Postcards Home

This afternoon I got a postcard … from myself.

About seven weeks ago, I was embarking on the four days of heady alternative reality that was Greenbelt 2011. The good folk of the Feig community based at Gloucester Cathedral held a Communion service in the midst of a lavish feast for what looked like about 200 of the contributors on the Thursday night prior to the start of the festival.

It was special… for me, there was a strange circularity about being in Gloucester Cathedral for the second time in my life. The first time I was there was nearly 20 years ago as part of a primary school residential trip, many miles away from my home in the Thames Valley – probably the first time I had been away from my parentals for more than a couple of nights. I saw the shadow of my thirteen year-old self admiring the cloisters, innocently unaware that life would bring me back there two decades later as a very much more grown person who was wondering (as I often do) what happened to the little boy in me.

These were the things turning over in my mind as I broke bread with many others I had never met before, that night. As part of the service, we were encouraged to choose one from the hundreds of postcards scattered about the interior of the Cathedral where the hard pews had been stripped away to restore it to its original medieval awe-spaciousness. We then wrote on the cards and addressed them to ourselves and “posted” them. I was delighted to come across a fragment of a favourite artist: Breughel.

Wedding Feast (detail) from P. Breughel the Younger (1564-1638)

Of course, for me, it is a picture of heaven/home – a place that has very much been on my mind as since a recent post from This | Liminality stirred my thoughts again on the matter and meaning of “Home”. But here is what I wrote to myself:

Hey, Seymour, I just want to say two things. Firstly, take some time to really look at this picture and notice the detail. Those guys are using a door to carry food! And check out the dog! I think you’ll like this – you should be the guy with the spoon in his hat – he’s giving it away but he’s ready to enjoy some of it himself, too. Secondly, that openess and laughter you had inside you this morning … I just want to remind you that where that came from was real. Don’t lose that 🙂

Yes, my eye was drawn to the chap with a spoon in his hat. He reminded me of a couple of lines from Mevlana:

“The people here want to put me in charge. They want me to be judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts. The knowing I have doesn’t want that.  It wants to enjoy itself. I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time I’m eating the sweetness.” (Tr. Coleman Barks)

Scientists demonstrate that when a string of certain length is sounded in the vicinity of other strings of differing lengths, all those strings that are the same length or other specific mathematical variations in length will begin to vibrate in harmony. This is a picture that plays a very full chord for me as I look at it afresh today. The people who, in my experience, give the most life to others are those who really know how to enjoy its sweetness themselves.

From the nobleman on the right to the cardinal on the left, the dog under the table, the cook, the bride, everyone is welcome. Let’s tear the doors off, bake bread and stir lentils until we are truly home!

To anyone at Feig who reads this: “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

To myself: send yourself a postcard every once in a while …

To everyone else: Which of these revellers are you?

Did I Mention How Much I Love Ratatouille?

This is a staple in our house. It makes excellent use of the sort of vegetables we get in our organic bag from Farmaround. My mother used to serve this as a side dish but it makes a great vegan main course, too. I am so fond of it that it would definitely be one of the foods I would opt for on an hypothetical “desert island”.

Here’s my take on the traditional french vegetable stew. This recipe makes enough for four substantial portions.

Ratatouille - cut the vegetables up chunky.

Ingredients:

Olive Oil – 1 tablespoon

Onions – three small or two large

Courgette – one medium

Bell Peppers – two, red or green or one of each

Aubergine – one medium to large

Tomatoes – 3-4 fresh medium sized

Garlic – one clove

Worcestershire Sauce – 1 Tablespoon (vegan alternatives are available, I switched to using mushroom ketchup here.)

Dried Herbs: Sage, Oregano, Basil – one teaspoon of each

Pepper – freshly ground to taste

Vegetable stock – one cup from a stock cube

Method:

Use a wide bottomed saucepan with a lid or preferably a cast iron pot or casserole.

1. Put the pan or pot on the hob on a moderate heat and add the olive oil to start heating it.

2. Begin to chop up the vegetables, adding them in the following order and stirring after each addition: Onions (cut in half and then vertically into half rings), Courgette (in semi circles), Peppers (in strips), Aubergine (in quartered or halved circles), Tomatoes (cut into segments), and finally the Garlic (finely chopped).

If there is any left over for another day, this is my favourite way to eat it - cold, on a chunk of toast.

3. Stir in the Worcestershire Sauce/mushroom ketchup and the dried herbs thoroughly and add ground pepper to taste – just a few twists of the grinder will do. The vegetables should have started to soften.

