He came to veganism like Malcolm X came to Islam, through incarceration. At 16 years old, Foek (pronounced focus) ran away from home, finding substance abuse and homelessness. After a failed attempt to clean up his life, he landed in jail. While serving time for possession and distribution of narcotics, the 26-year-old emcee met others who taught him their creed—a diet of no meat, no dairy, no animal products.
His voice inflection sounds like a cross between surfer dude and burnout. His stage persona of white-boy rapper carries over into the life of a tattooed, intense and charismatic idealist. He leans forward, into the conversation.
In a city where local TV stations recently banned PETA’s (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) controversial advertisement that compared animal suffering to the Holocaust, many local restaurants are placing vegan items on menus. And in a state where most kids must eat the meat on their plate before they can have a piece of chocolate cake, a vegan-youth culture burgeons.
Salt Lake City has higher stakes than most urban areas when it comes to understanding vegan-youth culture. Thanks to a late ’90s spate of violent acts allegedly committed by a few who called themselves “straight edge,” many vegans argue ’til blue in the face that they are misunderstood. Yet for all their societal disillusionment, the ideas spewing forth aren’t new. Revolution has been a staple of youth culture ever since the Beatles.
The dogma of straight edge—no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and promiscuous sex—defines some vegans. During the initial stages of this article, a group of vegans demanded that straight edge be kept out of the picture. Few would talk otherwise.
Detective Brady Cottam, of Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Metro Gang Unit, said that straight edge gang-related activity has almost ceased. He remembered the group’s heyday: “To me, they’re like hyenas. For the most part cowards, but when they feel like they can overwhelm somebody, they can step in and take advantage.”
Regardless of whether you like them, hate them or never could swallow their diet, vegan kids abound. Portland has indie-rockers, and San Francisco has chic computer programmers, but Salt Lake City is a well-known center of vegan-youth culture. The Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC), a few vegan cafés—Evergreen, Sage’s and Keebas—and several coffee shops catering to vegan tastes call Salt Lake City home. Industrious vegans have published the Wasatch Front Vegetarian Dining Guide, a free publication showcasing more than 40 vegan-friendly restaurants. A local entrepreneur makes and distributes vegan-erotica gear nationwide. Vegans even have their own calendar, produced by two local women. New downtown underage music venue, Albee Square, caters to hardcore vegan kids. Local hard-drive-heads innovated a slew of Websites such as LDSveg.org, a site for Mormon vegans.
It may be no coincidence that Salt Lake City has an increasing vegan culture, as the same Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doctrine that prohibits consumption of alcohol, coffee, tea and cigarettes also advises congregants to avoid meat when possible:
“Yeah, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man for thanksgiving, nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine,” according to the LDS Doctrine and Covenants 89:12.
Always the advocates, Salt Lake City’s youth point out that this is the least-followed, practical tenet of the LDS Word of Wisdom.
Vegans read labels. They don’t eat meat or dairy. They don’t use any animal products. They don’t wear leather or wool, eat honey or butter, chew gum (most gum contains milk products), eat cheese or ice cream. They drink wine and beer made without animal by-products. They don’t eat fish or other aquatic life. Vegan means you check food, clothing, health-care items, makeup, condiments, soaps, toiletries, and condoms for animal by-products or testing.
A vegan must be wary. Many unexpected products contain dairy, and therefore, are not vegan. Bread sometimes has whey, a milk derivative, and honey. Soy cheese has casein, a milk product. Some sports drinks have artificial colors and flavors made from insects. Sugar is processed with animal bones. Multivitamins in gelatin capsules, made from animal hooves, aren’t vegan. Even ketchup has meat-derived spices. Vegans read labels and learn to recognize the signs. It takes a long time to shop.
Politics on Your Plate
Pool tables, a brew of strange art on the walls, and homey couches set the scene for tattooed clientele, girls in vintage clothes and animal rights activists sipping coffee, pawning knowledge or just hanging around House of Coffee. Right next door, Goodtimes Tattoo employs vegan artists and piercers. Nearby, UARC’s office runs a makeshift co-op and operates Food Not Bombs, a program distributing vegan food to the homeless. Upstairs, vegans live in low-income apartments developed by Artspace Inc., the company that also developed a nearby Bohemian warehouse full of artists’ studios and living spaces.
