You hear the words “I’m vegan,” coming out of someone’s mouth and likely that’s the last thing you hear as you run or walk swiftly away, mentally block them out as you find your happy place to eat in peace, or change the subject before they can utter another self-righteous syllable about animal rights, health, or the environment.
I get it. I do.
And I’m vegan. WAIT! DON’T GO!
This essay is for you, Non-Vegan. A gift. There will be no gratuitous mention of violence, no food-shaming, no proselytizing about climate change, pollution, human health crises or looming pandemics. Instead, what I’m offering you is a rare look into the mind of a vegan and an opportunity to reclaim some righteous ground for yourself and maybe some compassion for that irritating vegan.
For one thing, vegans may deserve a little of your pity, for, like Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom, they cannot remember the taste of food. . . “There’s no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes!” Sorry, I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd as well as a vegan. Vegans don’t remember the taste of the foods you love, gooey melting cheese, globs of yellow butter, crisp fried chicken, a juicy cheese burger, or bacon. They don’t understand how much you love these foods, though many of them once loved them as much as you do now.
I recall a trip to the Metropolitan Opera House with my mother when I was 8 or 9. After seeing a ballet, we went to brunch. It was a big deal, a special treat, and my mom said I could have anything I wanted. I ordered a bacon-stuffed crepe. When it arrived at our table I was glassy-eyed with awe. So much bacon! And it was all for me! Usually, when my father cooked bacon for breakfast it was a miniscule amount to be fought over like hyenas with my sister. I remember that brunch vividly and fondly, even more so than Barishnikov’s performance in Swan Lake. That bacon and the delicate crepe in which it was wrapped is a memory I cherish.
Funny thing is, though I remember fondly the treat of eating all that bacon and having it all to myself, I just don’t miss bacon itself. I also remember dressing up, riding the train from Connecticut into the city, and having my mom all to myself for the whole day. Those memories, and yes, Barishnikov, also stay with me. I am more nostalgic for those things than I am for bacon. I don’t crave bacon. I don’t think of it the same way I once did. I don’t even think of it as food anymore. Nor do I miss other meats, or eggs, or cheese, or milk. Really. Honestly, I don’t miss them at all! Though once I was like you and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. .
So it begs the question: if I don’t miss these foods, were they so irreplaceable? When vegans hear “I could NEVER live without bacon,” they 1) don’t remember the taste of it 2) (probably) once felt the same way you feel about it 3) stopped eating it and survived anyway. That’s their experience, so try to be understanding. I know that though the taste of bacon is as forgotten as the Shire on forsaken plains of Mordor, I don’t feel deprived because I’ve discovered new foods to love- and gorge upon! I’ve learned to cook for myself and friends and family. I’ve found delicious plant-based cheeses, Earth Balance Buttery Spread, and most importantly, Vegenaisse. So good!
That’s another thing: you and that vegan you can’t stand actually share some common ground. Vegans LOVE food, good tasting, scrumptious, messy, ooey, gooey food. Yes, there are some who go the macrobiotic, raw, ultra-healthy route. And that’s cool. But many, including me much of the time, love decadent food. Today, there are so many new options for nut and soy cheeses that have the taste and texture of dairy cheese. There are meat alternatives that easily and deliciously stand in for meat. There are prepared foods aplenty- frozen meals, mac and cheese, soups. . . Most importantly, there’s plant-based ice-cream and cheese cake. . . and chocolate!
So with all these options, vegans wonder, why is everyone else so hung up on meat and dairy? We are honestly perplexed about that. So if we look confused or frustrated, that’s why. Maybe you could ask your vegan about some of their favorite vegan foods. Like you, we love to talk about- and share- our favorite foods!
Sharing food is one of the great joys of human experience. Sometimes vegans forget this. But you, Non-Vegan, know this very well. Traditional holiday meals, family gatherings, parties, dinner with friends, family recipes passed down through generations . . this sharing is an intimate and sacred ritual. Vegans sometimes trespass over these deeply felt beliefs, especially around the holidays. They can be demanding, wanting Tofurkeys for Thanksgiving and mashed potatoes WITHOUT cream or butter. They may even sulk at the mere presence of that gleaming, golden roasted turkey in the middle of the table. They forget about the importance of tradition, or, if they do remember, are caught between their own deeply held beliefs and those of the traditional non-vegans. This is a really tough position for the vegan, and you could be a hero by showing them a little compassion. They don’t want to reject these dearly held traditions, or the foods made by caring hands, given as a gesture of friendship or love. There is a poem I love that captures this sad conundrum that faces vegans around the holidays:
Hunter and Hunted
by Mark Van Doren
One day there came to me out of the woods
A lily white leopard and laid in my hand
A lily white dove he had bitten to death
The dove was speckled with crimson blood
And her head hung down, and I said to the leopard,
Why did you kill this beautiful bird?
