It may be human to acquire food as we do, but perhaps even more human to think about how good or bad the means are. I once ate everything. Nurture, in my peasant Hungarian grandmother’s village, eased me as a pre-schooler into the drumstick on the very day I understood its relationship with the chickens clucking outside. Nature, or at least what dentition and digestion conveyed to popular scientific interpreters, got me rationalizing meat-eating later. It wasn’t until my medical school experience of dissecting cadavers that I was vividly reminded of vertebrate homology. The human ribcage was hardly different from the wildlife thorax featured in my father’s hunting video, or visible behind the butcher shop window. As one who then conducted animal model studies, I knew we must apply strong assumptions of similarity with humans in order to justify such pursuits, and equally strong assumptions of dissimilarity towards the animal capacity for pain and fear, to get to the following meal. Away from work, my travels then reminded me of just how trained the tastes of the world are. Although it is hard to find mature antipathy for the vegetables of the farthest flung plates, many of the most carnivorous North Americans recoil from the Masaai flasks of bovine blood-and-milk, or the sequences of tripes, broths, and gelatinized appendages across east Eurasia. We can all agree that it isn’t any less savage, though, to take blade, bullet, probe, or mallet to stop beating hearts for muscle consumption.
Eat or be eaten. Many creatures would eat us dead or alive, and occasionally we apprehend this ancient order. If we don’t eat animals or cloak ourselves in their flesh, we risk slipping into the “traps” of botanicals weak in upper food-chain nutrients, or missing out on insulation. By eating that which has eaten what we might, we skip a few bioenergetic steps and seize gains unto ourselves. We may give thanks, and take as proof of divinely-appointed dominion, the innate diversity of our appetites. At the same time, no creature seems to eat as many things as we do, or to have as many disordered ways of doing so. Our confusion over the best of what we should eat reflects that freedom and its consequences. Eating is life-sustaining, but it’s strange to obsess over the details.
Taking the plunge into veganism as a thirtysomething arose from a conviction that I’d rather consume “happy meals,” which is to say suffering-free nourishment. It was never so much about what food does to a body as what it might do to the world and soul. The internet enabled me to behold abbatoir footage. We know it’s out there but we decide not to watch it because we and Big Agra convince each other that it’s done properly and for the good. In reality, I didn’t need words, because moving pictures spoke them by the thousands. Underwater, it was diving that revealed the marine pageants and devastations of reef life. At home, my canine companion – who falls into the circle of my maternal instinct – consolidates my ditching of speciesism.
Operationalizing my conversion affirmed my preference for handling flora over fauna. At grocery stores, I don’t peruse the flesh galleries or take a cleaver to raw meat, nor do I worry about cooking it well enough to eradicate pathogens, or too well to transform it into leather. Little did I know this would save so much when I shop, now that there is so little death in the overhead
Is veganism a stupid form of conscientious objection or superhuman self-sacrifice? Sure, it’s a denial of our animal capacity for certain delights, just as our civilizing sexual restraints inspire many to choose fidelity over promiscuity. Vegetarianism fights the impulse to take every resource we can, and instead urges selectivity for the sake of others. It recoils from the highest carbon footprint part of our food supply, subsumed more and more by industrialized food producers who have us depending more than ever on petrofuelled fertilizers and machinery. Guzzling the disproportion are market-driven livestock fed by unnatural diets of subsidized corn, to the effect that their wastes (and perhaps even meats) have achieved unprecedented pathogenicity. Should the results of a food chain coursing with oil through it be a surprise?
The hardest part of eating a plant-based diet has not been giving up gustatory indulgences, though. It’s been a social price. When we decisively forego the fare of our gatherings, we set ourselves apart, even if we don’t seem too different. To decline breaking non-breads with others is to seem holier-than-thou and to not fully “be” with them. The insanity and insult lie in direct proportion to the number of foods abandoned. Our workselves aside, the fact that we’re labelled by what we eat [carnivore or vegetarian] or how we use the pleasure circuits of our reproductive assets [gay or straight] shows just how central the management of our carnal urgings is to how people see us.
When does “coming out” as a vegan overstep my bounds as a clinician caring for patients who eat just as more than 99% of people do? I may be content to explain my choices, but doing so may make people feel judged or threatened to assume unstraightforward change. Whenever someone says “I also wish I was” or “I wish I could…,” is that a defence against anticipated reproach, or the confiding of a latent sense of animal affection despite habits of the palate?
In school I learned that cults are movements that control what you eat and wear, and how and whom you spend your time and money with. Veganism is this all-encompassing. Its conversions may be fiery, with endurance fuelled by the onlooker cynicism. Others may deconstruct the change as romantic asceticism. I’m living out an activist restlessness in a corporal way. Just as others commit various acts of omission or commission, even to the point of self-harm, one feels more alive, compassionate, and connected to something greater than the self.
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