Around 20 years ago, whilst I was researching for my PhD, I found out one of those things that perhaps should be obvious, but that hadn’t occurred to me until that point. Pigs are not meant to be that shape. I was reading F.H.A. Marshall’s classic 1910 text The Physiology of Reproduction (yes, I hear you). Now I knew that domesticated animals were changed versions of their wild forebears. I knew we’d selected cattle, pigs and sheep for their meat, milk and wool-producing capacities. But what I hadn’t realised was the full extent to which we had changed the bodies of animals.
I had naively assumed that we’d bred pigs to reproduce more rapidly, mature and gain weight faster, and to be tastier. What I hadn’t realised, until Marshall spelled it out for me, was that we had changed their shape so the parts with the most sought after cuts of meat were larger. Those little legs and long backs are not the unfortunate by-product of breeding a fatter, juicier pig. They are quite deliberate, because no-one really likes eating the trotters but they do like loin.
I have been pescetarian or vegetarian since 1985. As uncomfortable as I was with this new knowledge of what we had done, it did not change my eating habits. I ate no meat other than fish anyway and did not intend to become vegan. I originally opted for pescetarianism because I did not like the taste or texture of meat, and a large part of that dislike was the knowledge that I was eating the flesh of animals. Eating fish was a compromise. As I remember it, my mum would not let me in the kitchen to make my own meals. My dad did not cook (he does now) but he did insist that every meal had some meat in it. Eating fish was a compromise because although much of the time I wasn’t that keen on it, I could eat it without feeling ill and it meant my mum wasn’t always having to cook extra things for me.
Since then I’ve gone through prolonged periods (years) of being vegetarian, interspersed with being pescetarian. I know there are things wrong with the dairy industry but I admit I haven’t done much to change that, until recently. A little over a year ago I stopped buying milk and yoghurt at home. I wasn’t always finishing what I bought and forcing an animal into over production and then not even bothering to consume what they’d produced just seemed to me to add insult to injury. I was still fixated on cheese though, cheese I thought was the one thing I wouldn’t give up.
And then I found out about veganuary and thought “well why not at least try it”. It was only for a month and it would give me a chance, rather than saying it was too difficult, of finding out what it was actually like. And I wouldn’t have blogged about it but would have kept the experience to myself, if it weren’t for reading this rather daft article in the Independent, and wanting to add something a bit more reflective.
Being vegan is not just about eating a plant-based diet, although if all you’d read was the Independent’s take on it you might think so. It is, as far as I can work out, about rejecting the commodification and exploitation of other sentient beings, no matter what their species. It’s thinking a pig would be better off as a wild boar, not as a thing to be kept, forced to breed and then slaughtered, because you enjoy a bacon sarnie with your hangover. Now there is a lot of this I agree with, except that I think human history is inextricably linked with the history of other animals. So whilst I think our relationship with those other animals is highly questionable and can be very exploitative, I’m not quite ready to end that link completely (I might be in future). As someone involved with cats and horses, I think sometimes there is more agency from animals than we credit them with and the exploitation isn’t always one-way (particularly where the cats are concerned).
So here are my thoughts on trying to be vegan:
1. Veganism is not difficult in and of itself – it becomes difficult because the world we live in is not geared to it. It’s actually easy to just eat plant-based foods, if you’ve got the time to find them and prepare them. But, our ready-made foods are geared to omnivores and vegetarians, not vegans. And our culture is geared to working long hours and coming home too exhausted to cook properly. So it’s easy to shove fish cakes in the oven, or boil up some tortellini. It’s more difficult to cook from scratch. This is not a vegan problem, it’s a societal one. We either need more time to cook, or more ready-made vegan meals. I vote for both.
2. Fry’s chocolate and oreos are incidentally vegan. Oreos are the crack cocaine of the biscuit world. DO NOT start that habit.
3. Every other thing has got whey powder in it. Or honey. Or some vague egg product that I’m sure it doesn’t need. Veganism would be a lot easier without that.
4. It’s easy to give up cheese. This one surprised me. I thought I was addicted to cheese but now the thought of that funny rubbery stuff is not good and I don’t like it (I have replaced that addiction with oreos though).
5. My skin looks better. Whether this is giving up dairy, fish and eggs or eating less and fewer processed foods, I cannot say.
6. Giving up dairy felt right and I feel healthier for it. The evidence for why this might be is complex but suffice it to say, as a middle-aged woman, giving it up feels good, and that’s as much information as I’m prepared to divulge. (Just watch that you find another source of calcium and bear in mind that what I’m saying is purely anecdotal).
7. It’s very, very hard to find any unbiased information on either side. I’m used to wading through and assessing evidence and yet for me assessing the pros and cons of veganism has been a minefield. Finding out that sheep are used to fertilise land to grow quinoa was interesting. There is no simple way to sort through and understand our dependence on animals.
So did I make it through veganuary and will I continue to be vegan? No on both counts I’m afraid. Somewhere round about week 3 I came crashing down with a virus and, a rare occurrence for me, had to take time off work. I don’t attribute this to my vegan experiment, since for me it’s not a major dietary change. I attribute it to common or garden January, and stress. Nonetheless I craved a quick fix and ate some fish. Sorry. Maybe veganism isn’t that easy, especially when temptation is all around you.
I think the nearest label I can get to my current diet is dairy-free pescetarian because I did succeed in staying away from dairy products and have gone off them. So I eat eggs, fish and honey, carefully sourced, but no other animal products. I will choose vegan options where I can.
For me, trying to be vegan reminded me of trying to be vegetarian 30 years ago. Back then, the vegetarian option when you ate out was often an omelette. If you were lucky you got vegetable lasagne and chips and the chips weren’t necessarily cooked in animal fat. Now, cheese is clearly labelled up and we know whether or not it contains rennet. Being vegetarian, at least in the UK, is relatively easy. No-one has said “but why are you vegetarian” to me since the BSE crisis of the mid 1990s. So if you are vegan, or trying to be vegan, you are making a difference. It will get easier as more people do it. And personally, I think this is a good thing. Whilst I don’t currently entirely object to our use of animals, I do think it needs to be more careful and less industrialised. Veganism, vegetarianism, or just being careful where you source meat from, are all steps in the right direction.