I remember, what feels like forever ago, but was really 2003 or 2004, my vegetarian friend and I were talking about how we would eat meat if/when we ever traveled to other places outside the US. Not to make excuses but I was only 14 or 15 when this happened. I understand now that this sort of position is both selfish, and based on exotifying fantasies that reduce entire cultures to their food. And since high school I’ve broken vedge (a word of mine– comes from hanging out with sxe kids in high school) 3 times. Thats what happens when one is vegan to be fashionable or loses track of why.
I’m surprised by this Temporary Omnivore who was feature in a NYT blog
. She was a vegetarian to protest the industrial process that creates meat, but it seems to reflect a sort of privilege and convenience more. She talks about how it is easier to be a vegetarian in the States than in Paris.
That statement just didn’t sit well with me. After thinking about it for a bit I remembered the story I relayed at the beginning of this post. She was exotifying the French and reducing an entire culture to their cuisine. Lets not forget that there are French vegetarian and vegans as well.
(Just to say the defense that the French have fewer factory farms seems weak to me– I doubt that makes the rabbits, chickens, hoses, cows etc. feel any better about being consumed.)
But another thought hit me– she seemed to be saying no one questioned her being vegetarian in the States since elementary school. That statement reveals a lot of racial and class-based privileges. See, growing up working class and black in the South meant a hell of a lot of awkward social situations (not to mention a slightly increased economic burden on my accommodating mother, for real keeping a 6’3″ teenage vegan full had to be hard). Family functions were slightly disastrous for me. Dishes consisted of meat, or vegetables cooked with animal broth. My vegetarianism and then veganism have faced challenges consistently. It wasn’t till I got to Vassar, where I have the privileges of being a student was my veganism not questioned as often.
So I have problems with temporary omnivore-ism because it reflects a hell of a lot of issues: exotification, cultural reductionism, laziness, etc. And it reminds me that I, at least, need to maintain a politicized veganism, after all its about the animals, and it also re-reminds me that all of our vegan experiences are affected by our differing subject positions and privileges that come from them.
Oh, why is it always France??? Peter Singer & his Paris exception, & I’ve known two people who were studying abroad in France & stopped being vegetarians while they were there because it was “too hard.” They got tired of eating croque madames everywhere & didn’t want to be rude when they were invited over for dinner. !!!
I also think people sometimes use the “it’s their culture [to eat meat]! & I don’t want to be a bad American tourist!” as an easy excuse… I mean, culture changes. Hey, it used to be our culture to have slavery & not let women vote, blah blah blah. And, at least when I’ve gotten in these conversations, it’s always people traveling to places where it would be pretty easy to get non-meat food (urban France!) that trot out this excuse. That doesn’t mean a veg*n couldn’t still be a gross colonialist/culturally imperialist tourist, just that I don’t think the culture excuse in & of itself is really a valid excuse.
(I could imagine that there might be places, should I travel to them, where expecting my hosts to provide non-flesh food might be a real, serious financial hardship for them — but if I traveled to such places I would have some serious thinking to do about my role as a privileged Westerner in going there, anyway, & not just as a vegan… & that reminds me, I have this half-written post in my head critiquing vegan travel writing that really needs to get done!)
You raise a really good point about how not getting questioned on veg*nism is a position rife w/privilege, too.
I must say for me the issue of temporary omnivores is very complicated. I became a vegetarian towards the end of my teenage years while still living at home (small island, Caribbean) before going off to university in Canada. And I must say it was significantly easier to be a vegetarian in North America than it was at home. And now that I’m back in the region it’s only b/c I’m living in an island with a significant Hindu population whose diet typically reflects mine that my choice is rarely questioned and my options are more varied.
So whereas I find it hard to believe that it’s sooo difficult to be a vegetarian in Paris the difficulty of being a vegetarian outside of urban and North American areas definitely resonates with me.
Like you family/community gatherings in my small island Caribbean became/can be difficult/challenging and I can understand:
1. the reluctance to alienate oneself further from the food dimension of one’s culture (which is a big one)
2. why you would want to make it easier for those who want to host/welcome/share their food with you.
But as you say… if you’re a vegetarian/omnivore/vegan for politicized reasons that’s a decision that you have to make for yourself but you must continue to question the privilege firstly of travel, “experiencing” other cultures and being questioned on the politics of your food consumption.
Thank you for making me think some more…
Hmmm… I realize after I posted some things that were sort of universalizing. And in retrospect some more framing of my claims would have been in order. It is after all much easier to be vegan in areas like North America and Europe where systems of trade are likely to provide a larger variety of foods to choose from. I feel like that could easily be another post about colonialism and how it made/makes veganism so much easier.
So my claims are perhaps oriented more to the vegan tourist who goes to either North America and Europe or to urban centers and areas where eating vegan isn’t difficult or impossible.