We’ve been having our bathroom remodeled. Jose, the man who is doing most of the work, is incredibly kind. However, on the first day he was working here, he came downstairs still wearing his face mask that he’d been working in. My daughter burst into tears and after that I tried to talk to her about Jose I would say things like, “I know Jose looked scary in that mask. He needed it to keep him safe. He is very nice. Tomorrow when he comes back, I will say hi to him.” Daisy’s consistent response was, “no.”
After a few days though, Daisy began to look forward to Jose’s arrival. She would watch at the window as he unloaded his red truck, and she now has words like “saw” and “machine” in her vocabulary. Yesterday, she pointed at the bathroom where Jose was, and simply stated, “nice.”
Later that afternoon, I told Jose she had said that and she looked at him and repeated the word. His face lit up—if you’re going to be doing incredibly draining work all day long, it helps to have an adorable toddler give you a compliment. As he was leaving that day, he told Daisy he had a present for her and handed her a container of yogurt that he’d brought for his lunch. “I hear you like yogurt,” he said. Daisy does like yogurt and had pointed to this container earlier that day. She, of course, eats soy or coconut yogurt, but Jose wouldn’t have known that. I told him he really didn’t need to give it to her, but I could tell he wanted to, so I finally accepted it.
Despite always eating vegan, I sometimes accept non-vegan food gifts from people who don’t know me well. For instance, as a teacher, I’m often given a candy or cookie from a child that contains dairy, and I usually accept this if they seem excited about giving it to me. I know some vegans would disagree with this, but for me, it’s more important to acknowledge the spirit of the gift than to share that I’m vegan. Afterwards, I try to give the food away to someone who will eat and enjoy it. I do this because I know that a gift of food is more than the cookie or candy or yogurt container. A gift of food is love.
Food is culture, food is tradition, food is ceremony, and food is symbol. But at its most basic level, food is love. The buttery blueberry muffins that my mom would bake was love. The butter-burger our family friend Patti bought me when my dad was in the hospital was love. The tamales that my husband’s abuelita assembled every Christmas were love. The fish my uncle soaked in buttermilk before baking when we visited him in Alaska was love. The bacon my dad would fry on a weekend morning was love. The residue the Doritos left on my fingers when I shared them with my childhood friends was love. The grease the late night cheese pizzas left on my fingers when I shared them with my twenty-something friends was love.
Since these foods represent love, it’s no wonder then that few people are vegan. It’s no wonder then, that billions of caring individuals eat animals that were raised in appalling circumstances and slaughtered in mass numbers. It’s no wonder then, that billions of caring individuals drink the milk of mothers who had their babies taken from them. It’s no wonder then, that billions of people continue to eat fish at a level that is killing our seas. In fact, it’s a testament to the bond that people have with animals that there are some people who have started to consider these traditions. When it comes to love, humans aren’t rational. I know I wasn’t for years.
So, what does this mean for veganism? What does this mean for the animals who suffer for this food? What does this mean for our planet, who suffers due to mass animal agriculture? What does this mean for those of us who’d like to encourage people to eat less animal products, but aren’t sure where to begin?
Maybe it means that treasure the traditions, but find ways to make them kinder. Maybe we veganize one family dish at a time. Maybe we find new dishes that are love. Love in my life was all those animal products I grew up eating, but now it’s also my favorite vegan pasta salad. One night, not long after I’d had a miscarriage, my husband and I couldn’t sleep, and we came downstairs and ate the leftovers we had of it in our refrigerator. I remember every bite of its creamy tofu dressing, its salty olives, and its crunchy bell peppers. I remember it as love. Love is the thing that sits by you as you cry.
Maybe it means we cry together that the grilled cheese sandwich our mothers made us came from a cow whose own children were taken from her. Maybe we remember the love with which our mothers cut it into triangles and extend that love to the cows, and don’t beat ourselves up for not knowing, or for pretending otherwise, because there’s so much we don’t know when we love. There’s so much we pretend.
Maybe it means that we think about the love we have for our dogs, and then think of the pigs we consume, who are just as intelligent. Maybe we do this without shame, but with love—for ourselves and the animals. Maybe it means we take a step back and think about how we could make choices that improve the condition of our planet. Maybe we do this not only with an open mind, but with a mind that acknowledges, “it is so incredibly hard to think about how we could have done better for our children’s future. It hurts to know that we haven’t done our best. I love the earth so much that I feel myself getting defensive whenever I read something that tells me I should eat less animal products.” Maybe those of us who have already thought about these issues could stand by the others and say, “I know, I know. It’s so incredibly hard. I know how hard it is to hear. I don’t judge you. I was you. I love you.”
Maybe we could start with love.