4. Make up one cup of vegetable stock from a single cube and pour it over the vegetables.

5. Place the lid on the pot or pan and reduce the heat to a very low gentle simmer for about half an hour. Stir once or twice during the cooking period.

6. Serve with baked potatoes or chunks of crusty bread and butter.

Ratatouille improves considerably by being left to stand overnight when it can then be re-heated or eaten cold, which is absolutely delicious.

If you like this, there are more of my recipes here.

Foraging Friday: Comfrey

Comfrey is the name of one of the very loveable main characters in William Horwood‘s “Duncton Chronicles” series of fantasy novels about moles. From an early age, these books in many ways shaped my love for the English countryside and the things that grow in it as well as the powers that lie under it.

Symphytum x uplandicum
Image via Wikipedia

Comfrey is a very special plant. It would seem that there is nothing which tradition has not held at some point that it cannot heal. Both the roots and the leaves have been used for centuries for their reputed medicinal properties.

However, if you are not an apothercary, this humble plant at least deserves a place in your next sandwich. The leaves have a distinctive flavour and make a versatile vegetable, raw or cooked. The flowers are sweet and delicious, too. For me, this plant tastes of riverbanks in the summer (which is where it is generally found) and I would often wander off to find some when out picnicking because it works so well just by itself, between two slices of bread. Yes, the uncooked leaves are hairy but this makes for an interestng texture and shouldn’t put the forager off.

Delicious fritters can be made by dipping the fresh leaves (stalks and all) in a light batter and quickly frying on both sides. I think it makes a great substitute for “seaweed” in some recipes that require seaweed as it has seaweedy slipperiness about it when cooked.

It is worth noting that Comfrey has been one of the plants at the centre of a long running debate among herbalists about the potential harmful effects of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and it should probably be avoided for caution’s sake by anyone with a liver disorder. I would encourage people to read up on it if they are concerned and to make an informed decision about eating a lot of it. To err on the side of caution, I limit to occasional use and go for younger leaves which contain lesser concentrations of. In any case, it has been eaten by humans for many more years than Big Macs have.

So, it’s hairy, it goes slimy when you cook it and it may contain some pyrrolizidine alkaloids – why touch it? Because it’s yum. At least try it once.

Comfrey – The Facts. Nice informative overview of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids debate from Garden Web.

Foraging Friday: Chicken … of the Woods!

Pic of Chicken of the Woods
You might have to climb for these!

One of the most exciting things to find and eat at this time of year is Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly and aptly named “Chicken of the Woods”. Appearing from April and sticking around into November, this bracket fungus grows mainly on dead and dying Oaks in the UK. It is nice and easy to recognise but may be inaccessibly high for foragers without crampons. Look for the distinctive clusters of overlapping fans that are bright yellow, turning more orangey as the specimen matures. It takes a good while to establish itself before the fruit actually appears, but once you have located one of these, you will generally be able to revisit it for several years.

Eating

This is a great eater and it really does behave and taste a little like chicken when you cook it. It is important, though, if it is your first time, to try a small quantity as it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people – and it must ALWAYS be cooked. When gathering it, make sure you pick the younger yellow fans as older parts of the fruit are more bitter and tough.

A lot like chicken

When you get them home, clean them up and chop into slices. The mushroom will keep well in the freezer for later use. I generally blanch them before cooking them, to be sure that they are well cooked and to take any bitterness off. My favourite way to eat these is to make up a fairly heavy batter to dip them in and then fry up some “chicken nuggets” using oil that has been sitting for a week or so with some lemon rind in it to give it a citrussy edge. You can use it as you would use chicken in any recipe but make sure that it is always well cooked.

Disclaimer

Please don’t use my Foraging Friday posts for identification purposes, get a couple of decent books to double check your identification. You are responsible for what you eat. Follow the guidance in my article on “Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms“. I won’t be held responsible for people falling out of trees, either (ahem).

"Chicken (of the woods) Nuggets"

Vegan Lemon Star Cake

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Vegan Sponge

It’s the weekend, let’s make a cake! This one is quick, cruelty free and delicious. I only call it a Lemon Star Cake because this time when I made it I arranged some lemon rind in a star on top. This is a straightforward vegan sponge that you can modify with your own fillings and icing as you will. I fill it with golden syrup while it is still warm, just to take it to the next level of gooeyness; but, hey, mess around – vegans are great improvisers, we have to be!

