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November 2003
A Tale of a Culinary Activist

By Melinda Fox


First and foremost, I am what one would describe as a “foodie.” Those familiar with the term already understand the connotation. I am someone who appreciates food. Good, fresh food, beautiful, flavorful and savory food, comfort food, trendy and classic food, cultural foods, and yes, even free food—as long as it’s vegan.

While the vegan part of the description hasn’t always been the case, the preceding part always has. Raised a fisherman’s daughter on the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my family was directly connected to its food sources. Fresh fish and shellfish were the norm while hunted game sporadically appeared on the menu. Vegetables—both fresh and home-canned—were an integral part of all meals, sometimes they were meals all by themselves. Not a single part of the culinary process was removed from the picture, from cultivating vegetables with constant weeding and composting to butchering the fish and animals. While we were not a particularly close family, we knew how to work hard and everyone had a job to do. A second freezer in the basement filled with a stockpile of packages for winter, and floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves with home-canned jams, pickles and relishes, were a source of continuous work and harvest. Back then, I thought it strange that others did not live like we did.

Later, I moved to Connecticut and lived with my sophisticated aunt who had a decadent taste for flavors from around the world. Olives, capers, mushrooms, fine chocolate, rich desserts, and wines and liquors were added to my repertoire. It was in this new home that I executed my first dinner party for my “lady” friends at age 16. Like many folks, the kitchen served as the heart of the home and a place I felt secure.

My first job in high school was managing a tiny gourmet cookie shop and ice cream parlor. The sweet smells and guilty pleasures brought in all kinds of people: professors, students, local professionals, blue-collar folks and kids of all ages. Strong interconnections began building for me. I realized that food brought people together, conversation and stories were shared, families interacted and memories were born all around the table! This had a profound effect on me.

After graduating from high school I attended culinary school in New York State. The pace was rigorous while the training was competitive and intense. This was my first exposure to classic technique paired with high-volume production. It was at culinary school that I first learned about what some renowned delicacies were made of and how farm animals were raised for food. Subsistence hunting, local permit fishing and grant shellfish cultivation were replaced by large-scale ranching, feedlots, hoggeries, battery cage facilities and long line fishing. These big producers are considered the royalty of the food service industry, and their influence permeated the school curriculum with endowments, presentations and purchasing incentives.

While I was overwhelmed by the glamour it brought to my new chosen profession, I was becoming concerned with the processes and scale in which animals were being utilized. My own eating habits began to morph. Beef was no longer an option after viewing my first propaganda video shown by the Iowa Beef producers, veal was unintentionally exposed as a cruel and shameful technique, and many of the choice delicacies like sweetbreads, caviar and foie gras were like something out of a horror movie. Little did my chef instructors or I realize a vegan and animal rights activist was beginning to emerge.

I began to limit what foods I would consume, prepare and enjoy as part of my trade, and this combined with the stress of long hours and few holidays or weekends off, began to take its toll on me physically, emotionally and socially. I decided I would hang up my proverbial apron to return to school to chart a new course of study in environmental and agricultural sciences.

Back in school, I was overwhelmed by how much my culinary experience permeated my studies by recognizing how what we eat is desecrating our world and our bodies. With a feverish momentum I began to organize for animal rights and vegetarianism on my campus and challenge the very ethics of the land-grant agricultural institution I was attending. Organizing, activism and vegan potlucks became the staples of my new life.

But, sadly, the art of the dinner party where my guests were captured at the table by fun, beautiful food and wine was a shadow of my past; and I quickly became disappointed with the few vegan options at local restaurants and the uninspiring selections at my health food markets. I desperately missed gourmet food that looked wonderful on a plate, and I noticed that many of my activist friends were unskilled in the kitchen and lacked fine dining experience. I was still budgeting generously with food bills but the return for what I was buying wasn’t as great as when I was an animal consumer. When I traveled, I realized there were more options in large cities for a gourmet compassionate consumer to work with, but it wasn’t happening in my town or at my friends’ homes.

After a few years of being depressed by sweets that tasted dry and earthy, cheese that was rubbery and would not melt, convenience products consisting mainly of hydrogenated oils and refined sugar, and worst of all, powdery egg-replacer, I decided to take back that part of my culinary life, and revisit the inspiration I once took from the words of culinary expert Craig Claiborne: “Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well one must love and respect food.” I began creating the type of inviting, exciting and flavorful cooking I was used to—veganizing old favorites, patronizing my local farmers market, incorporating high quality raw food products and building up my bastion of organic seasonings and condiments for more flair. I was again excited to host people; and today my guests—activists and family members—are themselves practicing the art of the table in their own homes.

While consulting a mentor in the movement about options to take my activism to the next level upon graduation, he said, “The best thing you can do for animal rights is to keep cooking amazing vegan food. Get people where their hearts and passions are with food and wine and show them that eating compassionately can be just as satisfying an experience.” Maybe he’s right, and maybe we can all be a part of that culinary phenomenon.

Melinda Fox is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and a recent graduate with a B.S. in Natural Resource Conservation. She co-founded Animal Activists of Alachua, the University of Florida’s only AR/Veg group, and hopes to keep inspiring AR/Veg activists by organizing locally and cooking globally.

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