An Account of My 11.5 Year Journey Addressed to a Younger Me
I’m writing you from the future, surrounded by annuals and ferns we purchased from a local greenhouse, settled on a glowing patio under a Midwest sun. There are picture-perfect blue skies in all directions, and I (you) am sipping an underwhelming, yet perfect cup of dark coffee.
Your first question, naturally, is how did we get to The Midwest? Likewise with anyone who finds their way here, I’m not sure. It just sort of happened.
Now that we’ve gotten the exposition out of the way, how are you? Things are okay over here. Times are wild, but I won’t waste your time with details. We have other important things to discuss. You’re about to go vegan, no? …A little conflicted, if I remember correctly? Yes, I know. It shouldn’t seem like a big step from vegetarian — a few extra animal products to cut out. You’ve seen the documentaries, and your best friend, who is also going vegan, has of course done all the research (thank god for our best friend). When you set your mind to it, you accomplish what you want.
So, what’s got you nervous?
Well, that’s what I’m writing you about. It’s been a journey, and while there plenty of articles you’ll undoubtedly read (or have already read) about the health merits of a plant-based diet, the environmental and ethical reasons to go vegan, blah, blah, blah… there’s a lack of people waxing poetic about what that journey is like. And I mean what it’s really like — not the “I feel amazing and save so many animals a year! Veganism changed my life!” perspectives. And also not the grimy scientific articles comparing every facet of the vegan lifestyle. Those are fine, and we offer nothing but congratulations and thanks to those. But that’s a shallow representation of what our journey looks like.
Luckily, you have future me (you) to bridge the gap.
The Very Beginning
By now you’ve been vegetarian for a while. What a wonderful decision that was, filled with growing pains and awkward family dinners and what have you. I wish I could say that parts get better immediately, but it’ll take some time. Going vegan will be a lot like going vegetarian, except not.
I won’t lie. You’re going to get the shit kicked out of you for the first bit.
What? You’re in high school. Do you have any idea how big a stereotype it’s going to be to be the vegan kid in your school? Let alone the fact that you used to play Yu-Gi-Oh at lunch until that kid stole your deck. Is that still a sore subject? Sorry, but if it’s any consolation it’ll be for the better in the long run.
Anyway, it’s going to be rough. Bullying aside, the start is the hardest. People will tell you it’s a phase. There are some more-or-less immediate physical changes. You’ll feel a withdraw from dairy products. Lucky for you, you never got into ketchup and cheese sandwiches like your siblings, but you will still feel the withdrawal symptoms. In case you aren’t already aware, cow’s milk is physically addicting to humans due to the casein, which is a protein in mammalian milk with addicting properties so that babies develop the habit of breastfeeding.
In other words, it makes you want the tit.
That’s all fine and dandy, except for the fact that, as you can imagine, cow’s breast milk is meant for calves (baby cows), which are larger than baby humans. As such, the casein in cow’s milk is many times more potent than what you find in your mom’s milk.
Many have written about this, notably after so much attention was given to dairy fallout precipitating The China Study. For example, Victoria Moran writes her book Main Street Vegan:
“Casein, one of the proteins in milk, crosses the blood-brain barrier and becomes something called casomorphins. Yes’m, that sounds a lot like morphine — because casomorphin is also an opiod. Nature designed it that way so young mammals would enjoy nursing, come back for more, and live to reproduce themselves.” “Human milk has only 2.7 grams of casein per liter. Cow’s milk has 26. And because it takes, on average, ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese or ice cream, you’re looking at a lot of casein and resultant casomorphin.”
And bada-bing bada-boom you’ve got yourself a low-key opiate addiction. There are other reasons why you’ll have withdrawal — taste, trying to figure out what to eat — but that’s the reason for the physical symptoms.
The good news is that after that, you’re going to feel better than you ever have before. I’m not exaggerating, and neither are all of the articles I was mocking a minute ago. There’s no real way to describe it, but know that it’s true. Some people will tell you it’s euphoria from all that goodness you’re doing in the world. Yeah, sure. Believe that if you want. It definitely helps, but there’s more to it than that. Others will tell you it’s your body responding to diet changes, whether that’s eating healthier foods or cleansing your body of years of processed meats, dairy that you can’t digest, or what have you. I think it’s probably a combination.
It will continue to feel good, too. Others might tell you that it fades, feeling super good all at once and then mellowing out later. While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. It’s like falling in love (which I will not be reporting to you on in this letter — you’ll figure that one out in your own time). There are peaks and plateaus, but no matter what your life will be changed for the better.
The first order of business is going to be talking to your parents.
We’re fortunate to have open-minded parents. Not everyone has this privilege, so don’t take it for granted. Mom already makes the best vegetarian dishes you could ask for on a tight budget, and in time she’ll get better at making vegan ones too. I’m happy to say she’s something of an expert these days, so be nice as she’s getting used to the changes. Dad never really understands or cares, but he’ll support it like he does. Eventually he even starts to like veggie burgers in their own way.
