Things I Never Understood, or, The Makings of a Vegan

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Things I Never Understood

I used to suffer through it: sometimes silently, sometimes very loudly. Why must there be turkey on my sandwich? Or salami? Why must we grill hamburgers? I loved all of my vegetables: my parents made sure that my brother and I had a fruit and/or a vegetable at every family dinner along with a big ol’ glass of milk.

I always finished up the leftover veggies and fruits after eating an amount of the animal meat that would satisfy my parents. Sometimes the animal meat did taste appetizing, but it was only certain types, and usually the taste was hidden underneath vegetables, cheeses, or sauces.

Ground beef? Nope. Lunch meat? Nope. Pork chops? Nah. Hamburgers? No way. Steak? Nope. Hot dogs? Only if they were burnt and slathered with ketchup. Chicken? Only if it was cooked certain ways, or breaded and deep friend. Seafood was something that I did enjoy as my family often vacationed on the coast and I was exposed to fresh seafood from an early age.

What a challenge I must have been for my parents: a child who would only eat her veggies and fruit (and carbs)! Especially for a mother who doubled the amount of meat required every time she made Hamburger or Tuna Helper to ensure her children got enough protein! I taught myself how to cook rice by the time I was 10 years old – not the instant kind, but the kind that takes the better part of an hour on the stovetop. I was actually cooking and preparing food from a young age as my brother and I were tasked with preparing our own school lunches throughout most of grade school, but I also began preparing meals to eat on the weekends that were largely meat-free.

The years after grade school were tumultuous: I was hell bent on self-destruction for many years, and was more on the rebellious side throughout my teenage years. However, complaining about having to eat meat and refusing to eat it at times was never a conscious act of defiance for me, even during those years. It was always something that intuitively never felt right. Even during those years, I would choke it down as it was the norm: it was what everyone did.

I have many memories of going out to restaurants and looking longingly at the salads and entrées advertised as “vegetarian” on the menu. The descriptions sounded amazing. But then at the last minute, I would hear that voice in my head of my parents and the adults and people I knew about a need for protein, for a need to have animal meat at every meal. Some people had the fear of God in them; I had the fear of animal-protein deficiency. So at the last minute, I would order a chicken entrée or a seafood entrée.

My meal would come out, and I’d choke it down, sadly and silently disappointed by the lack of fruits and vegetables. The focus of the meal was always first and foremost on the dead animal with maybe a handful of broccoli florets as a garnish.

But that last part – the recognition of the dead animal being served to me – wouldn’t come until much later.

I was exposed to a video called “Meet Your Meat” at a New Years’ Eve Party by a punk rock friend of mine when I was a junior or senior in high school. This was one of my first glimpses into the factory farming of animals, and while I was concerned about the conditions and treatment of the animals, I was able to put it out of my mind and return to eating meat in the way I had before. The animals suffered in order to make it to my plate and I suffered eating them. Maybe I felt their pain. I can never be sure.

 

The Makings of a Vegan

Veganism for me happened slowly: in stages, and then all at once. There is no clear timeline for when I bit the bullet and adopted the title, although the official date I go by is January 24, 2013. The truth is that I’m a stubborn broad, and it took me a long time to realize that I could do exactly what I wanted to do.

Fast forward to graduate school: I went away for school, and though my last stint as a vegetarian had ended my junior or senior year of college, I was mostly keeping vegetarian with an occasional meal that included animal meat. I admired vegans for their dedication, but too many of the ones I’d met up until that point all seemed to be cut from the same mold: they were heavy into DIY and punk rock ethos, and were very vocal about telling others about how bad they were for eating animals and animal products. Interactions with these “holier-than-thou vegans” as I dubbed them left a bad taste in my mouth for the lifestyle and kept me away from it for a very long time. Besides, what would I be able to eat on such a restricted diet, anyway?!

