I was vegan for two weeks. It was impulsive: I'd read Gandhi's autobiography, felt guilty that I never did anything moral with my life, and decided I would try to not eat animal products. It didn't last long because when it comes to food I have the willpower of a German Shepherd who was given thumbs and a credit card.
What struck me in that brief time was how much crap my friends gave me for eating vegan. I think the standard joke is that vegans can't stop telling everyone they're vegan but I found the opposite to be true: meat eaters get freaked out at the idea of someone not eating meat and lobby hard for them to join back in. And in fact, people will in general criticize and argue with each other about food strategies more than most other life decisions.
You can get divorced, be unemployed and be addicted to drugs people will look the other way. But dare to not have meat and cheese on your plate and the world acts like you've locked your infant child in the back seat of your nuclear reactor.
I wasn't wearing my new diet choice on my sleeve, as I didn't have confidence I'd stay with it. So I'd order a tofu something or other, and when my friends raised an eyebrow, I'd say something vague like "yeah, trying to eat lighter" and that would be enough for people to start offering opinions.
"Better be careful - make sure to get your protein," was the most common thing I heard. First of all, anyone who looked at me, diplomatically described as a doughy gentleman of unhurried living, could see that my body had protein to spare. Also, protein is in almost everything and you don't need a lot of it. We're Americans, we eat like angry rats and generally acquire enough food before 10am to last us until the end of the next day.
But people are not genuinely concerned about protein intake, they're just bothered by someone eating differently. There's a deep emotional need to make people conform, and facts go by the wayside. Tell someone that protein deficiency is generally not a worry and they'll simply up the ante. "Well you know, " they'll whisper. "Most vegetables are cruelly murdered." You'll see similar tactics in political discussions.
Tofu is a surprisingly hated material in our culture. Even the word feels forbidden: spongy and silly. Certainly, to order it among friends is like walking into a 1950s library and ask for a copy of The Communist Manifesto. You'd better be ready to explain yourself. Why is that? Who gives a crap? Tofu is generally bland, but blandness can't be what offends people or else we'd all be yelling every day at people who listen to electronically ambient music or who watch Jim Belushi television shows.
But it's not just vegan diets though certainly the severeness of that diet provokes the most discussion - people like to get involved with each other's food all the time. Witness any office around lunchtime when someone returns from the outside world with food in a brown paper bag. All heads pop up.
"Ooh, what'd you get? Where'd you go? Whadya get there?"
It doesn't matter if everyone in the office goes to the same deli for lunch, and has done so for 150 years. People are newly interested, every day, every meal, in what the other humans are eating. It must be evolutionary: food is so important to survival that it takes priority even among a floor of cubicles of people who haven't gone without food since they were born.
I know this because outside of the 14 days I ate vegan, I tend to eat big hunks of comfort food and I get embarrassed about it. So I'd walk into my office from the outside world and have to tell everyone that I was eating not only a ham sandwich with mayonnaise but an enormous chocolate chip cookie that looked like a prop for a children's show. "Man, look at that cookie. Someone's treating himself," someone would laugh.
People aren't like that about other aspects of our lives. If I walked into my office with a new girlfriend, people would not say to my face "Whoa! Look at her! Someone's going through a mid-life crisis! Wouldn't mind that!"
I believe that even in a post-apocalyptic world people will discuss food. I'm picturing a police state in which all food is government created paste that comes in two colors, blue or red, and that's all there is and still at lunch people will say "Oh you got the blue paste? From where? Tony's? I don't like their blue paste. Tastes a little red to me."
Another thing that my two week exploration of vegan eating revealed to me was how many other annoying habits I have that go uncommented on. See, I'm an especially defensive person. I can get personally resentful of the rain. But after hearing multiple people from disparate groups tell me how my vegan eating, based on their zero time doing it themselves, was unhealthy I realized how rarely they had commented on other parts of my life. And I'm annoying in a million ways! I like snobby movies, obscure television shows, outdated music and useless antiquated technologies like rotary phones or conversation. I sympathize with hipsters, and I think Andy Dufrense should have served his prison sentence as ordered by the jury of his peers.
But no cares about those things. As long as I'm eating what they are, we're all good.
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