Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer.
When I was a child, I’d watch my mother and grandmother plunge their knuckles into wide stainless-steel bowls full of raw, pink meat guck. Expertly, the bowl would be rotated with one hand, the other kneading the defenceless mound into what would eventually become meatballs. I hated it. Existential panic hit me early in life, and my baby mind – having not yet begun to understand the negotiation and mechanics of survival – couldn’t overcome the opaque idea that eating meat was homicidal. It wasn’t that I found animals too cute to eat; it was that I felt horrified by the idea of consuming the life of another being, as though its energy would turn to scorned ghosts inside my stomach. Throughout my adolescence, I ate as little meat as I could, the interior dialogue of my politics resembling that of Lisa Simpson and the baby lamb begging for mercy in her daydream. Shortly after starting university, I decided to go vegetarian.
At the time, I hadn’t come up with much of an ethos. Being a vegetarian just meant I didn’t eat meat. I cut out fish, too, had an on-again, off-again relationship with eggs and bought some B12s from the drug store. My diet was, for lack of a better word, lifeless. In 2007, vegetarians were still something of an oddity in my jock-driven university town. Because I didn’t want to explain my childhood fear of being haunted by the vindictive spectres of dead cows, I began to rely on unthoughtful justifications such as “meat is murder” when people asked – albeit often combatively – why I was a vegetarian.
Although I now eat fish at my doctor’s encouragement and have since arrived at a more balanced understanding of why some people eat meat and others do not, I have chosen to stick with it. After 12 years, being a vegetarian still feels important to me. For a long time, I was proud of it.
Recently, though, my vegetarianism has become a source of shame, so much that I feel an accelerating desire to eat meat again. There has been no conversion of my morality, no educational or economical epiphany. It’s because of the vegans.
I know that sensible vegans are out there, nice people who don’t impose their choices on anyone whose lifestyle doesn't, or can’t, resemble theirs. But the sanctimonious melodrama of veganism has become synonymous with any meatless diet.
Not long ago, a friend and I were walking elsewhere after dinner when we ran into a feverish throng of protesters huddled around Antler, a 40-seat restaurant on Dundas West in Toronto. Antler has become a premiere destination for vegan protesters, who originally disliked its “Venison is the new kale” sidewalk sign. Antagonized by owner Michael Hunter’s decision to butcher and eat a leg of deer in the window as protesters watched in horror, the vegans continue to return. And that’s fine, insofar as it’s a mutual exchange of differing ideologies, both sides trading in publicity. But Antler is not the target of protests because of any real strategy or political goal. The unrest is the result of a small-scale feud. In both origin and impact, it’s really quite petty.
Even less principled is the arrogant spectacle of confused moral virtue-signalling we’ve allowed to gorge on street-facing real estate in Parkdale, a neighbourhood on the western edge of Toronto that has long been a home for immigrants and working-class people. “A mecca for the ethically minded” according to its website, “Vegandale” – the conceptual marketing title intended to encompass the company’s multiple vegan restaurants in close proximity to one another – is founded on bombastically hollow preaching. Its crude, forceful gentrifying mission aside ($8 fried avocado, megalomaniacal signage), it is the nail in the coffin of my willingness to be associated with such garish assertions. (I’d sooner eat at Antler.)
Vegandale’s restaurant taglines are zippy “Live, Love, Laugh”-esque shibboleths such as “Morality on Tap” and “The Noble Way of Eating.” The content of their menus is even worse: A See the Light lager is contextualized by the following: “Is it morally okay to be willfully blind to billions of animals being exploited? No. Can going vegan reduce and eliminate the unnecessary suffering and deaths of animals? Yes.” The summary of another beer, the Sour Truth, asks: “Can you love animals without being vegan? No. Is veganism the best thing we can do to align our actions with our morals? Yes.”
Its website boasts “Zero Meat, Dairy, Bullshit.” And yet, within 10 minutes of biting into a vegan taco at the Vegandale Brewery last December, Ryerson student Vittoria Rabito, who has a dairy allergy, was rushed to the hospital. The rest of the menu, too, provides little convincing toward any kind of noble culinary commitment. It’s fast food for people who think they’re too good for McDonald’s. Vegandale’s unnuanced and performative ideology feels less about sparing the lives of animals through ethical consumption, and more about superficially policing the idea of what people should eat. And that’s what I detest about all of this. Being vegan or vegetarian could be a level-headed personal choice but has morphed into a sect that feels borderline Scientological.
