If the truth is so bad…
I have a clear memory of eating a hotdog as a kid and being told if I knew what was in it, I would never want to eat a hotdog again. This wasn’t coming from a vegetarian trying to set me straight, but was presented almost as a challenge by someone who was, at that time, also eating a hotdog.
I was conflicted. The implied dare was tempting. I wanted to know just how gross it was, and then show how brave I was by eating it anyway. But I also did not want to know, because I was enjoying that hotdog covered in ketchup, surrounded by a fluffy white bun.
I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to know any of the facts surrounding meat or dairy or egg production. And I understand that. In fact, I shy away from stating these facts in person and even on this blog, for fear of being considered a judgmental, lecturing vegan. The title “vegan” alone is hard enough to carry in some crowds. But it’s also difficult being on this side, knowing what I know, and not blurting it out.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you what’s in a hotdog. Although I suspect you have a pretty good idea already, just like I did. Even after I knew a few of the primary ingredients, I persisted, eating PLENTY of hotdogs up until going vegan. Even if something grossed me out, I continued eating it, because it was otherwise tasty and I’d always eaten it. Sometimes I’d grimace as I struggled to chew a particularly gristly bite of meat. I didn’t want to think about the fact that gristle in meat is elastin, a type of connective tissue. Or if I ran into a bone in ground beef – I would make a sour face, quickly spit it out, and then push that to the back of my mind while continuing to eat my meal.
That desire to not know what’s in our food or how it came to be on our plates is a very real and strong. I didn’t want to know because when I caught glimpses of it, it saddened me and grossed me out, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to look at my favorite meals the same way. It was true. After a few failed attempts at going vegetarian back in the day, I’d already done some research and learned the things I didn’t want to know. But somehow, despite all that, I went back to eating meat, repressing all the info I’d learned while biting into a burger.
When I was about twelve, my dad made us pork heart sausage – or something with heart in the name. (I started to google to try to pin it down, but couldn’t get very far without feeling – yep – completely grossed out). After taking a couple bites and thinking it tasted funny, I asked if there was really heart in it, joking, expecting that my dad would refute it and tell me that was just a funny name for the food. But he was honest with me and told me, yes, along with other things I probably didn’t like, heart was one of the ingredients.
I was thrown. Up until that point, nothing had turned my stomach quite like that. I’d eaten raw ground beef. I preferred my steaks rare. I loved bacon enough to unabashedly pile a high stack on my plate at a breakfast buffet. I wore those facts as a badge of being a strong, brave eater. (Except when it came to vegetables. How different I am now from little carnivorous Andrle!) But this went beyond that. Heart. In the sausage. Never mind all the other ingredients, it was the heart that got me. I poked at the sausage and saw a red fleck and was convinced that was a piece of heart. It was probably seasoning, but in that moment all I saw was heart. Heart, like any other animal organ, just hit too close to home. I couldn’t eat it. I don’t know if it was because it was a meal he’d spent time making, a food he’d spent money on, or simply that he’d wanted me to like this meat, but I knew I’d disappointed my father.
When I went vegan I did a lot of research. And then I did some more. I wanted to be equipped with logical reasons to stay strong when tempted by old habits and cravings. Did fried chicken smell good? I could remind myself what I knew about chicken production. And I’ve learned what vegan foods can help satisfy those cravings.
And even though the reasons are so compelling, I won’t go into those details right now. I shy away from going in-depth about why I think veganism is so important and I tend to talk about vegan food being delicious instead, because I don’t like making people uncomfortable or telling them things they don’t want to know. And on some level, I just really wish that veganism were more common for the selfish reason that it would be great to not be considered weird or an outlier.
When vegans try to talk honestly about eating animals, it’s seen as an attempt to gross someone out. But that’s not on us. If you think the way your meat got to your plate is gross, it’s because it is. It’s gross. And sad. And often cruel.
Vegans are not making stuff up to try to shock people. We didn’t put in place modern factory farming practices. We didn’t invent hotdogs just so we could say, “you know what’s in a hotdog.” We didn’t put gristle in your food so we could talk about the anatomy of an animal and compare it to that of a human’s.
The reason I can’t help but blurt out facts from time to time is because I can’t believe I didn’t know them before. I didn’t know that animals suffer throughout their lives, not just in slaughter. I didn’t understand why chickens need us to not take away their eggs. I didn’t know that newborn cows are deprived of their mothers and their mother’s milk just so we can have it. It’s alarming to me now that I know these facts, and it’s painful to me that we can’t be honest about where our food is coming from without being considered alarmists.
If someone knows where and how and by what means their food has arrived on their dinner plate and still choose to eat it, that’s one thing. But if they don’t know these facts because they are hidden from them or they don’t want to “go there?”
I wish I’d been brave enough to find out what was in a hotdog back when that challenge was first presented. And that when I did learn, I’d been honest with myself. If I had to repress the knowledge of something’s “ingredients” every time I ate it, I probably shouldn’t be eating it. Then I could have become a vegetarian or a “crazy” vegan years ago. That would be awesome.