projects and writings of T.A. Burkholder
In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 17.
One of the first people I met in college was my beloved friend, Elaine. She arrived on campus as an animal rights activist. She was the first activist of any sort that I had met and I was impressed with her convictions. She thought that if we were slowly (or not so slowly) and surely going to destroy the planet, it was only right that we didn’t take the animals down with us. This seemed totally reasonable to me. She lent me her copy of Diet for a New America which had just been published a few years earlier and, again, it all seemed so reasonable. Why wreak havoc on the environment for the sake of a good steak? Why make animals suffer for us when there was no longer any need for it?
These were ideas I’d never thought much about growing up. My mother was an expert in providing a mind-bogglingly consistent presentation of meat, veggies, salad, and starch (plus a bowl of ice cream before bed!) at nearly every meal. But as soon as Elaine introduced me to these ideas and I looked at the unappetizing steam trays of meat in the cafeteria, I went home at the end of my freshman year a vegetarian.
Or, more precisely, I became one of those annoying mostly-vegetarians. To appease my mother, I agreed she could make shrimp for me when I was home and I’ve been eating them ever since. When eating a bowl of soup, I rarely asked if there was chicken stock in it. Elaine soon went from vegetarian to vegan and has remained devoted to this choice to this day. I remember trying to be vegan at some point in college and failing after only a couple days. I liked cheese too much. I liked baked goods too much. I didn’t have the conviction. I also saw veganism as an all or nothing proposition in a way I’d never taken vegetarianism. I couldn’t just eat less cheese and butter. I had to eat none or not bother thinking of it at all.
My mostly-vegetarianism lapsed into mostly-pescatarianism over the years. A few years ago I even started eating bits of meat here and there. But now the pendulum is swinging back the other way. I started to steer away from meat again and a couple weeks ago my partner and I challenged ourselves to be vegan for at least a week.
All the reasons Elaine had espoused for veganism twenty years ago were still true today, and even more pressing in many ways. The environmental impact is still enormous and less sustainable than ever, the suffering is still ever-present. But now there was an added element that compelled me: mindful consumption.
Even in Portland, the land of vegan plenty, eating no animal products requires a degree of thoughtfulness that just being vegetarian doesn’t. It makes you stop and think about what you are about to eat and what you will be able to eat when the next meal rolls around. This means I’ve stopped scrounging around the kitchen as much in between meals in order to grab a hunk of cheese or a cookie and mindlessly throw it in my mouth. I’m eating more leftovers instead of eating out. When I sit down to a carefully prepared meal, I’m more appreciative of the effort and more compelled to eat slowly.
That said, my vegan purity was compromised almost immediately. I ate some granola bars I had at my office when I didn’t have to time to grab some food in between clients. Some tzatziki sauce got eaten one night when we went out and I forgot to inform my mother about my choice before she cooked me a shrimp dinner. After a week, my partner and I went back to eating eggs in the morning, though I’m determined to buy more humanely raised eggs from now on. I don’t want to let the all or nothing mentality throw me off this course. At the same time, I don’t want to be so slack that my efforts are barely efforts at all.
In light of the hate, ignorance and mindlessness being praised as American greatness these days, it feels important to me to move as far as I can in the opposite direction. There is an increased sense that what I eat and how I eat is an important part of how I exist in the world. It’s an extension of what I believe. If I believe that respect is important, then that respect has to extend to animals. If thoughtfulness is important, then certainly I must be thoughtful about what and how I eat. It’s not going to be easy, but if I must be a consumer, I need to constantly question what kind of consumer I want to be.