Compromising Principles

Louise recently did a post questioning how vegans know for sure that they’re not accidentally consuming animal products in some way. She points out that the H1N1 vaccine contains squalene, which is derived from shark livers. She later asks:

But can you really call yourself a vegan if you knowingly use or eat something that is made using animal products?

It’s an interesting question. 

I actually wonder how many people no longer label themselves vegan or vegetarian in order to avoid challenges like this.

I usually just say, “I don’t eat meat.” “So, you’re a vegetarian?” people then ask. “Well, more or less.” I say. “I occasionally eat fish.”  Then people get very excited, point at me and gleefully say, “You’re not a REAL vegetarian if you eat fish!” Like they’ve caught me committing a crime of some sort.

Or if we’re out at a restaurant, they make a big show of cutting into their bloody steak and waving a forkful of it in my face saying “Yum, yum…dead cow.” And I guess they expect me to hurl all over the table or something. But really, I don’t care what you eat. You’re a grown-up; you make your own food choices. And no, I’m not all that concerned if my veggie burger is cooked on the same grill as your sirloin burger

Some people are afraid to invite me for a meal because they think that if I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat anything. “But what do you eat?” they ask, befuddled, as if there were no food available on the planet that doesn’t involve meat.

I guess if you’re going to do anything against the mainstream, you’d better have a clearly defined and publicly-posted mission statement and stick to it like Krazy Glue or people are going to get really confused and even angry. “You’re a hypocrite!” they exclaim. “You’re not adhering to your principles!”

As far as I know there is no vegan/vegetarian manifesto to which anyone wanting to call themselves vegan or vegetarian must swear an oath of allegiance. There are no rules, except the rules of common decency:

  • If you’re invited somewhere for dinner don’t expect your hosts to cater to your dietary choices. Bring along a nice protein dish to share if you’re not sure of the menu. By the same token, if you’re hosting the dinner, it’s okay for you to not cook meat
  • If you’re dining with omnivores, don’t point out to them exactly how their delicious chicken was slaughtered. That’s just as rude as the guy mentioned above who’s waving the bloody steak in the veggie’s face.
  • And speaking of steaks, don’t go to a steak house and make a big scene if they don’t have a vegetarian option for you.  That’s just as ludicrous as an omnivore making a scene at a veggie restaurant for not being able to rustle him up a pork chop.

 I think that’s about it for rules per se.

 But still, if you avoid consuming animal products, but wear a woolly hat in the winter, you will be sneered at as some sort of vegan pretender. Wearing that woolly hat seems to negate all your professed concern for animal welfare. You are now no longer worthy of the vegan label and might as well dive into a vat of offal.

And yes, there are some vegans who will not wear a woolly hat or use Burt’s Bees Lip Balm because both of these things involve taking something from living creatures. And there are some who will scream at you for holding your pants up with a leather belt. But I think such strictly principled people are rare.

I think most of the people who are doing what they can to live a healthier lifestyle or one more earth friendly are pretty flexible. It can’t be emotionally or physically healthy to be too extreme about anything.

The fish thing, for instance. While I’m all in favour of eating as far down the food chain as possible and not killing anything just to fill my belly, I happen to think that the health benefits of fish outweigh my general objection to killing things.

And I would wear woolly things if they weren’t so itchy. And I like leather because it lasts forever. Because when you think about it maybe buying one leather sofa that lasts 40 years must be more economically and ecologically sound than buying 5 or 6 fabric sofas in that time, right?

And those uncompromising vegans may think that eating soy products are more cruelty-free than eating eggs, but if you’ve ever lived on a farm you’ll know there are probably a million critters living in a soy field – many of whom will get mangled in combines at harvest time.

And probably a lot of vegans will have the H1N1 vaccine despite the squalene and many vegetarians will eat cheese in a restaurant even though was probably made with rennet.

So, really, most non-PETA vegans/vegetarians don’t go around beating people over the head with their beliefs and probably don’t even make a point of calling themselves vegans or vegetarians. Because they know compromise is knowingly or unknowingly necessary all the time and you can’t get too mental about it. If you want people to think your lifestyle choices are sound, acting like a crazy person isn’t going to be very convincing.


