This year (2003), I am a vegan. I was vegan on January first, and it's been six months since then, and things are going well. I've been vegan in the past, but not for this long. I've had to confront a lot of interesting ideas, and some strange attitudes around me, during this time. Sometimes I feel as though the path I'm walking is laid between two opposing tribes, one large and mocking, one small and rabid. They sometimes grab my arms, trying to claim me as a member, accusing me of infidelity, hypocrisy, or sin.
Well screw them. I have my own agenda, and my own philosophy. This is a manifesto! And I present it as a series of questions, and my own answers, about being vegan. First things first:
Happy to be of service! Vee. Gun. Not vay-gun, as in "death ray", not veh-gun as in "vegetable". Vee. As in "Destroy your TV." As in "Bite Me." As in "hee hee hee." Why? Because it sounds the MANLIEST, that's why. No other reason. Hah!
Because I don't eat meat, eggs, or dairy products. That's all. Notice I didn't say anything about wearing leather. Notice I didn't say anything about sheep-shearing, or feeding a cat, crushing bugs on my windsheild, or training falcons to hunt. The definitions of "vegan" and "vegetarian" have become extremely fuzzy over the years, and I have already caught flak from some extremists for allegedly adding to the confusion -- but when I go to a restaurant and the head waiter insists that the curry is completely vegetarian, even though he's just quoted shrimp and fish sauce as two ingredients -- and he then tries to sell me a 'vegetarian' iced tea that comes with milk in it -- then it's time to find a more serious term.
"Strict Vegetarian" doesn't cut it, either. I've told people that and they've still assumed I want cheese on my pasta. And as for all those fancy prefixes, like "Octo-Lavo-Vegetarian", they can bite me. So I'm calling myself "vegan", even though the only tenets of the originating practice I'm following are dietary in nature. Call me a "dietary vegan", and I'll be a happy guy.
Now is not the time to accuse me of some lame hypocrisy. The common understanding of the term "Vegan", where it is understood at all, is one of dietary preferences. I'm fully aware that the intended meaning of the term carries with it a lot more restrictions - an incredible boatload of them, in fact, mostly political in nature. It's hard to say this without sounding like a twit, but frankly, I've seen too many diverse things in the world at this point, and to adopt all the politics of being "Vegan" would require me to narrow and distort my views, not broaden them.
There's a philosophical reason, and a dietary reason.
The dietary reason is simple: A properly done vegan diet is damn good for you. You eat less crap and you eat more real food. Notice I said, a properly done vegan diet.
The philosophical reason can also be expressed simply, but it's subtle: The less the foods I eat resemble myself, the less of a misanthrope I am. In other words, the more it looks and acts like me, the less inclined I am to eat it.
Actually, I've been having these bursts of energy. I find myself running up stairs. I've started riding my bike to work. I look trimmer in the mirror. People have been commenting. Even my coordination and balance have improved. If this is what it's like at six months, I'm gonna be Soopafly, at year's end.
I certainly don't feel worse. I'm not dying, or withering away. I'm in good stead with a B-12 supplement, too, which vegans in the modern world of processed foods MUST watch out for. If only it wasn't cherry flavored. Yeelghk. I hate cherries.
Okay, this really needs to be cleared up, folks. Meat, eggs, and dairy are not the only sources of protein on earth. Nor are they the only sources of calcium. And all that crap you heard about combining foods to make a 'complete' protein at every meal, busting out some complex chart every time you sit down to dinner? That's crap too. I'm not walking a tightrope, I'm on a wide path, brimming with a thousand plants on either side, and it's surprisingly easy to derive all the protein I need. A little here, a little there. Usually I go heavy on the wheat gluten and the tofu, because I like protein in big solid blocks, but a more appropriate question might be, aren't you walking a tightrope, eating so few vegetables?
You obviously haven't met Carl Lewis, the world-class sprinter with a wheelbarrow full of gold medals. He's vegan, suckas.
