My Vegetarian Journey
I was raised Quaker, so I grew up around pacifists and the principles of nonviolence. One repeated childhood memory for me, during the Vietnam War, was of the middle-aged people in the Quaker Meeting I grew up in fully supporting the young adults in the Meeting who were engaging in draft resistance, public statements of resistance against the War, and demonstrations sometimes involving civil disobedience. That complete absence of any generation gap on political issues of war and peace, right at the height of the great era of the generation gap, made a profound impression on me.
Sadly for me (and for farmed animals), the possibility of a vegetarian diet was never presented to me until I was 16 years old. On my sixteenth birthday, my father took me and two of my friends out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. After my friend Joan had ordered a baked potato and a salad, my father asked her, "Are you a vegetarian?" and she said, "Yes." So, I asked, "Why?" and she said, "Because I don't want to be killing animals." I immediately said, "Wow, I have to do that, too!" (I have seen Joan recently, and she is still a vegetarian today!)
Another unusual element of my background is that my mother (as well as my father) is a scientist, with a Ph.D. in biology. So, when I told her that I wanted to become a vegetarian, she immediately said, "Well, you'll have to combine beans plus grains to get a complete protein." I am aware that it was unusual for a non-vegetarian mother in the 1970s to immediately be able to offer such relevant, accurate information! although it did also show an uninformed acceptance of the American myth of the need for excessive protein and a lack of awareness of the detrimental effects of protein overdoses.
So, I tried to become a vegetarian at age 16, but only lasted about two weeks. I tried again at age 17, but only lasted one week. At age 18, however, in the midst of dropping out of college during my first year to become a political activist (around issues of war and peace, human rights, and social justice), when I discovered that all of the political activists around me were vegetarians (all for reasons of morality and nonviolence), it suddenly became much easier to make a more lasting conversion. That time, after becoming a vegetarian at age 18, I lasted as a vegetarian for eight years my "first round" as a vegetarian. This included a year while I was living and working in the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an urban commune located in an African American ghetto in Washington, DC, devoted to pacifist, world hunger, and poor people's advocacy issues, as well as through the period when I went back to complete college, and for several years afterwards.
I did my undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has one of the top Food Science and Nutrition departments in the country, and I took a couple of food science courses while I was there. Interestingly, despite widespread American mythologies about nutrition, claiming that, "the information keeps changing," and, "it's hard to know what to believe," all of the basic information that I learned in those two courses has remained scientifically accepted and unchallenged across the quarter of a century since then! This included facts like, a vegetarian with a high fiber diet has a 0% chance of getting colon cancer; and, 70-80% of a human being's caloric intake should be in the form of carbohydrates. Even the bogus fad diets that recommend extreme overdoses of protein never claim that this is healthy or natural for human beings, nor do they undermine facts about nutrition that have been scientifically accepted for decades. And most of what I recall from my college nutrition courses supported the choice of a vegetarian diet. So, bravo to UMass, my alma mater!
About two years into those eight years of my "first round" as a vegetarian, I started wavering in my commitment, and found myself debating whether to abandon the vegetarianism. However, right at that time, I happened to be walking along a street in downtown Boston near some restaurants, one day, and a delivery truck drove up, parked, and started unloading wooden slatted crates jam-packed with live chickens, who were clucking away loudly in protest. Not only were they jam-packed in there, but the men unloading the truck were throwing the crates down onto the ground, so that the chickens were experiencing a nasty, cruel jarring jolt, probably incurring painful injuries, and they continued clucking loudly in protest. I immediately realized that there was no way I could stop being a vegetarian! Despite the difficulties and lack of support that I was experiencing in being a vegetarian, that revolting image of the men throwing crates full of captive chickens down onto the ground helped motivate me to remain a vegetarian for another six years.
A nice thing, about four years into the eight years of my "first round" as a vegetarian, was that I briefly had a boyfriend who worked as a manager at a tofu manufacturing company. He introduced me to tofu and tempeh and a variety of ways to cook them, primarily just sauteing them in a little vegetable oil with a bit of soy sauce or tamari sprinkled on top while sauteing sometimes adding other chopped vegetables. (I can't resist tempeh-tation!!) Earlier, during my CCNV political activist period, I had learned how to make all sorts of beans-plus-grains dishes, particularly things involving lentils, brown rice, and split peas, including my famous split pea soup with caraway seeds. As it happens, during my childhood I never learned to cook (beyond spaghetti, heating up frozen vegetables, flipping pancakes, and flipping burgers) so, it's rather delightful, actually, that I learned to cook as a vegetarian, at the beginning of my adult years!
