Confessions of an Almost Vegan

6 11 2007


By Jill Ettinger

• vegan  (noun) – a strict vegetarian; someone who eats no animal or dairy products at all.

This being human thing is so perplexing.  Of all our quirks, the most interesting might be the way in which we seek to distance ourselves from our place in the natural world. We drive cars. We wear suits, make up and polished jewelry. We have bank accounts that dictate our ability to experience pleasure and the basic needs of shelter, health, nourishment. We sit idly in our worlds of contrived material happiness, while unimaginable atrocities take place all around us. We watch sitcoms and commercials. All other life on the planet however, does none of these things. The distinctions are obvious between a human being and an octopus, a rhinoceros, a lemur. But it is the similarities that too are quite obvious, though we have perfected the art of ignorance – arrogant disregard in our upright, uptightness.

Do  we really loathe being animals?

When I was a child and learned that I was a mammal, as was my dog, and the squirrels in the back yard, it excited me. I imagined myself one with tigers and lions, horses, monkeys. We were family. Animals represented a freedom, a truth that was noticeably absent as I was stuck sitting at the cold desk of an elementary school classroom. It seemed as if nothing could feel more “unnatural. “ Well, nothing except the so-called food they served in the cafeteria. That was where I thought I truly must have lost my mind. I clearly did not belong. As friends inhaled half cooked stinky pizza squares and green jell-o, chugging it down with chocolate milk, I struggled to hold my breath as I swallowed each bite so as not to taste the poison flavored nutrition.  What did I do to deserve this?

All I wanted is what seemed the blatant choice for a growing child: Fresh food. Minimally processed, vitamin and mineral charged fruits and vegetables. (The occasional chocolate chip cookie and fresh squeezed lemonade also appreciated.) Looking back at the lunchroom horror, it’s shocking that I made it out alive. I barely ate a thing until about age 17, when I realized I was then and had been essentially since birth, vegan.

The lunchroom horrors carried over from the “What’s the matter with you?” dinner table interrogation. I offended my mother because the thought of eating an egg repulsed me on a deep level that a six-year-old cannot comprehend or explain. I even got stung by a bee because once she was cooking liver so putrid smelling that it forced me to run out of the house shoeless in search of fresh air, and I ended up stepping on the little pollinator. Psychologists deconstructed my “defiant behavior” as stubbornness. But there was a pattern, one obvious perhaps to a Buddhist or Hindu, but my parents are neither. It was the ’70s, and people were supposed to be more tuned in. But I fended for myself, a lone vegan coming of age in a house full of injudicious eaters, whom I loved dearly, yet could barely relate to.

One of my happiest and clearest childhood memories involves eating a garden-grown tomato, like an apple. How could my parents not see what was happening to me? Chicken legs sent me into a fit of sobbing but green beans and corn on the cob induced laughter and smiles. Yet it would be my own discovery, and urging to my parents as the teenage years hit to let me eat vegetables! As the years passed by (and they still keep doing that annoying progression thing…time does not seem to want to stand still), I realized a dozen or more had spun by without ingesting meat, milk, eggs or their by-products.

There’s an abundance of information suggesting that humans, are primarily designed to be herbivorous. Not to say that we are meant to be 100% vegetarian, but a good amount of our diet needs to be. (It’s suspected that’s why our intestines are so coiled and long, the reason that we have molar teeth for grinding and opposable thumbs for picking fruit and vegetables.) I’m assuming we’re all up to speed on the absolute horror that is factory farming. Videos like PETA’s Meet Your Meat have been in heavy rotation for years, exposing the reality behind the standard American diet.

Something I find so interesting about our food habits goes back to the thoughts about the human behavior of trying to remove oneself from nature, or what I see as the perceived illusion of “civilized.” The truth though is our diet – our factory fed feed completely lacks any grace or dignity. A deer quietly nibbling leaves has this. So does a squirrel curiously harvesting acorns. Even the hunters: wolves, lions and polar bears all possess poise in their pursuits. There is a way in which all animals, outside of humans, carry themselves in nature. Even scavengers bring a poetic humility to their task. But humans, in what is becoming an all too often occurrence of irony, debase other animals significantly and unnecessarily. We show absolute contempt for our environment, puncturing it and draining it of precious resources. We spit on it and war on it, hold it responsible for our suffering. Just the other day, while sitting at a stop light, I watched as the driver in the car in front of me drop his empty cigarette box out of his window to the street below. (Is there really anyone in this country not aware of our environmental crisis?)

It bemuses me that in all our efforts to best nature – to seek independence from it – we still have not come to the collective conclusion that we can’t escape it. Our denial efforts have sent us into the ugliest displays, patterns not seen anywhere else, that have caused near irreversible damage.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t think Doritos will be around for much longer. They simply can’t sustain us; nor can our destructive practices sustain making them. This is the simple truth, the one that goes hand in hand with reversing environmental damage. Same goes for Cheese Steaks and (oh my) Slim Jims. Bye Bye.

I saw this article today, suggesting that meat, and especially the really processed stuff, is linked to some not-so-flattering abnormal cell growth. This is not surprising. Having read books like John Robbins’ The Food Revolution and T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, combined with my own personal experiences both forced to eat animals as a child and then spending almost two decades without it, meat just doesn’t feel right. That is, except, I am no longer vegan. In a startling turn of events I thought would never happen to me, about a year ago, I started craving fish. Giving in to it was something else. The internal dialogue fretted over the intensity of ingesting another creature, as well as the environmental and personal health effects. What would my body do? Even though I had some primal urge for it, would I be able to stand the taste or texture? There was only one way to find out. Perhaps it will be just a one-time thing I thought, an honest experiment. But it turned into an infrequent, but reoccurring need. I do not quite understand it, but I allow it. I have no draw to any other animal product and feel that will not change, but anything is possible.

Still, I’ve resigned myself to this truth: Vegan or not, it is not what I eat that matters as much as how I eat it. The body is amazing. It can fend off bacterium if immune systems are properly encouraged; nutrition can be gleaned from the sparsest sources, if they are unadulterated. But it is our relationship to the natural world, in its freshest and purest state, that will allow both humans and everything else we share earth with to thrive. It’s simple and dismisses the need for the massive processed food industry. If and when we’re living in a world where we’re all healthy and happy, I wonder if anyone is really going to miss Spam.




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