Wednesday, September 23, 2015

History is Not Destiny: Of Brisket, Jewish Grandmothers and Veganism


I grew up in the 1970s, born of parents who steadfastly ignored (or perhaps just remained blissfully unaware of) the burgeoning crunchy health trends of the day, meaning that we didn’t have Grape Nuts in our home but there was plenty of artificial grape-flavored carbonated beverage. Most days at lunch, my brother and I had American cheese on Wonder Bread with various deli slices or whatever was on the menu at the school lunchroom and for dinner, we ate the standard food of the day: chicken Kiev, mostaccioli with meat sauce, pepper steak. Actually, I’m pretty sure that my mom’s pepper steak had more produce in it than a typical week’s menu in our household.

I didn’t grow up with any indication that one day, I’d be someone who would construct my life’s work around rejecting meat and animal products and promoting the consumption of plant foods in their place, but, lo and behold, look what happened.

As a child, what I ate took on a deeper emotional resonance whenever it was provided by my grandmother, a great cook and an even better amateur therapist, a woman who seemed to intuit the complex and mysterious ways in which food feeds our spirits well beyond the surface value. I adored my Grandma Dora, an uncommonly dynamic lady who made all the classic Jewish dishes from scratch: brisket, chicken soup with matzo balls, corned beef. The only thing she made that gave me pause was her chopped liver; even this, though, I would eat without reservation because it seemed to have my grandmother’s wonderful essence in it. Or maybe I was projecting? I can still access the taste memories I associate with my grandmother in an instant, and with these memories, I can bring back her soft, flour-dusted arms, her smile and the musical laugh that had the power to make everything in my otherwise chaotic world all right. She would cook and tell me stories, filling me in on the latest gossip about the feuding neighbors in her apartment building as clouds of steam rose over her soup pot. Sitting at the little table off her kitchen, basking in her joie de vivre and the comforting aromas of her cooking, there was no happier or safer place in the world for me.

When I was 15, though, a fission came between us. When I was 15, I went vegetarian.

When it was clear that my vegetarianism was sticking, my grandmother reminded me - in an offhand way but with a palpable sadness in her voice - that I’d loved her brisket more than any of her other grandchildren. In a way, this was her saying that I loved her more than any of her other grandchildren. It was clear that to her, it wasn’t about the brisket: rejecting meat was rejecting her. Food was an undeniable part of our connection and a deep-seated part of our attachment. Giving up meat meant that I couldn’t avoid severing at least part of the unique connection that had linked me with my grandmother, my most treasured bond.

When my grandmother made her seemingly casual observation, there was so much to say but I didn’t know how to say it; I was young and still figuring it out myself. The thing was that I did love the taste of meat until a dissection unit in high school convinced me that I didn’t want to eat it anymore. As time went on, this avoidance evolved from an aesthetic disgust born of suddenly identifying what “meat” was to a conviction rooted in ethics, a foundation I’ve never swerved from since. At 15, I sensed that eating animals didn’t reflect the kind of person I wanted to be as I tested the waters of my emerging independence. I didn’t say this, though, as I didn’t consciously know it. I told my grandmother that it was probably just a phase and I think this gave her hope, but, growing up with this determined woman as my most influential relative, I had more than a little tenacity instilled in me, too. I think she knew that I didn’t have phases: I had revisions. Twelve years into my vegetarian “phase,” I went vegan. Now, twenty years since I decided to leave behind dairy and eggs, I have dedicated my life to promoting veganism.

When people meet me and learn that I am vegan, many times they remark that they were raised eating meat at every meal. So was I, I tell them. “But I like how it tastes,” many say. So did I, I tell them. But their families have customs and traditions around certain holidays and food is a big part of that, they say. My family was no different, I tell them. Their heritage includes meat, they say. So does mine, I say. I’m not trying to be rude or dismissive; it’s just true. Despite people wanting to think that there was something unique in how I was raised that somehow laid the groundwork for my eventual vegan evolution, there really was not. My family consumed lots of meat and animal products, as did I, and the diet I was raised on was deeply tied to traditions, habits, familiarity and taste attachments, just as it is for everyone else. My path away from eating animals did not have a basis in not liking what I ate growing up, though without a doubt, these things hold no temptation for me today. There was something deeper that called to me, though, and if it was deep enough to risk severing part of the connection I had to my grandmother, it was indeed made of powerful stuff.

