Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vegetarian Vampires (again)

OK, so I'm working on this chapter.  And doing so is making me have to watch Twilight, which makes me want to put my head in the oven.

But seriously.  Here's the first bit.  There's much more, but if I put it all up, you'd probably not read it.  You may not read it anyway.  Which is fine.

Vegan Vampires: The Politics of Drinking Humans and Animals in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and True Blood

I used to fancy that life was a positive and perpetual entity, and that by consuming a multitude of living things . . . one might indefinitely prolong life.  – Renfield, Dracula

It is, of course, impossible to discuss representations of vampires in Western culture without discussing Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.  In fact, it is largely – if not wholly – because of Stoker’s novel that “vampires belong to a modern popular folklore that few will admit to believing but that has become part of a way of thinking about and ordering our vision of the world around us” (Hallab 9).  The veritable cottage industry that is the production of literary criticism about Dracula[i] has provided a vast array of theoretical readings of Stoker’s vampire’s symbolic significance within the context of Victorian era England.  As Mary Y. Hallab notes, Dracula has been read as “the tyranny of patriarchy, the power of the corrupt aristocracy or the nouveau bourgeois capitalists; he represents decadent foreigners, Slavs or Jews; he is a homosexual, a social outcast, even a mother, and he is dangerously erotic” (2).  Critics have read Dracula through every theoretical lens imaginable, from psychoanalytic, to Marxist, to feminist, to queer, to postcolonial, and the continued persistence of scholarship about the novel points to its literary, cultural, and psychological significance. 
In this multiplicity of perspectives, there is but one work that examines the novel’s politics of consumption via a vegetarian critical lens. “Love at First Beet: Vegetarian Critical Theory Meats Dracula,” a 1996 piece by J. E. D. Stavick, explores the novel in terms of the ways that it disrupts the food hierarchy present in Western culture, one that “privileges bloody meat, especially beef, over all other food” (24).  Slavick’s essay draws on the vegetarian critical theories of such authors as Julia Twigg and Carol J. Adams in order to trace a Victorian politics of meat – of which Jonathan Harker is very much a part, as he chronicles from the very beginning of the novel the kinds of meat he eats as he travels towards and inhabits Dracula’s castle.[ii]  Through an analysis of the ways that Dracula consumes those who consume meat, Stavick posits a vegetarian theoretical argument influenced by both Marxist and postcolonial theories:
The threat to English consumption is the threat of reverse colonization, which in this text is manifested in the vampire invasion of England by the powerful consumer “Other,” Count Dracula, who threatens England with his violation of the meat hierarchy. (26)
Taking Stoker’s Dracula – and Slavick’s vegetarian critical theorizing of it – as my starting point, I want to examine the vegetarian and vegan politics that are both implicitly and explicitly present in three contemporary popular cultural representations of vampires, Joss Whedon’s 1997-2003 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephanie Myer’s Twilight saga (2005-2008), and Alan Ball’s HBO series True Blood (based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlene Harris), which first aired in 2008. 
While Stoker’s vampire kills and feeds without remorse on human beings, his late twentieth and twenty-first century counterparts – Angel, Edward Cullen, and Bill Compton – refuse this seemingly essential component of vampiric existence.  Furthermore, while diets devoid of animal products were gaining prominence in Stoker’s nineteenth-century England “under the leadership of such enthusiasts as Sylvester Graham . . . and Ellen G. White” (Stavick 24), vegetarianism and veganism have flourished since that time, and have, as I have indicated earlier in this study, entered the mainstream popular cultural discourse in profound and often contradictory ways that disrupt hegemonic assimilation.  If the figure of the vampire changes over time to accommodate whatever “our society shuns, but secretly demands” (Thorne 4), then vampires that eschew both murder and the consumption of human blood – and in the case of True Blood’s Bill Compton, animal blood as well – point, perhaps, to “our age’s fantasies of non-exploitative tolerance” (Tyree 32).  A chronological examination of these three texts demonstrates how the vegan/vegetarian vampire trope shifts over time as well as how the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” initially signify weakness, asexuality, or asceticism. But even as they become further and further removed from their original meanings, by the time we get to True Blood, vegan vampirism constitutes a fraught and powerful political stance, one that challenges and disrupts the hegemonic matrix of carnivorous, homophobic sexism prevalent in both True Blood’s fictional Bon Temps – where human beings reverse the discourse and consume vampires – and the very real United States. 

[i] An MLA search for Dracula on June 8, 2011 pulls 677 articles.

[ii] Stavick notes Harker’s notations about what he eats.  For example, on the first page of the novel, Harker comments that he eats “a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good” (11), and later he consumes “egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish” (12).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Plant. Is. Food.

