video and read the information. If you want to know more, there are more "intense videos" on the right side of the page.

Eggs are, of course, part of the birds' reproductive cycle. Just like humans, hens release eggs periodically -- see where the word 'period' comes from? I just realized it as I typed that! -- and if they are not fertilized by a male, the egg leaves the body and no offspring are created. The eggs we eat are eggs that have not been fertilized. In other words, we're eating "chicken's periods." Yum. (I remember being little and being very worried I was eating undeveloped baby chickens. Whenever I'd help my mother bake, I'd crack the eggs open fearfully, wondering if a dead baby chick would emerge.) I don't outline all that because I think you're a moron. :) Rather, most of us simply don't give it much thought.

Sidestepping here for a moment, I was intrigued in the past couple years by the idea of raising our own chickens for eggs. My father and mother had done this when I was a baby (which I obviously don't remember) and later my father and stepmother did this in my early teens. I loved those chickens and their wonderful "chicken-alities." My Dad, who loved his red-headed mother-in-law but who had a constant teasing relationship with her, named all the five red chickens "Helen" after her and the one black chicken "Annie." (No idea why he chose Annie, but she really did look like an Annie.) Annie was his favorite and he'd dote on her. She'd clumsily fly up on his lap and eat food from his mouth that he'd hold out to her between his teeth. When newcomers would come to our house, he'd introduce them to the chickens, saying, "This is Annie, and that's Helen, Helen, Helen, Helen, and Helen." We collected and ate their eggs, which were, as you may have guessed, superior in taste to the supermarket brands. However, despite the fencing my Dad put around the chicken pen, raccoons and the newly repopulated coyotes killed the chickens one by one before their egg production waned.

I was very interested in replicating this experience for Ryan and me -- minus the predators -- but ran into some problems. First off, it is initially a little costly building a safe enclosure for them to protect them not only from predators but from cold New England winters. Second, I learned that the egg production does wane after a couple of years and found that most people at that point kill those chickens for meat, which Ryan and I both agreed we could never do. Third, in most cases, you order your female chickens from a mail-order company and there are usually a few that don't survive the trip, which is kind of an expected thing, much like the whole "the-potato-chips-may-settle-in-the-bag" disclosure. Finally, I wondered "What happens to the males? Do people order males?" We decided to forego the idea of raising our own chickens, as we realized that the responsibilities were too overwhelming for where our lives were at the moment. 

So going back to the egg industry. Many of my wonderings about raising chickens were answered when I researched the egg industry.

Eggs are hatched and workers immediately sort through the baby chicks. The females are put on one conveyor belt, and the males have one of two fates. Either they are thrown into enormous plastic bags with thousands of other males chicks to be crushed or suffocated to death, or they are simply and slowly ground up alive. I'll repeat that. They're ground up alive. It's also called maceration. (Many make it through this grinding process still alive and die a slow death.) This, more than anything, shocked me. And then I was shocked at myself for even being shocked. What else, I reasoned, would they do with them if they were of no financial use? We just don't think about it, do we, which is just peachy for the egg industry. We don't "not think about it" because we're cruel or thoughtless, but (in my opinion) because our lives are so busy, that our main thinking goes into other, more pressing areas of our lives.

The female chicks next have their beaks seared off with a hot blade, which is called "beak trimming." This is not like cutting off the dead part of our fingernails or cutting our hair. Their beaks are filled with nerve endings, so the process is extremely painful. (Anesthesia is obviously never used.) Many die after this procedure because the pain is so bad, they simply can't bear to eat and they starve to death. Occasionally beaks regenerate slightly and those unlucky chicks/chickens have to have the process repeated. Why is this debeaking even done? Read on ...

Chickens are placed in tiny cages called "battery cages." There are sometimes up to ten chickens in one small cage, in a room filled with cages upon cages. (It's very creepy to behold.) They are so cramped they cannot even turn their bodies around, much less spread their wings. All normal chicken behavior cannot occur. They pee and defecate all over each other (the birds on the bottom cages have the worst deal) and the ammonia from these secretions burns their skin and feathers. Understandably, they go a little mad, and if they still had their beaks they would peck each other to death. (More dead chickens, less money!) Thus, their beaks are seared off their bodies when they are chicks. 

