Sunday, February 10, 2019

Eating Vegan – Is It Elitist and Expensive, or Cheap and Cheerful?

Just about everyone knows that, as formerly-poor countries such as China and India have become richer, many people in those countries have developed a taste for foods that were previously beyond their budget—most notably, animal products.

And just about everyone in North America also knows that, in this part of the world, “the high costs [of vegetarian and vegan options] make them inaccessible to many” (Sylvain Charlebois in The Globe and Mail, 22 January, 2019).

Can both these ‘knowings’ be right? Can it really be the case that animal products are far more expensive than vegetable ones in India or China, but far less expensive in North America?

No, is the short answer.

Let’s compare. Say you’re planning to make a simple spaghetti and tomato sauce meal tonight. For protein you can throw in 454 gram package of extra firm tofu, cubed. That will set you back $2.89 at the local grocery story here in Nanaimo—or, if you want to go organic, $3.79 for the same size package. What if you choose ground beef for your protein instead? If you buy the “family size” lean ground beef, it will cost you $4.99 for 454 grams ($1.10 per 100 grams). If you want to go upscale, 454 grams of organic lean ground beef will cost you $7.99 (1.76 per 100 grams); 454 grams of non-organic but extra lean will cost you $6.99 ($1.54 per 100 grams). So here’s the chart:

Extra firm tofu (regular) $2.89

Extra firm tofu (organic) $3.79

Lean ground beef (regular) $4.99

Lean ground beef (organic) $7.99

Extra lean ground beef $6.99
Partisan carnivores might reasonably quibble here that there’s more protein in 454 grams of lean ground beef than there is in 454 grams of extra firm tofu—and partisans of another stripe might reasonably respond that it’s now been conclusively demonstrated that humans require far less protein than the food guides of the past (and the meat and dairy industries) long tried to make us all believe. Either way, it would be hard to argue on the basis of these prices that the vegan option is the more expensive one.

The above is in fact an example stacked in favor of making meat options seem cheaper; let’s look as well at a chili dish as a point of comparison. Our recipe for “Great and Fast Vegan Chili” of course calls for no meat—and it needs no tofu either, since there’s lots of protein in the kidney beans. (The full list of ingredients includes an onion, several cloves of garlic, a large tin of diced tomatoes, 1 large tin of kidney beans, and spices). That’s pretty much the basis for most chilis with meat in them too—except for the meat, which of course is a lot more expensive than kidney beans are. If you want your chili to be served con carne, the meat costs extra—and it's a cost you simply don't need to incur if you choose the vegan alternative.

But what if you really want a “meat and two veg” sort of meal? Maureen and I often still want exactly that; our go-to option for the “meat” part of it tends to be Tofurky brand tofu-based meatless Italian Sausage. That is definitely something of a premium product; a pack of four large sausages costs $7.99 for 397 grams. By comparison, 397 grams of the in-store mild Italian sausage or the in-store Bratwurst in our neighborhood would set you back only $5.24 ($1.32 per 100 grams); 397 grams of the somewhat fancier Grimm’s garlic sausage would set you back $6.98 ($1.76 per 100 grams)—still a dollar less than the premium Tofurky product. You could I think argue that much of the difference disappears in the weight lost in fat when you cook sausages made from meat. But that would be to quibble. Let’s grant that this vegan “’meat’ and two veg” meal costs a dollar or two more than the animal-product equivalent. That’s still more than balanced by the lower expense of the spaghetti meal (vegan version significantly less costly) and the chili meal (vegan version much less costly).

In fairness, it should be conceded that certain forms of processed vegan food (such as vegan cheese) are often more expensive than the closest animal-product equivalents. But there’s no question that the fundamentals are such that, for any animal-product based meal, there are less expensive vegan alternatives that are nutritionally comparable.

The above examples are of standard North American-style meals. We haven’t even begun to consider the many delicious meals you can make with little more than lentils and rice and few spices (if you don’t believe me, again I will volunteer to give you one or two of Maureen’s recipes!). It’s these sorts of dishes, or course, that poor people all over the world who can afford neither chorizo nor Tofurky sausages eat on a regular basis.

The simple fact, then, is that it’s not inherently more expensive to eat vegan; if anything, quite the reverse.

