Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Conscious Eating—A Subconscious Revolution

By Michael Karakash

It’s 7:00 pm on a Wednesday night, and a group of hungry UCI college students loiter outside a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Green’s Cafe. One student stands facing the front wall of the restaurant, anxiously scanning the menu for familiarity, eyes widening after each description. For some members of the Green Group, this will mark their first meal at an exclusively vegan restaurant. For some members, this will mark their “first step towards saving the world,” according to Melyssa Griffin, a local animal rights activist and a near life-long vegetarian—eleven years and going strong. For the more distinguished vegans, the Green’s Café acts as a breeding ground and training station for future student-vegans.

Veganism was created and popularized in 1944 as an alternative to vegetarianism. Rather than merely focusing on a plant-based, organic diet, veganism is a lifestyle choice aimed at ending the exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. A distinction made by a group of men at a London conference in 1944, adopting the beginning two letters and ending two letters of “vegetarian” to create VEgAN, marking "the beginning and end of vegetarian,” has since evolved into a global cultural movement. While vegan and vegetarian studies are difficult to execute due to the objectivity in human dietary habits, the Harris Institute, a research firm that specializes in shifting public opinion statistics has reported that nearly 0.5% of the American population is vegan—nearly 1 million people—whereas 3.2% or 7.3 million Americans claim to be vegetarian. The rapidly growing popularity can account for sparking the creation of localized vegan groups all over America, primarily on college campuses.

One such organization finds its origins on the UC Irvine campus. Led by a fourth year English major, Diana Phuong, the Green Group is an unofficial, low-key campus group that finds “unity through spirituality and universal embodiment.” Sitting at the Green’s Café, Diana turns and addresses the group.

“Does anyone have any preferences? I think we should get the family sampler so ya’ll can try everything!”

Faces look up from the menus and nod excessively at the decisiveness of Diana. “I’m scared. I’ve never had vegan food before,” Ben, a third year film and media studies major admits. After words of reassurance and exchanges of excitement, the waiting begins.

Green’s Café, created only in February of 2009, is a fairly new addition to Irvine’s vegan food culture. With only a small counter separating the kitchen from the tables, the restaurant can seat about twenty customers at its busiest. Looking around, it is apparent that the owner, Laurence, values the vegan experience over interior design and overall aesthetics. The walls are plastered with statistics and posters, drawing parallels between veganism and saving the world. Right above the kitchen door, one poster, approximately three feet tall and three feet wide, makes a daunting claim: “One person going veg[an] for one year can save 25 human lives, and 5 billion animals.” “It’s true. It really is. You’d be surprised,” Laurence reassures the crowd.

Veganism has been a dominant factor in Laurence’s life for the past 15 years. Along with his vegan-friendly wife, they are currently raising two kids on an exclusively vegan diet. While there have been studies attempting to prove the high health risk factors of pregnant women and their fetuses, healthy pregnancies have been achieved through prenatal vitamin usage, and an increase in protein-rich raw foods such as salads and fresh fruits. The process of heating food required in cooking—over 118˚F—is known to destroy many of the natural and essential enzymes found in plants and vegetables, which is a requirement for the nourishment of developing infants. This concept has developed into a full-fledged variation of veganism called rawism. Laurence’s profound knowledge and experience with veganism allows Green’s Café to be a complete experience rather than a simple dinner.

It’s 7:20 pm. The dishes stream out of the kitchen one by one. “What IS that?” Melyssa says as the plate is put down in front of her. “Jumping for Joy Fried Rice,” Diana exclaims through a sip of her apple green tea. Poking at the vegan shrimp squishing across her plate, Melyssa pierces the orange and cream-colored curl and takes a bite. Within seconds, the entire table is passing dishes in a circular formation and sampling seasoned soy protein strips, eggplant tofu, and vegan fish cakes. The virgin vegans have begun their process of deflowering.

Diana Phuong has been exposed to veganism since birth. Her parents have owned a vegan restaurant, Vegi Foods located in downtown Berkeley, for the past twenty-nine years, ever since they entered the US as Vietnamese refuges in the 1980s. Surprisingly, they themselves are not vegans, but rather omnivores, a main factor being that meat is a major staple in their culture and traditions.

“It is still really hard for me. The temptation is so strong,” she admits. Culturally, food has been a major source of communication and love within Diana’s family. The choice to become vegan is not a simple one. Not only is it a personal sacrifice, but also the entire family dynamic is affected. “Food is the way we communicate love—and for me to not eat what my grandma cooks me or what my mom cooks me is a physical rejection of love, their love.” Incorporating what she is learning through her interaction with the Green Group, and her vegan food escapades, Diana is constantly learning and experimenting in her own kitchen with her parents and “ah-ma.”

“I’m really pushing my family to think creatively. Trying to incorporate more tofu and vegetables in our ethnic dishes—not losing the flavor of our foods, but creating fusion.” Love through food, culture, and interaction—veganism is more than a dietary modification.

