This essay was born of the recent trend of people publicly disavowing their once passionately held vegan or vegetarian beliefs. For many years, when people would identify themselves to me as former vegetarians, I would counter, tongue-in-cheek, that I was a former omnivore. This is my attempt to flesh out my inability to thrive - emotionally, spiritually and physically - as an omnivore.
I wanted to be an omnivore. I really did.
The path from which I began straying from omnivorism was painful, difficult, heart-wrenching even. People might try to tell me that I did something wrong, that I just didn't try hard enough, but they are mistaken: I tried with all my being to live as an omnivore. When it shattered around me, I wondered how could something that I believed with such a passionate, deeply held conviction - that animals were ours to do what we pleased with - be wrong? Who was I if I were no longer an omnivore? My core values, my deepest beliefs about my place on the earth, were inextricably tied to my omnivorism. When things started going downhill with my animal consumption, when it no longer felt like a natural or decent thing to do, I grieved for that part of myself that I was losing and desperately tried to cling to it more tightly. It was no use, though: eating animals was making me sick, literally and figuratively. Toward the end, it was clear that I was just going through the motions.
If I can trace my falling out with omnivorism, the path would lead back to our family dog. His being helped to usher in the first inkling that something was wrong. I could observe that he had emotions, that he had preferences and the same reasons anyone else would have for not wanting to be exploited, abused, killed. Then, somehow, this view expanded outward, try as I might to contain it, and it grew like a thing out of control to encompass the birds, pigs, cows. Before I knew it, it no longer felt justifiable or rational to eat some but not others.
In other words, it no longer felt natural.
That first bite of cheeseless pizza was something I dreaded but in reality, it was remarkably easy and welcoming. Despite this new consciousness that nagged at me, I tried to continue to live like I had grown accustomed to living, to put cheese on that pizza. I even tried to put chicken on it, but I couldn't bring myself to live the lie any longer. When I threw away the cheese, tossed the chicken in the garbage, it just felt so profoundly right: even more, when I piled the pizza high with gorgeous roasted vegetables, a cornucopia from our local farms, it just felt so correct, deep inside, and I felt the ancient echo of uncomplicated contentment I had been missing from my life for so long as an omnivore. I don't know if I had ever been so hungry or had that innate hunger so completely satisified. Yes, my starving soul nearly screamed with each voluptuous bite of silky roasted vegetables and chewy crust, yes.
I knew then that my days as an omnivore were numbered. I was entering a territory I'd long scorned and derided. The more I tried to force my body to listen to my head, the more it became an inevitability: my body was insisting on becoming herbivorous despite my most fervent wishes.
Nearly from the beginning, when I would see produce in the farmers markets, I realized that there was no escaping the fact that I was part of their demise. The snow peas, proud carrots, pears, ripe little raspberries: they once burst with life. In the market, they are still colorful and plump, but they are no longer alive. They were killed for me. Not long after intitially dabbling in veganism, I realized that I couldn't ask another to do bring these plants to market without being able to face the process myself, so as I moved away from omnivorism, I decided to start my own garden. At first, I started small, just a few packets of salad greens in a sunny little patch, but as I've fully moved toward a life rich in plant material, it has since grown much larger.
As uncertain as I was at first, I still took deep pride in the tender shoots that confidently sprang up and thrived because of my care, because of my nurturing. They could be natural, fully realized vegetables in their ideal setting with the sun warming their leaves, the wind in blowing through their stems, rain gulped thirstily by their roots. That first year of gardening, I understood on a deeper level something that I'd always known: to live was also to die, and that the natural order after birth and life would be death. When it came time to pluck those first spring lettuces, soft, sweet and delicate like a baby's satiny cheek, I was distraught. I cried and thought of asking a friend to do it instead, one who had done this many times before in his own garden. "No," I told myself. "No, I need to do this."
And so I took a deep breath and I did it, tentatively at first. My stomach hurt, my hands seemed shaky. The peppery arugula, the red leaf, the baby mizuna, they yielded at once to my touch, like a sigh. They were so alive at one moment, so clearly no longer attached to the earth the next. As much as it pained me to admit it, pulling them just felt natural and right. The depth to which I felt that I was at the right place at the right time doing the right thing was profoundly stirring. Once the initial sadness subsided, I immediately realized that I was doing more than pulling up plants. I was reconnecting with my vegetable-loving ancestors. My fingers were digging in the rich soil, pulling up the plants and brushing off the dirt to return to the cycle of life and death in my garden. It felt like a dance. The thing I thought I would never do - could never do - felt as intuitive and native to me as anything I'd ever experienced. And I thanked the greens as I collected them in my colander: thank you for giving your life to me.
Almost immediately after I quietly shifted from being an omnivore, I found that I had more energy. I felt lighter, liberated, and the heaviness I'd once felt after a big meal filled with meat and cheese was no longer evident. My heart was light, too, unburdened of the weight of all those hard, undigestible feelings that I'd suppressed for so long. I felt like singing to the world, “This feels right! Finally, I am back to being who I was meant to be!”
I dared not tell my friends, though, the omnivores who expected me to maintain the status quo, who expected me to eat chicken wings with them, to laugh at the selfish, smug meat-abstainers we knew. How could I keep my secret safe at Super Bowl parties, after-work get-togethers, holiday meals? The thought of my parents and how they would accept this betrayal of them and the core omnivorous values they raised me with brought me the most pain and worry. It was too much to bear at times and I suffered in my silence. I continued to eat my delicious stir-fries and curries, but I did it alone, surreptitiously, the light from the refrigerator the only thing illuminating me in my quiet, now-herbivorous kitchen.
Eventually, I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer and the deception I’d created came crashing around me. How many times could I tell co-workers that, no, I was saving money so I would not be going to order with them from the chicken place before they'd realize that something was up? How many creative ways could I conceal the lack of meat in my lunch before people begin to notice? How many times could I fail to take antacids or suffer from heartburn before those around me would start to wonder? When it all crashed down around me, precipitated by a busybody and a vegan cookbook I'd carelessly left out on my desk, it was horrifying but it was also a relief. The double-life I'd be leading was shattered, a permanent fissure finally ripped through. I could no longer keep the lie alive.
So today in the spirit of full disclosure, I lay myself bare. I am a failed omnivore. I did my best, I really did, for years and years but it just didn't work. The hamburgers, chicken wings, tuna casserole...ew. It's not you, it's me. Instead, when I bite into roasted red peppers, grilled corn on the cob, mangoes, black bean burgers, guacamole, I know this is me as I am. It just feels right. I love the voluptuousness, the harmlessness, the juicy, life-sustaining properties and I am no longer going to be shamed into hiding.
I am a failed omnivore. Judge me if you must, but please know that I tried my very best.