At the end of their first laying cycle, there is what is termed as a "forced molt." Molting makes them to lay another cycle sooner. So to force this molt, they are starved for 14 days with no water and the room is kept dark. This shocks their bodies and they lay their eggs. Can you imagine? About ten percent of the chickens die at this point, and their bodies remain in the cages with the live chickens that remain.

After their second cycle, at the age of one of two, the chickens -- which normally can live up to 10 years old -- are considered "spent" and are sent to a slaughterhouse. Again, as with the cows, there is no happy chicken retirement farm where they get to live out their remaining days in beautiful pastures. The carcasses from these chickens, however, are so damaged, bruised, cut, and burned from the  conditions in the battery cages, that they cannot be sold as the meat we see in the cellophaned packages in the supermarket. Instead, it is used for soups, broth, pet food, and school lunch programs. Yes, you read that right.

So that's all pretty awful. But then a lot of people argue (myself included!) "But I buy organic and/or free-range eggs! So my dollars don't support those practices." Many of the same practices however, are used on these birds. Debeaking, killing male chicks, and unhealthy living conditions still occur. Often (not always but often) the area where they can "range" is a tiny dirt patch.

Short, intense video of typical egg production

So you are probably seeing the fine line approach, right? What about raising your own chickens or buying chickens from a local farm stand? That is obviously your call. I've seen many a small farm where the chickens roam about and look healthy and happy in an Old MacDonald kind of way. But for me, I can't purchase or consume their eggs, because I know now that if they ordered the female chicks, the males are still being killed and my dollars are still supporting that. If their own hens hatched their chicks, what happened to the males? Also, what happens to the chickens once their egg production declines or stops? For me, there are simply too many unknowns so I don't risk supporting the practices I outlined earlier.

Do I miss my daily morning omelets? (I did eat them every morning for a spell this winter.) Surprisingly, no.

What about baking? Truthfully, this is an area where I still need to educate myself, as I've never been a huge baker and as I'm still in the relative beginning stages of eating a plant-based diet. However, there are many great (and much healthier) substitutes out there that taste just as good as eggs, if not better. I will outline them as I experiment with them. (Though if you are itching to try some now, check out Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's award-winning The Joy of Vegan Baking: The Compassionate Cooks' Traditional Treats and Sinful Sweets, as she has many options that reviewers are raving about.)

I will say, however, that the vegan baked fare that you'll find for sale really varies from crap to sublime. I went to Whole Foods one day (whose baked goods I've enjoyed in the past) and got a vegan blueberry muffin and was hugely disappointed when it tasted truly nasty -- very "flat"-tasting and oily. It tasted like what omnivores think vegan food tastes like. Bleck. I'm guessing they used canola oil, and it wasn't good.  But then some folks use much tastier substitutes! Flour Bakery, a Boston baked-goods hub that is unspeakably good, was my favorite pre-vegan place to get pastries (and this coming from a person who normally doesn't enjoy pastries.) One day recently,  my newly vegan self stopped by with a small spark of hope that they might have something on the menu without eggs or dairy. Lo and behold, there were several items! Yipee! But still hurting from the Whole Foods blueberry incident, I tried to hold my optimism in check. I bought the chocolate vegan cupcake and -- gasp - I've never tasted anything that good in my life. Ever. It was unreal. It didn't even need frosting, the taste was so decadent, with little bits of goo-ey chocolate throughout the cupcake. Heaven.

So life without eggs can be a delicious one, and I'll experiment more with this later and will share the results with you! I should add too that once I figure out the fine-tuning with these great substitutes, I'll be contacting Whole Foods with suggestions on improving their baked vegan fare.

I hope that helped you better understand why many people are forgoing eggs in their diet. Please feel free to post places that serve amazing vegan baked goods! And maybe we can all educate the establishments that are serving gross vegan stuff.