35 responses to “Compromising Principles

  1. I like the challenge of making dishes for vegetarians. I avoid vegans not because of their diet, but because they tend to be dogmatic zealots.

  2. The closest I ever came to cutting my finger and bleeding on a vegetarian’s dinner was the time I carefully prepared stuffed red peppers for a vegetarian teen, only to have her say ‘I don’t like red peppers, only green’.
    Which is to say, my one rule as host or guest is to eat what I am served without complaint. But I reserve the right not to eat everything that is being served. I always have bread and vegetables and cheese on hand in case someone turns out to avoid meat. Shellfish makes me very sick and so if I am at a lobster dinner, I eat everything else but the lobster.
    I really like to be informed ahead of time of dietary restrictions of any kind.
    And I’m with you on the poor sufferers in the soybean field. I may just use that on the red pepper hater sometime. Lovely!

  3. I have heard a friend say that for some, veganism is a cover for an eating disorder. Not all, but some.

    I think self righteous-ism is a disorder also.

  4. Wow, This so could have had words substituted and been about religion. I have my own personal religion and am not a member of any “group.” I believe strongly in my own personal faith. I never bother to explain it to anyone unless pressed. I see no need to convince anyone of my beliefs and am stunned when people make an effort to convince people of their beliefs. Why do people care what other people are doing/thinking/believing/eating when there is no physical or emotional harm to them by not knowing? I’ll never understand that. I personally do not care what people believe or eat as long as it does not impose a danger on myself or society. Like I always say, People Are Weird.

  5. Geewits makes a very good point and I think the phrase “you can’t get too mental about it” could be applied to most life choices. I love waking up to your posts, well, after one coffee . . .

  6. I treat Vegans with caution. Not necessarily because of their diet, but because they often come with other beliefs and values that aren’t compatible with my own.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that… 🙂

    Just so long as they don’t get mental about it…like you say.

  7. i have a “not on my grill you don’t” girlfriend (she’s vegan). we used to make fun of her, now we just accept her. she is slightly ocd in all aspects of her life.
    when i went through my brief vegetarian phase, i could not believe how many people commented, mocked, guffawed at my choice (including my mother). it was a real eye opener to experience that.

  8. The only time it ever occurs to me to be critical of vegans is when they are self righteous AND ignorantly ill informed at the same time. I took a historical art materials course and there were two vegans in the class. Historically we’ve always used animal products to make art materials and these two made so much noise about it they couldn’t possibly participate in this class. The thing that made me peeved with them was when we did encaustic painting (using wax as a binder for pigment – big in egypt – beeswax being the wax of choice) these two huffed and puffed and rather than investigate plant based waxes they could experiment with (and there are lots of them) they melted down Crayola crayons to use. I called them on it. Crayola employs beef tallow in the making of their crayons, they aren’t even vegetarian, let alone vegan. They didn’t thank me for this information, they were pissed with me.

  9. My boyfriend and I eat a primarily vegan diet because that’s the food that we like best. I don’t like to tell people that in so many words because they tend to start pointing out my leather boots and wool sweater.

    The one thing I am committed to is truly thinking about the things I do, wear, and consume. I wear wool because it is warm and durable. I buy leather boots because when I bought non-leather boots I had to replace them every year and I don’t see the point of filling landfills with synthetic materials every year when I could buy one pair of boots and wear them happily for years and years.

    Being a fanatic about any lifestyle or belief system (or diet!) means that you just follow a bunch of rules without weighing individual decisions, which never sat right with me.

    But that’s a lot to tell someone when they pester me about my meatless lunch, so I usually just stay quiet.

    And yes, I do write a vegetarian recipe blog. It’s more about delicious food than self-righteous rambling, though. 🙂

  10. We have friends from all ends of the vegan/vegetarian spectrum. My SIL is vegetarian (with occasional fish/seafood eating), but makes a fine ham for dinner when us meat-eating folks come for dinner. My brother and their kids eat meat, too. It’s just her personal preference not to eat meat or poultry.

    On the other hand, we have another set of friends who are strongly vegan and have been known to make judgmental comments about the dining choices of others. They even once got extremely upset when another friend’s dog jumped up to chomp a moth that was flying by. “Why didn’t you stop him?!?” On the other hand, they do seem to be consistent (which I think only really matters when vegans are as vocal about what others eat as they are).

