July 12, 2007

Realigning Values

Posted in vegan, veganism at 6:16 pm by nevavegan

Another blogger I read made a post recently about how to react when people fall off the vegan wagon and why eating animal products might be really tempting to some people. She said that some vegans say that all animal products are disgusting to them, but some of us still might like the taste and smell of meat and cheese, or the look of fur and leather.

In my experience there are far more vegans who love the taste of animal products than don’t. That’s probably why there are so many fake meat and soy cheese products out there. We gave them up because we realized they represented suffering and death to creatures who felt pain, had emotions, and were more like us than most care to admit.

I’ve been vegan a long time now. I always say that, like it’s an excuse I guess. I love fake meats, but I’m not all about the fake meats, I like vegetable dishes too. I like to enjoy lots of flavors, textures, and colors in my meals.

When I see the entire dead carcass of an animal it does disgust and upset me, for example the entire pigs hanging in windows in China Town, or an entire turkey on the table for Thanksgiving. But the thing I see mainly when I look at those things is not something that turns my stomach because of a bad smell or the look of decay, but I see the dead body of a tortured living creature and it makes me sad.

I’ve also found after all these years that I’m far less squeamish than the average meat eater. I’ve cleaned up the dead bodies of so many animals killed by cars in my neighborhood because nobody else would do it. I’ve held and comforted animals with open oozing sores or obvious disease. I’ve held the hands of sick people as they struggled to breathe. I’ve cleaned up vomit and blood and diarrhea. I can do those things because my life isn’t ruled by disgust, so clearly nausea wasn’t the reason I became vegan.

What I did was give up something I wanted because I had an ethical problem with it. It was a decision that at first I made grudgingly, thinking mainly of what I was giving up. But on the other side of that decision I found that what I had given up never meant to me what I thought it did. I thought my life would feel somehow less, that I would feel deprived, and I did go through an adjustment period where I sadly turned my back on my favorite foods. But ultimately I found that my life is just as good if not better without animal products in it.

Some of the things we give up we simply replace with reasonable analogs—there are veggie burgers, fake chicken nuggets, superb vegan sausage, and lunch “meats” galore. For the woman who always wanted a fur coat, it’s really hard to tell the fake from the real now. Vegan shoes can look like leather, as can vegan jackets. For some stuff there’s no good substitute. There isn’t a rare, bloody, grilled vegan steak as far as I know. There’s decent vegan cheese, but not wonderful vegan cheese.

So we go without those things because our ethics take precedence over our taste buds in those cases.

What is not replicated in vegan products is the prestige associated with certain animal products. People who choose real fur over fake fur likely do it because real fur is a luxury product, seen as something possessed only by the rich and important. No matter how great your homestyle tofu tastes, it doesn’t give the “I’m at the top” feel that ordering lobster or one of those new “designer” steaks gives. These products tell others that we not only have money to burn but we feel we’re important enough to indulge every luxury for ourselves. The message of vegan foods is that we care, and some people don’t find that message appealing.

Food is all tied up emotionally with self image, our concepts of masculinity and femininity, and our concepts of what defines rank and value in our culture. Think of how movies and tv shows rely on the stereotypes surrounding food to define character. Open with the restaurant scene and we think we already know a lot about the characters by what they order. Here’s the guy who orders the steak, there’s the woman who only orders salad, compare her with the woman who gets the cheeseburger and chocolate cake. Who is fun? Who is alive? Who is sexual? Who has power and authority in this scene?

For many people these concepts operate on a subconscious level and they follow certain scripts for reasons they don’t understand. Maybe they think it’s ok for a woman to be vegetarian but think it’s kind of un-masculine. Maybe they accept the vegan guy, but expect him to be sensitive, a good listener, and into emo rock, so they’re shocked when he’s vegan, but plays football on the weekends, is kind of abrupt in conversation, and listens to country music. When we don’t understand the reasons why we believe these things they hold us back from seeing the whole picture.