But I always found the lack of support for vegetarians in the late 1970s and early 1980s rather wearing particularly, the sense of imposing on people and creating difficulties for them when visiting them in their home. So, after eight years as a vegetarian, at age 26 I stopped officially calling myself a vegetarian although I mostly continued to cook and eat as a vegetarian, continuing with the use of tofu and tempeh, rice-and-lentil dishes, pea soup, etc. But I felt that I needed to take a little break from feeling as if I was inconveniencing people with my vegetarianism while getting no support for it.
Meanwhile, several years went by, and it took a while before I noticed that the numbers of vegetarians were gradually increasing, and this statistic was contributing to an overall dynamic of greater tolerance and support for vegetarians in our society as a whole. Then, in the fall of 1996, I happened to be living in Ithaca, NY while writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Jewish history for Binghamton University, and several factors converged and started "inviting me back" to vegetarianism. For one thing, Ithaca has been rated by Vegetarian Times as one of the most "vegetarian-friendly" towns in the United States. It has at least three health foods stores, at least three vegetarian restaurants (including the famous Moosewood restaurant), and, in the period when I was living there, at least three animal rights groups. Somehow, I found my way onto an e-mail list of CSETA (Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and very quickly after my contact with them began, in the fall of 1996, I became a vegetarian again. (It didn't take much to sweep me back in!!) There were several very dynamic, eloquent, articulate members of CSETA, some of whom I never even met in person, who made a lasting impression on me. I then met members of the non-academic animal rights group in Ithaca, HEART (Humans, Environment, and Animals Relating Together), and participated in some demonstrations with them. I also joined a group in Ithaca called the Vegetarian Supper Club, which met once a month on a Sunday evening for a potluck supper together, each person bringing a vegan dish, which would begin by going around the circle with each person describing his or her dish and listing what ingredients had gone into it. I attended the Vegetarian Supper Club for several years, until I left Ithaca in 2001.
But back to the fall of 1996, when I first returned to vegetarianism: On my previous "round" as a vegetarian (the eight years), I had been a vegetarian but not a vegan. That is, I had refrained from eating any animal flesh, but had not yet arrived at a full understanding of why there are equally compelling moral reasons to refrain from eating animal products which also involve killing, also involve slavery, and also involve unspeakable cruelties being committed on a massive scale every day (but I'm getting ahead of myself here, because I didn't understand that yet). A few months later, in February 1997, a young woman from the London office of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) came to speak in Ithaca on the animal rights issue. She was incredibly articulate, well-organized, voluminous in her provision of relevant information and evidence, and compelling in her overall presentation.
She ended her talk with one major thought, and one respectful recommendation. She had presented material on many different sorts of animal rights violations, ranging from the viciously cruel leg traps used by animal trappers, to the ceaseless cruelty toward the enslaved animals in circuses, to the horrors of animal experimentation (which, on top of its horrifying cruelties, often leads to false conclusions about human beings and thereby delays scientific advances in health care). However, most of her presentation focused on the industry of animal slavery and exploitation to produce animal flesh and animal products to be consumed by human beings as food (that is, the slaughterhouses and the factory farms), and she concluded by pointing out that the vast majority of cruelty toward animals and suffering of animals in this country takes place in the farmed animal industry. So, she respectfully suggested, at the end of the evening, "I would like to encourage anyone here tonight who is not a vegetarian to consider becoming one, and anyone here tonight who already is a vegetarian to consider becoming a vegan."
At the end of her presentation, I approached her to ask her a question that had been troubling me for some time. I said, "I've been wondering for a long time, when they create these huge populations of female cows to produce milk, and these huge populations of female chickens to produce eggs, what happens to the other 50% of those animals who were born male?" And she replied that the male chicks (who are not considered to be the "right kind" for chicken flesh production) are killed shortly after they've hatched they're either gassed or suffocated or thrown in dumpsters to die of crushing or starvation and exposure. And the male calves of the "milk-producing" designated types of cows are the ones who become the veal calves, who suffer the horrible short lives of agonizing constriction in tiny cages, about which we've been hearing for over thirty years (incredibly, the exact same cruelty is still being committed thirty years later). That is the reason for the expression, "the milk-veal connection". Thus, any claim that consuming the products of female cows or female chickens "doesn't involve killing" gets completely demolished by these two facts. So, I immediately became a vegan, after attending this PETA presentation in February 1997.
