The hardest part about going vegan isn't giving up cheese. It's dealing with the fact that everyone thinks I'm a moralistic jerk.
Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for June? Go vegetarian.
I've been a vegetarian for more than 10 years. For the first four, I lived in the Midwest. And almost every time I politely declined a ham sandwich or a serving of chicken tetrazzini casserole, I had the same conversation.
“You’re a vegetarian?! What do you eat??”
“Vegetables, mostly, and bread,” I’d say. “And cheese.”
At the mention of cheese, something always seemed to change. My meat-loving inquisitor would suddenly feel a little more comfortable. “At least you’re not one of those vegans.”
“Ha ha ha,” I’d reply, “Definitely not. Pass the mozzarella sticks.”
Cheese is what allowed me to hang on to my Midwest cred.
While I might not have the same aversion to a dairy-free diet as other folks who grew up mere minutes from Wisconsin, I've always clung to the fact that at least I’m not one of those vegans. I may reject 98 percent of every menu, but there is still always something for me to eat. Grilled cheese. Veggie omelette. Quesadilla. Ravioli. Even at family holiday meals and on road trips through rural America, I get by just fine.
Now, as part of the GOOD 30-Day Challenge, I’m also giving up dairy and eggs for the month of June. I have become what I most feared. I am one of those vegans.
This negative association with veganism extends way beyond the Central Time Zone. If you’re not a vegan, you have probably been annoyed by one. In the popular imagination, vegans are ascetic moralists at best, eating-disordered militants at worst. No fun at all. Groups like PETA have done little to help this image problem.
Vegetarianism and, to a greater extent, veganism, is also seen as a bourgeois affectation. But I am a vegetarian largely because of where I grew up: in a middle-class town in Iowa. For decades, the economic anchor of my hometown was a meat-packing plant. My best friend’s stepdad has a turkey farm—a big operation that sells to places like Wal-Mart. In a part of the country that is known for producing most of the food we eat, I grew up on stuff that came in cans and boxes and shrink-wrap, not from the backyard or even the back of some farmer’s truck.
“Industrial agriculture” wasn’t a phrase I learned until later. Once I hit high school and started to think about it, this process bothered me. While I’m not exactly a fan of animal cruelty or heart disease or environmental degradation, I can honestly say that my aversion to meat comes down to the gross-out factor. (Have you ever smelled a CAFO—a confined animal feeding operation?) My decision to give up chicken, beef, and pork was born of a lack of access to “free-range” or humanely killed meat. In the pre-Pollan world, I didn’t even consider it an option.
But even now that “ethical carnivore” is a legitimate dietary preference, I still have zero desire to order a steak. I love occupying the vegetarian middle ground. I can feel great about everything I eat, and I don’t have to descend into yuppie stereotypes by asking where my pork chop was raised and killed. I can just politely ask for some mac ’n’ cheese—thereby signaling that I am not one of those girls on a crazy restrictive diet, I am not one of those animals-are-people-too activists, I am not one of those vegans.
If we set aside personal preferences and societal perceptions, though, the case for vegetarianism is a lot weaker. Dairy and eggs aren’t that much better than meat when it comes to impact on the environment, your health, and animals. It’s a pretty slippery slope. And eating even fewer animal products probably couldn’t hurt.
In replacing my queso with guac and my mayo with hummus, I’m not only trying to eat a little bit better for myself and the planet. I’m trying, in my own small way, to combat vegan stereotypes. If I can get just one cheese-loving Midwesterner to nod slowly and say, “You’re not one of those vegans,” I’ll consider this month a success. And maybe even make it a lifestyle.