Most vegans around here know each other.
“I changed my life around, quit doing drugs and my consciousness rose to a state of awareness,” Foek said. “You can feel bad about the way America’s run, and you can protest all day, but becoming a vegan is direct action.”
The conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, the impact of animal agriculture on environment and water usage, the ethical idea that animals deserve equal consideration, along with personal health and spiritual well-being all serve as various reasons for choosing the vegan way. Vegans cite the number of land animals killed every year in America for food (10 billion according to PETA), quote Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and casually assume that worldwide practice of veganism would end world hunger. Here’s the vegan logic: It takes far less food and water to sustain people directly than it does to raise and feed factory-farm animals that, when slaughtered, feed only a few. Vegans add dairy and animal-derived apparel to the list of non-necessary items.
For Foek, veganism is “not just a diet, it’s a revolution.” Inspired by Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra and noted leftist linguist Noam Chomsky, Foek discussed globalization, transnational corporations and the meat and dairy industries’ roles in maintaining social control over the masses. Veganism goes beyond that. In its own subtle way, veganism is also political.
“The government conspires to keep vegans down by labeling activists as terrorists and by funding government programs to sabotage animal-rights movements and funding consumer-freedom programs, and by not accepting the vegan diet as a healthier way to live. They’re feeding the public a load of crap,” he said.
He didn’t offer a concise definition of who they are, but added that media perpetuate the public misperception of violence among vegan youth. If anything, meat-eating culture is by nature more violent.
“Violence is key to the meat industry. Not even a tenth [as much] violence comes from animal rights activists [as does] from the meat industry. What about war? What about invasion of other countries and then confusing that with being patriotic?” he asks.
Foek doesn’t exactly promote a Gandhiesque peace of mind. Lyrics to his Rage Against the Machine-style single “I Hate George Bush” encourage listeners to “Throw punches and kicks and start busting shit/ and if you’re fed up say, ‘Fuck the government.’”
Over a cup of coffee—same place, different day—artist Scott Tolton explored the issue of violence within veganism, initiating the subject when asked how veganism had affected his philosophical perception and, in a physical sense, his art.
“[Becoming vegan] wasn’t as much for moral reasons [as it was] to test willpower and experiment with different perceptions,” he said. “[After becoming vegan], I became more attracted to violent things. Maybe it started to put everything into the same category. I feel that cannibalism is almost the same thing as being a meat-eater.”
Anonymous activism is chicken shit, implies David Berg, who chose vegan after his father died of multiple illnesses brought on by obesity. Now a UARC activist, he hands over a PETA pamphlet called, “Why vegan?” Pictures inside depict a slaughterhouse pig collapsed in his own vomit, a doe-eyed calf awaiting death in a “veal box,” and a factory farmer force-feeding a duck to produce liver pâté for fois gras. The pictures alone have probably converted a fair share of Big Mac buyers into Garden Burger believers.
Berg digs politics, but hates protests. He wears a black Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, for president T-shirt. The reason, he hesitates to admit, is that Kucinich is vegan. Berg, who appears glassy-eyed, blames the condition on too little sleep.
Like a broken record, most vegans point to animal cruelty as reason enough for limiting their diet. Likewise, Berg echoes the sentiment: “Animals can’t stand up and say, ‘Knock it off,’ because they speak a different language.”
Though UARC doesn’t endorse a single candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, some UARC activists volunteer for mayoral incumbent Rocky Anderson’s campaign. Berg considers Anderson “a friend of the animals” for endorsing the Great American Meatout, a national meat-free day in March.
Berg’s bugged that Utah’s largest agricultural crop, alfalfa, feeds only cattle.
“This is not unique to Utah, in a sense that, across the country, the majority of agriculture goes to support inefficient production of animals and animal agriculture,” said Berg.
A vegan must sort enemies from friends. Boycotting the Delta Center for hosting circuses and rodeos; opposing Salt Lake City’s push for bond money to fund the Hogle Zoo, Tracy Aviary (and a new science center); and partnering with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to get a citizens’ initiative on the ballot that would strengthen sanctions for domestic-animal cruelty are just a few political vittles on UARC’s plate.
