Vegan. It conjures up mental images of tall, lanky people with dreadlocks in earnest earth-tone hemp clothing, doesn’t it? Or a deranged PETA protester throwing paint on some dowager’s prized fur coat. Or perhaps the dour acquaintance with the pinched face who never seems to have any fun at office parties. (How could she? She can’t eat anything!)
Vegan is definitely not a word that I expected to be associated with, personally.
My steak is barely too rare if it’s mooing, I only gave my silver fox fur away because I got too fat for it and I noticed a long, long time ago that I have pointy canine teeth and that my eyes face forward. Also, I look horrible with dreadlocks.
But I am sick and tired of being unhealthy. I am sick and tired of my husband not feeling 100%. And I would definitely love to live long enough to read to grandchildren at my knee, some twenty or thirty years from now.
So our family is embarking on a new learning experience; we are becoming “mostly” vegan, which so far doesn’t feel like “mostly” dead, surprisingly.
The goal is to eat only a small percentage of animal protein – from eggs, from cheese, from meat. The hope is that by doing this, we can escape our addiction to unhealthy foods.
My husband calls me “squeak, squeak” - affectionately, of course – in honor of my love for cheese of all types. Most staples of our weekly “treat” meals – the ones we eat out or prepare on weekends – are basically unhealthy. Huge, stuffed breakfast burritos, groaning with egg and sausage, perfectly cooked steaks, monstrous Sicilian pizzas topped with everything but the kitchen sink, mounds of fajitas, towers of enchiladas.
And a lot of our family entertainment revolves around the kitchen – hosting people for dinner, cooking as a family. We even have one night every week when our eight year old son takes control of the kitchen and cooks under his father’s watchful eye.
It’s culturally engrained in Texans – especially in this part of Texas – that special occasions revolve around cooking and eating some type of meat. Barbeques are one of the most prevalent community fund-raising tactics. In spring and summer, the scent from a thousand cook-outs floats through Lubbock neighborhoods. And sport hunting for meat is a major hobby, one in which my husband and I have participated in the past.
As is the case with most changes, the worst part of going "mostly" vegan is the anticipation of consequences not yet felt: If we start eating vegan, no one will ever want to come eat dinner at our house again. If we go vegan, we won’t be able to eat at any West Texas restaurant. If we go vegan, people are going to think we’ve really gone off the deep end!
Last weekend, we watched the documentary “Forks Over Knives”; I realized while watching the somber scientific analysis - it contains lots of evidence- that I needed to worry less about what people were going to think and more about what our bad habits are doing to our family’s health.
What I’m already beginning to realize, after less than a week eating in this “new” way, is that I don’t have to give up any of the things that matter to me – I just have to change in subtle ways. We’ll still have people over to eat – we’ll make that one of our rare non-vegan nights, or we’ll have a pot luck with a range of things to choose from, or our guests will get to try something new and exciting, like Red Lentil Thai Chili. Holidays will be festive, but they will involve different cookbooks and new recipes to delight and surprise. And there will still be cookouts, it will just be vegetables grilling rather than a tasty cut of meat – most of the time.
Maybe in the process of changing how I eat, the way I think will change too. Being aware of what you’re putting in your mouth comes with more information than I had bargained for. Some of the issues that I care most deeply about – universal health care and the state of medical treatment in the United States today, for example, are tied up inextricably with what Americans eat.
It’s one thing to nod in agreement when Michelle Obama preaches that we must begin eating vegetables, fruits and less processed food. It’s entirely another thing to realize how stacked the deck is for those foods in our convenience-driven, supermarket-supplied era , even if you’re willing and able to spend the required amount of money for something better.
And the mass-market food that we all take for granted uses some technology that, while perhaps not dangerous, is certainly intuitively disgusting. Corpse hair or wood pulp in your bread, anyone? How about some year-long fermented de-oxygenated oranges accompanied by a lovely perfume-designer-created “flavor pak” as your vitamin-C delivering morning orange juice? Or maybe some beaver anal gland for vanilla flavoring?
And why would the companies that rule our world want to change any of this? Food manufacturers lobby hard to make sure that they don't have to disclose to us that "vanilla flavoring" often comes courtesy of a beaver's butt. To a big pharmaceutical company, I am worth much more sick and alive than I am dead, or than I am sick and completely cured. There is no reason in the world that they’d want to help me reverse my high blood pressure, my asthma or my steroid-powered knee. And why would my health insurance company want anything to change either? They prefer the co-pays from doctor’s visits and prescriptions to keep rolling in.
In fact, many health insurance companies, agribusinesses, chemical companies, food manufacturers and pharma companies now have ownership positions in each other; in today’s intermingled, global economy, very few companies confine themselves to one industry anymore.
For example, DuPont Chemical created Solae, which manufactures soy products, such as milk and yogurt; DuPoint also engineers a polymer that replaces casein (the protein normally found in dairy products) in industrial products like brush bristles and paint. Pepsi owns the popular Naked Juice brand and Kellogg owns both Kashi and Morning Star, to name just two interesting corporate relationships between organic food companies and their less-than-organic masters.
Nestle Foods, the world’s largest food company, owns Novartis – you’ve heard of them: they make the ADHD drug Ritalin, among other things. The Mayo Clinic has found that some preservatives and additives can cause ADHD in some children. Guess who makes products containing these very preservatives and additives? If you guessed Nestle, you’re getting the idea.
It can't be coincidence that Michelle Obama’s career before choosing a crusade for better eating habits as her First Lady priority was as a hospital executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
If enough of us changed our eating habits, we just might begin to affect some tiny corner of avery few monolithic companies’ earnings statements. Barring that, if we shun the products made in ways that don’t meet our standards, we might at least force better products onto the shelf.
And in some alternate reality, we might even eventually get our elected representatives to look up from their lobbyist-enriched coffers and bring regulatory standards for the United States food industry into the 21st century.