Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tough Love in the Confessional Booth

(I understand that nuns do not run confessional booths but I'm a feminist so I'm going to run with it, okay?)

Let's be honest here. I know what's expected of me, I am just not going to cooperate.

I know that I'm supposed to pat your hand, sigh deeply and nod.  The unspoken covenant between us is that in a sincere, supportive tone, I am supposed to tell you that I understand, it is far too difficult for you to do what I do. I am infused with something elusive to others, I have a preternatural self-discipline, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am monk-like, apparently, birds fearlessly alight on my robes as I gather roots and nuts in the garden for my Spartan meals. As a real-live vegan, I am often perceived as an eco-priest of some sort and since I'm friendly enough, I am supposed to relieve others of the burden of their guilt.

Let's get on with it, then, shall we?

You grew up in a meat-eating home.
Interesting. So did I. So did pretty much everyone I know.

You ate meat every day growing up.
Yes, that sounds familiar. Go on.

No, really, you ate lots of meat. Like, if you had the eight arms of Vishnu or the four-to-ten arms of Kali, each hand would be holding a plate piled high with meat. Your meat came stuffed with meat, with a side of meat and served on a bed of meat.
Whoa, that's a lot of meat but I get what you're saying.

And you really like the taste of meat.
You may find this hard to believe but I completely understand. For the first fifteen years of my life, my Grandmother's brisket was pretty much my favorite thing in the world to eat. I would race to her kitchen and grab a piece before dinner officially started, that's how much I loved my Grandmother's brisket.

But you don't like vegetables.
I grew up on the same sad iceberg lettuce salads as most people did in my generation with very little else but button mushrooms, Idaho potatoes and the occasional carrot thrown into the mix. I did not experience kale, parsnips, winter squashes, Japanese eggplant, and so on until I got The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook at a New Age bookstore - it still smells like incense all these years later - and the uncharted territory of the produce aisle suddenly appeared in front of me like the magical kingdom of Oz. I learned to like most vegetables by working with them and experimenting, not through osmosis.

Your blood sugar plummets if you don't eat protein! You feel weak. You become a raving lunatic.
I would too, I'm pretty sure. That's why I eat protein.

You don't like to cook.
I will admit that I do like to cook. I had to learn how to cook like anyone else, though, this knowledge wasn't bestowed upon me by my personal vegan faerie who appeared to me in the steam over my stove-top the first time I attempted to boil pasta. I do not and have never had access to any supernatural abilities to the best of my knowledge, though I'm pretty good at finding a parking spot and a seat next to the craziest person on the train. That's about it, though. Pretty much everything else comes from effort and learning.

The culinary traditions of your heritage and family make it very hard to imagine a life without animal products.
No kidding! The culinary traditions of my heritage include the aforementioned brisket, chicken noodle soup, kreplach, chicken Kiev, corned beef sandwiches and of course there was all the regular stuff of my generation: Oscar Mayer hot dogs and bologna sandwiches, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, cans of Chef Boyardee with mushy meatballs and so on. I was not raised on a back-to-the-land kimchi production commune in the mountains of Santa Cruz. I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago.

It’s too hard to find vegan food.
Okay. Back in the olden days when screeching Jurassic-era winged reptiles terrorized the land-dwellers and you could buy a comic book for a quarter, we herbivores used to eat soy protein weenies in a can. Jarringly beige, roughly approximating a cylindrical shape and perhaps constructed of pulverized flip-flops, we didn’t complain about them, either, because we were altogether too sincere and just too grateful to have an opportunity to eat yellow mustard again. I know that all circumstances vary and some are much more advantageous than others, but nothing can compare today, because, seriously, those hideous weenies were revolutionary to us then. This is why I occasionally glaze over when people tell me that it’s too hard to be a vegan. I'm just flashing back to those canned weenies and remembering how happy I felt just to be able to eat something similar to a hot dog again at a Fourth of July barbecue even if my stomach hurt for the rest of the night. Unless you live in Antarctica or a Biosphere-like setting, you should have decent access to some lovely and natural options as a vegan.

Your family does not support you.
I do understand that this is not easy. When I became a vegetarian at fifteen, I was told that I was on my own in the kitchen: I could be a vegetarian but I'd have to cook for myself. Not exactly an enthusiastic show of support but it was what it was. For years after making the decision to be a vegetarian, I was treated as though my diet were indisputable proof of an eating disorder, my predisposition toward naivety, or blatantly mutinous behavior. I did not meet one other "out" vegetarian until I was a junior in college other than the Hari Krishna devotee with the shaved head who used to hand out copies of "A Higher Taste" while twirling around Grant Park. He seriously had little whirligigs spinning around in his pupils. Yep, that guy in the saffron robe WAS my community. This was before the Internet and meet-ups and message boards and a million other fantastic resources at most fingertips today. 

See? I would be a failure as a priest in a confessional booth. Failure! It's a good thing I'm a non-religious female of Semitic descent or that might really disappoint me.

I do understand obstacles, though. We all face them and it is part of life. What is a worthwhile, passionate life without the occasional challenge? If everything were laid out in front of us in an effortless, predictable, pre-masticated sort of way, wouldn’t that get boring after a while? To be driven by something outside of our customs and comfort zone, we are forced to stretch and grow. This is not to say that being vegan is difficult because I don’t believe that it is, but that swimming against the current requires some determination when the waters become choppier than we'd like. Constructing our lives to minimize harm to other animals - beings humans were almost universally raised to believe exist solely for our purposes - is a dramatically different way to live and perceive our place in the world. It would make sense that living with this perception and commitment would require some adjustments, given how deeply entrenched this attitude of human entitlement is and how our society conforms to it. The obstacles we face and overcome are essential to our continuing evolution, part of the process of honing in on and articulating what is valuable to us.