Onward and upward!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird

Do you have a book (or books) that has such a special place in your heart that just the cover makes you feel happy and at peace? One of my all-time favorites, and one I consider a summer read, is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

I first discovered the story in my grandmother's musty, organized cellar when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The cellar, as I recall, would stay delightfully cool on those humid New England summer days. There was a very narrow staircase leading down to the cellar  -- you always had to duck to make sure you didn't hit your head on the stairway ceiling -- and the walls of the staircase itself were made into bookshelves lined with beloved paperbacks that she couldn't fit into the built-in bookshelves in her office. (That same office was always filled with, it seemed, dozens of fascinating projects she was always in the middle of ... but that's a story for another day.) It was in this creaky staircase that I discovered Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (classic!), Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs, and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (Modern Library Classics). But as much as I loved all of these books, none has had quite the staying power of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I reread this story always in the summer and it seems to age like fine wine. The truths in it become deeper the older I get. But the incredible genius of the book is how the author manages to tap right into what it was like being a child in the summer and how that child looks at the world around her and addresses some heady topics from the point of view of that time. It's so stark and perfect, and I never tire of reading it.

My last day of school this year was a Thursday and I had signed the book out of the library a few days earlier so I could take it to California. Early Friday morning after packing up my classroom for the summer, I left Massachusetts with Ryan for my sister-in-law's elegant wedding in Yosemite. After our plane took off and I had a quick nap, I took out To Kill a Mockingbird-- with what can only be described as summer giddiness -- and began to fall right back into the tale of Scout and her overall-ed world.

Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo .... they were all so real. I don't think there is a greater character in history than the quiet and loving Atticus. Interestingly enough, many of those characters were based on real people and experiences in Harper Lee's life. Here's a little ditty from Wikipedia:

Many details of To Kill a Mockingbird are apparently autobiographical. Like Lee, the tomboy (Scout) is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. The plot involves a legal case, the workings of which would have been familiar to Lee, who studied law. Scout's friend Dill was inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote,[7] while Lee is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Harper Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels. Yet Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered biographical: "In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it into some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way."

The reason I bring all this up, though, is a passage I came across that really hit home with where I am right now. While everyone in my life has been so kind and accommodating with my new eating habits -- I've been truly touched at the effort others have made to make sure there is vegan fare available at gatherings -- I  know the concept of not killing animals or eating their secretions is very odd to most and difficult to understand. Even though I know I'm doing right by the animals, there are times when I tire of being seen as "weird," when in my mind I'm simply being nice.

So here's the little nugget that I just love. Scout is talking to her father, Atticus, about defending an innocent man that most people in the town are condemning as guilty because he is African-American.

"Atticus, you must be wrong..."
"How's that?"
"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong ..."
"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Gotta love her style. I find myself reflecting on this passage a lot lately, particularly when I'm in a challenging situation.

I won't ruin the ending if you've never read it, but the very last scene (and last paragraph!) makes me tear up every. single. time. If you haven't read it, you have a wonderful experience waiting for you!

I'll leave you with two videos. The first is a great scene between Scout and Jem from the movie, an excellent rendition of the book. The second is a lighthearted playful video by Sassy Gay Friend that will make sense when you get to the end! (Though it may not make sense if you've never read The Giving Tree or To Kill A Mockingbird...) If you haven't seen any of the other Sassy Gay Friend videos, check them out on YouTube. They're a riot!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Giving Back and Surprise Giveaway to Come!

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I've never been a big donator, aside from public radio/tv and the occasional political contribution. I always thought, "You know, I really need the money myself. Besides, although there are a lot of worthy organizations out there, I don't feel strongly enough about any of them to donate on a regular basis." It's not something I'm super proud of, but I just never felt a strong pull to do it.

