FOOD CHOICES, LIFESTYLE CHOICES

By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood '63

"I found out where hamburgers come from and I'm not eating them any more!" my daughter, Lagusta, announced about 10 years ago, when she was 12.

"And I'm not eating any other meat either," she added.

She handed me a flyer-famous among vegetarians, although I didn't know it then-called "How to Win An Argument with a Meat-Eater."

Later I would look back on that exchange as marking the moment when my life was transformed.

At the time, though, there was no clap of thunder, no "eureka." As more or less a child of the '60s, I was tolerant of weird lifestyle choices, and vegetarianism didn't even seem all that weird.

Besides, as a lifelong animal lover, the idea of not eating any once-living creatures pleased me. Always seeking good mother-daughter bonding experiences, I decided to join Lagusta in this experiment. (My husband and son declined the invitation; to this day my son can't say the word "tofu" without making a face, much less eat it. So much for role modeling.)

Naturally-thanks in part to my Bryn Mawr education-I wanted to find out more about the choice I had made, so I began to read everything I could get my hands on that concerned vegetarianism. I found out that the classic summation of pro-vegetarian arguments, "How to Win An Argument with a Meat-Eater," came from a seminal 1987 book called Diet for a New America by John Robbins, the heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune who opted to become a vegetarian/ animal rights activist. The first of many pieces of vegetarian literature I would read, it set the tone for me, and it was one of sheer horror.

I discovered that animals that are raised for food-cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and others-live horrible lives in the confinement of "factory farms" and die agonizing deaths. And more than six billion of them are killed every year in the United States alone.

I found out that the amount of fossil fuel it takes to produce one pound of meat could produce 40 pounds of soybeans.

I found out that demand for cheap beef is a major reason for the destruction of Central American rainforests. I found out much more about the adverse effect meat has on the environment and on human health.

Reading and meeting other vegetarians (I quickly discovered that I needed to be around others of my own kind), I began to see more clearly the connections that radiate outward from one's food choices and eventually bump up against the most important issues in the universe—at least they did for me.

When I discovered that milk cows and laying hens fare no better than their peers that are killed for food—they suffer terribly too, and over a longer period—I decided to go all the way and become a vegan. (My daughter had already made that choice.) Vegans don't eat, wear or use animal products in any way. Now the expanded consciousness I brought to my food choices rippled outward a little more-no leather shoes or purses, no cosmetics from companies that test their products on animals.

Living like this tests your determination and ingenuity every day, makes you more conscious of all your actions, of the mundane realities in your daily existence. You're invited to your boss's house for dinner and she notices you're only eating the salad and asks why. Here's a chance for a little gentle, non-confrontational vegetarian education. Or you order your favorite, French onion soup, in a restaurant—is this version made with beef broth or vegetable stock? Better find out without completely alienating your waiter. Are those kid-pleasing bean burritos from Taco Bell made with lard? And on and on. Those kinds of things raise your consciousness in a hurry, and I count anything that does that as a positive.

It's not as hard as you might think. You may have to order your non-leather shoes from a catalogue (or buy very cheap ones at Payless—I've used both options), and if your family reunion is at the city's best-known steakhouse, well, it's salad for dinner for you.

Websites

The author recommends these websites for those interested in learning more about the issues she discusses.

www.earthsave.org (John Robbins and "Diet for a New America")
www.vrg.org (Vegetarian Research Group-best for all kinds of vegetarian information)
www.veganoutreach.org (Vegan information)
www.peta.com (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-all kinds of animal rights topics)

But the vegan lifestyle has led me far beyond just worrying about shoes and food choices. For the last decade I've been an animal rights activist, devoting as much time as I can to activities as varied as picketing fur stores and helping to produce a vegetarian chili competition. I share my house and my life with five cats and a dog, and I volunteer at a local animal shelter every week. The satisfaction and joy I get from working with these homeless and helpless creatures is hard to describe. It's one thing to sit at a table and hand out literature about animal rights (and that offers its own kind of satisfaction). But it's another kind of thrill entirely to, say, help acclimate a feral kitten to human touch, then see it adopted by a loving family. I like to think that every time something like that happens, it balances out one act of animal cruelty in the world.

Although I've always loved animals, it took the vegetarian connection to show me that I could stand up for them. More than that, it gave me a new way of looking at the world. I have come to believe that there's no real difference between the cat sitting purring on my lap and the cow on her way to the slaughterhouse—or the rabbit who has been blinded for a cosmetics test—or the bird flying outside my window—or myself. I believe that we are all much more similar than we are different from one another.

That, and I've learned at least 500 ways to use tofu.

cover icon Return to Summer 2000 highlights

MHK