How has the misconception that vegan = expensive taken root? In part it’s no doubt because, until quite recently, the sort of person in North America who would consider going vegan tended also to be the sort of person who would consider buying everything organic if they could. Organic products (whether for vegans or carnivores) are typically more expensive; whether they’re worth it or not is an interesting argument, but one I won’t get into here. (Sometimes yes, sometimes no, is I suspect the answer.) For the present purpose, the point is twofold.
One: these days there are many, many different sorts of vegans, including many who rarely if ever buy organic.

Two (and more importantly): The simple fact is that organic and vegan are entirely different categories, and not to be conflated. As it happens, organic alternatives tend to cost more than non-organic ones—but vegan food more often than not costs less than food made from the flesh or milk or eggs of animals.
The other reason why people often wrongly imagine vegan options to be more expensive than animal product ones is much sadder. It has to do with fast food. McDonald’s and KFC and the others are cruel and ruthless machines, creating vast externalities—costs that others in society will eventually pick up, whether it be the costs of the health care and other benefits these companies don’t provide for their workers, or the costs of the pollution inflicted on the environment by animal agriculture. As a result, these companies are able to provide meals at extraordinarily low prices. They are meals that are bad for our health, bad for the environment, and bad for the animals who have been bred and killed in order to manufacture them, and in the end they carry high costs for our society. But in the short term they are low cost to the individual who buys a burger and fries at McDonalds—that much, sadly, is undeniable.

Vegan fast food is still in its infancy; given that no cruelty to animals is involved, it is impossible that vegan fast food will ever rival the ruthless cruelties of animal-product fast food. But perhaps vegan fast food will one day rival McDonald’s prices. If—and we should all fervently hope this occurs—governments everywhere start to see the error of their ways and reduce the subsidies they currently provide to animal agriculture, and start to charge fast food companies appropriately for the external costs they are imposing on society at large, it will then be a level playing field—and we can expect the Beyond Burger at the local fast food joint to cost no more than the comparable-size beef burger.

Gaps in the Story: Kathy Page's Dear Evelyn and The Concept of Chronochasmus in Literary Plotting

Modern-day literary critics sometimes pay lip service to Aristotle’s argument that plot is the most important element in a literary work, but they rarely do more than that. When it comes to prose fiction, the shaping of character, or the imagery, or the diction, are far more often the focus of critical attention than is the plot. When reviewers and literary critics turn to the qualities that make a literary work worthy of praise, again and again they fall back on phrases such as “the sheer beauty of the prose” and quote a particularly striking image or a particularly memorable phrase. With rare exceptions, though, images of startling originality or phrases that bring the reader up short with their surprising insights do little to contribute to the overall effect of a work of fiction; indeed, to the extent that they may take us out of the story as we admire their brilliance, they may even detract from the overall effect. (“Murder your darlings”* is advice that most of us should heed more often than we do when writing fiction.)

The whole, then, is more important than the parts, however much the parts may sparkle. And plot is all about the shaping of the whole—the organization. The story is the raw material, but story material can be shaped in an almost infinite number of ways; the plot of a novel is the shape a writer gives to the material.

Aristotle’s definition of muthos (plot) (Poetics, 1450, 5-15) has been translated into English in several ways, among them “the ordering of the incidents” (T.S. Dorsch—Penguin) and “the structure of the incidents” (S.H. Butcher) . George Whalley’s edition of Poetics should perhaps be regarded as the most authoritative; he gives us “the putting together of events” as his translation, with “structuring” offered as a possible alternative to “putting together.” (See pages 70-73 of Whalley’s Aristotle’s Poetics for his translation and commentary.)

Having no Greek, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of any translation myself, but I can and will argue that to regard plotting as simply “the ordering of the incidents” is to misrepresent what is involved.

To be sure, it is on the ordering of the incidents that most attention has tended to be placed, both by literary scholars and in Creative Writing programs—flashbacks and flashforwards, beginning a narrative in medias res, enclosing a narrative in a frame from a later period—all these aspects of the ways in which incidents can be ordered have been fodder for a great deal of discussion.

Much less frequently noticed have been aspects of structure that have nothing to do with the order in which things are told. Here's one very important such aspect: the choice as to whether or not to leave gaps in time in the telling of a story—and, if one does leave gaps, how to space those gaps, and how long to make them extend. If one is telling the story that unfolds over many years, one can include significant pieces of story material from every stage of the story. But one can also choose to simply leave out large chunks of material—years and years of it—along the way. That’s the approach Kathy Page takes in her interesting and evocative novel Dear Evelyn (which won the Writer’s Trust of Canada award for best work of fiction last year); almost everything is recounted in chronological order, but a very great deal is skipped over.