The whole picture is that vegans are just like everyone else. They work all types of jobs. Some vegans are assertive go-getters, some are quiet and work at the library. Some are glamorous, some are sci-fi geeks. Some are rude and some are sweet. Some are athletic, some aren’t. Vegans come from every culture, every race, every background. They are like everyone else, except that once their eyes were opened to where the flesh on their plates came from, they changed their actions to fit their ethics.

In a more general way when we hang onto expectations and stereotypes that we picked up in childhood they can hurt us in ways we don’t even understand. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about this outside the realm of veganism.

I knew a young woman who said that she always expected, mainly because of tv, movies, and her parents’ expectations, that she would grow up and marry a wealthy man, probably a doctor, in a big elaborate wedding and move into a large suburban house. Instead she fell in love with a skinny, scraggly, starving artist who worked at a bakery for his day job. So she made a choice between childhood expectations based on the happiness she thought material things would bring, and the person she loved. Naturally she chose love. Not that it’s always easy or smooth, but when we allow experience to realign our values to the things that matter we increase our chances of happiness. By that I don’t mean making the tough choice and then resenting the path you take because you can’t “have it all.” I mean we realize that having a loving and understanding mate is important, while having a big house was some kind of foggy dream. Sure we might like that house, might even dream of it when we’re living in a tiny apartment, but we also understand that there are people living in huge houses who feel trapped and depressed. Because things are enjoyable and nice, and at the same time they tie us down, and don’t solve the other problems in our lives. In other words, which makes you happier: the size of the house or the person you share it with?

Likewise we might decide against the huge house for ethical reasons. Maybe the builders drained a wetland and killed or displaced all the wildlife there to build huge energy-guzzling homes. Maybe we don’t want to support that. We might decide against a diamond ring because we don’t like the exploitation of African workers in most diamond mining operations, and because we fear we might wind up with a conflict diamond that cost children and maybe entire villages their lives. So we weigh the thing we think we want with our ethics and in the process hopefully come to understand that diamonds or houses don’t bring happiness. Despite all the marketing that says diamonds are forever, half of all marriages fail anyway—the stone isn’t the magical formula for love after all. That doesn’t mean you won’t still think diamonds are pretty or won’t think big houses look impressive. It just means you find the path that works for you and understand that there is peace in making the ethical decision.

Likewise, steak won’t make you happy. Well ok, maybe it will while you’re eating it. So would a vegan brownie though. But in the long run, what do you remember more: the meals you ate or the people you shared them with. Which do you remember more: the exact ingredients you put in your cooking or the love and care you invested in it. You might still love the smell of cooking meat, you might miss it from time to time. But you aren’t just denying yourself something you want, you are also getting so many things back in return for your effort.

It’s difficult to realign our values. Our society tells us to have, to consume, to own. It’s hard to step back from the things we were told we needed, the things we were told would measure our worth in the world. But if we know ourselves we know our worth is not in the clothing we wear, the jewelry or the designer names. We know we are not measured by the car we drive. We also can’t be diminished by our efforts to do good, and giving up foods that we associate with status or comfort because they conflict with our ethics means we are living our own values, not someone else’s.



  1. Isa said,

    This especially resonates “I found that what I had given up never meant to me what I thought it did.” They say that nostalgia is remembering things the way you wished they were. Our tastebuds have memories, too. In fact I sometimes think that our tastebuds have an entire life of their own.

    Most of us grew up on meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs or something equally disturbing. But giving up those foods doesn’t mean that the memories associated with them are gone forever. And sometimes those memories weren’t even as great as we make them out to be. Of course, I’m just speaking about the emotional attachments we have to meat and dairy, not the “foody” adult inclinations that we develop, that’s a whole nother animal.

    When I cook, I often think of the phrase “foods I wish I grew up with.” My lentil sloppy joes (or snobby joes, as I call them) are just as comforting as any nostalgic memory, and even more so because it’s creating new memories.

