My fellow vegans, it is time we address something that is keeping droves of would-be converts from joining our ranks — and tempts even the most dedicated of us into illicit animal-based infidelity. No, it’s not, animal-based cheeses or America’s fetishistic love for bacon. It’s saying no to free stuff.
Veganism is a whole lifestyle evolution meant to lower your personal responsibility for cruelty and suffering in the world, and remove yourself from the climate-wrecking, resource-gobbling meat and dairy industries. Obviously that means not just changing your diet but also the kinds of clothes you wear and businesses you patronise.
And look, I get it, it’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around! We were all raised in a meat-normative society and breaking that will take about as long as it took to stop using “he” as the default pronoun. Many people in your life won’t get it at first and will still offer you free food, swag or other heart-in-the-right-place gifts without realising the animal byproducts industry has its bloody little fingers in everything from candles and soap to the milk powder that can ruin an otherwise tempting bag of salt and vinegar potato chips.
So you shouldn’t expect everyone in your life or on your travels to be an expert in your lifestyle right away, but you should definitely not be a jerk about it. A few simple tips can help you navigate the world of declining free things without being labelled a pushy vegan. Mostly, you should be prepared to meet your own needs instead of raising a moral stink about it. You might even make some converts along the way.
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First, figure out what you actually care about
The pathway between the default Australian diet and a plant-based lifestyle contains many stepping stones with labels such as flexitarian, pescatarian, vegan-on-weekdays and only-eats-meat-you-find-in-the-supermarket-dumpster.
The journey can be hard (but it’s getting easier!), so if you’re somewhere on this path, congrats! But you’ve got to figure out what your ethical standards are before you start expecting others to adhere to them.
If you don’t eat meat but do wear leather shoes, for instance, loved ones might not be able to correctly identify your stance on cow death without some assistance. Once you get your way into a pat ethical stance (for me it’s: Animal agriculture seems like a pretty barbaric, inefficient and planet-destroying way to get a sandwich in the 21st century when there are so many other things to eat), it’s easy to communicate to others. And don’t feel afraid to speak up.
“What I don’t want is for someone who’s really adherently vegan feel like they aren’t allowed to stand up for their preferences,” said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and cohost of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.
In my experience, you want to communicate this to people in a way that doesn’t make it feel like a burden for them. Yes, the decision you’re making for the good of animal welfare and the planet overall should be seen as a burden to no one, but meat normativity is a helluva drug, and you befriend more flies with agave than you do with vinegar, as the PETA-approved saying goes. Don’t show up to a dinner party without having a conversation with your host first, don’t throw your hands up in frustration if even the salad has cheese on it. It’s a deeply personal choice, not a fad diet, so explain it that way.
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Rejecting gifts without being a jerk
Expected gifts (holidays, birthdays, etc.)
The holidays are that horrible time of year when your family insists on sending you crap no matter how much you protest. To make sure they don’t drop a bunch of animal-derived products in your lap, it helps to have a conversation with them ahead of time.
“That’s when you have a lot of licence to pipe up,” said Post, who herself has switched to a largely plant-based diet.
Older friends and family members might have the hardest time grasping a plant-based lifestyle—especially when innocuous things like lollies and gummy bears contain a hidden animal product — so it’s OK to just suggest stores to shop from or put specific items on your wishlist, Post said.
“Starting that conversation ahead of time is always a good thing, anticipating it,” she said. “Rather than saying, ‘Oh you got me another non-vegan thing, thanks for noticing I changed my life.’ That’s not the winning etiquette response.”
If someone does misfire on a gift, don’t make it seem like they are forgetting intentionally. Take them aside later and express gratitude but explain the dilemma. Post said it’s best to first see if the giver wants to return it or pass it on to someone else. If that’s not an option, donating the gift or passing it on to someone else who will use it is better than it going to waste, she said.
“If you want to build blocks and move forward, you don’t often start by telling someone how wrong they’ve always been in the past,” she said.