The novel begins with Mavis giving birth to the child she and her husband Albert call Harry—and the book proceeds to give us the story of Harry’s life. That story is given shape largely in the recounting of Harry’s relationship with Evelyn, who first makes an appearance in the third of the book’s twenty chapters and who remains a secondary focus the rest of the way through. (For much of the time Evelyn is an unattractive character—self-centered to the point of cruelty; Dear Evelyn is fascinating not least of all for its convincing portrayal of how powerfully human love can persist even when its object becomes anything but endearing.)

Through the central decades of the lives of Harry and Evelyn, the gaps between the segments of their lives that are part of the novel each seem to be three or four years in length; in all there are ten of these more-or-less regularly-spaced segments. At the beginning and the end of the novel there is much less regularity to the temporal structure. The first part of the novel includes just two brief clips of Harry’s early life, followed by three segments recounting events occurring in little more than a year—principally, the development of a relationship between Harry and Evelyn and the ways in which the coming of World War II disrupts the nascent relationship.

At the other end of the book, there is a gap of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years between the series of regularly-spaced segments that make up the book’s second part (“Blue”) and the five segments that comprise the final section (“Hotel Paris”); the spacing of these final five segments is quite irregular.

What to say about this structure? First, perhaps, how fitting it seems in a book largely about the relationship between Harry and Evelyn to place the greatest emphasis on the years that are at the centers of their lives. But it also strikes me that this structure is gently suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives—at a more regular pace through the middle years, and at more variable speeds in childhood and old age.

Page’s Dear Evelyn is of course not the first work of fiction to be structured in segments with long gaps between them. Another notable example (pointed out to me recently by Jamie Dopp of the University of Victoria) is Carol Shields’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 novel The Stone Diaries. But whereas Shields places each segment precisely in measured time (giving the parts titles such as “Marriage, 1927,” “Love, 1936,” and “Motherhood, 1947”), Page’s technique is more fluid. For one thing,** the segments in Dear Evelyn are undated; the sort of estimates I have provided above of time elapsed between segments are the product of analysis after the fact and are of necessity imprecise; there is nothing in the novel itself to draw attention to the exact number of years that has passed between each segment. Again, that seems to me to be a structure suggestive of the ways in which we sense time to pass in our own lives. Our active sense of how much time elapsed between events is usually dormant, and often imprecise; if we do reflect on such matters, we ask ourselves questions that it may take us some time to figure out the answers to (“When was it exactly that they moved to the island? Fifteen years ago? Perhaps it was more like twenty.” “How many years did Sheila spend trying to play the trombone? Three? Four? There were moments when it seemed like forever.”)

The inclusion of gaps of time in the presentation of fictional lives—and the spacing of those gaps—is an aspect of plotting that, so far as I’m aware, has never been given a name. In the highly-categoried world we inhabit, things should always have names—and, if they are to be taken seriously, it’s preferable that they be given foreign names. People are far more likely to take literary effects seriously if they have names like onomatopoeia than if they have names like flashforward (which sounds like something from a cheap adventure novel). I am thus giving up on the term time-jumpage, my working word for this aspect of plotting. Someone has kindly suggested to me Zeitspringen or Zeithuepfen (trans.: time jumping), from the German; another possibility would be chronochasmus (trans.: time gaps) from the Greek. I leave you to choose between these two enticing terms—but I urge you to read Page’s highly accomplished novel.

*Like so many famous quotations, this one has a tangled history. The source is apparently not William Faulkner but rather Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who offered this advice (under the heading “Extraneous Ornament” in a 1914 lecture entitled “On Style”:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (See Forrest Wickman, “Who Really Said You Should ‘Kill Your Darlings’?” Slate, 18 October 2013.)

**Page’s segments are fluid in other respects as well. They are named, but in ways that suggest their themes more elliptically than the titles of Shields' segments. “Chatterley,” for example, recounts Evelyn’s experience of trying that book by D.H. Lawrence everyone had been reading (“Was the whole rest of it going to be them either fucking, as they insisted on calling it, or talking about it?”) and then recalling a wartime near-romantic experience she had had with another man while Harry had been overseas.