Becoming Vegan In A Culture Educated By Corporate Meat & Dairy or, “But What About Protein?!”: Oprah, Michael, Alicia and Becoming Vegan

Steaks grilled medium-well. Roast pork. Pulled pork sandwiches. Brisket. Prime rib. Street meat. Sausage on a bun. Salmon sautéd in maple syrup. Cajun catfish. Shrimp. Thick. Cut. Bacon. Chicken burgers with extra mayonnaise. Pizza. Grilled cheese. All cheese. Ice cream cake. Oreo Blizzards. Soft serve. Milk chocolate anything. Milk chocolate everything. I loved it all. How could I not!?

I suppose that’s why I have never told someone I’m vegan without being asked (what have now become) the standard questions: why? but how do you get protein/calcium? does that mean you can’t eat _________? And without receiving some kind of (genuine or sarcastic) kudos, usually to the tune of, “well good for you, but I could never give up_________.” And when asked from a place of genuine curiosity (as opposed to having my choices challenged by someone who feels threatened because they assume they are an indicator of my self-importance or their lack of morality/humanity) and at the right time and place (which is pretty much anywhere other than the dinner table, even though it does seem like the most logical venue), I really like answering these questions. With my reasons for choosing a vegan lifestyle so much a part of who I am, and because I made the decision early on not to offer them to people unsolicited, the standard set of questions gives me the opportunity to, at best, inspire others to think about the reasons, look into things further and maybe even try it out for themselves, and at worst, merely introduce someone to the reality of another way of living (something I always enjoy being introduced to). However, since it is the most obvious venue and food is on the mind, we almost always are at the dinner table when the questions are asked, and I just don’t feel like the time and place for me to discuss the myriad reasons behind my plant-based diet (which does include animal cruelty) is while you are waiting for your steak to arrive. I’ve learned that it isn’t the safest and most neutral space for that conversation, because in the worst case scenario (which is my perpetual fear), the person asking the questions might end up feeling a) like they’re being judged for the steak that’s on its way to their plate, b) suddenly kind of grossed out by the steak that’s on its way to their plate, or c) ashamed/embarrassed/like their being judged because they’re not grossed out or bothered by the steak that’s on its way to their plate. And these are not feelings I want to inspire in anyone while they are waiting for their steak to arrive on their plate!

On that account, if you are interested in knowing how and why this average omnivore became an average herbivore, you are far away from your respective dinner table and free of any immediately forthcoming steaks, please, rrrrread on!

It was January 27, 2010, almost three months before I would turn twenty-six. I was flipping through channels, waiting for out-of-town dinner company to arrive, when I caught a glimpse of a cow in a terrible situation. It was an episode of The Oprah Show called Food 101 and she was airing a clip from the 2008 food documentary Food Inc. (a powerful and at times extremely painful exposé of the factory farming industry). In an effort to start a dialogue about food in America—where it comes from, how it gets there and what it’s actually made of, Oprah was joined by journalist/author Michael Pollan and author/actress Alicia Silverstone, both of whom had recently published books on the subject of the American diet, along with Chipotle founder, Steve Ellis. I missed most of the show since I only had fifteen minutes before my company’s arrival, but in that time I understood the basic idea: there are bad things happening to the animals we eat, there are bad things in most of the food we are eating and there is actually a ton of information that I could know about our food system. That night I had vegetarian lasagna for dinner and I haven’t eaten meat since.