I have since become increasingly conscious of just how unnatural it is for adult mammals like ourselves, and also children who have been weaned from their mother's milk, to continue drinking infant formula and downright disgusting, when you think about it, to be drinking the infant formula of a different species! aside from the most important moral consideration, the torturous suffering of the mother cow and baby calf during their premature forced separation, as well as the other cruelties they're subjected to the female cow being kept in a state of perpetual pregnancy, then forcibly separated from her babies again and again so that her babies' milk can be stolen by the members of a different species, plus the sufferings of the veal calves, etc. I have also since learned how "milk" cows are bred to have their udders produce sometimes up to ten times as much milk as their udders are naturally supposed to contain, so much so that cows' udders will often end up dragging on the ground! I want to be very clear and consistent in my commitment not to give any economic support to this massive organized cruelty. In addition, the moral-philosophical-political implications of "dairy" and "egg" industry products being derived from the exploitation of the reproductive organs of female animals also compel serious consideration.
Three years ago, in September 2002, as a result of a new job I moved to the Pasadena, California area, where I joined the Animal Kinship Committee, an ad hoc committee of the Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena. Although the link between the principles of nonviolence in the Quaker Meeting in which I was raised and my later automatic affinity, passion, and compassion for animals, was most certainly operating in my vegetarian journey throughout my life, this was the first group that helped me consciously to articulate this link! The AKC has also been wonderful as a mutual support group for our vegetarianism, as well as engaging in various "outings" to visit people with vegetarian pets, such as rabbits and pigs, to learn more about having those kinds of companion animals, participating in the Walk for Farm Animals (a benefit for Farm Sanctuary), offering vegetarian cooking classes for other members of the Orange Grove Friends Meeting, attending animal rights conferences, etc.
An interesting analogy has arisen, for me and some other members of the AKC, these last few years, between the Quaker relationship with the anti-slavery movement 150 to 200 years ago and the Quaker relationship with the vegetarian animal rights movement today. During my childhood, I was taught that in the earliest days of the abolitionist movement, not all Quakers opposed slavery, and many European American Quakers actually "owned" African American slaves. Although the Quakers as a whole were further advanced than the members of most other religious denominations in moving toward opposing slavery, there were great internal struggles among the Quakers over this issue before all Quakers eventually embraced abolitionism completely. Because the Religious Society of Friends was explicitly pacifist and against violence from its inception, and because it has always tended to be on the cutting edge of political issues in general, there are many reasons why it is natural and logical for Quakers again to be further advanced than the members of many other religious denominations in embracing the vegetarian animal rights commitment. And yet there is much intense internal struggle among the Quakers over this issue similar to that internal Quaker struggle of 150 to 200 years ago. Although this is frustrating and excruciatingly sad for some of us, it does have the intriguing element of enabling us to get a sort of "insider's view" or eyewitness perspective, even a participatory experience, of what it might have been like to be there during that other historical struggle, a couple of centuries ago! Not all abolitionists lived to see the emancipation of the enslaved people but it was extremely important that they continued to take their stand and build their movement, every step of the way.
Within the past 13 months, I have had three particularly powerful experiences pertaining to the animals whose species have become the farmed animals. Two experiences were negative and wrenching, but hopefully motivational, and took place during a transcontinental drive that I took in August 2004. The other experience was positive and inspirational, and took place this past February 2005. In August 2004, as I drove across the country, in Colorado just east of the Rocky Mountain National Park, I found myself driving past miles and miles and miles of an Auschwitz-like installation, involving the "feedlots" filled with cows exuding a devastating aura of hopelessness and despair. (And, as a scholar of Jewish history, I can assure you that I have visited Auschwitz as well as Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and the Warsaw ghetto location so, when I say that these "feedlots" evoked Auschwitz to me, I am not speaking abstractly.) The second wrenching event on that drive across the country took place at a truck stop in Iowa, where a transport truck, a semi truck jam-packed with pigs on two different levels, was parked. As I walked across the parking lot to enter the restaurant, these pigs were literally screaming and screaming and screaming, I can only imagine primarily from thirst, but probably also from painful injuries suffered in the transport process, hunger, heat, crowding, disorientation, separation from companions, terror, and other agonizing feelings that we who have not experienced it cannot begin to imagine. As I approached the restaurant, a man came out the door who said, "Wow, those pigs seem really unhappy," to which I replied, "Yes, well, I'm a vegetarian for animal rights reasons I don't know what more I can do!" I hoped, of course, to have some influence on his dietary choices, but that didn't lessen the torturous emotional anguish of that moment.