Maybe the problem is, the only people you can identify as vegans are the ones that loudly proclaim it at random moments, like it's some badge of honor. Maybe you spot them because they've got bumper stickers that say "Meat Is Murder". I'm beginning to suspect that veganism has some kind of special attraction for the clinically depressed and the downtrodden. I think they take up the cause for "animal rights" because they've experienced so much pain or oppression in their own lives, and can't stomach the idea of causing pain for other innocent critters. That's great, they can do what they want, but unfortunately most of them are so concerned with their philosophy, that they forget about their diet.
Here's the problem, in a nutshell: The American dietary culture is awash in dairy products. Avoiding meat is very, very easy, compared to avoiding dairy. Dairy can be found in everything here. Stuff that it has no business being in, like tortillas, whole wheat bread, and the wax on the apples at your supermarket. (It's even in birth control pills, in trace amounts. I have no idea why.) As a result, being an authentic vegan is a lot harder than it should be.
For example, a value meal at Burger King: You obviously can't eat the meat, or the cheese. You also can't eat the mayo. Or the bun. You can't even eat the fries. They're flavored with whey before they even get to the fryer. What's left? A soft-drink, some lettuce, some tomato, and a pile of salt. Reeaaal healthy, huh.
And so, we observe a handy side-effect of being vegan. No more fast food for you. There just isn't any you can eat. Bam, out it goes.
Since becoming vegan, I've discovered that a lot of the advantages come in the side-effects. In order to be vegan around here, I've got to actually read the ingredients, on every food item I buy. I never used to do that. I've had to eliminate fast-food. I've had to eliminate most junk-food, too. It's all got either gelatin, or milk chocolate in it. (Dark chocolate is tastier anyway.) I've had to learn about how food is prepared, where it comes from, and why. I've also had to sift through a mountain of information, most of it from questionable sources. Everyone's got a dietary axe to grind.
In my research I've also discovered foods that I didn't know existed, like seitan, cous-cous, the cherimoya, black grapes, tempeh, wheat gluten, and wasabi peas. These foods have been around for thousands of years, and have been in my local supermarket for my entire life, but I was too busy eating cheese, bacon, and french fries to notice them before.
And notice them I must. Foods in a vegan diet are usually lighter in protein, and also significantly lighter in fat. These traits complement each other, because to get the same level of protein you have to eat more, and a lower fat content inspires you to eat more. The food goes down easier too. Two more perks I find in the vegan diet: I never get that sluggish feeling after a meal, and I always have timely, satisfying bowel movements!
A word of advice: Eat a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber. I know whole-wheat stuff is supposedly better for you, but to keep your intestines happy you really should eat both. If that's too much to pay attention to, don't worry about it for now.
Say what? You know, it's funny - I was worried about this too. Especially the dairy. I went on a cruise once, last year, when I was new to veganism. One evening they had an after-dinner party; three long tables all loaded down with cake and pie and ice cream and chocolate truffles. All of it free. None of it vegan. I almost cried. They could have used non-dairy ingredients to make a lot of these items, but that would have required training for their chefs, and an adjustment of their entire food supply line, all the way back to the buyers and accountants back on land. Paradoxically, it would also have cost them more, thanks to heavy subsidizing of the dairy industry. I knew I wasn't likely to see a lot of vegan options during my cruise. It felt awful.
Then I got back on land, and suddenly had a lot more resources. In six months this year, my thinking has almost entirely reversed. Now meat and dairy seem like a niche, in a much broader spectrum of foods that, for some reason, I never used to eat. It helps that I live in an area that has plenty of different food stores, and an active community of "farmer's market"-style organizations.
Here's additional food for thought. Nowadays, various companies produce vegan foods that are culinary analogues to dairy products. They've become hard to distinguish from the items they're designed to replace. As a result, there are a lot of traditional recipies that you can "vegan-ize". Also, meat substitutes are not as limited as you might think. After swapping a few ingredients around, you may discover that your meal plan hardly changes, but is suddenly vegan. And this brings up an interesting question:
Cookies, milkshakes, burritos, pancakes, sandwiches, omelettes, hot-dogs, pot-pies, casseroles, even pizzas. If all these recipies can be vegan ... why aren't they? If we don't really need dairy products to make any of these things, why have we been subsidizing the dairy industry for fifty years? Why do we pay dairy farmers a bonus for every gallon of milk they export overseas? I'd really like to know why that money comes out of my pocket. But that's beyond the scope of this manifesto.
