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Moby on 16 years of meatless living

Moby doesn't let the politics of cool get to him. Silliness ruled the night at the Warfield on May 6.

 
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Moby and KFC clip

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Gregory Dicum, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"I run into a lot of people who are instantly filled with ridicule at the idea that someone wouldn't eat meat," Moby told me last week, when he was in San Francisco touring in support of his latest CD, Hotel. Moby and I are both vegans, so our conversation had naturally turned to meatless living. "I've been doing it so long that it's just second nature," he continued. "Now, almost every city in the Western world has good vegetarian, or even vegan, restaurants."

Veganism -- living life without using any animal products, from meat, milk, fur and leather to the more obscure gelatin and isinglass and even honey -- is complete vegetarianism. Vegans are vegetarians who go all the way. Although the word vegan has been around since 1944, the practice has entered mainstream American consciousness only during the past decade. Vegan celebrities like Moby and (his polar opposite in every other regard) Pamela Anderson can take some credit for this recent popularity, but the meatless lifestyle is hardly a fad.

According to a Harris poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, 4 percent of people in the western United States never eat any kind of meat -- they're vegetarians, although many eat milk or eggs. The same survey found that a third of all vegetarians are vegan. In the Bay Area, this means there are at least a hundred thousand of us. Chances are you know a vegan or two, and, sooner or later, you'll wind up sharing a meal with one of us.

Certainly Moby, who has been vegan for more than 16 years, enjoys his visits here. "My two favorite vegan places in San Francisco are the really obvious ones," he told me, "Rainbow Grocery and Millennium Restaurant. Rainbow used to have what is possibly my favorite food on the planet -- this vegan focaccia that had roasted onions and roasted red peppers and garlic. They don't have it anymore, but it's still an amazing place."

"One of the great things about being in the Bay Area," says Michelle Anna Jordan, author of the "Veg Out Vegetarian Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area," "is that there is almost no restaurant that can't feed you. If you're a vegan and you tell someone you're a vegan, they'll get you something good." One in a series of vegetarian city guides, "Veg Out San Francisco" lists more than 100 restaurants in the area for the growing number of non-meat eaters.

Moby's veganism has been a constant thread through a career spanning countless styles of music. Boasting collaborators ranging from Elton John to Metallica, and whether racking up performances in front of just a handful of people in punk rock clubs or before 2 billion people during the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, his message, in one way or another, has reached around the planet.

"When I think of the fact that literally tens of billions of animals are killed every year for human purposes," he says softly, "part of me wants to go out and join the Animal Liberation Front [a militant group that breaks into labs and factory farms to release the animals held there]. But on a utilitarian level, I realize that to try to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people, sometimes we have to become salesmen for what we believe, and part of being a salesman is being effective."

To that end, Moby's approach to communicating his message has evolved. Animal Rights, an angry, dissonant album, sold poorly when it came out in 1996. But in 1999, with the infinitely more accessible, danceable Play, Moby hit platinum. And with every copy of Play comes a concise, heartfelt plea for the welfare of the planet's animals. Because millions of copies of that album have been sold, its booklet is probably the most widely read vegan treatise ever. And now Moby is taking the message a step farther.

In 2002, he opened Teany, a cozy vegetarian tea shop in his Manhattan neighborhood that immediately became a popular hangout. This year, Moby released "The Teany Book." Part recipe book, part scrapbook, with the familiar style of a friendly blog, it's an easygoing handbook to the vegan good life. Right after a recipe for rich (but of course eggless and milkless) chocolate cake, you'll find pictures from a Teany tea party for Lulu, "the cutest little girl in the entire world." A recipe for a peachy white sangria promises "the kind of everything-is-going-to-be-OK feeling that only sangria can give you." There's nary a mention of suffering animals or the environmental devastation wrought by meat production.

"The number of vegetarians seems pretty stable, but the number of vegans is actually increasing," says Joe Connelly, founder and publisher of VegNews, a San Francisco-based national lifestyle magazine. (Connelly, who has been vegan for more than a decade, is also the original Green columnist). "It's a natural progression," he says. "Anyone who goes vegetarian will eventually lean toward veganism: They will see the connections and understand them."

That's certainly the route I took. First, I eased off meat for environmental reasons. A few years later, I stopped all dairy, just to try it out. I felt great, and never looked back. Perhaps it's the logistical element that makes this such a popular route to veganism -- rather than change your diet completely, it's easier to transform it, one ingredient at a time.

