The case of the media pioneer who didn't shut up and eat his veggies | Bleader

The case of the media pioneer who didn't shut up and eat his veggies



Now and then someone asks me to name the biggest scandal I ever uncovered. I pause, ostentatiously rack my memory, and always come up with the same story. In June of 1997, I wrote a Hot Type column announcing the new publisher of In These Times, the Chicago-based journal of the Left. Owner James Weinstein gave the job to Paul Obis, who'd founded Vegetarian Times in 1974 and raised it from a newsletter to a magazine with a circulation of 350,000.

It didn't much matter to Weinstein what Obis did or didn't eat. But he had readers who cared deeply. One was the reader from Virginia who'd recently asserted on the ITT letters page: "Bigotry on the basis of species is no more justifiable than bigotry on the basis of race, sex, religion or sexual preference. We on the left need to root out our own species' biases and embrace animal liberation with the same vigor with which we embrace human struggles for justice."

This reader would have been delighted by Weinstein's choice—until he got to the end of my column.

Here are the last few fateful paragraphs.

Weinstein launched In These Times 21 years ago, and he's personally underwritten it ever since. But he's 70 now, and he wants to cut back and write a book. He liked what he saw in Obis—"He's not better than I hoped for, but he's better than I expected to find"—and invited him to lunch.

Obis ordered a hamburger.

A hamburger?

"You better ask him what happened—if he wants to tell you," Weinstein said ominously.

"My wife broke her leg about three years ago," Obis began. "The parents of my children's classmates organized a dinner brigade. The first night they brought over Swedish meatballs. I thought, 'I can't eat this stuff!' My kids thought it was great— they'd had enough tofu in their lives. The second night they brought over roast beef, and I thought, gee, maybe I should say something. The third night they brought over something else, and it dawned on me, the food they're bringing over is spiritual food—and it would be so rude of me to say anything other than thank you and eat what I was given.

"Thomas Moore said sometimes your own self-righteousness can get in the way of spiritual progress. I decided it was time to change. Twenty-two years of tofu is a lot of time. Just being a regular guy had become more important to me than being Paul the Vegetarian. I wanted to go to Wrigley Field and eat a hot dog, and I wanted to accept this food being given to our family and be grateful for it."

Do you like meat? I asked.

"Yeah. I'll tell you, I thought all the meat replacements tasted exactly like meat, because I hadn't tasted meat in 20 years. But after I had my first roast-beef sandwich from Johnnie's I thought, 'This doesn't taste anything like TVP." My wife and I many years ago were the vegetarian entrants in the Royko Ribfest, and we fought to have gluten ribs at the Ribfest. We thought those things were just great, but Royko said they tasted like pencil erasers. And being vegetarians for so long we thought, 'they taste like ribs to us.' But in recent years, when we have Charlie Robinson ribs—I'll tell you, they taste a lot different from what we were making."

A stricken reader wrote in: "If 22 years of being a vegetarian was only 22 years of eating tofu to Mr. Obis, then he never had a spiritual connection to a nonviolent way of eating, and undoubtedly is unable to have one now!" From a second letter writer came a similar critique of Obis's blighted soul: "Obis goes too far when he describes his reemergence into the land of meat eaters as a 'spiritual' experience. Exactly what is so enlightening about eating the toxic flesh of animals?"

A third correspondent then had his way with both sides. After letting it be known it was ridiculous for anyone to enter a vegetarian dish in a rib fest, he added, "As for self-righteousness and spiritual progress, whether one's motivation for being vegetarian is purely spiritual, purely physical, or somewhere in between, if one wants to take pride in the fact that they are vegetarian, they should also keep in mind the fact that pigeons are also vegetarians."

That was it from the scandalized public. But for Hot Type, back in the era of snail mail, three letters was a pretty good haul.

Read more from Vegetarian Week:

Kevin Warwick's cover story, "Eat Your Veggies," a collaborative guide to vegetarian and vegan Chicago.

"But you can eat turkey!", by Kate Schmidt

Centered Chef: another veggie-friendly resource, by Kate Schmidt

"Seriously, hold the honey: Should vegans stick to their guns?" by Kevin Warwick

"On flexitarianism, a Thanksgiving first, and various levels of vegetable-based obsession," by Mara Shalhoup

"One bite: Phoenix spicy tofu stir-fry," by Mike Sula