Confessions of a Meat-Eater
I don't bring up my veganism at meals. Particularly not meals with strangers, and never, under any circumstances, while those strangers are eating meat. I learned early on, from the sage advice of my favorite vegan activist, that talking about not eating animals while people are eating animals is a terrible idea. This makes sense; discussing my moral opposition to a behavior while those around me are engaging in it is a clear recipe for disaster. People get defensive and uncomfortable, and no one enjoys the meal. (The obvious exception is when everyone around the table is vegan.) I'm also sensitive to commentary about others' food, as I am an eating disorder survivor and understand how triggering such commentary can be.
Sometimes, however, the topic comes up, and I can't escape it. This was the situation in which I found myself on Monday night, celebrating Passover at a local synagogue. It was a justice-themed Seder. My table had already discussed family histories, violent racism and anti-Semitism, and LGBTQIA+ rights. Needless to say, we were a like-minded bunch. Cue the meal, though, and an uneasiness settled over us. I tried to surreptitiously find out if the matzoh ball soup contained egg (it did) and whether the vegan option was ready (it wasn't). The event hosts did a wonderful job of accommodating me, but when everyone else sat down with pieces of chicken and fish and I plopped down my stuffed pepper, it was obvious that I had some sort of dietary restriction.
"Are you vegan?" someone asked kindly. "Yes," I replied with a smile, trying to seem attentive and disinterested at the same time. She smiled and nodded, biting into her salmon and explaining, "I don't really eat meat, mainly just fish." To this I can relate: I was pescatarian before becoming vegetarian. I tell her so, explaining that seafood was the only meat I ever really enjoyed eating. Seafood is meat, by the way - just because it swims rather than runs doesn't make it any less of an animal. Another diner chimed in as he sliced into his chicken breast, declaring loudly that though he eats chicken and fish, he avoids "red meat." He looked at me expectantly, waiting for I don't know what. An agreement? A reassurance? I can give him neither. I decided on a pause, waiting a beat too long, before commenting blandly on the delicious quinoa salad.
I never know what meat-eaters expect me to say to these sorts of comments. I heard about the phenomenon when I first went vegan, and I've since realized it's unavoidable. When they find out that you're vegan, they anoint you their secular confessor. They either rattle off a list of justifications for eating animals (trust me, I've already heard yours) or quickly insist that they don't eat certain types of animals, or don't eat very many. I never know what to say. I don't judge people who eat meat, because not too long ago I was one of them, and I'm sure I have said many of the same things. I can't reassure them, though, either. I'm not going to applaud someone for claiming they don't eat much meat when I know that the average American eats 193 pounds of meat a year. I'm also not going to reassure them that the "white" flesh of chickens and fish is somehow less morally important than the "red" of cows and pigs, because they all bleed the same color on the chopping block.
I think that meat-eaters are seeking reassurances from me because they believe, on some level, that eating animals might be wrong. I think they are hoping that I can provide a measure of relief so that they don't have to think about what my veganism has stirred in them. I cannot offer that relief. Neither will I provide condemnation. So I settle for a mirrored silence, hoping to merely reflect their choices back clearly to them.