When Beyoncé’s personal trainer, Marco Borges, published his new book, The Greenprint: Plant-Based Diet, Best Body, Better World, late last year, the singer and her husband, Jay-Z, appeared as authors of the introduction. Their language, meant to mobilize, was telling. “Once we looked at health as the truth, instead of a diet, it became a mission for us to share that truth and lifestyle with as many people as possible … Let’s take this stand together. Let’s spread the truth. Let’s make this mission a movement.” (Last month, Beyoncé announced on Instagram that one fan would win free concert tickets for life if they signed up for The Greenprint Project, a plant-based eating campaign launched in conjunction with Mr. Borges’ book.)
It’s a much gentler approach than PETA’s “Feeding Kids Meat is Child Abuse” billboards, which began appearing throughout England in 2006, and which the controversial animal-rights organization petitioned, unsuccessfully, to translate to Spanish and display in Puerto Rico in 2015. Still, the inherent suggestion that vegetarianism would produce demonstrable moral or political superiority is ultimately moored to class discrimination. The average vegetarian dinner is more elaborate, time-consuming and arguably more expensive to cook than the average meat-based meal. (Toronto’s beloved Kensington Market café Hibiscus has a salad with 42 ingredients.) It is simply not reasonable to ask a person who is low on the luxury of time and who lacks the means to forage local fine-food purveyors to get really into tempeh. (Many high-profile vegan advocates have used the cause to become celebrities, or were celebrities to begin with, which means cooking is part of their workday already or that they have a staff to handle meal preparation.)
In a piece for Maclean’s last December, journalist and animal-rights advocate Jessica Scott-Reid wrote, “While veganism may not be a catch-all solution to the planet’s many problems, the ethical arguments in favour of a vegan diet are increasingly too strong to ignore without loud cognitive dissonance.” Ms. Scott-Reid’s article, titled “Why everybody should rid themselves of old habits – and go vegan,” helpfully cites plenty of research to explain her position. Animal agriculture, she writes, produces more greenhouse gas emissions than every form of transportation combined, in addition to its damaging contributions to deforestation, pollution and loss of wildlife and biodiversity. On top of that, she says, it takes seven kilograms of grain and more than 15,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of beef.
“Eating animals and the food they produce is no longer necessary; the majority of the Western world has other options,” Ms. Scott-Reid wrote. “And while plant-based proteins, fats and other nutrients are inaccessible for some communities, work is under way to lower costs and increase availability.”
Here is where the discord rises. There is a prevailing myth in vegan circles that anyone who continues to remain non-vegan is doing so because they don’t know better – or because they think they can’t afford to change their diet, but really they could, with the help of some oracular vegan missionary. But ultimately, people like eating meat, because it’s fortifying and tastes delicious, and because it is often the primary focus of the plate. Just as any deep-rooted standard takes time and intention to reconsider, a lifelong meat-eater, especially one based rurally, is probably not going to switch to veganism because they saw a protest outside a restaurant in Toronto on the news. Moreover, the lowered costs and increased availability of reasonable access to plant-based proteins that Ms. Scott-Reid forecasts have nowhere near reached communities living with food insecurity. Isn’t it misguided to care about what people eat, but not whether they can afford food? I don’t doubt that there are lower-income vegetarians who make it work. But it’s hard.
A few nights ago, deep in deadline mode, I ordered dinner from a popular vegetarian restaurant in Toronto. The meal itself was exactly what I’d summoned – various soy hunks drizzled in self-aggrandizing meat-free mucilage and a salad with the word “detox” in its title. I made it halfway through and felt physically awful, even worse when I got up from the table and surveyed the carnage of takeout containers strewn around my workspace. This is the admirable way to eat? Preachers of vegetarianism promise that eliminating meat will make a person feel healthier, stronger, happier and more energetic. Without extending the gesture of ethical food decisions beyond the personal act of eating, however, vegetarianism doesn’t negate one’s capacity for feeling gross.
I’m not advocating for reckless or ignorant consumption. Aside from behemoth food-production corporations, I don’t know anyone who is. At the time of this writing, I remain a vegetarian. But much like being trapped in bad conversation at a party, I am losing morale and looking for an exit.