Gifts that come out of the blue are a little trickier. Even accepting something non-vegan as a way to avoid conflict can be a violation of your ethics, Post said. This is why it’s important, as mentioned before, to have your ethical feet set before you explain yourself others. Some people might be fine accepting a handmade wool blanket from a friend; others (like me) would rather not have any animal products in our lives at all.
“Ethically, it’s still contributing to the need for animal products to be on demand and purchased,” Post said. “The fact that someone purchased a gift on your behalf it starts to feel like it’s already crossed into the territory of products you’re trying to eradicate in your own life.”
Last year at my day job, for instance, I was offered a free pair of limited edition Nike Air Max shoes; I rejected them because they were made of leather, even as friends called me a dummy and told me just to take them and throw ‘em up on eBay. I suffered no professional or social repercussions, save for the fact that a similar pair is currently listed for sale on the site for $1,755, which I think is just a sign y’all care way too much about sneakers.
In the case of unexpected gifts, acknowledge the gesture and address the issue with the gift-giver later.
“You don’t want to embarrass someone in front of a table full of people,” Post said. The friend may want to return the gift and try again, or pass it on to someone else. Most likely, the gift was not meant to make you feel bad, so it should be met with graciousness and appreciation. Post points out that no one would expect a person who doesn’t drink alcohol because of sobriety or religious reasons to accept a bottle of whiskey as a gift, so the same courtesy should be extended to vegans.
“People seem so willing to accept the religious barrier and it makes me frustrated because a life choice is just as much a barrier that should be respected even if it doesn’t come down from a god or a text like that,” Post said. “My hope is we can start being a lot more respectful about personal choices.”
Turning down Grandma’s lasagna
Here it is, the ultimate final boss for the new vegan: Rejecting your family’s beloved food traditions that you might have eaten your entire life up until this point. It gets particularly tricky with older relatives, who understand a plant-based lifestyle about as much as they do current cryptocurrency trends.
Your first goal is not to lie to them: yes, it can seem easier to just tell grandma that you’re allergic to dairy and meat now, but that is ethically dubious, and doesn’t help spread your reasons for being vegan out into the world, if that’s one of your goals.
(Even if you’re not allergic, however, it should also be noted that trying to eat animal products after a long time of avoiding them can wreak havoc on your body, making holiday food exceptions a possible digestive issue, as well).
Instead, engage with the family or food tradition in other ways, Post said.
“You can always say ‘Oh grandma, it looks so great, I’m so proud of our heritage, it smells so good, it reminds me of home,’” she said. “You are in a safe zone to say, ‘Unfortunately because of how I eat now I can’t eat it, but I’m going to be so excited to watch you eat it or I’m just so happy to sit here chatting with you when you make it.’ ”
At the very least, be prepared to take care of your own eating needs and bring food for yourself, and to share (that’s the whole “not being a jerk” part)! At best, take it as a learning opportunity to show off the new ingredient alternatives you’ve learned about. I love to cook (and happen to think I do it better than some members of my family anyway), so I will usually offer to whip something up myself at a family gathering, or to veganise a family favourite.
The ease of swapping out butter for Earth Balance in a recipe, for instance, is often met with the slack-mouthed awe of pushing aside a hokey birthday party clown to perform Jedi magic. A few Thanksgivings ago, I blew my mother’s mind introducing her to coconut milk ice cream as a topping for her traditional apple cobbler. Now she’s coo-coo for coconut ice cream all the time.
No, it’s not rude to be vegan while travelling
There is a prevalent school of thought out there that maintaining a vegan lifestyle while travelling abroad is somehow offensive and limiting. By that logic, rejecting free food or customs you encounter on the road is therefore some sort of rejection of the culture itself.
“They make for bad travellers and bad guests,” Anthony Bourdain once told Playboy of vegans. “The notion that before you even set out to go to Thailand, you say, ‘I’m not interested,’ or you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude.”
Being able to choose where you get your nutrients is of course a privilege, but not one that should be seen as a burden on anyone else, no more than the privilege of travelling itself.
