Confessions of a Vegan Evangelist

Jean Bourdichon, Four Evangelists, Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, 1503-8. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

What omnivores complain about is true

Vegans are evangelical. Case in point: On the day I ate my last morsel of Parmigiano Reggiano, I was born again, and I wanted everybody to know that my animal-eating sins were washed away. It didn’t matter how many hot dogs, hamburgers, rashers of bacon, pounds of beef and chicken, cheese balls or ice cream cones I ate in my former life, I was now as guiltless as a new-born babe – even more so, since I didn’t drink milk. And in the glow of my conversion, I felt like my other sins were cleansed too. If Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were vegans, he’d have found a good night’s sleep and she’d have washed away that “damned spot.”

Vegans are shameless groomers. I know one vegan who remembers every conversion she’s ever made. There are hundreds, and she keeps their names in a ledger book. When she dies, that book will be her ticket to doggie heaven. My evangelism is insignificant compared to hers, but a few of my conquests are noteworthy. (I should interject here that vegans are like fishermen; they exaggerate the size and number of their catch.)

I flipped my British wife Harriet from omnivore to vegan, aided by a video she happened to see of the inside of a slaughterhouse. Harriet then converted her daughter Daisy in Brighton, who was already an environmental activist. Meat eating for her was elevated from venial to mortal sin, worse than plastic straws or Styrofoam cups. Daisy then nudged her sister Molly to become a vegan. Molly was already trending because of her veterinary education and internship in an industrial farm. She persuaded her father Kumar (Harriet’s ex-) to give up sheep farming. That conversion made news all over the world: The Daily Mail reported: “Farmer who felt guilty as he took lambs to abattoir drove them 200 miles to animal sanctuary instead…. and has now become a vegetarian.” The BBC reported: “Devon farmer ‘too upset’ by slaughter gives lambs to Kidderminster sanctuary.” Today, Kumar sells vegan dosa, dahl and chutney at a local farmer’s market and has begun to grow vegetables on a farm in Somerset. There’s no telling how many meat eaters he’s converted to veganism; he doesn’t keep a ledger.

My coming-out-story

Becoming a vegan was no damascene conversion. It took several years and multiple prompts. One was my adoption of a Jack Russel terrier whom I named Asta, after the dog in The Thin-Man movies with William Powel and Myrna Loy. (In the first three films in the series, Asta was played by Skippy.) My Asta wasn’t nearly as well trained as her Hollywood alter ego, but she was dead smart. She could escape from nearly any room, yard, carrier, or conveyance. Once when I left her briefly in a car, she pressed the button to open the moon roof and escaped that way.

As she aged, Asta became more introspective. One day, I looked deep into her brown eyes and saw her soul. At that moment, I knew that killing animals for food was wrong – a kind of murder. I stopped eating meat for a few weeks, but tastes and habits being what they are, I relapsed into carnism. And then this other thing happened.

I was attending a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara where I delivered a paper on ties between the French poet Baudelaire and the artist Odilon Redon. After my lecture, I met another conference attendee, Sophie (not her real name) who had given a fine talk on Eugénie Foa, a mid-19th century French Jewish novelist, feminist, and children’s rights advocate. We decided to go out together for dinner.

Like Foa, my companion was also Jewish, radical, and feminist — and beautiful too, with wavy black hair and smoldering eyes. We went to an inexpensive restaurant she knew near campus. Sitting at a candlelit table on a terrace, said told me she was vegan, that the salads were excellent and that I should select a cocktail for her. Our conversation – about art, feminism, politics, and academia — was easy, and after our drinks, we became a bit flirtatious. Time to order food: She asked for a spinach salad with beets, cucumbers, sprouts and heirloom tomatoes – hold the Feta. I ordered a 1/3-pound hamburger, rare, with bacon, cheese, and onions. She didn’t bat an eyelash at my order. When the food arrived, she started to eat — with a fork naturally. I picked up the huge burger in my hands, opened my mouth wide and chomped down. Blood and fat ran down my hands and onto my sleeves. After each bite, my face too was begrimed. Soon, the cloth napkin was a stained, greasy mess, and I had to ask for another one. Again, no reaction from her — and that became the source of my shame.

