Our friends and family influence a broad spectrum of decisions we make. I am always interested in seeing articles like the one my colleague Shoshanna wrote recently [http://mainstreetvegan.net/creating-the-community-you-crave-by-shoshana-frishberg-izzo/], discussing the value of finding a supportive, like-minded community after becoming vegan or adopting a plant-based lifestyle. Support is so important.
However, I often think about the flip side: many of us have a cherished community that has little or nothing to do with veganism. Our friends may not be interested in making veganism a part of that relationship, yet it inevitably has an influence. Many people cite real or perceived inconveniences as reasons they feel they are unable to adopt or maintain a vegan lifestyle; as we know, issues around food with friends and family arise regularly. I wanted to explore the perspective of the folks in my community to see how my veganism was influencing our relationships, so I asked them to answer a few questions. I spoke with a smattering of friends, including my partner. I very much enjoyed reading their responses and hearing their thoughtful replies.
I started with a question about whether the respondent had known me prior to becoming a vegan and, if so, if they’d experienced a change in our dynamic. The answers varied but the overarching takeaway seemed to be “Not really.” A college friend responded, “Pre-vegan Jen was basically vegetarian Jen. Jen’s lifestyle is a guiding principle that seems to really help her live a good life.”
My partner responded, “I think that pre-vegan Jen and vegan Jen are about the same, but there’s a little less chance for shared serendipity (in the case of Serendipity [famous NYC ice cream parlor], literally!) because there are just fewer carefree options. You usually can’t just pop into a bakery or ice cream store or whatever; you have to know where the vegan joint is and plan for it.” (And he does bear witness, and aid in, the planning!)
My college roommate had an insightful way of putting it when she said, “We all had poor habits in college and have evolved in different ways.” So true, on so many levels!
My next question asked people to reflect on their own eating style. None of my respondents identified as fully vegan/plant-based, although I know that most of them eat vegan meals regularly. It is clear that they think about their food choices, some for health and others for ethics. This was a fun response to read because vegans often spend a lot of time thinking about food, where it comes from and how we ourselves eat. It was nice to hear how others felt. Answers from my small community sample included identifying as “97% vegan” and “I guess I would call myself more or less a vegetarian.” This respondent went on to note that they go vegan twice per year during religious seasons and while they don’t find doing so difficult, they do “miss pizza, milk in my coffee, egg sandwiches and certain baked goods.” Others described their diets as:
- “Healthy; heavy on vegetable and animal proteins, though sometimes too much protein because I feel it’s a safe on-the-go food”
- “Low lactose, low gluten, low red meat”
- “I am vegetarian and more leaning towards less and less dairy Eating organic has generally been more important to me than being vegan.”
My third question was in two parts and asked friends if there was anything that they appreciated about having a vegan or vegans in their life, and whether they perceived that they had faced any challenges with vegans, especially socially. These were the most interesting set of responses, and I appreciated everyone’s candor. The overarching takeaway from my own community was best summed up in this response: “Jen gives me a full perspective on the lifestyle. She has done lots of research and is a great resource for anyone looking to try it out.”
“Nothing challenging socially,” stated another respondent, “I’m flexible. At times it’s difficult to find vegan options but most vegans know how to make it work.” Another friend responded, “I’ve learned and happily adjusted my cooking and eating style favorably because of my friends who are plant based.”
This is not to say that everything is always smooth. “My husband, who ran restaurants, gets very concerned when Jen comes to visit but I appreciate how low key she is about it,” was one response to this question. And, cue the sad trombones, “The challenge is I hate when I’ve cooked and you can’t eat any of it. Feels like a fail :-(“ — Ah. Sad face too — but let’s cheer up because this is a fairly rare occurrence. My partner responded that he appreciates that veganism brings a certain rigor to our eating choices, and believes that the vegan viewpoint is correct for a variety of policy reasons. “Socially,” he stated, “it has been fine, in part because we make an effort to host a lot and partly because we have friends who are accepting and do their best (it seems to me) to make sure a vegan option is available.”
My next question was whether or not my respondents had a preconceived notion of what vegans were like prior to knowing one, and whether knowing me and the vegans in their lives upheld or dissuaded these prior ideas. “Years ago vegans certainly did not have the culinary options that exist today, and certainly not in restaurants, so veganism seemed very ‘other’ and perhaps ‘weird.’” Sounds familiar, right? Another respondent had this insight to share: “I believe my preconceived notions were that vegans were like vegetarians, only more punk rock — meaning the community had rigorous and internally enforced codes; knowing you, I think that has been borne out. ”
The most unexpected answer was, “I expect vegans to be gassy (not that Jen is). That’s just my experience of beans.” Ha ha! And this friend’s answer really resonated with me for personal reasons, since it was the experience of becoming a mother that helped me finalize my decision to transition into becoming fully vegan: “Four years ago, I met a woman who was a lactation consultant who was vegan. I deeply appreciated her lactivism and the information she shared about species-specific milk.”
Finally, I asked a catchall “Any final thoughts?” question. “Industrialized farming is so destructive to our environment that it propels me towards a plant based eating lifestyle,” said one friend. “However, I don’t altogether disapprove of those who consume meat, fish, fowl in a respectful and or responsible fashion.” Another friend responded, “I wish I visited Jen more and could be a part of her potlucks and nightly dinners. I see her when she is traveling, and on the road she is heavy on the Lara Bars and pasta. I know there is a lot more to it, especially the way she lives it.”
My most athletic friend, who dabbles in vegan eating regularly said, “I’m not sure my life changes much when I eat a vegan diet. It does seem to help me lose weight and also speeds up recovery after tough workouts.” He added, “In terms of socialization, I can easily deflect naysayers but most people around me are flexible and understanding. In terms of becoming a full time vegan, I’m not quite there yet.”
This next response made me laugh, and want to hug my friend. I’ve heard it before, and maybe you have too: “I didn’t think vegans got to not like vegetables. So you surprised me when you said you don’t like tomatoes. I realized how crazy it was for me to think that.” And finally, some words of wisdom from a non-vegan who is aware of the rapid evolution we are experiencing: “Vegan products are getting better all the time. I would think it would be easier for a lot of people now with foods like Just Mayo, Earth Balance, [Little Green Food’s] Pea-lafel Burgers etc. out there as replacements that don’t taste horrific.”
So, keeping in mind that I have wonderful friends, my own narrow slice of personal experience is: “Don’t worry!” The responses of my very sporting friends illustrate that socializing with a vegan can be a mixed bag but overwhelmingly people either support, admire, or are inspired by what you are doing or will just roll with the punches. To paraphrase something I mention in my class at MSVA, not every social opportunity before veganism was perfect so not every social opportunity afterwards is going to be either. Keeping the focus on your community and providing shared support as you each navigate your chosen path is a win for everyone. A big thank you to my loved ones who participated in this endeavor!
Jennifer Gannett is a faculty member at Main Street Vegan Academy, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, a cat socializer, dog lover, and busy mom, who works formally and informally to make the world a better place.