It’s been 55 days since I last ate meat. It was chicken, part of an improvisation on Mexican pozole that I had made for Halloween. As I was cooking the pozole, I hadn’t planned on it being my last dish with meat, but somewhere between pulling the giant pot of finished soup off the stove and slurping down the last helping a few days later, something inside me had changed and I knew that meat on my meal plate had become a thing of the past. And it didn’t stop there.
For years, I have been interested in understanding more about where our food comes from… how it is raised and grown, harvested, and ultimately, brought to the marketplace. Perhaps my interest was influenced by my Peace Corps experience, as coming home to huge, brightly-lit supermarkets was a bit of a shock, their existence long forgotten after living off of locally-grown seasonal fruits and vegetables and meat, dairy, and eggs harvested in my neighbors’ own backyards. Reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation confirmed that I wasn’t missing much, making my own meals at home.
I returned from my two years in Bulgaria in 2004 to a world I hadn’t known – or had perhaps ignored- before: Fresh Fields had become Whole Foods Market, and anything with an organic label was ultra-trendy… and well beyond my post-Peace Corps budget. I had learned to cook while I was away, and Food Network was my new favorite TV channel. Rachael Ray was gaining popularity, and I learned a lot from her about cooking easy, nutritious meals with whole-food ingredients.
As I began my new job and my budget gained a little bit of flexibility, I started making room in my monthly expenses for organic fruits and vegetables. I went to my local farmers’ market and came home with fresh, locally grown foods that perhaps weren’t as shiny and photogenic as the waxy produce offerings at Safeway, but they sure tasted great. I gradually expanded my reach into the world of what I believed to be ethical eating, with cage-free eggs and grass-fed beef. For Thanksgiving that year, I hosted some friends at my apartment and proudly presented them with a locally raised, free-range turkey (and arrogantly criticized my mother for not doing the same… sorry, Mom).
It wasn’t long before I was spending a large portion of my paycheck on food. I wasn’t saving much, and my apartment was small, but I was eating well. I didn’t own a car, and had started riding my bike – sometimes even running – to work a few days a week. It was great exercise and it was a lot more relaxing than the crowded metro. I began to think of myself as an environmentalist. I thought I was doing all the right things.
A few years later, when I moved to Minnesota, I even grew my own food. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes… I hardly had to buy any vegetables at all during the summer months. When I did shop, I was selective in what I bought, shopping either at the local co-op or scoffing at the Tyson chicken in favor of the organic, hormone-free, cage-free “happy” chicken that cost three times the price at the regular grocery store. Still, I thought I was doing it right.
As the years passed, I stumbled upon the work of Michael Pollan, through his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the documentary Food, Inc. That was, admittedly, the first time I had ever really considered that understanding where our food comes from doesn’t stop at knowing which foods have pesticides and hormones and which do not. I hadn’t ever stopped to consider – really consider – the issue of animal welfare. Free-range and cage-free and grass-fed all sounded like good things to me, and of course I wasn’t so obtuse as to not realize that animals were being slaughtered to end up on my dinner plate… but what I hadn’t thought about were the lives of these animals, and what they experienced while being raised for food. I turned the other cheek, preferring not to know that side of the story.
Without much knowledge on the subject, the idea of becoming vegetarian or – gasp! – even vegan was completely foreign to me. It was something that other people did, but not me. Some of my friends were vegetarians, and though they seemed perfectly happy and healthy, giving up meat didn’t seem like something I could or would ever do. Even though I wasn’t a meat-at-every-meal kind of person, it was hard for me to imagine every meal without meat. I didn’t want to be that person whom everyone talked about at big family gatherings and I didn’t want to be someone with a diet restriction. Basically, it came down to the matter of convenience… and I didn’t want to be an inconvenience, nor did I want to be inconvenienced. Also, I genuinely liked chicken. And steak. And, despite my sort-of Muslim background, even bacon.
Over the last year, without really realizing it, my cooking had become less focused on meat and more so on flavor and experimenting with different cuisines and spices. I had started to add things like turmeric and coconut oil to different dishes, and met vanilla bean paste for the first time. M. and I experimented with an eating plan he had learned about through cross-fit. It was a close cousin of the paleo diet, but the idea of eating a lot of meat and no grains was off-putting to me, especially as a runner. Everything in moderation, I’d say. It was a mantra that usually worked for me.
Then, last spring, I made a new friend who is also an ultra runner. We went out for coffee one day, and when I offered to buy her a hot chocolate, she explained to me that she was vegan. Huh, I remember thinking. Interesting. She told me about a documentary, Forks Over Knives, which explains, with compelling research, the health benefits of a plant-based diet. She had watched the film three years earlier and had been a vegan ever since. This was especially interesting to me given her ability to run very long distances, and run them well, on a plant-based diet. Sure, I knew about Scott Jurek, arguably one of the greatest ultra runners of all time, who eats a plant-based diet, but here was a woman in front of me, about my age, singing the praises of running long on a vegan diet. She got me thinking that day.