I wanted those two wrenching negative experiences to become motivational to me, and, despite financial difficulties, a few months later I increased my number of memberships in nation-wide animal rights groups from two to seven organizations, as well as of course continuing my involvement with my local group. The positive experience, of this past February 2005, was a visit to the California location of Farm Sanctuary, where rescued animals from the farmed species have a place to live out the rest of their lives (neutered) in safety and with good care. I found this visit a surprisingly moving experience. I had not been fully aware, previously, of the underlying anxiety and depression that must permeate and visibly exude from the bodies and minds of most farmed animals, but the contrast that I observed at Farm Sanctuary was positively striking, as the relaxed, peaceful, contented animals there exuded a tremendously different aura of genuine happiness especially the cows, a species that I as a childhood "horse nut" had always felt an affinity with. So, this was deeply moving to me, and inspirational. I was particularly impressed by the pigs, a species that I had never previously connected with much, as they stretched out their long bodies in a delightfully cat-like manner, lying on top of a giant thick bed of pristine clean straw! The Farm Sanctuary employees seemed to have a special enthusiasm for the pigs, and now I understand that better. I did already know that pigs are as intelligent and meaningfully interactive as dogs, but now I decided that I must become more closely acquainted with pigs in the future. (I hope eventually to become one of the vegetarian "placement" households, who adopt a couple of cows or pigs or other species when Farm Sanctuary receives too many animals to care for themselves and must find safe vegetarian homes for them.)
About a year ago, I wanted to adopt a companion dog for my dog, but I made myself wait until after I converted my dog to vegetarian dog food. As soon as that conversion was clearly successful, I went ahead and adopted a same-species companion for my dog (one of the most successful gifts of love that I've ever given). They both now eat the vegetarian dog food, and enjoy it as much as any other food. The store-bought vegetarian dog food unfortunately is very expensive, but I'm trying to contribute to increasing the demand for it, and by extension to economies of scale (the way in which cost per unit goes down when producers can make larger quantities). I also try to think of it as a very important charitable contribution albeit a pricey one. Occasionally, I also try to make a modified version of the recipes in the book, Vegetarian Dogs, by Verona re-Bow and Jonathan Dune (Halcyon, CA: LiveArt, 1998).
So, now, on the "second (and permanent!) round" of being a vegetarian, I have already surpassed the eight years of the "first round" having been not only a vegetarian but also a vegan for over eight years! I can't tell you how much I love being a vegan. I love the fact that I am contributing NO economic support to the animal flesh and animal slavery industries and their inherent, everyday cruelties (not to mention the over-the-top extreme cruelties committed against the veal calves and the KFC chickens). I love how easy it is to be a vegan. I love how "clean" all of my food feels, and how it's virtually impossible to get food poisoning from plant-derived foods (at least when prepared in a plant-foods-only kitchen). I love eating the correct type of food for my vegetarian-animal teeth and my vegetarian-animal digestive system. I love the fact that I can be a vegan for moral reasons pertaining to animal rights and animal kinship, yet simultaneously, with no extra effort and no separate action, I get the three extra "cherries on top": I am helping fight world hunger (by not consuming the eight times as much vegetable protein that it takes to produce animal flesh protein), helping to save the environment (by not contributing to the animal flesh industry's depletion of the water table, nor to the animal flesh industry's production of more than 50% of our country's solid waste), and I am making myself more healthy (by avoiding heart disease, cancer, and the bone fractures made more likely by protein overdoses). I love the fact that, in being a vegan, I can engage in major, monumentally important political activism, three times a day, making the world a significantly better place, yet in a period of my life when I have no extra time or energy to devote to political activism! There are no ifs or ands or buts about it being a vegan is positively heaven!
So, to end on an upbeat tone:
Let's beat our swords into plowshares. Let's beat the swords of the slaughterhouses into the plowshares for growing plant-based food. To draw again from the Jewish tradition: Save a life, and you will save the world. Destroy a life, and you will destroy the world.
Virginia Iris Holmes