Love What You Eat: My Journey Beyond Veganism

3 seeds growingBy Carolyn Getches

You’re not making it up—vegans do think they are better than you. Or, at least, I always did. When I first made the switch to veganism, I was 15 and confident that I was the most informed diner at any table. It seemed outrageous to me that anyone could grasp the realities of America’s food production system and still eat meat, so I saw it as my duty to fill them in. I’d launch into a canned lecture that touched on the calves who were so malnourished they licked the bars of their cages for iron, the pigs who limped to their death on broken legs, the cows who bled from over-milking, and the countless animals who never saw the sun. I’d wrap up by asking my captive audience how they would feel if I did those things to their dogs and cats. Despite the graphic imagery, my speech did not convince a single person to become a vegan, or even change their lunch order. My argument was too black and white and too detached from the nuances of life to be truly actionable.

Lately, as mounting evidence suggests that shifting more people toward plant-based diets would slow climate change, I’ve been on the receiving end of the “go vegan” advice I used to preach. While well-intentioned, this type of simplistic argument fails to take into account the complex personal histories that many of us wrestle with at each and every meal.

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I’ve always loved animals. Not just in the “kittens are so cute” kind of way, but in the “can I call Dusty’s mom to see if she can come over and play?” kind of way. Dusty was our family friend’s golden retriever and attended three of my birthday parties, to which she was invited by mailed invitation. Every winter, I’d engage in fierce fights with my dad over his right to kill the mice that scurried between our kitchen cabinets. “Their families were here first!” I’d yell. After the argument was over, he’d turn to my mom with a defeated smile and say, “You won. She’s a yellow dog democrat.” I took this as a major compliment since our family pet was a yellow labrador retriever and she had top billing on my list of best friends.

By the time I was nine, I began to understand that, at each meal, I was chewing on bits and pieces of my beloved animals. I could no longer enjoy burnt hotdogs covered in extra ketchup without picturing Babe or eat crispy chicken tenders without thinking of the Little Red Hen and her admirable work ethic. I addressed the problem with the straightforward logic of a child and stopped eating meat altogether, joining the estimated 6-8 million vegetarians in the United States.

My diet became increasingly restrictive. During my sophomore year of high school I bought my first pair of pleather Birkenstocks and became a full-fledged vegan—no meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin. Outwardly I claimed to be resolved about my food choices, but internally I missed peach ice cream and worried I was still not doing enough. When I learned that animal feces were likely baked into each slice of commercial bread, I wondered what food producers did to the little critters who were doing the pooping. My mind would spin, searching for ways to justify the displacement of wildlife and incidental killing of animals caused by industrial farming.

To assuage my unending guilt, I tried to inspire others to join the cause with my impassioned lectures. But if I was so certain I was doing the right thing, why didn’t I feel any better? Beneath my concern for other living beings was a deeper discomfort I couldn’t articulate; taking action to meet my own needs felt wrong. Eating, especially eating meat, felt like the ultimate act of taking. I wanted to be perfect and selfless, and since it was becoming apparent that all food caused harm in one way or another, I decided I would simply consume less of it. I began to value low calorie counts over ethics and, once again, my world was reduced to the clarity of black-and-white thinking. Eventually, this choice—coupled with the right mix of genes, family dynamics, and culture—led to an eating disorder.

Years later, as I worked towards recovery, I had to rebuild my relationship with food. In therapy, I discovered my triggers and found that restricting my diet was the most powerful among them. In order for me to get well, I had to be willing to listen to my body and eat what I truly wanted for the first time. This was especially difficult when it came to meat. My love for animals had become more socially appropriate, but it never waned. Throughout college I fostered over 30 puppies and kittens in my home until they were old enough to be adopted. It seemed illogical to spend my energy caring for these creatures during the day and then chomp down on pigs at night. Yet, bacon sounded really good. My therapist helped me reach a balanced decision—I would take it one meal at a time.

