Things I Know 2 of 365: I am not a vegan

Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can’t even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won’t allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can’t reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that.

– Frank Reese, Farmer

via Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

When I was a freshman in high school, I announced to my mother I was going to become a vegetarian.

I told her the idea of eating meat after all the dissections we’d done in biology classes grossed me out.

She understood what I was saying, but suggested there might be another reason for my dietary shift. Betsy, the girl I was trying to date at the time, was a vegetarian, and my mother suggested this might be a more likely catalyst for my decision.

I argued ardently against this line of reasoning.

Now, older and wiser, I can admit she was correct.

Almost 15 years later, Betsy is married with two children, and I’m still a vegetarian.

What’s more, I’ve watched pretty much every food documentary out there, read the best of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and the rest.

Whereas misplaced teenage lust was the impetus for going veg, the decision to stay that way has come with a fair amount of research.

I should say, because it needs saying, I’ve never been a proselytizing vegetarian. In college, after explaining the idea of eating flesh grossed me out, I claimed the notion of killing animals didn’t bother me at all.

Just typing that now helps me to see what kind of dork I was in college.

Still, I’ve never been one to spread the good word of vegetarianism. If you want to be all omnivorous with your bad self, have at it.

I’ll be at the salad bar.

Then, in October, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

It was the first time I’d read someone make the moral argument for vegetarianism that made me care.

“Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer wrote. And, it started to get to me – even as a vegetarian.

From the moral argument, to the ecological argument, to the nutritional argument, to the sustainability argument – Foer put it all in front of me.

And so, on Black Friday, I decided to conduct an experiment. For one month, I would eat a vegan diet. Suddenly, I couldn’t distance myself from the treatment of the animals producing the dairy or egg products I’d told myself were acceptable because none of them was killed.

So, for one month, I ate like a vegan.

I read about veganism.

I visited vegan websites.

I talked to vegans.

I went to a vegan restaurant.

And, I have to tell you, it felt pretty good. After two weeks, I noted an uptick in energy, and my body felt lighter.

On the downside, I was a pain to choose a restaurant with. Plus, I needed to eat. All. The. Time.

Taking the processing out of my food meant my body didn’t take as long to, well, process it.

In the last week of my experiment, I was seriously considering turning vegan. On the drive from Philadelphia to Illinois, I had a rather lengthy phone conversation with Ben who cautioned me against being fanatic about the whole thing. After we talked, I did a gut check. Nope, not fanatical.

When I walked in my house, my parents ran me through the list of vegan foods they bought at the specialty food store to make certain I’d have enough to eat throughout my stay.

The decision was getting easier and easier.

My mom even made a special dish with rice pasta to take to my grandparents’ annual Christmas Eve celebration.

At my grandparents’, I realized I am not a vegan.

I care about the effects of factory farming, and I realize my place and the part I feel compelled to play in working against a treatment of the land and animals that would set my great-grandfather rolling in his grave.

At the same time I was reading Eating Animals, though, I started reading Nel NoddingsCaring.

And here’s why I can’t be a vegan.

Faced with the corn casserole and the sugar cookies shaped and decorated to look like each of my grandmother’s grandchildren, I realized I care about animals, but I care for my family and they care for me.

In the face of the feast prepared by my family and the reasons for that feast, I realized saying, “I’d love to try a cookie, but I’m not sure where the eggs came from,” wouldn’t quite be in keeping with how I want to honor the care my family shows me.

I allowed myself a 48-reprieve from the experiment. I focused on enjoying the company and offerings of family. The day after Christmas, I picked it up again.

I’m sure there are those who would argue I’ve violated my rules. Maybe I did. When the rules are arbitrary, though, I am uncertain as to how much it matters.

And here I am, again a vegetarian.

Only now, I’m working to be more thoughtful as to the source of the eggs and dairy I choose to consume. The politics of food and what I say when I decide how to feed my body are trickier now than they’ve ever been before. The stakes are getting higher. They require, as so many things do, thoughtfulness – not fanaticism.

