Friday, September 9, 2011


Highland Beef Cow: Deerfield Fair, 2005.   J. Stimmell©2011
     In a recent piece in the Concord Monitor, Tim O’Shea describes his two-week trial eating only vegan food. The single explanation he gave for his experiment was that some people turn to veganism to impress their girlfriends, making no mention of possible health, environmental, or moral benefits.

I understand that his objective was to write a funny, tongue-in-check piece but the overall tone struck my ear as harsh, confirming the negative stereotype many people already have about vegetarianism and veganism.

As a consequence, I fear, he will scare people away from experimenting with a more plant-based diet, especially men who still subscribe to the old adage, “real men don’t eat quiche.”

To start with, it is necessary to challenge the whole premise of Tim’s article: two weeks is an absurdly short time to successfully change one’s entire diet.  In fact, it’s impossible.

Nutritionists have shown that children needed to try a new food item 10 to 15 times before they begin to like it. And that’s just a single food item, not a whole new diet.

And if the person eating the new food has a predetermined negative attitude like our reluctant vegan, it will be even longer – in my case, for instance: it took over 60 years.

I grew up in the ultimate meat-eating family: we loved meat of all kinds, all the time. We even harvested a lot of our own: hunting and fish and raising pigs and chickens.

I continued this tradition as an adult. After returning from Vietnam, like so many sixties people, I joined the back-to-the-land movement, raising my own meat and loving to eat it, just as much as ever.

I was an addict to meat and other things as well, like chain-smoking Winston cigarettes. But slowly over time, as opposed to a mad dash, I made changes. I owe most of it to the women in my life who patiently showed me a better way.

By the 1980s, prodded by public health warnings and my own guilt at how my behavior negatively affected the whole environment, including that of my loved ones, I was forced to admit that my lifestyle was wildly out-of-step with my conscience. 

But that was not enough for me to quit. I was still too much of an addict.

Nevertheless, around the edges I continued to make changes: by the 1990s I was giving up soda and white bread, starting to eat brown rice and whole wheat bread, and switching from french fries to leafy greens.

Some things take time and don’t happen in just two weeks.  In 2002, after quitting smoking hundreds of times but failing, I finally succeeded. It was the hardest thing I ever did: it literally took over a year for my head to clear.

Only then, did I realize how addicted I had been – and as it turned out, still was.

I still ate meat and loved it as much as ever but continued to cut back for health and environmental reasons. I tried to buy only locally grown, humanely raised meat. But, honestly, I was prone to cheat.

And so things stood, until I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, in December of 2009.

His writing, like a powerful flood, swept away the remaining walls of my denial unearthing vivid memories and feelings with a common theme around the guilt I felt over how much I had killed, and, often, how badly.

For the first time I viscerally felt the spasms of unnecessary suffering I caused as a young hunter from unclean kills I made. In Vietnam, I remembered the bloated bodies floating down the Mekong River like dead fish, feeling their pain and that of their families, all the time knowing they were all killed in my name.

I remembered slaughtering my first pig but only wounding her when the .22 rifle misfired, causing her to careen around the pen, blinded by blood, terrifying my other pig who joined her in emitting haunting screams that were eerily human…I remembered too much.

I remembered so much that I have not eaten a single piece of meat or fish since finishing his book. It only took 65 years.  But when the time came, it was easy.

Granted, it takes time and effort to train your taste buds to change, but when you do, a plant-based diet is not just as satisfying and tasty as a meat based diet, it is more so. After all, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains come in an endless variety, each with their unique flavor and texture, and when you combine them with various spices and sauces, they can be served in an almost infinite number of ways.

Sure I still occasionally have a craving for meat, just like I still do for cigarettes.  But I’m not going back. It’s a blessing nowadays to wake up in the morning and be able to take a deep breath without coughing. More important, I have swapped a few of my addictions for a healthier body and a clearer conscience, adding an extra spring to my step and a certain lightness to my being.

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