By Lori Lovely
It was a lovely spring day many years ago when a teenager was riding in the passenger seat of a racecar hauler that was being driven through rural Iowa on its way to a race. Gazing serenely upon the passing view, she observed pastoral scenes of cows, young calves in tow, grazing tranquilly on fresh green grass.
It was a familiar sight: the backdrop of her life in small-town Midwest America. But suddenly it struck her. Although not familiar with the unbearably gruesome details of the slaughterhouse, she intuitively understood the future that lay ahead of these gentle creatures. The connection between those rest stop burgers and these mothers with their babies, once made, could never be undone. She never ate meat again.
That teenager was me. That was my moment of clarity.
Giving up meat was easy for me—much easier than enduring the questions, jokes, taunts and sneers slung at me due to my choice. Because of the ridicule hurled my way, I was low-key about it, quietly trying to eat vegetarian options without notice or fanfare. I got so tired of answering questions about what I did and didn’t eat and why I did or didn’t eat it. (No, I don’t eat fish. Yes, they are animals.)
Back then I didn’t proselytize. The choice I made was right for me, but I didn’t push my values on anyone else. I just wanted to eat in peace.
It took about ten more years for the next moment of clarity: The animals just wanted to live in peace. At that point I gave up leather. I also began donating to animal rights organizations, adopting pets from shelters and rescues and respectfully talking to friends about eating meat, hunting, fishing and countless other activities that hurt animals.
As my voice became stronger, my use of animal products diminished even further. And then, one day about five years ago, my husband and I decided to go vegan. Overnight. Done. It seemed the natural progression for me: the next step. I thought it would be much easier for me than for my husband, who wasn’t even vegetarian. I had a lot to learn.
The first person I turned to was Ingrid Newkirk, who had become a close friend. She immediately sent us several books by Dr. Neal Barnard, another good friend. They were a tremendous aid—a sort of instruction manual. While they contained some recipes, their value was more in the instructional guidance they offered.
We followed the steps proscribed in one of Neal’s books. First, we cleared the refrigerator and cupboards of everything that wasn’t vegan. Anything unopened was donated, the rest either fed to the dogs or tossed out.
Next, we went to the supermarket to restock the shelves. It took us ages to shop that day because we had to carefully scrutinize the labels on every single item. We were astonished to see how many items were made with milk. We could hardly find a loaf of bread at our regular supermarket. We felt defeated before we’d even begun. This wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d thought.
We persevered. My husband sampled a few brands of faux meat, but after 30 years of a vegetarian diet, that didn’t interest me. We looked through vegan cookbooks for interesting dishes. There were hits and misses. We struggled with the transition for a while.
One night, just as we were finishing chores on the farm, a vegan friend and neighbor who likes to cook brought us a couple servings of the black bean lasagna and Thai salad she had just made. That turned the tide for us. So there were delicious vegan entrees, after all! Modifying her recipe a bit, we’ve made the dish many times, especially when we have guests for dinner. Everyone loves it, whether they’re vegan or not. That led, in turn, to other recipes, more experimentation and additional sharing.
There were setbacks as we learned the vegan lingo that led to us eliminating additional items from our shopping list. I already knew that gelatin and marshmallows are made with beef tallow (although the nutritional label won’t tell you so), but we discovered that casein, a dairy product, is a common ingredient in many foods and some lecithin comes from meat, dairy or eggs. Label reading became trickier.
Vegan items are often stocked in the organic section at the supermarket, but organic doesn’t mean meat- and dairy-free. Nor does vegetarian. Few products carry a vegan label (although I wish the FDA would insist that they did; it would be so much simpler!)
We had to remain vigilant to avoid items with meat and dairy. We became detectives, investigating the food we considered putting in our mouths for hidden animal products. We began eliminating foods when their labels read “may contain milk.” If the producer couldn’t be sure, neither could we.
It’s easy enough to prepare vegan meals at home. However, it’s been tougher on my husband when he travels with the race team, often stuck at a race track until late at night, or stranded at some hotel in a foreign city—or country—with limited options and no transportation. Then there are the countless late nights at the race shop, when they order pizza that he can’t eat. I’m proud of him for sticking to it, taking his lunch to the shop, stashing granola bars in his backpack to nosh while the rest of the team is dining on take-out.
Despite some bumps and detours, the road has become easier with time as new habits develop. We’ve made new vegan friends and found out that a few we already had are now vegan too. Everyone has a favorite dish or recipe or restaurant they’re eager to share. Ingrid sends us vegan care packages every year with new yummies to tempt us and teach us that eating a plant-based diet is healthy, tasty and completely doable. As my neighbor said, it can be a fun challenge to figure out how to “veganize” a recipe.
It’s certainly easier—and more acceptable—to be vegan these days than it was when I first gave up meat 35 years ago. I no longer have to hide my dinner plate or feel like an imposition at the company Christmas party. I’m no longer embarrassed to inquire about the ingredients, or to politely decline if they include animal products.
Now I’m more apt to ask others why they eat meat when there is so much documentation of its adverse health effects and the devastating impact of animal agriculture on our environment … and, of course, for me perhaps the most important aspect of it all: the suffering it causes animals.
Reading labels has become second nature. Neal was right about retraining taste buds. I don’t miss Parmesan cheese. (Yes, we eat pizza without cheese and we like it.) I know I’m healthier since I gave up candy. I also know I feel better about us because we are not contributing to animal cruelty or global warming. There is no cruelty on our plates.
I ask everyone to join us—for your own health, for the future of our planet and for the innocent animals whose lives are so unjustly stolen in the name of cuisine.