by Jetta Rae Robertson
I’m an omnivore; my two closest friends in Oakland are vegan. It sounds like the setup to a romantic comedy; I concede that few Josh Hartnett films wouldn’t be improved with a lazy Sunday sort of scene with him and his crush du jour trying to find a way to counter the bitter aftertaste of cashew ice cream. But then, I’m a lesbian; this is the sort of fiction that speaks to me and my life.
I’m usually the designated cook when we get together; I’ve got a food blog, I’ve had cooking lessons and I once almost caught on fire while working a grill. Such to say, it’s where I belong, and no matter who’s kitchen I’m working in, I cook vegan for my friends because any space I’m currently in is a space where they belong. I can’t and won’t adopt a vegan lifestyle, but I recognize this aspect of their identities and lifestyle isn’t frivolous and deserves my efforts to include them.
Discourse around boundaries tend to overlook (or haven’t caught up to) the concept of boundaries one sets with oneself. A set of eating habits, like the decision to not imbibe certain intoxicants, is a contract you make with yourself: I will not allow this into my body, or for anyone to compel me to do so. These contracts can provide the framework for the assertive boundaries necessary to stay safe in a society where we teach kids that you just have to accept hugs and kisses from some people. When we try to push people to eat outside their diet or drink when they’re sober, we are violating that internal contract.
What I’ve said makes for a good pull quote, even if it’s a little reductive: women, fat-bodied people, those with invisible disabilities and others whose bodies fall outside the “acceptable spectrum of bodily respectability” face constant external pressure to modify what they put in their bodies. This “advice” is often very bad, in addition to oppressive: if I had a nickel for every person who told me that drinking the “real sugar” sodas will cure or reduce the symptoms of my diabetes, I could buy enough “real sugar” soda to put myself in diabetic shock every day for a month.
I am aligned with and opposed to political vegans in equal measure — as someone whose life is sustained by the slaughter and subjugation of animals, as an intersectional feminist familiar with the way that non-white men are reduced to fleshy commodity, I feel a piercing moral imperative to aid in the dismantling of institutions that trade in animal cruelty. Burn the slaughterhouses. Burn the Kentucky Derby. Burn the American Kennel Club and all the breeders. I find disrespect of the animals we have historically relied on for sustenance and labor vulgar, whether it’s systemic cruelty or eating one part of it and deeming the rest “gross.” I have that literal blood on my hands and I feel beholden to it.
At another time, I’d love to lay down my thesis for why I feel, as a poor woman with an invisible illness, that forcing myself into a vegan diet plays into a moral purity that marks certain social stratas — i.e. the poor and “unclean” of society; those who can’t adopt a vegan lifestyle — as expendable and how, conveniently, it’s the same people who are expendable in any and every political movement that strives to be establishment.
Cooking and eating with my vegan friends affords me an opportunity to offer and accept emotional intimacy. People can be very defensive about eating meat, and also about not eating meat; sharing a meal can be an affirmation of love and respect amidst an environment where people are want to criticize everything about you, even down to what kind of milk you put in your coffee.
Outside of our little conclaves of cashew-milk root beer floats, my friends and I have invariably been insulted by people within our communities. They receive pressure from family or close friends to rescind this contract they’ve made with their bodies; they see frequent jokes on Tumblr and Twitter about the inherent preachiness of their lifestyle. I see fat bodies like mine mocked by animal-rights organizations as an inevitable symptom of drinking dairy milk.
A cis white woman with a mohawk once told me that I’d have less gender dysphoria if I stopped eating animal hormones. She neglected to follow this up with, “drink soy because it has phytoestrogens that some studies have shown to have effects on the human body not unlike HRT,” which would have been a great opportunity to sell me on her thesis; educating me on my own otherness was the greater imperative.
We the judged come together for the healing ritual, which looks a lot like tofu sausage and mashed potatoes and bad Buzzfeed videos about what Hogwarts house you really belong in. In these exchanges, we are affirmed, we are solidified, we are able to put compassionate minds and hearts together to discuss these complex issues of accessibility, animal welfare and food justice.
The question of power in relation to diet is fluid and contextual — while veganism sometimes requires a level of socio-economic resources that I as a poor woman usually don’t have access to, I can go literally anywhere and eat almost anything I find there without it violating the contract I have made for myself and my body. (Even if what I’d be eating would be considered slop fit for the unwashed masses). The unilaterally oppressed in this situation are the animals and human laborers whose bodies and suffering are exploited to provide the food for a capitalist society that throws way too much of that food away.
My learning vegan cooking tips from my vegan friends as a show of intimacy and solidarity should not be equated to saying, “we can solve inequality and prejudice if we all just ate spaghetti together.” I am not violating my own personal bodily contract by cooking and having vegan food with my friends; it is a comfortable common ground.
You might like quinoa or seitan if you gave it a chance! And if you did, you might find that a lot of what you like about certain meat dishes is due to the way it’s cooked, which can give you greater insight into marinating, grilling and stir fry as techniques and science removed from their end results. And the next morning, you’ll discover how applesauce and bananas make for good (and sometimes cheaper) binding agents in pancakes, and that if you use these (or flax seed, or black beans if you’re making brownies), you can eat all the goddamn batter you want without getting sick.
Cooking vegan has given me invaluable information on the science and art of cooking; my friends’ appreciation of the labor and our collective enjoyment of the end result make this a learning opportunity that leaves me better than I was found. Social justice communities often devolve into hives of infighting. I’ve seen friendships publicly torn apart for things more seemingly innocuous than having a slice of cheese pizza. Often this is because we either don’t value or have adequate means through the tools available to us on social media to demonstrate an earnest willingness to learn and see where the other person is coming from. When my friends and I open a cookbook together and try to convert something like a goat cheese burger with bacon into a vegan equivalent, we are making a conscientious demonstration of our desires to come together. Some might call this “intentional community.”
I don’t know yet how, as a poor woman with a medical condition and a desire to advocate for marginalized people to eat the food that’s been available to them for generations, to best participate in politics of animal welfare and vegan/vegetarian accessibility without implicitly shaming myself or others who want to eat meat, which for many reasons I don’t think can or should be wholly forbidden. It’s complex and will take more exploration on my part.
What I do know: Trader Joe’s soy chorizo makes for a good meat substitute in spaghetti sauce; soy milk and flour are a good french toast batter; and I’m fairly sure coconut cream with the right herbs can pass as a vegan goat cheese, which I will call “Plutus” because the Plutus was a car meant to knock off the Chevrolet Colorado and that sort of wordplay is infinitely more interesting to me than jokes about preachy vegans or billboards about how eating meat makes you fat.
Jetta Rae’s areas of interest include pinball, wrestling and what the patches on your denim vest mean to you. She can be found at @jetta_rae on Twitter.