Monday, June 16, 2008

Vegetarians need not apply.

I've been sitting on this news for a fews weeks now, but I'm so fired up I don't think I can contain it any longer.

I'm at a pivotal point in my collegiate career and I've been doing a whole lot of last minute self-examination.  Do I really want to be a sociologist?  Is that what's going to make me happiest?  Is it what's best for my family?

I was verbally processing these concerns a couple months ago when The Husband threw a question my way.

"If money, time, and location were not a concern, what would you do?"

Without a hesitation, and much to my surprise, I answered, "I'd go to pastry school and open up a vegan bakery."  And the seed was planted.

I tried my best to ignore the flood of excitement and ideas about such a fantastical notion and applied myself as best as I could to the task of finishing out the semester and doing well on my finals.

But as soon as school ended, the idea would not be denied.  So, I talked to The Husband about it and shared some of my thoughts with him and he absolutely loved it!  Even though no decisions were (or have) been made, we were both all in dither about the possibilities.

So, I researched culinary schools in my area, found one that would suit my needs, and scheduled an appointment for a tour.  The woman I spoke to on the phone was friendly and positive, even after I told her that I'm vegan and intended to make that my niche.

The night before the tour, I was in my cake decorating class and mentioned my plans to my instructor.  Turns out she attended the same school, also as a student of the pastry program there.  I immediately began probing for details.

She gave the school a glowing review and I was feeling really good until she started talking about the class in which she had to boil a lobster alive.

So I asked ... "In the baking and pastry program?"


"Do all pastry students have to take that class?"

"Yes," she said.  She went on to explain that every culinary student, no matter what program they are in, has to complete a series of introductory course that include making animal stocks (beef, poultry, fish, and veal) along with sautéing, roasting, poaching, braising, and frying all manner of animals.

My heart sunk into my stomach.  

So the next night, I was quick to address my concerns with the woman in the admissions office.  I reminded her that I'm vegan and very clearly explained what I was and was not willing to do.  It went something like this...

I will not touch meat, poultry, or fish.  Though it makes me uncomfortable, while in school I'm willing to cook with animal products like dairy and eggs, just to learn how they work in food with the intention of determining the best substitutions for various types of baked goods and pastries.

She understood and said she thought they'd be able to work with me on it, but that she'd have to ask the head of the department.  So we toured the school, which was very nice, and I left hopeful and excited.

Unfortunately, she called two days later to inform me that they would not be able to accommodate me.  Despite the fact that they work around students' food allergies, they would not be willing to train me to be a pastry chef if I was unwilling to work with meat in my first few courses.

I was so bummed!  Here I was willing to pay them over $50k for a 21 month baking and pastry degree program and they weren't willing to budge.

So now I'm at a crossroad.  I can ... 
  1. ... research the only other culinary school in my area and see if they'd be willing to train me.  
  2. ... devise my own curriculum and be self-taught.  
  3. ... stick with my sociology major.
Not only do I have some decisions to make, but I'm really upset.  My cake decorating teacher told me that there were vegetarians in her class that hung back when the time came to drop the live lobster into the boiling water.  This makes me so angry.  Perhaps if these other vegetarians possessed the courage of their convictions, I wouldn't have been the first person to ever tell them they'd be unwilling to work with meat while attending their school.

Yeah ... you read that right.  The woman in the admissions office told me that to her knowledge, I'm the only person that's ever asked for an ethical exception.

And in case you were wondering, no ... I'm not blind to my own hypocrisy here.  How can I really be angry with these other, anonymous vegetarians for not speaking their minds when I was willing to work with animals ingredients myself?  I think I had it in my brain that it would make it easier for them if I compromised.  That was just me trying not to rock the boat.

But screw that!  I'm so over that now.

If I do tour another culinary school, I won't offer the same consolation.  I'm stickin' to my vegan guns and quite honestly, leaning toward the self-taught route at this point.

So there ... I finally shared my news.

