Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Freedom of Choice

Vegan, Feed Thyself

As a single vegan who lives alone and who loves to cook, meals are pretty much no-brainers for me most of the time. With several stores just a quick zip away on the bike, the only possible thing constraining my choices at all when it comes to what I eat at home would be laziness or snowstorms; even then, though, I generally keep a well-enough stocked kitchen where more often than not, the simplest things to throw together (e.g. salads, fruit smoothies, wraps, et al.) are coincidentally some of the healthiest things I have kicking around.

Living close to work, I often have the option to go home for lunch, although I usually just pack leftovers and bring fruit and nuts along for snacking. The absolute worst case scenario with which I'd have to deal if I forget my lunch is to have to walk to the corner to spend a whopping $3 for some tabbouleh or a few bucks for a couple of chickpea or lentil samosas. Worse, I might have to take a five minute bike-ride to pop in to the nearby grocery store to leave my head spinning from all of the convenient options available to me.

The Bread We Break

Whether single and living solo or otherwise, occasions invariably arise for vegans to share a meal with others (or sometimes with
one other). Some of us will invite friends and family into our homes to try to entice them with any of the wide variety and multitude of incredibly scrumptious vegan dishes we've taken it upon ourselves to learn to make. Other times, we find ourselves venturing out and eating on someone else's turf. We may in turn visit family or get invited to a friend's home for dinner. We may find ourselves whisked along for impromptu Friday lunches with coworkers (or dragged into the sometimes dreaded more official business lunches). Sometimes we'll just hooking up with old pals over casual munchies and a mug of beer. Then there are other times where some of us will end up sitting across a table from a first date, nervous enough about just making tentative basic conversation, never mind about getting into the ins and outs of why we refrain from consuming animal products. Most of the people with whom we'll share these meals will be non-vegan. Unless (as some vegans do) we actively avoid visiting non-vegan restaurants, many of the venues in which these meals will be shared will be non-vegan.

The Self-Sabotage of Over-Complicating Things

Let's face it: Mealtime sometimes feels like the most vexing time to be vegan. It's not because going vegan is difficult -- it isn't! Additionally, with the most minimal planning, finding something to eat generally really isn't all that difficult either. Even in the worst-case scenarios where last-minute work-related lunches have been sprung on me and arrangements have been made to meet at the most vegan-unfriendly restaurant, I've always managed to find something on the menu, if only a salad or pasta dish. When I haven't, I've often been able to ask to have something served up minus this or that ingredient. One of my favourite local pubs, for instance, offers a veggie nacho. I asked one day if they could hold the cheese and sour cream and the waitress threw in extra guacamole and salsa on the side. I've learned over the years that wet nacho toppings don't generally sit all that well on plain tortilla chips (the chips tend to get really soggy), but not so with this place. With its thick seasoned chips it held up incredibly well and has become a once-in-a-while treat that's so wonderfully self-indulgent that I could too easily find excuses to have it more than that "once in a while".

My point, however, is that you won't know what's available to you until you actively find out. Also, when eating out, planning ahead -- either by calling a place to see what's available and selecting or suggesting a more appropriate venue to a lunch or dinner partner -- is often an option, especially when it comes to informal social outings.
Even when a menu looks the most bleak, merely asking a few questions could leave you pleasantly surprised. Of course, some so-called animal advocates will tell you that even asking one or two simple questions about ingredients (Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, this means you) will somehow be "detrimental to the vegan cause"; they insist that by merely opening your mouth to inform yourself and to make your needs known that you're apparently making veganism seem too difficult and making vegans look to uptight and demanding.

Considering that veganism is about
not participating in animal exploitation and that this extends to food, saying that a vegan should shut up and just keep his fingers crossed that there won't be an animal product on his plate is rather ridiculous. It takes what is a thoughtful and conscious lifestyle choice and twists it up to portray being earnest and unequivocal about it as somehow shameful and embarrassing. And the funny thing is that if you replaced "vegan" with "lactose intolerant" or stated that you had a food allergy, these same nay-saying advocates would likely deem it perfectly reasonable to ask very basic questions about ingredients and to request that some of them be omitted from a dish. In effect, the issue is not so much about the asking itself, but seems to be about one's taking animals rights and interests seriously enough to ask.

Undo Those Knots!

