Many people ask me why I am vegan (pronounced `vee-gun'). Up until my last two years as an undergrad student at the Eastman School of Music, I would never have thought I would become vegetarian, and certainly not vegan; I ate meat, dairy and eggs like almost everyone else. I never entertained the thought of becoming vegetarian because I could not see the reasons behind doing something so “unnatural” or “extreme.”
I had two jobs while a senior in undergraduate school. The first was working at the front desk in the dorm during the summer. One of my tasks was sorting and alphabetizing incoming mail. I noticed that a few students were receiving a magazine called Peta, and I was curious, so I asked one of the students it if it would be OK for me to look at it before I put it in the pile of mail to be put in boxes.
Looking through those issues of Peta that summer exposed me to some of the most shocking, horrific pictures I have ever seen to this day or probably ever will see. Many of the images were of animals being used for experiments and “product testing,” crippled animals left to die on the side of road who were unfit for human consumption, baby calves taken from their mothers, multiple chickens in crates the size of record album covers, etc. These magazines disturbed me so much that I sent away for a pile of books that discussed vegetarianism. I am usually only convinced of something by researching it thoroughly.
One of the most important books was a one by John Robbins entitled Diet for a New America. I can gratefully say that that book changed my life, for the better. I almost failed all of my classes at Eastman the following semester because I spent so much time reading about vegetarianism.
My second job during my senior year also had a major influence on me: I was working as a server for Eastman dining services. Obviously, after reading all of these books, serving ribs, chicken, hamburgers and other dead animals became less and less bearable. People would ask me “what's good today?" My usual reply was “nothing,” or “the salad bar.” What I should have said with was, “Your friend...—he would probably taste just about the same as this pork chop if you cooked him the right way and used a little hot sauce.” I guess I was not cut out for a lifetime of work in dining services.
That summer, I was living very frugally. I still remember the exact moment when I made the transition to becoming vegetarian. I was going to the grocery store in MidTown Plaza in downtown Rochester, NY to do my weekly shopping. I had approximately $20 in my pocket. I was standing in between the meat isle and the vegetable section. I remember thinking I could buy two boneless chicken breasts and perhaps a steak or two, or I could use the money for a whole basket of vegetables and fruits. That day, I decided to try becoming vegetarian for a week. One week grew into two, two weeks into two months.
Within the next few months, I gradually became vegan. I lost about twenty pounds, and believe me, I was not even trying. I love to eat. I not only lost a little weight, I also felt better.
Ironically, the more I learned about vegetarianism and the more I cooked vegetarian food, the more I really fell in love with cooking. If you have never had a gourmet vegetarian dinner, you have no idea how amazing it can taste. One of my favorite pastimes is to cook vegetarian food for guests. I consider the meal a success if guests say that they do not miss animal products, or sometimes can not even tell if the food I prepared was even made with animal products! If you don't believe how good vegetarian food can be, try one the recipes in cookbooks like Friendly Foods or The Millennium Cookbook. I am certain you will not be disappointed.
There are three main reasons someone usually becomes vegetarian: the first and probably most talked about is animal cruelty. You would have to be very ignorant to not realize how much pain and suffering animals go though in order to reach your dinner table. I always find it interesting that humans process animal flesh in ways that are completely different than how animals kill and eat their prey; a wolf can not use a gas grill, and a mountain lion has no idea what barbecue sauce is.
The second main reason someone becomes vegetarian is to improve their health. Again, you would have to be living in a vacuum to not be aware of all of the positive aspects of eating a plant-based diet. The information is all around you. Almost without exception, there are only two times when you will read literature that supports an animal foods-centered diet: when the literature is from the meat, egg or dairy industries or when the information is coming from an ill-informed, poorly-trained, not-so-up-to-date nutritionist.
The third reason someone might become vegetarian is because they have figured out how much damage the large-scale consumption of animal products does to this planet. This reason was the single largest reason, at least initially, that I became vegetarian. I was appalled—and still am—at how much wasted energy and resources go into producing animal products. The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is a prime example.
You might think that it could not possibly be that bad, but stop and think for a moment: where does a large portion of water pollution usually come from? Animal waste run-off is one of the largest pollutants of our drinking water. Most farmland is used for growing animal feed. A large percentage of our fresh water supply is used for animals. Many poor people in the world are starving and dying not just because of poor farmland and financial misfortune, but because of our enormous greed. Deforestation (primarily for farming and overpopulated areas) is also contributing to global warming.
If everyone in the United States would stop eating animal products, and we used the feed given to farm animals to feed people, there would be much less starvation in poorer countries. In fact, there would probably be no starvation in poorer countries. America is essentially hemorrhaging precious resources in order to fuel a careless, national desire for cooked dead animals.
A simple way to make a difference is to eat one vegetarian meal, or vegan meal if possible, in place of a meat-based meal you might normally eat. For example, eat a vegetarian burger for lunch instead of a hamburger. Or, eat a good bowl of cereal with soy or rice milk for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs. If everyone in America who is not vegetarian does this, millions of dollars in resources every year can be diverted to people who are trying to survive, and our water bills, energy bills and taxes can be lowered. Taxes, you wonder? The government generally subsidizes animal producers, but not vegetable farmers (at least as far as I know).
It always fascinates me that our society uses a label for what seems to be an abnormal eating choice: eating a vegetarian diet. It always seems to me that it should be the other way around: vegetarians should be considered normal and meat eaters should be labeled as "abnormal."
Although I am obviously passionate about being vegan, many excellent books cover much more information that I mention here. One of these books is the previously mentioned, Pulitzer Prize nominated book Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Another more recent book is Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, by Erik Marcus.
In the end, a vegan diet is not the cure-all for all of the world's problems. We still need to curb overpopulation and emissions, and you still need to exercise. Obviously, you need to be mentally healthy as well. Eating a vegan diet will not do you much good if your life is full of pain and stress. If you do choose to become vegan or vegetarian, you still need to eat a healthy diet. Just as there are healthy people who eat meat, there are unhealthy vegetarians. In the end, becoming vegan or vegetarian is only one step, but for me, becoming vegan has definitely been a step in the right direction.