Saying the Wrong Thing (Vegan Edition)

My 19 year old niece recently spent a month trying on vegetarianism for size.  She even flirted with vegan meals a bit, as she shares my opposition to the murder of animals for our gustatory pleasure.

I took the opportunity to chat with her about nutrition and menus when we both attended a family event several weeks ago.  On that occasion, I shared a vegan “cheeseburger” with her (Boca burger with melted soy cheese) and left her with the remainder of my package of fake cheese.  My intent was to convey the message that one can enjoy many tasty dishes that do not include the rotting flesh of dead animals.  But I tried not to sugarcoat things.  Vegans do need to ensure that they are consuming sufficient protein rather than succumbing to the temptation to carbo-load all the time.  I also explained about the importance of including yellow and orange vegetables in one’s diet for Vitamin A, as well as citrus fruits for Vitamin C and leafy greens for iron.  I shared that I have a tendency to keep lists in my phone, both to ensure that the right items are purchased during our trips to the grocery store and to monitor my dietary balance.

I find it fairly easy to discuss the cruelty of factory farms, the horrors inflicted on chickens and the way that bulls are killed and butchered.  I have no problem holding forth on vegan food options, nutrition and menus.  But there are other things that I have a much more difficult time talking about.  I refer to the “social” aspects of veganism.  The truth is that, even at my age, I still have a lot to learn about human relations.  How should I say this?  Manners have never been my strong point; I tend to put things bluntly to the point that many find me inconsiderate and even downright rude.  I don’t believe that my coarse demeanor quite rises to the level of, say, Donald Trump, but I have had my moments.  I have been compelled to issue many apologies in the course of my life.  So when I became a vegan nearly three years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dangers of social gaffes lurk around every corner.

How do I refuse a cookie?  You’d think “no, thank you” would be sufficient, but some folks won’t let it alone.  Others think you’re just being a snob.  Yes, I know you’ve seen me eating cookies, but mine don’t contain animal products.

How do you tell someone that you are unable to eat a single thing that is being served?  Possible responses include:

  • “It looks lovely, but I’m really full. I just ate a little while ago.”
  • “I’m diabetic, so I have to be really careful. I’ve already maxed out my starches and fats for the day.”
  • Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t know that I’m kosher. I’d really enjoy a cup of tea, though.”

I find that successful vegan eating away from home is all in the planning.  You can check restaurant menus online in advance.  You can warn your hosts well before showing up at their homes.  You can make sure to eat before you go or after you leave, or you can prepare your own food and bring it along.  This last option, as convenient as it is, can be problematic as well.  I have learned through painful experience that some take offense when you show up with a Gladware container of tofu and broccoli and ask to use the microwave.  It’s a minefield even for the socially savvy.  For someone like myself, however, eating with others is clearly a losing proposition.  What I must do is try to keep my mouth shut, and not just because of the food being served.  I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that whatever I say is likely to be the wrong thing.  And no matter how disgusting I find the food being consumed by others, I am nearly always better off keeping my opinions to myself.

Vegans remain a tiny minority in the United States, a situation that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.  My dad, now in his 80s, admits that he never heard the word “vegan” until about ten years ago.  Fortunately, awareness of the vegan movement is increasing.  While this is, overall, a positive development, it has also given rise to an increase in deprecatory comments.  For example, my wife recently showed me a meme on Facebook that asked whether the mouth-watering sensation one gets upon smelling steak on the grill is similar to the sensation experienced by vegans upon smelling a freshly mowed lawn.  So excuse me for a moment while I head outside to graze.

Okay, I’m back.  Baaaa.  I mean, “yummy!”

I have no clue how to fairly address this conundrum with my niece.  I do want her to know what to expect, but I don’t want her to run away screaming.  She’s already experienced a bit of vegan social woe when she clearly expressed her expectation that her family provide her with vegetarian meals. Umm…

I hate to say this, dear one, but this is not how to ingratiate yourself to those closest to you.  It’s a cruel, hard world and it’s every vegan for herself.  You have a job, you draw a paycheck, so you can get what you need when you visit the grocery store.  Make lists.  Plan menus.  It’s really not that hard.

For such things to come out of my mouth is very much in keeping with the rudeness that seems to have become my personal hallmark.  I need to heed the adage about not judging until I walk a mile in another’s moccasins.  It’s easy to say “take care of your own needs and don’t expect anything of others” when you earn a good salary and have a wife who is willing to do the shopping.  It’s not so easy when you work part-time making FA wages and have a three year old to take care of.  Not to mention the fact that, when you’re 19, you want to eat fast food like the rest of your friends do and you don’t want to have to think about your upcoming meals.  You want to enjoy the convenience of eating what’s readily available, what’s cheap, what everyone else is eating.  You don’t want to have to explain your food choices and your philosophy to anyone.  You want to fit in.

The other day my wife told me about a phone call she received from my niece.  “I did a bad thing,” my niece prefaced her remarks, before admitting that she was unable to resist an egg sandwich at Starbucks.  My kind, gentle wife very patiently explained that it’s not the end of the world and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating an egg once in a while.  “Yes, but there was bacon on top of it,” my niece added.

I had to laugh.  If I’m to be honest, I have to admit that I was more relieved than disappointed.  Being a vegan is a tough row to hoe, and all the more so when you’ve been raised eating meat at almost every meal.  I had a head start in that I grew up with a mother who kept kosher and have never tasted bacon.  Kosher meat is expensive and it just wasn’t a big thing with us.  So when I stopped eating meat 26 years ago, it wasn’t the type of sea change that it would be for my niece.

A few nights ago, my niece and her little one were visiting us in our tiny rented house at dinnertime.  I was chopping onions and tomatoes to prepare vegan nachos while everyone else was enjoying microwaved pepperoni Hot Pockets.

“I didn’t like the way eating vegetarian made me feel,” my niece told me as she was heading home.

“It’s not about eating meat,” I reminded her.  “It’s about getting enough protein.”

Leave it to me to say the wrong thing again.  It’s the story of my life.

 

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