When some people consider veganism, they think it’s a sacrifice to give up certain foods. I was as guilty of this as anyone. For years, I would say, “I could never be vegetarian because I like chicken too much.” Chicken was one of my favorite foods. I had a personal investment in maintaining my belief that eating chicken was ok because I have fond memories of baked chicken and homemade chicken soup my mom made when I was a kid. I carried those traditions into adulthood, and once married, I made many meals with chicken for Husband and I to share. Reframing a symbol of family and nourishment into something unjust and ethically wrong took time and reflection. I was challenged to gain clarity about how to more respectfully and authentically “like” chickens, amazing sentient beings with robust, fulfilling social and emotional lives when they are allowed to live free from the threat of becoming someone’s dinner
Once I reconstructed what chickens meant to me, I faced the hurdle of all hurdles. Cheese. “I could never be vegan because I love cheese too much.” I said it many times. In listening to various podcasts about veganism, I’ve learned that cheese is often the last hurdle for many vegans. Since I started my vegan journey, several people have expressed to me their opposition or reluctance to give up cheese, and I can’t help but relate. I was an admitted cheese snob. American cheese wouldn’t do. I liked fancy cheeses of all sorts, from domestic artisan to imports. There are probably ten different supermarkets that are closer to me than Whole Foods, but I would schlep to Whole Foods just to get my favorite cheese, Wensleydale with cranberries, and while I was hovering over the cheese selection, I’d grab some Asiago, Piave, or maybe some Stilton, just to mix things up. Cheese was a simple snack that didn’t assault my blood sugar too much, and I enjoyed it. Giving up chicken was one thing, but I couldn’t fathom sacrificing cheese.
Towards the end of last summer, I was enthusiastically on the path towards veganism, but still eating omnivorously. I was grappling with changing beliefs and mixed emotions, and in retrospect, I think keeping animal products in my diet gave me a sense of security that I wouldn’t disrupt my family and social life too much. I was committed to having at least one vegan meal a day, although most days I was having two. I even had three vegan meals on occasion, but I was still having some non-vegan snacks. I bought a block of Wensleydale cheese with cranberries in early September, intending to eat it for snacks. I bought it because it was familiar. I bought it because I’d been buying it for years. I bought it because I associated it with pleasure, gratification, and comfort. We had served this cheese as part of the cocktail hour of our wedding reception, so I bought it because I had positive memories associated with it. However, I remember picking up that last block of cheese, placing it in my basket, and feeling unease and doubt.
It sat in the fridge, and occasionally, I’d pull it out to inspect it for mold. As days turned into weeks turned into months, I was increasingly surprised that I didn’t see any mold on it. I’d put it back in the meat & cheese drawer, and tell myself to eat it before it became inedible. I really do hate wasting food, which continues to be a struggle for me as I look though my cabinets, fridge and freezer at non-vegan food items, almost all of which I bought before I ever imagined going vegan. “Just eat it so it doesn’t go to waste, and then don’t buy anymore.”
I couldn’t do it though. I pulled it out a few days ago to inspect it. It was buried under Field Roast chipotle sausage, Daiya pepperjack shreds, a half-eaten Daiya cheddar wedge, and Upton chorizo seitan. It looked like maybe there was a bit of mold growing under the cellophane wrap. Finally. I held it, I studied it, and I took a couple of photos. I thought about what it represented once upon a time, and what it meant to me now. I thought about the cows that gave their milk for that block of cheese, and wondered about the calves who were taken from them. Amid the quiet morning, the cheese made a resounding thud as it hit the bottom of the trashcan.
As symbolic as that untouched 5-month old cheese became, I actually don’t recall the last time I ate dairy cheese. I’ve been eating Daiya cheese at home for months now, most notably on grilled cheese sandwiches and sprinkled on veggie-seitan tacos, so I haven’t missed dairy cheese. The last dairy cheese I ate would have been at a restaurant or as a guest in someone’s home back before the New Year. When I ate it, I didn’t mean for it to be the last dairy cheese I ever ate, but as it turns out, dairy cheese isn’t as hard to stop eating as I thought.
I thought giving up cheese would be a sacrifice. I imagined a vegan diet was defined by sacrifice. Now that I’m all in, I’ve come to a new understanding. I think the best analogy is perhaps having children. Do you sacrifice a lot to have children? Being childfree, I can only comment as an observer, but I think it’s fair to say that people do sacrifice a lot. However, as far as I can tell, the parents I know don’t define parenthood as a thankless sacrifice. In exchange for what they give up, they get so much more in return. So. Much. More.
I think that aptly describes veganism too. Veganism is not a sacrifice. Veganism is a gift.
It’s allowed me to open my heart, extend my compassion, feel more deeply, and connect to my world more authentically. No perfectly roasted chicken, scrambled egg or block of cheese has ever given me such joy. Now that I do not intentionally contribute to death, I am finally living, and as it turns out, not sacrificing animals isn’t a sacrifice at all.