Books about food and nutrition became super popular around the time I was in library school (2009-10), and I devoured the requisite Michael Pollan, watched Earthlings, and re-watched “Meat Your Meat” time and time again. I was growing in so many ways at this time – becoming more comfortable with myself, making healthier decisions, and for the first time was able to find people with whom I could have the types of deep conversations necessary to explore issues that I had always considered but never felt fully comfortable discussing.

Keishua was one of the people with whom I had these kinds of conversations. We shared a common interest in food, both eating and preparing it, and would discuss factory farming, food production, and the communal and philosophical aspects of food. Through this increased knowledge of sustainability and the realities of the food industry, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before I gave up animal products completely.

I began to realize that maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult to completely cut out all animal meat from my diet: I was already keeping a vegetarian kitchen, and the dishes I ate containing animal meat, as I was quickly learning, could easily be replicated without the animal products and still taste great. I decided to gradually become vegetarian by cutting out animal meats in March 2010, to eliminate seafood by my birthday in August, and eventually go full-on vegan.

The first part of the plan was executed smoothly, and then I made a mistake.

I had planned for my trip to San Francisco that summer to be my last hurrah; my last time eating seafood.

Right before I left for the trip I finished reading this new book that just came out: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Do pick this up if you haven’t already … or maybe, don’t.

It may have been my experience, but any seafood I tried to eat during that trip to San Francisco tasted so horrible to me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy sushi. I was vegetarian from then on out.

Eating Animals was one of the first times if not the first time I had come across the cold hard facts about what happens to the oceans and the creatures in them in order to bring back shrimp and fish, not to mention information about levels of toxicity and pollution. I had had a vague idea before reading this book, and I think it’s having just that vague idea of what really goes on: what animals endure, the processes involved, the overall impact on the environment, and so on, that keeps many people eating animals. Being presented with cold hard facts, and especially reading through the list of 145 species regularly killed when killing tuna* – made it something very real.

I had seen videos showing animals being abused, animals being kept in cages so small they couldn’t turn around, watched animals being dropped in boiling water still alive, read about sustainability and the necessity to eat lower on the food chain, learned about the high percentage of antibiotics given to animals on factory farms and the outcome of their over-medication, learned about the link between the factory farm industrial complex and diseases such as e-coli … but reading about the oceans was the final straw.

The ocean, the sea, and water in general has always been sacred to me, and to learn that in this final frontier there is no sacredness; that there is still this poisoning, this lack of respect for the earth and the creatures we share it with; that man could let hundreds of species die in his pursuit of profit, at the death of another creature, no less, was the tipping point for me. I no longer wanted to participate or contribute to a culture that was the cause of such suffering, pain, death, and destruction. I was opting out.

—-

In spring of 2011, I was out of library school and back home in Cincinnati temporarily living with my mother. I was basically eating vegan, save any products that may accidentally have honey or milk or eggs in them. The hardest parts at the end for me were monetary, communal, and hesitancy to commit. I found myself making compromises: for instance, grabbing a slice of bread that might have honey in it. Communal aspects were similarly rough to navigate. I encountered situations that brought up questions such as, what if I’m hanging out with my dear friend who, like me, is living paycheck to paycheck and going out of her way to accommodate my diet and feed me, but she only has things that are vegetarian (not vegan)?

So I stayed vegetarian for a while, eventually transitioning to pre-making lots of food and bringing my own meals/snacks whenever I knew I’d be gone for a good amount of time or I was going to a party where there would probably be no vegan options.

I started attending monthly vegan meet-ups organized through the Cincy Vegans group during this time.

These meetups were great for getting the 411 on the vegan lifestyle, vegan cooking, vegan (and healthy) events around the city, support, and networking. These meet-ups are how I got linked into World Peace Yoga Studio, and a lot of other things going on in the vegan/activist/hippie community around town. And at these meetups I was exposed to vegans and vegetarians from a variety of backgrounds, who were open-minded, and didn’t look down on me for being fully vegan yet. They understood that it was a process, and were willing to share their stories and tips. (If you have a vegan community available to you, definitely link into it! There are definitely some really great, compassionate, and supportive people out there. Also: vegan potlucks. Need I say more?)

