Eating Together, Differently: My Thoughts on Veganism and Shared Food Experience
May 26, 2015

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The last time my boyfriend wrote a guest post for CR, he spoke about his discomfort ordering in restaurants as a newish vegan eater. Specifically, he addressed the fear of being perceived as difficult by wait staff. I was glad that he spoke up about this fear. I’ve seen a lot of it in my years of writing this blog and coaching my clients. Discomfort with the idea of being a “difficult eater” is no small issue for new vegans and vegetarians; it is, in fact, strong enough to prevent a lot of folks from transitioning fully to the diet.

Whether you’ve felt this fear or not, restaurant dining and social gatherings can be complex territory for vegans—or for anyone who has chosen, either for health reasons or for philosophical reasons, to eat a bit differently. I’ve never worried too much about coming across as difficult, but I have experienced some discomfort in both cross-cultural and cross-generational situations. It’s not always easy to articulate veganism across a cultural gap, especially because food is a symbol of unity, of coming together, in so many cultures.

When Steven wrote his post, we got a few great questions/comments about this very issue. Has being vegan eroded our ability to partake fully in social/family gatherings? I’ll share them below:

Sarah:

I would love it you guys could comment more on if you feel like eating different food than your relatives made you feel less connected with them as a result. So much social bonding and non-verbal communication happens at the dinner table, and it’s something I think about frequently. I wish more studies looking at vegetarian/veganism would look at the degree to which a person’s change in dietary habits impacts their sense of social connection and ability to maintain the same support circle in relation to retention rate. Detracting from this area of life has substantial impacts on health that I suspect we often then attribute to nutritional deficiencies…Anyway, being that you both seem to have strong family ties that include food traditions I’d love to hear more about whether or not you feel any less connected to your families when you no longer share the exact same meals as them at a gathering.

Rebecca:

Thoughtful comment/question. I would also like to hear more about this. I tell my kids food is for their body, for celebration, and for community. Or sometimes I say connection. The actual SHARING of food is huge in most cultures – what happens when you can’t share? Is it important to find something you CAN share in common? Yes? No? Just being together doesn’t seem the same dynamic as partaking of something in common. I’m guess I’m assuming here that it’s not in an ordering-type context but in a community home-made context.

It seemed to me that these questions were worthy of a dedicated post. I’ve written quite a bit about how my food choices impacted my relationship with my grandmother, who was the cook in my family when I was growing up. The act of feeding us (my mom and I) symbolized her role as the matriarch of our small, tightly knit Greek family. Food was also the currency of her love and affection. Because I stopped eating red meat when I was young, and then ate more and more narrowly as my eating disorder developed in adolescence, food became a significant source of tension between my Yaya and me. Sadly, she had succumbed to dementia by the time I had established a happy relationship with veganism, so we never really resolved our food conflicts. I often wish I’d had a chance to bake her a pan of Isa’s moussaka or make her a pot of my vegan avgolemono. But I do like to think that she would be very proud to see that, in my own way, I have taken on the mantle of cooking and celebrating food in my family.

The question that I think both Sarah and Rebecca are getting at is whether or not vegan moussaka would have been enough. In other words, to what extent does the sense of connection that we associate with eating actually reside in eating the same things?

To some extent, this is a difficult question for me to answer. My eating disorder developed between the ages of eleven and twelve, so for better or for worse, I simply don’t have a lot of early food memories that involve a feeling of cohesion. My experience of shared meals as a young adult was largely shadowed by deception: pushing food around so that it would seem as though I’d eaten more than I had; trying to avoid eating with friends because I didn’t know if I’d have safe options; going to great lengths to discreetly dab oil or dressing off of my salad or my vegetables. These memories are also shadowed by guilt; it really wasn’t until my mid-twenties—until after I became vegan and started to write this blog—that I was able to enjoy restaurant meals or family gatherings without coming home to a guilty conscience about what I’d eaten.

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For me, going vegan marked the start of my ability to see food as a vehicle for connection. I’m often asked how my mom received my choice to be vegan, given my history. It would have made sense for her to be wary, and she did ask me an obligatory set of worried questions when I announced my decision to her (what about protein, etc.). But I think she saw right away that, as a vegan, I had learned how to enjoy food again. She saw me opening cookbooks and trying recipes. She saw how eager I was to make vegan dishes and share them with her; she saw my excitement when I was able to cook us our first vegan Thanksgiving. Through veganism, I developed the kind of enthusiasm for food that my mother had always wanted for me.

Years later, my passion for food—food writing, food creation, recipe development, dining out, entertaining, you name it—is still inextricably linked with my veganism. I can’t imagine one without the other. My food memories of life as an omnivore feel dissonant and sad, whereas my food memories of life as a vegan feel redemptive. I share food with my loved ones far more authentically and wholeheartedly now than I ever did before going vegan, even if I’m not always eating the same things they do, because I have a healthy attitude toward eating. I think it’s true that eating different food at the same table can create a sense of discord. But my own experiences have shown me that the most profound discord stems not from eating different foods, but rather from having a different relationship with food than everyone else.

