Eating Vegan in a Meaty State
August 17, 2011 2 Comments
As a technical matter, going vegan is easy: Don’t consume anything derived from an animal. I make this claim as a resident of Texas, where everything is bigger, including our taste for meat. But even here in Austin, where a smoldering barbecue shack is always within spitting distance, my decision to avoid all animal-based products has not only been healthier, environmentally friendlier, morally superior, and cheaper, it’s been a breeze.
Yes, going vegan is easy. Staying vegan is much harder.
For vegans, the going gets tough when our personal convictions begin to grate against everyday social conventions: All those dinner parties, vacations, holidays, and other meat-based cultural moments when we’re pressured to compromise our diets for etiquette’s sake.
Every committed vegan has a story about defying meat-centric social events. Mine came when I won an award that came with a healthy cash prize—and a compulsory dinner extravaganza. It was in Dallas, and I was seated at a table with several well-heeled benefactors and (somewhat randomly) the composer Stephen Sondheim. The meal consisted of a slab of bloody steak surrounded by a moat of butter with a few potatoes and green beans swimming in it. Everything on the plate in front of me was, by the standards of veganism, totally verboten; even the beans couldn’t be salvaged. But this meal was for me. And all these generous and well-intentioned people wanted me to enjoy it.
It was, in a word, awkward.
At the dinner in Dallas, I explained in the politest terms possible that I choose not to eat animal products, then launched into lively conversation for the duration of the meal. I had my hotel send up a vegan pizza later that evening.
My path toward veganism began several years ago when, in researching a book on sustainable food, I became more well-acquainted with the environmental arguments against animal agriculture. These compelling ecological justifications, with a boost from a borderline-high cholesterol reading, drove me to embrace a kind of pragmatic—read, lazy—veganism. I ate that way for about a year, cheating vegan principles when it was convenient to cheat and staying true to vegan principles when it was convenient to stay true. The effort was enough to steady my cholesterol reading while keeping the social awkwardness to a minimum.
My real vegan epiphany came later. When I came around to the idea that no animal should suffer to satisfy my palate, I pledged to stick to a vegan diet no matter how awkward the social situation in which I found myself. Today, I survive—and often thrive—as a vegan by adhering to strategies that, if they work in Texas, can work anywhere.
Here are four lessons I’ve learned from living vegan in America’s meatiest state:
Challenge the chef. When confronted with a flesh-heavy menu at a decent restaurant, I ask the waitperson to ask the chef to prepare for me the finest vegan meal he can. I usually end up with the best entree at the table. Chefs have egos. And they relish a challenge.
Persuade the chef. A related tactic is to persuade a particular restaurant that it needs a vegan option on its permanent menu. I’ve had surprising success with this approach. After sharing several of my vegan advocacy columns with the manager of one Austin restaurant, I took him to lunch and raised the possibility of adding a vegan entree to his menu. After conceding that the most popular appetizers were, in fact, meatless, he promised to give the matter some consideration. Two weeks later, his restaurant offered an incredible meatless and dairy-free tagine. It remains one of the restaurant’s best selling dishes (you can even get it with yogurt if you prefer). Needless to say, I send everyone I can to this restaurant—urging them, of course, to go for the tagine.
Read the menu creatively. If you can’t finagle a personalized menu item, work with what you have. Vegans eventually learn to study restaurant menus differently than non-vegans do. We’re constantly editing, cutting and pasting, improvising, hoping we might add more of this and take away all of that. Restaurants are almost always open to such changes, although one should be prepared for a range of reactions. Ordering a vegetable pizza without cheese is probably my most common special request. When I did this recently in Eugene, Oregon (probably the most vegan-friendly place on earth), I got a friendly nod; in France, a Gallic shrug (pas de frommage?); and in Houston, Texas, my waiter looked at me as if my hair was on fire. But I got my pie.
Navigate the dinner party. Dinner parties are a different matter altogether. Since coming out of the vegan closet, I probably don’t get invited to as many social functions as I used to. Not a big deal. But because I haven’t been shy about promoting the importance of veganism, those who do extend invitations turn out to be extremely accommodating. And since food allergies and dietary restrictions are a fact of life, hosts generally inquire about food restrictions as a matter of course. Naturally, backyard BBQs are ubiquitous in Texas, with some part-time frontiersman invariably grilling up the results of the latest “hunt.” The solution here is to either arrive with my own veggie burger or, even better, to drink an extra beer or two and eat later. Never, ever forget that (some) beer is vegan.
No matter what the situation, being a vegan in an often aggressively non-vegan world requires a delicate combination of respect for others and pride in one’s own choices. Vegans should never insult non-vegans. At the same time, we should never apologize for ourselves. I try to perform my vegan advocacy with humility and sincerity, reminding myself that any attempt to promote a vegan diet is not—no matter how sticky the social situation—about me, but about the billions of animals we kill every year from the often unthinking decision to eat whatever happens to pass across our plates.