    But back to the ethics of tastebuds. Most foods are an accquired taste, depending on what culture you grew up in. You often hear people say “You don’t crave broccoli they way I crave steak.” But they’re wrong. I do. I have a visceral craving for seared broccoli with olive oil, maybe some garlic. For a long time I didn’t want to give up smoked mozzarella, I was probably as adamant about not giving it up as any omnivore is about their sushi or hamburgers or whatever. And then the more I cooked vegan the less and less I craved the things I “couldn’t give up.” My tastebuds caught up with my ethics. To be honest, I wasn’t even trying.

    So I sympathize when people say “I could never give up blue cheese!” or whatever. I say, okay, so don’t. Cook everything vegan except for said item. Keep educating yourself and following your heart, because your tastebuds are tricky little bastards but they will follow. And I think that’s the part that would-be vegans don’t get, that practically every single one of us thought the same thing at first, but we’ve changed and it actually does get not just easy, but completely natural. Cravings are no longer even a blip on the radar.

    Just as a side note, I love your blog and have been reading it for awhile. Of course I only chime in when it’s about food.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks so much Isa. I’m a huge fan of your blog, your book, and your cupcakes.

    Thanks for your comments. It’s a strange thing. I grew up in a hunting and farming family, so when I say I grew up eating (and sadly enjoying) animals that I also love, I really mean it. I loved our ducks and chickens. I rescue rabbits, but as a child I ate them. I ate geese and deer. So my ethical/values realignment was fairly radical in terms of no longer eating certain foods. In another way my values changed very little as I’d always loved animals, only now I was acting in accordance with that love.

    That’s so cool to think about foods you wish you’d grown up with! It is completely possible to have “comfort foods” that are still vegan and still healthy.

    I think vegans do crave veggies–for me it’s greens of various kinds. But people who really orient around meat probably crave animal foods more, as they associate them more with comfort and affluence.

    Different people adjust to veganism differently. Tons of people have told me they did it gradually. I did too–I was vegetarian for a while before becoming vegan. Yet I’ve also had a lot of people tell me they went vegan overnight. But no matter which way they did it most have said that while they might still have a nostalgia for certain foods they now love and appreciate some vegan foods they’d never even tried before. So our taste buds do adjust!

    For me I sometimes still do think about foods like animal-based pizza, but I have to wonder if it would still taste good to me. I’ve been eating my cheeseless, overflowing with veggie pizzas so long now and I love them. Though everyone loves them…. When my work had a pizza party people said they thought a cheeseless pizza wouldn’t be good, but when mine got here I had to fight to get any of it while the other pizzas weren’t finished. People were saying “I didn’t know it would look, smell, and taste so good! I thought cheese was the main ingredient in pizza, but look at all those mushrooms!” So the cheese-addicted liked it anyway, it was more of a mental hang up, having trouble imagining a pizza without cheese.

  3. jen said,

    “values” is such an ambiguous word. i have no idea what my values are or if i even have values. now that i’ve been vegan for so long, the truth is, i rarely think about WHY i’m vegan anymore. intellectually, i still think it is wrong to exploit animals for food, but i also think it is wrong to buy items made in sweatshops and to make unnecessary trips in the car, and i still do both of those things. there are many things i do every day that i intellectually think are wrong. while being vegan is easy to me, the prospect of not ever buying anything made in a sweatshop or living in dc without cranking up the AC seem impossible to me, in the way that i expect veganism seems impossible to many omnis.

    i guess i’m a very typical american in some ways. maybe it’s “compartmentalization” like Isa says, or maybe it’s just being self absorbed. i’m not wracked with guilt about what an inconsistent environmentalist or human rights advocate i am. to the extent that i do consume animal products (for instance, both my cat and dog eat meat-based food) i don’t feel bad or worry about the animals i’m hurting. i’m comfortable with how i live my life. but for whatever reason — self-absorbtion and/or compartmentalism aside — i still choose to be a pretty strict vegan. it’s weird if you think about it.

    anyway, i guess that’s why i’m sympathetic to people who know it’s wrong to eat animals yet who don’t go completely vegan or “fall off the wagon.”

