My long and twisted road to eyes wide-open
My journey toward a full plant-based lifestyle has a been long and twisted one. What starts as a simple preference with fuzzy edges will end 45 years later with a big WHY that is filled with love and compassion.
Finger kicking good
I was about 15 years old having a meal (Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things) with some friends when I took a really, really close look at what I was eating. It was flesh. ewwwhh. I thought, "so that's what we do, we eat flesh for food?" The idea of this got me thinking what a disgusting habit this is and I vowed to never to eat meat again. That lasted until I got home. My Italian mama made it clear she was not cool with that choice. She and my dad loved to cook and meat was central to our family dinners. She was horrified and slightly amused when I rejected her meat laden meals. She told me it was unhealthy, asked me about protein, why I would do such a thing, and what in the world would I eat, if not meat? Inconceivable! It was exhausting for a young girl who simply found the idea unappealing and had no support system. We had a truce of sorts where I would pretend to eat her meals and even did eat some meat now and then, (bits of chicken, meatballs or fish) it was just so much easier not fighting about it. But I never ate red meat. Ever. Or lamb or pork chops or anything with a bone sticking out of it. The bone was a very sharp reminder of what it was and wasn’t something you could put a sauce on and hide. I didn't care much for eggs either, the texture of the barely cooked egg whites grossed me out and the rich yellow part just made me think I was eating a science experiment.
Going with the flow
When I moved into my own apartment, I had full agency over my food buying choices, so mainly I would eat cheese sandwiches, pasta with olive oil, Mac-n-cheese, and fruit. Years passed, still staying true to the no red meat, or anything with a bone sticking out of it mentality. Weirdly, over time, I began to introduce more meats into my diet that could easily hide under a sauce like bits of chicken breast, meatballs, sausages. I don’t remember what I told myself. Maybe since deli-meats like turkey and salami with their roundish shape were ok to eat because at least they had no bone or visual fat hanging from the meats like roast beef or pastrami. If I had no direct reminder of where it came from, I was able to go with the flow. With one major exception. Thanksgiving. Every year Turkey. < big sigh > I certainly couldn't deny the bones on that day. I would usually say, "just a tiny piece for me, thanks." And would fill my plate with potatoes with butter and gravy and later have pumpkin pie. Sure, I wasn't a full-on meat eater, but my fuzzy boundaries were hard to explain. Mainly I consumed things that didn't gross me out or taste bad. The ethics were completely lost on me. Oh, how I wish there was Netflix years ago!
Even still, I considered myself mostly vegetarian. I made foods with eggs, butter, and cow’s milk. And I loved, loved, loved (still do actually) cheese. All kinds. Hard, soft, whatever, I loved them all. The plight of the dairy cows was lost on me as well. This area is easy to overlook in the world of "no bones”. If the truth of where it came from can be hidden so well in a block of cheese, or a carton of pure white cow milk (with a fantastic marketing campaign focused on health) it’s no wonder I could so easily blend. My WHY? If it looked like an animal, bones, blood and fat, I didn’t eat it. Otherwise, OK. Ridiculous, I know. :(
Dead meat, well-done
It was early 1990's and I was living in Atlanta, GA. I had just applied to Georgia State University, so after dropping off paperwork I took an impromptu visit to Ernest G. Welch Gallery. The exhibit in the gallery was a complete shocker to me. I'd never seen anything like it. And I can't remember the artists name. ( In researching this article, the only work that reminded me of what I saw that day was of Sue Coe. I'll update this article if new info comes in.)
Sue Coe, a British artist whose artwork often depicts harsh realities of animals and humans oppressed by social and political forces, had mounted a show Dead Meat (1996), that illustrated the brutality of slaughterhouses throughout North America. Her motifs are woodcut prints and she will freely admit that some are propaganda-ish. It was very disturbing as you can imagine. Scenes of animal parts, the dark under-belly of politics, and a color palette of red, white, and black was not uplifting and encouraging, in fact, it was extremely difficult to look at. I was amazed that the slaughterhouse allowed her to see what was going on in that environment and amazed at the bravery of the artist to be able to paint it, pitch it, and mount it. This show had a huge, huge effect on me and to this day I often look back on this day and her exhibit as part of my great, s l o w turning point. Surely this moment would punctuate my BIG why, right? Nope. In my defense, it was heavy stuff. I had no one to talk to about it. The art blended ethics, values, politics, death, sustenance, and corruption. That was a lot to unpack. My family and friends didn’t care so, again, no support. But, seriously, what was wrong with me??
I think it’s possible that this could be the rut many people face. You kinda get it. Maybe you're an animal lover and do your part by rescuing a pet from the shelter or you don’t eat red meat, "only chicken and fish", as if those animals are somehow so low on the food totem pole that no one really cares how it gets to the plate, only that it does. Or, like I was, you may be surrounded by family who feel meat is a must have for your household. So, you blend. For me, years. As I said, my story is a long and twisted journey!
What the what?
I think change is hard for most people. But given the right environment change can happen, wholeheartedly, when new information is delivered properly to your noggin. Fast forward to 2017. I was still in my ethics fog. However, I didn’t eat much meat, but ice cream and cheese, hell yes! And with so many new dairy-free products on the market I mainly choose those by default. Along with a plethora of products where eggs and milk are nonsensically often in the ingredient list in 4-point type. Anyway, one evening my daughter called with a problem. She had just started her Master’s program in Functional Nutrition and expressed her concern about a movie Netflix accidentally put in her feed. She said she didn’t want to finish it, and put it on pause while she was in a panic about what to do. If she continued watching, she knew her Paleo days were over. She loved meat. I asked what movie she was watching. She said “What the Health”. I suggested since she was studying nutrition and health, it seemed like a good time to investigate the health pros and cons of the meat-eating world. I told her that I would watch it too, that way we could discuss. And discuss we did! It didn’t take long for us both to see the astounding health benefits, but what really made us ill, and lifted the ethics fog, was seeing the hard-core imagery about the brutality of factory farming. It’s despicable. And so not necessary. I watched more documentaries (Forks over Knives, Cowspiracy, Earthlings) to strengthen my knowledge. And I kept my eyes wide open during the hard stuff, just barely. It’s tough stuff. But the movies delivered good stuff too! The benefits of whole foods on health, well-being, weight management, chronic disease was simply magical.
This new information meant I could no longer support an industry that willingly engages in animal torture, abuse, and mass extinction. And doesn’t give a flying fuck about the health and well-being of workers or the people who consume the dead flesh. The entire system is corrupt, unhealthy, and unjustified. It took me years to get to this place, but now, thankfully, I have my BIG why. My eyes are wide-open and I won't look away.
My voice now speaks for the ones who can’t speak. I see you sweet cow, farm hen, little piggy, tiny lamb, buzzing bee, and others. I do have free-will and my will tells me to spend my time, energy, and money to support initiatives for a more peaceful, do no harm kinda world. Yes, the path was twisted and much too long in coming. My bad. But the words of Robert Frost comfort me,
I will choose love and compassion, and that feels utterly amazing to me.