Whenever people comment about the pictures of food and recipes I post, I always joke, “I’m not a chef. I’m just hungry.” There is some truth to that. I never cooked very much and when I did, much of it came from boxes or envelopes filled with flavored powders. When Tom and I began our cruelty-free journey, we had no vegan restaurants to dine at and no giant supermarkets selling vegan products. I had to learn how to cook and since we loved to eat, I learned to cook a lot! I also enjoyed the challenge of veganizing foods and making over our favorite dishes with compassion and awareness.
But there is another level to my recipes, one that runs much deeper than my ever-present hunger. It is also something that, even after almost half a decade, I’ve only recently become attuned to. For over 40 years I ate animals and animal products, all while calling myself an animal lover. I repeatedly stated that I wished I could be a vegetarian (I didn’t even know the word “vegan”) but I didn’t think I could live without chicken. I was adamant that if I lived on a farm or had to see an animal killed for my food, I would live on salad.
But I didn’t live on a farm and I didn’t have to see the animals killed for my food. I was able to remain detached and disassociated from the truth. With an arsenal of rationalizations, I was able to avoid what made me uncomfortable and continue to eat the foods I loved. I said I loved animals but I ate them and I used products made from them. I said I loved animals yet they suffered and died for me.
Granted my exposure to the truth was very limited. Growing up in the Bronx, I knew nothing about animals other than dogs, cats, birds, rats and bugs. The only time I saw any other animals was at the Bronx Zoo. I didn’t see a real-life cow until I was almost 30 and like many people, I didn’t know that dairy was cruel. I thought that cows always had milk to give and that milking them made them more comfortable. Like many children, I had asked whether eggs were baby chickens and was told they were unfertilized so it was alright to eat them. Between limited exposure and the wealth of misinformation passed down, my level of ignorance was huge and I didn’t know how much there was to learn.
But eventually I did learn. I learned the truth and I changed my behavior. I often say that becoming vegan is my greatest accomplishment. The flip side of that is that not becoming vegan sooner is my greatest regret. Every time I recreate one of my favorite foods without animals, when I use products that were not tested on animals or when I buy clothes and shoes that were not made from animals, it is an experience of battling emotions – sadness and excitement, guilt and triumph. Every time I create recipes, I am not just writing down ingredients and directions; I am writing apologies and love letters.
I taste my latest creation – something I used to love to eat but that I now make with tofu and vegetables rather than chickens, eggs and dairy – and it’s delicious. It satisfies my cravings, it satiates my hunger, it excites my taste buds and it gives me all the flavors I love without the cruelty. That makes me happy – I did it! I am elated over my success and think, “See, I didn’t need chicken to make this.” Then I become sad and think, “See, I didn’t need chicken to make this.” And I want to apologize to all the chickens, all the cows, all the lambs, all the animals I ever ate. I want to apologize to all the animals who suffered for me, who lost their babies for me, who died for me. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t ready to know. Now I know and I’m sorry.”
The first time I ever held a chicken, a live chicken, was at a sanctuary. I didn’t hold him correctly and the chicken clawed my arm open. As the blood poured out of my arm and sanctuary workers ran to get me a bandage, I said, “It’s ok. It’s only the tiniest fraction of the payback I deserve.” Whenever I am at a sanctuary and I get a quiet moment alone with an animal – a chicken, a pig, a lamb, a cow – I look them in the eye and I say “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ever hurt any of you. I’m so sorry.” The guilt and regret I feel are palpable.
But we cannot go backwards and we cannot rewrite history. I can’t give back the lives of all the animals who suffered and died for my desires, my ignorance or my avoidance of the truth. All I can do is go forward and do my best to never cause any future harm to any living creature. Rather than wallow in my guilt, I can better spend my energies trying to help others learn what I have learned – that we don’t need animals for our cosmetics, our clothes, our shoes, our accessories or our food.
And I can write vegan recipes and essays about veganism. Everything I write contains an apology to all animals – “I have learned that I don’t need to exploit you or use your bodies. I have learned that you have a right to live in peace. I have learned how to live my life without stopping you from living yours. I’m sorry it took me so long.”
Everything I write is also a love letter. For now I can truly say I love animals and live by my words. I can look animals in the eye and while I’ll always feel guilt, I also know I will do my best to ensure no animal will have to suffer for me again. With every word I write I am saying, “I see you now. I understand you have your own life, your own family, your own feelings, your own pain and your own potential for happiness. I am your friend. I am your ally and your defender. I am your voice. You don’t need to fear me. I am vegan and I love you. I am vegan becauseI love you.”
The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.
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