Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Nothing You Can Do With People Like That": My Julia Child Dilemma

Whenever I’m in the mood for a laugh—or if I find myself feeling the urge to shake my head and wonder what the world has become—there’s nothing that I enjoy more than watching clips from Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, a Food Network Program that revolves around an alcoholic woman’s recipes for garish meals and cocktails that could put a grown man under the table.

Sandra Lee demonstrates her culinary mastery.

As mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been in desperate need of amusement lately, and as such, I’ve witnessed more semi-homemade meals than any person should be subjected to outside of a torture chamber.  But there comes a time when even such classics as the Kwanzaa cake or “sensuous” truffles fail to amuse, and the viewer is left wondering what leverage the woman had on Food Network in blackmailing them to produce her show and when the American populace decided that dumping a bunch of processed foods and vanilla extract together—“It cuts out the packaged taste!”—constituted a meal.  Nauseated and longing for something that could make me respect the art of cooking again, I searched on Youtube for episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef.

The first episode I watched, “Cook Your Goose,” had enough technique and skill—and a total lack of catchphrases or cocktails—to restore my faith in the culinary masters of the world.  The second episode, “Roast Suckling Pig,” got shut off at the halfway point.

As of tomorrow, I will have spent three months as a vegetarian.  At first, my decision had nothing to do with moral or health concerns: I simply realized, while I was gathering recipes to try when I moved into my apartment, that I didn’t like most meats, so I might as well cut them out of my diet.  Later on, I discovered some of the meat industry’s more objectionable practices, which strengthened my conviction in my dietary choices.  Still, I don’t mean to lecture anyone about meat being murder or how cruel/unhealthy their choices are.  My opinions will differ from others, and there’s no sense in trying to change that.  I know how appealing some meats can be, and it’s not as though my taste for that has disappeared.  In the past three months, meat has always looked appetizing, not disgusting.

At least, not until I saw a pig lying on a table, looking as though it could wake up and walk off at any moment until I noticed the gaping hole in its stomach that was being filled with spices.  All I could think of at that moment was how my cats would look shaved and set in a roasting pan.  After all, in some parts of the world, they’re food as well.

Fuzzy, ill-tempered food.

Still, I didn’t harbor ill will toward Julia Child for roasting a pig.  Pork was always my favorite meat before I cut it out of my meals.  I simply closed the browser and searched for “Julia Child vegetarian,” hoping to find her culinary skills applied to recipes more suiting my stomach.

Instead, I was surprised to find what I considered a very unpalatable quotation from the chef in the August 2009 issue of People magazine:

“We didn’t know many vegetarians years ago. Not eating meat became the thing to do some places in the ’60s, but the movement is much bigger in the ’90s. Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food—that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?”
Of course, a vegetarian diet can be as healthy or unhealthy as any other, depending on dietary choices.  In fact, with proper nutrition, vegetarians may live longer than omnivores.  But chefs aren’t dietitians, I reasoned.  One only had to look at Paula Deen to know that.  Julia Child could have whatever diet she desired, and that’s not my place to judge.  What made my heart sink wasn’t her distaste for vegetarianism—it’s reasonable for someone so dedicated to food to balk at the thought of restricting it—but rather her comment that the food was lackluster.  As a chef who taught her viewers how to prepare delicious vegetable dishes, why would she think vegetarians wouldn’t enjoy food like everyone else?

Still, I tried not to get worked up over her comment.  She didn’t have to share my beliefs, as I didn’t have to share hers.  I went back to Google and happened upon another unsavory event, this time related by Child’s friend and food columnist Molly O’Neill in a video entitled “Julia Child Battles PETA, Animal Rights.”   O’Neill related a visit that she and Child paid to a veal farm: 

“There was this--there was this big thing about veal, and PETA was going crazy, and there were these terrible stories about veal. And Julia insisted that, um, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the veal industry and that she and I would sail forth one day, and we would go and inspect a veal farm, which we did.

And, um, it was horrendous [laughter from audience] . . . I worked on a rescue squad, and that's the only reason I have seen worse things. And Julia thought it was great. And Julia would absolutely not bow to the fundamentalism of the animal rights movement because she didn't want to live in a world that was controlled by people getting power over other people and limiting a worldview. She had wonderful politics, social politics--she was a lifelong Democrat and very proud of it and very liberal--and she had some of the worst food politics I've ever been in a kitchen with [more audience laughter].”
I don’t support PETA’s methods of campaigning for animal rights—or their hypocrisy in those campaigns—and monstrous as I find the veal industry to be, I certain don’t want to create a world that’s “controlled by people getting power over other people and limiting a worldview.”  I have no right to try and stop people from purchasing meat, just as they have no right to shove steak down my throat.  What stung so much about the video wasn’t knowing that Child disagreed with the animal rights movement.  Rather, it’s knowing that she seemed to delight in the pain inflicted on the veal calves simply because it went against the morals of the animal rights activists.