Now, here’s the cliche kicker: it’s not going to be easy. Mom will buy you ingredients, and even cook for you sometimes, like I said. But you’re going to figure out how to cook for yourself. I don’t even mean just the technical parts of cooking, certainly not the artsy parts of cooking that come later on. You’re going to have to figure out how to eat as a vegan. For starters, what is actually vegan? Well, at a glance it’s what doesn’t have animal products directly in it, i.e. plant-based.
It’s going to look like spending the time at the grocery to check every single label. You’ll learn what to look for on labels. There are so many “gotchas” of the industry trying to sneak animal products into foods, from dyes to sweeteners, to even vitamin supplements. It’s frustrating, and at first it’s going to be awful. Right around 2015, it improves as health foods get more trendy. For whatever reason, it’s now “the thing” to make it look like there’s only 3 ingredients in your food. Don’t get me wrong. This is a good thing. It’s just annoying that it’s being marketed as some kind of novel new technology in health. You’re telling me eating a dozen things I can’t pronounce isn’t always good? Groundbreaking. (Disclaimer: lots of ingredients we can’t pronounce are fine, but you get my point.)
In time, you’ll be able to speed read an ingredients label with 50 items and know in an instant whether or not it’s plant-based. It’s helpful that most ingredients labels have to include dietary restrictions, so with many things you can skip straight to the bottom and look for those. Use that as a cursory glance, though, not a fail-safe. As I mentioned above, many ingredients are derived from animal sources that aren’t considered dietary restrictions.
Once you’ve got identifying plant-based food down, you can move on to the fun part: cooking plant-based food.
There’s no elegant way to put it. It takes time and effort, and both demand patience. You’re going to learn how to feed yourself all over again. Sounds hard, I know. But that brings me to a question which many people (adults that I consider extraordinarily intelligent, even) have trouble answering:
How do you feed yourself now?
Most people I talk to haven’t spent much time at all thinking about what they eat and why. It’s a little better now, but back in your time it’s laughable. I think it goes beyond that, though. People don’t even think about what they like to eat.
Nothing makes you critically analyze what you like and why like changing your diet from the ground up (get it? Because your food comes from the ground). Because they’ve never thought critically about food for more than 5 minutes, people are going to riddle you with feigned pity: “what do you eat, though?” The only thing worse, is when someone asks you about protein. “But where do you get your protein in your diet of protein rich nuts, legumes, and starches?!” They’re concerned about your specific nutritional levels, bless their heart, despite the fact that they haven’t paid attention to their own since that time they counted macros for a month in college.
These, at first, seem like an innocent enough questions. The irony is going vegan is going to make you an expert on what you eat. You’re going to have a better understanding of food than you ever had or hoped to, and it’s because you’re going to have to figure out what you like and how to get it.
Outside of vegans and people who eat plant-based, I often hear people who’ve developed food allergies offer similar sentiment. Near universally, people I’ve met who’ve suffered through being selective with what they eat have had a better grasp on what they want.
This benefit of knowing your food and having a wholesome relationship with what you’re eating is an upside to this whole thing that I cannot stress enough. It will take you time, but it will be worth it.
The First Year
There will be ups and downs. Ridicule. Discovery. Absurd questions. Easy questions. The same explanation of why. The rarer, deeper, intimate discussion of why. Threading the needle through uninspired philosophical arguments. Shoving the needle repeatedly into the eye of half-hearted nihilist arguments because “it’s all relative, bro.” The same stupid absurdist question about being on a deserted island where somehow the only food source is chickens. Learning. Mistakes. Community.
The first year will simultaneously be the easiest and the hardest.
Hard because it’s new, and easy because it’s new.
Truth be told, I cannot prepare you for that first year. To some extent, it’d be wrong for me to take that away from you, as so much it is about experience. It’s a unique time. You’re not jaded about the animal rights movement and its bottomless nuance. You’re still eager to get your hands on every recipe, watch every vegan YouTuber, fail to make seitan look like anything but a brain.
Shit. I can’t even begin to tell you about the first vegan friend you’ll make (other than your best friend, who, THEY-God bless, is of course going vegan with you at the same time). There is nothing like your first vegan friend as a vegan.
This is probably a good time to clear up the difference between vegan and plant-based. I could send an entirely different letter on how it hurts the vegan movement that the difference between vegan and plant-based isn’t clear to the mainstream public. I’ll spare you those words for now, though. Suffice it to say, plant-based is a good thing overall. It makes me so happy to tell you that it’s trendy to eat a plant-based diet in 2020.
But eating a plant-based diet is not what it means to be vegan. The entire community goes back and forth on this endlessly, and it’s an uphill, often trite, semantic battle with no clear resolution. The point is that there needs to be a distinction between only eating plants and living a vegan lifestyle.
You’ll learn in your own right, and the spark is already there, but veganism is more than what you eat. For you, me, and many others it’s inherently political. It spans over environmentalism, sexism, animal rights, racial and class injustice, and so much more.
As Aph and Syl Ko present in their radical book, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, veganism is as much about what we want our future to look like as it is about changing the present. Veganism, especially black veganism, is the pen with which we write what our ideal world looks like when freed of the injustices in our present one. Aph and Syl help us engage with the taxonomies of power that gave rise to the vegan movement and extrapolate that onto what it means to be vegan at an individual and community level.
