Michelle Menting grew up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan and now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she is a PhD student at UN-L. Her work appears in Boxcar Poetry Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Diagram, and other literary journals. She is happy to now live in a place that actually experiences the season of spring.
On Becoming Vegan
Veganism may be defined as a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom for food, clothing, or any other purpose. In dietary terms it refers to the practice of dispensing with all animal produce—including flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, (non-human) animal milks, and their derivatives, with the taking of honey being left to individual conscience.
—(from the magazine The Vegan)
You should begin with meat. Eat animal muscle. Eat pig rump, baby cow, baby sheep, gyros, goat cahones, and hotdogs: pig snouts, lips, and assholes. Dine on flesh. Get it in your system and then get it out of your system. You should know what you will be missing, and from there you will either be thankful or desperate. Don't forget about dairy and eggs; have your fill before avoiding these delicacies of animal lactation and ovation.
You must keep in mind: how far do you want to take this? How devout are you? What are you devout about? Prepare to have an explanation for your decision to be animal-free. Will you live life without any animal exploitation? Will you forgo animal products all together? You need to have an explanation for your veganism. People will wonder about you; they'll question your health, your politics, and your religious background. Be prepared to explain to what degree of vegan you are. You will be tested, poked, prodded on recipes, anemia, your personal hygiene, and your fashion sense.
You decide to be a dietary vegan. You still wear flesh. You favor your 14 inch black leather ecco boots too much to bury them in the back yard as Bessie the Cow remains. You bought these boots for $50. Two hundred, seventy-five dollar boots for $50! You tuck these boots in their box at night. You treat them better than pets. They don't fit your feet very well, but they are shiny and you cherish them. This somehow reminds you of your love life.
By deciding on dietary veganism, you have chosen to give up ingesting meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and all feathered things. Veganism is tricky; you also cannot eat food that has the slightest dusting of meat, dairy, eggs, fish, or all feathered things. This means you inspect food labels. This mean you cook with creativity. This means you embark on an intimate, yet boundless love affair with tofu. You learn to dig the curd, to appreciate its mutability; you learn to value and respect the lord of all beans: the soybean.
You like beans; your family likes beans. You have four sisters who like running and like eating beans. When you visit your sisters, you have nonverbal competitions with them concerning how much more fiber you can eat in a single day. These contests are held while having nonverbal conversations on long runs, outdoors, with plenty of fresh air.
People already think you're strange, and your choice to be vegan only adds to your oddness. Not only does your diet reflect a skew from the norm, it also further demonstrates your willingness to be difficult. Case in point: people, who initially liked you, will offer you food. You will be in settings where non-vegan food is offered. Homemade non-vegan food. You don't want to insult the chef. You also don't want the people offering you free food to go to extra lengths to make sure the food is vegan free food. You don't want to ask: “Did you fry this in lard?” or “Sorry to bother you, but this non-dairy cheese, though delightfully nutty, it might have caseinate in it. You know, caseinate. It's a milk derivative. Can I see the packaging?” You don't want to be a pain in the ass. Buying vegan can be expensive. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be expensive. Depending on where you live, tofu can be expensive. You consider your diet before moving somewhere. You consider the availability of Whole Foods markets or trendy health food co-ops.
When you first learn the specifics of this dietary way of life, you are nineteen years old. You are in college, taking classes in botany, folklore, and African languages. You want to live in the Congo or maybe Rwanda. You like Dian Fossey. You rent the movie Gorillas in the Mist. Sigourney Weaver is a dead-ringer for your oldest sister, especially when she plays that bitchy character in that other movie, the one with the Indiana Jones guy. You discuss this with your other sisters, “Did you see the movie with Deb in it?” Your sister, Deb, though an extremely healthy eater and triathlon participant, is not vegan. You don't know if Sigourney Weaver is vegan. You wonder if Dian Fossey was vegan. She was murdered and this frightens you.
When you are nineteen and taking second semester classes in Scandinavian literature, Danish, and microeconomics, you live in a very liberal college town. You like it there. People don't bathe much, but there are always fresh organic vegetables in the stores. You have a work-study job. You are poor and this is the way the government plans to help you pay for your college education. You can't afford to be vegan, but you choose to work in the horticulture building. Your supervisor is a dreamy graduate student. He plays soccer and smells like licorice. He has a girlfriend who is studying to be a writer. She has a professor she despises. She has a professor, who according to her, every writing student despises. The professor's name is Lorrie Moore. You've read her books. You read everything. You don't know if Lorrie Moore is a nice person, but you don't wonder if she is vegan.
While still nineteen, you develop a crush on your horticulture graduate student boss. He's an ovo-lacto-fish-eating vegetarian. He doesn't eat red meat or feathered things. He only eats the feathered things' unfertilized eggs, your pet goldfish's cousins, and drinks liquid that originally came from a teat. He knows you have a crush on him. He thinks you're sweet. He thinks you're twelve.
