From California: “Attractive, ovo-lacto vegetarian female, 38, 5’7″ seeks tall, white male . . .”
From Louisiana: “It has been very hard going. . . . Southern cuisine is heavy in meats and everything seems to have ‘a touch’ of animal in it. . . . I am ridiculed at work, teased in restaurants and constantly questioned about my foods, my reasons, & my sanity.”
From upstate New York: “I really don’t care how they feel towards me, because I know I feel happier and better inside knowing that I’m not eating the flesh of another living being.”
From Florida: “If I had it all to do over, I would not marry a man who insisted on eating meat. . . . My neighbor’s elderly mother subscribes to your magazine and may be a vegetarian, but I’m not sure. She is very hard of hearing and doesn’t get around. Her magazine was delivered to us by mistake and I wrote down your address and then subscribed. She is the only possible vegetarian I know.”
From California: “A friend and I just completed a cross-country trip and found two items to be indispensable: our Rand McNally Road Atlas and The Essential Guide to Dining (July VT). Without the guide, we never would have found our way to several terrific restaurants in highly carnivorous and hostile areas of the country.”
These seekers are not addressing some guru in San Francisco or a clearinghouse in Boston. Their personal ads, letters, confidences, and questions come pouring into a second-floor office in downtown Oak Park. Here, in half a dozen bright, cluttered, but spartan rooms strung along a hallway above a greasy spoon and a pet store, is the home of Vegetarian Times, “The World’s Leading Magazine for Vegetarians.”
In return, these seekers get reassurance from Oak Park. It’s comforting to have a slick monthly (circulation 133,000) support your eating philosophy with stories about famous vegetarians, from Leonardo da Vinci to Killer Kowalski. And they get resources–the magazine’s ubiquitous and luscious-looking recipes, its news, its nutrition features, its dining guide, and even handy tips on coping in a carnivorous and hostile restaurant. “Eat a small portion of something hearty before you leave home,” advises associate publisher and executive editor Sally Hayhow. “Then order a good-sized salad. . . . In these times, you will probably remain inconspicuous; people will assume you are just dieting.”
Some vegetarians want to stay inconspicuous, some don’t. The desire to eat little or no meat doesn’t seem to go along with any other cultural or political predisposition. At least, that’s the conclusion of 36-year-old VT founder, publisher, and editor in chief Paul Barrett Obis Jr. “Personally, we all like to hang around people like us. My kids go to a Montessori school. I’m working in Paul Simon’s presidential campaign, and I listen to National Public Radio. But in fact I know that our readership is much more diverse than that. I’m sure we have some Republicans.
“We ran a handgun-control ad”–Mrs. James S. Brady’s plea for help against the NRA occupied all of page 56 in the October issue–“and about a dozen people wrote in and canceled their subscriptions. I was very surprised by that.
“Vegetarians are a very diverse group. They come from all economic and social groups; they can make less than $12,000 a year or more than $1 million. They can be from age 14 up into their 70s.”
They don’t come in droves from the midwest, though. Vegetarian Times once interviewed National Geographic photographer and vegetarian Bob Madden, who “had traveled extensively,” wrote Obis, “throughout the world, taking photos of everything from South Pole icebergs to Nigerian grass huts and Tibetan yaks, and only rarely encountered a problem in finding suitable vegetarian meals. When asked where he had the greatest difficulty, he replied, ‘The Middle West.'” The magazine’s own dining guide lists more vegetarian restaurants in Seattle, Washington, than in the states of Illinois and Wisconsin put together.
So what is the country’s top (and almost only) vegetarian publication doing in Oak Park? In large part it’s here because its founder is a Chicagoan. But that accident, Obis believes, is one of the magazine’s strengths. “Fads start on the coasts. Midwesterners are more pragmatic and conservative–less likely to jump on the next hemline.”
In the same vein, Obis has described vegetarians as “very mainstream people.” Since I had always thought of “No meat, please” as a step out of the American mainstream, I asked what he meant.
“Oh, I suppose, they have kids and have a mortgage. Many different people constitute the mainstream.”
You mean, there are a lot of people in the mainstream that you might not have expected to be there?
