A couple of weeks ago I went for lunch with my boss and a co-worker. As we were looking over the menus, my boss, whom I greatly admire and respect, asked me what I was going to have. I told her that I would have the veggie burger with fries. Both women at the table knew I was vegan and even though I still sense some discomfort from them about “the whole vegan thing” they are both very supportive of me and even ask a few questions from time to time. I know that in an effort to ease the tension, people will sometimes make comments in that half-jokingly, half-serious way like, “But you still eat bacon, right? Hahahaha.” It’s not great but I can usually tell when it’s coming from a place of genuine discomfort as opposed to genuine ridicule. Some people use jokes because they are awkward not insensitive; others use jokes to try to deflect from the fact that they are inconsiderate ass-wipes. I would say my boss falls into the former category. I know she would never deliberately put me down. Her attempt to acknowledge my diet is her way of affirming me and that is MUCH easier to deal with than someone who really just wants to mock you.
The server came over to the table and took our orders. After she left, my boss said in that half-joking, awkward manner, “So, if you don’t eat meat or dairy, where do you get your pleasures in life?” I wasn’t sure how to respond at first. I considered telling her about all the great food I do eat and veggie burgers are usually just an easy veggie option when I’m out. But I also wanted my response to reassure her that I can appreciate a little levity too and wanted to make my answer light enough that it wouldn’t discourage her from ever asking me about it again. So I just said,
“Well, I do have vegan sausage at home,” referring to my husband, Julian, who is also vegan.
She and my co-worker roared with laughter and I exhaled. It’s not everyday I can come up with a witty one-liner. We carried on with our lunch and had a great time. The veggie burger wasn’t great but even as a meat and dairy eater, I never liked the food at Milestones.
After the lunch and throughout that afternoon, I actually gave her question some thought. Not to whether I have any pleasures in life because obviously, I have many (including the aforementioned vegan sausage). But as it relates to the vegan diet, why does a mediocre veggie burger still bring me more pleasure than a half rack of ribs would? And I realized: what still makes a ho-hum veggie burger and fries pleasurable, even when they’re not actually great tasting, is the fact the what I am eating did not involve the death of an animal. That is why I am happy to eat a peanut butter sandwich if there are no other options. I don’t choose to abstain from eating animals and their by-products because I’m setting up a bunch of arbitrary rules to deprive myself of joy or pleasure or to be so rigid that I can’t appreciate a delicious-tasting meal. Being vegan is not about restricting myself – it is about freeing others. That is where I get my pleasures in life, my pleasure in eating, even when the meal itself isn’t so great.
The whole point of veganism, at least for ethical reasons, is that it’s not just about you. What may appear to be a great sacrifice and self-imposed deprivation to others, is actually a liberation. Though there is pain in learning about what has been going into my food all these years, there is also tremendous joy in discovering the news ways to cook and eat; to find those options that are free of bloodshed and tortuous confinement. As a person who has always enjoyed eating and cooking and appreciates good food preparation and hospitality, never in my life have I felt more connected to my food than I have since becoming vegan. Never before have I been as excited about food as I am now. And I’m someone who reads cookbooks just for the hell of it.
So in the end, perhaps paradoxically, what started as a decision to spare animals, has developed into an unexpected freedom for myself. Free from the confines and previously held assumptions of what cooking and dining is supposed to involve in order to be enjoyable, I can now discover and experience food with a level of understanding well beyond those limits.
Though I am still in my vegan puberty (8 months), I already know that there is no amount of dairy or meat that could bring me more pleasure than knowing what didn’t go into my meal. That is where my pleasure comes from. That is where I find the sometimes-secret and sometimes-shared enjoyment of vegan life.