I don’t expect the world to stop eating certain foods to suit me.  I just don’t think it’s too much to ask to acknowledge that each chicken leg or slice of bacon on the table was provided by the death of an animal.  And I expected that a chef who worked with that meat every day would respect that sacrifice.

It stings because I know that Julia Child was extremely skilled and I respect her talent.  She brought vibrant flavors and cooking techniques to an audience that had been content with TV dinners.  Even after death, her writings and cooking shows still influence both aspiring chefs and household cooks.  If it were Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri slamming vegetarianism, I wouldn’t care.  It’s only because of my respect for Child that her words hurt.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I haven’t experienced before.  It’s easy for me to avoid the films of Roman Polanski or Lars von Trier, for example, because I don’t want to support a rapist or a misogynist, respectively, and I haven’t watched their films, so I don’t feel the loss of them.  I never read the Ender’s Game series, so I didn’t suffer for the lack of them when I decided to boycott the works of Orson Scott Card after his horrible comments regarding homosexuality.  But I do respect Julia Child.  I’ve witnessed and admired her work and laughed at parodies of her on television.  She even voiced a character in a cartoon I watched repeatedly as a child.  There’s no doubt that she’s impacted how I view the art of cooking.

In the end, I find that I can’t dismiss her knowledge entirely.  The cultural impact and knowledge she provided are far too great for me to brush aside, especially considering that I’ve learned things from her as well.  But educational as she’s been, I wouldn’t feel right spending money on her works either.  For me, Julia Child can only exist on the public domain, and always with the knowledge of just how much our moralities conflict.

Of course, just like my diet, my resolutions of conflict are only my choice.  If you disagree with my views on the situation, or have handled similar moral dilemmas differently, let me know.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Postcard from Depression-Land

In my freshman year of college, writing was my anti-depressant.

Well, writing and Paxil, but it was the writing that provided instantaneous relief, and distracted me from my own thoughts.

Shy, neurotic, and over a hundred miles away from home, I spent my initial months in the dorm afraid to interact with anyone, wanting to go home and hating myself for being so upset over such an ordinary life experience.  My time outside of class was spent clinging to my roommate and the few friends that had come to Ball State from my high school, sobbing in a counselor’s office, or awkwardly sitting in the same dorm lounge as my friends’ friends, hoping to become comfortable with the group via osmosis.

The average day.
Toward the start of October that year, I began writing fan fiction.  I’d had ideas kicking around in my head for some time, and writing was a more productive use of my time then staring off into space and wondering why I’d ever imagined I could handle attending college.  I expected that no one would read the chapters I was putting online, and that I’d get about halfway through the story, lose interest, and stop.
Instead, I found myself receiving dozens of reviews per chapter, and finishing not only that story, but six sequels, several of which were novel-length, and a handful of single chapter works as well.  I became close to my reviewers and other writers I admired, exchanging emails and trading ideas.  And as I gained friends online, I became more outgoing in my face-to-face life as well, spending my time laughing and talking with dozens of others when I wasn’t in class.  The early days of depression and isolation were forgotten.

Or so I thought at the time.

Based on my own experiences, and those of others that have been recounted to me, I don’t believe it’s ever possible to be fully free of depression.  No matter what medications or therapies that are used to combat it, it’s always hovering nearby like Eeyore’s perpetual rain cloud.  The sun may shine brightly enough to make up for it, or you may be having such a good time that it’s easy to ignore, but there’s always a chance that it will start storming right over your head when you’re at your most vulnerable.

Recently, I had that experience myself.

The return of my depression seemed to coincide with writer’s block, though I can’t say if one caused the other.  I had been updating my writing at an average of a chapter a day for a year now, and it was only natural that I would run out of steam sooner or later.  Of course, I didn’t see it that way.  I saw it as laziness, as disappointing the fans who supported me.  This was my junior year of college, but I was still living in the dorms then, close enough to my friends and their interests to be mostly distracted from the self-abuse I would dish out every time I procrastinated on my writing.

It wasn’t until the summer, when I was away from that support group and living conditions, that I really began the downward spiral.

At work and with my friends, I was fine.  At home, I was a wreck, laying around the house and flipping through TV channels because the idea of doing anything productive with my time seemed too painful and difficult to consider.  I continued to mental yell at myself, now for being lazy and childish on top of not writing.  I lashed out at my friends and family unintentionally, and felt unable to confide in the people I was closest to about my depression.  There was nothing really wrong with me, I reasoned, I was just feeling sorry for myself and I shouldn’t burden others with my whining.