Ingredients:

2 Cups of white self-raising flour
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
1 Cup of caster sugar

1 Cup of canola oil (I use canola, it’s a wonderful colour, but vegetable or sunflower oil is fine, too)
1/2 Cup of apple juice (I’ve used orange juice here, too, it comes out a little more citrussy)
1/2 Cup of water
1 Lemon (the juice thereof) or about 2 tablespoons of pure lemon juice
1 Tablespoon of grated lemon rind (from the aforementioned lemon)
1 Teaspoon of vanilla extract

You will need a seive and two mixing bowls, a whisk and a couple of cake tins greased with your animal-free grease of choice, or lined with greased greaseproof baking paper…

Method:
1. Grease up your tins and start to preheat the oven to 160c, which is 230f in old fashioned numbers.
2. Use the seive to seamlessly sift the flour, bicarb and caster sugar together into the larger bowl (if one is bigger than the other).
3. In the other bowl, mix all the other ingredients well together, including the lemon rind. If you want a “star” on top of your cake, spare a few strands of rind here.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the liquids in, combining smoothly with a whisk until you have a nice smooth gloop.
5. Pour equal amounts of the gloop into each of your tins and transfer to the oven.
6. Leave them to bake for 24 minutes and then check them. You are looking for risen in the middle and turning golden. If they are not turning evenly you might want to swap the position of the tins or something. If you are unsure about the middle being cooked, slip a skewer in and see if it comes out with any gloop on it. If the tins are particularly deep, they may need a little longer. You may need to bake for another 3-5 minutes or they could be ready – use your judgement. Probably better to err on the side of well done (as long as it’s not burned) than soggy in the middle.
7. Hoy the tins out and leave to cool for a few minutes until the tins are not too hot to handle but the sponge is still warm.
8. Tap the sponges out to cool and get going on your filling/icing.

Suggested fillings: golden syrup, jam, humous (just kidding).
Suggested toppings: Seive a light dusting of icing sugar on top of the cake, or make up a glace icing with icing sugar, warm water and a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice (add the liquids to the sugar until you have a smooth paste that sticks to a spoon).

Any arty flourishes you want to finish with are up to you.

Right, no excuse for making cake from anything that comes from a chicken’s backside any more. Enjoy!

Writer Wednesday: Stories from the Borders of Sleep

I’m proud to announce the launch of my new podcast, “Stories from the Borders of Sleep.” This project has been taking up a large amount of my time over the past few weeks and I offer it by way of an excuse for being absent from this blog for a while.

Since November last year, things took off in an unexpected direction for me as I found my head buzzing with stories and pulled my creative energy away from commercial copy writing and directed it into fiction. It has been a very exciting time as I have become immersed in this project I call “Stories from the Borders of Sleep.”

The Borders of Sleep bit is a sidelong reference to the state of hypnagogia, experienced just on the edge of sleep where dreaming and waking realities become entangled. It seemed to me that many of the stories had this half-recognisable familiarity about them and contained elements drawn from my everyday experience of the world around me, woven with a few archetypical curve balls thrown in by my subconscious.

George MacDonald bio photo
George MacDonald: The Grandad of Phantasy

The stories could be described as “fairy tales” and I am unashamed to say that I owe my inspiration almost entirely to the grandfather of all Phantasy that is George MacDonald. Reading his book, “The Phantastes“, in particular, unlocked a latent stream of imagination in me that I had not listened to for about 20 years. It was a real homecoming. I feel as if, with these stories, I have actually begun something I would be proud to call my life’s work.

George MacDonald does include allegory in his work but it is never felt that the plot is forced to these ends and the sense is of shadowy truths, half grasped and leaving a taste in the mouth, rather than doctrines perfectly pictured. On reflection, I think I owe more of my spiritual growth and expansion to stories that have haunted me over the years than to a thousand Sunday’s worth of sermons. So there are allegorical layers to the Borders of Sleep stories, but the main idea is really just to tell stories that captivate and carry people.

I realised quite early on that I was writing with an ear on how the words would sound out loud, and these are definitely stories to be read out or told. The thrill of sharing the stories and having a sense of enabling other people to access their imaginations and journey with me has been especially intense. That is why it seemd like a good idea to podcast them.

You can have a little listen to what I have been up to by visiting the website. I have had some fantastic help from Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps with design and illustration and another good friend, Tim Wiles, has stepped up with his sound recording and producing skills.

The plan is to put out an (almost) weekly podcast with a new and original story every week. Although there is a backlog of material to keep me afloat for a few weeks, it will also call for the need to continue writing and producing material. I will also be looking to publish a series of anthologies of the best stories in the future, but for now, I invite you to go over to bordersofsleep.com and kick back for 15 minutes of so of audio phantasy.

Notes on a Personal Journey Towards Veganism

This is a long “thinking out loud” post and so I apologise but also want to say at the outset that I am a work in progress and just finding my way along; so I’m happy to engage in constructive discussion.

