on being vegan

I've been vegan now for about 14 years. I deeply believe in each individual's right to research information for herself and make her own choices about food, health, purchases, etc. So the extent to which I proselytize about being vegan is usually dependent upon being asked questions by others. Because being a Vegan Missionary isn't in my identity description, and because being vegan is so deeply part of who I am, I often even forget that I've shared information with a specific individual until she or he brings it up again at some later time. For instance, a couple of months ago a woman who had been a staff member in my department a few years ago emailed me to ask "You once mentioned a book you read when you were becoming vegan -- can you tell me what it was?" I was happy to give her the reference, and we exchanged several emails about related topics -- but I have absolutely no memory of our ever having that original conversation. But it made me happy that she did remember, and cared enough to follow up six years later.

After years of vegetarianism, and three vegan girlfriends, my GF has recently made the choice to become fully vegan (thanks in part to PETA's Milk Gone Wild). (Though I should note that she ate very moderate amounts of dairy and eggs.) I'm proud of her for making that choice, and am supporting her through her process. In our recent conversations about these things, I've realized how my thoughts and feelings about dietary choices have evolved over the years, deepening and enriching my beliefs about so many other aspects of this human life.

So, blog readers -- you didn't ask about my being vegan, but I feel like explaining it anyway. (And thereby encouraging further questions or discussion.) However, one of the things I've observed over and over again is that the simple fact of my eating different food from others at a table (at a restaurant, at a work event, etc) makes many carnivorous people nervous. They start justifying their food ("I only eat meat in restaurants"; "I need meat for my iron levels"); apologizing ("Doesn't this bother you?") ; criticizing me ("you must not be getting enough calcium"); patronizing-while-sympathizing ("It must be so difficult to be vegan"); or, possibly the weirdest response (but a very frequent one) -- attempting to gross me and everyone else out ("I once ate cow's eyeball" -- to which someone else invariably responds "well, I ate crocodile testicle" etc etc). (note: I have never been around a bunch of vegetarians who've tried to gross each other out this way. If anything, it's more like "I once baked the most divine tofu cheesecake" -- competing with the goodness of food, not the reverse.)

Sadly, I think a lot of people (or at least North Americans) have a lot of issues around food. And also issues about non-conformity. So I don't have to say anything about being vegan -- if I eat with strangers, someone else nearly always starts questioning me about it. So: if hearing about other people's choices makes you feel defensive or nervous, or if you are going to insist that your way of eating is the Only Right Thing To Do, then do me a favor and stop reading here.

How I became vegan
As a child, I grew up in a household that ate a mostly Mediterranean/Italian style diet, which included meat several times a week, but usually as one of many ingredients in a stew, pasta dish, soup, or casserole, rather than the "piece of meat plus two sides" stereotypically thought of as "standard American diet." We also ate eggs, cheese, and yogurt. We were none of us very big on milk drinking -- for cultural reasons my parents thought it was something only for small children, or to accompany cereal or cookies. I was not particularly interested in eating meat as a child -- I always liked the other parts of the meal better. So I believe that at a deeper level my metabolic system was always inclined towards a vegetable based diet.

When I left home for college, I became semi-vegetarian, then mostly-vegetarian. I never cooked meat after I left my parents' house. I would eat it occasionally in restaurants or family situations. But this was all at the level of unconscious preferences, rather than a conscious choice or intention. Eventually I decided to commit to the way of life that made the most sense to me and felt better, and started calling myself a vegetarian, coming out as a vegetarian rather than just being one subtly. (Looking back, I figure that the delay was probably due to all the other coming out I was doing back in those years.)

So fast forward to 1992. I was on a vegetarian listserv that included a number of people making the transition to vegan. I got curious, and decided to try it for a month just to see if I could do it. At the time, I was used to eating cheese and yogurt pretty regularly and wasn't sure how much I would miss it.

