After over two decades of vegetarianism, I’m trying veganism for the first time this January. I’m joining over 20,000 people and counting who have signed up to Veganuary 2016 pledging to live without meat, fish, dairy and all other animal based food for thirty-one days. Pretty much the entire family got a nasty bout of gastroenteritis during the no-mans land between Christmas and New Year – and so the start of Veganuary went without a hitch. It’s very easy to be vegan when you literally aren’t eating anything! I’m writing this on Day #7, but for normal eating purposes it’s more like Day #3. So the food has yet to prove an issue but mentally it’s already taking it out of me if I’m honest.
You see, even as a vegetarian I found vegans a bit… off. Weird even. It all seemed so extreme. What on earth were they eating? How did they cope without a decent cup of tea?! I don’t get what the problem is with wool? Or with honey? Bees love honey, don’t they?! Vegucated is a highly watchable documentary currently streaming on Netflix which follows three meat and cheese loving New Yorkers as they attempt to be vegan for six weeks. I watched it for the first time last week and wholly identified with the sequence where director Marisa Miller Wolfson talks about how she had always thought vegans were weird. Later Brian, one of the three subjects of the documentary, confesses the same. Yup – that’s how I felt for a long time. It didn’t help that the only vegans I met for many years were either hard-core animal activists (the animal version of the awful placarding pro-life nuns who used to terrorise O’Connell St in the 90s) or incredibly unhealthy people with skin conditions who literally cut animal produce out of their diet and subsided on pasta and other refined carbs. So an opinion formed in my mind a long time ago – veganism was not for me. It was too dogmatic, too preachy, there were too many rules and fundamentally I didn’t exactly enjoy myself around the vegans I had met. And like any opinion held for a long time, it’s calcified within me. I’m now doing Veganuary and I’m still thinking –hmmm. Vegan. Am I now one…of them?
I love animals. Always have. It totally freaks me out to have someone tell me they are an animal lover when I know they eat meat. That takes a level of separation of thought and deed, and a hierarchy of importance of sentient creatures, that I cannot comprehend. For instance pigs are proven to have mental and emotional intelligence not only greater than dogs but approximating three year old human children. Yet people obsessed with their dogs eat pork and bacon. What is that? I don’t understand the appeal of chowing down on a hunk of dead flesh, and from the time I realised what meat was made of (because we do love to hide flesh behind other names!) I wanted no part of it. I’ve never even slightly wanted it, no matter how many times people send me ‘statistics’ about drunk vegetarians eating meat like they have somehow found the chink in my veggie armour. I’ve heard every variation of ‘jokes’ about how I just needed meat that my ‘hold back the eyeroll and smile’ face is Oscar winner announcement worthy. If I had a quid for every time some moron tried to tell me Hitler was vegetarian* I would have a sizable deposit for a house by now. It’s not like being a vegetarian in a world of defensive omnivores is always easy. And partly because I have spent so long in a world where meat-eaters ask me why I am vegetarian, and then freak out that I am being preachy if I answer them honestly, I didn’t really look any further than vegetarianism. I felt enough on the fringe as it was.
I also grew up on a dairy farm, and I have the fine agricultural thighs to prove it. Dairy farming paid for my clothing, shelter and education, as it had done for my siblings before me. I drank raw unpasteurised milk by the bucketload all my life. My parents aren’t evil monsters – they are good people who love their family. Not alone could I not be vegan, but I couldn’t engage with veganism on any level. Because all they did was say dairy was terrible, and cruel, and just as bad as eating meat and for me there was no way that could be true. I was having no part of it.
Yet in recent years my diet has changed a lot. I rarely, if ever, eat eggs. Never a butter fan, the only time I have it is when it’s an ingredient (and of course on spuds at Christmas when I’m at home). I am in a dysfunctional relationship with cheese – I love it, and want it in my life, whiIe it wants me to have chronic indigestion any time we get together. In the past four years, partly as a result of the impact of long term medication for a chronic pain condition, I have become wildly allergic to both onions and goats cheese. We’re talking itchy rashes, painful swollen skin, and a whole lot of bathroom aftermath. And so all of the ‘easy’ social parts of eating out are gone – I can’t just have the vegetarian option, as 80% of places have goats cheese and pretty much everything has onion in it. I had to have a bowl of fruit salad for dinner in Dublin’s longest established vegetarian restaurant because not one other item in the place was onion free. Eating out is a hassle, and so we make more and more food ourselves at home, with more focus on balanced nutrition. Possibly most important of all, thanks to a gifted physical therapist I have finally been clawing my life back from the aforementioned chronic pain and starting to think and engage with my interests and the world again.
Being a vegetarian is extremely important to me. I became one for the love of animals, and I always will remain one for them. Yet the environmental impact of animal agriculture has become something of great concern to me, not least because in a world freaking out about carbon emissions no one was mentioning methane. The more I learned about the environmental impact of ‘big ag’ the more clear it became that I too had created my own cognitive dissonance and my own hierarchy of sentient creatures. Whatever my background, however uncomfortable it made me feel, I have to engage with the impact of dairy also. And so I signed up for Veganuary and have been easing myself into it slowly in the past few weeks by scrambling frantically for something resembling a decent vegan cup of tea. I believe we are never our ‘after’ picture – we aren’t finished until we are dead. We are never done evolving. I don’t want to be someone whose opinions are calcified, and I do want to be someone who walks kindly upon the earth. So let’s see how I feel in 24 days time!
*he wasn’t. And how relevant is it to vegetarianism if he was?