Posted by: Mat Thomas | April 16, 2010

Y-Vegan #1: Ew, Gross!

The first in a series exploring why vegans don’t eat animals

At barbeques, family dinners, and other social events where I’m the only vegan, someone usually asks me what it is exactly that I’m eating. Often it’s the soy-based version of whatever everyone else is having—like veggie burgers, tofu dogs or (for Thanksgiving) the obligatory Tofurky Roast. Much more interesting than my unconventional meals, however, is the range of reactions people typically have to them.

At one end of the scale are those who ask what I’m eating because they’re genuinely curious—and perhaps even eager (or at least willing) to sample some. Then there are those who skeptically ask “What is that?” and then respond to my answer by exclaiming “That looks really good!” while scrunching their nose up as if they’d just smelled a fresh turd. And finally we come to those rare outspoken individuals (like my brothers, for instance) who just bluntly proclaim that my food seems really gross.

While I appreciate such culinary critics’ audacious honesty, with all due respect I can’t help but wonder whether they’ve thoroughly thought this thing through. I mean, meat is essentially made from the corpses of creatures who were once (like us humans) composed of blood, bones, brains, veins, tendons, intestines, and various pumping organs. The main ingredient in milk products, meanwhile, is the reproductive secretions lactated by female cows or goats who have recently given birth, and eggs are essentially unfertilized chicken embryos. With that in mind, don’t some steaming vegan sausage links smothered in Dijon mustard and sauerkraut sound comparatively appetizing?

In addition to such aesthetic objections, there’s also the matter of all the extra crap that’s in meat, dairy and eggs. I use that mild expletive quite literally here, because animal products (especially those from factory farms) are commonly contaminated with fecal matter—the primary source of dangerous bacterial pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella, which jointly kill dozens and hospitalize thousands of people in the U.S. every year. Meat and other animal products also contain the residues of various antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, and other unsavory chemical compounds routinely used in massive quantities on factory farms.

OK, I know that people’s assertions about the alleged grodiness of vegan animal food substitutes do not refer to their contents, but rather how such products taste to them. However, I wonder whether their dismissive stance could be based on that one time years ago when they took a bite of some undercooked tofu and immediately wanted to spit it out, having assumed ever since that all vegan meat alternatives must be just as awful. If so, I hope the next person who asks me what I’m eating will accept my offer to share—because this time they may be pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s actually edible after all.

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Posted by: Mat Thomas | April 13, 2010

Choosing Our Selves

The mysterious mechanics behind life-changing experiences

Making any life transition is never easy, and moving toward a vegan diet is no exception. Based on my own personal 32-year journey from meat eater to vegan, I’d say timing is key, because we are naturally more open to change during certain points in our lives than at others.

For instance, I ate meat until the age of 26, when I moved from New York to California for grad school (from which I rather swiftly dropped out). I was studying transpersonal psychology, and stopped eating meat overnight after reading an interview with John Robbins for a class called Paradigms of Consciousness. Simply put, after learning (remarkably, for the first time in my life) about what actually happens to animals on factory farms, I just couldn’t eat them any more.

But what if I’d read this same interview, say, the year before: Would I have been just as moved to so radically change my lifelong habits? Or did I just happen to be in an especially receptive state of mind in July of 1996 because I’d recently left everything familiar behind and journeyed to a strange new land where I was trying to “find” (or at least reinvent) myself? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do recall that my identity seemed to be in constant flux during that period. What before had felt rather solid (like hardened clay) was suddenly quite fluid and malleable—but also somehow forming, shaping itself beyond my awareness or control.

As a vegetarian, I’d long wanted to “go all the way” by becoming vegan. I’d tried numerous times to stop eating cheese and eggs, but usually only lasted a few days before surrendering to my cravings. Cut to five years later, and I’m a business proposal writer for a major managed behavioral health care company working in a downtown San Francisco skyscraper. I make a comfortable corporate salary, but after thousands of human beings are mass-murdered by terrorists on 9/11, that vocation quickly loses meaning, and I feel an overwhelming need to live more deliberately—more in line with my conscience and deepest values—and become the person I really want to be.

With images of the falling Towers (and bodies) permanently seared into my mind’s eye, something finally “clicked” in my psyche—and on January 20, 2002, I knew with absolute certainty that I had become a vegan. Suddenly and unexpectedly, after years of struggling with self-deprivation failed to produce the desired change, here it was—so perfectly natural, ordinary even, just dropping into my lap with relatively little effort on my part. Shaken to the core by a tectonic event of historic proportions, my paradigm had shifted…and my world would never be the same again!

Being vegan is so integral a part of “me” now that it’s hard to imagine my life without it. Yet, looking back on those days long past when I first became vegetarian and then vegan, I wonder how much free will was mine to exercise in these decisions. Did I really choose my fate, or did it choose me? I suppose, in the end, that it’s a little bit of both.

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