    Back when I was vegetarian for a few years, I was in the states for work and a former coworker who was down there invited me for dinner. She mentioned we’d have barbecue. Now, it seems stupid to me now, but at the time it didn’t even occur to me that she mean barbecued meat. First of all, I thought she knew that I didn’t eat meat or poultry (apparently not) and secondly, I did eat barbecue a lot back then, it just happened to be BBQed veggies and soy burgers, and stuff like that. So I showed up and she had this lovely flank steak ready to throw on the grill. To my eternal regret I said, “but I’m vegetarian.” She looked so disappointed, and I’m sure also she wondered why the heck I hadn’t mentioned this beforehand. Many years later I wish I’d just kept my yap shut and had a bit of the steak. Really, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

  11. Why anyone cares what you or I or anyone else eats is beyond me. If you come to dinner, I’ll make the effort to have vegetarian food. It’s not like it’s anything seriously bizarre to rustle up. One can always fall back on pasta in cases of total lack of inspiration… And I won’t expect a vegetarian to serve me meat. The omni in omnivore means “a bit of everything” after all.

  12. Back when I was freshly out of college, I applied to a job notice at PETA. I was aware who they were, and thought working for them might be interesting. During the interview, I was told that I couldn’t wear leather/wool of any kind (shoes, belts, purses) or bring lunches with animal products in them to the PETA office. Beyond this, it appeared that makeup was off-limits, since none of the female staff wore any. The no leather would have been okay, the lunches inconvenient but manageable, and who really likes makeup? The thing that turned me was the gory, mangled images of half-dead bunnies and such, affixed in larger-than-life posters on every wall. Also, that PETA on the resume might not be a stepping stone to better future jobs—it’s too politically charged. They do practice what they preach.

  13. Pertaining to this post, I’ve known both types of peeps: those that simply shrug their shoulders when they meet someone of a different lifestyle (food choices, sexual partners, political stripe, etc.) and say, “whatever”. And those that really need to chill a bit.
    And, as you note, the ones that need to chill are on both sides of any debate about lifestyle choices. I recall a conversation with a vegan ex-colleague who wen on and on about how it was basically child abuse that I fed my kids meat! And on the other extreme, I have a couple of family members who think that vegans or vegetarians (or gays or lefties for that matter) are just so completely “out there”!
    I try to teach my kids to live and let live and to respect the decisions of other folks – even if they are different from their own. I hope I’m successful.
    PS – I do admit, however, to believing that PETA is full of a buncha freaks!

  14. Dr. Monkey – Do you make vegetarian meals for yourself,too? Even when no vegetarians are expected for dinner?

    Mary – The red pepper hater is just a rude teen. I know some veggies expect people to bend over backwards to accommodate not only their veganism/vegetarianism, but also all their other dietary quirks. As the hostess I think you’re perfectly entitled to serve whatever you want and guest should do their best to eat most of the things serves. Of course in this day and age, most hostesses will have some meat free options, some low fat options, some lactose free option (often that can be the same dish).

    Heather – I guess that could be true, but I think also the day of the pale, thin, lethargic vegan/vegetarian is over. Most of the veggies I know are pretty robust, healthy people. And, absolutely self-righteousness, in whatever form, is a disorder!

    Geewits – It definitely could be written about religion or any potential dogma. And on a personal level I don’t care what people eat or how they live their lives as long (as you say) they’re not hurting anyone. However, a case could be made that people who don’t make any effort to reduce their carbon footprint are hurting the planet and in turn me and my offspring and that people who refuse to look after their own health are costing us, the taxpayer, down the road in health care costs. But even there, it’s better to lead (by example, etc.) than to try and push people into something. That almost never works and only puts their back up.

    Grace – Thanks! That’s a great compliment. I think I’m going to make that my life’s motto “You can’t get too mental about it.”

    Friar – Like Dr. Monkey said. Most people with very extreme beliefs and/or lifestyles can be a bit trying. But sometimes it’s a good mental exercise to have a discussion with someone whose beliefs and values are completely different from yours.