In 2018, animal-rights activist Joey “Carbstrong,” who has a “Vegan” tattoo behind his ear, became angry on-air when he noticed a ham sandwich in the studio of BBC radio host Jeremy Vine. "Ham is a euphemism that actually comes from the flesh of a dead pig,” Mr. Carbstrong (whose real last name is Armstrong) said in the segment. “I’d like you to call it the dead body of an animal that didn’t want to die.” In a 2014 Q&A, singer Morrissey, an ardent animal-rights activist who once walked off stage at the Coachella music festival because he could smell a nearby barbecue, compared eating meat to pedophilia, going so far as to say, “If you believe in the abattoir, then you would support Auschwitz.” (There was a time in my life I’d have found Morrissey’s “I can smell burning flesh … and I hope to God it’s human” quip amusing. That time was 2009. I had a Velvet Underground poster in my bedroom and ate exclusively at Pita Pit.) Morrissey has also been a vocal critic of the Canadian seal hunt, despite it being a crucial food and income source to rural communities living with food insecurity. (Nancy Mike, an Iqaluit-based throat singer who performs with the Jerry Cans, told me that one adult seal will provide sustenance to six families, with six or seven people in each family.)
In 2016, outrage erupted when it was discovered that the owners of Café Gratitude, a plant-based restaurant chain in the Los Angeles area, were openly transitioning to a diet that included meat they raised themselves on a personal farm. A boycott campaign that included a spate of one-star Yelp reviews ensued. Said one of those Yelp reviews: “F***ing HYPOCRITES!!!! Hope they will be FLAME BURNED and eaten by Meat Eaters!”
Just this week, when a natural-foods grocery store in Toronto offered heart-shaped steaks for Valentine’s Day, prominent animal-rights activist Len Goldberg posted an image of them to Facebook and directed his followers to respond to the company. Said one, on the store’s Facebook page: “Ironically, it’s also what stops and kills OUR human HEART.” Another called the steaks “an insult to life itself.”
Just as there are valid reasons to eat meat, there are, of course, valid reasons to minimize or do without it. A study published by health and science journal Nature in October stated an urgent need for people to embrace, at the very least, a “flexitarian” diet in order to keep climate change under two degrees. This potentially impactful shift would mean reducing individual carbon footprints through eating mostly plant-based foods, without eliminating meat completely. According to the study, if the average carnivore ate 75-per-cent less beef, 90-per-cent less pork and cut their egg intake by 50 per cent while tripling their consumption of beans and quadrupling their consumption of nuts and seeds, emissions from livestock would be reduced by half. (The production of animal products generates the majority of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, at about 78 per cent.) According to environmental research website Shrink That Footprint, the carbon footprint of a vegetarian is half that of a “meat lover”; the vegan carbon footprint even less. That there are compelling environmental arguments for reducing meat consumption is indisputable. We should be attentive to what we consume, and make decisions with our environmental burden in mind. But doing so is made much less desirable by the abrasive shaming tactics employed by the vegan lobby, whose cacophony drowns out any hope of reasonable discourse.
In A Matter of Taste, author Rebecca Tucker writes that “For many, the zealotry with which food is approached – and discussed, evangelized about, and proselytized on – mirrors religious fanaticism … And just like religious devotion, which is meant to encourage thinking outside of oneself but is too often reduced by the devout to empty piousness and self-righteousness, so too are most food philosophies inward-facing and outward guilting.”
The ever-fortifying campaign to proliferate has made veganism into a guild of judgmental extremists, always looking for their next recruit. Just as I, as a child, could not overcome the opaque idea that eating meat was homicidal, the overall culture of veganism seems unable to defeat its own superiority complex. That oft-detected combativeness from frat guys trying to get a rise out of me at university parties by asking if I wanted a steak has created a generation of defensive anti-meat votaries who want to have their dairy-free, egg-free almond milk cake and fight about it, too. I'm exasperated. And, by association, I'm embarrassed.
So I am preparing to say goodbye to 12 years of vegetarianism. I’d rather be a gracious member of society who respects the choices of others than unwittingly bolster a clique gone off the rails. I won’t be a daily meat-eater. But to continue abstaining from it, as the cult of meatlessness spirals further into hysterics, feels like a defection from decency.
If I hear the ghosts of my morality howling, I’ll send them to Vegandale.