April 24, 2008

The V-word

I never told anyone about this until I confessed it to Szilvi last week.

I've always disliked the word "vegan". Dislike is too mild: I detest it, revile it, can barely get myself to form it on my lips.

This is going to take a lot of explaining. Where should I start?

What’s forced the issue is that our youngest child, Timothy, developed eczema. It was just sort of rash-y, and vaguely reddish and irritated for months, but something kicked it into overdrive a few weeks back and he started getting these angry, dry red patches on his arms and legs. And he’d scratch himself to bleeding when his clothes were off. Doctor’s recommendation: stop feeding him dairy products (and nuts and several other things, while we’re at it). Since he’s not even two yet, and we eat our meals as a family, that meant that we ALL were going to stop eating dairy products, since Timothy would throw a shit fit if he saw someone eating yoghurt or putting sour cream on their food when he can’t have any.

Now, our family is already vegetarian to begin with (another V-word). This is a step in a more severe direction.

Szilvi and I have been vegetarians for twelve years, and I still haven’t warmed up to that word. I’m never comfortable with telling someone, "I’m a vegetarian." How ridiculous to define someone by what they don’t eat. I don’t eat meat. Does that make me “something”? Is there a word for people who don’t drink tomato juice? How about a word for people who don’t sleep late on weekends? (OK, they're called parents.)

The vegetarian thing was slow in developing. Back in the 80s, when I lived in northern California, I developed some digestion problems. Severe digestion problems. I began thinking I should write a will. That was when, under the guidance of my herbalist/acupuncturist, I began conscientiously deciding what to eat, instead of just stuffing my face with whatever came to hand. I began eating more brown rice, and more raw and steamed vegetables. Among the things I began eating less of was meat. I didn’t stop eating meat, or really consider it, because my favorite cuisine was Chinese. And the Chinese do love their pork. So I wasn’t eating slabs of beef steak, just slivers of pork to go with the asparagus in Cheng Tu sauce (for instance). All-in-all, my meat consumption fell drastically.

Fast forward to being a young married couple in Hungary. Szilvi was never a real meat lover, so she and I didn’t eat much meat to begin with, and she even encouraged me to try making my favorite Chinese dishes without the meat. But when we went to visit relatives – even the ones who knew we tried to eat a light diet – they would put heaps of meat on the table, and we’d feel obliged to eat it. And then I’d feel sick afterwards. I’d complain to Szilvi. One day she informed me that the solution to this problem was simple. “We just tell everyone we’re vegetarians!”

Wow! That sounded drastic. But I saw her point: it really was the only solution. And, well, it wasn’t hard at all. I can honestly say that I haven’t missed eating meat at all. Now, you should observe that we didn’t stop eating meat on moral grounds. It was actually a choice based on health concerns. Granted, after you live for years without eating flesh you do look at meat very differently, and do begin to see the taking of life for the sake of pleasure to be, well, wasteful and selfish. But that’s not how it started with us.

Oddly, I actually even experimented with cutting dairy foods out of my diet when I was in my twenties as a way to cut calories. And that was before I became a veg-… veg-… you, know, one of those people who don’t eat meat. I’ve actually even thought of going that route for years, but it just seemed too difficult in a family with four children.

So back to our immediate situation. If you’re already a lacto-ovo vegetarian (another really silly term pigeon-holing people by what they do/don’t eat), and you stop eating dairy products and eggs, well that makes you a… a… Oh my God! I just can’t say it!

On her blog, Szilvi remarked that she was surprised (shocked! alarmed! is more like it) to hear me say that when, after a few months, we begin reintroducing some of the sensitizing foods into Timothy’s (and the family’s) diet, I might like to – in her words – “stay on a vegan diet.”

Egad! She said it! About me! Somebody called me a vegan! OH NO! I’ve become one of THEM!

OK. Let’s talk about why I hate this word.

Where did this word come from anyway? It first started becoming commonly used in the mid nineties, and usually in reports about the animal rights movement. There’s something weird about how its spelling and pronunciation defy all rules of English orthography and phonics. Why the long e (veeegun) and not a short e as in all other words that come from the same Latin root. Why a hard g and not a soft g. It’s a downright dumb sounding word. It makes me feel illiterate to say it. This incongruence with authentic English words gives it the stink of a neologism, and a clumsy one at that. And the kind of neologism that makes my skin crawl at the suspicion it was coined by someone with little reverence for the English language and a big fat agenda. When I went to search for an etymology, my suspicions were confirmed. It is, indeed a coined word. Somebody foisted this monster on us.

And now by simply choosing not to eat dairy products, this foul locution has been used in connection with my name. Theo the vegan. That stings.

Earlier I mentioned how the v-word made it's way into common usage with the rise of the animal rights movement. Whether or not one sympathizes with their aims (for the most part I do, especially when it comes to their stance on laboratory animals), or with some of their tactics (letting domesticated animals free is actually pretty stupid), I can't help recalling being seriously repelled by self-righteous twenty-somethings being interviewed at animal rights demonstrations declaring their superiority over the rest of humanity because they were (gulp, here goes!) vegans. What put me off was their revolutionary fervor that showed not one bit of sympathy for the fact that our society has century-old customs and practices that make meat eating an integral part of the culture. It takes serious introspection and afterwards personal strength (to withstand the constant, if most of the time subtle, criticism one has to endure) in order to make the decision to change one's diet that drastically. You can't just bully people into understanding the politics and ethics of our eating habits. It takes time to understand it. You can't expect people to accept such big changes overnight.

And, again, my choice isn't really political. It's a practical choice regarding my health. I have lots of children I want to see grow up. I have lots of things I still want to get done in this life. I just can't afford to get sick and feeble. That's the main reason why I made these choices.