  4. Isa said,

    Oh about cheese on pizza, yes, if I see someone eating cheese on pizza I don’t crave it, but I do think “Hot damn, someone had better make a melty vegan cheese toot sweet!” I think it’ll happen.

    When my room mate went to Italy many years ago when I was just going vegan (for the second time!) she came back telling me how much I would love it because cheese on pizza isn’t all that common. It was more about the dough, sauce, olive oil and a handful of fresh toppings.

    I love to hear about all the different ways people go vegan. I’m especially fascinated with overnighters that stick with it.

  5. Neva Vegan said,

    Ok, I guess I need to redefine what I mean by values. I mean literally the things in our lives we place value on. Any time we hold something up as an end in and of itself, then I have to ask why we do that. Why do we hold this as more valuable than that thing. Then ultimately, is relying on that as a value actually beneficial to us.

    Not to harp on diamonds, but it’s kind of easy, so don’t take this personally if you like diamonds… But… I’ve known a great many women that were really intent on getting a diamond engagement ring. Others also wanted diamond earrings, diamond anniversary rings, etc. The diamond industry put a big push on this to associate diamonds with love, and moreover, lasting love. Then they figured they were missing out on selling to single women so they came up with the diamond-encrusted “right hand ring.”

    When I’ve asked friends why they want a diamond, particularly in times when it’s a source of distress (ie we want a big engagement ring but money is really tight right now), they give me reasons that essentially boil down to “they always pictured the perfect ring as part of their dream of the perfect wedding, and perfect husband, and perfect marriage.” Ok, some give a secondary reason that it’s an investment, but it seriously isn’t. It’s very hard to re-sell a diamond ring if you don’t want it anymore, and as a jeweler I’ve come to realize that if I wanted to work with diamonds I could pick up second hand ones (still set) and take them apart and use them more cheaply than I could buy loose stones. Um, I don’t use diamonds…

    Anyway… the point I was getting to is that you have someone who always wanted a diamond and not just any diamond but a really nice large one. So, do we then really say that our relationships are so fragile and our marriages such a house of cards, that if you pull one card, the perfect engagement ring, the whole thing collapses on us. Likewise, is it really, except in terms of prestige, so different to go get a ring in the size, shape, color you desire, only set with a CZ instead? And if you have friends who will really be awful to you and look down on you over that decision, what kind of friends are they?

    Anyway, I do understand what you’re saying with regard to the other things we do. I try to drive very little, but I still do drive. When I was in NYC I could do my grocery shopping on foot, but I can’t here. We do run the AC, and yet we try not to run it too much (I end up sweating while cleaning for example) though we also run the AC for the animals. They’d be miserable without it and some have chronic health issues and so it’s not good for them to get too hot. Could I do better? I could do so, so, so much better in so many ways. However, living where we do and in this culture it’s seriously easier to be vegan than it is to not drive or live without AC. Sure I could move to the city and get by without a car (although there’s always some need for transportation), but Sean’s and my work are both out here, etc.

    It’s hard we all make really tough choices I guess. One thing I always go back to though is that I’m such an unlikely vegan that I really do feel that if I could do it anyone could. I loved non-vegan foods, the same as anyone else. I was indoctrinated into a farming/hunting mindset. So I have sympathy for people who are having a rough time or fall off the wagon. But when someone says to me “You don’t understand I just can’t give up X” Well I feel like I’ve totally been there and I did give it up and eventually I didn’t even really miss it.

  6. Neva Vegan said,

    Yeah, when I went to Italy that was the best pizza I ever had and it was called pizza marinara. The best brick oven crust, everything fresh, tomatoes olive oil, this really tasty kind of salt (sea salt?), fresh basil… Mmmmmm.

    I think that some overnighters stick with being vegan, maybe even most. Some people I knew who did it gradually and were even really into AR for a while quit and went back to eating McDonalds. I guess there are different people and different personalities so different methods work with them.