Bourdain’s comments (I’m not here to speak ill of the dead; Bourdain did lots of good things for the understanding of food consumptions across the world) assume that the only way to experience a culture is not only through its food, but also through its animal-based food. That’s not true, said Caitlin Galer-Unti, founder of the travel blog The Vegan Word and author of The Essential Vegan Travel Guide.
“There’s so much more to a culture than even just its food. But even the food, there’s not just meat, most cultures have vegetable-based dishes too,” she said. She noted that we don’t hold meat eaters to the same standard.
“If [omnivores] go somewhere that’s serving insect-based food, they won’t be happy to partake in that,” she said. We also don’t tell people with celiac disease not go to Italy because it would be rude not to eat the pasta, she said.
Post agrees that it’s OK to reject food or other offers when travelling. On the host’s side of things, making your guests feel uncomfortable, or asking them to sacrifice their ethics, is never proper etiquette.
“I completely disagree with Anthony Bourdain, who I love very much and respect very much,” she said.
Instead of engaging in the animal-based foods offered to you, find other ways to interact with the culture, through art, music, architecture or whatever tickles your deli pickle. For me, it’s bars: A good local dive or pub is a fine place to sit for hours while absorbing the culture by chatting up the regulars, having a local beer and getting a nice travel buzz going.
I once spent an hour tipping pints in a pub in Salisbury, England as the locals asked me questions about how dangerous Brooklyn was. When they passed around a chicken pot pie they owner had made, I politely declined and just ordered another pint instead, and no one was upset, except for the guy I informed that, sorry mate, my part of Brooklyn is not “very rough” these days.
Do research and be prepared
The easiest way to not find yourself in a situation where rejecting food would be offensive is to not be in those situations to begin with. If you come across a place in China where, say, a century egg is the honored delicacy or you’re invited to a traditional Thorrablót ceremony in Iceland featuring lamb heads, perhaps skip those on your itinerary.
“I always tell people to do as much research as possible in advance and prepare yourself before you go on the trip,” Galer-Unti said. “That will spare you from a lot of of awkward situations.”
Research may also prove your destination might be more vegan friendly than you thought.
On a recent trip to Romania, which does not have a strong vegan movement yet, Galer-Unti learned about the country’s Easter fasting traditions, where adherents avoid all meat, dairy and eggs. That means the country does have the language and recipes necessary to produce delicious vegan dishes already.
“There’s this whole tradition there of vegan food that most people visiting probably don’t know about,” she said. “I ended up learning all these words related to lent and fasting,” she said. In other countries, she’s connected with local vegans on Instagram and through other travel blogs before arriving, who toured her around to food markets and other places to sample the local cuisine.
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Before going to other countries, Galer-Unti will write down a few basic phrases in the native language that explain her diet and the things she will and won’t eat. She also recommends travelling with a bag full of back-up snacks, just in case you need something to fill the gap, particularly if you find yourself posted at a bar for hours lost in conversation with the locals.
This is hard for some travellers to get but it is possible to decouple your adventures with the concept of food. Most vegans learn to be self sufficient because we are consciously worrying about being a burden on others. It is far easier to pack a sandwich with you than it is to try to hack a menu in a different language to put together something consisting of an adequate meal.
I navigated this masterfully in September on my trip with a friend to visit a good buddy in the majestic mountain oasis of Juneau, Alaska. Beforehand, my friend had advised me to take up at least eating fish again because the town seems to subsist on salmon, salmon jerky, fried salmon, salmon burgers and the occasional reindeer sausage. I of course laughed off his suggestion, hit up the local health food store downtown as soon as I arrived and stocked up for the week on veggies, Field Roast, locally baked bread and more of their (pleasantly surprising!) selection of vegan goodies. I ended up eating better that week than my travel companion, who spent most of the week complaining that Juneau food was just glorified bar food.
Overall, rejecting anything free should be met with the same patience and understanding. Being a jerk about it is a good way to get all vegans labelled jerks. It’s also a good way to never get offered free things again.