When I was a little girl I loved animals, or so I thought. For while I really felt a kinship with and a great deal of affection for all animals I hadn’t made the connection between their lives and who it was I was eating every day.
When I was growing up we always had pets: birds, fishes, hamsters, rats, hermit crabs, dogs, rats, dogs, and many cats. I was an only child and our pets were a big part of our small family of two humans.
I was raised by my mom, who lovingly prepared all of my meals for me. She was a hippy in the 60s so I was more than familiar with health food stores and vegetarianism. We were lacto-ovo vegetarians for a while when I was young but we ended up back on a meat-based diet, a diet that I continued to eat when I moved out on my own.
There are a few meals from my childhood that I will never forget…
When I was 11 I went to a friend’s house for dinner. They were preparing lobster, which I had never had before. I watched in horror as my friend’s father put a live lobster into a huge pot of boiling water. They acted like this was totally normal, but I’d never seen anything like it. Then, a couple of long minutes later, the poor lobster threw the lid of the pot onto the floor in a valiant attempt to save it’s life. One claw was poking out, reaching. It was still alive in there, somehow. The father slammed the lid back on and walked away.
I didn’t have any lobster that evening, but I remember being horrified on another occassion while eating a bowl of stew at the same friend’s house. I lifted a spoonful to my mouth and saw that there were big taste buds on the chunks of meat. I was then told that it was cow tongue stew. “Yuck!”, I thought, and I didn’t have any more cow tongue stew. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter what part of an animal you are eating, whatever piece of flesh is consumed contributes to the animals’ death. I think all animal products are awful, but at the time the idea that my taste buds were tasting someone else’s was really disturbing.
After I moved from my home town to the city I was a waitress for several years. I didn’t have to learn to cook because I was allowed to order anything that I wanted from the menu while I worked. My choices were typically eggs benedict, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, salads with turkey, eggs, and 1000 Island dressing, and such… not a healthy diet at all! When I cooked for myself it was usually boxed macaroni and cheese and bologna sandwiches, maybe a broiled salmon steak if I was feeling “fancy.”
One of the cooks where I worked was a vegetarian, and I remember asking her if it bothered her to work with so much meat as a vegetarian. She said that it didn’t. I really admired the fact that she was a vegetarian, although her example wasn’t enough for me to change my ways at teh time.
Another time, one of the restaurant cooks kindly read me the ingredients on the box of ground beef that I was eating in the form of burgers. I will never forget the first two ingredients: beef hearts, partially defatted beef fatty tissue. Even as a meat-eater this really made me sick. I stopped eating burgers there right away, although I still ate them elsewhere and I consumed all kinds of other animals’ bodies without giving them any consideration whatsoever.
Another day I made the mistake of watching “Faces of Death” with a friend. We thought it would be interesting. It is a documentary that shows real-life incidents involving accidents and death. It turned out that there was non-human animal suffering portrayed as well as human. One clip showed four tourists visiting Japan and indulging in what was considered a delicacy – live monkey brain. There was a terrified monkey in the middle of the room, it’s body in a cage attached to the underside of a table, it’s head poking through a hole in the top of the table. Each person was given a little hammer, and they beat the monkey into unconsciousness by hitting it in the head with their hammers as it screamed and spun around in the cage, trying vainly to escape. Then, the waiter came over and sawed the cap of the monkey’s skull off. The tourists each scooped some of the live monkey’s brains out and ate it. The two women proceeded to throw up immediately. What a waste of precious life.
Another segment showed sheep in a slaughterhouse. They were hanging upside down on the slaughter line by hooks that went through their ankles. They had all been completely skinned, and their entrails were hanging outside of their bodies onto the quickly-moving conveyer belt. They were still alive, bleating in agony.
It was incidents like these that started giving me clues that the way I was eating really wasn’t in conjunction with my feelings and values.
The first time I heard the word ‘vegan’, it was when a customer asked me if a particular dish on the menu was vegan. I had no idea what he was talking about, and I thought it might be some kind of cult diet or something. I stared back at him blankly as I tried to figure out what that weird word he had said meant. That seems so funny to me now, the fact that I didn’t even know what veganism was and now it is such a huge part of my life.
Then one evening when I was 22 years old I came home from an exhausting day of waiting tables and lay down on the couch to watch some TV. I turned on channel 9 (PBS) because I love documentaries and they show them often. What I saw then changed my life forever. It is such a great coincidence that I didn’t do something more useful than watch TV on that day!
They were showing “Diet for a New America”, the incredible documentary by John Robbins about how what we eat effects ourselves, other animals, and the planet. I watched, amazed, as everything I had been taught about animal products in my life and diet was expertly dismantled by this kind, compassionate person. I sat rapt, with tears in my eyes as he described and showed footage of the conditions on factory farms, and the endless amounts of unnecessary suffering that animals are forced to endure to turn them into products that are so unhealthy for our bodies and our environment.
I’ve always empathized with our non-human brethren, finding more similarities between us than differences. I’ve also always hated to see anyone, no matter how small, suffer unnecessarily.
At the end of the documentary they showed that “Diet for a New America” was available in book form. Once I got a copy I read it almost straight through. I could not put it down. The subject matter was sometimes painful to read but Robbins also added lots inspiring stories of animals and their unique situations and personalities which are incredible and uplifting, to balance things out.
I remember how angry I felt that we are so misinformed in our culture about the ramifications of a meat-based diet. The four food groups were even created by the meat and dairy industries to train us as children to eat more of their products. They provide free “educational tools” to schools, like food pyramid (their bogus, self-serving version of it) posters, etc.
I don’t even remember deciding I would become vegan at that point, it was just a matter of course. With the information that I had been provided by John Robbins my eyes had been opened to what is really going on here.
I went to a local health food store and stocked up on vegan cookbooks. I started cooking my own meals from scratch, which was a lot of fun and quite new to me. It was fascinating to learn about all of the foods that are available to vegans and how to magically use them to create wonderful foodstuffs. As a meat eater I was eating a much more limited diet. As a vegan I learned about foods I had never even heard of before, like tempeh, seitan, nutritional yeast, and all sorts of interesting veggies and grains.
That was 25 years ago and I have to say that ever since I “went vegan” I’ve never felt better, on the inside and out, and I’ll never, ever go back!
Thanks for reading.