A few weeks ago, the Dear Abby column in the newspaper addressed the issue of vegans at the Thanksgiving table. The letter, and Abby’s response, has bothered me ever since. Here’s the original letter and response:
My first response was to feel stung: Essentially, Abby says that if the vegans don’t like the traditional thanksgiving fare, they can bring their own food or stay at home. That’s an incredibly un-modern, ungracious, and dare I say, ignorant response on her part.
It’s likely that Abby’s negative response was spurred by the apparent bossiness of the vegans in question. Evidently, these two vegan teenagers demanded that the entire meal be vegan. The host didn’t agree with this, and the demands sapped any willingness to accommodate their preferences. According to Dear Abby’s column today, most of the letters she received in response to that column were vitriolic against vegans and vegetarians.
My guess is, it’s borne out of the defensiveness that arises from the mere presence or mention of a vegan. I’ve found that on occasion I don’t even have to say a word and just my being vegan raises people’s defences because it brings the ethics of what we eat to the forefront. Food allergies are considered more acceptable. But why should it matter? Consequently, the unwillingness of vegans to partake in a feast centred around a dead animal centrepiece is framed as a demanding inconvenience to the host and other guests, while under any other circumstances society would not expect someone to act in a way that violates their personal ethical compass.
What rubs me the wrong way about this, and Abby’s response, is that I know literally hundreds of vegetarians and vegans. If you count the ones I’ve met only online it may be more than 1,000. And I cannot think of a single one who has ever demanded that the entire holiday meal be made vegan. I can’t think of a single one who WOULD ever demand that. Secretly wish? Absolutely. But demand? No way. There are some who simply (and quietly) won’t attend a holiday meal with a dead animal as the centrepiece, and that is their prerogative. By putting up the “straw man” of the overly demanding vegan the Dear Abby column has done a disservice to fostering understanding and accommodation between vegans and their non-vegan families. It’s created a war, rather than peace talks.
I’m not going to lie to you. I would prefer if every holiday meal was vegan. It always weighs heavily on my heart and mind that the clump of meat on the table that everyone’s eating was once an animal who lived and breathed, and likely died in a traumatic fashion. It requires significant cognitive dissonance on my part– and I imagine the part of many vegans, at least those who are ethically motivated— not to focus on that. I say this not because I’m trying to make anyone feel bad; it’s simply how I see it. Almost everything in life is seen differently through the vegan lens.
A few thanksgivings ago, with some of my own contributions, I was treated to an entirely vegan thanksgiving at my dad’s house. I didn’t demand it; he just wanted me to be comfortable and knew I’d appreciate it. And I did. It was probably the best holiday meal of my life. Yes, the food was good, but it wasn’t even about the food. It was that my dad and stepmother were open-minded and accommodating enough to understand why it would mean the world to me. They didn’t suffer one iota by eating vegan food that one day, and neither will anyone else.
This year the gatherings I’ve attended were not vegan, however both families made a (much appreciated) effort to ensure that some of the food offered was vegan, and invited me to bring food that was then shared with everyone. I personally am not a fan of just bringing enough food for myself, because that singles me out, and it misses an opportunity to show people how delicious vegan food can be. My mother-in-law even made a delicious vegan chocolate cake, as well as her “accidentally-vegan” war cake. The double batch of vegan Indian “butter chicken” that I brought was gone at the end of the meal. My own extended family marvelled at and happily indulged in the array of vegan food that I brought to share with them.
Some advice for people who are sharing their holiday meals with vegans or vegetarians.
1. This is not the time to accentuate the sense that we’re outsiders
Even if the whole meal isn’t vegan, a vegan will be grateful for accommodation when offered. It makes it a bit easier to deal with the proverbial “elephant in the room” if we are not ostracized, sidelined, or have unnecessary attention drawn to us or our diet.
It’s highly unlikely that a vegan will question or berate an omnivore’s diet at the holiday celebration, so consider extending the same courtesy. Most vegans are happy to talk about veganism or vegan food if you’re interested in hearing about it, but NOT if it feels like an inquisition or cross examination. Consider that vegans are routinely singled out and viewed as the “odd” one, which is endlessly frustrating because even if you don’t understand why we have made the decision to be vegan, for us it’s something that makes perfect sense and has come out of a great deal of research and soul searching. Contributing to the sense that we are alien-like outsiders, especially during the holidays, will only ensure an uncomfortable time for all.
2. Consider normalizing vegan fare at the table
We realize that many people have no idea how to make vegan food, and are shaky on what is and isn’t vegan. When we offer suggestions and advice it’s not to be bossy and demanding. It’s because we don’t expect you to have to do all the research yourself.
Often things can be made vegan very simply, such as melting some Earth Balance on the veggies, rather than butter, or whipping the mashed potatoes with some soy milk and Earth Balance. We’re usually even willing to supply it! Be willing to try new and different things too, and welcome the vegan’s contributions to the dinner table. I can assure you from personal experience that they’ve probably put a great deal of thought and time into preparing it.
3. Consider making new traditions
One of the most difficult things about becoming vegan for me was that it called into question all kinds of traditions and things I was familiar with. The warm feelings I had towards certain restaurants, name brands, companies etc. were replaced by a feeling of betrayal as I learned about their dark underbelly, the stuff the marketers don’t want you to think about. Suddenly the McDonald’s play room—which was a huge treat for me as a child—took on a sinister meaning.
But I’ve created new traditions for myself where food is concerned, as well as activities and lifestyle. My life is completely different than it was ten years ago… but I like it so much better because I feel like I’ve done a huge amount of soul searching and that I’m now living in accordance with my core values. None of my favorite foods were vegan ten years ago, not a single one. But I have new favorite foods now, and I have never enjoyed eating more!
It wasn’t always an easy process to let go of the things I was comfortable with, and it’s human nature to resist change and cling to tradition. But tradition isn’t a strong enough reason to keep doing something. There are many cultural and societal traditions that most of us can agree are abhorrent, and which are no longer permitted.
I’m not saying everyone has to create new vegan traditions, just to consider whether it’d really be so bad. And if you’re not willing to outright exchange a tradition, consider adding a new one. Traditions are things we can create, or abandon. They’re a human construct, and we have the power to change them if they’re no longer suitable.
If creating a new tradition can make the life of someone you love better, and it doesn’t harm anything, then why not consider it?
Happy holidays everyone!