I expected to recover when I returned to college in August.  For a time, I thought I had.  I was excited to live in an apartment, though I was now isolated from the support system that had been so vital to me in my first three years at the university.  My roommates’ schedules kept us more separated than I had expected, and many of my friends had graduated.  Others had gone abroad.  I wasn’t just physically separated from campus, I was also emotionally shut off as well.  Add to that all the pressures of a senior year of college, and my continuing writer’s block, and you can probably imagine my mental health over the past few months.  I hadn’t recovered at all.  I’d just become so apathetic toward my sadness that it seemed like a normal part of my life.

It wasn’t until Sunday that I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt genuine happiness, when I was snapped out of my apathetic haze by two events:  One, a writer friend that I hadn’t heard from in over a year returned to the Internet with a new chapter, citing her depression as the reason for her absence.  Two, a blog that I usually turned to when I needed a laugh, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, broke its months-long hiatus with Adventures in Depression, detailing Allie’s own struggles with her mental well-being.

Only then did it occur to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had really smiled.  I might laugh at pictures I found when surfing the Internet, trying to distract myself from my listless apathy, but the emotion was gone the second the giggling stopped.  It’s like painting a rotting log gold: it might look good for a minute or two, but then the paint will flake off and what’s underneath will come right back out.  It seemed to me that there must have been times in the past few months when I had been truly happy, but I couldn’t remember how they felt anymore.  It was as if the depression were burrowing under my skin, sucking out every other emotion to sustain itself.

I had been robbed of the ability to feel good about doing anything I enjoyed.  And in tandem, my depression was preventing me from attempting things that brought me pleasure.  The same Sunday I realized I was depressed, I sat down at my laptop, intending to write the first fan fiction chapter I’d have worked on in months.  I opened a Word document, stared at the blank page, and immediately closed it.  My conscious thought was I can’t do this, because subconsciously, for months on end, when I sat down to write, there would be a voice in the back of my mind mocking my efforts:  Oh, you’re going to write something now?  Good luck with that, I’m sure your readers will really appreciate you finally updating, assuming they haven’t all quit checking your page.  Yeah, I bet that’s going to be a real work of art you’re typing there.  Go ahead, see how that works out.

That absolute sense of futility is, in essence, the core of my depression.  It’s easy to look at a depressed person and decide that they’re lazy, preferring to wallow in self-pity.  There is no way to adequately explain, to someone who hasn’t felt it themselves, how painful even the easiest tasks, like going to class everyday or taking a shower, feel to those in a deep depression.  It’s akin to being trapped at the bottom of the ocean: you might see the light if you look up, but you can’t move toward it when you’re being crushed from the pressure of the water.  I even beat myself up for my inability to function at these times, because after all, there was nothing visibly wrong with me.  I should have been able to move on with my life.

Then came Allie’s blog post, and the realization that I’d been depressed for so long I’d forgotten how life felt otherwise.  That brought back the tears and the crippling sadness, which I never thought I’d be happy to feel again.  But as long as I was feeling, it was an improvement.  I posted on my Livejournal about my condition the next day, to explain my months of silence, and the reception I received there made me genuinely smile for the first time in weeks.

Which brings me to why I’m posting here.  Depression, in part, is such a monster because it’s invisible.  People caught up in their misery like I’ve been don’t want to bring it up for fear that their unhappiness will be branded as silly, or something they need to get over.  I suffered for months on end with that line of thinking.  But I’m reaching out now, and I’m not going to suffer in silence any longer, nor encourage anyone in pain to avoid reaching out.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Different Sort of Halloween Princess

Yesterday I attended classes as a princess.  An Amazon princess, to be exact.  Princess Diana of Themiscyra, better known in pop culture as Wonder Woman.

Why Wonder Woman?  A better question for me would be why not.  I love Wonder Woman.  She's brave, powerful, compassionate, and willing to kill to protect others while still always striving for peace first.  Plus she has an invisible jet.

That, and I thought her costume would be challenging to sew.
It was.

While dressed up as a superhero, I learned a number of valuable lessons, such as that one must always be prepared for battle.

Even in your own apartment.  

 That super villains lurk around every corner.

Even if they are soft and cuddly and sleeping at the foot of your bed.
But threats don't just come from villains.  Anyone could be after you, even your own family.

The golden lasso does restrain house cats, but just barely.
I also learned it takes a supreme amount of balance to walk around in those boots all day, and that if you're brave enough to leave the house in Wonder Woman's attire, and able to ignore cat calls, you will not only have an awesome day, but people will give you candy for your bravery.

All in all, Halloween rocks.