I can’t remember how it started; I had to scroll back through Facebook to see the last picture of a meal with meat in it. It was a Coney Island hotdog in 2014.
Convenient Baby Steps
I didn’t mean to go vegetarian. It just happened. It was 2011 and I had a vague uneasiness about eating animals. It isn’t something I ever looked at straight on, but more like something in my peripherals that depressed me. And by peripherals, I mean, I thought about it with the same concern I had about kitchen sanitation and the fact that we didn’t have a dishwasher.
My husband Zach and I became “Vegetarians of Convenience.” This was a term we came up with as we were keenly aware that the word “vegetarian” (and its implications) came with a lot of baggage. We wanted to be easy going. We wanted to be accepted by our friends. But mostly, we wanted our choice to be easy on us. So we made up a very simple rule: we won’t eat any meat we paid for (except seafood; we could–and did–eat a lot of seafood).
So we’d eat meat at a friend’s house to be polite. We’d bend the rule to eat meat while out for a friend’s birthday party “…to be polite.” I’d eat meat at work when there was a free lunch. It was easy.
And… I kinda felt like a hypocrite, even though I was technically helping. That’s what Zach and I starting telling one another. “Hey, you’re doing your part.” “You’re shrinking your foot print.” “You’re reducing demand. “Even a little bit helps.” But… I don’t know. Looking with some horror at a pile of chicken bones at Fire on The Mountain, I came to the conclusion: the label of “convenience” was really just a convenient excuse.
Going pescatarian, too, was impulsive. I wanted to see if it was possible. It was still 2011, and Zach, who was raised pescatarian, was game to try.
Eating out was simple and delicious, and as Zach’s the cook, eating at home was a cinch. Visiting his pescatarian parents: super easy. Visiting my parents–not so much; however, my dad loves fish, so this “phase” of ours was something that could easily be ignored. There was a hiccup in that my parents insisted we serve American-style food–including meat–at our 2012 wedding. I was too nervous to stand up for myself. But it was a beautiful event and I didn’t say anything. I just enjoyed my salmon and shut up.
But I hated microwaving fish at work (as did my coworkers). I hated the smell of fish in the house. And then I watched a video of how the megatrawlers catch fish, and I realized I couldn’t ensure that the fish I was eating was caught sustainably.
So I told Zach I would only eat fish I (or someone I knew) personally caught. We never went fishing, so I never had to address it…until a few months later, in Mexico, when we went fishing. It was then that I realized I wasn’t willing to kill a fish. So someone else took my barracuda from me. And he clubbed it. I watched it dying, flipping in the bottom boat…and my heart felt funny. I felt pity. I felt guilty. And I felt silly for feeling pity and guilty.
We ate it in ceviche, and I felt ill. I thought about how, the day before, we’d helped release baby turtles into the ocean, as a way to save them from poachers.
Save one, eat the other.
A couple months later, with this strange feeling still heavy in me, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals; ironically, I’d given the book to my pescatarian father-in-law years earlier at Christmas, back when I was still eating everything that breathed. When I asked him if he liked it, he’d answered truthfully, “Actually, it’s stuff I already knew; it’s aimed at people who eat meat.”
“Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
After reading Eating Animals, I stopped eating fish. It was 2014 and suddenly, I was vegetarian. I was still scared to say the “V-word” to friends; at first, at parties, I would stealthily only eat side dishes and Zach would cover me by eating twice as much. As someone who was raised on seafood, he at first felt vegetarianism wasn’t necessary. “Fish are like insects,” he insisted.
I did cheat. I ate that last hotdog I mentioned above, in 2014. I was in NYC for the second time, and it was my first visit to Coney Island. I felt it was my duty as a tourist. I felt I was owed it. I skipped the chili (what an arbitrary line to draw). And it was a great hotdog.
Mid-way through, I realized it wasn’t worth it. Not one bite. Not one bit.
“Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
It was 2015 when Zach finally read Eating Animals. It was specifically the section on bycatch that changed his mind:
“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.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
And for a year, we were both vegetarians–and frankly, we were surprised. It was easy and there was no smugness as it wouldn’t have felt earned. Even in the middle of nowheresville, there were grilled cheese sandwiches and salads smothered in mayo dressing. Veggie omelettes, pancakes, french toast–it was stupid easy. We wondered why everyone wasn’t vegetarian.
I’d just started a new job and I put up a Food Fight! sticker on my desk on my first day; Food Fight! is a vegan grocery Zach and I loved, the perfect place to pick up meat alternatives.
“Are you vegan?” a coworker asked me excitedly. I told her I was vegetarian.
“Oh,” she answered lightly.
