Today I have decided to become an unapologetic vegan. I'm already a vegan, it's the unapologetic part that's new.
Recently, I attended ones of those benefit galas that included the standard fare rubbery chicken main course and found myself having to shout to the waiter, over the din of the room, to take back the chicken and that I would like a vegan plate instead please. I was then served a plate of cheese-laden lasagna and once again, I had to shout new instructions; I'm a vegan, that means no cheese, no butter, no milk, no dairy period. Finally a sad looking plate of plain, tasteless, steamed vegetables was offered and I dug in. Of course all this back and forth with the waiter drew the attention of the table so I felt the need to explain what happened and concluded with an apology to everyone. My dear friend, Nancy, leaned over to me and said; "you have nothing to apologize for!" And as it turns out, no one was bothered, I indeed had nothing to apologize for and my table-mates were curious as to why I became a vegan. Ah, I live for those moments! But that wasn't the first time I've felt compelled to apologize for the "inconvenience" of my diet and it wasn't the first time my friends told me to stop apologizing.
There is no doubt that as a vegan, I often feel set apart from the human tribe who gather together to share meals that 99% of the time includes meat and/or dairy. In addition, not everyone fully understands what a vegan diet consists of so we happily explain that we don't consume milk, butter, eggs, cheese or anything that comes from animals. So a vegetable soup is not vegan when it contains chicken stock and pasta with Parmesan cheese is a no no for us. Vegetarians still use dairy and wear leather but we vegans are comforted knowing that they are that much closer to truly compassionate eating.
Not so long ago, I used to be an apologetic omnivore. When I was served fish, shrimp or lobster that still had its head, I would freak out and ask that the dish be taken away and the offending head removed so that I could enjoy my meal without those eyes staring at me with every bite. I felt sorry for the fish, I felt sorry for making a fuss and in the rare times I was reminded that all of my meat used to have a head, including eyes, I felt sorry for the animal. I don't know what it is about the eyes... the whole windows to the soul thing is pretty profound, I guess. There must be a reason that, generally speaking, meat is served headless. I think all of us feel quite squeamish when confronted with the whole of an animal that looks much the same dead and cooked as it did alive and well. Maybe that is why our meat is prepared and packaged, to help us forget the "fact of life" that death is a part of the main course.
When I decided to allow myself to really think about the meat I was eating, that lead me to written descriptions and then to actual videos showing how the animals I ate were dying. To say that watching the videos made me uncomfortable is an understatement. It was a stomach churning, throat tightening and visceral experience in which I thought my heart would burst from the pain and empathy I felt for the animals being killed in front of my eyes. As an eater of meat, I was just one degree of separation away from the violent act I witnessed in those videos. I knew there was no way I could go to the kill floor myself and either be a part of or watch the animals being slaughtered. That was the litmus test for me. If I couldn't bear to watch the killing, then I have no business eating meat. If it made me feel that horrible and that bad, how could I in good conscience be a participant (by creating the demand as a consumer) in something that caused me such distress? Now that's just me. Some people may not have the sensitivity to animals that I do and I cannot and will not be the judge of those who don't feel the way I do. But I do not believe that we should hide behind willful ignorance either. To those of you who LOVE meat but say "I can't look," then I say if it's that hard for you to watch, then maybe you feel conflicted. If you feel conflicted, then I urge you to keep making the connection in your heart and in your mind's eye. Animals must be killed before they become food. Death is often terrifying and painful and violent for the animal, particularly on factory farms. It isn't fair to the animals who give their lives for your palate to suffer with their bodies what you won't suffer with your eyes. So as a new unapologetic vegan, I challenge all of you unapologetic meat eaters to watch this video, Meet Your Meat. If you can watch without wincing, without feeling an uncomfortable stirring in the pit of your stomach, if you can watch the animal's experience in the slaughterhouse and be okay, then you deserve to enjoy your hamburgers, BBQ, and bacon because you have faced the reality of meat-eating head on (keeping in mind that there is a huge environmental cost to meat consumption...that's a post for another day). But if the video turns your stomach, if you are disgusted or feel remorseful or sad for the animal, then I ask you to seriously rethink your diet. If you do, I am happy to give you tips on moving through this world as a newly minted and unapologetic vegetarian or vegan.