Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances. My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat. The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.
What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs. It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion. While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence. Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols. Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces. The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans. Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact. Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary. So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans. Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.
Oh, but it gets worse still. After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt. Is always being different really worth it? Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive. Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD). Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass. There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems. But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it? Is it really necessary to be so difficult?
I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible. I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek. But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment. I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger. I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head. Has anyone else out there experienced this?
During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets. My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat. It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”
My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not. A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible. There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit. Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish. I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods. I would indulge at any opportunity. I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.
Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night. It was a weird feeling. And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out. We had dinner elsewhere.
I gained an interesting insight from the experience. How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food? This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!” This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.” Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.” I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting). The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”
In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all. We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it. End of story. It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there. My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that. It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool. How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture. The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!” It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.
However, we are not three year olds. As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others. Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.” Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels? It feels good!
This is where fried fish comes in. That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.” I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die. And why should this happen? So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil. Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.
Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight. It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates. Out of sight, out of mind. The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal. Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it. That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat. That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.
After all, it’s just so yummy.