Tag Archives: vegetarianism

Social Change Through Literature: The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Apparently I’m an idealist. Or a perfectionist. Or maybe they’re the same thing, applied differently.

What that means is that for a very long time, I’ve thought it important to do my part to work toward what I see as a better future. The very first book that inspired and led to a big impact in my daily habits was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Here’s one of the many passages that spurred the United States to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act (among other legislation) not long after the book was released:

“The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”

The book didn’t exactly make me vegetarian. But it did keep me there, with its descriptions of the havoc the meat packing industry was creating for the poor Rudkus family, recent immigrants from Lithuania just trying to survive in a new country. Whether it was an anonymous worker falling in a vat and made into lard, or poor Marija, cutting her hand and almost losing it from infection, the novel was fantastic and tawdry. It was only coincidence that I decided to read this book shortly after deciding to try vegetarianism, but it cemented in my mind that I had absolutely done the right thing.

Another book that was instrumental as an agent of social change was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just finished writing a big paper about. At the time Stowe was writing the story, she lived in Cincinnati—right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a major slave state. Escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad were the source of much drama in Cincinnati. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, making it a crime for anyone to assist an escaped slave, Stowe officially solidified her alliance with the abolitionist movement.

She decided to combine the political arguments of the abolitionists with dramatic and sentimental fiction. Stowe depicted her African American characters as having distinct voices and feelings, rousing empathy in the reader that they may not have had before, and influencing their stance on slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an immense impact in the US and around the world. Legend suggests that the book was the single cause of the US Civil War—although that makes a good story, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic.

The point is though, that stories about sympathetic fictional characters set against a socio-political backdrop is a really effective method of changing people’s minds about the world around them.

Do you have any favorite novels of social change? What books could you envision having this sort of success in changing the world today?



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Great Books for Eating: How to Cook Anything Vegetarian

Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian quickly established itself as a bible in my life after I received it for Christmas in 2008. Bittman writes for the New York Times and a lot of his work focuses on basics: take this article, for example, that shows how to equip a kitchen well for under $300. Now this is a guy I could get behind!

As a vegetarian cookbook, everything in here is fair game for me, unlike many of the classic cookbooks. If there is a particular vegetable I want to try but don’t know anything about, this book will tell me how to prep the ingredient, with illustrations, as well as provide at least a couple of recipes that incorporate it. Recipes are basic, requiring ingredients I have or could easily get. (No need for organic arugula hand-picked by virgins in Belgium.) Solid illustrations, ample explanations, and hearty encouragement are all provided.

The only area that I’ve been less than impressed with so far is the bread baking section. It’s fair to say my first baguettes wouldn’t be perfect, but a good recipe can transcend newbiedom. My baguettes lacked the proper nooks and crannies, my cinnamon rolls were tasty but grew stale quickly, and although the pizza dough recipe was very close to my favorite the results paled in comparison. Bittman says he’s not a huge baker, and I believe him–I’ll stick with A Year in Bread for now.

How to Cook Anything Vegetarian has helped me cook more of my own meals and ignited my creativity, all while saving me money. It has showed me that I can make omelettes, muffins, soy mayonnaise, croutons, and more, using ingredients that don’t include hydrogenated soybean oil or high fructose corn syrup. I’ve eaten better because of the book. As I’ve been whittling down the number of books I own, my cookbooks have been needing to justify the space they’re taking up on my shelves–this one will be on my shelf for years to come.

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Eschewing the Beasties

It was 15 years ago today on June 21, 1994, I made a decision that, while seemingly innocuous at the time, has become one of my proudest moments as a human being.

My orchestra had just come back from a ten day tour in Japan–a tour that was mostly funded by the Japanese government, meaning there was a bit of pomp and circumstance around our visit. As soon as we arrived in Tokyo and started bussing across the country, I discovered that Japanese cuisine was mysterious and thus not very appetizing.

A few days into our tour at a fancy hotel in western Japan, the main course of our luncheon banquet included a skewer that had four super-fresh baby octopuses on them. The horror! The horror! As my table was being served, my friend Bonnie was paralyzed with fear because one of her octopuses was still twitching a little from being freshly skewered. When another tablemate took a bite, he found the suction-cup octopus legs were sticking to his tongue and hard to swallow.

