The giant room was carved up into booths and filled with folding tables. Vegan chefs were selling snacks to enjoy now and to take home for later, and people snaked through the room, clutching their food tickets, ready to order. I was at Chicago Vegan Mania, an annual festival here in Chicago of food, music, merchandise and entertainment that celebrates the vegan community. I wandered over to a table full of stickers and buttons and looked for something I could buy that would encapsulate my veganism—a choice that felt both personal and political—without seeming too preachy, and this bearded guy in a t-shirt that read, “Only Kale Can Save Us Now”, handed me this sticker. It was perfect. Lovers, I thought. I’d had some trouble wearing the vegan label for a while, but this sticker was sweet and tender and still got the point (of compassion and consciousness) across.
It’s been about a year since I went vegan, and in these twelve months I’ve learned a lot. I took this step paranoid about what it meant to slap that vegan label on my forehead: I feared—with my self-righteousness and loud mouth—that I was going to become the kind of person who thought nothing of picking fights with meat eaters, who spat statistics at people with vitriol and contempt. Was I never going to get invites to dinner parties because cooking for me would simply be too difficult for anyone to attempt? A year later, I haven’t figured it all out, but there are some lessons that have dawned on me about veganism that make the journey easier.
Maybe that bearded veg-head knew it when he looked at me, but he was right: veganism is for lovers. According to Patanjali, yogi sage accredited with writing the Yoga Sutras, five behaviors make up the “great vow” of yoga: ahimsa, non-violence; satya, truthfulness; asteya, non-stealing; bramacharya, celibacy; and aparigraha, non-greediness. (Yoga, btw, is more than just the sweaty contortions on a sticky mat, but that’s a conversation for a different day.) Ahimsa is to show “consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are.”* It’s more than just non-violence; it also means compassion, love and generosity for others as well as for ourselves. Expressing this can take many forms: some people practice ahimsa by how they speak to others; others choose to change patterns of judgment (internal and external), which can be an expression of emotional violence; for some yogis this means a vegetarian, or even a vegan, diet.
My yoga practice silently directed me toward a vegetarian lifestyle in 2007. In 2010, I took a two-year hiatus from a plant-based diet, which was plagued with weight gain and sluggishness (despite following my doctor’s orders of a gluten-free, dairy-free lifestyle), and I decided to return to the vegetarian diet that had always served me so well. This time I would kick it up a notch and become vegan. I realized that it made me happy to abstain from animal products. The idea of having a dietary practice rooted in nonviolence, with compassion as its center, comforted and encouraged me on a spiritual level.
Being a vegan has taught me that what we eat is deeply personal to many of us. In our appearance-obsessed society, how we feed ourselves can be viewed as a direct reflection of how we feel about ourselves, about others, and the world around us. Often, when we’re confronted with someone who’s different than we are, we feel the need to explain or defend our choices, or to belittle what we don’t understand. Christmas 2009, I came out to my family as a veg-head. It was Christmas Day and I’d just moved in with my boyfriend-now-husband. I was ready to introduce him to my big, black family. I wasn’t as ready to bring my veganism into my grandmother’s house, where everyone ate chitlins, greens with ham hocks and turkey and dressing. Still, I wasn’t going to be swayed by tradition into eating food I didn’t want to eat. Armed with a Tofurkey holiday meal, I strode bravely into the center of my family’s Soul Food celebration, determined to be myself.
As dinnertime drew closer, I grew tense. Eyeing my food, some of my cousins had seemed interested, even murmuring a generous, “I might have to try that.” In my anxiety, I began to get nervous that my vegetarian feast might disappear before I’d had any. I tiptoed over to my mother, who was sitting in the kitchen beside my Tofurkey loaf, potato dumplings, wild rice and mushroom gravy. I whispered to her, “I know this won’t happen, but can you just keep an eye on my food and make sure that no one eats too much of it? Don’t draw any attention to it, though, okay?”
“Oh sure, Honey, you got it,” she said. Whew, I thought. I was safe. I turned around and took one step away from her when she bellowed behind me, “Okay, everybody! Don’t anyone eat any of Jess’s weird food!”
Heartbroken, I stormed out of the kitchen. I had tried to share an element of my life with the people who’d meant the most to me, and my mother had trampled all over it. Perhaps she felt somehow rejected by my vegetarianism, my choice was a kind of distancing from her and from the way I was raised. She may have secretly envied my healthy choice, and rather than admire it, she could only deride it, exposing my vulnerability in a way that was hurtful, even humiliating.
Why is what we eat is such a personal, intimate expression of ourselves? Maybe it’s because we use food to self-soothe, because we’ve learned that nothing makes the ache of a bad day go away like macaroni and cheese or pan-fried dumplings. Maybe it’s because we cling to notions of food as expressions of our culture, even if they ultimately don’t serve us well—eating spaetzle with pork, beef brisket or chitlins and hamhocks may make some of us feel good, may earn us cultural street cred, but it doesn’t do our livers, arteries or waistlines any favors. I often wish that how we feed our bodies were a less loaded subject, but for many of us, it’s a big deal.
This holiday season I fielded questions from my in-laws about my diet. I sat at a table laden with pork chops, beef ribs and king salmon, and it was harder than I thought for me to remain judgment-free as I watched my husband, his parents and his siblings gleefully chow down on the remnants of animals who had no choice in the frightening sacrifice of their lives. In between bites, I got the standard questions–“So what do you eat?” “Where do you get your protein?” “Why’d you become a vegan?”
I don’t mind answering that last one as much, because it gives me the chance to talk about not wanting to eat animals, about the health dangers of a diet with meat at its center, about how raising meat affects the planet. My work in situations like these is not to preach at people who seem uninterested in changing their behaviors, or even considering their choices. My work is to answer their questions with honesty, generosity, and kindness, and to remember that any negativity I receive from them isn’t about me and my choices; it’s about them.
The lesson that excites me the most is the idea of veganism as a tool for The Revolution. I’ve recently discovered the work of writer and food activist Breeze Harper, an open critic of the American vegan movement because of its overwhelming nature to relate to people through a white, middle-class, hetero-normative lens. Her work considers veganism as a way of reclaiming the body—physically, spiritually, and politically—from systems that have held so many in ignorance and stasis.
Last February, Angela Davis was a keynote speaker at a social justice conference at the University of California, Davis. When asked about the role of human consideration for animals in the current pursuit of social justice, she said, “The fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the conditions under which chickens are bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism in this country, how capitalism has colonized our minds… I think there is a connection between the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the [social or political] hierarchy.” (It’s a brief but really compelling answer—for more, click here.)
This idea blew my mind: veganism as a decolonization of my mind, of my body? Veganism as a blow against institutionalized racism that would continue to subjugate my people? Grass-roots movements often tell us that our voice as democratic citizens is with our voice and our wallet: I could tell off the majority culture by taking back my body based on what I consume. There may be food activists out there who are thinking, “Duh, Jess!”, but this was a completely new notion to me. If civilizations, including my own ancestors, have been eating plant-based diets for centuries, and the typical American diet is a contemporary byproduct of the industrial revolution and government subsidies, then maybe I can say the hell with all that and eat in a way that’s better for my body and that I choose, instead of having it thrust on me.
*Cope, Stephen. The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living. 2006 by Bantam Dell: New York.