If anyone out there has any insights or thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.  Until then, I'll just continue taking my cake decorating classes and working on veganizing my favorite baking recipes.

C'mon culinary schools, y'all need to offer vegetarian and vegan course tracks!


Willa said...

Okay, so I've had this question on my mind for awhile now and I haven't asked it because I was being polite.

I am done being polite, but I do want to be respectful. Here goes:

I understand your objection to eggs and dairy because of the animal abuse that occurs in mass production. Even with organic milk and organic eggs from free-range chickens, you could make an argument that industry standards do not ensure humane treatment of the animals on farms contracted to supply, say, Horizon with cream, milk, etcetera.

However, if you could find a CSA in your area that supplied an egg and dairy share, what's wrong with that? Where you could meet the farmers and tour the farm and see what their practices and philosophies are regarding animal husbandry.

I suppose I'm asking this because I grew up in an agricultural area and I worked on an organic farm where the hens who laid eggs had an incredibly luxurious life. Srsly. Dairy cows are beautiful to me, and I love the idea of developing a relationship with them AND milking them to help myself make a living.

My sister is homesteading in northern Arkansas and recently purchased dairy goats with the intention of breeding them this fall and milking them. My sister, a Cappy, seriously loves these goats. They're her "kids" (pun intended). She'd never think of eating them. And she and her partner built a chicken coop about a week ago because they're getting some chicks about to hatch from neighbors in exchange for taking care of their farm while they're gone. The chicks will eventually be free to roam their land. (My sister, interestingly, used to be vegan, and was vegetarian for over 10 years.)

What's wrong with buying your eggs and dairy products from a local farmer who uses earth- and animal-friendly husbandry practices?

Not trying to rub you the wrong way, I'm just tired of wondering. And I do respect your autonomy and heartily believe in "do as thou wilt." But I don't understand.

AND: Do you give cream to the Fey?

As for your dilemma, I say go for your passion. If you can't find a school that'll work with you to create a program in line with your principles, DIY. Keep taking classes. Self-teach and experiment. Then apprentice to a local baker. Credentials are nice, but unnecessary.

jessy said...

i just read your post with my jaw dropped open and several gasps escaped me, too! i cannot believe that they weren't willing to work with you - there has to be some sort of legal thing to that?! can they really do that? i would be enraged as well. i can't believe that you would have to cook with meat for a PASTRY & BAKING degree! wtf?! that would be like going to school for an English Degree and having to take a human anatomy course where you dissect a human cadavar. wow! what a-holes! now i'm all upset, too!

i agree - don't let this keep you from doing what you want to do - from doing what truly makes you the most happy! i'm with you - you can totally teach yourself, maybe take some classes like the one you're taking now (ones that don't require you to compromise your rock'n vegan lifestyle). just keep on baking and cooking (you could probably find an apprenticeship, too) and i bet you'll find yourself opening your vegan bakery sooner than you think, Marni!! screw them and their closemindness. hell, how much can that school realy offer you if they're not willing to be open minded and learn alternatives to baking with animal products?

so make it your own, Marni - and do your thing. i know you'll get there! and perhaps (if you feel so inclined) investigate if that school can legally do what they're trying to do. if they make exceptions for people with food allergies (and i bet they make compromises for people with religious exceptions, too) one would think they would be open minded towards people with ethical exceptions. their audacity astounds me! and it astounds me that no one has ever spoken up about this before either! i'm glad you've decided to stick with your vegan guns! you rock so hard! :D

KL Grady said...

Though we've talked about this on the phone and you already know my opinion, I'm going to share it here anyway.

Your decision to become a vegan was inspirational. The effects of animal-based diets on the rights of "livestock," the environment, and our health are enough to make anyone who gives a damn to think twice before shoving an Egg McMuffin in their mouth. The fact that you've stuck to your guns so brilliantly and have found some wonderful foods to prepare and celebrate life is fabulous. I adore what you've done, and I completely respect your opinion.