    Meanie – Aw…are you finished with that experiment already? I hope you didn’t quit because of the mocking. I don’t really understand why people feel the need to do that. What the hell is so freaking hilarious about not wanting to eat dead, hormone/antibiotic/e-coli infested animals?

    Mudmama – Ha ha. And sigh…. I do have sympathy for vegans. I was vegan myself for a while, but it just got too ridiculous and restrictive for me. You have to admire someone that deprives themselves of so much in an effort to be a good global citizen. Ya, a lot of them are cranky and in-your-face and self-righteous, but they’re pulling a heavy load trying to save the earth while every day, everywhere they go they see people abusing it. Like PETA, their hearts, are in the right place and their essential message is a good one, but their methods of trying to convince others of their righteousness pursuits are pretty cuckoo, and very abrasvie and off-putting.

    J – Yes! You write a very delicious vegetarian food blog. Go see, everyone. I totally agree with your approach. I have leather furniture and leather boots for the same reason. Just like I eat fish and eggs (organic) because I think they are too healthful to avoid. I don’t eat dairy usually because I don’t think it’s healthy. I will have organic goat cheese in the house because cheese is so damn good and I will very occasionally eat cow cheese somewhere else if that’s my only protein option. So, as you say, it’s a matter of individually weighing up the pros and cons of the options available and doing what seems best for you and your conscience — without attaching an either/or label to it.

    Mary Lynn – How the heck can you stop a dog from eating all kinds of crap? Do they feed their animals a vegan diet, too? But, like I said to Mudmuma, as obnoxious as people can get about their beliefs, you gotta give them credit for being so steadfast. As for the BBQ, and other dinner parties where I’m fairly sure there aren’t going to be veggie options, I would bring something — maybe a pot of chili or a big salad with nuts or beans or cheese or a bunch of kebobs with veggies and tofu – so I can eat that if there’s nothing on the barbie but meat and at the same time share with whoever wants to try it. I wouldn’t have eaten the steak though. I’m not that polite!!

    Jazz – One of my best friends always serves spaghetti when we come for dinner because she has no idea what else she could possibly make for us. She very thoughfully doesn’t make a meat sauce, but makes meatballs instead so her family can have some meat to eat with their spaghetti. She DOES cook the meatballs in the tomato sauce, however. I’ve never had the heart to tell her that just scooping the meat out of a dish doesn’t automatically make it vegetarian.

    Nylonthread – Yes, they certainly do. And as I’ve said before, their work is important and their message is a good one — it’s just their delivery methods that are rather over-the-top. Though I suppose historically activist groups don’t get any attention if they just go around writing polite letters. It would have been an interesting job, if a bit stressful. You’d never know when you might inadvertently commit a huge anti-PETA crime.

    Trashee – Well, calling PETA a bunch of freaks isn’t very open-minded of you. Their methods are certainly kind of wacky, but so are most activist groups’. I think live and let live is a fine approach. Even better is to question what is different and what you don’t understand. I like to find out why people make the choices they do; what it means to them and their lives; what their challenges are; what they hope to accomplish; etc. I think if you approach people in a kind and interested way, they’re happy to talk to you.

  15. My mistake was that it didn’t even occur to me that she would serve meat, which was really pretty silly. If she’d known I was vegetarian and served it anyways then that would be her problem. But she didn’t know & I forgot to mention, so I feel like I should have just kept quiet when dinner was served. After that I made sure people knew or (when possible) contributed a dish of my own. Learning experience.

  16. It’s all about extremism, I agree.

    My DH (as the sewing blog ladies in the South call them, and no, it doesn’t mean “designated hitter”) has just finished reading a book about not eating meat and so we will be vegetarian/vegan for a while now. My issue with meat is mainly moral anyway, so that’s okay. If I kept chickens, I would eat their eggs and when one of them keeled over, I would boil it up, I suppose. It’s the factory farming that is a large part of the problem. My friend Rosemary raises animals the hard way so they are good to eat and had a nice life before they got killed. It’s a thorny issue in many ways.

  17. Re: Not hurting anyone, it could very easily be argued that you are hurting people by eating meat, just not people you see. Lots of beef comes from farms in places like former rainforests that were slashed and burned, and any residents moved away, only to be hired at slave wages to work on the corporate-owned farms. Then again, I hear soy farms are much the same.