“We are completely 100 percent above board. We participate in society,” he said.
Sometimes, vegan activism has its share of intrigue. Police infiltrators have attended UARC meetings, especially during the Olympics.
“You can tell who the informants are. They’re getting paid to take notes. They take good notes,” Berg said.
Detective Cottam, who had a mouthful to say about straight edge, copped to “surveillance” on UARC.
It’s hard to imagine fevered, 20-year-old animal-rights activists following all of the rules all of the time. What about stealing animals or sneaking around with infrared camcorders? In July 2002, a widely publicized “open rescue” involved UARC activists who sneaked into Circle Four farm, shot five hours of video footage (later provided to media) and “rescued” two piglets. Though Circle Four farm activists took responsibility, charges were not filed.
“No one would ever admit to [illegal activity],” UARC activist Jarod Kirby later said over dinner at Evergreen Café. “For anyone involved in underground activity that would just be stupid and risky.”
UARC activist Harold Rose agreed. “We engage in civil disobedience,” he said, “and make no apology.”
To Berg, “above board” means an activist who commits direct, deliberate action—then takes responsibility for that action—including suffering the consequence of breaking the law. Anonymous activism is chicken shit. He names Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in proving the “time-honored tactic” of political dissent.
Lithe, they shed the skin of recent youth emerging into early-20s angst with a sexual tension that almost burns the retina. While the same onslaught of adulthood may have driven some of youth to smoke, party and otherwise experiment, these kids are hunger artists—purists who seek identity through deprivation.
They’re not your corn-fed, tanned country kids, who get their kicks in the great outdoors. They look more like photographer Richard Avedon’s vintage black and white images—made famous by his work for Calvin Klein. While many local vegans dig tattoos and piercings, some unaugmented college kids strive to do their version of the right thing: eat with ethics.
Two sisters—Misty Evans and Chanelle Mulvey—documented their thoughts and photographs in a calendar: “Vegan: It Just Tastes Better.” The calendar features young vegan women in their skivvies.
Evans, who grew up on a farm in Farr West barrel racing for local rodeos, became vegetarian after reading PETA materials handed to her by an 8th-grade teacher.
Now a 22-year-old English major at Weber State Univeristy, Evans takes the Madonna approach to using sex to further an agenda: “Next year, we’re doing a boy calendar. I really don’t see anyone [who’ll] say, ‘You’re using sex to sell boy calendars.’ It’s almost reverse sexism.”
Evans’ 18-year-old sister, Mulvey, took the pictures. An aspiring fashion photographer, she’s more into the style of vegans and her friends’ wherabouts than debating the benefits or politics of veganism.
Vegans know each other and trust collectively. Word gets around fast. It took Misty to tell Chanelle to talk to a reporter. It took Chanelle to tell Juaquin to talk as well.
Mulvey pulled a sleek cell phone out of her purse, dialed a number then said, “Do me a favor,” encouraging her friend to talk to a reporter. Juaquin Cameron consented to an interview.
Cameron has taken guff ever since he turned vegan, opted for tattoos and large-diameter, round, ear piercings known as “plugs.” He’s tall, wears black and small square-shaped glasses. When 18-year-old Cameron attended Hillcrest High School a couple of years ago, he couldn’t wear T-shirts bearing the word “vegan.” Cameron and his friends wanted to pass out PETA pamphlets to other kids during the school’s “Hot Dog Day.” School administration vetoed the idea, saying it was “too extreme,” Cameron said.
Other students called Cameron and his five vegan friends “the weak kids.”
“If we didn’t eat and drink milk, we were obviously malnutritioned,” he said with deadpan sarcasm.
Cameron stumbles with some stock-PETA answers about the health of veganism then leaves his seat to find his friend, who’s hanging out at the same coffee shop where we talk. “He can answer it better,” said Cameron, bringing his friend back. After a brief exchange with his friend, who agreed to a separate interview, Cameron returned.
