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The Fervor of the Vegan

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Photo by Iain Farrell/FlickrCC

For some, not eating meat is a lifestyle; for others, it's a religion. I, like most vegetarians, am a member of the lifestyle camp. The religion camp is populated by primarily by vegans--people who choose to give up not just meat but all animal products: eggs, dairy, leather, and a wide range of seemingly innocuous foodstuffs (some kinds of sugar, for example, which use trace amounts of ground animal bone for whitening). The rationale, they'll be happy to tell you, is that animals suffer unduly in the process. It's true.

The logic behind veganism makes perfect sense to me; then again, so does the logic behind giving up all one's possessions for charity and living a life of ascetic minimalism. It's more moral, it's more ethical, and, like most people, it's more than I'm able to do.

I think of vegans the same way I think of Peace Corps volunteers: I'll gladly cheer them on as they make the world a better place, but I'm about as likely to give up dairy as I am to live without electricity in Guiana for a year. I like my air conditioning, I like my pizza. Unfortunately, many vegans don't seem content with this arrangement. Fair or unfair, they've gained quite a reputation as the angry vegetarians--the vegevangelists who have harsh words for meat eaters and, if you seem at all receptive, will give you some literature to read.

For a vegetarian, vegans are a blow to any confidence I feel in my chosen lifestyle. If I really cared about animal welfare, wouldn't I be vegan?

Just before Mark Oppenheimer published his wonderful Slate article on life in a "mixed marriage" (his wife is vegetarian, he is not), he wrote on his personal blog, "Hard to say who will send me more angry mail ... the vegans or the beef lobby." I don't know what the response was, but if his experience was anything like mine, his inbox became Vegan Target Number One.

Vegans are statistically minuscule--about one quarter of one percent of Americans--and can seem most significant for the questions they raise about the rest of us. For a vegetarian like me, they are a blow to any confidence I feel in my chosen lifestyle. If I really cared about animal welfare, wouldn't I be vegan? If I don't have it in myself to live as a vegan, does that make the sacrifice of vegetarianism insignificant in comparison? Worse, does it make me a hypocrite?

The many vegans who emailed me and commented on my last column largely had the tact not to point this out, and they didn't need to. I know all too well about the cruelties of egg and dairy factory farms, cruelties to which, as I pat myself on the back for not eating meat, I continue to contribute every day.

Facing this basic contradiction of vegetarianism made me recognize a weight I'd been carrying ever since I gave up meat: I resent vegans. I resent that their mere, if rare, existence calls attention to the hypocrisy underlying the vegetarianism so central to my daily life.

This made me understand the surprising hostility of some omnivores towards vegetarians, belying an assumption that we think ourselves more moral than the rest. We don't, of course. But everyone's a little insecure about eating factory-farmed products, and, triggered, that insecurity can turn easily to hostility.

My mistake--and the mistake of anyone bothered by the diets of others--is placing an objective value judgment on what a person chooses to eat and not eat.

"I don't like to put a political label to my diet. I eat what I eat," Bryant Terry said recently on NPR. Terry is the author of a book on "vegan soul-food" (a clever, if unintentional, double-entendre). "When we box ourselves in, we can often have an unhealthy relationship with food."

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Photo by (c) Sara Remington

Diet, like any personal choice, is just that--personal, one of many facets through which we interact with the world, compromising as we always must between doing good for others and making life livable for ourselves. Whether we eat meat or dairy or neither, whether we take time to help needy in Guiana or just a needy friend, whether we sacrifice for animals or for strangers or simply for our own family, all choices are legitimate and all lives valid. Live and let live. Eat and let eat.

To bury the hatchet, here are two recipes from Bryant Terry sure to please any dietary lifestyle:
Open-Faced BBQ Tempeh Sandwich with Carrot-Cayenne Coleslaw
Little Potato and Sweet Potato Pancakes