Sometimes I am embarassed to admit that it was “Skinny Bastard” (The male version of “Skinny Bitch“) that tipped the balance for me. It is rampant vegan propaganda, it is emotive, it repeatedly uses a mere handful of original scientific sources, it relies on shock tactics but … it was enough to provoke me to respond to some nagging thoughts in the back of my mind.

I think the most significant change came when I was empowered to challenge the myth that humans NEED animal products in order to thrive. I had enough good ammunition for this from three years at university, studying anthropology and particularly specialising in behavioural ecology – but I had never really worked it through. If I didn’t need meat then the only arguments in favour of it were that it tasted nice and (as I’ll discuss shortly) what we think of as “delicious” is culturally constructed.

Vegetarian

The first and easy step was to stop eating meat. For this I was convinced initially by the environmental arguments and secondly by the animal welfare perspective and the health implications. I had already reduced meat consumption deliberately in light of the recognition that our western habits of meat eating once or twice a day are simply unsustainable in global terms. Giving up meat is a “no-brainer”.

It is easy to give up meat and it is enormously enjoyable to rediscover the joy of vegetables in their own right. The only awkwardness was dealing with the social fallout of changing from someone who would eat anything to being the fussy one when giving and receiving hospitality or eating out.

Public domain photograph of various meats. (Be...
Yuk!

Initially, I determined to be vegetarian at home but when receiving hospitality, to allow gratitude to triumph and to eat whatever people were kind enough to prepare for me. However, a vegetarian friend gently suggested that this was ethically inconsistent and that abstaining from meat at all times was an opportunity to “witness” to my moral principles. Fair point. So now I was the fussy one and proud of it.

Ovo-vegetarian

I quicky surmised that all the arguments in favour of abstaining for meat held for dairy as well. I have had quite a bee in my bonnet about it ever since as my “Milk Monday” posts will make clear. At the end of the day, dairy products are not kind to animals, the environment or our bodies. It is clear to me that the only morally consistent way someone can be vegetarian but continue to consume dairy is (once again) because of taste. I know a few vegetarians who simply do not eat meat because they don’t like the taste of it. That’s fine, but if there is an ethical dimension to the choice then I don’t see how it is consistent to eat dairy which is just as dependent on slaughter and exploitation and just as damaging to the environment as meat. In fact, as Gary L. Francione points out (rightly I reckon) that there is more animal suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.

So dairy was off the menu, too. At this stage I had not given much thought to eggs and didn’t want to go there just yet, relying on them for nutritional reasons and not yet having got used to cooking differently.

At this stage it was interesting to note some of the responses:

What do you do for protien?

Well, we don’t need as much protien as we think we do. 50-60 grams a day is enough and we can get that from a variety of nuts pulses, grains, vegetables and fungi.

What about Calcium?

Firstly it is not a matter of forcing as much calcium down our throats as possible, there are other factors that affect the absorbtion of calcium and particularly the need for vitamin D and magnesium. Secondly, there are plentiful non-dairy sources of calcium, like brown bread and green vegetables.

What about B vitamins?

Again these can be sourced from judicious use of green vegetables, fruit, yeast extracts and so on in the diet but I do take a supplement and some of the soya products I use are fortified.

What about humanely reared and slaughtered animals and “happy” milk?

These responses are getting into more interesting territory. Is there such a thing as “humane slaughter”. I think there might be. Roadkill might be a good example of this. The animal doesn’t see it coming and death is hopefully instantaneous. It is possible to sneak up on a hog and stun it before bleeding it, sure, but unless I saw the animal die I can’t be sure; and all the meat available to me comes from a process that happens behind closed doors. I cannot garuntee that just because the packet says it had a nice life and died happy that this is true.

There are different sorts of Happy Milk, too. The bottom line is that in order to consume milk we have to take from a cow what was intended for it’s calf and we at least need to rely on it to produce enough for us as well as the calf. From where I am standing, all this seems to be quite bizzarre considering that milk is a luxury and not a necessity. Nobody would suckle from a cow, but this is what we do, albeit in a clinically removed way. I suggested that it would make more sense if supermarkets sold human milk but who is going to agree that that is a good idea?

Why don’t you eat, say, wild caught fish?

Good question. The person who asks this has seen that there are environmental implications for farmed or trawled fish; but surely a salmon that has been hunted with a fair chance of escaping the hook is okay. Now the question comes down to an animal’s capacity to suffer and a humans moral right to inflict that suffering. It was pondering this question that lead me to make another step towards veganism.