Maya Gottfried wrote a piece for Huffington Post a while back ("Learning to Navigate My Vegan Social Life") in which she discussed being vegan and hanging out with non-vegans over meals. I've no idea of who Maya Gottfried is or of her politics and affiliations. I simply cite from her piece because some of what she wrote in it was so straightforward and made so much sense. As she described below, we do set obstacles for ourselves when we let our fears of appearing to be socially inept get the better of us (whether or not we twist ourselves up over it or are encouraged to do so by other vegans).

I wanted to go vegan for a while before I did, convinced it would be too difficult for me. One of the fears binding me was the thought that I would never again be able to go to a non-vegan's house for dinner. I thought requesting a meal other than the one that was planned would be so rude and imposing. I envisioned my social life diminishing dramatically.

I also imagined that going out to a meal with non-vegan friends would be near impossible. How could I possibly suggest to an omnivore that we meet at a vegan restaurant? If I went to a non-vegan restaurant would I end up just dining on bread and water while friends indulged? And what about dating? Would omnivore men think I was being overly demanding or picky by not eating any animal products?

All these fears and questions spun around my head. They kept me from moving forward into the truth I was so certain of. And they all proved unfounded. When I made the commitment to cut animal products out of my diet, these fears fell down around me.
The truth is, as Gottfried stated, that it's easy to knot oneself up into a ball ahead of time (particularly after being exposed to so-called animal advocates' social anxiety inducing fear-mongering and shaming), but that in the end, living by one's convictions can be an incredibly uncomplicated thing to do. The added bonus is in knowing that it's also the right thing to do.

I've been a little perplexed about why it is that some would nix open communication and consistency as vegans and instead opt to side-step their ethical choices with an unfounded appeal to good manners. It's as if some vegans really believe that it's somehow rude to clarify the boundaries of one's ethical consumption choices and preferable to instead participate in the animal exploitation -- and they seem hell-bent on shaming other vegans into following suit, rather than allowing them to hammer things out politely and honestly when it comes to ensuring smooth social interaction.

Speaking of Chips

An American friend of mine with whom I had exchanged visits over the course of a few years mentioned to me one day that he felt that I had, as a vegan, imposed my will upon him by restricting his options when we had dined out together. I had done so, he told me, by being the one who would ultimately select where we would -- where I could -- eat. Basically, he felt that my veganism had led to his options being limited, whether we were on his turf or mine. He couldn't choose a particular restaurant he'd like to try out without my vetting it first to find out if there was something on the menu I could eat; although sometimes things worked out, sometimes we'd need to pass it over for another venue.

The crux of my friend's complaint was that he couldn't just spontaneously pick a spot that sounded appealing to him so that we could pull into the parking lot and hop out with fingers crossed. Of course, some would argue that this is no way to pick a restaurant, regardless of one's ethical choices. Others would insist that they thrive on the opportunity to take chances -- to dive into the old "hit or miss" and hope for a hit. We did pull into many parking lots, though. Once there, regardless of the menu options, we stayed. I figure, though, that if you know you're going to be going out for dinner and have the means to research or plan ahead, then it's probably worth the planning ahead to ensure that wherever it is you end up, you can actually
have and enjoy the intended dinner.

I thought about the times I'd traveled to the US and of how I'd quite excitedly done so much advance research to find conveniently-located vegan (where possible) and vegan-friendly vegetarian restaurants for us to explore during my visit. I thought of how amazing and bizarre it had been when, for the first time in well over a dozen years, I got to sit down in
a restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet and was able to sample anything I wanted to try. Both of us had been able to sample anything off that menu and we had both raved that the food had been delicious. So? Wash, rinse, repeat for the next couple of vegan restaurants we checked out. There were variations of this in one very vegan-friendly non-vegan restaurant which became a regular haunt because of its location, atmosphere and decent food. The haunt featured various dishes with animal products from which my host was free to choose and although he did so on a few occasions, he also admitted that the vegan dishes he had ordered from their menu had been just as delicious. The truth is that these few forays were exceptions to the rule and that, for me, they were rare and welcomed treats.


Given all of this, it seemed strange for someone to shame me over my veganism's having purportedly restricted his or her own freedom of choice within the context of eating out. I'll state the obvious by saying first that when it comes to the human exploitation of other animals,
those other animals certainly aren't being given the freedom to choose not to be bred into captivity, to spend their lives being treated as things until it's most financially lucrative to slaughter them for human consumption. Also, considering that almost every single eating establishment we visited -- vegan or otherwise -- left him able to choose from 100% of the items offered on its menu and that -- vegan or otherwise -- he enjoyed most of them, it seems really bizarre to have been issued a complaint about having restricted his choices because of my own ethical choices. It seemed both weird and unfair on top of this, considering the lives of others at stake, to have this portrayed in any way as my having committed some sort of injustice.


