March 25, 2010
Emily Pepe, Northwest VEG secretary
(photo of Butler taken by Oregonian staff photographer Beth Nakamura)
As a long-time staff writer and blogger for The Oregonian, Grant Butler has covered all manner of local food news and culture. But when he announced he was immersing himself in the vegan lifestyle just for the month of February, no one --not even Butler--knew what to expect come March 1.
When his month-long experiment came to an end, Butler not only decided to stay vegan--he proudly began a new column on veganism, which debuted in the March 23 edition of The Oregonian. Northwest VEG caught up with Butler to hear more about the good news.
Q. You’ve been writing about the Portland dining scene for many years. What made you consider becoming vegan?
A: There has been an overwhelming amount of food journalism in the last few years making the case that if people are serious about helping the environment and reducing world hunger, the best thing we can do is dramatically reduce our consumption of meat--if not eliminate it altogether. Last year, I got a chance to chat with James McWilliams, the author of the great book Just Food, which has all sorts of controversial ideas about how we can make a sustainable global food system. He builds the case that with the world's population continuing to skyrocket, we have to be smart about how we use our land in order to feed people and prevent environmental catastrophes, and that going vegan is the greenest thing anyone can do. About the same time I was reading Just Food, I saw the documentary Food, Inc., which pulls together what consumers should know about factory farms--how animals are raised, fed and slaughtered in conditions that are nearly impossible to watch and that have been largely kept hidden from us. I don't see how anyone can read Just Food and see Food, Inc. and not seriously consider taking meat, eggs and dairy off the menu.
The other big consideration for me was my health. Over the years, I've gained plenty of weight writing about Portland's food scene, and my cholesterol numbers last year inched their way into borderline-high territory. When you eat a plant-based diet, you’re consuming no cholesterol at all, so I bet my numbers will be much better when they’re taken later this spring.
Q. Tell us about the moment when you realized, "I can stay vegan beyond February."
A: It was an "a-ha" moment that occurred about halfway through the month. Readers and friends had been sending me vegan recipes that they liked, and I was printing them out and stacking them on my kitchen counter. At the same time, I was getting an avalanche of vegan cookbooks landing on my desk. Suddenly I realized that I was never going to get bored cooking and eating this way, and that had been one of my biggest concerns. Going into it, I thought being vegan meant eating a ton of salads and tofu. But I quickly learned that if you stop thinking about what you can't eat and instead positively focus on all the culinary doors that are open to you, you can easily make the transition.
Q. It's fairly common for metropolitan dailies to allocate editorial space to the occasional ovo-lacto vegetarian recipe, restaurant, or cookbook, but it's groundbreaking to devote an entire column to veganism. What inspired you and your editor to make that decision?
A: During my official month of vegan eating, I blogged every day about what I was learning and liking, and our online readership numbers went into the stratosphere. It quickly became clear that there was a healthy appetite for this sort of coverage. Heck, this is Portland, one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world. Shouldn't its daily newspaper cover this growing part of civic culture with the seriousness it deserves?
Q. Some business analysts say that a move toward hyperlocal news content is crucial to the relevance and the economic viability of traditional print publications like The Oregonian. Is it fair to say that while veganism is a worldwide movement, it's also a topic of heightened interest right here in our own backyard?
A: You only have to look at the number of local vegan restaurants and businesses to realize that this is a growing topic of interest. Will writing about greens from the farmers market or the cake I'm eating from Back to Eden Bakery keep The Oregonian landing on doorsteps? I’m just a food writer, but the current thinking is that this is the sort of local coverage readers want more of.
Q. Last year, you attended Northwest VEG’s signature event, Portland VegFest. How did that affect your perception of veganism?
A: I had bought into the widely-held stereotypes about vegans, assuming they were either hemp-wearing hippies or fur protesters. Then I attended VegFest out of curiosity, and realized that vegans came from all walks of life, and that there were a myriad of reasons why people choose the lifestyle. Some of them, I discovered, were an awful lot like me.
I'm embarrassed that I believed any of those stereotypes, because I've been stereotyped in the past as a gay man. When you stop and think about it, there is an interesting parallel between where the vegan movement is today and what's happened in the last 15 years with the gay rights movement. People used to have all these assumptions about what gay people were like, but there has been a huge societal shift as more people come out and people realize that not only are their next-door neighbors gay, but that their favorite TV personality is, too. I think veganism is at a moment similar to when Ellen DeGeneres came out and changed how a lot of middle-Americans perceive gay folks. Is Alicia Silverstone our Ellen? Time will tell, I guess, but I'm certain we're on the verge of veganism being seen by society as a mainstream option, and not written off as some sort of lunatic fringe movement.
Q. These days, you’re enrolled in Northwest VEG’s educational program, Veg 101, and trying new vegan recipes at home. How do your friends and family feel about the changes you're making?
A. This has been a lot easier than I thought it would be. My boyfriend eats an almost entirely vegetarian diet, and he would be vegan if he didn't love cheese so much. He's actually a lot more interested in the food I'm cooking now than he was when I was roasting chickens and grilling steaks, because those things didn't appeal to him. I haven't visited my family in Kansas City yet, and that trip has me worried. Eating meat is such a part of that city's identity that there's a cut of meat named after it--the K.C. strip steak. And my mother cooks a lot like Paula Deen, with butter in one hand and cream in the other. I have to think through my dinner table strategy for that one. Good thing Christmas is months and months away.
Grant Butler's new column, "The Plant-Based Plate," appears twice a month in the FOODDay section of The Oregonian's print edition and online at www.FOODday.com.