To nourish your mind as well as your body

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

VAM Interview: Perry

Perry Freeze is a native Oregonian living in LA, who has been working as a filmmaker since 1999. He's the only person I know who drives a biodiesel car, and is a self-proclaimed "eco-geek" (which means he's very interested in technology and sustainability). He is also the only person I know who can make Ethiopian food from scratch - incredible, addictive Ethiopian food. Mmm. Hugs, Perry.


Q When did you become a vegetarian?
A I became a vegetarian three days before Thanksgiving in 1999, which also happened to be three months after I moved out on my own for the first time.

Q Were you thinking about going vegetarian before that?
A No, actually. It was really all of a sudden.

Q Was there some significance to it coming about right before Thanksgiving?
A No. That was just a mistake. I was living in a dorm and food was being provided, but there was a different selection of things than there had been back at home and there was also an emphasis on healthy eating and green living.

It was the first time I had ever really been responsible for my own meals. I had never had to plan a meal before that time. I ate what was available; I had had other things on my mind besides food when I was growing up. Like girls.

But when I was growing up, when things like chicken were being prepared at my house, the bones always freaked me out. The closest I got to touching meat was making hamburger patties and that was like playing with play dough. You didn't think about where it came from. I ate chicken nuggets and pepperoni pizza and I didn't think of them as animal products; just food. Every once in a while, my family would make a big tray of chicken and I would observe it, but... It was this white meat with tendons and muscles and bones sticking out of it... I watched my family tearing it apart with their teeth or peeling the skin off, but I saw it as a dead animal, not something I would ever want to put in my mouth. The concept of being a vegetarian wasn't in me at that time. I had always been a choosy eater, but I hadn't really connected all of the dots for myself.

So I didn't have a lot of interest in carcasses or foods I associated with being dead things, but I was eating plenty of meat, even - I think - making fun of my vegetarian friends. I knew a lot of vegetarians; I grew up in Oregon. There were a lot of cool, hippy families out there. But the concept that I could decide not to eat meat didn't enter my head. With regards to my friends who were vegetarians, I thought "They're not eating pizza anymore. They can't go out to restaurants."

I can pretty much drill it down to when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to eat at the cafeteria three days before that first Thanksgiving away from home. Inside, they had meat on the bone - hot dishes like chicken breast, etc - and a salad bar. Outside, they had grilled stuff like hamburgers. And I had this thought: that I was 100% okay with eating a hamburger but that I didn't want to eat the chicken because it was a dead animal. And then I thought, "What is a hamburger?" A hamburger was a cow that had been killed and then processed. If I didn't feel okay with eating a dead chicken because it was a carcass, why would I feel okay about eating a dead cow? I realized that I had been conning myself.

It's hard for me to say I don't like animal cruelty, because that's a go-to answer for a lot of vegetarians. I'm a vegetarian because I couldn't approach a living animal and turn it into food. I would rather let the animal live and eat a salad. If I couldn't take part in the act of making an animal into my food, then I couldn't take part in the result either.

So that Thanksgiving, in 1999, my friend invited me to his house for Thanksgiving. And I had just decided I was a vegetarian, so I asked if that would still be okay if I went. His mom was a surfer mom and made this really awesome vegetarian friendly meal, so I had a great experience.

Q What's the most common misunderstanding you face about being a vegetarian?
A Um... it's pretty commonly spread. Some people think vegetarian means you don't eat any animal by-products (i.e. milk, eggs, etc). People will ask how I get my protein; they seem to think that eating meat is the only way you get protein.

Q What is our strategy for maintaining a vegetarian diet?
A Fall in love with a good cook.
Also, trying and becoming curious about vegetarian cultures. Experimenting with your food. Learning to cook.
It was such a deeply personal decision for me; I would rather not eat than eat meat at a barbecue.
Be aware of meal plans. It's so easy for meat eaters to be focused on meat, they overlook how tasty their vegetables can be. Don't get hung up on not having meat. Think about other possibilities.

Q What is your favorite meal?
A Toast. [grin] Okay. The reason toast is so cool is this: you have this product called 'bread' and you don't do much to it. You heat it. And then it becomes something else - something with a different name. Toast. And it has a special tool that only exists to help transition bread into toast.

[Gloria intercut: I totally love that we became vegetarians separately. One of my favorite moments with us was when we first started seeing each other, I made fettucini alfredo with red, yellow, and green peppers. And he was blown away-
Perry: I don't know that I had had any bell peppers before that...
Gloria: -that vegetarian food could been sweet and flavorful and mixed in with things. Many of our first years together were like that.]

The thing about having a "favorite" is that you don't want to have the same thing every day. I like so many different kinds of foods. I really like foods from other cultures that basically still baffle me. That I just wouldn't know how to begin to make. Like Indian food is so rick and has so many different flavors... if American food looked like Indian food, it would be one flavor and that flavor would be 'cat food' because that's kind of what it looks like.

Q What is your favorite dish to prepare?
A It takes me a long time to decide what to cook some times and then I end up wandering around the grocery store and just picking things out.
I learned to cook Ethiopian food and I like to prepare those because they're complex stews and they have a a lot of steps and might take hours or days to make. And because now I sort of own it - it's like what I do. And I have to make sure it's just right because I introduce people to it by cooking it, so they're deciding if they like Ethiopian cuisine based on my preparation.

Q What is your favorite recipe?
A Salads to me really opened up when I became a vegetarian. Before, I thought of a salad as iceberg lettuce with a box of year old croutons and a bucket of ranch dressing. Like if it was cereal, the milk would be the ranch and the lettuce would be the cereal. I discovered that salad is a very general term for lots of kinds of foods. Explore different kinds of salads; make them with couscous or add fruit. Adding fruit to salad kind of blew my mind. I think everyone should try salads with fruit in them; they're really interesting.

Q What is your favorite cookbook?
A Vegetarian, by consultant editor Nicola Graimes.

Q What is your favorite restaurant?
A Native Foods. 
Real Food Daily. A lot of people like that place.
Those are hardcore vegetarian places, but there are lots of places you can get great food that is vegetarian.

Q What culinary tools do you use most in your kitchen?
A Plate. Toaster. Butter knife. Coffee cup. [laugh] I just do it all by hand. I use a knife, cutting board, and a pot of hot water.

Q Do you have any advice or thoughts you'd share with someone considering becoming a vegetarian?
A I would really have to know why they were becoming a vegetarian. I'd say 'see if you can make it a year'. And be aware and deal with immediately anything you think you might have a craving for. I've heard so many failure stories because people see the one thing they love that has meat in it and then suddenly start eating meat every meal again. Whatever your reason for becoming vegetarian - being healthy, just for a change, animal cruelty, global warming - you need to think about that reason and really connect it to that food you think you're not going to be able to give up.
Vegetarian isn't a genre of food. It's a lifestyle. When I see meat now, it's just a carcass. It doesn't even register to me as food. When we go to the store, we never go to the meat section because it's like the kitty litter section. I don't have a cat, so why would I go there?
I'd much rather have all the things I've gained from being vegetarian than anything I lost from the time I ate meat. 

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