Vegans: Fair Game?
Jane Hughes edits The Vegetarian magazine for The Vegetarian Society UK and writes on issues relating to vegetarian and vegan food. She is a tutor and course developer at the Cordon Vert cookery school in Cheshire and currently Secretary of the Guild of Food Writers. Her website, with a link to her blog, is at www.veggiefoodwriter.co.uk.
An over-friendly drunk on a train recently confided, in a beery stage whisper, that he liked vegetarians, nice people, but that vegans are political and aggressive and generally unpleasant. I told him I was a vegetarian – not the first time I’ve kept quiet about being a vegan just to keep the peace.
I decided to go vegan as an experiment in the middle of August 2010. There aren’t many vegan members of the Guild of Food Writers and my ‘conversion’ has certainly raised a few eyebrows among fellow Council members. I’m a food writer because I love to eat, and I love to cook, and I’m fascinated by the cultural significance of food, and I want to share my knowledge and maybe bring a little culinary sunshine into people’s lives. I’m a vegan because I think it’s a healthy choice that’s good for me and for the planet, because I have strong feelings about the ethics of farming animals, and because I don’t want any living creature to be harmed, unnecessarily, on my behalf, if I can possibly help it. I hesitate to go into the specifics because I know talking about animal cruelty can make people uncomfortable and defensive, but I’m increasingly aware of the fact that although I don’t eat dead animals, I’m supporting some practices that are at best unnatural and at worst spectacularly cruel. The more I find out, the harder it becomes to turn a blind eye.
By eating dairy foods, for instance, I am participating in a system which involves artificially inseminating cows, taking their calves away (mostly for slaughter) a day or two after they are born and harvesting the milk, then doing this a few more times to keep the milk flowing before killing off the cows when they are about five years old – a natural lifespan would be twenty to twenty-five years. I don’t think there are any other animals that drink milk from other species – anybody who finds the idea of drinking milk from horses or dogs preposterous should think on.
I recently visited a large-scale free range egg farm where I was reminded that only female birds are necessary in this process. Male chicks are gassed or ‘homogenised’. Newly hatched female chicks are reared in a huge warm shed and never get to see their mothers or any adult birds. Egg production slows once the hens are past one year old and at this stage they are classed as ‘spent’ and usually sent for slaughter or gassed on site. Given the opportunity, a hen may live for 12 to 15 years. Vegans get angry when vegetarians describe their diet as ‘cruelty-free’ and, if you care to look, you can see why.
I’m telling everybody my veganism is an experiment because I’ve been a vegetarian food lover for 25 years and while I find it hard to imagine that I will ever eat meat or fish again, I’m not yet entirely convinced that I’ll never eat another meringue. Christmas proved that my convictions are not strong enough to stop me grabbing a chocolate truffle if one is offered. But many of the readers of The Vegetarian, the magazine I edit, are vegan, and I thought it was high time that I tuned in to their concerns and learned a bit about animal-free cooking. I wanted to know first-hand whether it was hard to be a vegan, whether I would struggle to find food in shops and restaurants, what the common stumbling blocks and frustrations are. I took it as a challenge.
Is it hard? Yes and no. It’s very hard to get a sandwich when you’re out. Found a hummus and sweet potato one at Euston, but wasn’t tempted. I might be a vegan but I’m not that weird. It’s hard, but not impossible, to eat out. Indian and Far Eastern restaurants are (obviously) most likely to offer anything much for vegans – Italian food, though it’s fabulous for veggies, is a bit of a dead loss for vegans. Vegan food is practically never labelled on menus except in vegetarian restaurants, which means you either have to take things on trust or ask a lot of questions, and I really hate having to explain myself.
It’s surprisingly hard and time-consuming to shop in a supermarket, especially at first, when you’re on a steep learning curve and you have to read a lot of small print. Animal products are ubiquitous, and I’m pleased that I’ve become more educated about what goes into manufactured foods. It’s horrible having to give up old favourites for the sake of a tiny bit of lactose or milk, but it’s interesting finding vegan food sources on the internet and using ingredients that are new to me. I’m a prolific cook, and going vegan means shelving most of the recipes in my collection. But right now I’m still enjoying experimenting with vegan cookery and I’m getting loads of satisfaction from rising to the challenge. I’m blogging away happily about vegan cake. And I have yet to lose any weight or to see my skin turn grey.
One of the most interesting things about going vegan has been seeing how other people react. My companion on the train is just one example. Vegetarianism is widespread in the UK these days and, in my experience, although it might meet with a few snide remarks, it is far more likely to generate expressions of support. ‘In your face’ abuse is rare – although I have experienced it. One red-faced taxi driver dropped me off at the headquarters of the Vegetarian Society, then rolled down his window to shake his fist and yell ‘Sham burgers’, before accelerating away in a cloud of gravel dust. Several boozed-up men have suggested that I need to get a bit of meat inside me, and sniggered that they have sausages that they would like to share. Any reply brings the accusation that I’m a humourless lesbian. Well, boys will be boys.
But even vegetarians dislike vegans! I’ve been asked point-blank to justify myself, and warned that I’m likely to go mad. I’ve been told that my behaviour is anti-social, and that I’m just ‘taking it all too far’. I’ve been asked why I am doing this to myself, as if I’m some kind of masochist trying to ruin my own life by imposing absurd restrictions. Overall, people seem to expect vegans to be difficult, and they react defensively. I’m fascinated by this. Do we naturally form judgments about people based on what they eat, and is it normal to feel some degree of antipathy towards people if they don’t share your diet? In 25 years of vegetarianism I don’t think I have ever criticized anybody else for their dietary choices – and it would feel very rude to do so. But it seems as if everybody has the right to be rude about vegans. As for raw food vegans… well, it seems to be a ‘given’ that they are all nutcases chewing on food that cannot actually sustain life, but I visited a few raw food restaurants in San Francisco not long ago, and it was a revelation.
At a recent conference in London, I learned that sharing food is an enormously important ritual for humans. A person who will not sit down and eat with you is not to be trusted. How do you feel if somebody brings their own food to your home, or leaves the restaurant without finishing the meal? It’s all about trust. It’s something that drives a wedge between people with different religious and cultural convictions, and I think it’s a big stumbling block for vegans. I hope that in years to come, vegan menu choices will be as easy to find as vegetarian options in all kinds of restaurants, and we’ll all be able to tuck in without any fuss.
When I started out as a food writer, somebody said I would find it difficult because of my ‘limited diet’. When I replied that I could write about vegetarian food, he retorted, ‘Well, so can I.’ Now my diet is even more restricted, but it’s not stopping me from writing about food – quite the opposite. As a vegan, I know that food and all the issues that go with it are right there at the centre of my life. Veganism isn’t about sacrificing enjoyment for the sake of a principle (though there are people like that out there). I believe it is possible to be a vegan who loves food, and I believe vegan food can be not only healthy and sustaining, but delicious and completely satisfying on every level. More than that, I think there is scope for vegan food to bring people with a wide variety of dietary preferences together around the dinner table, and as long as we all enjoy the food, that’s got to be a good thing.
Author: Jane Hughes Email: firstname.lastname@example.org