    This is why I buy my meat from local producers, where the farmer owns the farm (instead of working on a farm). I find it tastes leaps and bounds better than grocery store meat. But I also eat a lot of packaged/prepared food, and generally remain ignorant to the source.

    I’d love to be vegetarian and I’m well versed in its virtues, but I’m such a picky eater that my diet is bland enough as it is, plus I already have to work hard to eat enough to not lose weight. And most of the foods I don’t like tend to be things that add variety to vegetarian dishes (tofu, peppers, mushrooms, many beans including lentils and chickpeas, anything remotely spicy including curry and mint, I’m not fond of tomatoes or pineapples…the list goes on).

    – RG>

  18. “What the hell is so freaking hilarious about not wanting to eat dead, hormone/antibiotic/e-coli infested animals?”
    The hilarious part is that the zesty tasty gravy is already in the meal this way. No need for all that work with spices etc when you got the e-coli hormone working in there.

  19. MaryLynn – Ah well. So now you’ve gone back to being an omnivore? How long were you veggie? Why did you go veggie and why did you quit?

    Julia – Darling Husband?? Damned Heretic? Devilishly Handsome? Dashing Hooligan? I’m excited for your upcoming vegetarian culinary adventures. You should have a dinner party and invite some discriminating vegetarians.

    Grouchy – There’s a lot of ways you can argue that eating meat is hurting all sorts of people today and in the future. I think I mentioned something like that somewhere in the comments already. Though there are some of the same issues with many factory farmed crops, the issues with livestock are much larger and wider spread. But we won’t go into all that now. I’m sorry that you’re such a picky eater that you can’t follow your conscience with respects to your diet. Perhaps you’l outgrow it in time. Is it that you just don’t like the taste/texture of certain foods/herbs/spices or do they not agree with you physically?

    Bandobras – It’s rib-sticking gravy for sure…in so many ways.

  20. Aside from *really enjoying* the taste of well prepared meat, for many foods it’s the taste/texture, but minty foods trigger my asthma and as for spicy foods, I’m what they call a ‘supertaster’. (superpowers are overrated, I tells ya)

    – RG>

  21. Someone waved a cigarette in my face after I just given up smoking when I was very young…okay 29..and I told him do it one more time and you will eat it…I guess he didn’t believe me…tobacco ingested will make you vomit profusely. I guess doing that over a steak is not all that threatening…

  22. All vegans should visit India once in their life time, especially the verrry veg pockets. Once I was irritated that the grocery store didn’t even store eggs.And, with the variety available, you will never miss the animals

  23. I can summarize with just one word, why I’ll never, ever, ever be a vegetarian:


    (It just tastes TOO good to give up.)

  24. Grouchy – Supertaster, eh? Hmmmm.

    Violetsky – Liberated from what? I’m pretty sure I could still cook a roast or a chicken or something if I had to. But I wouldn’t feel liberated.

    Cedar – I’m not that aggressive. I just give them a nice, “whoa-boy, you’re such an idiot” smile. It’s often pretty effective.

    Ramble – Indian restaurants are always lovely for vegetarians. Lots of tasty, meat-free options.

    Friar – I was rather fond of bacon, too. But they make some pretty good bacon substitutes these days. I still dream about the veggie bacon I had at Sadie’s Diner in Toronto this summer. I’d be willing to be, even you wouldn’t know the difference.

  25. I enjoyed your post and the responses. I never realized how vegetarians are hassled by their purchases and choices…that is ridiculous. When we invite someone over for a meal, we ask about dietary restrictions and preferences because we want them to enjoy themselves and eat. With allergies, food intolerances, lacto-ovo, vegan, no carb and religious diets I am surprised anyone has a problem with the way someone else eats. The big issue is judgement. People who wave meat or a cigarette in your face need to settle down. I try to avoid judgey people since they make me feel bad sometimes and mostly piss me off. Who needs that? I actually know some vegan Peta supporters who are a little “out there” but they are fun and lack any judgemental attitudes. They may be rare…but they do exist. Kind of like leprechauns. 🙂

  26. okay, maybe that wasn’t quite the right word. the point is, she doesn’t have to – no-one has ever asked her to make a meat dish, or complained or made her feel like her preferences were a bother. yet, she knows we like ham, so she makes it for us.
    I wouldn’t do the same. I would have foods we all like to eat. it is a long way from when I gave up eating red meat and I had to deal with a lot of frustration from my family and being constantly challenged.