    But I’m not sure it’s the “tasty food” that makes people quit always. Sometimes it’s burn out and depression. Also it’s just so easy to quit–you can just blend right in with the larger society and the only people who are disappointed are your few vegan friends and they’re easy enough to avoid… Well my friend who quit managed to avoid me for months at a time and then just ate vegan when he was around me–it was a different mutual friend who told me that B was eating McDonalds now and no longer “on the wagon.” Sigh.

  7. Isa said,

    Vegans are always talking about this, but I think it would be really productive (and, ok, fun) to do a study of why people go vegan, how they went vegan and what makes them stay vegan. Vegan census. Face to face. So much of what we know is anectodal, which counts, but it would just be nice to see actual numbers and collect actual data.

    I think the same thing about ex-vegans, I always want to put up an internet poll (hardly scientific, I know) about why they quit. I think you are right about burn out and depression.

  8. Neva Vegan said,

    I’ve actually been saying for some time that we need a good vegan census, but we would need to design it intelligently, because sometimes people themselves are not entirely aware of their own motivations.

    To pick on myself for example, I always say that I went vegetarian for environmental concerns, and then later went vegan for the animals, after seeing lots of horrible pictures and so on.

    However, nobody is ever influenced by just one factor. Sean had asked if I would be vegan today if my parents had not raised and slaughtered chickens and ducks. At first I said that it was a huge thing for me to overcome, because I had been taught that it was right to kill animals, and unlike some other people I always understood that meat came from animals–I thought it was natural, a food chain, the cycle of life. However, growing up with chickens and ducks did teach me that they’re intelligent, beautiful, loving creatures, so that probably did factor in somewhere.

    Likewise a friend of mine said that she was not convinced to become vegan from leaflets showing animals being killed. She felt grossed out by them and tried to forget them. Later when she was exposed to lots of good vegan food she became vegan. But you can’t necessarily say the leaflets were ineffective because we don’t know if she would have become vegan later without being introduced to the concepts in that way.

    Anyway I am helping with the launch of a new vegan website (I know, there are a ton of them already, but this one won’t be collecting money and I hope to get some ideas out there that won’t be covered on the Peta site or the HSUS site). One of my big inspirations over the past week of planning is my desire to do a regular feature called “Vegan on the Street” interview which would be a short interview with a regular vegan. They’d give vastly different views, but rather than being about the celebrity leaders of the movement, I’d talk to all kinds of people of all ages about why they’re vegan, what it’s like for them to be vegan, AND what they like best about being vegan. I think it could be really supportive to vegans who feel like “this is just harder for me” and it also might teach us a few things about effective outreach.

  9. vko said,

    This is such a great post with such great commentary that I’m not sure I have anything to add.

    What I do know is that going vegan just kind of happened for me because sadly, I was not properly educated about dairy, so the whole time I was vegetarian (which occurred after reading Fast Food Nation because I was disturbed by what actually went into meat)- I still never let myself make the connection with anything else, especially fur because I had loved it so much. Then on late night tv, I saw an anti-fur commercial with a mink in a cage. There was fear & sadness in the mink’s eyes and I realized how easily that could be my kitty. Now it horrifies me.

    That was my first epiphany. Then many years later, still vegetarian & fur-free, but still happily eating dairy, I was tired all the time & I decided to do a juice fast. In preparation for that, I started going raw & cutting out the dairy. I felt so great after my fast that I was in no rush to eat any animal product anytime soon.

    Well, it’s been a year & about three months and in that time, I have learned so much about the dairy industry that it makes me ill to think that I could have enjoyed cheese & ice cream for as long as I did. Now that I know all that I do, I can’t ever imagine eating any meat or dairy again. Apparently, I cringe when I see people eating meat- or so I’ve been told. It’s a visceral, gut-feeling for me because when I see the meat or the cheese, I automatically see images of the factory farmed animals suffering and it makes me so irreconcilably sad.

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