More than ever, we are seeing how the choices we make today will have real consequences for future generations. More pressingly, we are beginning to see the fallout from our reliance on animal agriculture in the actual here and now. From the increasing reality of antibiotic resistance that may very well reverse so many life-saving advances to the fact that climate change - something that the greenhouse gas-intensive animal agribusiness is a leading contributor to - is emerging as a major factor in civil unrest and destabilization around the globe, we are just at the early stages of beginning to see that what we eat has a significant ripple effect on all of us but especially those who are most vulnerable: the aged, the very young, those with compromised immune systems and the world’s poor. This is going to increase exponentially as the repercussions accelerate into a critical mass of the worst kind.


I don’t particularly enjoy sounding like the Enemy of Fun (which seems to be the vegan’s role in our culture) but as someone who has helped to conceptualize and research hundreds of memes about the vast number of destructive by-products of animal agribusiness, I can tell you that things are more perilous than I ever realized before. From droughts to species extinction, world hunger to ocean depletion, what we now know is that if our planet has a chance at survival - not to mention thriving - we will need to do a serious reevaluation of our habits and begin to leave animals and their secretions off our plates.

Is the answer small farms, organic farms, or “happy” meat? Putting aside the fact that I am a vegan for reasons of compassion and justice, in other words, because I feel it is immoral to inflict harm when we can avoid it, no, not if you’ve put serious thought to it. It’s a mathematical impossibility to produce all the flesh and animal products people consume unless it’s on a massive-scale production model, which is why factory farms exist. There are idyllic-seeming small farms - though commodification and violence are still essential to even the most bucolic settings, despite our apparent willingness to believe in fairy tales - but they couldn’t come close to fulfilling demand, especially not with a world population expected to surpass nine billion by 2050.

Something vegans often hear, with more than a bit of defensiveness, is what about the violence of plant foods? For example, it harms and kills small animals like rabbits and mice when their homes are plowed over for grains. First of all, vegans are not claiming to be perfect, just trying to avoid contributing to harm. Second, is this person genuinely concerned about the small animals killed in the harvesting of grains? Then he or she will want to go vegan for that reason alone as a huge percentage of soy and grain is fed to the animals people eat. The last ditch effort to justify eating animals is to try to smear vegans as participants in the cruelty department because, well, plants feel pain, too. Really? Despite having no central nervous system, no ability to avoid capture and no evolutionary logic for the supposed pain or suffering? (Those who are about to post this video: you do realize that there is a difference between responding to stimuli and possessing sentience, right?) We know that other animals have sentience as we have proof of it; some speculate that plants do as well and we are supposed to accept this without proof. Trying to clumsily lump them together as equivalents shows how willing we are to suspend logic and also how willing we are to turn the genuine suffering - the screams, the cries, the blood, the pain - of sentient animals into mere abstractions in order to justify maintaining our habits.

The consequences of eating animals are real, they are enormous and they are happening all around us. Is this the time to be playing hypothetical chess games simply because the reality challenges our comfort zone and our privileges?

My grandmother and I eventually got over this divide. I think once the initial ruffling settled down, she saw that our true relationship to one another remained steadfast: I wasn’t rejecting her. I was simply no longer eating meat. My love for her wasn’t about the brisket. It was about the affection, the happiness together, the closeness, the understanding, the connection. We lost one component of our history together; it would be a lie to say that it wasn’t a little painful to say goodbye to this aspect of my life with my grandmother. I needed to do it, though, for my self-respect and because my grandmother raised me to be someone who stood up for what I believed in. My veganism is a source of pride, not regret.
Food is emotional. I get that as well as anyone. Connection is deeper than food, though, and doing what we know is right is far more gratifying than eating brisket, even the brisket of your favorite person in the world.

Our love is of much deeper substance than that.


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