One of my favorite styles of cuisine, Thai, is often vegan, and with minor modifications, can be entirely vegan. Go to your favorite Thai restaurant and order the yellow curry with sweet potatoes, but instead of chicken, see if they'll put in deep-fried tofu. There's your meal. Order the spicy coconut soup (minus fish sauce), the same way. Very tasty.
I'm a vegan. Not a god. I can't observe the cooking procedures of everyone on the planet. It's not the one-fifth-of-a-percent accidental 'tainting' of my food that I'm worried about, it's the big stuff, like actually requesting, and actually getting, a pile of tofu instead of a pile of pork. Deliberate tainting, on the other hand, has to be discouraged. I can't say "Oh it's just got a little meat in it", because my perspective starts to erode. If I can reasonably find out and prevent it, I have to take those steps, otherwise I'm just being a complacent weenie.
That said, there is a fact that I wish more vegans would keep in mind. We are all MADE of meat. There is no "pure" state that I can possibly reach, that the undetectable trace presence of meat-juice will somehow corrupt. That "pure" state is a neurotic fantasy, in my opinion. If I find out that I got pig juice instead of grape juice, I'm gonna be pissed, but I'm not gonna have to regurgitate my meal or call a doctor. When we're talking trace amounts, we're talking philosophy. Which is no less important, but does have different ramifications. Either way I'll have a few words with the chef, of course.
In these six short months, I've noticed that whenever I'm out in public ordering food, questioning the chef or the waiter about what's vegan, people's ears perk up around me. They just love to start conversations about why I'm vegan. This is usually a great thing -- I love to talk about all the options and the confusing nutritional information we're exposed to, and share ideas. But sometimes people butt in who have an agenda, or a chip on their shoulder. Vegans and non-vegans alike.
Usually these people goad me about the details. Maybe they want to expose some hypocrisy and embarrass me, because I threaten them with my mere existence. I don't know.
So, honey is not technically vegan, is it? Bite me. Honey is food processed by bees -- creepy alien little things driven by an only semi-intelligent hive mind. They're not all the way down the evolutionary chain, but they're far down it enough that I don't feel any special kinship with them. Bzz bzzzz. Bzbzbzzzzz bzz.
Go ahead and call me a hypocrite for eating something that comes out of a bee when I won't drink what comes out of a cow. Also, feel free to chide me for eating honey when I won't eat clams, even though they're lower on the evolutionary chain. Then bite me.
Mr. Beekeeper Man works all day long, building a space where bees can multiply and thrive, creating a hundred thousand bees out of a handful. If it wasn't for Mr. Beekeeper Man, those bees and their honey wouldn't be there. The crops that they're often placed by, for gathering nectar, wouldn't be there either. The world is a complex place of grey shades, and anyone who wants to argue with me about bees could clearly be doing something more effective with their time, like arguing about the dairy industry instead.
Here's something you may not know. Some refined sugar is produced through a bleaching process that involves the use of bone charcoal. This is done simply to alter the color of the sugar, so we can have nice white topping for our blueberry pie. Yee-hah. No bone gets mixed in with the sugar, it's just used in the process. You learn something new every day, huh?
Yes, I know about this, but once again, no, I don't have any issue with it. I also tend to avoid refined sugar anyway, as part of my diet. There are similar issues involving maple syrup, and the wax coating on supermarket fruit. In both cases, while the ambiguity pisses me off, it's pretty close to the threshold of diminishing returns. It's easy to avoid the wax coating, at least. Just buy organic produce.
There's another thing -- organic produce. I've actually gotten flak for buying organic produce, because I'm apparently some kind of sucker, paying more money for the same thing. Once again, to those people: Bite me. Try organic produce some time, if you can get it. You'll discover that more genetically diverse vegetables actually have something called flavor. Amazing, isn't it, this strange, crazy new thing? Flavor. I know I'm making an oversimplification, but consider this: Why would a vegetable that's been genetically altered to last five hundred years at room temperature, that even bugs won't eat, be better for you?