After dinner, we walked to the hotel where we both were staying, and she gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek goodnight. I said I hoped we’d meet again somewhere; she said nothing in reply. It was then I understood everything that happened at dinner. I had ordered the meatiest thing on the menu precisely to appall her – and she knew it! Every wipe of my mouth was another insult – sexist, carnist, and just plain rude — yet she offered not a word of reproach. Eating meat that night – and perhaps other times too — was socially sanctioned misogynist violence. I vowed never to eat another hamburger. Soon after that, I rejected steak, chicken, and fish too. Then finally, dairy — even parmesan cheese. I was an out vegan.

My mother never understood

Lots of LGBTQ folks have coming-out stories. Sometimes they come out as soon as they have a clear conviction about the matter, sometimes long after, or never. I once knew an out Lesbian writer from a conservative family in the Midwest who from the age of about 20, brought home her girlfriends for the holidays and introduced them to everyone as “my lover.” But her father, mis-believing his own eyes and ears, consistently referred to the girlfriends as “he,” “him” and “your boyfriend.” This went on for years.

Something like that happened with my mother Grace. She lived in a retirement community in West Palm Beach, Florida from 1989 almost until her death in 2012, aged 94. (Her last months were spent with my sister or in a convalescent home in Connecticut.) Grace wasn’t much of a cook, but whenever I visited her, she prepared three things I liked: chopped liver, chicken soup, and rice pudding. All three were out after I became a vegan.

“I made your favorite foods,” Grace would say. “I even cooked the livers in schmaltz [rendered chicken fat] as you like it. Look how much I made!”

I stared at a wooden mixing bowl with enough chopped liver to provision a bar mitzvah. “Mom, I told you, I’m a vegan – no animal products.”

“But it’s not an animal,” she said. “It’s just livers, eggs and fat, plus some salt and pepper – to make it a little spicy.”

“Mom, they come from animals, just like a steak. They are meat. You know this. Vegans don’t eat meat.”

“So, what do you eat, Mr. Fussy?”

“Anything,” I said, “just so long as it doesn’t come from an animal.”

“Then chicken soup is ok?”

“No, mom, chicken is an animal – not ok.”

“Rice pudding, then?” And so, it went.

Grace was a smart, funny, and educated – but like my Lesbian friend’s father, she never read the memo about my coming out.

Don’t offer lame excuses for eating meat

Otherwise intelligent people say the dumbest things to justify meat eating. Here are some examples with my typical responses:

“Early humans were hunters, so it’s natural for us to eat meat.”

Mostly, they gathered fruits and vegetables. But in any case, I don’t hunt. Do you? Just 4% of Americans hunt.

Our teeth are specifically evolved to chew flesh.”

They are not. And anyway, we chew vegetables just fine!

“Humans are the top of the food chain – we eat meat!”

When did you last see a person on the street, teeth bared, holding a spear, stalking a wildebeest?

“I just don’t feel right unless I eat meat – I need the protein.”

Ever hear of peas and beans?

“We have a moral obligation to eat meat. If we all became vegans, cows and chickens would go extinct.”

OK, so start a farm-animal reserve. In the meanwhile, lets prevents the needless suffering and death of billions of animals.

“I know its cruel, bad for the environment, and produces climate destroying greenhouse gases. But I could never give up bacon.”

Your pleasure from bacon is more important than reducing air and water pollution, stopping global warming, and ending the torturous death of billions of sentient beings? Seriously?

To be honest, I enjoy it when carnivores ask me stupid questions because it gives me a chance to pontificate and evangelize some more. So go ahead, make my day.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press.