“Yes. I never expected to be there.”
Paul Obis ate his last hamburger sometime during 1970 in a Burger King on Broadway. “It was during the Vietnam War,” he reminds me, “and everybody was saying things like, ‘Suppose they gave a war and nobody came,’ and ‘Don’t pay war taxes, because even that small amount can buy an M-16 or a round of ammunition.’
“So I was thinking about how the small things we do all add up into the big things. If one person throws out a piece of paper, it’s just a piece of paper on the ground, but when everybody does it, we have a litter problem. I was sitting there, eating, and I thought, ‘A lot of people in the world don’t eat meat. How many cows will I eat in my lifetime? I don’t have to contribute to this’–and I left without finishing that burger.”
This was a pretty big step at a time when (as Obis wrote recently) “most vegetarians were into eastern religions or were Seventh-Day Adventists.” Seventeen years ago, “antiwar literature was abundant, but vegetarian cookbooks were few and far between. Diet for a Small Planet, Laurel’s Kitchen, Moosewood Cookbook and the other vegetarian classics had not yet been published. Bill Shurtleff, author of The Book of Tofu (published in 1975) and other books, was discovering natural foods at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. . . . There were but a handful of natural food stores, most of which sold vitamin supplements and protein powders for weight lifters. There were no meatless ‘convenience foods’–whole-grain mixes, tofu entrees or veggie burger mixes. There was no such thing as ‘lite’ foods, except for sodium-free ‘dietetic’ items (the packaging made it look like a prescription was required). Soymilk was virtually unheard of and even yogurt was a rare item.”
Obis, a pharmacist’s son from conservative Melrose Park, was attending the University of Illinois at Chicago during the years when his eating habits turned around. He was finding his way from pharmacy (“in chemistry 101 the guy was talking about things I already knew from high school, and I didn’t understand them”) to philosophy (“until I realized that all the philosophy and social science majors I knew were driving cabs or flipping burgers”), and finally to nursing (a can of beans fell on his head at work, requiring four stitches, and “the guy at the emergency room who took care of me was a nurse”).
“I didn’t know any other vegetarians,” Obis recalls. “So I put up a few signs in health-food stores: ‘Vegetarians, lettuce unite.'” In spite of the signs, he met some fellow non-meat-eaters, who took to having potluck meals together regularly. In 1973, just before their turkey-free Thanksgiving, they sent out some press releases and snagged a big bite: Channel Seven trundled its cameras up the stairs to put the veggie eaters on the evening news. Obis wrote up a flier about the Thanksgiving publicity coup “just to show we were doing something. . . . I began to think that vegetarians should have a publication of their own. I couldn’t find one.”
Obis had time to do some writing in addition to his nursing, getting his work published in the Chicago Seed, Chicago Express, and the Triad Radio Guide. For the early Reader he parodied the pseudomysticism of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books and offered a first-person vignette in the life of a caffeine addict. But when he came up with a story close to his heart–“Being a Vegetarian Is Never Having to Say You’re Sorry–to a Cow”–neither the Reader nor the Express was interested.
“So I thought, ‘Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.'” He put together a four-page handout, called it Vegetarian Times, and–not owning a press–had 300 copies run off at a north-side quick-print shop. “It cost $17, and I got two subscription coupons back, $6. I thought that was kind of neat, and I was working as a nurse, I could afford to lose a little money on this.” At the time he had a less-than-onerous job in a first-aid trailer at Loyola Beach. The half-dozen or so people who would wander in on an average day rarely had a problem more serious than a piece of glass in the foot. The rest of the time Obis was free to write. The little “magazine” grew from 4 pages, to 16, to 24, and its circulation inched upward, too. “Stores in other cities began to carry it. We’d get a subscription from Boise, Idaho, and say, ‘Wow! That’s really something!'” Somehow, though, the original article whose rejection had sparked the whole project disappeared without ever finding its way into print.