Given what so-called food animals endure and succumb to, given their horror-filled, unfathomably sad existences just to become a quickly forgotten turkey sandwich in a plastic bag or part of a gallon of ice cream, is what we go through on our path to compassionate, integrated living really all that big of a hardship? Is it really too big of a sacrifice that we occasionally miss out on a croissant at a café when most others don't think twice? It is a privilege. Even considering occasional challenges, living as a vegan is not a cloistered, monastic existence or a sacrifice: it is a joyful, engaging, passionate and deeply delicious life if we decide that is how we want to live. We are so profoundly fortunate to be able to live in a way that is consistent with our values. I am often blown away by what a privilege this is.

There are a lot of things one faces in life that are incredibly grueling. Having the opportunity to live our lives as best we can is just not one of them. So, no, I won’t absolve anyone of any guilt because I believe that being vegan is easy. I am understanding of individual differences in circumstances and I sincerely want to help but I will hold people to the level of honesty I’d want to be held to as well. I will not be complicit in propagating the idea that it's just too hard.

Playing games and lying to ourselves is difficult. Being vegan? Easy.


  1. Boy oh Boy I like this conversation/confession! The next time I get flustered with someone who singles me out as a "special" person because "I don't like meat" - I will remember your witty responses! It's good sometimes to turn the tables a bit - Sarcasm might make them see how really silly their defenses are!
    Oodles of thanks for this very entertaining post! :)

  2. So very well written, and your point is well taken — what worthwhile thing in life isn't hard?
    So, the question becomes, for this meat-eater, why don't I care enough about the sacrifice of animals that are on my dinner plate? And what does that say about me as a person? And I am I willing to live with that?

  3. Anima Sola, I so appreciate your honesty. There are a million ways that we turn off our hearts in life because, frankly, sometimes it is just less painful that way. To numb yourself is a sane response to this screwed up world. These are great questions to ask yourself. I do know that you're a very compassionate and thoughtful person, we just all have areas where we close ourselves off. I think sometimes our fear is that if we "go there" we'll never be able to turn off the pain faucet and so much of our lives will be different. I know that you are a brave, compassionate woman and I am here for you any time!

  4. Your answers are so obvious, so clear, so well thought out and make so much more sense than the questions. I hope I can speak with such clarity the next time I'm similarly questioned about my vegan diet and lifestyle.

    The most surprising comment I received came recently from a friend who said she'd like to be vegan, but eating "that way" makes her gain weight, because when she's out with people, the only things to eat are vegetables. I believe I answered suitably.

  5. Fabulous. I would like a copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook, please!

  6. You have no idea how many chords of my vegan harp you have struck!
    It is so comforting to realize others have had the same lust for mustard (and even ketchup) as I had when first going vegan. Even toasted brussel sprouts become friendlier slathered in a pool of djon. More importantly, getting back to your delicious, long-anticipated new post, your attitude is exactly how I hope most vegans (read, ALL vegans) will have adopted as they emerge from your magical produce kingdom of Oz! We promise to not wear patchouli oil anymore also.
    As a vegetarian for 37 years and now a vegan for 3+, I'm realising it is not so much following recipes to make your yellow brick road a happy ochre, but gaining knowledge of just what in the heck constitutes an animal-free meal.
    More rambling later, if you promise more great posts like this one. Loved it!

  7. Thank you for these words of wisdom

  8. Marla, this is an excellent piece. I would like to use it in a paper I'm writing about animal rights if you don't mind? I will credit it properly :)

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Thank you, CPVegan! Yes, more "rambling," please! I love it. How awesome to have been a vegetarian/vegan as long as you have. You have certainly earned your stripes. :)

    Thank you, bitt!

    Hi, Colleen, and thank you. You are certainly free to use with the credit. I appreciate it!

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. (Yes, I do like commenting on old posts.)
    That's awesome. As a side note, when I was really little I asked a priest guy why nuns didn't work in the confessionals [I mean, as a little quiet boy, the priests with their hellfire and damnation were a lot scarier than the nuns that I'd never heard speak] and when he said [basically] that they couldn't because they were girls I kicked him in the shin. Not very proud of resorting immediately to violence but I do find it kind of funny that I knew that wasn't a good reason to exclude someone from something at that age.
    Would you recommend The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook? I'm always a little suspicious of cookbooks older than me, especially vegetarian/vegan ones. Some of them are just crazy (and totally unappealing sounding).

  13. You may not be proud of your shin kick, Ozy, but I am. :) I would say that was worthy of one, as are so many things in the world. About the EBF cookbook, that was one of my first and probably the first one that got me excited about cooking, that and the Moosewood cookbook. I will say that at least the edition I had was not very vegan-friendly, which didn't occur to me at the time as i was a cheese-addicted vegetarian. I would recommend checking it out from the library or leafing through at a bookstore to see if the recipes appeal to you. I always recommend that anyway. The Moosewood series relies mostly on hearty comfort foods with an international scope, which is nice.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.