Connelly also says that new categories, such as "flexitarians" -- people who eat meat only when they go out -- or "pescetarians" -- people who won't eat animals other than fish -- are part of a tacit popular endorsement of veganism's premise: that it is better to avoid animal products.

Though no official arbiter of what it is to be vegan exists, the term's social meaning is emerging. "Veganism is a choice," says Connelly, "so it's not that inaccurate to say that it's a lifestyle, but it's also so much more than that. Philosophy is closer."

For me, making the choice six years ago to use no animal products led to some surprising changes in my life. After laying off meat and dairy, I found I was more open to understanding animals as living beings. When I couldn't bring myself to kill a clam that had been sentenced to the chowder pot, I realized I had become vegan. Call me a wimp, but it seems to me that if you can't look a creature in the eye (or siphon tube, in the clam's case) and take its life, then you have no business eating it -- especially when the consuming is not even remotely a case of subsistence.

That's what led me to giving up leather -- that, and the emergence of chic vegan shoes and clothing from boutiques such as Otsu, a sunny storefront in the Mission that has helped revamp the City's vegan style quotient. The shop, which opened in 2002, is part of a wave of new expressions of the vegan life in the Bay Area.

There are vegan magazines, like VegNews, vegan artwork, like Lart Cognac Berliner's dreamy sketches, vegan music, vegan porn and vegan dating. We have vegan ice cream sundaes at Maggie Mudd in Bernal Heights, where vegan mommy groups bring their little charges for a treat. We have vegan meatballs at Safeway, and even vegan options at several of the area's soup kitchens.

The spread of the vegan parallel universe is most obvious in the supermarket. "The availability and selection of vegan foods was much less when I became a vegan," Connelly points out. "I mean, now you can go into 7-Eleven and get soy milk."

But Connelly also says it's much more than just about food. "Veganism's just getting more acceptable," he continues. "The path has been paved, and it's only going to get wider."

It's a way of defining ourselves that stretches all the way from the sharply-put-together yoga-limbed set that enjoys ordering raw dishes called I Am Worthy and I Am Flourishing at Cafe Gratitude to the raggedy anarchists at Food Not Bombs, who you'll find dispensing free vegan food every weekday evening to a decidedly less flourishing, if no less worthy, crowd near San Francisco's City Hall. From Pamela Anderson and Moby to me and all our fellow vegans, we've been brought together by a recognition that how we engage the world means something, and that being aware of what we put in our bodies is the first step toward changing the world.

"One of the hallmarks of our culture is that we're so far removed from the means of production of just about everything that fills our lives," Moby said to me. "So the people who do eat meat really know in the back of their minds that it's produced in a barbaric, unethical way, but they've never actually seen it firsthand. My challenge to anyone who is a hardcore meat eater is if you're so devoted to being a carnivore, why not visit a slaughterhouse to see what you're eating?"

Moby is also motivated by the environmental impacts of animal husbandry. "The main environmental argument for not eating meat for me personally is deforestation," he says. "The primary cause of deforestation in the third world is to create grazing land for cattle. Then there's the amount of waste that is produced by factory farming -- not just animal waste, but all the antibiotics and pesticides. All the chemicals that go into trying to keep a factory farm from being just a septic mess all get washed into the water supply."

It's all this thinking about the bad things in the world that can sometimes make vegans seem threatening (or annoying, depending on how you look at it). Certainly, vegans exist out there who think that hectoring their friends about the misery endured by laying hens is going to get the perpetrators to cheerfully give up omelets -- but that kind of attitude isn't inherent to veganism. "Strident people might become vegan," Joe Connelly says, "but vegans aren't by nature or by definition strident."

Moby, who says he's been through his own strident-vegan phase, now thinks that's not the best way to reach people. "Before I became a vegan," he says, "if someone had come to me and yelled at me, and told me that the way I was living was wrong, I would have just become defensive. But if someone had come to me in a very even-tempered, respectful way, and made me think about the way I was living and the way I was eating, and maybe given me information that I could think about on my own, I would have responded a lot more positively. It's just respectful communication."

"You should feel good when you're vegan -- you shouldn't have to apologize for it," adds Joe Connelly. "The reality is that if you're eating a healthy diet and you're a vegan, you are leaving less of a footprint on the Earth."

 Moby Interview by HSUS
You've been inspired by Moby's music,
 now get inspired by his message about humane living.

 

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