I started to write this post to explain what vegan means to me. It is such a buzz word now, which is awesome(!) that it’s getting talked about, but I think it also lends itself to something that people don’t think about as much.
Once I started to write about our definitions of vegan, what vegan means to me and what vegan means to you, I realized that I couldn’t write this without giving more of my background. So, I’m dividing this up into 2 parts. The first part is my story.
It seems that everywhere I turn, there are different degrees of veganism. And, I hate to say it, but sometimes there is almost an edge, a competitive “I’m more vegan than you are” vibe. Let me clarify by saying that I
never rarely see this vibe in the wonderful, beautiful and vibrant vegans and vegetarians I know personally. Most are gregarious, kind-hearted, sympathetic wonderkinds. Which kind of fits why they’d become vegan in the first place—a love for all animals: 2-legged, 4-legged, 8-legged, fish-tailed, or winged. A love for animals and a passion to do something with and for that love.
With a flush of new vegan, vegetarian, and animal-friendly books just released, the most notable being Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals (#1 on my must read now list) and Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet (Also #1 on my must read now list), I’ve been thinking a lot about all these buzzwords: Veganism, factory farming, Michael Pollen, Animal Rights, Abolitionist Movement, vegetarianism, local, ‘free range’, organic, etc etc etc. The list goes on. I know where I stand on all these words and all these issues, and I am so thankful that I live in a country where I can have the time, resources, recipes, and outlets to educate myself on issues like what happens in these corporate slaughterhouses.
For anyone who liked Eating Animals and wants to know more, I
beg strongly encourage you to read Gail Eisnitz’s book Slaughterhouse. This book is heart-breaking and real and respectful and powerful. I respect Eisnitz to the billionth degree for this work of investigative journalism. Slaughterhouse unfortunately did not get the press it needed to become well-read and appreciated, which is a true shame. It is a powerful piece.
What is Veganism, and how did I end up there?
Veganism, to me, is not just a diet. It is not similar to an allergy to peanuts or wheat (as horrible as those allergies are). Veganism is not a way to lose weight, to gain weight, to make friends, to mask an eating disorder, or to push a bleeding heart agenda. Veganism is a lifestyle lived and believed in for the animals, for the environment, for our health, for everyone.
I’m a pretty sensitive and sentimental lady. I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, I never liked killing house bugs, (Run away, little spider! Run free!), I don’t like gore or death or killing or meanness or cruelty—I don’t like them in real life like most people, but I also simply can’t stand them in movies or books or stories. I’m just a big ol’ empathetic mess.
For that reason, I am so thankful every day that my mom raised my brothers and I as vegetarians. Not eating animals was just a natural manifestation of not being able to wash spiders down the drain or frantically moving all the worms off the sidewalk on a rainy day.
As a vegetarian kid I grasped the fact that I personally could not eat anything that had been alive. It wasn’t until later, when I met other vegetarians, that I heard the phrases, “I won’t eat anything with a face,” or “I don’t eat anything who had a mom.”
When my brother, who’s three years older than me, converted to being a vegan at 18, I thought it was cool. As the family baker, I just started baking everything vegan so he could eat it too. It wasn’t too hard for me—no more milk chocolate chips, use margarine (Earth Balance wasn’t around then) instead of butter, the Ener-G Egg replacer instead of eggs, and soymilk instead of cow’s milk. I hated the taste of soymilk at the time, but could never taste it in baking. When it came to cooking, I just left the cheese off of everything.
Though he was vegan, we never really talked about why. I never thought about where all those dairy products came from. Milk came from the grocery store, same as pinto beans and pasta. Eggs came from a friend’s farm, just like our lettuce and tomatoes came from our garden.
I continued eating eggs and cheese and drinking milk throughout college and the move to Connecticut for my Nature’s Classroom gig. I remember it being so incredibly un-vegetarian even, it was hard for me to eat. The only cheese to find in Andover was American Cheese, which I always just detested. Something about the texture was just so gross. My diet consisted of grilled cheese crusts (couldn’t eat the middle), egg and cheese bagels, salads with italian dressing, and lots of whiskey and cigarettes.
When I left Connecticut, I moved down to San Diego to live with my brother and his new girlfriend and her kids. Since my brother was vegan, and I was
being temporarily supported by living with him, I easily adapted a vegan diet. I was 22. I don’t think I even noticed it—I still ate cheese when I was out, but swapped everything else out. It didn’t hurt that his girlfriend was a KILLER cook. (No pun intended.) She turned me on to nutritional yeast cheese sauce. Easy and delicious. And did I mention easy?
From 22 on, I naturally gravitated toward plant-based alternatives. I went through phases where my friends would ask, “Wait, are you vegan right now, or can I put cheese on this?” And depending on what phase I was in, I would either answer, “Sure, go ahead!” or “Oh, god no. Gross.”
I moved back to Portland when I was 23 or 24. I’d say most of the people who’ve crossed paths with me since then would identify me a mostly vegan. Mostly Vegan? Is that possible? If veganism is a way of life, a belief that we as humans shouldn’t exploit animals and take anything from them, then it’s definitely not possible. If veganism is a diet where you’re doing your best not to eat animal products, it most definitely is possible. Which reminds me of a fight I got into with Craig Steele last year, before I became the former kind of vegan.
