You are what you eat, so they say, and what you eat defines you. On the road north from Tartu, I would often pass a sign with a curious bespeckled cartoon face and a bubble above in which was written, "Fuck milk. Go Vegan!" The sign always made me angry because it was in English, and so was aimed at tourists or truck drivers from foreign lands. They didn't have the common decency to figure out how to spread their message in the national language! Or perhaps it was intelligent for the animal rights activists to go after them rather than the Estonians, because the day the Estonians forsake verivorst in favor of tofu blood sausages en masse is the day I win the Eurovision Song Contest.
The gulf here in perceptions concerning food between the well meaning cosmopolitan who has eschewed factory farming and all of its ills and the average Estonian is vast. I know many people in Estonia who are largely responsible for their own food supply, hell, they give it away to us, in the form of smoked meats and fish, gallons of sauerkraut and apple juice, cartons of potatoes, carrots, and beets. If meat is murder, then our neighbors and family members in Estonia are guilty as charged -- they raise the animals and slaughter them as they wish, they pull the fish from the lakes, smoke them and gobble them up.
Could I really pull one of them aside and say, "Hey, buddy. Fuck milk. Go Vegan?" No I couldn't. The larger ideas that have led Global Citizen X to abstain from animal products on principle would be lost on the rural Estonian who maintains his own food supply, animal and vegetable alike, much as his fathers before him. And that's what makes "food totalitarianism" objectionable to me. In my heart, I am a traditionalist. No verivorst for the Estonians, no chorizo for the Spaniards, no pepperoni for the Italians? Again, food defines us, and to abandon millennia-old recipes for tofu cutlets is to cast off one's heritage for the culinary equivalent of Star Trek, to boldly go where no man has gone before, a diet without animal products, the final frontier.
I wrestled with these ideas while reading Jonathan Saffran Foer's landmark Eating Animals, contemplating an Estonian translation. Would it sell? Would the audience be receptive? Is it my civic duty as a global citizen to present alternative viewpoints to the northern European blood-eating masses? The author resides in Brooklyn, where the only farmland left has been turned into an open air museum, and one has access to animal-free food products at the snap of his fingers.
But Brooklyn is far and away from Viljandi. One fellow I know here in town is"Jutukas Kalev," so called because he is jutukas, talkative, meaning that he never shuts up. He lives on the edge of the city in a ramshackle dwelling beside a condemned barn where he makes apple juice for his patrons, you bring him the fruit, he gives you the raw by-product, that's his business. During one of his many soliloquys, which generally focus on local police department corruption, he explained how he only uses searasv, lard, to grease his frying pan, because the dairy products are too expensive. "Who can afford butter in this economy?" he said, thrusting an apple-grimed finger in the air. I just nodded and paid him. It's the best thing to do.
"Would Kalev buy an Estonian translation of Eating Animals?" I pondered while leaving his property, three large containers of raw juice in the back of my car. "Would he 'fuck milk'? Would he 'go vegan?'" In a word, no. Kalev didn't seem like a reader I could count on. Too bad, because there are a lot of good points in that book and many others that recount the horrors of factory farming because they are, well, rather horrific. And some of it hits close to home. There is a pig factory across the lake. On certain days you can smell the death and shit wafting through the air.
Yet some things are changing in E-land. Local activism has recently pushed food producers into selling sausages that are "e-vaba," minus dreaded "e" chemical additives, emulsifiers and food colorings and "flavor enhancers," stuff your great grandmother's great grandmother wouldn't eat. Don't forget, just as an animal product-free life is one futuristic pipe dream, the yellow #5 reality we inhabit isn't too far from being another form of science fiction.
As for me, I live in limbo, the shadowy borderlands between the totalitarian food regimes, scorned by the vegans and the hot dog contest judges. It has become apparent to me that a diet comprised of too many animal products is unhealthy. One need not completely "fuck milk" to appreciate that soy and rice-derived products are easier on the constitution. Moreover, the more I read about traditional lifestyles, the more I see how much our ancestors valued precious animal products. Shepherds in the Italian countryside ate their pasta with eggs because they were starved for protein. The bulk of their diet consisted of fruits and vegetables. Whether or not their protein source was the product of a chicken's menstrual cycle, or disrespectful toward these sacred birds, didn't enter into it.
So here I am at the checkout line at Selver on a Tuesday afternoon, a schizophrenic shopper, buying soy milk and regular milk together, buying packages of tofu cutlets and salmon steaks, and real butter too, because I am lucky enough to be able to afford it. That graffiti on the road out of Tartu still annoys me, because it was in English, and also because it seemed so far removed from the lives of men like Jutukas Kalev. At the same time, I like the vanilla-flavored soy milk because it goes down easy and, most importantly, because it tastes good. I'm glad that I am able to buy it whenever I want. My satisfaction trumps all.
(Itching for Eestimaa, Tuesday October 16, 2012)