You Are What You Eat

1 May, 2019
Bark Avenue Foundation

“It’s too hard to be vegan.”

Those are words I hear often when discussing kinder food choices. Most often, those words are coming from my own mouth. Living in a diverse city as I do, it’s actually a rather lousy, and completely untrue, excuse.

It took over thirty years, but my eating habits finally almost caught up with my moral beliefs. Since I was a child, I believed all animals should be treated with respect and we humans are equal animals. I read books about vivisection and did my absolute best to not use products that had been tested on them. In the 1980’s, that took more effort than a Google search. I had to send a request with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Humane Society, and a few weeks later in my mailbox, I received their two page document of known cruelty-free businesses. Two pages. That’s it.

Yet, I continued without argument whatsoever to eat the hot dogs, hamburgers, and roast beef my parents fed me at the dinner table. I scarfed down ice cream and ate baked goods with all kinds of animal products contained in them. Beans, broccoli, spinach, and even lettuce, went untouched on my plate.

It has now been over eight years since I had my last meal of a once living fellow animal. Becoming vegetarian was actually easier than I thought it would be. I had done it as a weight loss challenge. Previous weight loss attempts involved low-carbs—which meant I ate pounds of beef and chicken and cheese. That no longer worked, and this was my chance to take another step toward living a kinder life and leaving less of a footprint on the environment.

Changing my palate took very little time. I don’t want “fake meat.” In fact, if I taste something that has the texture or flavor of meat, I instinctually spit it out and am disgusted. In a way, my change to vegetarianism was like method acting. The longer I did the action, the more my mind evolved to match it. I already had the foundation of loving all animals; now my actions imprinted the disgust on the possibility of eating one.

We humans have an amazing ability to justify anything. For my entire life, I justified eating meat believing I had to. How else could I get nutrition? Well, I just have to eat a lot of greens, and mix it up with beans, nuts and whole grains. But I didn’t know that then. I didn’t want to believe it then.

I have been content being vegetarian a number of years, justifying my level of dedication to my morals by saying “Being vegan is too hard.” And then I attended the Vegan Street Faire a couple weeks ago in North Hollywood and realized what a big, blatant lie that was. Looking at the diversity of people at this street faire—this crowded street faire where everything from southern comfort food to vietnamese cuisine was being made and offered without a single animal being killed, harmed, used, or abused—it is apparent that to eat with kindness is not difficult. Nor is it reserved for one ethnicity, one race, one age, or one economic status. People of all ages and backgrounds danced to rock music blaring from speakers in the street with their cauliflower tots, vegan mac & cheese, and fishless sushi. They sampled vegetable cuisines and tried the newest meat substitutes – new plant based burgers that “bleed” like meat for a more authentic carnivore experience, and vegetable broth with the same taste as chicken broth. Long gone are the days when the only vegan food options were the consistency and flavor of sand. Times have changed, I thought—both for the vegan demographic and the food itself–as I bit into a tasty and filling vegan chocolate glazed donut.

A few years after giving up meat, I read an article in a local New England newspaper that took me one step closer to becoming vegan. A town started hearing mournful cries and screams at night and believed someone was in danger. The police were flooded with calls. There were no dead bodies or missing persons. The investigation led police to the local dairy farm where the source of the sound was found. Police issued a statement that they were informed these these were “normal dairy farm noises” and none of the animals were injured. They were the sounds of the mother cows crying out for their calves who were taken from them shortly after birth so that we, not they, could drink their milk.

I swore off of milk at that moment. A milkshake made of tears just wasn’t for me. Mymocha wasn’t worth the emotional anguish of a hopeless mother mourning the loss of her child. In all the years I ate and drank milk products, I knew where milk came from but never once thought about how the milk came to be. Cows–like people and every other mammal–do not lactate unless they are pregnant and give birth. But if the cow’s own calf drinks the milk, we can’t have it. How could I have missed this simple fact all these years?

My ignorance made me unkind. Instead of giving up my favorite foods, I found substitutions. There were a few surprisingly easy switches: my mochas are now made with soy milk and instead of ice cream, cashew, almond or coconut milk non-dairy products quench my cravings.  Substitutions for eggs and milk in baked goods are numerous and can be just as tasty. Baking is chemistry so I just have to find an equivalent chemical that would react the same way. A quick internet search turns up ways to use bananas, avocado, apple sauce, and many other readily available items instead of dairy in recipes. I even found that frying up tofu just right in the right spices and flavors can be indistinguishable from the buttery scrambled eggs I used to love to eat.

