Eating Purposefully: A look at campus vegan culture
On the morning of Oct. 21, 2015, Eva Roos, an art and design senior, slept through five alarms before finally arising. She yawned and stretched her arms, pulled her blankets off, hopped into the shower and got dressed.
In her kitchen, she prepared breakfast, like she does any morning. She poured a half-cup of oats into a bowl, added one level cup of water, nuked it for thirty seconds, and garnished with flax seed and a heaping spoon of cinnamon. Before leaving the house, she grabbed a bottle of kombucha, a fermented tea beverage which she brews and bottles herself in her basement.
That same morning, I woke up after three alarms and the sound of a car passing by my window. I rolled out of bed, and on my way to the shower, paused to pick up a bowl from my desk, the dregs of last night’s chicken soup at the bottom. I pulled on a pair of wool socks and brown leather shoes. Before leaving the house, I checked on two baseball-mitt sized pork cheeks I have curing in my basement.
For breakfast, I drank a cup of coffee with a splash of milk in it, and a croissant — which must have contained a half-stick of butter. I ate in a hurry, because I was on my way to see Eva Roos.
We met in the basement of a local coffee shop. Eva is tall and striking, with fiery hair buzzed into a Skrillex cut. A button, reading “End Police Violence,” was pinned to her jacket. I turned on my recorder, and spoke, quite timidly: “So … veganism.”
Eva is a vegan; she consumes no animal products. She became a vegetarian Thanksgiving of her freshman year, and then fully vegan last October while studying abroad in Copenhagen. But why would she make such a drastic change? Why would anyone?
“I’ve always had huge concern for the environment, and it just didn’t match up with my morals anymore to continue eating meat,” she said. “I also know my relationship with other animals and creatures. I know that if I knew the animal I could never be the one to kill it. That would be really hypocritical of me, and it just didn’t sit right.”
Copenhagen wasn’t exactly the best place to start as a vegan, and not just because Denmark, like most Northern European countries, is notoriously meat-heavy.
“What I ate was pretty undiverse, because I couldn’t read any of the labels,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I did vegan wrong.”
The idea of doing veganism “wrong” is as old as the term itself. Vegetarianism has been around for thousands of years — the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras supposedly forbid his followers from eating meat, as did many of the earliest Hindu and Buddhist teachers. But a named veganism only came about in 1944, when Donald Watson founded The Vegan Society in Leicester, England. A group of dissidents from the established Vegetarian Society, they rejected not only meat, but dairy and eggs.
Fast forward to modern times, and the United States is home to 1 million vegans.
Veganism, like feminism, has its own internal subdivisions and sometimes-radical disagreements on self-definition. There are ethical vegans, environmental vegans, health vegans, even “flexible” vegans. Some people are only dietary vegans. Others won’t wear leather or wool. There are continuing arguments over the ethics of consuming honey and oysters.
Eva is an environmental vegan, noting the impact of animal industries on carbon levels, water purity and land use. For food, she splits a farmshare (a stake in a local farm’s vegetable crop) with her sister, who isn’t a vegan but likes cooking. They get together on Sundays to convert the mound of vegetables into bulk vegan meals for the week: lentils, butternut squash soup, vegetable pizzas, even “frittatas” made with pureed tofu instead of eggs.
At this point in the conversation, I expect Eva to say “And this is why everyone should go vegan!” Instead, she remained almost painfully non-judgmental.
“If you’re a vegan, you can’t be — I think, personally, that I don’t have the right to be picky, because I’m imposing this on myself,” she said.
Not all vegans are as nuanced. Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian and ethical vegan activist, recently took to the pages of The Guardian to claim that “animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history.”
So I decided to hunt down some ethical vegans.
Laura “Lita” Brillman is an LSA junior studying in Washington, D.C this semester. Lita became a vegetarian when she was 12, and then a full vegan her senior year of high school. She comes at it from a broader animal rights perspective — she avoids cosmetics tested on animals, won’t visit a zoo or aquarium, and wouldn’t go horseback riding if the opportunity arose.
“I didn’t know being a vegetarian you still harm so many animals,” she said. “I didn’t realize dairy and eggs kill. You can’t feel great about being a vegetarian if you want to save as many animals as possible.”
It’s true. Even if you aren’t opposed to the idea of breeding and holding animals for human purposes, the dairy and egg industries still deal out an unsettling amount of death. The dairy industry obviously only requires adult females — many male calves are sold as veal. Millions of useless male chicks are born a year, and many are killed in huge meat grinders soon after birth. Cows and chickens too old to produce anymore are usually slaughtered for meat.
It was this reality that made LSA sophomore Sarah Gallagher go vegan four years ago. She heard a story about a cow that gave birth for the fifth time, and the calf was taken shortly after so that the mother could be milked. But she was dry. The farmer investigated, and found that the mother had actually birthed twins, and in a bovine version of “Sophie’s Choice,” was hiding one of the calves in the woods, and allowed the other to be taken away.
“I didn’t really care about the health benefits — I’ve always considered myself a pretty healthy person,” she said. “It was the ethics that really got to me.”
Our campus is full of vocal activists, students who identify inequalities and injustices, and are ready to remind others, publicly and privately. After talking with several vegans, I was left wondering how a vegan could even associate with meat eaters anymore? Or, more realistically, how do they resist the urge to chastise them?