With all of this said, I realize that I have a special history. So I asked Steven, who has a “normal” history with food, what he thought. His response was that he sees the experience of eating together as symbolic, rather than literal. Food may be what brings people to the table, he told me, but the connection between people shouldn’t reside exclusively in the food itself. “If I’m having rice and beans,” he said, “why should it matter if my family member is having rice and beans and chicken?” He noted that, in his family, it has never been incredibly important that everyone eat the exact same thing, so long as everyone breaks bread together, so to speak. And he made a final point that stuck with me, because I think it gets lost in larger conversations about the choice to go vegan: “Pressure to conform is unavoidable in our society,” he said. “Your family should be the last people putting pressure on you to conform, because they should know what’s important to you.”

I agreed with everything Steven said, especially this last point. But as someone who has chosen to turn food into a career, I do sympathize with the idea that authenticity and specificity matter. This is actually something that I struggle with as a recipe developer. For example, I recently posted a lentil Bolognese recipe on Food52 that got a mixed reaction. Some readers loved it, others were somewhat affronted by the fact that I’d call a 45-minute lentil dish “Bolognese,” when the traditional Italian version involves a meat-sauce that has been slow-simmered, artfully, for hours.

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Hey, I get it. I’m vegan, and my first priority is to create food that has in no way relied upon the commodification of animals. But I am also a food lover, and I’m always on a mission to become a better cook. I didn’t grow up cooking and have much to learn, but I spend a lot of time poring over food writing, from Marcella Hazan and Harold McGee and to Julia Child and Elizabeth David. I understand the importance of tradition and technique, even when I don’t observe them faithfully. For those who really know and love food, there is something important about the idea of a time-honored recipe, passed uncompromised from generation to generation. It isn’t enough to come up with something that’s almost the same, let alone take huge liberties with major ingredients.

In this way, specificity does matter. It mattered to my grandmother, who perceived my refusal to partake of her lamb keftedes as a rejection of culture. Much as I’d like to believe that I could have impressed her with tofu or lentil keftedes, I’m not so sure. She might easily have seen my attempt to veganize her food as an insult, rather than an olive branch.

Specificity matters to a lot of food lovers. It matters to chefs, who may struggle to understand why a vegan diner would ask for modifications to a dish that has been created with artistry, passion, and a strong sense of tradition. And it can matter to those of us who regard food itself—particular foods, not just the act of eating—as a vehicle for shared experience.

I guess my own way of reconciling all of this is to acknowledge that most important choices involve compromise. Veganism is in many ways all about compromise, about the acceptance of certain tradeoffs. The big tradeoff, of course, is the surrender of animal foods in exchange for a deeper sense of philosophical harmony when it comes to eating. I had a relatively easy vegan transition, but like all vegans, there are things I miss. I miss Greek yogurt. I miss half-and-half in my coffee. I miss feta cheese. Yes, I eat foods and products that successfully replicate these things for me, to a degree that is perfectly satisfying, but no, it’s not exactly the same. And that’s OK. Because, while I’m happy to have grown accustomed to the taste of soy milk and almond milk in my coffee, and while I can happily make due with homemade coconut yogurt, I really can’t accept the idea that an animal was commodified, held captive, hurt, or killed so that I could enjoy my food just a little bit more. I care tremendously about what I eat and how good it tastes. But I don’t care so much that I’d refuse small tradeoffs that allow me to interfere less with non-human animals and their wellbeing.

Shared meals are another area where I’m willing to embrace some amount of compromise. I’d probably have been a little less nervous meeting Steven’s family if I weren’t vegan (in spite of the fact that they were awesome, and I had nothing to worry about). Accepting dinner party invitations would be just a little smoother if my host didn’t have to go out of his or her way to accommodate me. Traveling in foreign places might feel a little less daunting, initially. But in the grand scheme of things, these day-to-day frictions feel totally worthwhile—insignificant, even—because they allow me to eat in accordance with my values. So long as I can use what I know about cooking to create vegan fare that is satisfying and abundant, so long as I can use a couple of cool vegan products to replace the stuff that I miss, and so long as I can wing it when it comes to travel and restaurants, the tradeoffs I’ve made feel worthy and right.

There is another tradeoff that’s worth mentioning here. If veganism has taught me that it’s worth it to miss out on some specific food experiences in order to eat in accordance with my beliefs, then it has also taught me how to surrender other, less important sources of friction when it comes to food—namely, my own tendency to create rules and to get stuck in my head.