I'm not saying mass-produced vegetables are bad for you. No, no, no, nothing of the sort. If they're what you can get, then by all means, eat them in abundance! Americans need to eat more vegetables, especially the dark green ones! If it isn't organic, don't let that stop you. All I'm saying here is that, for the decades we've been breeding and cross-breeding and altering our mass-grown produce, it's nutritional content has not really been an economic motivator. Farmers, and most consumers, are concerned more with how their vegetables look, and how long they last, than they are with the nutritional content.
We have, as a culture, developed a taste for items that appear mass-produced. We feel better buying an item if it's one of a thousand identical copies, because that way, we can tell if there's anything wrong with it. We also favor water that's in a plastic jug, over water that's in a creek, for similar reasons. Farmers aren't part of some big conspiracy to malnourish you, they've just been concentrating on delivering what you prefer. And not concentrating on what you don't care about. It makes economic sense. If you don't like it, cast your vote, by not buying it. And tell them why!
I can't believe people are even talking about this. So you're not feeding your kid a vegan diet, if you breastfeed it? So the hell what. Seriously though, folks, breasteeding is best for all young mammals, your kids included. Aaaargh! Consistency. Hobgoblin. Small minds. Et cetera.
How the heck did we get here, from "not eating meat and dairy"? Ah, this must be part of the "cruelty free" thing that people hear about, when they hear about vegans. I own a leather jacket. It was a gift from my Aunt. I would never buy one, because they're a nuisance in wet weather, but I appreciate the gift, and I sometimes wear it around town.
I also own a sturdy pair of hiking boots which I bought before I went vegan. They kick ass. I do not feel one tiny smidgeon of guilt for wearing these boots. They have saved me from crippling foot injury countless times in the wilderness. Make me a pair of boots that's not derived from animals, that performs just as well, and I'll buy those instead -- but only after this pair wears out.
What, you're calling me a hypocrite? Saying that the leather goods industry is part of the cycle of cruelty? Bite me. Take up your argument with a biker gang, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, where people wear leather underwear. Leave me out of it.
That's a bit harsh, and deserves some explanation. It's like this. Every choice we make, about our future behavior, affects our ability to do things. To make things happen. It affects our power. Here's an example.
If I refuse to drive a car for environmental reasons, I must instead take the bus. But what if I need to get to a business meeting somewhere, and there is no taxi service? I'll have to get up five hours early and ride a bike, and change into a wrinkly business suit when I get there. I won't be scoring any points for my company. For my extra trouble, I may just be laid off.
This boils down to a choice, between adhering to a self-imposed restriction, and getting something done. I can either tie my own hands -- or take advantage of a resource, in order to wield the power it provides. I choose to take advantage of the power and freedom that a car, and an excellent pair of hiking boots, can provide. Yes, I know that a lot of animals die in this process. I've run over a few of them myself. It's a terrible feeling. But there's a lot of good work I can do, with a car, and hiking boots. I do not exist for the sole purpose of minimizing my impact. As a tool-wielding ape, I exist to wield the tools around me.
So I wear leather boots.
Of course, with the meat and dairy industry, I have no excuse. It really doesn't give me any more "power", if I eat an ice cream cone, instead of a soy-based equivalent. The only choice would be one of visceral taste. And soy ice cream is actually tasting pretty good these days, thanks to the flavor industry.
I am on a vegan diet. Me. Not my cat. Even if it had half a brain for making informed decisions, my cat would still choose to hunt. When it drops an eviscerated mouse on my welcome mat, I pet the cat and praise it. The crunching sound it makes, as it grinds the mouse skeleton up, does not bother my ears, and when it leaves the head behind, I throw it back into the woods. Being vegan is a choice, and my choice affects me, and I'm leaving my cat out of it. You cannot proselytize at a cat.
I read an interesting article the other day about how some scientists had carefully examined the nervous system of a fish, and put forth the tentative conclusion that fish are not actually capable of feeling the pain of suffocation. Pain in general, yes, but not that of suffocation. It was very interesting. I'm inclined to believe that shrimp, clams, lobsters, and mussels are just as unsophisticated.
