My birthday cake this year, from my sweet husband.
We were watching Iron Chef America. The battle was tilapia and the fish were presented swimming in tanks. The chefs scrambled to scoop as many as they could handle, rushing them over to their stations to begin “breaking them down.” The commentators chuckled over the chaos ensuing as the competitors struggled with their secret ingredient. Suddenly one of the fish wriggled free and began flopping across the floor, away, away, as the chef chased after. My breath caught and I hardly realized I was speaking aloud.
“He just wants to live.”
It was such an involuntary reaction that I wasn’t immediately sure what it meant or how to place it. I’m pretty sure Chris thought I was joking. I thought I might be joking too, but there was a kernel of truth to what I said that left me feeling unsettled.
When I first began transitioning to a plant-based diet, it was health-motivated, and I spent a lot of time feeling uncertain as to whether it would be a permanent change. Though it boggles my mind now to remember it, I used to be one of those people that said things like “I could never give up cheese,” or “I like my meat so rare that it moves when I cut into it.” (The latter, especially, makes me wince today.) When people would ask me if eating vegan was something I’d do forever, I could never answer directly. Forever is a long time, and while I could say with confidence that there would be no cheese on my next salad, no steak for dinner the following week, I felt hesitant to say what forever would bring.
And then there was that fish.
That was the first moment I became aware that something else was shifting for me. The thoughts I was beginning to have made me terribly uncomfortable; this wasn’t how I’d expected this whole thing to go. And they weren’t fleeting. They stuck around, plagued me, kept me plotting arguments in my head at night as I reached for sleep, until I decided to discuss them with Chris. I can talk to my husband about anything—it’s one of the things I love best about our relationship—but I felt uncharacteristically nervous as I started to tell him that, at the last dinner we attended where there was meat on the table, I didn’t feel left out or tempted by it, as one might expect. Instead, I felt sad. In fact, it made me sad to the point that I felt compelled to keep my eyes averted throughout the meal.
I was nervous to say these things aloud because, even though they were my own feelings, they felt totally foreign in contrast to how I’d lived and what I’d thought for nearly my entire life. As someone who had indulged in the crackle of duck skin and the plush chew of sweetbreads, as someone who loved the pretentious foodie show of making one’s own cheese or yogurt on a whim, it was like an out-of-body experience to consider that some deep, unrelenting, fundamental part of myself actually believed that these things were wrong.
Eating plant-based for health reasons is one thing. It’s pretty innocuous. Few people are going to feel threatened by or come up against you for doing something that makes you feel great and that is visibly making you healthier. The insensitive mealtime joke is easy enough to laugh off, because, at the end of the day, you know that you’re doing what’s right for you. And of course, when you invite the naysayers to dinner they are far too busy devouring the insanely delicious plant-based food to even consider cracking wise.
Being vegan because you believe it’s cruel to raise and kill animals for the enjoyment of eating them is a whole different arena. It is no longer about what is best for you, but what you believe is right and wrong.
I know that it is the ethical aspect of veganism that alienates most people and turns them off for more than just the thought of relinquishing their bacon. I know because I lived for twenty-five years on the other side. I remember the gut-reaction defensiveness, the narrow-eyed skepticism. Every counter-argument to ethical (or dietary) veganism that you could possibly come up with has popped out of my own mouth at some point in time (turns out they don’t hold water). Though pushing my family, friends, and readers away is the last thing I want to do, I know from my own past experience that merely sharing these feelings is going to make someone somewhere deeply uncomfortable.
I feel like it’s important, however, that I be honest about where I am and why I’m here.
It was an organic shift for me. The more I distanced myself from pork, beef, and poultry as food, the more I began to see those things as the remains of sentient beings: pigs, cows, birds. The question of eating ham was no longer limited to what was on my plate, but about whether I could justify ending the life of a creature with greater intellectual capabilities than my own beloved pup—whom I would never consider harming, much less consuming—simply because I wanted a sandwich.
Chicky-Man and his friend Pelo, sharing a meal.
I also wouldn’t have let anyone harm a feather on the head of the chicken I raised in high school. It would have broken my heart to learn that he had been killed and eaten. From my previous post, To Meat or Not to Meat:
“But what was so different about that chick that I raised from the chicken that I roasted in my oven last Tuesday? As I was rinsing off the body in preparation, I felt the cold weight of it in my hands. I couldn’t help but think back to my little Chicky-Man. I remembered how very different he felt when I held him—warm, light, alive. In that moment, I was struck by how very dead the chicken that I currently held felt. It wasn’t just a limp, slippery breast or a single disembodied wing. This was a whole, dead animal with bones and muscle and skin. It used to run around in the grass and eat bugs and caterpillars. It used to be alive.”
The truth is there was no difference between the chicken that I ate and the one that I raised—except for the fact that I had arbitrarily decided that one was more worthy of life than the other. There’s a significant hypocrisy in that, as well as in the belief that any one species is more worthy of life than another, that I’ve found I just can’t stomach.
So my decision to live a vegan lifestyle is now two-pronged.
1) Nutrition. I want to put the best, most nutrient-dense foods into my body, things that are going to be vitalizing and life-promoting. Anything that I can get from animal-based sources, I can also get from plant-based sources, and, when these things come from plants, I also receive a ton of other beneficial things like fiber, antioxidants, and micronutrients—without any of the harmful attributes/consequences of animal products. As a nice little bonus, whole plant-based foods are less calorie-dense and more filling.
2) Ethics. Humans do not need to consume animal products to survive—or to thrive. Additionally, we live in a world where plant-based nutrition is abundantly available year-round, rendering the consumption of meat and other animal products purely indulgent. And it’s an indulgence that takes a life. I think that most people—certainly anyone who’s ever had a pet—agree that animals are sentient beings with thoughts and feelings of their own, intelligence, personalities, and a will to live (yes, even the fishes). This is why images of factory farms and slaughterhouses are so upsetting. We know at our core that these creatures are more than mere commodities, and it’s heartbreaking to see them in pain. It would take a whole lot of denial for me to insist that my entirely unnecessary enjoyment of piece of cheese or a hamburger was worth more than the life of another living being.
These are my feelings and this is the place I have come to. I understand that everyone has his or her own journey; I’ve certainly been on one of my own. I have no ill will or disrespect toward anyone for not choosing the path that I have, but I would urge everyone to take a look beyond the social norm and make an informed and careful decision about how you want to impact this planet and your fellow animals. If you’re interested in learning more about how non-human animals are affected by our lifestyle choices, I recommend watching the documentary Earthlings. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to sit through, but sometimes seeing is the best way to understand.
That said, crazy delicious food isn’t a terrible path to understanding either. You guys saw this cake, right?