Veganish

I concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that birds, mammals and fish are sentient beings with a capacity to suffer. I have also thought long and hard about my right to be complicit in the infliction of pain and distress in any form. I have concluded that it is not acceptable, and it could in fact be dangerous to our collective conscience as a race.

In conversation I keep coming back to the fact that consuming animal products is a choice based on taste rather than necessity. To abstain from them is not to make a great sacrifice at all but to embrace an integrated and wholistic way of life that is non-violent and ethically consistent. We are addicted to animal products and that can change. Honestly, food actually “tastes” better this way – in the broadest sense of the word. Show me an aubergine or a pile of lentils and a steak and ask me which one “tastes” better and there is no competition. For some, purely on the level of chemical pleasure, the steak might taste better, but surely there is more to the flavour of something than that? When we elevate stimulation of the senses above morality we are on shaky ground.

This is what is at the front of my mind when people in conversation try to ascertain under what circumstances I might be prepared to consume animal products. There is a sense that they are trying to find a way for me or them to escape from the ethical ban and find an acceptable way to maintain the addiction. That is honestly what it feels like to me. Whichever way I look at it I can’t escape the conviction that the aubergine is a wholesome, joyful and virtuous thing and the steak and cheese has nothing to commend it. I don’t need rescuing from an austere self-imposed diet I just want other people to be set free.

The Abolitionists

More recently I have stumbled accross a new sort of human, a growing global movement with a compelling vision of a vegan world in the future.

Abolitionists are part of a movement that draws inspiration from those who campaigned to end slavery in bygone times. They emphasise the personhood of animals and challenge our “speciesist” ideals. At the same time their critique goes deeper, challenging any form of oppression from a non-violent platform. In years to come, they believe we will look back on our exploitation of animals in the same way that we now regard slavery. Abolitionists are highly critical of “welfareists” who they regard as enemies of the true and fundamental ethical shift that needs to take place. The welfareists are just soothing our consciences without tackling the moral problem. I can’t do all the arguments justice here but encourage the curious to explore.

Check out the Abolitionist Approach Commentary Podcast, for instance.

I am really grateful to the abolitionists for the debate they are opening up and the ways they have helped me to think through my own ethical choices. However I am not quite ready to sign up wholeheartedly.

Pragmatics?

From a pragmatic point of view I would like to know what the plan is for humanity to transition away from dependence (psychological and otherwise) on animal products. Here I think some kind of “step-down” process would be necessary. We have created this monster and it needs to be dismantled carefully otherwise we have herds of dairy cows turned out to die. Transitioning to small-scale localised agriculture practicing as humanely as possible in respect of animals may be a way to go? From an educational point of view, too, welfarist organisations such as Peta and Animal Aid have helped me to progress in my thinking and have awakened my conscience rather than  merely soothing it.

I guess that is why I want to keep exploring dairy issues on Milk Mondays by keeping the debate open and exploratory, rather than coming down hard on one side.

Gary L. Francione who is a primary architect of the abolitionist approach seems like quite a reasonable guy who wants to really have conversations with people and help them think. But some of his disciples come accross as a bit shrill in their attacks. I can understand, because sometimes I want to shout at people to think about their choices and want to aggressively dismantle their thinking. I have not made any progress by being attacked but through having the opportunity for dialogue without feeling judged.

What about the Inuit?

Is there an abolitionst answer for ethnic groups who have good reason to depend on animals for survival because of where they live? It is difficult to see how their way of life could be suddenly altered without causing more suffering.

Theology

Ultimately, I think I am on a subtly different track to the abolitionists while very much appreciating their contribution. At the end of the day, it is us, not the animals, who are thinking about these issues and have the power to do something about it. That is a reflection of the fact that humans are uniquely placed in a position of responsibility and stewardship in relation to the rest of creation. I think this is not coincident but divine design. It is out of that sense of responsibility that I am making my choices. That makes me speciesist because I think humans are special – it’s what we do with that specialness that matters.

Scripture, which abolitionists may see as a homophobic, speciesist, racist, and sexist collection of documents, nevertheless begins and ends with a vision of a vegan world. Originally, humankind lives harmoniously in a garden, eating fruit and lording it over creation without a hint of exploitation. Ultimately, even the lion eats grass in a new creation and nothing hurts or harms on God’s holy mountain. I think that is the creator’s ultimate intention. That’s my dream, too. Being vegan gives me a taste of a time yet to come and is part of making it a reality now.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says Yahweh. (Isaiah 65:25 – WEB)

Veganism: A Truth Whose Time Has Come – M Butterflies Katz

The Vegan Solution – Angel Flinn