Three months later on my beautiful springy April birthday, I received a copy of Alicia Silverstone’s 2009 book, The Kind Diet, and as per my annual birthday tradition, I spent a few hours solo-shopping at Indigo, where I found myself a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009). These two books changed my animal-loving life. Pollan’s Food Rules is a small, almost pocket-sized book of one hundred and twelve pages in which he provides eaters readers with a list of easy-to-follow guidelines for eating real food, as opposed to “food-like substances” (rules like staying out of the inner aisles of the grocery store, avoiding things with ingredients you can’t pronounce and avoiding things your grandmother can’t identify as food). It was inspirational in its simplicity and made shopping decisions feel easy and logical. But it is Cher Horowitz’s Silverstone’s Kind Diet that I credit for walking me through my food education, making a plant-based diet seem like a realistic alternative and helping me reconcile my feelings with my lifestyle in a way that closed a massive, previously undetected gap. The Kind Diet takes readers by the hand and gently guides them through Silverstone’s views of eating a ‘kind’ diet versus a ‘nasty’ one, detailing the ways that meat and dairy are each nasty to our bodies (heart health, digestion, disease), nasty to the planet (contributors to global warming and climate change, wasted food and water resources used to raise livestock, rainforest destruction) and nasty to animals (why killing is a big deal, the inherent cruelty in the production of meat and dairy). The sections dedicated to our bodies and the planet are both well written, insightful, genuine and convincing, and I have adopted them as part of my own reasons for choosing a vegan lifestyle. The section devoted to animals, however, hits home the hardest. Silverstone takes her time to discuss the collective life and death experiences of each livestock group (including those of dairy cows and laying hens), and while her descriptions aren’t unnecessarily gruesome, their reality and honesty are absolutely gut wrenching.

Needless to say, I was fully sold by the time I finished the book, but before completing my food education, I took it upon myself to do some research into the Canadian meat and dairy industries to find out where the majority of my food was coming from and if the conditions were the same as those in the U.S. I read through the details of how livestock are raised and processed in Canada to become food for us (links contain extremely graphic, painful material and while I encourage opening them, should only be viewed if you are ready for that reality) (beef, veal, chicken, pork, turkey) as well as how they are raised and processed to provide byproducts (dairy, eggs, foie gras, wool). When I finished my research with foie gras (which is shockingly cruel and impossibly inhumane) I went to my bed and had a long and intense cry. The unbearable pain and sadness I felt about the things we do to animals for our consumption deeply solidified my decision to move toward an alternative diet and lifestyle—I could no longer respect and eat animals at the same time; I could no longer separate the cow from the steak; I couldn’t look into my dog’s eyes without seeing the eyes of every animal looking back at me. It was also immediately clear to me that a vegetarian diet wouldn’t fully reconcile my feelings and my actions and that my alternative of choice would be a totally plant-based diet.

There is one other aspect that continues to inform my vegan choices that I’ve only recently been able to articulate, and that is the issue of Species Right, which basically claims human’s right to dominate and exploit other species because we have the ability to do so. In other words, I don’t believe that it’s necessary or ethical to exploit animals for our pleasure, profit, or entertainment. This includes making use of things like fur, leather, wool, honey, and other byproducts that we humans feel entitled to in an age when humans can create synthetic alternatives for almost anything. This motivation for choosing a plant-based diet and lifestyle is not hinged on animal cruelty, but rather the fact that animals and the fruits of their labours do not exist for human consumption, whether our consumption harms them or not.

At the end of The Kind Diet, Silverstone gently suggests that readers challenge themselves to try an alternative diet (vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan, etc.) for a set period of time. When I decided to challenge myself to a vegan diet for twenty eight days, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I had to relearn everything I knew about cooking! I had to read the labels of everything I bought! That in itself—seeing just how much animal byproduct is in our food—was a mind blowing experience! Reading food labels also gave me this strange new feeling, this consciousness about my body and what I put into it, which is something I had never previously given much thought to at all. I felt a new connection to myself that I had not known before, like a light had been turned on and I finally understood who I was supposed to be. I also found a new connection with my pets.

My twenty-eight day challenge has turned into four years, and I truly can’t imagine living my life in any other way. This is not to say that I haven’t fallen off the wagon for a cupcake here and there because, let’s face it, CUPCAKES ARE GOOD! And there have also been longer periods where I’ve relaxed my restrictions on byproducts (like eating chip flavours with milk powder in them, eating milk chocolate, things like that). I’ve found the best way to get back on track is to refresh my convictions by watching Food Inc. or some other really great food documentary, like Vegucated or Forks Over Knives (both highly recommended!), reminding myself of why I’ve made those decisions in the first place. Because in our day-to-day lives, being so far removed from the production processes of our food, it is easy to become complacent; to begin to, once again, disconnect the cow from the milk. And while I would love to keep eating OMG’s for the rest of my life, I am always happier with myself when I am able to walk past them instead.

Image source. 

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