Some kids may become vegan out of peer pressure or popularity. “[Veganism] can be something you do for your friends. I’ve heard of ‘vegan out of vanity,’ but if you go vegan and you stay vegan, it doesn’t matter why you went,” Cameron said.
When Borders shoppers ask employee Jennifer Nielsen where to find Atkins for Life, she touts the benefits of veganism, citing examples of Atkins-followers regaining weight.
“People in Utah generally stick to what they hear on the radio or see on TV,” said 24-year-old Nielsen, who’s achieved notoriety as a former SLUG Queen, the usually rebellious vixen selected annually to represent the local SLUG Magazine, a punk-rock publication.
The Atkins Diet—which requires animal-product and protein consumption over vegetables and carbohydrates—would be a surefire King Solomon test for any true vegan who might rather kick the bucket than eat meat.
Nielsen’s large LDS family adhered to a diet equal parts meat and vegetables. When Nielsen became vegetarian, her family “thought it was weird, something I’d grow out of,” she said.
A vegan diet and countless tattoos later, Nielsen’s confounded: Her mom still offers her turkey for Thanksgiving. She politely declines.
Nielsen, a nutrition buff, has a ready answer to most questions about food. She described a new nutritional finding: Too much phosphorus found in meat or milk inhibits uptake of calcium. In layman’s terms: Too much meat-and-dairy consumption may cause osteoporosis.
Dr. Joe Carlson, registered dietician and professor of nutrition at the University of Utah, verified Nielsen’s nutritional knowledge.
“You can find data that supports that,” he said. But that’s only part of the picture. A complex issue such as bone health revolves around diet, exercise and whether or not you smoke, he added.
Carlson admitted he’s maintained a vegetarian diet for more than 20 years, but occasionally indulges in “a little cheese.” He dodged the question, “Why not vegan?” by rambling on about what he chooses not to eat.
“As with any dietary regimen, a dietary pattern can be unhealthy for those who are omnivorous [or] vegan. But one can achieve a healthy vegan diet, if it’s done properly,” said Carlson.
He declined to comment on whether dairy products are unhealthy. He hinted that fish do contain unique fatty acids, but vegetarians get some of the same nutrients in canola oil, flax seed and walnuts.
The American Dietetic Association’s position statement on vegan and vegetarian diets offers clearer guidelines. Veganism can be a challenge: protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc can be difficult to attain through plant-based, non-dairy diets.
Protein is composed of amino acids. Plant foods alone do not have enough essential amino acids to make a complete protein, whereas animal foods do. However, an enterprising vegan can obtain all the amino acids by combining foods, like legumes and grains.
Evasive vitamin B12 isn’t found in any plant-source foods. Deficiency can cause neurological problems, such as memory loss, confusion, moodiness and visual disturbances. Vegans must either take a supplement, or eat fortified foods. Some say traces of B12 exist on the surface of vegetables pulled directly out of the garden. Carlson advises eating fortified foods.
The ADA report published online at www.eatright.org, contains lists of foods necessary for vegans to meet daily requirements. Vegetarian and vegan diets, the report states, lower body-mass index, a measurement of obesity. Plant-based diets also lower risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Those who eat meat are more than twice as likely to develop dementia. In addition, vegetarians and vegans are also less likely to develop gallstones and arthritis.
The health benefits are hard to argue with. But the vegan diet can be a huge pain in the ass. You have to ask the waiter if the tortilla chips are cooked in animal fat. You have to negotiate with restaurant servers that don’t offer menu items labeled “vegan.” Your nephew’s birthday cake is off-limits. Where do you eat at the airport or in an unfamiliar town? Do you go out to dinner with meat eaters?
For skeptics, eating vegan sounds like about as much fun as eating the Sunday newspaper. But a trip around Wild Oats with deli employee Amy Krupa may make changing your mind as easy as changing a radio station.
“If it doesn’t say ‘vegan’ it’s not—almost always,” said Krupa, setting forth a rule of thumb.
The good news is that almost anything can be replicated without meat or dairy. Pizza, sushi, quiche, mayonnaise (Naonnaise) and tuna (Tuno)—many foods boast a vegan alter-ego you’ve probably never heard of. But lots of foods are unique to the vegetarian world, like tempeh, textured-vegetable protein and miso.
