Two Years, A Thousand Pounds of Potatoes, & One Nine Pound Baby Later...
Growing up in the midwest leaves us hundreds of miles from the ocean. But never fear-- we're awash in something so much more.... cheesy & delicious: animal products straight out of the shoot. So yes, my family was pretty shocked when at 26 I declared myself a vegan (a pseudo-vegan really, who to this day still struggles with the occasional goat cheese craving). The catalyst for me was a book discussion with Dr. Will Tuttle, who's talk about his work The World Peace Diet really lead me to examine how my food choices were affecting the planet. It also resulted in a revolution in my heart and mind, where I realized-- I don't want to kill & eat animals. It just doesn't jive with me. I knew that I couldn't look into the eyes of an animal & kill the creature. What business did I have then, having someone else do my dirty work for me? I had to admit to myself that I wasn't eating animals for survival. And I certainly wasn't eating them for my health. I was eating animals on a daily basis... because they tasted good. Was that a good enough reason to justify such ultimate violence? I was finished eating animals. I began reading-- a lot, & looking into the science based nutrition of a plant-based diet. I had to learn to really cook, and I had to do a lot of defending myself. Often times I would find myself in a conversation with someone who was having an argument with me that I didn't even know I was having. My choices seemed to make certain people feel threatened, even if I wasn't vocalizing judgement or condemnation of their choices (which I tried not to do, conjuring Wilke's reminder: "Lead with your fork, not your mouth").
So, gone were the days of melted cheesy hamburger concoctions. In our home, we ushered in the age of previously unpronounceable grains and rice & learned how to make bitchin' guacamole. Our diet actually became more local than it had ever been, as our garden became vastly more important, and we coveted in-season produce the way I used to covet a cute pair of jeans. And even though my health and energy levels improved (those headaches I'd suffered with for years miraculously vanished), and I delivered a healthy nine pound baby, I often felt like I was in an old school sitcom with pie on my face being chided "Lucy, you got some 'splainin to do..." In retrospect, I'm quite certain that some of this was my projection of what I thought others must be thinking. Some of it was very real. Some people went from good-natured to down right pissed off just at the mentioning of vegetarianism. Some were skeptical ("Yeah, but where's the protein?! Where's the protein?!) Some dismissed me as an idealist (this one's pretty popular-- discredit the other, make them look silly, naive, & a little loco-- works like a charm). A lot of exasperated omnivores still like to argue (even if I'm not arguing) "Yeah, but what if you were starving to death, what would you do then?"
And who knows, maybe their implication holds water (sad, sad blood-tinged water).
But here's what I wonder--what's with all the hypothetical hype? I can only live in the world as it really exists now. You're telling me that because of some not-real apocalyptic potential scenario, I should eat animals now, even that's not necessary, and although that behavior is part of what's taking our survival on this planet to the brink of collapse? Sorry love, I don't follow. Look, all sorts of things are possible given that nightmarish (& all too real for many) scenario. Unfulfilled human needs lead to all types of atypical behavior. For example, I don't believe in stealing either, but if it came down to my child freezing to death, and I had no other options, would I break into my neighbor's house & steal her Ikea coffee table for firewood? You can probably bet your sweet arse I would. It doesn't in any way justify stealing now, but sure that could happen. You'd likely find me, sweat dripping from my brow, hastily chopping that cheap but oh-so-tasteful anti-antique into a dozen pieces to burn in my imaginary wood stove. Newly cozy and super cool DIY, post-industry indie chic, I'd probably call up my pretend bestie, the Mayor of Make-Believe town, and invite her over for squirrel stew with a Christmas cactus garnish. After dinner, we'd fashion super adorable winter berets from sparrow hyde. So cute!
In the mean time, canning and preserving plant-based food for the winter is just as sustainable as anything I can think of. And it means I don't have to head out into the woods for days at a time with my bow-and-arrow and risk freezing to death, which is seemingly what I'd have to do in the hypothetical dreamscape some are projecting. Their next argument for eating animals usually sounds something like "What about grass fed beef?", and I agree, that's better than the industrial model alternative, but I know precisely zero omnivores who can say that they truly only eat local grass fed and/or "free range" animals. And I still just believe that humans are meant to evolve to not eat other sentient beings. It's just a personal opinion I hold. I also think skinny jeans look ridiculous. That doesn't mean I dislike or judge people who wear them. Not in the least. I just giggle in my head a little when the happen by. Something about their pants just makes me think of 80's hair bands. It's funny! Anyway, it was never really my intention to convince anyone, just to honestly explain my position.
And while health played a big role in that position, I still believe that (particularly given that our culture is saturated in meat-- pun intended)-- health and/or weight loss can't be someone's only motivating factor in going plant-based. I truly believe that a revolution of heart has to happen too, and it's the main thing that enables you to hold onto your broccoli and not crumble into the cholesterol fueled mainstream. On my journey, I've tried to pass on quotes from brainiacs like Einstein on the topic, who said "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." There are countless other quotations like this from thinkers like Thoreau and Pythagoras, Da Vinci, Gandhi and Tolstoy. Upon stumbling on their eloquent and passionate statements, I was all too happy to put down the pork chop. I'm not going to argue with a bunch of nerds.
Philosophy aside, talking health is certainly important. A plant based diet can be incredibly healthful and can extend your life. But I'd like to assert something clutch here. And it's something that a lot of veggies are hasten to sweep under the tibetan organic cotton fiber rug. Vegetarianism doesn't imply health. You can be a vegetarian who subsists on junk processed foods (even fast food), and be no better off than the followers of a standard American diet. I once knew a man who was technically a vegetarian, but barely touched vegetables. He instead stuffed himself full on simple carbohydrates. He was more of a carbivore, really. He was as kind as they come, but while his metaphorical heart was oh-so good, his actual heart was in crisis. He was obese and as unhealthy as anyone I've ever met.
There are dangerous ways to do anything. In order for a veg diet to be sustainable, it has to be mutually beneficial for you and the animals. If you're a vegetarian for reason of conscience who lives on Doritos and Mountain Dew or seldom eats fruits and vegetables, your health will suffer. And then all parties lose. Save the cows? Sure, as long as your health doesn't suffer. And it doesn't have to, in fact your body can flourish and benefit, if you do it thoughtfully and with the intention of health for you and Jane Doe. Maybe this is why I prefer the term plant-based diet. That's what a truly healthy vegetarian or vegan diet has to be. Given that you are what you eat, to be healthy, you have to be whole. A good, balanced veg diet (any diet really) should always be rooted in whole, unprocessed foods. We have to have a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, & legumes.
It seems tricky at first when you're used to a standard American super-processed diet. But there are some tools to make it easier. For the most part, we should avoid the center isles at the grocery store. Walk the perimeter & stock up on the fresh & unaltered food there. And your garden is your best friend. A friend of mine says he prefers yet another term even to "plant-based-diet". He calls himself a "fruit and vegetable enthusiast". It makes me smile. That's the kind of positive and inclusive message I think we should be sending. As I exchanged e-mails with this friend, we examined the vegetarian philosophy (and how it related to moralism), and he reminded me of something important. "A lot of vegetarians do suffer from chronic headaches," he said "From bumping into their own halos.". Touche. Vegetarians don't hold some moral high ground. We must acknowledge that to some degree everything is food for something else. I believe instead that what the idea presents a lifestyle that can be a gentle suggestion of a very possible evolution in human health and behavior. And the ultimate message should always be Love.
And so I'll hasten to remind my son as he grows, that all of our meals and conversations around food should always include one important tried and true dish: a healthy dose of humble pie.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.