6 thoughts on “Things I Know 2 of 365: I am not a vegan

  1. Jennifer – Veganism does mean eschewing animal products and by-products.MrChase – I really appreciate your thoughtful reflection on this vegan experiment and that you didn't come out of it saying “wow, veganism is a cult!” or something else equally incendiary and stereotypical. I too started out being vegetarian and sometimes vegan in high school, went back to being an omnivore, then at one point went completely vegan and have never turned back. That was over five years ago. I've since explored why I went vegan in the first place (here's a post on my expat blog I did on that very subject: http://netherendingstory.tumbl…), but the reasons for my decisions have changed over the years as I think and re-think my ethics. Mad Cowboy by Howard Lyman pushed me over the edge into a more sensible way of eating and living, but Jonathan Safran Foer's book was incredibly powerful to me even as a vegan. I felt he articulated in many ways my own feelings and philosophies about why I can't bring myself to knowingly eat animal products. And it was an incredibly honest book. Damn, I wish I could write like him. At this point in my life being vegan is part of an overall effort to stamp out oppression where I see it. To me, all oppression is oppression, whether it's of women, animals, socio-economic groups, etc. While I started this vegan life because I learned that dairy production funds the veal industry with an endless supply of male calfs (I can't help but think of this when people are eating cheesy meals and say “I don't eat veal.”) and the layer hens subjected to battery cages and other inhumane treatments, it has evolved and I'm sure it will continue to do so. I'm sure it's going to be tricky as you try to navigate truly ethical supplies of dairy and eggs with this new knowledge (and in my opinion you will never find a truly ethical source of dairy unless you adopt a farm cow that accidentally gets pregnant and starts producing milk), but it's good that you have this experience behind you and can cook more vegan meals at home and understand the “why” behind your food choices. I think I dropped off the vegetarian wagon after high school because I wasn't doing it for any particular reason – I didn't understand the “why.” Now that I do it's kind of impossible for me to un-know those things and eat any way other than vegan.I'm not sure if you've seen this message board before (http://www.veganbodybuilding.c…/), but there are a lot of vegan athletes on there and you might find some help dealing with that “hungry all the time” thing. I never experienced that, but folks that work out more and follow vegan diets are probably more experienced in dealing with it. My answer is to make sure you're getting enough healthy fats (avocado, nuts) and protein-rich stuff in meals (beans, tempeh, seitan), but I'm not a nutritionist! Good luck as you navigate this new life as a more thoughtful (and certainly not fanatic) eater. It's heavy to have this knowledge and much easier to stick your head in the sand and ignore it as so many people do, but I feel much happier knowing I'm doing all that I can to stamp out oppression on multiple levels. PS: I agree – vegangelicals never do a good job of helping explain why veganism is good. Thoughtful, logical, understanding, sensitive – that's the way to educate.

  2. I'm pretty sure that you just solved the whole middle east peace issue… “Thoughtfulness, not fanaticism.”I'm glad that our conversation was of value. I really enjoyed talking it through with you. I am also very interested in what comes next for you as a consumer. I feel as though it may end up influencing my choices as well.

  3. Zac,I absolutely LOVE this post. Not because I am vegetarian or vegan (I very definitely love me my animals to watch, play with, study AND eat). But rather I admire the THOUGHTFULNESS and PURPOSEFULNESS with which you have approached – and continue to approach – this life choice. And am in awe that you allowed yourself the flexibility to change your actions without necessarily changing your values, but simply acknowledging the ascendancy of some values over others at certain times. I was raised in a very straight, black and white world and I've been struggling to give myself that permission over the past year. Your post added fuel to my mental fire and helped me birth my own latest blog post (over at 12amusings).I think knowing WHY you take certain actions, besides acknowledging the myriad CHOICE involved, also helps you later in life when the world become even less black and white, when the shades of grey become as varied as the colors of the rainbow. If you ever encounter something similar to the extreme situation that Tasha did with her veganism (recounted here:…), you may not face as deep as crisis simply because you are comfortable with the questioning and thought process behind your actions.My hat's off to you, sir. Bravo.

  4. Pingback: Ch-ch-ch-Choices « Midnight Musings

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