Occasionally I’ll be out to dinner with friends or acquaintances who aren’t vegan, and they will be eating something they especially enjoy.
“Oh, Cadry,” they will say, “you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Then they’ll look at each other conspiratorially like they are in on this big wonderful secret. They’ll give me a look that’s a mixture of pity and as if I’m terribly naïve, not knowing these pleasures they are experiencing. In a weird way, it takes me back to being in high school, when all of my friends were having sex, and I was not. They’d giggle to each other and slink away to bathrooms to whisper. The difference, of course, is that I was a meat eater before I was vegan. I didn’t go vegetarian until I was 30. I had 30 years of burgers, chops, and chicken legs. I know what I’m rejecting.
Or they’ll say, “Oh, I have a lot of respect for vegans. I could never do that.”
And I realize it’s coming from a good place, and people don’t mean any offense, but similarly, it feels like they are separating us. It’s as if they think I’m some kind of nun, living an ascetic life and cutting myself off from all forms of pleasure.
Here’s the thing – being vegan is fun and the things I eat are delicious. I’m not gulping down rice cakes and Muesli at every meal. (Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten either of those foods.) I don’t feel deprived with chickpea tacos, potato & mushroom pizzas, and yes, even kale salads. Cooking is my passion, and I love going to farmers markets, buying fresh produce, and when I travel, dining at restaurants that I’ve heard about for years. Food is sustenance, but it is also a pleasure. And that didn’t stop when I became vegetarian a decade ago.
“But don’t you ever feel tempted to cheat?” they ask.
It’s a weird concept – cheating. It sets up this idea that there’s a vegan private eye, watching my every move, waiting to jump out from the bushes and yell, “Gotcha!” I’ve even had people insinuate that David might “cheat on veganism” when he’s on business trips. He’s a grown man! If he desired a burger, he could easily get one a mile or two from our home. He doesn’t have to wait until he’s in Nevada to have a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” kind of moment. It’s as if they think I’m forcing being vegan on him, and like Darth Vader, my Jedi Mind Trick* is only strong enough when I’m at arm’s length. David went vegan and stays vegan on his own accord, because those are his values, not because I’m exerting my will on him.
Am I tempted to cheat? No. You don’t have to cheat on something you are choosing. And who cheats on something that makes them happy? It would be akin to asking a happily married woman, “Oh, do you cheat on your spouse who brings you so much joy and purpose?” Why would I?
I know that people have attachments to foods, and I’m no different. But I’m not looking at a steak and wishing I could eat it. I made a choice to go vegan for ethical reasons. It wasn’t prescribed to me or forced on me. I went vegan as a way to reject violence against the powerless. So it’s very easy to say no to a pork chop when I know the pain behind it.
That isn’t to diminish how hard at first it can be to change your habits. When you are used to making the same things and ordering the same things, it can take a certain amount of stamina to adjust your meals, make new habits and traditions, discover new restaurants, and order from a different part of the menu. If you live in a house with non-vegans, the temptation for the things you used to eat may still be sitting in the dairy drawer.
Like puberty, there can be some growing pains and awkwardness when we seek to redefine ourselves or make new choices. But with time, it becomes second nature. When I first went vegan, I still had attachments to the things I used to eat, and I had a repertoire of foods that I was used to cooking. It didn’t take planning or forethought to make a dinner. I could make the same things I always made, the same things I grew up eating. So when I had to step outside of my norm and start considering new foods, it felt more time consuming. But with time, new habits developed. All these years later, it doesn’t take me any longer to cook a vegan meal than it did a non-vegan one. It takes the same amount of time to make black bean tacos as it did beef tacos. A pizza takes the same amount of time in the oven regardless of whether it’s topped with peppers or pepperoni.
Some people assume that being vegan is living with constant temptation, but nothing lives in a vacuum. Thoughts and ideas affect actions and experiences. With time I started experiencing things differently. When I used to eat meat and there was bone or gristle in it, it put me off of it. I didn’t like a reminder that it was someone’s body and bone. I’d have to force myself not to think about it. But now that it’s no longer part of my normal, everyday life, it seems strange to me that I had such a visceral reaction but tried to mute it instead of listen to it.
I saw a news story recently about a fast food fried chicken chain. A customer was upset, because he found a chicken’s lung in his takeout meal. It all seems so arbitrary now. There are all kinds of norms about which animals are eaten and which are not. In some cultures cows are fine, in others not fine. In some cultures pigs are okay, and in others not. But then you have instances where a particular animal is fine, but just not certain parts of the animal. The distinction seems very random. So it’s okay to eat their legs, thighs, and breasts, but if there’s a lung alongside it, that is a step too far? It made me wonder if that guy was also trying to mute the voice in his head that said, “Wait a second. This chicken has chickens in it!”
People think that being vegan takes loads of restraint and willpower, but in some ways, it takes less.
Unless you work at VegNews, it’s very likely that your co-workers aren’t bringing in vegan cupcakes for their birthdays or vegan donuts for morning meetings. I don’t have to use restraint to have just one when nothing there is vegan. Every time that I’m in a room with a bunch of non-vegan donuts, I don’t have to police myself or decide, “Do I want one donut today or two or three?” If the donuts aren’t vegan, I won’t be having any.
That may sound like it’s just as difficult, but I find it much easier. I don’t have to make that decision in the moment. I decided that 8 years ago. It’s like any other habit. I don’t have to decide every morning that I’m going to brush my teeth and grapple with myself, “Will I do it today?” Of course I will. Every morning, I brush my teeth. I made that decision once, and now I just keep brushing.
Also, once you have opted out of animal products, there’s a lot less advertising coming at you for things you actually buy. Billions of dollars are spent on advertising, but most of that goes towards things with animal products. The flyers stuffed in my mailbox and endless fast food ads on television aren’t advertising to me. They aren’t showing off their new black bean nachos with cashew cheese or using a celebrity to shill for their chickpea curry. I don’t pass billboards for Native Foods or Veggie Grill. Unless it’s for phone service or insurance, most advertising is not directed at me. I can easily tune it out. Businesses advertise because it works. But that’s a whole billion-dollar industry that rarely markets anything I actually purchase.
Funnily enough, though, I am more often swayed by the Instagram feeds I follow or blogs I read. When I see people posting about the vegan mac and cheese they made or showing off their bowls with collard greens and cornmeal crusted tofu, I suddenly have a hankering for my own.
But what about when you travel?
You may have heard about people who make a “Paris exception” for when they are traveling, and if they are vegan, they stop being vegan for the duration of the trip. I don’t do that for many reasons. One, I don’t want to eat animals or their secretions. That’s why I went vegan. I don’t want to eat them in Paris, Texas or Paris, France. I’m not interested in taking a vacation from my ethics. It would be silly to turn down brie at home but decide the same brie gets a pass in Paris. It’s the same thing. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I do not want it here or there. I do not want it anywhere.
Two, if you’re always looking for an excuse, you will find it. If I had a “what happens in Paris” mindset, I could decide I also needed a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair, runza in Omaha, and ribs in Kansas City. Every city has a specialty, but if you look a little deeper, many places also have vegan specialties too. I’d much rather have Krunkwich over a corn dog, raspberry cheesecake over runza, and a reuben over ribs. When I seek out locally owned businesses that tend to source from area farmers, I see no reason why that’s not as legitimate of an experience of that place’s culture as anything else.
In summation, am I tempted to eat non-vegan foods? No. When you don’t want something, it’s not a temptation. With every meal I make, I have a choice to live in a way that makes me feel healthy, alive, and vital while reducing suffering for someone else. That’s an easy choice to make.
*According to my local sci fi expert, a better example would be Kilgrave’s mind control powers in Jessica Jones. Do with that what you will.