“Part of activism is finding yourself in a new space of confusion, allowing yourself to step into new conceptual terrain. When you abandon commonly held oppressive beliefs, you might not exactly know what to do afterward, and that’s where more activists need to be.”
— Aph Ko, Aphro-ism
Your veganism will become a deep personal connection to yourself and your community (including and especially the non-human community) just as much as it will be to what shampoo you pick out that isn’t tested on animals.
So yeah, that first vegan friend is critical. They’re a breath of fresh air, someone you can vent to who is equally enthusiastic about the routine exploitation of animals. Someone who you can connect ideas to and fantasize about what the world looks like. I’d be remiss to mention that you’ll find all of this and more in your best friend, but the wonder of meeting others who share your views is powerful.
After the first year or two it becomes second-nature. You stop seeing animals as food, and you know what to look for for the most part. Sure, every now and then you might make a mistake. That’s okay. As cool as it would be, you don’t lose your vegan card after three strikes like in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. (I won’t say whether or not the psychic powers and are made up, though.) People always ask if it’s hard, or marvel at your “commitment.” Sometimes particularly thoughtful people quip away with a charmless “Oh, I could never do that. Have you had cheese?”
For the most part, you tuck these moments away in a folder of immutable interactions you’ve had, occasionally peeking back to wonder how you might have approached a conversation differently, changed someone’s mind, come to an understanding. You will fight your hardest to explain to the curious and the relentless your why and how. And you will revel in the fuzzy magic feeling when you can watch it click for someone else.
But there will be the odd occasion where your light is challenged. It will not be from a sudden craving, which seems to be the stereotype. No, it’ll come from having to deal with the nuance which I described previously, the nuance of veganism.
Being vegan is not a one-size fits all scenario. There are countless takes on what is and isn’t vegan, how to most effectively save lives, impact the environment, and so on. Most of the difficult arguments you’ll have aren’t with non-vegans, but rather other people who think their size is the one size.
People will try to gatekeep you from being vegan.
They’ll tell you if you aren’t doing one thing, then why even bother? They’ll analyze which actions are the most beneficial, and which ones are useless. They’ll make it about themselves, instead of the animals. They’ll argue about which plant-based cheese is superior, claiming that somehow something is better than Miyoko’s Sun-Dried Tomato Basil. They may even tell you they were once vegan until they realized they it was an impossible problem.
You’ll encounter every kind of doubt and “what if” you can imagine, but the hardest are going to be from people who have spent as much time thinking about veganism as you.
Before I said that veganism is personal and political. I made a distinction between it and plant-based and began to talk about the importance of that distinction.
Well, Me, as important as that distinction is, there’s as big a lesson to be learned from empathizing with human animals who are trying to figure out what veganism means to them. Don’t misunderstand. You’ll find value galore in picking at the nuance of the impact of one brand of veganism vs. another. At dissecting the system and how it operates with others who will have different perspectives than you. There’s value in arguing with people who agree with you as much as those who disagree with you.
But keep your wits about you and your head up. It’s all part of the journey, and I’m happy to report that, in time, it shapes your own veganism, which funny enough leads to shaping your own you.
The Happily Ever After
Your vegan journey over the next 11.5 years will define you.
You will develop opinions, fight against cruelty and apathy, become a chef in your own right, and open up into a kind of person you can be proud of.
I am proud of you, after all.
You will make friends, write recipes, read books, protest, clean up goat shit, organize events, pretend to be lactose intolerant when you can’t afford another stressful conversation, fall in and out of love with communities, and cry at a lot of vegan potlucks.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing, looking back, is the sheer amount of information you’ll accumulate. As you begin to look more and more into the kind of person you want to be, you’ll become an amateur expert on nutrition and food science, philosophy, and public speaking. You’ll find inspiration in an athleticism you didn’t know you had, athleticism that’s predicated on your diet and unending thirst for optimum.
This and so much more stems from that seemingly small decision to be conscious of what you’re eating.
I can’t give you all of the specifics and ruin the story, but I can promise it’s a worthwhile one.
The Things You Won’t Find in Books
- No one cares that you’re vegan, except other vegans. And they care a lot.
- It’s probably vegan or can be made vegan. Use your imagination.
- If it can’t be made vegan, someone is trying to make it vegan. Figure out how to make it before them. Invest the proceeds in something else you wish was vegan.
- Item (3) above applies to more than material things. It also applies more generally.
- Be hypercritical of power structures within vegan organizations. If they aren’t helping animals, who are they helping?
- Food really is the fastest way to people’s hearts. Cooking is an act of love.
- Sometimes it’s right to be wrong, especially when you’re trying to convince someone you’re right.
- Violence in any form is not vegan.
- Praise people for doing their best.
- Raise up the good, wholesome experiences. Write about the farm sanctuaries of the world. Post about the cutting edge recipes. Tell your friends you love them. Veganism in the media shouldn’t be all death and action.
- There’s always too many tryhard desserts at vegan potlucks. Be that person who makes a hearty dish or some basic pasta. People will remember.