VT appeared irregularly (subscriptions cost $5 for 12 issues), and it managed a tone that was both lighthearted and countercultural, even militant. Issue number 13 (December/January 1976) reported on a direct action undertaken by 25 University of Michigan students–probably not vegetarians, but perhaps fellow travelers. At lunchtime, they marched into a new McDonald’s in Ann Arbor and “swallowed a combination of mustard powder and water. This induced ‘vomiting in unison’ according to one of the participants. He went on to say, ‘We hope this gut-level action leads people to question the nature of McDonald’s and other corporations that foist plastic food on the public.'” The Vegetarian Times reporter concluded, “Despite the widespread support for their actions, the group was criticized by some people on the grounds that it caused unnecessary clean-up work for the employees.”
On a more pacific note, Ellen Sue Spivack wrote in issue 12 (October 1975), “The more I embodied vegetarianism, the more I realized that it was not merely diet. It became a spiritual/ethical/compassionate/political/health issue. In short, it became my lifestyle. I could no longer separate my vegetarianism from other aspects of my life.”
Neither could Paul Obis. “For three or four years it was a labor of love,” he says. The magazine was printed at Salsedo Press on the near west side. “I didn’t have a car. I’d ride my bike down from Rogers Park, give them the boards [from which the magazine would be printed], and pick up the copies a week or so later.
“I would actually take the boxes of magazines–an entire press run of 1,000 or 2,000 copies–one on the handlebars, one on the rear, and a big backpack for the rest.” He muscled them back to Rogers Park, where he would stay up all night mailing them out. The seemingly perpetual shortage of nurses enabled him to work for a nursing agency, “so I could call them up and set my own hours for when I wanted to work.”
But even love lightens labor for only so long. “After about number 19, around 1977, I was really about at the end of my rope.” VT was by then a 56-page bimonthly with 10,000 readers. But only two of those pages were advertising, and the magazine’s $5,000 debt was hard to repay on a nurse’s salary or with the magazine’s $50,000 annual gross income. “It was taking up a lot of my time and my girlfriend’s time. I thought, here I am, 25 years old. I should be spending time skiing or with my girlfriend in Madison. Here I was in the office all the time.”
Rather than send the product of his activist youth down the tubes, Obis sought out a New York publisher. Associated Business Publications had all of three employees when it took on VT, but, says Obis, “with an office in a Park Avenue skyscraper, it looked big-time to me.” The agreement was fairly simple: ABP took over the debts and agreed to continue publishing, and if things went well they might later start paying Obis a salary for continuing as editor. “We bought 80 percent of the magazine for assuming $6,000 in debt and two sacks of unopened mail,” recalls ABP president Bill Schnirring.
The magazine was published out of New York for eight years. (Obis and his wife, Mariclare Barrett Obis, now the magazine’s food editor, returned to the Chicago area after a year to be closer to family.) Obis not only got paid, he got an education in the business of publishing, to which he had paid little attention before. “I learned the importance of advertising. I learned that you never, ever, under any circumstances spend money unless you have to. It was ingrained in me over many years that you should barter for everything, money is dear, and free-lancers work for next to nothing. As the magazine grew, we learned and grew together. . . . I owe a lot to those guys.”
In eight years, ABP multiplied the magazine’s circulation eightfold and its gross revenues twenty times, to over $1 million, and brought it out monthly with 15 to 20 pages of advertising per issue. Vegetarian Times was growing like a squash vine in August, but its expenses grew even faster, and the magazine lost money in seven years out of eight, running a $60,000 deficit in 1985. Obis suspects that part of the problem was that some members of the New York staff didn’t understand their market.
“About 75 to 80 percent of the people working here [in Oak Park] are vegetarians. In New York, it was sort of a joke–‘Oh yeah, the vegetarians.’ There they were publishing NASA Tech Briefs and Convenience Store Merchandiser. Where did we fit in?” When the magazine did get staff attention, it wasn’t always favorable. Obis recalls asking ABP’s circulation director how often Vegetarian Times readers moved. “She’d say, ‘You know, Paul, it’s really disgusting. Your readers move around so much.’ And someone having trouble with their subscription would deal with a department managed by her. I think some of them thought that all vegetarians go barefoot and live in trailer courts.”