The first time I ate meat in a non-disordered way, I was studying abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico. Before I left home, I looked up the word for vegetarian in Spanish, vegetariana, but never worked up the nerve to use it. Most meals were prepared by my host mom, a kind and elegant woman named Graciela. After class, I would come home to plates of stewed chicken over rice and seared beef wrapped in homemade corn tortillas. This was early on in my recovery journey and I was squarely in the pink cloud phase, a time when a former addicts are more hopeful than they have any reason to be. This optimism—combined with my desperation to be a polite houseguest—allowed me to take that first bite of meat. It did not feel nearly as wrong as I thought it would. I loved that it demanded to be cut with a knife and how substantial it felt between my molars. Even the best tofu can be sliced with a fork and swallowed after mere seconds of chewing. Meat filled me up. I decided if eating animals was going to be part of my life, I needed a deeper understanding of the production process.

The following year, I signed up for a meat science class at Colorado State University. Twice a week, I gathered with 20 or so other students in a small warehouse near the edge of campus. We spent the first few weeks sitting on cold metal bleachers studying the anatomy of sheep. I learned where the shank and the tenderloin came from (the hind leg and lower back, respectively) and the difference between lamb and mutton (mutton is meat that comes from a sheep who is more than a year old). Once we had the diagrams memorized, our professor brought several live sheep into the warehouse. They were calm as he tied their small halters to the wooden posts in front of us. It was our job to evaluate the animals and estimate what size cuts they would yield. I wrote down a few guesses for each sheep before moving on to more important matters—rubbing the velvety patch of hair under their chins and running my fingers through their tightly crimped wool.

We walked into the same warehouse two days later. This time, the sheep were not tied to posts—they were hung by their feet on sharp metal hooks. They were beheaded, skinned and ice cold to the touch. We worked in groups to break down the carcasses and find the actual measurement of each cut. My guesses were never, ever right. In later weeks, we repeated the same process with pigs and cows. My friends were stunned when I told them how much I valued the class. “But you love animals,” they’d say, “Doesn’t it break your heart?” It didn’t. Rather, it felt like I was beginning to untangle the complicated connection between loving live animals and eating dead ones. The class forced me to accept the fact that when I ate meat, I was choosing to take a life to fuel my own.

A few years later, I began working at a biodynamic farm—a method of organic farming that treats the land, plants, and animals (including humans) as one holistic system. Every Saturday, my partner and I would drive to a 10-acre property tucked in the rolling hills of the town next to ours. This Colorado farm was run by Ursula and Larry, a loving couple who slept in separate bedrooms and swore a capful of vinegar was the only soap you’d ever need. In exchange for one day of work each week, we were given a large box of vegetables, a dozen eggs, and a half gallon of raw milk. Our jobs varied—we’d weed the fields, herd the cows from one pasture to another, or slice up piles of harvested vegetables in preparation for fermentation. Seeing this ethical cycle of food production complicated my view that consuming animal products was parasitic by nature. Here, humans cared for the animals, the plants, and the soil, and accepted nourishment in return. The killing of animals did not seem nearly as wrong, when their lives were well-lived.

Every season, Larry and Ursula would host a potluck to commemorate the summer solstice. Volunteers, customers and friends would gather at the farm and make small talk over pickled string beans and quark spread on naturally-leavened sourdough. After dinner we’d stand in a circle, hold hands and sing our thanks to the land. At the time, I could only get myself to mouth a few words, yet the underlying sentiment is still with me all these years later—gratitude dulls the sharp vulnerability of need.

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I used to think that telling someone to stop eating meat was a simple choice with clear, predictable results. My own life has disproved that theory. Choosing what we eat is a profoundly personal choice, and we all have our own experiences that inform where we land on the spectrum between raw fruitarian and 100% carnivore. Factors like finances, access, religion, culture, allergies, and mental health all have an impact. Just as I was wrong to assume it was only an animal rights issue back then, it would be a mistake to think it is purely an environmental one now. And, while it’s true that digging into a charred ribeye contributes to global warming, unintended consequences of restricted diets like binging and other changes in eating habits can be harmful as well.

Today, I eat meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as plenty of plant-based staples. I give myself the freedom to have a life that includes In-N-Out and the farmer’s market. For me, it would be too easy for a more prescriptive diet like veganism, or even vegetarianism, to become a guise for disordered eating. It’s my job to hold myself accountable for the choices I make and balance my needs with the needs of the planet. It is not my job to tell others how to eat.

I still love animals. I also love to eat them.