How a Development Worker Becomes a Vegan

“What do you eat?” my trainer asked.

“A lot of veggies? Probably not enough protein. In Guatemala I ate a lot of beans. Here not so much.”

“Meat?”

I paused, “I’m not much of a meat eater. Just not that into it. Not for philosophical reasons.” I always felt the need to qualify my almost vegetarianism. “How about cheese?”

No response. She turned away from me as she continued to foam roll. “Careful, don’t foam roll your bruise.”

“Don’t worry.” I stood up. “I didn’t.” I sat down to remove my tennis shoes. While replacing them with flip flops, I tried to remember what I had decided to eat yesterday.

Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis. “Literacy”. The title is too ironic. School shelves with books all by the same kind of author telling the decided upon story by government and others who paid to be powers that be. These could easily be the same shelves with cereal boxes filled with homogeneous grains. I used to cut open those cardboard rectangles for makeshift book boxes in my classroom.

Cooking had become the grad school moment relived when the red of blood flushed the skin of my palms. Transparency wavered for isolated moments through tears of trusting instead of understanding the history of my choices. It was the acceptance of the populous too, once upon a time, the world in a “can”. Philip Wylie lamented. . . “the tendency of agricultural researchers to develop ‘improved’ strains of things for every purpose but eating.’” (207). Mass produced products. Mass produced citizenry. And I didn’t even need to address the specter of meat.

My dad kept the garden green and weeded. Kale rushed quickly ahead of the rest. What could I combine it with? The basil had come to mind. But, basil was in the other garden.

“It’s about the journey,” my dad had smiled. “You’ll love it. Slipping through the haunted path past the black raspberries.”

Yes, the journey. Somehow all attempts to walk forward ended up in the same loop. I returned clutching stems of basil cut with the blue handled scissors, one of several Guatemalan school supply relics still functioning. My legs were full of insect bites that bloomed purple alongside my freshly risen bruise from an encounter with a kettlebell. This year, mosquitoes would take their pound of flesh even though I didn’t have plans to eat much protein myself. After all, could I be an omnivore and still respect myself? That was always the question in my professional choices? Is an intermediary a synonym for sell out? Am I a bridge or simply too cowardly to burn one?

Potatoes had boiled. Onions and basil had sizzled in the frying pan. I had read the label and tried to figure out where my cottage cheese was made. I was left dizzy. The journey? I laughed. Seemed like Wisconsin milk took the long way around, if in fact it returned at all. I should not have laughed so hard at the Guatemalans who didn’t drink their high quality coffee. Even after searching online, I couldn’t confirm I was consuming Wisconsin milk at all. I was barely okay with the farming still taking place in our township, attempting to hold my nose at the sludge dumped in the field just up the road. All that degradation and I wasn’t eating something local. So the next fact I read, didn’t surprise me. “Scientists calculated that the modern food system—for all its apparent efficiency and convenience—actually required between five and ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional energy.” (213-214)

“Are you going to spray?” I asked my dad.

“It’s oil. Don’t touch the bad stuff. Don’t trust it. Not today. Don’t want to stress the plants out. Too hot.”

Still, if you’re outside the trust of government authority and business experts what chance do you have?

“I’ll wait to pick my next batch of kale then too, but I have to pick the cilantro. It bolted. Flowers everywhere.” In my hand it was mostly flowers and seed pods. I separated the fragrant fringed leaves I could and added them to mashed potatoes.

My dad licked his spoon clean of the creamy mixture.

I didn’t tell him about all the butter, sour cream and cheese added.

It was an “I don’t know” versus “I don’t want to know” situation. The debate was just as exhausting to try to answer the question, Why is our cottage cheese from Texas when I live in Wisconsin, “the dairy state”? Or, what chance does the garden have next to the sprayed fields? All the bugs seek you out.

The sink had plugged. My mind hovered with the bits of stem and dirt in the basin. I waded through how I wanted to define terms like “nature” at the same time wondering if trusted brand names were like domesticated pets? My dog without a leash would be free, but he would also be dead.

Vegan would the step beyond vegetarian, but it might not address the evolution of the food system that plagues plants as well as animals. Rewritten histories. All this reeked of race and third world condescension. Part of that was also the sink.