I never looked back. For me, giving up dairy transformed my physical being so much that it was obviously the right thing for me. My skin cleared up. My seasonal allergic symptoms reduced dramatically. I felt more energetic. Over those first few weeks, my sense of smell and taste became more sensitive as the dairy left my body, so that I really didn't miss cheese any longer because it no longer smelled appealing. Over the months and years since, I've realized many more changes. Most telling -- I haven't had a single sinus infection or ear infection since I gave up dairy -- and this after having regular episodes of both throughout my entire pre-vegan life.

So for me the transition was not difficult, and the benefits were clear. The same isn't true for every person. I don't believe that any one single diet is the right plan for every person on the planet -- we are too varied in terms of our genetic heritage, our environment, and our metabolic expenditure.

Why am I vegan?
It was a mixture of curiosity and health reasons that initially started me on the vegan path. Early on, I also read John Robbins's May All Be Fed, which gave me lots of information that supported my choices and expanded my thinking about the impact of this decision. (If you're interested, I'd probably suggest starting with his most recent book, The Food Revolution which contains updated research information.) I became an environmental and political vegan, concerned with the impact of cattle farming on the land, on water usage, on the ability of the planet to sustain all of the human life covering its surface. I became concerned and outraged at the complicity of our government in claiming to protect and educate its citizens while increasing its own agribusiness profits. Because I believe more in the power of micropolitics than the macro level, it makes sense to me to make my daily choices in line with my political beliefs.

What has developed more strongly over the years that I have been vegan is my sensitivity and concern for the wellbeing of all animals and my commitment to veganism as an ethical and spiritual practice. The Buddhist ethic of doing no harm is important to me as a guideline. And in situations where some harm is inevitable, one can at least try to minimize it. Thich Naht Hanh writes in an essay on anger that:
Our anger, our frustration, our despair, have much to do with our body and the food we eat. We must work out a strategy of eating, of consuming to protect ourselves from anger and violence. Eating is an aspect of civilization. The way we grow our food, the kind of food we eat, and the way we eat it has much to do with civilization because the choices we make can bring about peace and relieve suffering.

Why ingest misery and suffering? If you have access to locally produced animal foodstuffs that are truly chemical free and cruelty free, and you feel that those food items are necessary or enjoyable for you, then that is your decision. But most food consumers don't have access to cruelty free animal products. For myself, a vegan diet is in harmony not only with my physical wellbeing but with my spiritual beliefs in the sanctity of all life.

So what does a vegan eat anyway?
Most of my meals consist of a grain (brown rice, pasta, bread, oatmeal, cereal, etc) plus a protein (legumes, tofu, other soy products, nuts) plus vegetables and/or fruits. Breakfast is usually a soy-protein/fruit smoothie, or peanut butter on toast, or oatmeal with soyprotein powder. Lunch is usually put together from leftovers: it might be beans and rice plus vegetables, or maybe a soy "burger." Dinner might be tofu-vegetable stirfry, chickpea-pasta saute, black bean burritos, veggie curry, etc. I sometimes make vegan versions of lasagne, tacos, even "meatloaf." Most of the world's cuisines don't rely on meat except as an occasional treat or used in small amounts for flavor. You can make up that flavor with other things-- tamari, sesame oil, garlic, lemon juice, herbs, etc. Cookbooks I recommend:
  • The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook -- I have the earlier edition, but this one looks to be even better. This is a great all-around reference cookbook for the new vegetarian -- advice on cooking every kind of legume and vegetable, and a great selection of recipes for both everyday meals and fancier occasions. Includes recipes with dairy and eggs but many are vegan or vegan adaptable.
  • The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook -- easy family friendly recipes from one of the great 70s communes. Pictures of smiling hippies are a plus. Several of our household favorites are from this book.
  • Tofu Cookery -- don't know what to do with that block of tofu? There's plenty of inspiration in this book.
  • I also recommend Lorna Sass's cookbooks, if you own a pressure cooker or are willing to get one. I have Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure but all of her books are good.
I own plenty of other cookbooks, but these are ones I actually sometimes use. It helps to like to cook if you're becoming vegetarian or vegan, but it's not hard to learn how to make the basic stuff like beans and rice. And today convenience foods like soy milk, soy burgers, etc are widely available. It's really not that difficult to be vegan once you adjust your ideas of what a meal should contain.