I can already imagine the comments from haters calling me a disgusting animal abuser -- and that's OK. I get it. Because I used to be a fascist vegan.
I didn't become a vegan out of the blue; I slowly worked up to it for years. When I was 13 and I learned about the destruction of the rainforest for grazing land, I promptly informed my mother that I would no longer eat red meat. When I was eighteen and my boyfriend took me to hear KRS-1 speak to a group of college kids in New York, his words convinced me to stop eating flesh all together.
When I was 22, I fell in love with a vegan. Let's call him Abe. He stuck his chest out and rarely wore a shirt. He was a short man, though he was well-built -- and his long hair gave him a lion's ferociousness.
Perhaps it was because I was young or bored or intrigued by the intensity in his eyes, but I started dating him. To match his already-defiant personality, he was vegan with a capital V. I was vegetarian, and had been for nearly 10 years, but he was still disgusted when I ate dairy or eggs, which he referred to as "chicken abortions."
He told me dairy cows live tortured lives. It is a woman’s issue, he said -- the baby taken from its mother soon after birth, the mother raped of her baby’s milk for selfish human consumption. Humans drink a milk that is meant to grow creatures the size of a cud chewing conchers. We are the only species that drink milk into adulthood; it is unnatural and unnecessary; everything we need is in nature. Our hearts and souls suffer from it.
There were a lot of facts and statistics thrown in there too, but it was his emotional plea that convinced me. I had never looked at food in that way. The choice to not eat meat seemed almost clear-cut: Meat is an animal. I love animals. I don't eat meat. But the choice to abstain from dairy was a different horse all together. No animals are killed to make milk or eggs. But, according to Abe, they are “exploited," and if I really cared about animals then I would get rid of my wool sweaters and leather shoes and honey and lotions and jello snacks; all by-products of oppressed animals.
Within a month of being vegan, I felt like a new person, like I was floating on a cloud -- lighter, brighter and increasingly attuned to my body and what it was telling me. I had more energy to exercise and my muscles toned more easily. I gained a great interest in health and nutrition. I began to cook and loved doing it. Proud of my choice, I thought I would never go back. As young and headstrong as I was, I began to feel so radical about being a vegan that I considered anyone who wasn't to be ignorant. If you weren't vegan, you were akin to a murderer in my eyes.
For some people, the word "vegan" conjures up images of PETA protestors throwing fake blood at fur-clad celebrities or hippies living in a bus and foraging for nuts and berries in the forest. Admittedly, my veganism was fanatical. Being vegan meant living by a strict and unpopular philosophy, adding minutes to grocery-shopping excursions while I diligently checked food and toiletry labels for hidden animal ingredients such as lanolin, pepsin, albumin, glycerides, whey, gelatin, and other equally deceptive nouns. I searched non-food products for the safe little bunny label.
I denied any meal where the ingredients were uncertain, no matter how hungry I was. When I dined out, I struggled to find restaurant food I could eat. On the worst of days, I regretfully rejected well-intentioned offers of baked goods from co-workers and grandmas. Potlucks and buffets were my social nightmare, and I was always defending myself against people who considered vegans extreme.
One of the most difficult things about being vegan for me was how defensive it made people about their own food choices. I dreaded the holidays with my family. I come from a long line of meat-eating Italians and Eastern Europeans. Already they knew I would not eat the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas roast, but they could not fathom that I would want to refrain from my grandmother’s raviolis or my aunt’s sweet potato marshmallow casserole. When they asked me why, my response always seemed to come out as accusatory, no matter how ambivalent I attempted to be. I wanted them to understand that I was passionate about animal rights, but all they heard was that they were animal slaughtering baby killers. After a few months of being a vegan, I began to refrain from telling people. Instead of, “No thanks, I'm vegan,” I would say, “No thanks, I'm not hungry.”
After six months of subsisting on a purely vegan diet, I began to have seemingly unrelated health issues. I went to a naturopath who was impressed by my good eating habits. I did not substitute sugar for meat like most vegetarians did, and I ate whole foods. However, I refused to take vitamin supplements due to an aversion toward pills. My doctor introduced me to some great nutritional food supplements and gave me a series of B-12 shots to get me started. Yet as more test results came back, I found out that I had dangerously low cholesterol that no plant could cure.
Abe said this was a temporary setback to my body adjusting to years and generations of meat eating. I remained stringent with my diet, unwilling to commit to being a fish eater, denying all dairy, despite overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
I broke up with veganism a year later when I broke up with Abe. Maybe this proved that my heart wasn't really in it. The breakup was bad, and I was miserable. In my misery, what did I crave more than anything? Black tea with cream, not soy milk; thick milky cream.
I moved to Alaska, where tofu was as rare as indoor plumbing. I started eating subsistence meat, fresh caught salmon and road kill moose (seriously). I justified this kind of meat-eating; the animal lived a free and wild life. I avoided dairy for a long time, but eventually gave into it when I met my husband. When I became pregnant with my daughter, I had a hamburger for the first time in 20 years and it was really fucking good.
Early last year, I decided to try veganism again and it was nothing like it was in my twenties. I was sick, often. When I ingested homeopathic medicines, they didn't work and made me feel sicker. I began eating eggs and dairy in hopes that this might help, but they also made me feel sick.
Since then, I have experimented with a variety of cleanses and diets trying to figure out what works best for my body. Through trial and error, I soon discovered that I am unable to digest beans, sprouted or otherwise, and that the only way I can digest eggs or dairy is to eat meat. In other words, being a healthy vegetarian is basically impossible for me at this time in my life.
On one hand, I do believe that eating animals is perfectly natural. Eating meat helps me to feel more grounded, strong and energetic. Animals eat animals. That's nature, the food chain. Humans are omnivores and our bodies have adapted over centuries to eat both meat and vegetables. Best of all, unlike my dog, we have a choice to eat meat or not.
On the other hand, the choice to not eat meat is a gentle choice, gentle on our bodies, our minds and the planet. That is why I am truly envious of people who can be vegan. I believe that factory farming is one of the greatest crimes of the human race. I cry every time I watch an animal-rights video. I am horrified by the details of how these animals live and die. I don't even like zoos, aquariums and circuses with animals. I believe it is wrong to treat living beings in that way. The strongest statement we can make against the meat industry is to stop eating meat, and I wish that this was a boycott that I was capable of participating in.
The best I have been able to manage is to buy only local pasture-fed meat and dairy from local pasture-fed animals. I don't want to hunt and I don't want to raise livestock, so I am basically stuck with what I can find. This is especially difficult in the winter when it means I can only eat beef. In the summer, when the farmer's market is open, I can add sausage and bacon and an occasional turkey to the list. I talk to my daughter about the importance of humanely raised animals and allow her to make her own food choices. This is the best I can do. I am a guilty carnivore.
Do you feel bad about eating meat but do it anyway? Have you ever tried being vegan and failed?