Sarah lives in a sorority house with its own dining hall, where she finds enough cereal, salad, and hummus to make meals. But many of her friends eat meat and dairy.
“I don’t like to push my views onto them, because that makes people really uncomfortable most of the time,” she said. “I don’t talk about it much with people who I know wouldn’t be receptive.”
This is a common pattern amongst the vegans I spoke with. Because eating is such a common, yet intimate experience, many people become anxious and/or defensive in the presence of vegans, and feel like they’re under attack. In a struggle between personal morals and social decorum, the latter often wins.
“There’s this perception is that vegans talk about veganism all the time from a morally superior point of view,” Lita told me. “I’m not going to express discomfort unless it comes up.”
She was quick to add that she didn’t even judge non-vegans as harshly as one would think.
“A lot of the time people feel guilty, but don’t have willpower or drive to do it,” she explained. “We all have things like that. I should drive less, but I don’t.”
The primary difficulty of adopting a vegan diet isn’t giving up animal products — in fact, most vegans I talked to reported having few to no cravings for meat, cheese, eggs, or milk anymore. Instead, it’s ensuring that what they eat doesn’t have any animal products in it. Jell-O and many gummy candies are made with gelatin derived from animal bones. Most barbeque chips have traces of milk in them. Guinness recently pledged to go vegan — for 257 years, they’ve used a fish-bladder compound, isinglass, to filter their beer. What’s a vegan to do?
In Ann Arbor, you could go to The Lunch Room, one of only two vegan eateries in town. It began as a food truck in 2010 by vegan friends Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo. In August 2013, it opened as a permanent space, followed by a sister bakery a year later. I spoke with Panozzo at the restaurant over cups of vegan coffee. As he explained the restaurant’s philosophy, a fly buzzed near my head, and I suppressed the instinct to immediately crush it.
“We put a lot of effort into assuring that every point of contact in the restaurant is entirely vegan, and has absolutely no animal products in it,” Panozzo said. “I’ve made sure even the sugar and the liquor are vegan.”
Unsurprisingly, The Lunch Room has become a safe haven for campus vegans, unable to trust most restaurants. What’s surprising is that, according to Panozzo, almost 90 percent of their customer base isn’t vegan. Most people come in because they want an affordable, healthy, meat-free meal.
“We assume that most vegans out there will find us,” Panozzo said. “We’re really interested in reaching everyone else, and hopefully influencing their choices, and breaking the stereotype of vegan food as bland, expensive and unfulfilling.”
Obviously, most vegans can’t make it to The Lunch Room for every meal. Many cook for themselves, or head to University Dining Halls, all of which serve vegetarian and vegan entrees at every meal. The two newest dining halls, South Quad and East Quad, even have purpose-built vegetarian stations. But when eating becomes a matter of personal morals, many vegans still feel the need to inquire about their meal, even if it is advertised as vegan.
“Being a vegan, you have to be okay with being a nuisance sometimes.” Dylan Nelson, an LSA junior and South Quad Residential Advisor said. “You have to be an asshole sometimes, in order to make the choices you want to make.”
Dylan became a vegan a year ago, after eight months of vegetarianism. Improbably, his parents, sister and high school girlfriend were all vegetarians.
“I’d always say ‘Nah, I couldn’t that,’ ” he said. “In fact, I ate more meat than most people.”
When he got to college, he gradually became a vegetarian, as he cut down on eating meat for both ethical and environmental reasons. Last Thanksgiving break, ironically, he watched a vegan documentary, “From Farm to Fridge.” He hasn’t looked back since.
“I just couldn’t participate in that anymore,” he said “And after that, I found many more reasons to go vegan.”
He cut out animal foods from his diet, and stopped buying clothes made with animal products. Last month, he even swapped out his old leather wallet for a pleather one. He feels more at peace with himself, but doesn’t want that to come off to others as smugness.
“People assume that vegans are self-righteous, and certainly some of them are,” he said. “I hope I don’t come off as self-righteous. The reason that I say anything to anyone is to open up a conversation. I want them to ask me why I’m a vegan, and why it’s important to me, so that either they can something about the meat industry that they didn’t know, or at least get my perspective, and understand that I recognize that for some people, veganism or vegetarianism is completely unrealistic.”
Before our conversation ended, Dylan suggested I watch another documentary, “Earthlings,” to get a better idea of why some people choose to become vegans. After a scene of a bull getting dehorned with bolt cutters, I slammed my laptop shut.
Ann Arbor, given its progressive climate and number of vegan-friendly restaurants and shops, is certainly not a half-bad place to go vegan. And given the relative wealth of the student body, many can afford to buy more expensive products like organic vegetables and faux-meat products. Veganism, it should be said, is not a feasible lifestyle for everyone here.
But for those who do choose to be vegan, I still wonder what the point is. Our world runs on animal usage and death. Vaccines are incubated in chicken eggs. Most condoms contain a milk extract. Growing vegetables’ food uses animals — ground bones as fertilizer, captive bees to pollinate, countless mice crushed during plowing.
I asked Eva Roos why, as an individual, she would go vegan, in the face of such large, entrenched systems.
“It just, morally, sits better with me, because I don’t feel like I have a lot of control in the system I’m existing in,” she said. “As far as making an environmental impact, I do what I can. But food is the one thing I have control over, so I really don’t allow myself to make exceptions.”