One of my perks for teaching at Gateway Community College for the past 5 years is that I qualify to take 1 class for free each semester that I teach. So this semester I saw a "Food Writing" class that looked interesting and thought, hey, why not, it always helps to get more practice writing and be inspired by other foodies. During our first class meeting the instructor asked us to write briefly about a vivid food memory and then share our stories with the class. Out of 11 students, 4 shared stories about growing up and watching some family member kill an animal and then eat it for dinner.
The first person who spoke, a guy who just retired and wanted to take this class "for fun because I love to eat," gave elaborate detail on growing up in Germany and helping his grandfather slaughter and dismember a pig. Then, to thank him, his grandfather gave him a slice of raw onion topped with raw freshly ground "pork" seasoned only with salt and pepper. "It was the best damn pig I'd ever eaten." Needless to say, I was horrified.
I decided that the food memory I would write about was my first vegan meal. Since these essays will be read in class, I wanted mine to be approachable with a nonjudgemental tone, yet also hopefully thought provoking. We have 15 weeks together, and I have a mission of not just writing about food, but being an advocate for change. This is gonna be a challenge. Here's the first draft:
How I Gave Up Meat and Gained My Soul
(and developed a taste for compassionate cuisine in the process)
We were hanging around the campus radio station where we were both DJs one night and he pulled out an album whose cover depicted a young army soldier wearing a helmet with the words “Meat is Murder” scrawled on it. I studied the image closely, assuming it had something to do with war and “meat” being a metaphor for people. Then my friend asked, “did you know Morrissey is vegan?” “No, why, what is that?” And so he explained the philosophy of not exploiting animals through food, medicine, fashion or entertainment and doing everything one can to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. He detailed how animals are treated in laboratories, how leather and wool are made, the Draize Test
, how on factory farms cows stand knee deep in manure, baby veal calves are crowded into crates their entire brief lives and fed low iron formula to keep their muscles weak to make their flesh tender, laying hens are debeaked and kept in wire cages with no more space to stand on than an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper, and day-old male chicks are ground up alive because they have no value. I didn’t like the way this sounded.
I immediately grasped the anti-animal experimentation and cruelty-free cosmetics concept, because why on earth would anyone want to put mascara in a cute little bunny rabbit’s eyes?! But strangely, I had never made the connection to the food I ate. Yet there it was right in front of me: “Meat is Murder.” Yes, I guess that’s what it is. And I didn’t like how uncomfortable that made me feel. I was a murderer by proxy.
So here was my 19-year-old friend who had the courage to not just believe those words, but to put those beliefs into daily practice every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every time he put on his canvas Converse All-Stars, bundled up in layers of cotton and polyester in the winter, brushed his teeth, washed his hands, and did just about every mundane thing that we normally do thoughtlessly every day of our lives and simply take for granted. Instead, he did them with mindfulness and intention. This was a novel idea to me. Not just because it was so different, but because it made sense. In fact, it made much more sense than living the way I was used to, which was mindlessly, and let’s be honest, selfishly.
It was feeling like one of those college epiphanies where previously darkened doorways suddenly open and a new, brighter path is spread out before you. I was ready to take that first step. I was ready to become vegan.
The first step came in the form of a home-made vegan dinner at my friend’s apartment. He crumbled up a block of spongey white goo - a foreign object which he called tofu - into a bowl, then added some seasoning from a packet of Fantastic Foods hamburger spice mix. It smelled like chili. I was hopeful. We formed the mushy pile into four balls, then flattened them into patties, and fried them in a generously oiled skillet. Savory aromas wafted into the cramped kitchenette as the burgers sizzled in the pan, and we tore apart a head of iceberg lettuce for our side salad. I wasn’t much of an epicure back then, so this was what I considered gourmet. “I can do this!” I cheered myself on.
I placed my cooked burger into a whole wheat bun that had been slathered with Heinz 47 and yellow mustard, and heaped on pickles, relish and red onion, with the hope that these familiar condiments might somehow camouflage the foreign substance hidden within. When I took my first bite, the patty collapsed like an exploded piñata on my plate. My first response was, “can you pass the ketchup?” It was all that I could do to improve this tasteless mound of mush. I didn’t want to offend him and I wanted to stay positive, so I finished the whole thing. My first vegan meal. It was horrible.
Over the course of the semester I not only studied English, I also read piles of literature supplied by my friendly PETA ambassador. The images were horrifying. When I first set eyes on the photos of bloody, barely recognizable animals crammed in cages with oozing sores and gaping holes in their sides, my instinct was to look away. I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to know this was happening. “This can’t be real,” I argued. “It must be propaganda! They only show the worst ones to get a reaction!” But then I looked again and read some more and found out this was “normal.” I felt so betrayed.
Following my immersion into veganism, I was determined to make a go of it because I didn’t want to be responsible for this misery. My friend was my inspiration, and I wanted to emulate him. Give me another one of those crummy, crumbly tofuburgers! I’ll do anything just so they don’t have to suffer!
My resolve lasted about a week. Dorm cafeterias back then weren’t terribly accommodating for vegans. I quickly got tired of dry cereal without milk for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and icy cold salads with pale, limp lettuce for dinner. Plus I started to worry, where will I get my protein?! What about calcium?! I didn’t know anything about nutrition except for these two boogeymen, and yet, they somehow suddenly seemed to be the most important considerations at the time.
I decided that although I’d love to save all the animals, at least by saving some I was still making an effort in the right direction. So I switched my resolve to become a vegetarian because at least I wasn’t eating the actual dead animals. That I could handle. Especially since Friday night was pizza night in our dorm and the chef made the cheesiest Sicilian style pizza around. Foregoing the pepperoni wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. And how could I stop eating those hot fudge sundaes made from the milk of dairy cows raised right on our college campus?! That would be sacrilege.
The remainder of my college days were fueled by Kraft mac & cheese, Ramen noodles, and grilled cheese made on the hot plate in my dorm room, supplemented by lots of pasta, bread, and pizza from the cafeteria. I don’t think a single vegetable passed my lips during those four years, except for the occasional stir-fry when my roommate and I splurged on Chinese takeout. At the time, I thought this was healthy. I wasn’t eating meat after all! But mostly, I was just glad to not be eating animals, because I loved them, and I was determined.