As a vegan who rejects animal exploitation and who avoids consuming animal products for ethical reasons, walking around in this overwhelmingly speciesist world means being faced with others' exploitation every single day. It means constantly being handed reminders that this exploitation is the status quo. These reminders are constant when it comes to breaking bread with non-vegans, and particularly so when breaking bread with non-vegans in non-vegan restaurants. We end up weighing whether we should encourage non-vegan restaurants to provide more vegan options by providing demand for them, or avoid spending money in a non-vegan restaurant since it's ultimately tantamount to financially supporting someone who profits from animal exploitation.

Although some vegans tell me that the smell of charred animal flesh is something they still sometimes associate with nostalgic events, others generally dread walking into a room saturated with a smell which is as unwelcome as the stench coming out of a long-forgotten food container in the back of the fridge on garbage day. For some, the smells in a non-vegan restaurant simply evoke vivid images of all that is involved in landing that piece of an animal's body on that plate across the room. Worse, though, is when it ends up on that plate just across the table, being consumed with gusto by a friend or other loved one throughout your shared meal.


I certainly understand now, more than ever, why other vegans choose to opt out of dining in non-vegan restaurants whenever they're able to do so. It's something I have wrestled with myself over recent years as I've become more comfortable in my own skin about being vegan and less comfortable compartmentalizing others' animal exploitation. The thing is that it's certainly not unreasonable to ask someone you know with whom you'll be breaking bread informally to share a meal together at a vegan restaurant if you have one in your area.

If there are no vegan restaurants in your area and you're not altogether uncomfortable eating at a non-vegan restaurant, it's certainly not unreasonable to ask that one with a fair shake of vegan options be considered. I mean, if you were gluten-intolerant, it would be deemed perfectly reasonable to ask to go somewhere other than a pancake house. If you really disliked spicy food, it wouldn't be unreasonable to seek out something other than a Schezuan restaurant. Why on earth should it be deemed unreasonable for a vegan to express a preference for a place where he can actually get something to eat that doesn't contain products from enslaved and/or slaughtered animals. Is it so far-fetched that, all other things being equal, this same vegan might appreciate the occasional opportunity to break bread with non-vegan friends and to not have it involve
watching someone chugging down milk meant for someone else's baby, or ripping flesh from someone's bone?

As Gottfried suggested, though, we vegans tend to over-think ourselves into corners sometimes, anticipating worst-case scenarios when it comes to social interaction. I've found myself pleasantly surprised over the years when friends have brought up going out to dinner and have suggested local vegan-friendly places and ended up asking me to recommend a good vegan dish on the menu. One dating experience this summer involved a suggestion for a vegan picnic, with my date insisting on providing a simple spread of raw vegetables and a variety of cut fruit. Another date -- our very first date, no less -- insisted on not consuming animal products while we were together and instead asked me thoughtful questions about what it's like to be vegan in a non-vegan world. He's since gone on to explore veganism himself.

The bottom line is that, as vegans, we do have choices. We can set our own boundaries and need to not be ashamed of doing so. If we express these boundaries clearly, we could be left surprised at the consideration given to us by some of our loved (or liked) ones. We needn't compromise our ethics in the process, nor do we need to ostracize ourselves. Communication is key, though, and although the the outcomes aren't always ideal, it's important to realize that there's no shame in being vegan and that there's certainly no shame in not wanting to self-flagellate with perpetual reminders of what it is we chose to leave behind. We have options. We really do.


Anonymous said...

I now have a determination to stay vegan and I really need my family and friends to accept what I am now... I respect their choices, so why can't they respect mine?

Dan said...

Brilliant post.

Heather said...

I enjoyed this post.

I live way up north in a small town funded by earth-destroying industries (cattle ranching, mining, logging, etc.). Pick-up trucks are adorned with bumper stickers that read, "Sierra Club Sucks" and "Don't Worry -- I hugged the tree before I cut it down". As you can imagine, getting a decent vegan meal at a local restaurant is not going to happen. I generally end up eating a plain baked potato or a plate of steamed veggies.

Still, I always specifically ask about vegan options when dining out. For me, veganism = activism, so the visibility of my way of eating is part of the whole deal. I don't go around preaching to people about the ethics of eating, but I'm not shy about requesting meals that meet my needs.