But how does vegan taste?
If demand is any measure, not bad. Check out Sage’s Café for Sunday brunch. Then brace yourself for a wait. The place gets packed.
Ian Brandt, owner of Sage’s Café, hasn’t opened up shop yet. He wears his chef’s smock, sips green tea and sits quietly on a wooden kitchen chair in the darkened dining room of the restaurant, a former Victorian home.
“People don’t jive with the word vegan,” he said. For that reason, and because 70 percent of the restaurant’s patrons aren’t even vegetarian, Brandt advertises Sage’s as a “pure vegetarian café.”
Brandt, who lives a vegan life with his wife and two kids—one of whom is his restaurant’s namesake—converted slowly. First he became a “pescovegetarian,” or a veggie who eats fish, then went whole-hog vegan. He’s now experimenting with a “raw-foods” diet, a form of veganism consisting of raw vegetables and foods cooked only up to 116 degrees. Brandt muses on cultures like the Mongols, who subsist on a mostly raw-foods diet (including raw meat), but boast some of the world’s longest life expectancies.
Brandt admits the lifestyle costs more. Though Sage’s Café is reasonably priced ($10 to $12 for an entrée), eating out every day or shopping at health-food stores costs a pretty penny.
Supply is so low and demand for vegan and organic food so high that prices follow. “This town needs a co-op,” he said. Cooperative healthfood stores, which set prices apart from profit considerations, can help cut costs.
Chopping vegetables day after day gives Brandt a lot of thinking time. In early Native American cultures, Brandt contemplates, food or lack thereof served as population control.
“Food is sensual,” said the 28-year-old chef. “Without food there wouldn’t be sex.” For obvious reasons, of course, because without food we die. But Brandt means something more. He means that vegans seek pleasure.
Krupa holds up a quart of chocolate, soy, non-dairy ice cream. “You asked about sex?” she said. “There’s nothing better than melted ice-cream—or not-melted ice cream.”
“Vegans, just like everyone else, enjoy sex and have sex lives,” added Eric Waters, founder of Veganerotica.com. “Vegans, in many cases, don’t find non-vegans very sexually appealing and, of course, all of our popular media depicts sexuality with non-vegans.”
Waters designed the Wasatch Front Vegetarian Dining Guide, created a UARC food-buying club, and started VeganErotica.com. He works a day job for XMission. He said he doesn’t make money off his extracurricular vegan activities, but most of the projects pay for themselves and UARC’s office rent.
He initially launched his Website for erotic stories and pictures. Now, it’s a retail outlet for “pleather” (non-leather) belts, bondage gear and collars, as well as condoms and lubricants made without animal by-products.
UARC activists gather at Kentucky Fried Chicken on a sunny, late-August Saturday to wave KFC-cruelty signs at passing traffic. Sure, motorists shouted obscenities. It’s fun to make fun of animal-rights activists.
Activist Neha Parmar isn’t intimidated: “Veganism is an ethical lifestyle. It’s not a stereotype that people should put vegans into. My goal, personally speaking, is to change the world. I do want a revolt.”
The KFC manager sneaked out to spy from the back parking lot. A friendly police officer checked in, then told the activists to “have fun.”
A shy, first-time protestor at the end of the line answered questions with a shaking voice. “You see a child, who you know is sick or being beaten, you want to go out and reach your hand out to that child. So why not help the animals for the same reason? I’m not usually a sympathetic person, but towards animals I am.”
Towards animals I am.
It’s wierd. In asking everyone interviewed, “Do you value animal life over human life?” no one offered an original, quotable, dynamic response. The philisophical question is a cliché—most likely to come in a condescending package from someone who feels disgruntled by an ethic percieved as extreme. If he says meat is murder, does that make you a murderer?
The other side of the debate can be just as moronic. Coupled with questions like, “But plants are alive too, where do you draw the line,” are akin to Beavis and Butthead poking a dead dog with a stick.
The question is not, “Should vegans spend their time in an intellectual pursuit of how to better the human condition?” but rather, “Aren’t we all better off living to let others live?”