I requested a vegetarian plate.

The rest of the tour wasn’t nearly as culinarily traumatic. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who could explain what was in each dish, enabling me to avoid anything that was beyond my threshold. Like the soup with the fish head in it at a host family’s house.

When I landed back in Portland on June 21st, 1994, I decided to conduct a little experiment and try not eating meat. Months before the trip to Japan, I had been on a Paul McCartney kick and had been introduced to the idea that you can choose what you eat based on your personal belief system. The seed had been planted, and as time wore on there grew a little voice in the back of my head starting to point out the discrepancies between my love of animals and eating hamburgers. The trip to Japan had just planted that seed in some Super Miracle Grow, where it developed and blossomed over the course of ten short days.

At home, I kept my meatless experiment to myself. Our family has never dined formally, so I could take my dinner in stealth and eat alone. Because I was on summer vacation, I was the only one home for two meals a day. It was easy to be in the closet as a vegetarian. At first.

One fateful day, though, 24 days into my meatless experiment, the dinner of the day was to be steak and baked potatoes. My mother had called upstairs to me, “Heather! Come get your food!” but when I came down, my parents were still in the kitchen. Eventually I attempted to gingerly put a baked potato on my plate and scurry away when my dad said, “Have some steak!”

When I didn’t reply, he innocently pressed, “Don’t you want any steak?”


“What’s the matter? Are you vegetarian now or something?”

My 16-year-old brain couldn’t take that kind of pressure. I emoted, “I haven’t been eating meat for 24 days! And I like it! And I don’t want steak!” I was panicked. Perhaps my dad was joking, but this was the first time ever I was making a clear departure from my family’s value system.

And that, dear reader, is how I “came out” as a vegetarian. : )

It all ended up fine–in fact, my mother decided to go vegetarian for a while as well. In those first few years, together we navigated the world of health food stores, TVP, Stripples, and the like. Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking was our bible. Gardenburgers, then still made in Portland, were a staple, but tofu was a taste I would not acquire for about ten years.

During that summer, I read The Jungle as required for my honors program, cementing my belief that I had made the right choice.

In the time since, as my personal beliefs have departed more from the value system I was raised in, I look back on the moment I “came out” as a vegetarian and see the first step in a series of choices that make me very proud of who I am.

Today, I count myself beyond lucky to live in a city that has grown from mere vegetarian friendliness to a mecca which includes a vegan mini-mall, a vegetarian/vegan internet cafe a block from (ex-)work, and for a period even a vegan strip club. When a group meal order happens, the presence of vegetarians and vegans is assumed–no drama, no tears, no hungry people. Being vegetarian in Portland is a complete non-issue: it’s just what I am, and I don’t usually think about it day-to-day.

There are a few exceptions. When I order from certain restaurants, I usually ask questions to make sure there are no “hidden” animals, like rice made with chicken broth or pulverized bacon bits on the cheese bread. My closest call was when I stopped into a vegan bakery on my way out of town in March and ordered the turkey sandwich. My brain apparently thought I was at Backspace, and I’d get a sandwich of the finest soy turkey available. It wasn’t until I had my mouth open, poised to take the first bite, that I realized the turkey was real. I traveled about 20 minutes out of my way to give it to a coworker, then silently grumbled during my whole six hour trip to Canada, asking myself what kind of vegan bakery would sell real turkey sandwiches!

Additionally, when I have taken trips outside of my little utopian bubble, I have been faced with a bit of culture friction as well. A friend who lives in a ranching town regularly quizzes me about my choice and exclaims that he just needs meat, and you just couldn’t survive in his town as a vegetarian. As if my personal choices were threatening him in some way.

Dear reader, it’s not my concern if you eat meat. If you want to become vegetarian I’d be more than happy to lend encouragement and assistance, but if you’re a fan of Voodoo’s bacon maple bar, you won’t hear any lectures from me. 

I’ll be too busy enjoying a cupcake from Sweetpea Baking.


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