Considering this, I can understand why some people would refuse to eat dairy, yet be perfectly happy to eat fish. It's that "cruelty" thing. Lacking a word to describe themselves, they often employ the term 'vegan', to indicate their rejection of dairy products. Woe is them, if they meet a vegan who does not eat fish. A heated argument is sure to erupt. It's just plain stupid, folks.
A few years ago, my favorite meal could be found at a restautant on the local pier. For nine bucks, I could get an entire Maine lobster, freshly killed just minutes before, plus a side of vegetables, some bread, a plastic bib, and a nutcracker. The meal had a thrilling, visceral quality that was better than any hamburger. Here, I could take the critter entirely apart, and put it in my stomach piece by piece, marveling at the structure.
Perhaps one day I'll find myself on the Baja coast, picking a lobster up off the sea floor. Or roasting fish in a fire pit. Hunting in the classical sense, for food and shelter, has a certain appeal to me. On the other hand, hunting for sport, is just plain disrespectful. If your ancestors did it, they did it to survive, not for a few yuks on the weekend. Go wander into a barnyard and blast the head clean off a domesticated horse, and line your den with burger wrappers, and see how you feel about it all then.
Shut the fuck up.
I also don't mind when folks nearby are eating meat. Remember, I used to eat meat too. I know it tastes good, so why would it gross me out? It's not like you're over there chopping the entrails and gristle from the filthy corpse of a fresh, bloody slaughter, with a machete. You're just putting cooked squares of protein in your mouth, same as me. Sometime let's tour the factories, where our respective meals are prepared, and we'll see who gets grossed out first, hmmm?
But I know, most people are simply concerned for my well-being. They may even be embarrassed, or ashamed, to be eating their food around me. Relax, all of you. Being vegan in this culture is hard, but I'm not gonna foist it off on you, even with so much as a sideways glance. I'll probably have a discussion with the waiter, yes, in order to work something out. But that's par for the course and I expect it, and I'm aware of how much of a hassle it can be for the staff. Folks generally do a great job accommodating it. And of course, I know better than to walk in to a steakhouse and expect a tofu sandwich.
One of my housemates is a body-builder, who works full time at a gym as a personal trainer. He eats mass-gaining powder derived from milk, and prepares meat in the kitchen every day. He always cleans up his mess and does his dishes. He also tolerates the smell when I decide to make a huge pot of curry. We get along fine.
He says that his friends at the gym bear a lot of animosity for people who eat like I do -- they sneer at vegans, and make fun of their "bleeding-heart hippie attitude". What we have here are two extreme, incestuous groups, offended by the zealotry of the other. My housemate and I are happy to occupy the temperate middle, I think.
So I can kick even more ass. Really though, this is a compelling question because I was raised in a meat-and-potatoes household, and had milk every night at dinner. My mother kept me well fed, and I learned her cooking style before I learned any other. As a teenager I ate everything in sight, and was physically active. It would seem that I have no dietary complaints.
Well, yes, and no. My family and all of my traceable ancestors have been blessed with good health, if you factor out the evil that befell some of them from smoking, but on my father's side there has been a tendency to develop a gut around middle age. My uncle in particular had heart trouble some years ago because of this weight, and altered his diet drastically. The weight quickly slipped off.
When I combined this with the general American trend I saw around me of adults getting obese, and the fact that we all eat a disturbing amount of dairy products, I came to a realization. Since I'm no longer a 'youth', perhaps I should stop eating like one.
Think about what milk is for. It's fed exclusively to young animals, so that they can gain weight rapidly. And Americans drink it, while spreading it onto bread that's laced with it, then add extra slices of it, sprinkle more on top of it, and then for dessert they have it chilled.
And yes, I know about the Atkins diet too. The reason it works is because weight gain is caused by the combination of carbohydrates and fat in the same meal. Eliminating one or the other will give you a weight loss, of course. But try this, all you Atkins people. Have a big steak lunch, with bacon and cheese all over it, a fistful of nuts, and a glass of whole milk -- and then go run a few laps and see how great you feel. That burning vomit sensation is your own gut processing what you just put in it. After my vegan meal, I can do this and feel just fine. Not very scientific, sure - but it makes ya think.