Jason Sellers, that guy that I've been living with for well over a decade, opened Plant today, so most of this entry will be me bragging about him.  Jason is one of those people who just seems good at everything that he does.  He's one of those people I often envy for what appears to be an uncanny ability to do anything well.  Here's a case in point: we were hanging out at the Bywater with friends a few weeks ago.  The Bywater is this really cool concept bar/recreation area on the French Broad River.  I call it a kind of summer camp with booze: in addition to the bar, there's about an acre of land with picnic tables, horseshoe and cornhole games, grills, and fire pits.  You can bring your own food and grill out, sit by the river, play the games.  You can bring your dog.  You can tube down from the Wedge, climb out of the water, and head into the Bywater -- at least that's what a whole cadre of folks had done the day we were there.  I haven't tried it yet, but I will.

As an aside, I worry a bit about the fact that the grounds are laid out as follows: bar, railroad track, river.  Sound like a recipe for disaster to anyone other than me?

No river, here, but you get my point, right?

There's a bimini ring toss game as well, the goal of which is to swing a ring tied to the end of a string in such a way that it lands on a hook attached to a wall.  This is not an easy task.  I stood there and threw the freaking ring over and over and never got it on the hook.  Jason took one practice swing, then a second, then got the ring on the hook.  And then did it over and over.  In exasperated and highly competitive frustration, I gave up and got another beer.

So it's this sort of thing that seems unnerving to me, Jason's ability to do things with such seemingly little effort.  But the truth is something altogether different -- and the ring toss example works to explain it.  I just kept throwing the ring, thinking that if I just threw it enough times, it would land on the hook.  Which it didn't.  If it had, I would have then gone back and then tried to replicate the process by which I succeeded. And that's my method with most things: produce a lot of scholarship, for example, hope that some of it is good, then go back and replicate the model on which the "good" is based, then get bored and move on to something else.  I hang pictures on the walls by trial and error, thereby leaving lots of holes, rather than measuring anything out.  I have a tendency to believe that many things that I do are good enough to suffice and don't necessarily need to be better, to be perfect.

I actually find it odd to write these things; I've always considered myself a perfectionist -- and perhaps in some ways I the ways that have to do with appearances, with wanting to appear competent and capable of everything that I do.  But in many essential ways, I'm not.  I'm happy to let things slip; I'm happy, for example, to paint the bathroom walls without taping the trim, even if it means that I get some paint in the wrong places.  It saves time, even if it's not perfect.  And perhaps this is about being a bit of a risk taker, or being impulsive, or being just this side of dangerous.  Or perhaps it's just about being sloppy.

Not Jason.  Jason's the antithesis of sloppy.  Jason measures everything that he does, and he weighs all the options before acting.  He got that ring on the hook on the third try not only because he considered the problem of the ring and the hook -- the weight of the metal in his hand, the length of the thread, and his position relative to the wall -- before he let it go, but also because he paid careful attention to what he did wrong the first and second times; he doesn't come at things backwards, doesn't allow himself to continue to make errors.  He gets it right because he takes getting it right very seriously -- perhaps moreso than anyone else I know.  And once he gets it right, he keeps working to get it more right.  He got the ring on the hook, but maybe he could get the ring on the hook with his eyes closed.  Maybe he could get the ring on the hook using his non-dominant hand.

So back to Plant: Plant is vegan.  Plant is a restaurant based on an ethical principle to which Jason adheres absolutely and to which his business partners, Leslie Armstrong and Alan Berger, adhere as well.  And that ethic is, in fact, the driving impulse behind the place.  Jason had been a long time vegetarian when I met him in 1997; we became vegan after we moved to Massachusetts in 1999.  And Jason has always been a chef at heart, has always been interested in food and in the politics behind how and what we eat.  He went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet in Manhattan in 2004, and he worked in the city at Candle 79 before moving with me -- very much against his heart's desire to stay in New York -- to Asheville, where he became head chef and kitchen manager at the Laughing Seed.

Leslie, Jason, and Alan.

Jason has been working to get it right for a long time, and he's succeeded in ways that seem inconceivable to me.  And I should know: I've been present for the entirety of his culinary journey.  The food that he's making now is the food he's always wanted to make.  It's delicious, savory, entirely plant based, and incredibly refined in both presentation and flavor combinations.  One of my friends declared, after eating lunch there today, that the space in which Jason works should be declared a holy pilgrimage site.

For Jason, getting it right is still something that can be improved upon; getting it right is just another place from which to start.  And I can't wait to see what happens now.

Oh, and Anthony Bourdain is coming to town, or so the rumor goes.  If he shows up, I'm sending him an invitation to Plant.  Bring it.