Last month was Iowa’s biggest event of the year, the Iowa State Fair. With midway rides, art and cooking competitions, and dance performances aplenty, the thing that gets people talking year after year is the grease explosion that is fair food. With 57 items available on a stick, including deep-fried Snickers, Milky Way bars, and Twinkies, there are endless food carts from which to harden any arteries one might be deeming too soft. Even political candidates get in on the action, eager to show Iowans how authentic and down-to-earth they are by downing these gut bombs. When asked what keeps regular people heading back to sample these deep fried monsters, the answer is simple: tradition.
It’s an interesting thing, tradition. People hold onto it so tightly, but really, it’s always evolving. The state fair started 158 years ago. While I didn’t have any luck finding out what they were serving in the 1850’s, one thing is for certain – corndogs were not involved. They weren’t invented until the 1920’s. Traditions change. Think about the first Thanksgiving. No Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. No stuffing, cranberries, pumpkin pie, or mashed potatoes. I’d wager that the pilgrims didn’t even know which teams from the NFL would be playing that day. (The pilgrims and I had that in common.)
Yet, it’s tradition that can be a sticking point when people desire to go vegan. I know when I went vegetarian and then vegan, it was something that concerned me. Plus, it’s not uncommon to hear about someone who wants to make a new lifestyle choice meeting some resistance when it comes to the people who know them best. Whether it’s the drinking buddies of a person who has decided to forgo alcohol or the restaurant aficionados whose friend wants to trade five o’clock tapas for evening bike rides, the people who know us best aren’t always delighted when we want to change our rituals.
When we think of food traditions, for Americans the fourth Thursday in November comes to mind, of course, but also those foods that we share with particular people in our lives plays a part. In my pregan days, I’d have a big box of Hot Tamales at the movies with my cousin. I’d go out for deep fried tacos with my best friend at our local taqueria. In the late evenings while hanging out with my parents, my dad and I would microwave mock crab meat (actually white fish), melt garlic butter, and eat the smelly concoction together, much to the chagrin of my mom who had no interest in the whole affair. So when I stopped eating animals and animal products, there was suddenly an awkward gap of “what now?”
First I started looking for new traditions. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I sought out vegetarian restaurants in the area, where they were making totally plant-based versions of the classic foods I’d grown up eating. At that point, I had never been to a vegetarian restaurant before. I still remember sitting at the long bar at Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park, California and ordering their Thanksgiving special on the day before the holiday. I read on the menu that their vegetarian feast was an annual event for which people would fly in from around the country. On my packed plate of fall foods, I sampled seitan, also known as wheat meat, for the first time, and it was a revelation. And the gravy? Well, I had no idea that it could be so rich and full-bodied while being totally plant-based. I asked if I could buy some to-go to eat the next day, and the server poured a container-full for me on the house. After that, going to the Follow Your Heart Thanksgiving feast was a yearly tradition.
Then I started volunteering at Animal Acres (now a part of Farm Sanctuary). And Thanksgiving meant spending the days leading up to the holiday with birds who were spared from the event which spells the end for 46 million turkeys in the United States. I’d pet them, find that sweet spot on a turkey, which if scratched actually makes them giggle, and met up with other likeminded people to share food that celebrated the bounty of the season, rather than the misery of those who are slaughtered for it.
With other interpersonal food traditions, it took more time, but it happened. My best friend and I take a yearly trip to the orchard with her husband and kids to pick apples. My dad and I traded out mock crab for vegetable potstickers with tamari dipping sauce. They’re totally different things, but they fulfill the same function. When we share foods with our hands, there’s something tactile and bonding in it. Whether it’s a shared plate of nachos, a spread of Ethiopian wots, or a platter of pita and hummus, when we eat together in that hand-to-mouth way, there’s something very cozy and comforting about it. So potstickers easily fill the bill in that old gap, much to my mom’s approval since she actually likes them. What’s interesting too is that my dad, who didn’t make a dietary change, doesn’t eat the mock crab anymore either for the mere reason that he’s moved on to other things.
Traditions, like so many other things which at first seem like roadblocks when a person goes vegan, eventually smooth out. People adjust. Situations change and new traditions are born.
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