I grappled with my lack of commitment to going fully vegan for such a long time even though I was basically 95% of the way there. One day I just kicked myself in the butt and did it. I was very concerned about becoming a “holier-than-thou vegan” even though I had met many vegans who were anything but, and I worried about how veganism would change me. The term “vegan” comes with a lot of connotations, and going vegan is quite a commitment.

I was also worried that once I went there, I would no longer know who I was. Once I crossed that line from vegetarianism to veganism, would I become so radical that I would be unable to relate to anyone who wasn’t vegan? Would I become so incredibly divisive that my only friends would be only other vegans? These questions might sound extreme, but food is much more about what’s on the plate – or what isn’t. There’s food culture, communal aspects of eating, and in my case that whole “ fear of animal-protein deficiency” to take into consideration, among other things.

In terms of divisiveness: yeah, it happens. The form I see it taking most often is during the times someone will try to “challenge me” or “prove me wrong” about being vegan, or hand me a slim Jim in an attempt to upset me. I’ve learned that you have a choice in anything that you do, and I still choose to be as inclusive as I possibly can; to self-disclose rather than impose, and to forge relationships with many different types of people. I will educate and help others when they are truly interested in veganism, but I try to not feed into any divisiveness.

As it turns out, once I committed to going fully vegan, I did still know who I was. It wasn’t who I was before I went vegetarian, exactly, but I started to become more myself than I had ever been. It was a transformative process rather than a decision –  and for me, that’s just right.


*Section from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

BYCATCH

Perhaps the quintessential example of bullshit, bycatch refers to sea creatures caught by accident — except not really “by accident,” since bycatch has been consciously built into contemporary fishing methods. Modern fishing tends to involve much technology and few fishers. This combination leads to massive catches with massive amounts of bycatch. Take shrimp, for example. The average shrimptrawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, as bycatch. (Endangered species amount to much of this bycatch.) Shrimp account for only 2 percent of global seafood by weight, but shrimp trawling accounts for 33 percent of global bycatch. We tend not to think about this because we tend not to know about it. What if there were labeling on our food letting us know how many animals were killed to bring our desired animal to our plate? So, with trawled shrimp from Indonesia, for example, the label might read: 26 pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean for every 1 pound of this shrimp.

Or take tuna. Among the other 145 species regularly killed — gratuitously — while killing tuna are: manta ray, devil ray, spotted skate, bignose shark, copper shark, Galapagos shark, sandbar shark, night shark, sand tiger shark, (great) white shark, hammerhead shark, spurdog fish, Cuban dogfish, bigeye thresher, mako, blue shark, wahoo, sailfish, bonito, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, longbill spearfi sh, white marlin, swordfish, lancet fish, grey triggerfish, needlefish, pomfret, blue runner,black ruff, dolphin fish, bigeye cigarfish, porcupine fish, rainbow runner, anchovy, grouper, flying fish, cod, common sea horse, Bermuda chub, opah, escolar, leerfish, tripletail, goosefish, monkfish, sunfish, Murray eel, pilotfish, black gemfish, stone bass, bluefish, cassava fish, red drum, greater amberjack, yellowtail, common sea bream, barracuda, puffer fish, loggerhead turtle, green turtle, leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, Kemp’s ridley turtle, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Audouin’s gull, Balearic shearwater, black-browed albatross, great black-backed gull, great shearwater, great-winged petrel, grey petrel, herring gull, laughing gull, northern royal albatross, shy albatross, sooty shearwater, southern fulmar, Yelkouan shearwater, yellow-legged gull, minke whale, sei whale, fin whale, common dolphin, northern right whale, pilot whale, humpback whale, beaked whale, killer whale, harbor porpoise, sperm whale, striped dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, and goose-beaked whale.

Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.

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