It turned out, two of my coworkers were vegan, and three were vegetarian. It was strange, like a perfect circle of kindness; I felt so lucky to have them as I was finding my veg footing. And as for the two vegans, neither ever brought up why they were vegan or asked me if I’d ever considered it. They didn’t talk about their food and would sit politely when we took them out to team lunches where there was nothing for them to eat. They never complained. And seeing as I didn’t know anything, I assumed they were just health nuts.
I didn’t mean for us to go vegan. I honestly didn’t. It hadn’t once crossed my mind, even knowing vegans IRL.
It was February 25, 2016 and I was traveling for work. I was swiping through Facebook, and a Humane League video popped up. It shows what happens to male chicks in the egg industry. It’s not graphic, it’s just…messed up.
Because they can’t lay eggs, the egg industry kill male chicks after they hatch. pic.twitter.com/qFuVBT22at
— The Humane League (@TheHumaneLeague) May 11, 2017
I immediately cried.
Then I texted Zach.
The text that is missing is the next one, where I correct myself, saying, “Can we be vegan?”
Look, let’s be honest: I probably didn’t even mean it when I texted him. Who is vegan? How can anyone be vegan? It’s expensive. It’s extreme. It’s unhealthy. Zach wouldn’t do it and I would have to do it alone. It’s hardly even possible–in fact, it’s likely impossible.
But Zach’s response?
“If you think it’s the right thing to do, sure.”
And that’s when I knew I had the best partner ever. I mean, don’t get me wrong; if I were serious about it, I would have done it without him. But it would have been a harder and longer road, especially seeing as he is the main cook. And frankly, when things are difficult, I tend to not do them. I’m only human.
But by Zach accepting what I suggested, something shifted. I’d lost an excuse.
Honestly, if I hadn’t seen that video, I don’t know how long it would have been until I started asking questions. But that video–wow. I sobbed. I realized what I was still contributing to. Sure, I was buying cage-free, free-range, organic eggs when I could find them, but what about the eggs in my donuts? The eggs in my brunch omelette? Those precious, colorful, innocent macarons? How could I track down where the eggs came from without looking like the characters everyone mocks in that funny Portlandia sketch asking, “where did the chicken come from?”
In the moments after watching that video, I knew if I looked into it further, I would have to change.
Up until then, I’d always rationalized that I didn’t have to look, because these videos were probably filmed just once, in the worst places, a long time ago. They couldn’t represent where I got my food from. (But that was wishful thinking. I’ve since seen the ads looking for people to do these undercover investigations. They’re ongoing. And they’re heartbreaking.)
I knew if I looked, I’d be complicit in how the animals are treated and how the workers are treated. I’d eventually learn that 99% of the meat in the US comes from factory farms, factories that put profit and efficiency first, and how the dairy industry feeds into the beef industry.
I rationalized there were only two outcomes: 1. I could just imagine what’s happening, so I don’t have to watch videos or read up on it, but assume it’s horrible and try to reduce what I’m eating; or 2, I could actually find out…and hopefully figure out there’s nothing I can do about it.
That night, I decided not to look away. I chose #2 while sincerely hoping I’d find out there was nothing I could do about it so I could keep eating cheese and dairy.
“However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless–it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
I started Googling. Googling everything. I realized where most chickens come from. I tried to find facts to support my vegetarianism and that’s when I found out, at age 33, how the dairy industry really works. I later talked to others my age who didn’t grow up near farms who were also surprised to find out that cows aren’t just this miracle animal that gives milk their entire lives. WHAT.
Just a side note: We are so removed from our food sources that this stupidly common knowledge never got passed down.
Side-side note: It’s understandable that rural americans would find this entire discussion amusing. “How removed is this city-dweller is from reality?” But the reality is that the majority of people do not live on farms. Also, they don’t hunt all of their food or grow it all themselves. They go to grocery stores. They go out to eat. They’re participating in suffering.
In short, by the end of the night, I knew I had to at least try going vegan. But I was sure it wouldn’t stick. It would be ridiculous to be vegan.
The next day, I carefully chose vegan breakfast foods at a restaurant, and vegan snacks in the office. We randomly went to lunch at Whole Foods, where I saw this book, But I Could Never Go Vegan!, a mere 12 hours after thinking it was ridiculous to even try it. I impulsively bought it and read it on the plane home. (Later on, I would recommend this same book to a semi-vegan co-worker, who started cooking from it for her omnivore husband. A combination of the good food and watching What the Health?…and he decided to go vegan.)
When I got home, Zach read this cookbook as well. We tried recipes from it and were weirded out when things like jack fruit tacos tasted good.
And then we watched Cowspiracy together. And Earthlings. And we jointly wished these names didn’t sound so cult-like, so we started reading and sharing from scholarly sources so people wouldn’t think we’d joined a cult. We read and listened to podcasts, so we could A), make sure we weren’t making some huge stupid and unhealthy mistake, and B), be ready to
fight answer questions (okay, B is mostly me).