Meanwhile, the magazine’s contents were edging slowly into the mainstream. Issue number 26 (July/August 1978), in a much more spacious format, still included “Activist Notes,” compiled by the organization American Vegetarians–in which Nellie Shriver described the time she resisted arrest to save the life of a 25-year-old tree in her neighborhood. Another item urged readers, “Save your lawn, save the environment, don’t mow it. If your municipality has an ordinance which says you must mow your grass, don’t believe it. You have a constitutional right to keep your lawn as long as you’d like.”
Articles denouncing animal experimentation and the pesticide 2,4,5-T rubbed elbows with the indispensable recipes and a review of the bottled-water industry. (Such juxtapositions are less likely to be found today. Carol Flinders, an occasional contributor and author of Laurel’s Kitchen, accurately reflects the magazine’s philosophy: “It just doesn’t work to mix beautiful tofu quiches with pictures of mutilated cows.”) Among the seven full-page ads in that 26th issue was an esoteric back-page appeal on behalf of the “Biological Pacificism” of Japanese PhD Hisatoki Komaki. The ad urged, “Let us organize “SALT: The American Friends of HISATOKI KOMAKI for the Salvation of All Living Things’. YOUR ‘PLAN’ (BLUE PRINT) IS URGENTLY NEEDED. Send us a copy of your plan for the ‘Salvation of All Living Things’, with the carbon copy to Japan.”
By March 1983 (number 67), the paper was slick, Ben Kingsley (as Gandhi) was on the cover, and the 13 full-page ads included nothing odder than vitamin supplements for pets. “Activist Notes” had vanished (and the “Vegetarian Astrologer” had appeared), but many of the features still carried a sharp edge–a review of the Endangered Species Act, excerpts from some of Gandhi’s own writings, and a plainspoken interview with Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer:
“Vegetarianism for me is a protest. . . . protesting against everything which is not just: about the fact that there is so much sickness, so much death, so much cruelty. My vegetarianism is my religion, and it’s part of my protest against the conduct of the world. . . . As a matter of fact, if there would come a voice from God saying, ‘I’m against vegetarianism!’ I would say, ‘Well, I am for it!'”
The magazine’s future became an issue in 1985, when Schnirring got the chance to publish NASA Tech Briefs and Obis bought the rights to publish Soyfoods magazine himself. (“I thought I’d like to buy another publication and do it my way.”) Schnirring decided that in these circumstances VT wouldn’t get the attention it needed from ABP and that he would sell the perennial money loser. Obis considered the alternatives with some trepidation, and finally took the chance to buy back his baby. He arranged an affordable buy out, to be concluded that October, but at the last minute the publisher of Pest Control magazine appeared on the scene, offering more money and a bigger share of it as down payment. (“We have readers who freak out over killing cockroaches,” marvels Obis. “It seemed real incompatible to us.”) After a tension-packed last-minute showdown in which both would-be buyers arrived in New York bearing checks, ABP decided on Obis. The other purchaser, says Obis, did offer more cash, “but he was an unknown quantity,” and ABP needed to sell to someone it knew could keep the magazine afloat and make payments on it. “There was no question about my dedication to the magazine,” Obis says. “I’d lose everything if it went under.”
It looks as though ABP made a good choice: since buying the magazine back on January 6, 1986, Obis has raised circulation to 133,000 (he’d like to hit 200,000 by 1990), and the annual gross to $1.5 million. More to the point, by consolidating offices outside of high-rent New York, hiring a new advertising director, and renegotiating the printing contract, Obis has brought in enough new revenue to make regular payments to ABP and toward retiring the old printing debt, to give the staff raises (bringing them up to the industry standard), and to turn a profit.
The audience for this? Obis tells the trade publication Media Management Monographs, “The advertising we attract is aimed at people concerned about health, people who want to eat better, people interested in the welfare of animals and people dedicated to environmental issues. In that order. What I’d like to get is advertising from some of the big food companies–H.J. Heinz [in the November issue], Kellogg’s, Ocean Spray, Quaker Oats. Most vegetarians are very mainstream people. They’re interested in such products. . . . We’ve great potential in the baby boomers who are starting to get paunchy and are asking how to regain their lost youth.”
There are no hard figures as to just what this potential might be. Depending on the survey and the definition of a “vegetarian,” there may be as few as 2.5 million and as many as 6 million vegetarians in the United States. A more dependable sign of the times is that although total American meat consumption is up (from 205 pounds per person in 1982 to about 216 in 1987), the beef and pork portion of that total is down from 144 pounds in 1985 to 138 in 1987. Bill (The Book of Tofu) Shurtleff, an admirer of Obis and his magazine, sees this as part of a historic shift: “I think we’re in somewhat the same position today with respect to diet as we were to slavery in the mid-19th century. In about 20 years Americans swung from being basically proslavery to being basically antislavery. I think the same thing is happening with meat eating. Ten years ago people were proud they could put steak on the table three times a week. Now they’re proud of cutting back.”
Even in this favorable “lite” environment, Obis is reluctant to engage in evangelistic vegetarianism. He displays with rueful amusement the hard-sell propaganda from United Kingdom vegetarians: a gory but obviously posed “butcher” poster (“Murder Most Fowl”) and lapel buttons, one showing an unattractive haunch of meat on a plate surrounded by a red pool (“Keep Death off the Plates!”).
These days Obis prefers the carrot to the stick. “People don’t want to be preached to. I can hardly read Mother Jones.” VT’s approach is more service oriented; the magazine functions almost like an organization, an approach that meets the approval even of more muckraking publishers like Doug Moss of the Animals’ Agenda. “People call up all the time,” says Obis, “asking things like, ‘Where can I eat in Denver?’ One actor called up–he was about to go on tour and he’d lost his July issue [with the dining guide]. He had us Federal Express him another copy.”
The current issue (December 1987, number 124) features on the cover vegetarians Madonna and the late reggae artist Peter Tosh, along with “Appetizers With Pizzazz,” “25 Holiday Recipes,” “The Challenge Facing Older Vegetarians,” “Vegetouring Philadelphia,” “A Look Back at 1987,” and a pullout section on culinary herbs. This is not the editor in chief’s favorite issue; Obis wants more food and fewer celebrities on the cover, and more hard news inside. Once the magazine expands to a regular 80 pages in February, he’d like to interview leading presidential candidates on “issues of concern to vegetarians,” and follow up in 1989 with profiles of the new surgeon general and agriculture secretary. “We provide readers with recipes they can’t consistently get anywhere else,” he says, “but it shouldn’t all be cakes and cookies.”
“By definition,” wrote Obis in an editorial in the September issue, “a vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat.” Not everyone reads the dictionary, though: in 1985-86, the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed a sample of women aged 19 to 50, asking first, “Are you a vegetarian?” and following up with, “Do you avoid certain foods?” and a list to choose from. According to USDA nutrition analyst Kathryn Fleming, “A lot of the people who said they were vegetarians did not avoid red meat. Evidently some people think that ‘vegetarian’ means that you like vegetables.” VT staffers know of one person “who called herself a vegetarian because she trimmed the fat off her steak.”
But Obis is not trying to educate the truly ineducable; his editorial was directed to those who want to call themselves vegetarians even though they still eat fish and poultry. This, he declared flatly, is “folly.” It weakens the word, it weakens the concept, it corrupts the essence of vegetarianism: “Adopting a vegetarian diet means making a positive decision about life–about your life and the lives of other living creatures.
“Vegetarianism celebrates life. Ask any fish.”
Obis is rarely so doctrinaire, and he acknowledges that eating just fish and poultry is often the first step toward true meatlessness (it was in his case). In any event, he can’t afford to be doctrinaire. A large part of VT’s market is new vegetarians, near-vegetarians, and people just cutting back on meat. Even within the meatless confines, vegetarians again divide over whether they consume milk, eggs, or honey or use leather or other nonmeat animal products. (Those who don’t are called vegans.) Motive also divides them: some turn veggie for reasons of personal health, others because they think animals have a right not to be eaten. Health-oriented vegetarians may not care particularly about the fate of laboratory animals (and may be more tolerant of the occasional lapse into a baloney sandwich or ballpark hot dog); animal-rights advocates sometimes become “junk-food vegetarians” who won’t wear leather shoes but may sup on Cokes and cigarettes.