  27. There are people who will resent you just for choosing differently than they did. As if this somehow invalidates their entire existence. They must then attempt to rebut your perceived insult by examining your actions and words under a microscope for any inconsistency. Because, to them, your “hypocrisy” invalidates your decision and, in doing so, restores their decisions to a place of primary, secured validity.

    I was a non-meat eater of varying stripes and preferences for many years. Now I eat meat, primarily because I love cooking and baking and eating, but I don’t feel that a meal or dish must necessarily be defined by an animal protein.

    Love your blog – thanks to the good Dr. Monkey for the referral!

  28. I do make vegetarian meals even when no vegetarian are coming by. We’ve been trying to eat less meat for a the past few years. I nearly went 100% veg last year but I chickened out.

  29. I loved this post, XUP. I’ll be referring several of our friends and family members here. My husband has been a vegetarian for years, and when we got married, we agreed to not having any meat in the house. Boy, did my mother ever freak out! To this day, she never stays with us when she comes to visit — she gets a hotel — because how is it possible to eat for a few days with no meat? She’d die, for sure!

    My husband eats fish sometimes when we go out to eat, if there isn’t any good alternatives on the menu, and he always gets major ribbing for being a fake or a phony. He gets the same jeers for things like leather shoes. I don’t know why people feel the need to hold vegetarians to some sort of super-standard — they see it as so black and white.

    Anyway, you explained better than I ever could about how diet and lifestyle is a blend of many different choices, and people should just knock it off. Thanks!

  30. so *that’s* what i’ve been doing wrong ;), “If you want people to think your lifestyle choices are sound, acting like a crazy person isn’t going to be very convincing.”

    good description on the differences and the notice of how folks use some ridiculous things as a weapon.

  31. MM – Thanks. Leprechauns – ha ha. I think if I were having a large dinner party I would plan a menu that included options that most restrictions could deal with. And then those with really, really odd diets would just have to cope. On the other hand if it was just 2 or 3 people coming, I would check with them to see if there was anything in my planned menu they couldn’t eat. When did eating get this complicated??

    Violetsky – Well, that’s nice of her. I don’t think I could bring myself to cook a ham (something I never liked even when I did eat meat). If I were entertaining a whole bunch of avid meat-eaters though I would try and throw in some sort of animal-based dish, I think.

    SFL – Hey! Welcome to the blog and thank you so much for the compliment and the thoughtful comment. I suppose as humans we never lose that tribal mentality where anything that’s different and outside of the pack must be viewed with suspicion and, preferably, ostracized.

    Dr. Monkey – I think I knew that. I believe you’ve showcased some of your meals on your blog, n’est ce pas?

    Cedar – They should make bacon patches to help you over those rough spots.

    Lynn -Your mother stays in a hotel because your home is meatless? Ha ha. My mum gets very twitchy if there isn’t any meat in the house, too. She always insists on having at least some chicken in the fridge if she comes over to stay.

    Leah – Ha ha. Ya, it’s tough to be a leader if you’re crazy. No, wait…most leaders ARE crazy. Obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about. Carry on.

  32. another excellent post. i’m a ‘flesh eater’ as some people refer to it (ha! now that makes me sick everytime i hear it) but i am very open to vegan and vegetarian choices. i regularly try new recipes that are vegan or vegetarian and i’m always interested in conversing with people who have educated themselves about this lifestyle and want to share what they’ve learned with me! despite how much i love meat (turkey, bacon, steak) and animal products (cheese), i could absolutely see myself giving it all up one day…just not yet! in the meantime everyone needs to chill and let people make their own food choices. XUP i would love if you shared some of your knowledge with us or if you started a blog about your food choices!!!!

  33. Betsy – I do discuss my food choices quite often throughout various blog posts. I don’t think I could do strictly a food blog, though. I will recommend It Ain’t Meat Babe – who you will find in my blogroll under Ottawa Bloggers. She posts excellent recipes and discussions about vegan and vegetarian dishes and is a very nice person, to boot!