Of all the things that I try to teach my high school students about life and literature, the one thing that they always seem to remember is that I’m vegan. Here’s the truth: I hate being labeled a vegan and here’s why.
Let me preface this by saying I am not someone who takes eating in community lunch rooms as an open invitation to educate others on the dangers of their food ingredients. I’m not going to share slaughterhouse stories of meat mishandling to convince you that your hamburger is a bi-product of mass-murder. Thanks to social media, the internet, and easily hidden cameras, the stories of animal cruelty, genetic modification, and toxic additives are available more abundantly than ever before. If you want to know the truth about modern food production, I trust you’ll find the information you need. I’m happy to share what I know, but only when I’m questioned, which is exactly how people come to call me vegan in the first place.
There’s no escaping the conversation since food is a necessary part of life and an automatic complement to any social gathering. People ask questions when you bring your own lunch to work every day, fill your plate with steamed carrots and bread without butter at functions, and spend ten minutes scouring the menu in restaurants attempting to find something without meat or dairy. I stopped eating most meat at thirteen and at eighteen I developed lactose intolerance. I’m vegetarian by choice and vegan to avoid the doubled-over stomach stabbing pain that comes from eating milk products.
Tell people you’re vegan and they will inevitably ask and answer, “What do you eat, salads?” as if the droopy iceberg lettuce that you find suffocated between burger and bun is the only vegetable available and nourishment enough to sustain life. No matter what I attempt to respond, I’m always cut off with the immediate follow-up question of, “Where do you get protein?” I’ve come to believe that people don’t really want an answer to these questions because the answers are already so deeply ingrained in our culture that anything else is just plain heresy.
I wish that I could say I became a vegetarian for humanitarian reasons when I was thirteen, but in truth I didn’t. Yes there was something strikingly savage about watching my family gnaw meat off a rack of ribs, but really I just stopped caring for the taste of meat. The transition happened gradually as I slowly fazed out foods. Red meat, especially anything that left a pool of blood in my dish, was the first to go. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I decided to stop eating chicken. Six years ago I watched Foodmatters and for two years after I only ate raw vegan foods. The more I learned about food practices, the more I cut out of my diet. My food choices became more than a preference toward taste and a matter of ethics and good health.
I’ve loosened up a lot since my days of raw and despite the vegan label that has followed me, I now eat to nourish my body. I’ve learned to distinguish between over-indulgences and healthy cravings. If you listen, your body will tell you what it really needs. Here’s the truth: I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’m not vegan 100% of the time. I buy fresh eggs from the farmer’s market to cook up omelets when asparagus is in season and bake cookies around the holidays. I take free samples of cheese at the supermarket, sometimes I even buy a wedge of cheddar cheese (most brands are naturally free of lactose) to serve with spinach and olives. When I make homemade pizza or calzone, I prefer a bag of real shredded mozzarella (also lactose free) over the preservative-filled soy cheese variety. I can’t shop at Whole Foods without leaving with a single chocolate-chip cookie or a few chocolate-dipped creations from the cookie bar. And even though I have no interest in eating meat, I secretly love the scent of it cooking over open barbeque grills in the summer time. Just like you, I can eat whatever I choose to and would hope that I can do so without being made to feel that I’ve somehow committed an act of fraud for eating more than just salad and breaking the mold of the label that I never felt I belonged to in the first place.