Call it a midlife crisis, but I'm suddenly realizing that I won't be here forever (shocking!) and I'd like to do my part before I depart for wherever it is that we go someday. I know I have a while, but judging by how much more quickly time goes by lately, I figure I should get started now. My great-grandfather Boppie used to say that you should always leave a place cleaner than you found it.  My Grandma (his daughter) and Grampa followed his advice, and would always bring a trashbag on their daily early morning walks in the woods and in their neighborhood so that they could make everything nicer and safer for all beings. My father and stepmother volunteer on so many worthy projects in their town, and my Dad started volunteering his time in the last couple of years clearing small footpaths for hikers in the protected town woods behind his house and throughout the neighborhood.  (It's amazing.) So my turn is long overdue.

I suddenly feel very anxious to give back and to try to make this world better for all animals, not just human ones. Such small amounts of our money can do so much good for organizations that depend on our interest, pun intended. So many people out there are doing incredible work. I make a small contribution as a third-grade teacher, yes, but there are many many others who do things that make me shake my head in admiration. It's easy to watch the news at night and lose hope, but there's a hell of a lot of good stuff happening in the world.

Last night, I had a bit of an epiphany. What if I could use this website as one (of many) ways I could give back? I'm always recommending books and movies anyway, so I checked out the Amazon Associates program. In short, when you have your own "Amazon store" on your blog/website or when you make links to Amazon, up to 15% of the money on purchases made through your site goes back to the blogger. This would be the perfect way to give monetary assistance to our local animal sanctuary, Maple Farm, to help rescue, feed, and shelter the animals that have been abused, abandoned, or diverted from slaughter. When we visited last month, they had just gotten a shipment of chicks that were rescued from the post office, of all places. Someone had ordered a box of chicks - presumably to raise them for eggs and meat --  and never picked them up. The postal workers were going to kill them, but one guy there got upset and said he'd find a place to bring them. Somehow he found out about Maple Farm, and there they were, in their own little clean stall, with a warm light, water, and plenty of food, all huddled happily together in a big heaping pile of cuteness. The farm owners were even teaching them how to eat. (You tap your finger on the ground and that replicates the mother hen's plucking food off the ground. When you do that, they instantly start to pluck at the ground too. It's pretty frickin' adorable! I got to try it, and it worked like a charm.)

So you'll notice that I have my new store at the bottom of the page and that many links in my posts connect to Amazon. I'm picky about what I recommend, however. There are many many books out there that I've either read and wasn't crazy about or that I simply haven't read yet or know very little about. I'm in the process of gleaning the good ones. If you plan on buying any of these books, consider doing it through my store (it doesn't cost you any additional money), as 15% of that will come back to me in $10 increments, which I'll just send that directly to Maple Farms. While this won't garner a lot of cash at first as the blog is still relatively unknown, I do have a fun plan forming. (And I believe that if you go through my link to get to Amazon to purchase other items not in my store, the 15% still goes back to me/Maple Farm. I have to check on that, but I think that's how it works.)

Giveaway Coming Soon!

Once I have twenty "Followers" I plan on doing a giveaway that is pretty cool. Giveaways tend to increase readership dramatically and they're just plain fun! (I've entered a few and haven't won yet, but it's always a thrill to try.) In ultimately increasing the readership, I hope to not only raise money for Maple Farm, but to mainly be a voice for the animals in a way that is non-threatening and friendly. Folks may even make small (or big!) changes in their lives that can 1) make their own lives better and healthier, 2) make the lives of the animals WAY better and 3) improve the life of the planet. Lofty goals, but I sense that's what we're all here to do. Let's get lofty!

So, if you aren't a follower yet, consider becoming one and encouraging friends to follow as well. Once we have our twentieth follower, I will have the big fun giveaway! (It's not Oprah-esque in scale -- no trips to Australia -- but it's still sweet.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Quick Curried Swiss Chard and Coconut Rice!

We just got back last night from a glorious vacation at Yosemite where we watched my sister-in-law marry the love-of-her-life in the absolute most beautiful of settings. I was not prepared for the splendor of that place. Wow. And what a wedding! I'm still riding high from that trip. :)

We followed Yosemite up with a quick trip to the San Fransisco-ish area, visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Stockton, and traipsing around to different locales, enjoying the perfect weather. You could have a garden year-round there! I was a mite jealous ...