The Culinary School That Shall Not Be Named can lick some starfish IMHO, and I don't mean the vegan kind.

I was super bummed when you told me about their asinine policy, especially since your decision is one based on health, environment, and religion (though perhaps not a direct influence, your Pagan respect for life and the earth definitely feeds into your environmental and sustainability tendencies). Their decision definitely borders on prejudice. I can see why someone who thinks foie gras is the be-all-end-all of culinary genius would think everyone needs to learn how to cook with animal products despite the type of cooking to be done. It doesn't make them right, and it doesn't make their decision acceptable.

I think you have two choices:

1. You can contact a lawyer and see if this would be considered some unequal opportunity education and if there's legally anything that can be done about it. Perhaps enough can be done that your bill won't be $52k but rather $0.
2. Self-teach. Even if you're getting a sociology degree at the same time, if you structure your education and personal time right, you can do both. I think there's good financial stability to be had in either educational camp. Maybe down the line, you'll see one has more value for you, and you can put the other on pause or drop-kick it. Either way, you'll get to have your vegan cake and eat it, too.

Either way, eff the school. They'll regret it when they can't claim La Vegan Marni as a graduate of their school because of one very ridiculous and bumble-headed decision.

Marni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marni said...

Jessy - My sistah! :D Your responses always make me happy. That's why your blog name is so perfect.

Thanks so much for your kind and supportive words. Your indignation by proxy is touching. You rock!

This setback will not keep me from doing what I want. Almost nothing ever does, outside myself. :::snicker::: The solution will present itself if I keep looking. I'm sure of it.

Marni said...

Mz KL Grady - Thank you, my dear. You've been my biggest cheerleader from the start of this whole crazy vegan trip. But not the annoying, vacuous, squeaky kind. More like the kick-ass, PR cheerleaders in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video. LOL

I'd like to see The Culinary School That Shall Not Be Named lick some starfish! You think they'd braise it first? Maybe make a lovely starfishian stock? Hmmmm...

Thanks for adding another option to my list. I hadn't considered sticking with the sociology track whilst pursuing baking and pastry on the DIY. And thanks for commenting on my blog, even though we talked about this on the phone only a couple days ago.

That's mad love, baby. Back atchya!

Marni said...

Willa – I don’t think your questions are impolite at all. In fact, I think most vegans welcome the opportunity to have a genuine dialogue with people about food choices. Trouble is, most people aren’t genuine in their lines of questioning. But you seem to be so in short, I’m glad you asked.

Each vegan is different and, to a certain extent, defines veganism for himself or herself. In my opinion, it’s virtually impossible to live a life untouched by animal products and byproducts. While I think it’s safe to say, universally, vegans do not eat animals and most stay away from dairy and eggs, the boundaries get more difficult to identify after that.

Most vegans stay away from honey, but some don’t. Many vegans read the ingredients of everything they eat and refuse to partake if the product contains casein or gelatin. Others try their best to avoid these ingredients but don’t spin out into a purging and self-flagellating session if they accidentally ingest them.

I suppose my point here is that veganism is personal and, to a certain degree, subjective.

Having prefaced with that, I’ll get to your questions. Milk is something that grossed me out before I ever became a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. The idea of a mammal drinking another species’ milk is quite urpsome to me. My litmus is to sub all situations with humans. Would I drink human milk from women that were artificially inseminated, had their babies taken from them, and held captive while hooking to machines to milk them? Hell no. Who would?

Milk is easy to substitute in both cooking and baking, so no – I wouldn’t use milk. Even in the most perfect of conditions, where male calves aren’t sold off to become veal and the cows get pedicures and bovine back-rubs daily, stay blissfully free of hormones and antibiotics, I still have a fundamental problem with milk.

