“We Practice the Convictions of our Minds and Hearts”

As the weather starts to turn colder, many of us are thinking about getting a new winter coat. I love that there are so many cruelty-free fashions to pick from! Imagine my delight, then, when during the course of my research I learned about a woman who was making cruelty-free alternatives to fur coats, silk scarves, and “kid” gloves over 100 years ago! Her name was Maude (“Emarel”) Freshel, and she was the co-founder of an organization known as the Millennium Guild. The Guild advocated for a lifestyle that included a vegetarian diet and hosted lavish meat-free Thanksgiving dinners in Boston in the early years of the 20th century. The sale of the cruelty-free outerwear that Freshel sewed helped to fund the activities of the Guild. A number of these fashions were featured in the Boston Sunday Post on November 17, 1912.

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Freshel told reporter that members of the Millennium guild “have found splendid substitutes for furs,  feather hat trimmings and kid gloves, and know we are better off without eating meat. We practice the convictions of our minds and hearts.”

Freshel was also the author of The Golden Rule Cookbook, a vegetarian cookbook promoting the abstention from meat eating for ethical reasons. Freshel defined a vegetarian (remember, the term “vegan” didn’t exist until 1944) as someone who “for one reason or another condemns the eating of flesh.” She saw this as occupying “a very different place in the world of ethics from one who is simply refraining from meat eating in an effort to cure bodily ills.” Freshel’s dog, a terrier named Sister, was also a vegetarian and reportedly enjoyed such foods as lentils, peas, apples, oatmeal, and buttered toast.

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

So Much Going On!

The last little while has felt like a whirlwind compared to the hermit-like state I’ve been in for most of my sabbatical thus far. Some highlights:

1)Last Friday I attended the Medieval Documents Symposium at Brock. This event was to celebrate the recent discoveries of some medieval documents in our Special Collections as well as some donations of documents to the university. My own area of research is the late 19th C/early 20th C, so it was a real treat to learn about an era so far removed from the one I spend all my time studying. This was a truly fascinating event. First of all, I’m always a little in awe when in the presence of material objects that have survived this long. It kinds of blows my mind! Secondly, the presentations made last Friday really embodied a spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry that I find especially engaging. For example, we heard from some of the folks involved in the DEEDS project at U of T. As I understand it, this is a piece of software that can calculate the approximate age of an undated Medieval charter based on the patterns of language that appear in that document. Very, very cool!

2)The 2010 Niagara Social Justice Forum took place last Saturday. I look forward to this event each year as it brings together faculty, students, staff, community members, activists, etc. for discussions, workshops and a chance to exchange ideas. The food that Strega provided was knock-your-socks-off delicious and it was pretty fantastic to have all that vegan/vegetarian food on campus. I just wish we had these kinds of eats at Brock all the time. Le sigh…

3)This week we had Erika Ritter come to campus to talk about her book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships. This is an amazing book that really delves into the many complexities of human relationships with nonhuman animals, both in our current era and in the past. The event on Tuesday included a lecture but also a discussion where most people in the room had an opportunity to ask questions or offer comments about the multitude of paradoxes that seem to define human-nonhuman relationships. It was a wonderful event, and I left campus that day feeling very energized and couldn’t wait to get back to work on my new research, a topic which is very much related to the themes explored in this book.

4)Tomorrow evening brings another animal-themed event, this time a book launch and fund-raiser. The book being launched is John Sorenson’s book, Ape (from the Reaktion series, Animal), and the funds are being raised for the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary.

All this *AND* talk of a cross-lake ferry service between Toronto and St. Catharines makes it a pretty exciting week to be living in Niagara!

21 Day Vegan Kickstart

I’ve been vegetarian for somewhere in the ballpark of 13-14 years. My transition from meat-eating to vegetarian was a gradual one, so I don’t have an exact “anniversary” date. With the exception of a brief flirtation with pescetarianism a while ago, I pretty much fit the standard definition of a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I justified continuing to consume dairy and eggs by telling myself things like “well, cows need to be milked” or “chickens lay eggs anyhow” and “it isn’t like these animals are being killed for their milk or eggs.” Right. The more I learn about just how eggs and milk go from the animal’s body to the supermarket shelf, the more hollow these assurances sound.

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about animals lately. In my academic work I’m embarking on a major new research project that has me reading a lot of the ground-breaking literature on animal welfare (i.e.: Henry Salt’s 1894 Animals’ Rights). In the evenings I’ve found myself reading books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Enter the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and their 21 day vegan kickstart. I’ve decided to take the challenge this year. It is day 4 and so far so good — only one minor “slip up” to report. I had a handful of almonds the other day, the seasoned kind. Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered powdered sour cream on the ingredients list. *blech* As a vegetarian and someone with allergies I’m normally a pretty careful label reader, so I’m not sure how that one slipped by me. Lesson learned though!

Conceptually I don’t find the switch from vegetarianism to veganism that much of a stretch (seasoned almonds notwithstanding!) — sometimes it is just a matter of finding a vegan version of an old favourite (like this amazing recipe for cornbread!), and many of my favourite recipes are dairy and egg-free anyhow. However, the big stumbling block for me has always been cheese. I’ve been regularly buying soy milk instead of regular milk for a long time now, but for some reason I haven’t made the switch to dairy-free cheese. I’m going to give it a try this month though. My fridge is currently full of several brands of vegan cheese but I’ve yet to settle on one that I really like. Maybe it will just take some getting used to.