September 15, 2018

My 25th Veganniversary

Vegan 25

For most of 1993, I was practicing a vegetarian diet and learning about the impacts one's diet has on one's life. I was 19 years old, and I was thinking of going vegan as well; the harder difficulty in my mind was going vegetarian, since I had grown up with eating meat as part of my diet and was uncomfortable with the idea of a diet without meat. But once I took the plunge, going vegan was the much easier task to do.

On September 14, 1993, I was having breakfast at the dining hall of West Quad on the campus of the University of Michigan, and I made the spur-of-the-moment decision grounded in months of preparation that I would go vegan from then on and that my meal at that breakfast -- a bowl of Grape-Nuts cereal with chocolate cow's milk -- would be my last non-vegan meal in my life. Needless to say, a strange way to end my non-vegan life.

And now, 25 years later, I remain vegan, at least in terms of diet (disclosure: I own and wear leather belts and shoes). I went vegan for two main reasons: health (my family has a history of heart disease), and environment (fewer resources are used feeding food to people than to feed food to animals to feed people).

I've long considered myself an atypical vegan, at least regarding the reputation of vegan militancy, in that I'm not very militant about my diet, nor have I been one to boast about it very often. I've always felt that you can better convince people by setting a positive example rather than haranguing others with guilt. My default setting is to mention my diet only when it becomes necessary to do so, usually when I go out to eat or when I'm part of a social situation related to food (like a lunch at work).

I can understand the militancy: vegans have to endure a lot of crap from their non-vegan brethren. I've put up with my share of getting picked on, getting talked about, or having meat shoved in my face (which actually happened to me once). It has gotten better, given the increasing prominence of veganism, plus the fact that a vegan diet, when done well, can reduce the threats to one's health and extend one's lifespan by six years or more.

I'm usually ashamed when people have to go out of their way to accomodate me (the vaunted so-called "vegan veto") and am always grateful when they do so. Indeed, many people who have known me for years are probably learning for the first time reading this article that I'm vegan and that I've been vegan for so long. As a consequence of my reticence to discuss veganism unless necessary, people ironically want to talk about my diet and its potentially unappetizing motivations just around mealtime.

I've let my hair down somewhat in recent years, to say that, on those times when I mention that I am vegan, I accompany it by "...for 24 years". You have to clean up the mess of splattered brains after people's minds are blown. I can now say "...for 25 years".

Some vegans are motivated to be vegan more out of fear or hang-ups about food rather than the positive aspects of a vegan diet. As a vegan, I've never had a hang-up about food. On the contrary, veganism served as a means to get over my hang-ups about food. Growing up, I was a very picky eater (a "pickatarian", as one friend puts it). Since being vegan, I not picky anymore, I'm principled. This might explain probably why I've stuck with being a vegan for so long. It suits me. I like reducing my worry about disease and weight, to frontload problems early on so I don't have as much to worry about later.

And it pays off. Here's a tweet I wrote in 2012: "Blood results came back: Cholesterol 130, triglycerides 41. Nurse said they were the lowest numbers she'd seen in ten years. #backflip"

This is my biggest piece of advise to other aspiring vegans; don't go into such a choice flippantly. Admittedly, my decision to go full dietary vegan may have been a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I had nearly a year of preparatory work behind it. That preparation fueled me for a quarter-century and counting.

While my diet hasn't changed in the past quarter century, so much about adhering to a vegan diet has changed. Critical to the change is that I've found that people know what being vegan is. For quite a while, I had to explain what it is whenever it came up in conversation or before eating, only to see the idea dismissed as bunk or worse. Whatever you think about it, veganism is now undeniably a thing. There are many reasons why it's won a presence in our culture, not the least of which is the continuing efforts of a vegan movement in the USA and elsewhere. It doesn't hurt that vegans count among their ranks the more than 600 notable vegans (at this writing) on Wikipedia's "List of Vegans" or the fact that perhaps 10% of Americans follow a vegan diet for some period of time.

It has become much easier in the past quarter-century to prepare vegan food or a vegan meal, and it has become far easier to eat out. Even in Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World and the city where I've lived most of my adult life, I can mention off the top of my head a half-dozen Chicago restuarants whose menus are fully or predominantly vegan. What's more, many non-vegan restaurants have viable, even delicious, vegan options or vegan meals.

Unfortunately, as vegan diets have scaled up, they've become more corporatized. The environmental footprint of vegan diets is now no longer the minimalist panacea of my late teenage years. It's now not the case that a vegan diet automatically equates a net-positive on the environment. This is yet another thing that I and other vegans, long the vigilant sort, have to watch for -- not just what we eat, but how it's produced.

There's not much about veganism that hasn't changed, but one thing that remains the same is that it's still a thing for relatively elite company. You would think that shouldn't be true: compare the cost of a box of beans and rice to the cost of a steak. Our political and economic systems seem to warp all attempts at restorative justice, even at our dinner plate. That's yet another thing to address.

Looking back on twenty-five years, would I still make the same decision I made? Without a doubt. I didn't even think it would have improved as much as it has and become as popular as it has. I might have even given a bit of thought and planning to my last non-vegan meal.