February 9, 2007

Tradition vs. Veganism

Posted in family, happiness, vegan at 1:38 pm by nevavegan

In many ways I feel strangely qualified to address the issue of how we can honor and uphold family traditions while still being vegan. I grew up in a family with farming roots, my father and grandfather hunted. My great grandfather made his original money, the seed money for his hardware store, off of cock fighting. Which in a way makes my very existence now dependent on cruel cock fights that took place 90 years ago or more.

When I first decided that I had to become a vegetarian my mother felt I was turning my back on my heritage. Much moaning and wailing ensued. Apparently she felt I was rejecting her values and giving up everything that made our family unique. I’ve heard similar statements from others, like “I would go vegan, but I’m descended from farmers; it’s part of who I am.”

Another weird logical trap I’ve seen people fall into is the “I wouldn’t be here” trap. For example, “if it weren’t for dairy farming, my grandparents would have starved, and I would never have been born. So it can’t be wrong.” But the wonderful thing about becoming vegan today is that it is only a commitment from this day forward to try to live with compassion toward animals and practice a more environmentally sound diet. I don’t own a time machine and I’m not going back in time to wipe your grandparents or mine off the face of the earth. I’m only talking about the choices we make right now, today, and how those choices affect the world around us.

I don’t want to take a revisionist view of history; I’m not going condemn my departed family members for having eaten meat. I like to think that if they’d been exposed to the idea of veganism they would have tried it, but I don’t know that for certain. What I can know is that while what I choose to eat is an important ethical decision for me, for my ancestors it was largely a matter of convenience and availability, not an issue of conscience. This gives me a lot of wiggle room to honor tradition and keep in touch with my heritage while still being vegan. I just pick and choose the traditions to keep. Amazingly, I’ve realized that’s what everyone does, vegan or not.

For example, I cook and eat black eyed peas and collard greens every year for New Year’s day. This is a long standing tradition in my family and in most families from the Southern United States. It is a tradition about abundance, simple foods, warmth and sharing, and it encompasses our hopes for the coming year. My great grandmother cooked hers with bacon grease, I cook mine with olive oil and herbs, but still every year when I cook them I think of her and my great uncles as I stir the pot.

I was closest to one of my great uncles and I’ve found a couple of important traditions that I can honor in his memory. First of all, he loved dogs and never had less than ten dogs at any given time as far as I know. Many of his dogs simply showed up at his door begging for food and stayed. He wasn’t wealthy, but since there were never any puppies or any fights, it seems he got them all altered. One of his dogs he found trapped in a leghold trap while hiking in the woods. He freed her and carried her home and from then on she was the most pampered of his dogs. So even though my great uncle would never have thought to protest anything, when I protest or write letter against leghold traps I’m honoring his belief that they were cruel and should be outlawed. When I rescue homeless animals I’m honoring his compassion and generosity. When I educate people on companion animal care or push for spay/neuter programs I’m honoring his devotion to canines.

But you don’t have to have a leghold trap-hating great uncle to honor family traditions. For most of us our compassion for non-human animals didn’t come out of thin air. We had family members who liked cats or dogs for example, or a nature-loving aunt, or whatever. We simply built on the values expressed by those family members and took them to the logical conclusion given the world we live in, that exploitation must end and compassion is the ultimate goal.

Like I said, everyone picks and choose the family traditions they follow. My very own mother, who thought my veganism was turning away from my heritage, hid from me the fact that many of my older relatives were avid tarot card readers. That was a tradition my mother didn’t like, but it sits fine with me. A lot of my ancestors made their way through prison at one time or another, a tradition that my parents, grandparents, and my siblings and I have all turned away from. Though my parents felt hunting was a great family tradition, nobody was proud of the cockfighting done by my great grandfather; they considered it low class and degrading. When it comes to food though, I think my grandfather said it best of all.

“When I was little my momma would send me down to the creek with a bucket of pig intestines, cause she didn’t want to wash them by the house. It was awful. I had to wash and wash them in the creek, all the while trying to keep the sand out of them. I’ll never forget that smell. Finally I’d take them home and she’d put them in a pot with seasoning and cook them all day long to make chitlins. When I grew up I moved out of the South and joined the Air Force and I’m never going to have to eat chitlins again in my life and nobody can make me eat them.”

Interestingly enough though, chitlins were not a favorite, cherished recipe carried here from the old country. They were an effort by our ancestors to not waste anything and to make use of every resource available to them, even if it was distasteful. Perhaps the tradition to honor is this case is the frugality and creativity that led our forbearers to make this Southern dish, and not the dish itself. As we’re faced with unprecedented strains on our environment, maybe the take home message is “make do with less and waste nothing.”

We all pick the traditions we’d like to keep; it’s not so hard to pick the compassionate ones to honor and keep.



  1. Scott Hughes said,

    Luckily, I didn’t come from a tradional family. So, when I became a vegan I didn’t have the same problem. Nonetheless, I can see the issue. I don’t practice, but my mother is Jewish. But, veganism would be good for that since all vegan food is kosher. Thanks!

  2. Gary said,

    Thanks for an excellent post.

    Variations on the “Veganism is wrong (or ‘unnatural’) because since my ancestors would not be here without meat” excuse are just defense mehanisms, borne from expediency, fear, and self-protection, not logic.

    I’m sure many families survived using slave labor or child labor or other practices that we now recognize as unethical and that in many cases have been banned. Furthermore, the constraints and technologies that existed in past generations are significantly different than those that exist today. Just look at the grocery store shelves: a wide variety of fruits and vegetables all year round, veggie bacon and ground beef that in recipes is virtually indistinguishable from its animal-derived counterparts, etc. A hundred years ago they didn’t have pleather, non-dairy cream cheese, convenient soy- and rice-milk, high-quality faux fur, and a myriad of other vegan products.

    Just because a practice may have been used – or even necessary – in the past does not justify its perpetual use. We must ethically choose and govern our behaviors based on the time and place in which we exist.

    We can advocate veganism in the developed world today because it’s possible and in most cases not very difficult. The biggest barriers are not practical but in the mind. As you point out, it’s relatively easy to modify traditions so that they do not depend on inflicting suffering and untimely death. Kindness is a wonderful tradition also.

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