Vegan Freak

I sit at the table in my parents’ dining room, surrounded by my family.  My sister has prepared a beautiful salad to begin our meal.  Looking at the big bowl of crisp, fresh mixed greens, sweet and spicy toasted pecans, dried cranberries and a bottle of balsamic dressing makes my mouth water.

“You really don’t know what you’re missing.  This goat cheese makes the salad.”

As she passes the bowl of cheese on the side, I keep my mouth shut, but inside, I am thinking Are you kidding me?  Do you think I’ve never eaten goat cheese before?  That I couldn’t possibly imagine the tangy, creamy texture, the way it almost melts on the tongue, a perfect foil for the bitter greens, sweet berries and crisp nuts?  I was not raised vegan.  I have chosen it.  Could you not consider the possibility that someone might replace one pleasure for another?

She doesn’t need to say anything, though.  An occasional look, a roll of the eyes, a smile that leaks pity for my choice say it all.

I roam an agricultural fair with friends, strolling by one food vendor after another, looking to see if there is even one booth that offers a choice for me–a choice that means no meat, no dairy, no eggs.  There is always a salad.  A plain, green salad, with some lame hothouse tomatoes, a few shriveled cucumber slices, maybe some thick slices of red onion.  Oil and vinegar.  No nuts, no berries, no thick, rich cashew cream dressing with freshly minced herbs.  There are lots of pizza booths, Italian sausages with fried onions and peppers, chicken wings, turkey drumsticks.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, there will be a felafel stand with sesame tahini dressing and hot sauce.  I always ask to make sure there are no eggs or yogurt.  Sometimes I get bold and force a vendor to get creative.

“Well, can you just give me the greens and then throw some of the fried peppers and onions on it, please?”

Sometimes, a smile from the cook and, voila! a taste of fair food like it should be—mustard, sauerkraut, peppers, onions, rolled into a whole-wheat wrap that I can stroll around with and enjoy.  Other times, a frown from the guy taking the cash, a puzzled look, and a shake of the head.  No.  We cannot do that special thing, lady.  Just order what’s on the sandwich board menu or move on.  I can see the irritation in the eyes of some of my friends, wondering why, at least just for today, I can’t just eat a damn cheeseburger and get over it.

I have other friends, though, who have been truly supportive.  Complete vegan dinners have been cooked for us; if a friend has a question about how to “veganize” a favorite recipe because we will be their guests, they ask and I answer.  A new friend went so far as to make homemade vegan squash-stuffed ravioli and we made a cream sauce together in her kitchen.  We made cashew cream, then added vegetable broth, blood orange oil, fried fresh sage leaves, freshly ground black pepper.  She was worried the pasta would be lacking without the eggs, but as it turned out, it was the most silky, rich delicious pasta I had ever eaten, and she thought the sauce was the perfect compliment.  We dined at a candlelit table outdoors beneath the stars that night.  The meal was superb.

At home, I keep a vegan kitchen.  When we have dinner guests, I cook.  They eat what I make and even if they are skeptical about the vegan lifestyle, their plates are clean at the end of the meal, there are no leftovers, and I often wind up having to write out the recipe for whatever I served for dinner and dessert before they leave.  I find myself scribbling down email addresses so I can send our guests more recipes.  We eat healthfully, we eat well.  We get our protein, our iron, our desserts, including cake and cookies.  My husband praises every meal, requesting leftovers, if there are any, for lunch the following day.  My son drops by to pick up homemade seitan, lentil soup, curried rice, chocolate cookies, and hides them in the fridge at his apartment so his roommates don’t gobble them up.

A year and a half ago, when my daughter and I decided becoming vegan was the right choice for us, I looked for support.  There really wasn’t any in our community, although I did (and still do) have one friend in town who is vegan, and we commiserate on both the lack of restaurants in our area and the weird looks we get from family and friends.  I read some articles on the internet—some about nutrition, some about animal rights, lots and lots about factory farming and the inhumane and often unsanitary processing of animals and animal products in our country.  I still felt alone.  I continued to educate myself by reading books.  Lots of books.  I borrowed and/or purchased cookbooks and some literature on being vegan. My daughter and I both read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I bought and read Eating Animals.   I bought Vegan Freak:  Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World and read it in a day.

Vegan freak.  When I read that book, I thought it was a little over the top.  Animals as slaves?  Really?  But then I visited a local dairy farm with my daughter’s environmental club.  The calves, separated from their mothers and held in small pens across the yard, bleated mournfully, on and on.  A kid in the group asked why they were crying.

“Well, they’re hungry.”

“Don’t you feed them?  Why aren’t they allowed to be with their mothers and have their milk?”

“Oh, they just want to drink milk all the time.  They might get too fat.   You know, some animals don’t know when to stop eating.  Plus, most of the milk goes into the dairy.  The calves get a certain amount every day, by bottle.  See?  It’s right there in the pen!”

The guide smiles and points to one calf’s pen.  The milk bottle is empty.  The calf is screaming, over and over, non-stop.  “Bleat!  Bleat!  Bleat bleat bleat bleat!”

My eyes fill and I turn to look at the group of students and teachers around me.  No one else seems upset.  Like this is a normal thing.  I catch my daughter’s teacher’s eye.  She meets my gaze, then looks away.

I dig out a tissue and try to get a grip on myself.  I think Probably most of the people here have pets, maybe dogs or cats or both.   How would they feel if their pets were in those pens? Would they allow their pets to live in that miserable sadness, hungry and alone, trapped in a pen where there is no room to walk around, let alone run?  No room to be free?

And I got it.  I really got it.  There’s plenty out in the world to eat, choices that satisfy both nutritional needs and wacky cravings without hurting or killing animals.  So, freak or not, I’m vegan.

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4 Comments on “Vegan Freak”

  1. susan hershey Says:

    Elizabeth – I love this piece. I know just what you mean, even though I’ve not quite yet become a total vegan. Just being a vegetarian people look at you funny. and relatives, especially, try to talk you out of it. You captured the feelings perfectly. thank you!

    susan hershey

    btw … if there is a website after my name, it is NOT my website. no idea how it got there!!!

    • Susan, thanks for reading, and for your supportive comments. I know I have made the right choice for me—and putting my feelings out there is a little scary! Still, it’s what I’m doing. If someone else can share my experience, they might not feel as alone as I sometimes do (and maybe less like a freak, too. :D)

  2. Shelley Says:

    I can relate to much of this. Thank you for writing it! xo

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