When I decided to take the plunge into veganism, I anticipated some pitfalls. I thought I'd maybe lose my cool and dive headfirst into a pile of cheeseburgers, or maybe sneak some brie at a party. But the hardest part of going vegan hasn't been cravings, which are surprisingly few and far between. For me, the social ramifications of going vegan were far more discouraging. As someone whose social life has more or less revolved around food for the past several years, the feeling of isolation that resulted from my dietary change hit me really hard.
I planned to keep my veganism quiet until I was sure it would stick, but I had to tell my family fairly early on because of the upcoming holidays. I was visiting my parents when my mom asked me about what we should do for Thanksgiving dinner. I braced myself and said I had something to tell them.
I had been expecting an uproar, but when I revealed that I had gone vegan (and my husband, too!), my father breathed a sigh of relief. "Vegan!" he shouted. "You're just going vegan? I thought you were going to tell me you were moving to another state!" My mother made a joke about ham being vegan, but was otherwise quiet on the issue.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, I brought my own Vegducken and pumpkin pie, and was even able to eat some roasted asparagus that my mom had prepared. My mom hadn't, however, budged on the sausage in the dressing and she couldn't fathom how mashed potatoes could possibly be made without dairy milk. I also fielded a few questions from my cousin and brother-in-law about my reasoning for going vegan, and endured some light-hearted commentary about how there would be "more meat for us!" since I wasn't eating it. Still, it wasn't anything that I hadn't expected.
It was what happened after Thanksgiving that really shocked me.
My mom and I usually plan Christmas Eve dinner soon after Thanksgiving. In the past, we've spent afternoons poring over cookbooks and Pinterest boards to find recipes. This year, she was cagey about the menu-planning and one day, I got an email with her final menu. It listed no fewer than 15 items and only the salad was vegan-friendly.
Even then, when I realized I would be making my own meal again, I wasn't that upset. I assumed that I would still be able to continue our tradition of cooking together. But when I asked her if I should come over early to help with the cooking, she told me no. And just like that, I was just completely shut out of our Christmas food rituals.
I didn't even know that they were so important to me until I didn't have them. As my family ate the meal I didn't help prepare, I felt a million miles away. Logically, I knew it was only food, but I couldn't help feeling that my relationship with my mother had been damaged by my decision to eat differently.
My mom wasn't the only one I felt estranged from after I made my announcement. When I came out to a group of friends at brunch one day, my friend Sara's reaction was immediate — and intense: "Well that's bullshit," she blurted. I laughed it off, but as I deliberated with the waitress about what my dining options were, and the rest of my friends justified why they eat meat and eggs, I felt really disconnected — even lonely. It's a very strange feeling to be the indirect topic of conversation while you're sitting right next to the people talking about you.
Over the next few weeks, Sara continued to go after my decision to go vegan with snide; argumentative comments; and targeted questions about my nutrient intake, the healthfulness of a vegan diet, and its impact on the environment. It was more than friendly hazing; it felt like a personal affront. But then she would simultaneously send me helpful articles about veganism and suggest local vegan restaurants for us to try. I was confused and annoyed about the mixed messages I was getting.
It took me some time to realize that what we eat — or don't eat — does affect other people. Sara and I have always gotten together over brunch or for cooking classes, and having to select restaurants or classes that are vegan-friendly is a major paradigm shift. As for my mom, she only cooks for me twice a year — on holidays — and my switch to a vegan diet made her feel frustrated and rejected. When she couldn't make me the things I used to love, she had no idea how or what to cook for a vegan. It was easier for her to exclude me altogether. Once I was able to understand this reality, I was able to stop feeling so isolated.
Now, I make an extra effort to reassure my friends and family that our relationships don't need to change just because my diet has. I offer to cook for myself, I suggest restaurants that everyone can enjoy, and I especially don't criticize my friends and family for choosing to eat differently than I do! I will, of course, answer questions when asked, but I try not to shove my choices in anyone's face.
My mom is still warming up to the change, but my dad, in-laws, and many of my friends have been overwhelmingly supportive. And I've also found it helps to have other vegans or even vegetarians to vent to when I'm feeling alone in my convictions. My husband is always there for a good rant, and we have a few friends who have been very helpful during our transition. There's also a whole online community that I can tap for advice about cooking, baking, dining out —and how to deal with cheese cravings if and when they arise.
(Image credits: Leela Cyd; Maria Siriano)