Most future vegans come into the world via one common approach or another nine or so months after conception. Most of us are not raised vegan, though. The path we take to get here is as unique to us as a snowflake that has fallen on the sidewalk and melts under the shoe of a 22-year-old anthropology graduate student walking in the door of Angelica Kitchen with his girlfriend.
Here is how it happened for me, though. If you want it to happen for you, you may want to pursue a path similar to mine.
Be born into an omnivorous family in the latter half of the 20th century and, in keeping with the trends of the day, have a bottle of infant formula placed in your newly born mouth shortly after your arrival. You are not even a few hours old and you are drinking the milk intended for another baby. Pureed meat will follow before you know it. Well, you really don’t know it but you’re officially an omnivore. Congratulations.
Point at the birds, toddle after squirrels, gasp at butterflies. Be afraid of spiders but that’s about it. Family folklore maintains that the first time you are observed laughing, it is because a troupe of poodles is doing the cha-cha on a variety show.
Decide that you really, really want a dog. Express this with your limited but ever-expanding vocabulary at every opportunity. Use your considerable persuasive skills and charms to your advantage. Spring out of bed every morning with the goal of wearing your parents down as your sole mission. You should excel at this.
You have a puppy! You are in love! You love his puppy breath, the piggy grunting sounds he makes when you pick him up, the way he looks when he sleeps, how he rolls in the grass, the sweet little pink spots on his belly and nose and paws, the cute wrinkles between his eyes that make him look a little wise and worried. You love the all of him. The puppy, however, has arrived with teeth like needles and nails like little razors and he has this thing about relieving himself on your mother’s new carpet. She is not so enamored. He will live in your home for only two weeks until he is sent packing with his squeaky toys to another, more patient home and you will remember this sad day for the rest of your life. The legacy of your experience will be that you are now aware of the disposability of animals and the power humans wield over their lives.
Somehow you survive the loss of your puppy. You have lost a little innocence, though.
You go to kindergarten. There is a play kitchen there with a refrigerator and stove, wooden eggs, pretend milk cartons and cereal boxes, plastic steaks that look like they something Wilma Flintstone would cook for Fred. This is your favorite part of the classroom. Pretend to crack eggs on the edge of the table; sizzle the classroom’s single prized pork chop on the stovetop.
Your will totally adore your grandparents. Your mother doesn’t like to cook or bake, so when whenever you’re in your grandmother’s apartment in the city, working in the little yellow kitchen is what you do together. You learn to crack the eggs without getting any shell in the bowl, whisk liquids until frothy, grate potatoes, roll sugar cookies. Your grandmother often tells you that you are so much help in the kitchen and you believe her. You are rewarded with meltingly tender rugelach, brisket and roasted potatoes, evocative Yiddish expressions to add to your collection, and, most cherished, your grandmother’s company.
If you could go back in time and interview yourself as an eight-year-old, you would say that favorite movie is “The Wizard of Oz,” your favorite singer is Donny Osmond, your favorite friend is Suzanne Lane, your favorite toy is your Easy-Bake Oven, your favorite activity is reading or drawing, your favorite drink is Orange Crush, your favorite candy bar is Twix and without hesitation, you would say that favorite food is spaghetti and meatballs.
When you are in fourth grade, your school takes a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. You see a little chick in a giant, crowded incubator being pecked to death by the other chicks. Some boys point and laugh. You try to knock on the glass to try to get them to stop and the museum guard reprimands at you. You imagine reaching in and running away with that chick. The memory and vision of that little bird, so bloodied and helpless and vulnerable, will be burnished in your brain for the rest of your life.
You go to junior high. Your life is one trauma-inflicting event that’s stuck on a lather-rinse-repeat cycle for three interminable years. Plus pimples.
In high school, you begin freshman year wearing kilt skirts and monogrammed sweaters with turtlenecks and abide by the rules set forth in the Preppy Handbook until you discover The Smiths and gradually phase your closet into an all-black wardrobe along with matching nail polish. When Morrissey sings that “Meat is Murder,” it makes an impression and goes through your head on a constant loop sometimes. You never thought about that before.
Then, in sophomore year biology, there is a fetal pig. It (he? she?) is bobbing in formaldehyde, and you are supposed to learn about the organs. Just the smell of the room makes you so nauseated that you can instantly recall it many years later. You pick up the sharp instrument and try to cut the grayish-pinkish flesh as your teacher instructs. You retch instead. Your lab partner rolls his eyes. You can’t. You’ll read the materials and do the homework instead. Thankfully you can do this from the computer room during your class’s unit on dissection.
Around this same time, you are going away on a school trip for a weekend and you need to fill out a form that asks if you require special meals. The fetal pig pops in your mind, you write yes and check the box that says vegetarian. You don’t know any other vegetarians except for some kooky neighbors who have a peanut grinder in their home and eat carob. You think that you will try it for the weekend and see if you survive.
You survive! But being a vegetarian means that you will never eat your grandmother’s brisket again, or her corned beef and cabbage, or her matzo ball soup, or that one chicken Kiev that your mother makes that you like, or her spaghetti and meatballs, or a hot dog from Irving’s. This overwhelms you to think about so you choose not to think about it. One meal at a time, one day at a time, it begins to sink in and there is no denying that you are a vegetarian.
You will never regret it.
In retrospect, you will look back at that quotidian form that you filled out your sophomore year of high school as a kind of divine intervention. Everyone tells you that you will last only a week, that you’re probably secretly eating hamburgers in the middle of the night, and your family claims - even though you’re uncharacteristically quiet about your new way of living – that you just want attention. Your mother tells you that she can’t stop you from being a vegetarian but that she will not cook you any special meals. Okay then. You learn to cook for yourself. You enjoy your cooking. That form and your checking of that little box has set the wheels in motion for changing the trajectory of your life and your entire worldview.
You leave home for college and:
1. Meet amazing people from all over the world.
2. Have long, heartfelt chocolate-covered espresso bean-fueled conversations with your new friends until the café workers starts putting up chairs and sweeping.
3. Enjoy heretofore unavailable to you novelties such as:
A). Eating cereal for dinner and ice cream for breakfast.
B). Staying up all night just because you can.
C). Sleeping in a mock shantytown constructed on campus to raise awareness about apartheid.
D). Falling in and out of love a million times.
4. Learn about the U.S. involvement in Central America, get on a two-day bus to march in Washington, D.C., march, eat Chinese food while sitting on the dirty floor behind the counter with your friends because there are no more seats, take the bus back home and dream for the next week that you are still riding on a Greyhound.
5. Read books well into the night, go wild painting in your studio, date people who are not great for you, get a laughably fake I.D., learn where all the drink specials are for every night of the week, fight with your roommate, move off campus and get your own apartment.
6. Become such a feminist it’s almost ridiculous.
7. Hear the word vegan at the co-op for the first time. Decide that the person who said that was probably a confused bumpkin who just didn’t know the right word.
8. Graduate. Sob. Time to leave wonderland.
Leave the wheat fields and move to the city near where you grew up. Work in an animal shelter. Almost no one who works is a vegetarian and this is confusing to you.
Meet a boy! He’s a vegetarian, too. Fall in love, this time for keeps.
Make new friends. Start getting active with an animal rights group. Meet an activist from New York who thinks it’s ridiculous that all the local animal rights people are vegetarian rather than vegan. You hate him. He’s so smug and self-righteous and arrogant.
He’s also right.
Spend about a year going back and forth until you see a movie with dairy cows in confinement bellowing for their babies and layer hens with their featherless flesh rubbed raw and that does it. Something shifts in you permanently. There’s no more denying reality. You are vegan on the spot.
That is how a vegan is born.