Vegetarian Times has resisted the natural pressure toward sectarianism, and in fact tries to educate each side of the movement about the other’s concerns. “I think one reason for our success has been that level of tolerance,” says Obis. “In some magazines, people say, ‘You shouldn’t drink milk’ or whatever, with a kind of hatred and self-righteousness.”
The trick is to draw the essential lines without casting aspersions. Vegetarian Times recipes may include eggs (never fish)–but the magazine’s dining guide indicates which restaurants offer strictly vegan options. And VT is surprisingly picky about the ads it runs: “As a food magazine,” writes Obis, “we will not run ads for organic meats, seafood and so forth; as a health magazine we do not accept advertising for fish oils, bone meal or glandular supplements; on grounds of reader protection we reject ads for get-rich-quick schemes and other ads simply because we don’t think they are appropriate. For example, we recently rejected an ad for organic tobacco cigarettes, and a classified ad from a couple seeking to adopt a white baby.” A few months back they turned down an ad for a wrinkle-removing cream–$50 per small jar (and the price was not specified in the ad)–that was said to have been tested on “injured animals.” (Obis and staff couldn’t help wondering where all the conveniently injured animals might have turned up.)
Such decisions are unusual in the magazine world and–at $2,000 per full page–are not made lightly. (The wrinkle-cream ad did run in one of VT’s advertising competitors, Let’s Live.) But even closer calls can arise. One advertiser, for instance, tried to sell rice to VT readers by displaying it on a platter with . . . pieces of chicken. “We told them it wouldn’t work with our readership,” says Obis, “and they sent a new ad. That could have cost us the account if they hadn’t been so understanding.”
Readers were not understanding when Prosteam bought half a page in the October issue to promote its steaming oven–and did so with a full-color picture of clams that had been steamed in their shells. VT had warned the company this was the wrong approach, but when the company persisted, Obis reasoned that they were selling ovens, not dead clams: if they wanted to do it in a less-than-effective manner that was OK. It wasn’t. “The dead clams in your otherwise life-promoting magazine stands [sic] out like a stain on a new dress,” wrote one of many readers accusing VT of selling out. The ad will not run again.
It may be relatively easy for Vegetarian Times to be picky about advertising because it has no head-to-head all-vegetarian competition (East West probably comes closest). As Obis says, “We are an extremely narrow-focus publication. It’s not just health foods, it’s vegetarianism. It’s not just fitness, it’s vegetarianism. It’s not just philosophy, it’s vegetarianism.” And in this narrowness there is strength. “If you want to reach people about herb teas, one of our readers probably buys more herb tea than everyone else on their block put together. Tofu? Maybe half the people in America don’t know what it is. Our readers use it three or four times a week.”
This watchfulness about acceptable ads is another sign that vegetarians don’t often see their choice as a casual one: it’s a matter of life and death. Health-minded vegetarians regularly credit the diet for their energy, and more: “We get calls all the time” at the Soyfoods Center in Lafayette, California, says Bill Shurtleff, “from people who say this [diet change] has literally saved their lives,” usually from heart disease or cancer. And “ethical” vegetarians–those for whom animal rights are a priority–take the lives of cows and clams at least as seriously as their own. There are other, subsidiary arguments for vegetarianism. One is that animals are (in Frances Moore Lappe’s phrase) “food factories in reverse,” giving out less protein than they’re fed, so it’s more efficient to eat the grain directly. Another is that the human teeth and digestive tract are better adapted to a (mostly) vegetable diet.
On the animal-rights and environmental side, the issues can become less clear, however, the more you think about them. Is it really more ethical to eat a salad, asks one VT staffer, that has been harvested with the aid of pesticides and peon labor somewhere in the third world, than to catch a fish from your own pond? Doesn’t cotton–a product supposedly acceptable even to vegans–in fact kill more creatures in its production than leather, because growing it requires enormous amounts of pesticides? And–if reverence for life is the basis for going veggie–why shouldn’t one be just as reverent of the life in a cabbage as in a cow?