Eggs, I suppose, are a little different. I don’t eat eggs and, at this time, I don’t have any interest in finding a CSA or other humane supplier of eggs. However, not using eggs does produce more of an issue, particularly in baking. If I had my own chickens, I think I would eat their eggs. (I can hear all my vegan readers gasping. Hear me out.) Chicken eggs, unlike cow’s milk, are a completely useless byproduct of chicken life. There are no hungry chicks peeping around a deserted paddock wondering where mommy is and longing for their daily dose of egg. The eggs would go into the trash if I didn’t eat them, so I wouldn’t have a problem with it. There’s no exploitation, manipulation, or suffering in that scenario.

But, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much, at this point, by not eating eggs so I don’t have any motivation to seek out acceptable eggs. I think part of the reason many vegans make the decisions they do is to try to send a clear message: Animal slavery and exploitation is intolerable. Being vegan, at least for me, is my effort to try to swing the pendulum back the other way. You’ve got to aim way past neutral to get any results.

Here’s an example where I probably would fall outside the typical definition of “vegan” as far as most vegans are concerned: I eat honey. I don’t buy honey in the stores, mind you; I stick with agave nectar instead. But a friend of mine (actually someone in my Feri training group) keeps bees on her property in Oklahoma. She’s quite the Renaissance woman and I know without a doubt that her bees are well kept and she is a responsible beekeeper. So, when she has honey to share, I happily indulge.

I think it’s important to keep your intentions in mind with regard making food choices. Mine are to prevent as much suffering as possible, live a life that is sustainable and proactively supportive to the environment, and to make the healthiest food choices I can while still enjoying life. That’s why I’m vegan.

Do I give cream to the Fey? No. I mainly give them sweets that I make myself, honey, when I have it, and homemade liqueurs. I love making liqueurs and the idea of using them as an offering is quite appealing to me. I take produce that has grown out of the darkness and into the light and preserve it boozy darkness for months until it’s just right. There’s something inherently magical about the whole process. I put a lot of myself into my liqueurs, so to me, they make for a perfect offering. Much better than cream that’s been taken from a standard dairy cow and all that comes along with that.

As far as becoming a baker or pastry chef is concerned, I agree with you. Following one’s passion (as anyone familiar with the Iron Pent knows) is key. Food is my passion and baking, in particular, rings my bell like nothing else. Kneading dough is just downright sexy and not much else awakens the childlike nature in people like a good cupcake or a plate of warm cookies, straight from the oven. Cooking and baking allows me to create art, it feeds my inner alchemist, and it fills the bellies of those I care most about. It serves an immediate need and offers endless possibilities for exploration and ingenuity.

I hope I addressed your query. Please don’t hesitate to keep this conversation going, or start a new one if you are so inspired.

Willa said...

Marni, I really appreciate the thorough explanation of the reasoning behind your vegan ethics. As someone who can see both sides, and understand the multiple points of view on animal rights issues, I find it refreshing that you didn't leap to a podium or become defensive when queried by me. I dream of more dialogues like this taking place, especially between those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, e.g. ranchers and vegans. Both have valid points, and if both listened to each other instead of reacting with prejudicial name-calling and hostility, imagine what progress we could make! As a species, as a planet, as communities practicing tolerance and respect for multiple points of view and practices.

So I'm marinatin' on what you wrote, and I will soon engage you further in the discussion.

By the way, you do realize this is Jaimie, right? Just checkin'. (The other name is just to grant me some anonymity in cyberspace. I sometimes write things that are not politically correct. *gasp*)

There's not much to be seen on the new blogspace yet. I just created a psychic and online space for the words to flow to when they come.

If you didn't know it was me, it rocks even harder that you didn't jump up my asshole. (No, this was not a test.)

I truly do respect the choices you're making and the ways that you are manifesting your beliefs and ethics in the world. It pushes me to do the same. And to explore the things I thought I believed, but actually may not anymore.

You create beautiful, enticing dishes. My inner alchemist salutes yours.

Marni said...

Willa - Ha! No, I had no idea it was you. That's awesome. Thank goodness I was on my best behavior. I love talking about this stuff so I look forward to more juicy discussion with you.

Saluting you right back, my love.