He took it out of my hand again,
Sadly, and went back into the woods.
I had refused his wonderful gift.
If this was a dream, I have it still,
But the eyes of the leopard are what I remember.
Hunter and hunted: they broke my heart.
This is the problem that vexes vegans at Thanksgiving and other celebratory gatherings. They don’t want to reject the gesture of the “wonderful gift,” but they feel for the “beautiful bird” who has been killed to become the gift. Maybe, Non-Vegan, you could remind your vegan how much tradition means to you, what it means to you. Isn’t the importance of tradition the connections to loved ones, remembrance of loved ones passed, cherished memories relived through these repeated rituals, love carried through time? Love is the thing, isn’t it? Likely, if you’re eating a family meal with a vegan, you have some love for that person. And they do for you. They don’t want to trample over your traditions or erase cherished family memories. But neither do they want to be made to feel that love for the past supersedes their importance to their family and their own dearly held beliefs. Maybe you could ask them what traditions they care about, together find a way to transform your traditions into a gift that is cherished by and brings joy (and no broken hearts) to everyone.
You understand what it’s like to have a broken heart, my Non-Vegan reader. You are a compassionate soul who loves animals. Your vegan friend might have forgotten that. Maybe you have a beloved pet, or enjoy riding horses, or birdwatching, or just watching videos of cute kittens. Maybe you’ve lost a pet to old age, or seen a car-slain deer by the side of the road, and felt a deep pang of grief. You would never want to cause an animal pain, and if you saw an animal in distress you would want to rescue it. All humans are compulsively compassionate. I believe that. Sometimes, vegans forget that about non-vegans. They can do some crazy things to try to make you feel bad about eating meat or eggs or dairy: send you graphic videos or sit in cages on sidewalks covered in fake blood. They can also do less extreme, but no less annoying, things like make disapproving faces over lunch or throw out facts about water usage, pollution statistics, or slaughterhouse worker exploitation. They’ve forgotten that you do care about animals, because they have seen or read so much about factory farmed animals. They see you enjoying a hamburger or plate of fried chicken or ice cream sundae, and they know where it came from. They’ve learned about what comes before the food on your plate becomes food. What they’ve learned breaks their heart, because they’ve seen animals suffering, in distress, wanting to live as they face their deaths, and like you, they want to rescue them all. They forget that you have not seen or read what they have. Maybe you could remind them that you do care about animals. You could even tell them about carnism. Carnism is the powerful invisible belief system that normalizes eating certain animals and keeps people like you, who love animals, in the dark about what goes into treating some animals like friends and some like food. It is tremendously difficult to unveil and understand how these beliefs govern society. Your vegan has escaped these beliefs, but may never have been aware of them and how they shape societal behaviors and attitudes towards animals. If they are aware, they may not understand how powerful these beliefs are and the hold they have over non-vegans. Check out this TED talk to help you prepare for this conversation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0VrZPBskpg
Finally, my food-loving, compassionate Non-Vegan, I’ll let you in on a secret. Many people think vegans are self-righteous and think they’re better than everyone else. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else because I’m vegan; I’m vegan because I don’t believe anyone is less important, any life is less precious than mine. Most vegans feel this way, and probably your vegan feels this way, too. Ask them. I think you’ll be surprised at how non-self-righteous they really are. Like you, they just want to make the world a better place and enjoy themselves along the way. And they’ve had some rough bumps along the way. Your vegan has a lot of mean stuff said to them, gets left out of lots of fun, feels like nobody likes them sometimes, plus, they’re always thinking about all the sad things they’ve read or videos they’ve seen about farmed animals and it makes them really bummed out. Be a little gentle with them.
And here’s a bonus secret: It may not apply to all vegans, but it’s true for me. Like you, I care- a lot- about a lot of issues. But (maybe like you, maybe not) I am . . . extremely lazy. Being vegan is the best way I’ve found to do the most, for the most issues, with the least effort. You see, all that stuff about the environment, climate change, world hunger, human health, human rights- and living vegan- is (annoyingly) true. By just eliminating all animal products from my diet, I’m doing the work of several social justice warriors. Being vegan is like being a couch potato activist.
So, my now vegan-loving Non-Vegan, pull up a couch and a bag of veggie chips and show a vegan a little love. They could use it.
Illustration by Louise Gagnon