“Moreover, they often drew upon oppositional historic narratives to argue that nature was not a source of bounty, as the counterculture would have it, but rather a meager provider and a place of starvation—not a source of pure foods, but rather of foods filled with dangerous microbes and toxin." (216). Third world? Developing world? I couldn’t escape development and its synonym improvement. I scrubbed with my bitten fingernails, avoiding the use of bleach. “Across the board, proximity to dirt—be it garden dirt, stove soot, or animal guts—was regarded with contempt.” (98) I laughed at the idea that immigrants could be described as unclean. They washed much more diligently than I.

The next day, between bites of “organic” frozen pasta mixed with fresh kale and maybe Wisconsin cheese, I read Vileisis history of the Nature-study curriculum and the corruption of the definition of “nature”. It was just another word like “literacy” and “text” and “critical thinking” that destroyed knowledge instead of growing it. I washed the dishes and dried my hands. My dad had entered and took a few bites from the potatoes now in a plastic storage container.

“That sure looks attractive. You do good.”

“I always knew I would be fine.” I smirked. “After all I know how to read.”

We had that conversation many times before, courtesy of my grandmother’s nagging. However, I cringed only pages later at Vileisis’ description of how home economics furthered the divide. Words like “expertise” and “authority”, phrases like “scientific approach” and “a new sort of mastery”. Mothers and wives were not supposed to focus on cooking, then they were not supposed to focus on teaching cooking. More important knowledges waited for them to be “good” and “good wives and mothers.”

I had cringed in Guatemala watching the young women awkwardly clasp knitting needles and thin yarn instead of guiding silken strings around warp and waft. I tried to ignore the selection of pizza and cake made in the donated oven and their impractical at best, offensive at worst implications. Yet here it was in these pages again, “forget weaving cloth and making candles” (43).

Moving to the porch, I settled against lumpy futon cushions. Wanting to avoid some discomfort, I checked my e-mail. The monthly newsletter topped my inbox. Along with the workout schedule, it offered nutritional counseling. In the survey, I had responded “maybe”, because I wasn’t sure what kinds of nutrition we were talking about. I wanted to do right by my body, but also by the world. I wasn’t sure if nutrition did that anymore.

I closed the computer and opened the book. I pushed forward, taking notes. “Many mistresses felt compelled to adopt a missionary role in instructing these unskilled helpers about the basics of cooking.” (46) However, “Coming of age in households where lowly domestics, not mothers, did the cooking meant that a generation of young women had grown up without learning the skills needed to run the ideal households over which they were no expected to preside.” (46) Again, the mission. It was the shadow I couldn’t escape. Except in the garden I was on the other side of it.

And the final straw, “. . . what had once been considered intelligence about foods was now considered ignorance, and what had once been considered ignorance was no considered savvy.” (159). I honestly couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, traditional womanhood was revolutionary. The “education” and its books responded to a disconnect that it itself created.

When I had returned from Guatemala, I had wanted to learn to cook and I began to practice using the recipes in my mom’s recipe box. Many were from her mother. Others were from her friends. All were full of “fake” creativity combining premade/processed foods cited by Vileisis. Where would protein shakes fit?

My work in schools was only addressing ills I was a part of creating every time I fought for particular views of womanhood. The interaction with the people was another kind of dehumanization. And then there was the issue of poorly paid migrant workers in packing plants and then the issues all became one, one more example of how that same dehumanization equaled progress. I should at least move beyond the cowardice shaded by weeds of indifference. I should at least be a vegetarian on purpose. Unfortunately, most of what I did in the garden lacked diligence and intention, because my dad prevented my mistakes from taking root. My only initiative that year was bringing the heirloom seeds home and starting them, but then I had abandoned them.

“Where is my cilantro again?” I asked.

“Near the grass. By your tomato?”

“My tomato? But I had more than one.” My dad shrugged.

A place an idea, anything, something was only romantic momentarily, when you were not actually a part of it long term. I couldn’t pick just a kind of something, like a food, or a kind of something to be, like a vegan. There was no excuse. I had just let it go, like much of my development work philosophy that sharpened and then cut my skin. I had to pick some of everything, after knowing its story, its history and my reasons. I tapped two more cilantro seeds from the packet and set out across the yard to the garden.

Vileisis, Ann. (2008). Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from

And Why We Need to Get It Back. Island Press: Washington D.C.

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