Diana’s love for fusion and culture created the foundation for the Green Group at UCI. Teaming up with Melyssa, Diana was able to incorporate her unique approach to food with a strong desire to be in harmony with the world. Melyssa and Diana, both vegetarians and vegans to a certain extent, display the various degrees of veganism. Melyssa has been a vegetarian for eleven years and counting, and has loved animals ever since she could breathe, yet is not a self-proclaimed vegan. Diana was raised in an ethnically meat-eating family, and merely likes animals, yet is a vegan. Categorizing people by a single, specific label is not necessarily the ideal method, but veganism has been twisted and expanded to evolve and apply to many different situations. They both admittedly love the fluidity of the term. After all, it was created in 1944. “It was a different world then. “I’m trying to get as close to the source as possible—the original source being the sun. Plants you know, create their own foods, and I’m just trying to get closer,” Diana admits. Green’s Café has become her outlet for channeling her activism and reaching out to the student community. Mirroring the trend of vegan popularity in the US, the Green Group has been steadily gaining popularity. The group, originating out of the harmony and love of two vegetarian-vegans, has currently grown to include ten committed members, ranging from die-hard vegans, to vegan-allies.

Following the Green Group on their voyage to eat at all fifteen vegan spots in Orange County—opting out of the ten vegetarian spots—vowing to temporarily give up meat myself, was as much as a form of self-discovery, as observation. Driving down the freeway in a yellow convertible with the top down and the wind tossing hair in our faces, energy was high and a sense of adventure filled the car. Our destination was The Secret Spot, located in Huntington Beach, California—the seventh best vegan restaurant in Orange County, closely following Au Lac and The Lavender Tea Co. According to Diana, people just know where to go—the love spreads. The Green Group led the way, and filled the restrictive, yet cozy beach hut. The menu, overflowing with options drove the group crazy for 30 minutes as each option was read aloud and debated over.

Vegan food and the vegan lifestyle is not only about what foods you eat and what foods you choose not to. With such a wide range of people it reaches, it is more than a fad. “Sometimes it’s associated with body image and weight gain, but I think that there is media out there.” There is that lasting impression meat has made on people from childhood—its tough to break out of those constricting cravings. On our third vegan adventure at the 4th ranked Wheel of Life, a vegan Thai restaurant in Irvine, I came across a fourth generation vegan. Culturally, veganism proves challenging to fully embody, yet as each generation passes, the gap between culture and diet shrinks incrementally. Diana is currently in vegan limbo. She still strongly craves fried chicken and constantly fights with herself to resist eating fish and cheese. Yet, she currently has the patience and the drive to soak beans in water for eight hours and set aside an additional hour to cook them in order to make a “mouth-watering plate of deliciousness.” The importance isn’t that people create a label and box themselves inside it, but exploring options and uncovering personal values.

The Green Group is more than a UCI vegan group. It is a cultural club, an interest group, a group of friends, and a social movement. “Hopefully it is a social movement against the meat industry. It’s always there in the back of your mind, but it's just finally bringing it to the forefront—being conscious of it,” Diana assures me. They don't know where their lives will take them or how their interests will evolve, but as of now they are animal-friendly, life loving, and green eating.

Reporting Notes:

• Multiple interviews with three members of the Green Group
• Intensive interview with Diana Phuong for background information about her life and her experiences with veganism
• 3 hour observation of the Green Group at Green’s Cafe in Irvine
• Dialogue with the owner of Green’s Café about his experiences immersed in veganism This dialogue lead to more research on rawism (raw food trends)
• 2 hour observational breakfast with the Green Group at The Secret Spot in Huntington Beach
• 2 hour observational dinner with Diana at the Wheel of Life (vegan Thai restaurant)
• Dialogue with the owner of the Wheel of Life
• Article from the Vegan Times regarding population statistics
• Article from VegFamily (A Magazine for Vegan Family Living) for information regarding vegan pregnancies and infant care
• Article from OC Menus, regarding the top 10 vegan foot eateries in Orange County
• Online article from (www.vegguide.org) for a comprehensive list of all vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Orange County
• Using the information from vegguide, I did an extensive search of all of the restaurants and located each on the map. I then noticed first a national trend of vegan locations exclusive to coastal regions. Looking more into it, I noticed a global trend of vegan food spots along the coast. Utilized this info in my interviews and dialogue with OC vegans and Green Group members.
• The toughest part for me was, that I actually attempted going vegan for a few days (much more difficult than it sounds) It made me appreciate and understand the difficulties they undergo on a more personal level. I realized that a vegan lifestyle is not the choice for me as this point in my life, but I am set on adopting a vegetarian diet beginning on my birthday in one month, and hopefully being committed until my birthday a year later.

Interview with club president and vegan enthusiast Diana Phuong!

For those interested potential vegans: Top 10 Vegan Eateries in OC

1 comment:

  1. Great job, Michael! This was really well written, and I like that you really immersed yourself in your subject. I definitely want to look into testing veganism out (though maybe for, like, a week -- I'm not that brave). I've tried Veggie Grill, and if a lot of vegan food can be that tasty, why not? You should blog about your vegan experiment :)