Gorillas have those teeth too. Even nastier looking ones, in fact. Three guesses what gorillas eat all day long. Here's a hint: Soft fruit, nuts, and fibrous leaves. So much for that point.
I know a lot of people are in your face about the inhumane treatment of cows and chickens in their factory farms. It is rather grisly. But truth be told, I'm not really doing this for the cows. I'm doing this for my personal health, and my safety. The personal health bit is obvious, and needs no explanation at this point. But what I mean by "safety" needs explanation.
I depend on other people to survive. They construct the widgets I use every day, and they assist in preparing my food. The nicer I am to my friend Joe-Bob, the nicer he is to me. I may be different from him in some ways -- different height, skin color, grooming habits -- but Joe-Bob and I get along, because we have a human talent known as empathy. We perceive one another as reflections of ourselves, who can feel the same feelings and suffer in the same way, and we are compelled to cooperate and minimize that suffering.
But what if that empathy is compromised? What if Joe-Bob decides that, because I don't look enough like him, I must be an enemy? He would refuse to cooperate. He would deceive me. He might even try to kill me, and take my stuff. That would be bad.
How can I avoid that? By encouraging a culture that empathizes with a wide range of autonomous living things. Humans are related to animals, in behavior, biology, and needs. This is not conjecture, this is immediate fact. Our conduct involving animals should reflect this fact -- otherwise, we damage our own empathy, to the detriment of human society and all the relationships therein. It's why we don't build machines that look like humans. It's why we take our pets to the doctor. It's why we hesitate to rip the head off a teddy bear. Empathy.
I would like to stress that the centerpiece for this argument is not the emotional state of cows. The centerpiece here is our own reflected perceptions of one another, as people, and how our treatment of other animals influences that. Therefore a vegan movement is one based in humanity's self-interest, as any successful movement must be.
In short, a vegan diet strengthens the community.
You haven't been listening. My rejection of dairy prodcuts is a dietary decision. My rejection of meat, and the meat industry, is also motivated by a desire to preserve the soul of my community. But if you live in a desert community, and the only thing you can possibly grow is goats, then go ahead and eat goats. I understand all too well how life gives us limited options, and I'd prefer that people survive, over their goats.
But what if you do have options? I think it's hilarious that some 90% of the people who eat meat in this country have never even seen how it's prepared. Where it comes from. And yet, this affects them.
If you don't care where your protein comes from, why should you care where your clothing comes from -- that entire populations are being exploited to deliver it? Indeed, why would you object to mass-producing firearms, if you can sell them overseas at a tidy profit? It's none of your concern, right? It's their fault, for wanting those firearms in the first place.
Now who's the misanthrope?
What part of this manifesto led you to that conclusion? The part about advocating global responsibility, on an individual basis? The part about firearms, or fish? Or the part about wearing leather?
Honestly, kids. If you're going to sling names around, or try and stick me in a little box with a label, there's something you need to face. The world is a complex place of grey shades. There is no absolute good or bad, but there is definitely a better, and a worse. I've weighed the options, and being vegan is better for me than not being vegan. My decision is based on diet, and ethics. I encourage you to make your own decision, after weighing the options that are actually available to you.
Let me warn you up front though: If you live in mid-America, the dairy industry is everywhere. It is going to be very, very hard to avoid.
I also encourage you to do another thing: Respect the decision-making process of those around you. You don't have to respect the actual decisions -- feel free to argue about those -- but you really should respect the process itself. The great thing about humans is that each one is an autonomous, thinking entity. Don't try and tell people what's right. Instead, present them with the same ideas that convinced you, and respect their decision-making process. You will not get a decent community any other way.
Because I want to sort out the nutritional lies from the facts. Because I want to be more certain of what goes into my stomach. Because I don't want to become yet another obese American adult -- and the dairy industry makes me really suspicious. Because I want nine olympic gold medals like Carl Lewis.
Because I want to kick even more ass!