You overhear a discussion between your hunky licorice-scented boss and a female graduate student. You don't overhear; you are spying. But no one cares because everyone thinks you are a cute 12-year old who might need to maintain some strange diet for health reasons or for religious purposes. The grad students are talking about various modes of “good-lovin'.” You stand in the hallway out of sight, but still pretend to study a framed antique print of Glycine max (the soybean plant). You hear: “Everything I eat is good and healthy; nothing that goes into this body is damaging. It's all sweet and pure. So therefore, everything this body produces is sweet and pure. I tell you, Julie, I taste good. I produce good lovin' protein. What does she have to protest about?”
You assume “Licorice” is referring to the Lorrie Moore hater, and you think that they are discussing oral sex. You're not positive; you're only nineteen, and everyone thinks you're twelve, and you know for a fact that Licorice recycles EVERYTHING. You hope he means oral sex, but you don't know how far he goes with his recycling habit. You've heard jokes about his homemade fertilizer…
The grad students hear you shuffling in the hall and invite you into the break room. It's early May and it's a Friday, and they are feeling frisky and in the mood to tease an impressionable undergraduate student. They ask your opinion, knowing you were listening to part of the conversation. You've been reading about veganism. You haven't become a fully committed dietary vegan yet—you are a few years from this venture—but you are educating yourself. You have learned that any animal protein—no matter what the source and no matter what manner of fun it is digested—is still an animal product. Feeling confident with this and not wanting to reward them with some embarrassingly virginal comment, you reply, “Um. I'm a vegan.” And then you run away down the hall, giggling. You think you hear the female grad student say, “Why does that 12-year old keep hanging around here?” But you're not sure.
During the summer when you decide to take classes and study Indonesian, you begin the delightful routine of Margarita Thursdays with your Indonesian class. There are several dietary vegans in the class, and when you are all drunk on tequila, you quiz them on vegan details. You are inebriated, and so you use profanity: “What the fuck's with honey? What's the problem there? How's that exploitive? Don't bees like making honey? Isn't that why they buzz? Is it that they are just plain selfish? The little fuzzy bastards don't want to share their sweet nectar?”
When you were a freshman in college, your mother died from cancer. She had colon cancer, and the quiet knowledge you share with your sisters is that the disease could have been caught and prevented. Before you entered kindergarten, your father died of the same thing. Your mother knew the signs. You wonder if she chose to ignore them. You try to wrap your mind around the idea of whether your mother was happy or not. Whether, once you—her youngest child—went away to college, she chose to be done with life.
Your mother didn't grow up on an extremely unhealthy diet, though she grew up in the upper Midwest and ate plenty of meat and cheese. Your father grew up on a Wisconsin farm. He had a farm boy's diet of meat, eggs, biscuits, and Wisconsin cheddar. Both your parents were of Dutch descent. You wonder if all or any of these factors contributed to their cancer deaths. You can only think about this briefly, but you begin running marathons when you are just eighteen, and when you turn nineteen, you begin to read about the vegan diet.
You don't initiate your vegan eating habits until the year before you graduate from college. You seriously consider the ramifications of this choice—what you will have to give up. You come to the conclusion that you don't have to give up everything and you don't have to be exceedingly strict about anything; you're no food Nazi.
You have learned to appreciate good wine. Occasionally, you like to eat good cheese with good wine. You especially favor good Dutch Gouda. Since your year of being a nineteen year old, you have decided to become a student of writing. You enjoyed the Lorrie Moore hater's stories too much, and have been told that “for a twelve-year old, you have tremendous writing talent.” With this change in college major and new life direction (although you didn't have a major to begin with), you know you have just decided to be poor for most of your adult life. You have learned that the strict vegan diet can be expensive. You rally. You decide you will do your best. When people ask you, why vegan? You can't say that you are a devout member of PETA (although they throw some great parties) or that you will not be a part of any form of animal exploitation. (You still dress up your sister's cats as garden gnomes when you visit. It's fun. They like it.) Sometimes, you'll eat meat; you'll do your best not to, but until you are making a good living on your own, you will not turn down free food. You respond to the why vegan? question with simply, It's an option. And it makes me think about our food choices and the ramifications of such choices, not only regarding my body or my politics, but regarding the environment. You tend to get preachy with this response, but you rein-in your sermons well. You do your best and decide not to vocally categorize your eating habits. You will remain flexible, but still hopeful.
When you decide to go to graduate school, you consider the background of your professors and the availability of good soymilk, but mostly you consider the natural environment. You like trees, you like lakes, you like the four seasons. You stay in the Midwest, even though it's cold and people are always shooting things. You edge closer to the idea of adopting a strict vegan lifestyle, but to this day you remain realistic. You will be knowledgeable of the vegan way. You will continue to educate yourself. It's very possible, like all your life pursuits thus far, you will apply your mantra to your ideal of veganism: to be a jack of all trades, master of none. You know this doesn't make much sense, but it's a nice way to temporarily end things.