But there was one thing, one item I couldn’t find an adequate substitution for: cheese. This was half a decade or so ago, and I bought up all the non-dairy cheeses in the supermarket for taste tests (there weren’t many.) Whether Parmesan or Pepper Jack or Mozzarella, they either had the texture of a giant hunk of phlegm or was so tasteless I should have just eaten the plastic wrapper. At the end of my taste test, I selfishly chose to continue eating what I enjoyed despite knowing that it caused pain to another living being.

“It couldn’t be that much,” I told myself. “It’s my one thing. It wouldn’t make a difference if I stopped.”

The grief a mother suffers from the loss of a child is unfathomable–no matter what species you are. But because I liked the taste of cheese, I simply ignored the tragedy that her milk was used for my pleasure rather than feeding her own child who was ripped from her side. I could have just sworn off cheese completely. It’s not a necessity. But I didn’t. I made the cruel choice to go against what I knew was right.

Humans aren’t perfect. We don’t always make the best choices. Eating with kindness isn’t an instant moment for everyone; for some it is a journey of many little decisions. While some set off and know the trail ahead clearly, treading confidently, others question each fork in the road, and each choice can lead either closer or further from living a kind, authentic life where our actions reflect our heart’s intent.

In my heart, there is no difference between the dairy or beef cow and Tucker. I do not hold one animal’s life greater than another. I used to believe that “one must die for another to live.” I know that not to be true now. Knowledge and opportunity has shown me that, and experience has proven it. Now I strive to prove to myself what I already know: that “no one need suffer for another to live.” Times have changed, science has grown, and creative chemists, cooks, bakers, and chefs have come up with new products and recipes to make that happen. There are even cheese alternatives now that melt like Mozzarella and stay fluffy like shredded Parmesan. A vegan friend of mine made stuffed shells one night, and as a cheese-lover, I can say it tasted just like the dairy version. There was only one difference: due to the high protein nut base, I felt satiated and satisfied with only a small amount. Here was proof that cows needn’t suffer for me to eat what I enjoy. And the alternative version is actually healthier for me!

Grocery shopping for a vegan takes the same effort as it does if you’re diabetic or if you’re using nutrition to lower your cholesterol. In all cases, what you do to be healthier that begins as inconvenient soon becomes second nature. Ingredients are listed on the side of everything (even bottles of water) so you always know what you’re getting. You may not be able to pronounce it, and you may have to find out exactly where that amino-acid-chain-sounding chemical came from in a processed foodstuff, but with the world wide web at your fingertips, you can often get the answer before you leave the chip aisle.

Going out to eat can be even easier: Depending on where you live, many restaurants label entrees with “vegan” and “vegetarian” along with their “gluten-free” options. When in doubt, you need only ask.

Despite how honorable we are, the lies we tell ourselves are the ones most easily believed. Walking through the street faire, I admitted to the lie I had been telling myself for years. Being vegetarian reduced the demand for slaughtered animals, and reducing my intake of dairy had reduced the suffering of cows, but it wasn’t enough. My actions did not fully reflect my heart’s intent. I had been selfishly choosing convenience over kindness. My “need” for cheese was not a need at all and is certainly not more important than another soul’s emotional needs. If every time I ate pizza Tucker cried out in overwhelming loss, I would never eat pizza again. If taking an extra five minutes to look up the ingredients of an item would save Tucker from immeasurable heartache, I of course would do it. And so I should for every cow. I shouldn’t have waited for it to be more convenient, although now it is.

Every life matters— not just a life saved from death, but a life free from suffering. Being kind doesn’t have to be a monumental life change all at once—just one choice at a time, one path at each fork in the road. Choose the portobello burger over the chicken sandwich; choose the tofu benedict over the scrambled eggs for breakfast; choose the vegetable and rice stuffed pepper over the salisbury steak. As for me, I’ll now choose the cheese alternative over traditional cheese.

Our choices are many, and they add up over time. Every life matters—including yours. What you do and how you live matters. We all tell ourselves lies, and for every one we recognize and dispel, the closer we get to living true to our heart’s intent. Food is fuel. It is the energy we use to go about our daily lives, making the world a better place. When it comes time to sit down at the dinner table, consider the choice to put into your body what you innately put out: kindness.