It’s funny to go back and read what I wrote about it–
Then Craig and I got to talking about stuff–the bathroom sculpture, veganism/vegetarianism (we got into a slight disagreement where I wanted to storm out in a huff, but ultimately we both had valid things to say. He’s a vegan, I’m a veg*n, I’m more lacadasial about my views, he’s more passionate. We agreed to disagree).
(And for the record, I think this division right here is where a lot of frustrations lie between ‘types of vegans’. I’ll discuss that more in Part 2.)
I totally didn’t see what my long-time vegan friend was saying. I felt like he was judging me, kind of. Saying that what I did wasn’t enough. But I think I was taking the insecurities I already had about my choices and making myself feel like I wasn’t doing enough.
That was in July of last year. By that time, the only animal products I was pretty much eating were things like Quorn with a touch of egg whites, or the occasional bean burrito with cheese.
The “Aha Vegan Moment”
Around that time, close to fall, I started reading Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Before I was even finished with that, I couldn’t get enough and started listening to Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s podcasts.
I remember the exact moment: I was sitting in my boyfriend’s bed, reading Diet for a New America, when I had what I like to call the “Aha Vegan Moment.” The moment I realized that by having that box in my freezer with whey or eating the occasional grilled cheese sandwich at work, I personally was contributing to the deaths of animals. That little ol’ me, who never had a hamburger, was still responsible for the pain and anguish of the very animals I wouldn’t eat. That even though I wasn’t eating the animal itself, animals were dying because of ingredients I chose to eat. And animals weren’t only dying; they were suffering while still alive. And though I had read what happens to dairy cows before, this time I really got it. This time I saw. I saw all these facts that are now cliche to vegans, that I personally hear all the time, and mentally go, “yeah, I know, but that’s old news. Everybody must know that by now.”
- Mammals make milk for their own offspring. Humans are the only mammals to drink another’s milk, and to manipulate that milk into things like cheese and butter.
- Mama cows can only make milk when they’re pregnant. Do they get pregnant naturally? Um, no. To make the milk, the momma cows are artificially impregnated. Over and over and over. And then what happens to the baby cows? Well, in a word, veal. Cramped up baby cows on spindly legs not allowed to move, punished for licking their cage when they need iron.
- Things that are good for us—like calcium and iron—are found in plentiful plant foods. How do you think cows get their nutrients? From the same place as us. Plants. The meat and dairy eaters among us basically use the animal they’re eating as a middleman, so to speak.
- “Free-range” doesn’t mean the beautiful green yard with chickens running freely about. Free Range means only that chickens have access to the outdoors. What does “access” mean? That there has to be a window or door that opens for an hour a day. Cages, debeaking, and deaths are all still extremely common on a ‘free-range’ farm.
- Protein, Vitamin-B12, and Vitamin D are definitely important nutrients. Sure, vegans have to spend a little extra time working out how to get all of our nutrients into our bodies, but shouldn’t everyone? Vegans, as a whole, seem to be more aware what nutrients and vitamins and fats and proteins and fruits and veggies we need than does the average person. I’m not saying this as a way of pointing fingers, and I hope nobody takes it as such. I’m saying that when one changes his or her diet to omit a lot of food that is extremely prevalent in an affluent nation like ours, we’d be remiss not to do a lot of research into what exactly our body needs and how to get it. I can say from personal experience that I am so much more knowledgeable about nutrients and nutrition and vitamins and food in general than I ever was in my past.
- The US Government gives money to the meat and dairy industry. Your pound of hamburger meat or block of cheese is as affordable as it is because the government provides them with money. Subway and Pizza Hut? They get paid to add cheese to as many meals as possible. This is just plain wrong. I had no idea before last year that if the government weren’t to fund the meat and dairy industry, those ‘products’ simply would not be affordable to many people.
I think that by now with films like Food, Inc and books by Michael Pollan, and more and more press starting to cover factory farms and the role the government plays in these farms, the knowledge is more available than ever before.
And so… I had this “Aha Vegan Moment” where my life just changed. Not everyone has one, and some people have their Aha Vegan Moment when they’re 12. I stopped eating the occasional grilled cheese at work anymore. I wouldn’t eat products with just a little whey. Quite simply, when I look at cheese now, I don’t see something delicious that I wish I could eat. I see the sad momma cow it came from. And honestly? Not always. I can look at dairy and appreciate the fact that it may taste good. But the taste is never going to outweigh the heavy and life-changing knowledge that I now have.
In Part Two, I talk about where I am a year later with veganism as a way of life, the other aspects of veganism that don’t include diet, and my thoughts and opinions on the spectrum of Vegan (and whether or not there can even be a spectrum).
–> Have you had an “Aha Vegan Moment"?”
–> Have you heard of or read Diet for a New America, Eating Animals, Slaughterhouse, or The Kind Diet? What did you think?