It was a while before I watched the film myself, and it left an impression on me. Still, I felt that I could be healthy and strong on my current diet… a little less sugar, perhaps, but otherwise, everything seemed OK. I’d gotten to a point where I felt that I could, finally, live without meat, and had begun to eat less of it. But eggs? Milk? Butter? Cheese? No way. It seemed impossible. Boring. Dull. Why would I ever want to be so restrictive? How would I socialize and go out for meals, or worse, go to someone’s home after being invited for dinner, only to say, sorry, I can’t eat that. Never mind that the baker in me could never handle it.
And then, a couple of days after Halloween this year, I got an email. It came from a group of forward-thinking students at my school who encouraged me, as well as a few other teachers and students, to watch a video. They included the link in the email, but nothing else. No title, no description, not a single clue as to what the video was about. I clicked on it and saw immediately that it was over an hour long. It was a Monday night, I had just sat down with a bowl of leftover chicken pozole and I had a lot of work to do. I almost dismissed it it when I saw how long it was, but still not knowing what it was about, I was curious. So I watched. Five minutes passed, then ten, and before I knew it, I had watched the whole thing, and my cheeks were stained with tears. My pozole had gotten cold, and I couldn’t finish it. The video was a talk given by animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky. I had never heard of him. He spoke about the horrors of the agriculture industry when it comes to animal welfare. And though I thought- and still think- he was overly aggressive and judgmental in his delivery, his message got me thinking. Really thinking this time. It was the spark that I needed- the one I think I had been waiting for all along – to make a change.
I spent the next couple of days watching more documentaries and reading more about how animals raised for food are treated, and it began to make me sick. Call it what you will, propaganda or otherwise, what I saw and read affected me enormously. I saw baby chicks thrown out – alive – in the daily garbage; calves pulled away from their mothers fewer than 24 hours after birth so that the cows’ milk could be produced for human consumption; chickens de-beaked and bulls de-horned and castrated, often without any anesthesia; and baby piglets cramped in spaces so small that their mothers could barely nurse them.
I felt devastated, learning all of this. And though it was difficult to stomach, no matter how hard I wanted to avert my eyes, I forced myself to read and to watch. I felt I had a responsibility to know where my food was coming from. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What’s more, I couldn’t believe the eyes of these animals. That was the pivotal moment for me. Seeing the animals’ eyes, windows to their souls. They didn’t look any different from my own dog’s eyes, so deep and communicative. It was then that I knew I was done. Done with meat. Done with milk and with butter. Done with eggs. And yes, done even with cheese.
When I explained all of this to M., I was not expecting him to react the way he did. He, too, had lived his whole life a meat-eater, and though he liked vegetables, he didn’t quite love them the way I did. But, to my surprise- shock, even – he immediately committed to making a change, which in reality, is a complete overhaul of our lives when it comes to food and other products like wool, leather, and down.
Together, as we gradually used up the last of our butter, eggs, and cheese, feeling it would be wasteful and in vain to throw them away, we read and learned more, becoming equal parts heartbroken in what we learned about (lack of) animal welfare in agriculture and inspired by a whole world of plant-based foods, many of which were new to us. What shocked us most was learning that the organic and free-range labels displayed so proudly on so many items don’t necessarily mean a lot when it comes to how animals are treated. Even animals raised organically who enjoy a glorious life outdoors roaming pastures, may spend their final days in a cramped, filthy factory slaughterhouse before ending up in our supermarkets. This, and many other similar details were horrifying to me. All of those years, thinking I was doing it right, when really, I’d had no idea. I felt like a fool. And I didn’t want to be part of it anymore.
We also learned about the environmental impact of factory farming , which, combined with the matter of animal welfare and the health-benefits of a plant-based diet, strengthened the case for becoming vegan. Although it is a big transition for us, and we are still learning a lot, we have enjoyed experimenting with new foods and creating our own culinary masterpieces. Best of all, with a bit of creativity, they are far from boring and dull.
Animal products are prevalent in so many foods and other items, and as much as we’ve been trying to avoid them, our efforts haven’t been perfect. And then there is the matter of dog food. At this time, we are a bit too anxious about putting Frieda on a vegan diet because her needs are different from ours, but we have found that mixing her meat-based dog food with a plant-based dog food and some fresh vegetables is a good balance. Our goal is to minimize our impact, so we are trying to do that as well as we can.
I thought that making this change would be more difficult than it has been, and though we generally need more time to plan our meals and have to be a bit more thoughtful in ensuring that we are getting all of the nutrients we need, I find myself wishing I had made this change a long time ago. The baker in me has certainly not run into any roadblocks, as I have been able to make all of my favorite sweets – even for Christmas – with plant-based ingredients.
Although we’ve experienced a bit of skepticism from others here and there, most people have been very supportive of our shift… something for which we are very grateful. We went out on a limb and hosted a plant-based Thanksgiving this year, which was perhaps not the best occasion to experiment with all things new, but it was a success and got me out of the mindset that Thanksgiving has to involve a turkey. And while I still don’t want be that person with the weird, self-imposed diet restriction, or worse, give the impression that I am trying to proselytize anyone else, making this change hasn’t been inconvenient, and it hasn’t felt like a sacrifice. I feel better, strong in body and in spirit, and for that reason, I know it’s the right thing for me. It just took me a while to get here.
Thank you for reading!
If you’d like to read more about animal welfare and the environmental impact of industrial farming, here are some resources.