Draw your own lines, responds Obis: “Your judgment won’t be by me.” The magazine refuses to be drawn into the more-vegetarian-than-thou game, with a tone that rarely hectors and is often humorous. December’s back-page feature, “Chew on This,” includes a cartoon of an outraged chicken stalking through the night, bloody ax held high–“poultrygeist” out to make stir-fry of the colonel. But the fun often takes a self-deprecating turn, too. Another monthly feature, “Sez Who?,” recently asked readers a series of yes-or-no questions in the familiar purifying vein:
“Do you consider yourself a vegetarian? Do you consume dairy products? Do you eat eggs? Do you ever eat fish?” Then the fine points: “Can a person who eats fish once a month be considered a vegetarian? Can a person who eats turkey once a year on Thanksgiving be considered a vegetarian? Do you consider consuming eggs and dairy products to be the same as eating meat?” And, finally, “Can a person still be considered a vegetarian if he bites his fingernails?” Some readers took the final question seriously, one asking in return, “But aren’t vegetarians less likely to bite their fingernails?”
More conspicuously, Berke Breathed drew a Bloom County cover for the November issue in which the usual suspects are gathered in a “Meat Free Zone,” munching on a Thanksgiving feast that appears to consist entirely of gone-to-seed white dandelion heads and salt. The cartoon plays to all the stereotypes about veggie dining–it’s bland, crunchy, monotonous–but according to Obis it drew far fewer reader complaints than the handgun-control ad.
With that light touch comes an ability to see human problems in a broader light than just carnivores versus herbivores. Also in last month’s issue, Obis chronicled the dilemma of “Alice,” who is both a vegetarian–“I won’t even eat Oreos because they’re made with lard”–and an executive in the animal-rights movement. The problem is Alice’s mother, who is kind to animals but no vegetarian. In fact, her favorite food is salami–and when Alice visits, she brings her mother a couple of pounds of the dreaded stuff.
Even five times a year, that’s enough of a deviation from vegetarian purity that some have accused Alice of hypocrisy and suggested that she should leave her job. She and Obis don’t agree with that view, however, arguing that her gifts may violate the letter of vegetarianism but that they’re in harmony with its spirit. “I’ve only got one mother and the salami is something she really enjoys,” she tells Obis.
“Philosophically I feel my vegetarianism encompasses a broader view–a view that says ‘I love you just the way you are.’ I suppose I could buy her flowers or something, but maybe by buying her salami I’m telling her that I am capable of putting her happiness above my philosophy. And really, I think this kind of love and understanding is what vegetarianism is really all about.”
Obis himself is so low-key that some of his nonmagazine associates don’t even know about his eating habits. “I know I used to be proud of being an iconoclast,” he says. “After a while–maybe it’s maturing or just getting tired–I don’t always want to answer the same questions for the hundredth time.
“I’m on the board of trustees at my kids’ school. The school has an auction every year, and a furrier was going to supply furs at cost so we could make a lot of money on them for the school. I said I didn’t think we should be involved in that. Another board member said, ‘Oh, the next thing you’ll be talking about how we shouldn’t be having meat either.’ And I said that, as a matter of fact, I don’t eat meat. I meet with these people twice a month and they don’t know.”
If that isn’t enough of a deviation from orthodoxy, Obis will not forbid his children to eat meat. “I don’t want my kid at 20 to say, ‘I’m a vegetarian because my father made me be one.'” In practice this doesn’t mean there’s meat on the table in the household, but if the family is out at the ballpark and the child wants a hot dog, he or she can have one. “I think they should make their own choices and be exposed to the options out there.” And most people above about age five just don’t think much about eating animals. (The Obises’ oldest, age nine, has so far followed in his parents’ footsteps, resolutely eschewing his school’s occasional chicken soup.)
These days, Obis’s magazine is no more overtly evangelistic than he is. “I’m not out to enforce my views on the world. We’re not like Jehovah’s Witnesses going from door to door. We’re more like the Catholic Church. When you want us, we’re here.
“Frankly, I think there are more important things in life than what we eat. Somewhere in the Bible it says that we’re defiled more by what comes out of our mouths than by what goes in.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.