There are spiritual reasons, too. But I take that up in a later posting.

I guess I better get used to the fact that, like it or not, the way I eat now fits the definition of ... of... (just say it!) vegan. I'll just have to get used to it.


anthromama said...

It always sounds to me like people are saying they're from Vega, like the star!

My oldest friend has chosen as an adult to be vegan, though I think he once said he occasionally eats honey. I think he also does not wear animal-derived clothing -- he lives in Palo Alto, where the weather is quite mild year-round.

His reasoning was along the lines of animal rights and trying to be ecologically responsible. (I question how ecologically responsible the production of his Goretex is!)

Somehow I find those reasons less "acceptable" (as if my acceptance is required) than health reasons such as you describe. I guess I don't agree that eating animals and their products is immoral in and of itself. Factory farming, chemical-dependent monocultural agriculture, yes. But simply eating animals, no. (And I don't look on it as just for pleasure. Lately I have been truly craving protein, though that's probably evidence of the poor state of my overall diet.)

In the US (particularly in the Bay Area where he lives) it is quite easy to find animal products that were produced in ethical and ecologically sound ways. They are much more expensive, but they are there. I can get eggs, meat, and dairy products made from local animals that I can visit any time and see for myself that they are not being treated poorly and are not degrading their environment.

Also it seems to me that hardcore or activist vegans try to take something essentially emotional/personal and apply empirical logic to it. Like, "the taking of life for our food is wrong." So, you'll be dining on air and sunlight? Even fruit or nuts fallen from a tree are living things, the seeds inside containing new life. It doesn't follow logically.

Theo, I promise not to ever call you a v-gan, so help me G-d.

Adrienne said...

I thought, by looking at Szilvi's blog, that this might be the situation. I wonder sometimes how I am able to deduct the information I can when looking at a blog in Hugarian, which might as well be typed in Chinese. So, how does this affect your usual rotation of recipes? Are you able to convert your favorite dishes to your new eating lifestyle, and eliminate the dairy, or will you have to completely overhaul the menu? I'm not sure I could bring myself to eliminate cheese from my diet. There have been times when I've contemplated what it would be like to be a vegetarian, and I honestly think I could get used to not eating meat, at least eventually, (I recall a time in college where I literally ate no meat for 6 months because whatever there was in the dining hall which was called "meat" was just not something I would eat, and I just subsituted other protein, and was perfectly fine), but cheese? I'm just not sure. Note to self: The next time I visit Budapest, have the cabbie stop at the Eurospar for a wheel of Cheddar to get me through. Ha!

malyvacsiga said...

No sweat, Adrienne, I'm not about to give up my cheese and ice cream, though it will be sad to eat it by myself after the kids are in bed. :-P
Our other kids do get dairy in their lunchboxes, can eat it at Grandma's, at parties, etc. And so do I. Our anthro pediatrician told me to secretely eat some every other day or so anyway, for the baby's sake.
The family meals are dairy free, some recipes can be adapted, some have to be tossed, since soy is also a no-no, i.e. no tofu, no soy-milk or soy-yoghurt. Oh, and no nut creams, either. For a while. His skin is improving by the minute, I must say!

But... go ahead and pick up that Cheddar, it's usually beyond our budget anyway. :-)))))

Leora said...

Have you considered occasionally eating meat, fish or chicken? Or do you think that this would upset your system? Seems to me the healthiest people (statistically, not individual by individual) are those that eat a mostly plant-based diet but eat a little animal protein, too.

My friend who's a vegan loves her tag. I could see why the tag 'vegan' could be bothersome, though.

I really enjoyed when someone on a health blog pointed out that a person could consume diet coke as their only food and still be considered a vegan.

Theo Huffman said...

Hello Gang!

Sorry it's taken so long to respond to my commenters, but you know life is what's happening when you think you should be blogging. ;-)


I'm not sure how I would feel if we lived in an ideal world. In the early 90s I toured around bio-dynamic farms in Germany for an article I was writing, and was very impressed with the feeling of harmony between the soil, the plants, the animals and the people. They are healthy systems on both physical and spiritual levels. I might eat a different diet if that kind of food was readily available and (more importantly) affordable. It might also be different if I didn't have a desk job. You can eat much differently if you burn a lot of calories and move alot. But there is the spiritual side, which I haven't addressed yet (and don't want to really get into until I post about it) which involves how your diet affects your state of consciousness, and your ability to: reach profound levels of meditation, recall dreams, and remain sensitive to your intuition.


Essentially, we're rethinking everything we eat. It's rough. Eating downtown on my lunch break I'm coming to the conclusion that restaurant food either has meat or cheese in it.


I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a Jewish girlfriend in high school. It was the seventies, and it was the fashion to try to scientifically explain old customs, and religious practices. I argued that the kosher diet made sense in biblical times because pork is prone to so many diseases and it was inviting disaster to infect your dairy foods with the bacteria from meat, but that with modern hygiene this was no longer necessary. She got it through my thick skull that being Jewish meant following God's commandments, and if he said this is the manner in which you eat, if you were a good Jew, that's the way you ate. Period. Oh. Hmmm. Goy boy finally gets it.

So I understand that from that perspective vegetarianism and its permutations don't really make sense if you are a religious Jew. I mean, why would God have given you rules for how to eat meat, if he hadn't intended for us to eat meat? Pretty logical.

But, well, I'm not Jewish, so I'm not predisposed to see things from that perspective. So, to tell you the truth, I have to admit that eating meat would bother my conscience at this point. I've discovered on those rare occasions when some meat slips into my food (there's some chicken, for instance in that mayonaise-y salad I just got from the buffet) that since I haven't eaten animals for years on end, I suddenly become very conscious of the fact that there's animal flesh in my mouth. It's unsettling.