Intellectually, I’ve always known where the hamburger sitting on my plate came from. Intellectually. I mean, nobody has ever plucked a side of beef off a bush, we all know that. But denial has such a way of sugar coating everything, of allowing us to stay the course, even when that course is not good for us. Things wrapped up neatly in packages did not compute as having once belonged to a living, breathing creature. I was able to distance myself from the whole nasty affair.
That came to an end 23 years ago, when I was writing for my local newspaper, and doing a story on a woman who rescued Dobermans. During the interview she happened to mention that she was a vegetarian, to which I replied, “I feel like such a hypocrite. I love animals so much, but I’m the first one to sit down to a hamburger or a steak.” I will never forget what she said. “If you ever went to a slaughterhouse and saw what those animals went through, you would never eat meat again.” Those words turned me into a vegetarian on the spot. The next time I sat down to eat meat, that graphic image shot through my head, resulting in a sickened feeling in my stomach. My carnivore days were over.
For years I was a happy vegetarian, thinking I was doing my part in animal welfare. I knew about veganism, of course, but I didn’t understand it. I mean, nothing was being killed. Cows needed to be milked anyway, right? Chickens were going to lay their eggs no matter what. I remember asking someone why she was a vegan, and she said something about the animals not being treated well. I don’t remember what she said exactly, because I was only half-heartedly listening. Denial had reared its ugly head again. I thought, how could I possibly live without ice cream or butter or cheese? What would be left to eat? I feared there would be no choice but to spend my days out grazing in the pasture. No, no way were any animals being hurt!
But something must have smacked of a conscience, way down deep. On a trip to Sweden to visit my son, I asked for a vegan meal. Alas, I didn’t make it all the way through. My dessert consisted of a few melon balls, while the passenger next to me was digging into the most glorious ice cream sundae. I caved. I asked the flight attendant for one. “Didn’t you ask for a vegan meal?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. “But look at that dessert over there.” As if there could ever be any question as to which choice a sane person would make.
But like my entry into vegetarianism, so too was there a catalyst that launched me on the path to veganism. It happened a year ago, when I was interviewing the owner of a dairy farm for the article I was writing for the newspaper. While I was in the barn waiting for her to finish up some chores, I moseyed down the aisle, petting and cooing to those lovely bovines. When I got to the end, there were several babies in a stall, who completely won my heart. As I was doing the interview, I learned that “humanely raised” veal was one of the farm’s products. Fortunately for them, the calves I had fallen in love with were females. Otherwise, they would have been sitting on Death Row, waiting to go to the slaughterhouse at the age of four months. I had trouble sleeping that night, and the next, and the next, just thinking about it. And that was the beginning of my journey to veganism. Shortly after this I came across an article in a health magazine about the atrocities of factory farms, and the recommendation to read “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins. The book was an eye-opener. I had had no idea of the suffering that dairy cows and chickens being raised for their eggs, were subjected to.
But I still wasn’t ready to go all the way with this. I would do research, I told myself, and find some dear souls who treated their animals well. That would make everything alright. Hot fudge sundaes and buttered popcorn and Tuesday Buns (a delectable, made out of pastry and whipped cream and almond paste, that is found in Sweden), still danced ‘round in my head, like the fabled sugar plums making their way into a child’s dreams on Christmas Eve. So I cruised the Internet for pictures of happy cows, smiling at me from their lush pastures. I e-mailed the makers of the organic butter that I ate, to find out how they treated their cows. Did they take the babies away at birth? Did the cows have a pasture to roam around in by day and a big stall to come into at night? Were the males used for veal? Were the females kept pregnant all the time? The response was quick. The animals were treated very well. Pastures, roomy stalls, calves that stayed with Mom for the first six months, no veal. Aha, I could keep the butter! This man, who I thought would be my hero, wrote that, while factory farm cows lived an average of three years, his lived to be about 11. But wait! I had read that the average life span of a cow is between 20 and 25 years. One more question. Do you send them to the slaughterhouse when they can no longer produce milk? His silence was my answer. And that did it. That put me over the finish line. I’ve been a vegan ever since last September.
I will tell you that it has not always been easy. I cannot eat the vegan substitutes for butter and cheese, or nutritional yeast, because of allergies. So the macaroni and cheese and the buttered popcorn are now lovely memories from my past. And I miss them, I really do. Long for them. But I am firm in my commitment to this. I just think about the suffering that went into that butter or that cheese, and I stay the course.
And a longtime friend took me to task for this. The bottom line is, it made her feel guilty about eating meat, and she was taking it out on me. For a while there, it really strained our friendship.
And when I am in social situations, there is often precious little to eat.
But I am glad to be doing this. I’m glad to be doing my part for the animals, the planet, and myself. Yes, myself. It turns out that dairy comes with a host of ills for the body. Within a few days of giving it up, my knee, which had been giving me trouble for quite some time, gave up its penchant for inflammation. I feel wonderful.
So I expect my newfound veganism to take me well into my old age, in a very healthy manner. Without standing on the backs of innocent creatures. It was a long time in coming, but I’m glad I finally made it. I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world, but I didn’t know how to do it. Now I know.
And just a delightful little bonus – I found a vegan ice cream that tastes just like the “real” thing. Bon apetit!
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