I've been itching to get back to blogging, though, to share some recipes I tried before we left for vacation. Two are here and I may share a couple more on the next entry. They're all from a cookbook I'm trying out, which has proven to be a winner. (As I did in this case, I usually test-drive cookbooks from the library and then buy them if I am impressed by the results. I'm definitely purchasing this one!) This particular cookbook is called Color Me Vegan by my favorite veg-person Colleen Patrick Goudreau, whom I talked about in an earlier post. I cooked both of these up and Ryan was very happy. (He's a little picky -- sorry Ry -- so he's kind of my litmus test.) I'm also going to include a black bean recipe that my brother-in-law made up one night last week when we went to their house. It goes very nicely with these two recipes ...

Quick Curried Swiss Chard
2 servings (I doubled the recipe so we'd have leftovers)

1 Tb coconut oil *
1 large red onion, sliced
1 large bunch Swiss chard, chopped  (you can eat the stems as well...just chop them up like celery)
1 teaspoon or more (to taste) curry paste (red or green)
1 C nondairy milk divided (almond, coconut, soy, rice, hazelnut, hemp, or oat)
salt, to taste

Heat the coconut oil in a large saute pan or wok over medium heat. Add the red onion, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Add the chard and stir into the onion until they both begin to cook down and shrink in size.

Meanwhile, in a small bowls, stir the curry paste into a small amount of the 1 cup milk so that it becomes fully incorporated. Add it and the rest of the milk to the pan.

Stir the chard/onion mixture to combine it with the curry and milk  and cook for 5 or 10 minutes, uncovered, to fully tenderize the chard and deepen the flavor of the curry. You don't want to cook it so long that the milk totally evaporates. It makes a delicious sauce over rice.

Add salt to taste and serve over brown rice or coconut rice. It is also delicious served at room temperature.

* If you don't have coconut oil, you may use olive; the coconut oil just increases the flavor of the dish.

I'll add here that Swiss chard is simple to grow and is breathtakingly beautiful, especially if you grow rainbow chard! The leaves are art, I swear. It's so lovely, you could plant it with your flower gardens and just pick it as needed. And it would do very nicely in a container garden.  I planted some by seed this year and also bought small plants at the nursery to get a head-start.

Coconut Rice
4 servings

1 can (15 ounces) light coconut milk
1 1/4 C water
1 1/2 C uncooked brown or jasmine rice
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 Tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes

In a saucepan, combine the coconut milk, water, rice, and coconut extract. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the rice is tender. (Check halfway through the cooking time and close to the end of cooking time in case the liquid has evaporated and extra needs to be added.)

Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff with a fork. Season with salt to taste and add the coconut flakes, if using. Stir to combine and serve.

Eric's Black Beans
serves 2? (I doubled these amounts, and YUM.)

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed well
some water
lots of garlic (4-5 cloves?)
olive oil
salt and pepper

So I watched my brother-in-law make this and saw that he cut his garlic up into pieces instead of putting it through the garlic press. He said it made the taste much more intense, so I tried it and he was right. Honestly, if you love garlic, I don't think you can put too much in here.

So you fry up the garlic in olive oil in a saute pan. Then throw the black beans in and add some water (maybe a half a cup or so?) and let it cook. He kept adding water to it and cooking it until the beans started to fall apart -- about 25 or so minutes. Towards the end, you can -- if you choose -- mash up some of the beans with a potato masher/meat tenderizer/fork until they reach a consistency you like. (I mashed up maybe half of the beans.) Cook until most of the water is gone, but not so much that the beans dry out. Add salt and pepper to taste. You could add chopped cilantro/parsley to this or hot sauce. Or add some chopped jalapeno when you cook the garlic at the beginning. It's all good.

I loved these because they were simply delicious and it was very minimal preparation. I'm guessing you could substitute the black beans with other kind of beans and it would be equally delicious!

Enjoy and let me know how it goes if you try any of these!  I guarantee your taste buds will have a wide grin.