Zach and I had long discussions about what we learned, and what veganism meant about our beliefs, about our past. I didn’t want to be the only one passionate about it, and I found a kindred spirit in him all over again.
“I know when I have no logical arguments against something,” he said. “Even when I ate meat for 15 years, I always knew it was unnecessary and mostly cruel.”
Our friends were wary at first (one actually thought “vegan” meant “raw foodist” [?], but we cleared that up), but mostly, they’re quiet on the subject, the way you never mention a friend’s weird new interest in something like home duct work. I’m sure it’s because they’re afraid I’ll proselytize, like I’m doing right here. And of course that’s what I’d want to do. Of course. I’m not playing around.
But some friends were excited to try out new recipes with us. Some didn’t work, but I think my cooking successes pre- and post-veganism are about the same.
Sadly, my team of veggie and vegan coworkers left my office, but not before they taught me to keep my chin up and my mouth shut at work events planned around food. (Okay; not so much. I started asking for vegan options immediately. But in a nice way).
At a departmental event making pizzas at Ned Ludd, I got my first “who’s the vegan?” question in front of everyone, followed by some gentle ribbing from the chef. I was immediately flushed and embarrassed. I wasn’t ready to “represent” veganism. Within minutes, I found myself having to politely listen to coworkers talk about hunting and canine teeth (turns out there’s a game called Defensive Omnivore Bingo I can play in my head; it’s pretty accurate and fun). That night was also the first time I was teased. People mocked the sauce and veggie pizza that I made, but I stood my ground. This photo shows how I felt all night:
But we also get to do this and not feel weird.
A year and a half later, Zach and I are both still vegan. I got a vegan bumper sticker for my car. I’m considering a tattoo because why not? This is the first thing I’ve been passionate and knowledgeable about. We’re both healthy; Zach actually had some health problems that were present before going vegan but he thinks veganism may have helped with his symptoms. We have figured out how veganism is more than what you eat, but choosing cruelty-free products and avoiding products like leather and down. It still feels like a semi-gruesome scavenger hunt–find the animal parts!–but we’re winning.
Veganism is hard
For me, veganism has been hard. But it’s not what you think. It only took a month to figure out how to shop. Zach took to vegan cooking like a savant. I became obsessed with vegan baking. And many of Portland’s top restaurants and bars are vegan (go here and search of the page for “vegan”). Every day, I’m amazed it’s not just possible, but enjoyable. We regularly high five over a fab dish of soy curls or a slice of normal-tasting cake.
But veganism is hard as I want to tell people about it. However! That joke, “How can you tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” usually stems from someone offering me a donut and I’m mad that I can’t eat it…followed up by conversations because meat-eaters start talking or awkwardly joking about it.
I’m not from a religious family, and I assume this is a similar feeling that drives people to go on missions. I want to knock on neighbor’s doors, free copies of Eating Animals in hand, asking, “Have you read the good word?”
Most of my discussions, though have been online. I admit that I start them because I feel the urgent need to share the knowledge I’ve so ravenously acquired.
— Molly Elwood (@mollyelwood) June 29, 2017
I had a friend suggest that I not share facts on social media, “just show the food!” But when you get down to it, let’s be honest. Good food isn’t enough to change someone’s mind about cheese and bacon. Both taste amazing, but I say that’s how bad animal agriculture is. It’s so bad, I stopped eating cheese and bacon.
(Does that comparison work? Could be a great billboard.)
Personally, I think people will change their mind when they learn about the impact on their health, the environment, or on the animals themselves. The fact that the food is good is just icing on the (vegan) cake.
(I’m aware now that most vegan activists say it should be for the animals. However, I think whatever the entry point, animals’ plight will become very apparent very quickly.)
Since going vegan, Zach and I’ve had two friends also choose to be vegan–the very same friends we fished with in Mexico. They asked us questions, we answered them lightly, then they did the research on their own…and came to the same conclusions we did.
I’ve never been more inspired to stay quiet and wait for people to ask questions, even if waiting for someone to ask feels like this:
Why did I write this?
I wrote this blog post as, for the last couple of months, I’ve been trying desparately to start this conversation with strangers and I’m feeling creepy about it. I’m obsessed. I need to focus my energy in a way that isn’t hounding my friends or stalking strangers or brands (brands are the most fun, though).
So I’m going to start blogging about veganism here. What better place than where strangers may become friends–or where friends might spy it and click some links? 😉 Or where I might attract some trolls to share some science-y links with?
In the meantime, here are some of my pictures of yummy and totally edible vegan food:
“Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I’ve discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory–disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals