The Best Part About Not Being Vegan Isn’t What You Think
This past New Year’s, an intimate group of friends and I sat in a small room, surrounded by expensive wines, in a downtown restaurant known for its taxidermy and connecting barbershop. As we all ordered, and polite requests for lamb, filet mignon and scallops filled the air, I studied the menu, made my decision and firmly stated, “Filet mignon, please.” My friends chuckled a bit, slightly startled and half smirking. There was no condescending “I told you so” or “I knew you’d come around.” They’d been properly prepared. The generously portioned juicy morsel came out a short time later, and through a typical conversation among longtime friends, I finished every last morsel of beef — the first I’d had in more than 12 years.
It was in 1999 during a summer-school class in the sweltering heat of a California summer when I reached an epiphany. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. Let’s say I began the process of reaching an epiphany that would culminate in me forgoing the eating of meat. Can an epiphany last six months? No one knows that answer, but thanks to an insightful professor who questioned a few of my accepted beliefs, I walked out of that classroom an anti-death-penalty vegetarian. Pretty much confirming any conservative’s worst nightmares about college. Not that I was running around escorting Mexicans to the border and shuttering abortion clinics prior. In fact, I’m not even sure that my professor (whose name I’ve long forgotten) was a liberal or a vegetarian, but one fact kept swirling in my mind: If every citizen of the United States gave up eating meat, we could use that land to feed the world three times over.
Three times over.
How could we be so callous, so selfish, so fucking capitalistic to ignore this important fact whose origin I completely forgot. It boggled my mind. I went from a weekly Friday outing at Outback (shudder) to blasting my parents and friends as they stuffed hormone-filled chicken down their throats. I was speechless in the face of their wanton disregard for those starving and in, uh, somewhere else. Along the way, I read Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin. I volunteered at Revolution Books, on the second floor above a Chinese laundry in Honolulu, and wrote my graduate thesis on the socialist-anarchist antiwar movement of World War I and II (strategically omitting Hitler’s diet of choice). My increasingly strict vegetarianism fueled a peaceful left-wing radicalization in politics. Then George W. Bush stole an election, 9/11 happened, and the United States entered a war we haven’t ended yet. My vegetarianism served as a badge of honor for me, intrinsically linking my actions to the liberal rhetoric I freely spouted. “Oh you’re committed? Well, do you eat meat?” I was a 22-year-old culinary Robespierre. Not that passing on a lamb shank was equivalent to standing your ground in Tiananmen Square, but hey, it’s something.
College passed, and inevitably my revolutionary rhetoric softened into the kind of practical, coffee-swilling, New Yorker–subscribing, Annie Hall–watching tap water of progressivism. I wasn’t pulling a Christopher Hitchens, I was just ... softening. Yet, my vegetarianism radicalized. I realized for years I was willfully ignoring the inconsistent morality of eating any animal products. I began watching videos of diseased milk cows and hens pumped full of hormones to produce an unhealthy amount of eggs till they died years prematurely, never to have seen the outside of a feces-filled barn. I pondered the absolute insanity of human beings’ dairy intake. How could we, the smartest species to ever exist (except from dolphins), be the only species to suckle at the teat after infancy and from another species. It was mind-boggling. Not to mention the obesity, heart disease and cancer linked to the meat, eggs and dairy we consume. So on a challenge with my then-girlfriend, we vowed to go one month without. Three years later, and not together, we were both practicing vegans. Although she seemed to think the leather from her bags and shoes was from some other magical happy slaughter factory.
Happy to be free of cow tit secretions and horse hooves or pig knuckles (that would be gelatin, candy lovers), I lost a few pounds, gained some energy, felt my mind become sharper and ran a marathon. Everything seemed to be great.
The only problem was the reaction of other people. The nature of my job has me often going to group meals, sometimes up to 10 times a month. At many of these meals, I could have walked right up to the table, lifted my fork to my glass, stood up and stated, “Good evening, folks. Hitler had some good ideas.” I would have not received the hostile, irrational reactions I did when I simply passed on the shrimp cocktail. People are furious at vegans. I don’t get it. I never gave a shit what other people ate, so let me eat this puny spinach salad and drink four bottles of wine in peace.
Yet oftentimes, as fate sometimes does, I was seated next to someone in my field I respected. Shit, maybe even admired. Someone with whom I would perhaps like to discuss something other than what I had for lunch. Someone with whom I didn’t want to speak about detrimental farming practices or where to get vegan pizza (Vinnie’s in Williamsburg, by the way). Someone who I didn’t want asking me what the hell it was I ate. After 12 years of thinking, three times over, I’d said it one too many times.
Thus leading me to the aforementioned morsel of beef that sat before me. It was tender, sinewy and perhaps the best piece of beef I’ve ever had in my life. That said, my first bovine bite didn’t shuffle me into a world of greater enjoyment. In fact, I wondered what all the fuss was about. No immediate regrets filled my mind and I still think being vegan is morally, ethically and environmentally impactful. But I was simply happy to eat, talk, listen, drink wine and revel in the thought that I’ll never have to talk about fucking food again.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)