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Case in point: Steven and I share nearly all of our meals. In past relationships, I often cooked for my significant other and for myself, but that didn’t stop me from finding ways to eat selectively. I’d prepare some hearty vegan recipe and stuff my plate with salad, allowing my boyfriend to enjoy hefty portion of casserole or risotto while I ate 75% greens and 25% entrée. If I made a pasta recipe, I’d serve his over real pasta and mine over spiralized zucchini or steamed kale. At the time I justified this as a prioritization of nutrient-dense ingredients (i.e., greens instead of noodles). But the truth of the matter is that these habits were mostly a concession to my orthorexic tendencies. A misguided concession, I might add: grains and proteins are nutrient-dense, too.

When Steven and I became serious, I made a vow to change this pattern, to no longer define myself as somebody who must serve all of her food over a mountain of green leafy vegetables. Steven has undertaken an enormous lifestyle change in eating vegan with me. The change I’ve made for him, for us, and for myself is to share food with him in a way that feels fully participatory. It has been a real treat to watch Steven discover vegan food, to see him marveling at what can be done with beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and veggies—along with some flourishes of Daiya, Beyond Meat, and Earth Balance. It has inspired me to cook a wider variety of foods, to add more flavor and variety to my repertoire. In many ways, I’m rediscovering vegan cooking as my boyfriend experiences it for the first time. And I’m learning how to create less boundaries and restrictions for myself with food as I go.

Black bean skillet scramble and cheesy polenta // Choosing Raw

I mention this last point because I think that in the past, I made my already selective diet unnecessarily confined. Leafy greens are wonderful, but when I think back to all of the many the kale salads I heaped upon my mom when I first went vegan, I wish I’d made her a quinoa and broccoli bake or a black bean skillet scramble with cheesy polenta now and again, too. I wish I’d been able to prioritize my own health concerns a little less, and our shared enjoyment a little more. I wish I’d known better how to turn vegan food into a bridge, rather than a source of difference.

I intend to be vegan for life, and I want that to be a life in which I share food with people I love. When you choose to become vegan or vegetarian, you necessarily give up a certain amount of common ground with family and friends. You can regain a lot of that common ground by demonstrating an open, enthusiastic, inclusive approach to eating. For me, that has meant embracing a slightly more varied and less vegetable-centric approach to food. I’m grateful to Steven for inspiring me in that direction. The other night, when we had pasta for the second time in a week, he noted that I would never have made pasta in such close succession when we started dating.

“I hope it’s not just for me,” he said carefully.

No indeed, I thought as I stared down at my plate of hearty marinara and (reasonably portioned) kale salad. It was for me, too.

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As always, thoughts are welcome. Happy Tuesday, all.

xo

Pasta photos in this post were taken by James Ransom for Food52.

Categories: Food and Healing

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    41 Comments
  1. It was heartwarming to see everybody sharing experiences with this “communal” hurdle. All of us who’ve made the choice will at one point or another (unless you’d be totally out of touch with family or friends) face this. I echo Steven’s point in saying get together’s are more for the experience and sharing of thoughts. I personally feel very lucky that my bosom buddies and family gets together without this divide. There were concerns and some jests during the first few dinners but eventually, they died down seeing how glowing and healthy our complexions (my husband and mine) were. The great thing here is somehow we were also influence our friends to transition over to a meat less diet.

  2. Very insightful post. I remember when I first went vegan, I found the transition of eating with people the most difficult part (not the actual part of giving up animal products). I didn’t want to be thought of as weird and I lamented at potluck about everyone’s full plate and my sad looking vegetables. But when I learned how to make delicious creations, I started looking forward to sharing them with others.
    The social eating interactions with my family is ok – Christmas is no longer weird, they actually like trying whatever I make and are super interested and nice about it =) But I do have to admit, my social circle outside of family has changed. I gradually started hanging out more and more with vegans and I’ve always wondered if part of it is because of common ground or because social experiences are so food centric. At any rate, my husband is not vegan, has no interest in becoming vegan, but is more than accepting of our vegan kitchen and loves my cooking. That’s all I really care about =) I love hearing how you and Steven grow together. I’ve heard of other people complaining about very not supportive significant others during a transition to veganism and I feel lucky to have someone accept my changes and help me embrace them.
    ” it really wasn’t until my mid-twenties—until after I became vegan and started to write this blog—that I was able to enjoy restaurant meals or family gatherings without coming home to a guilty conscience about what I’d eaten.”
    Ditto!

  3. Thank you for starting these important conversations! I enjoy reading all of the thoughtful comments too.
    Im so happy for you that you’ve found someone like Stephen who has embraced veganism with you! While my family is supportive of my vegan eating habits at the dinner table and eating out at restaurants, Im finding it more difficult while dating. Im currently seeing someone who aways makes sure I have vegan dinner options stocked at his place and that we can find something I can enjoy when we eat out, but he himself does not follow suit. I don’t expect to turn him vegan (or at least not right away 😉 but it does bother me that I can taste pork on his breathe after dinner or that our healthy eating values not exactly match up. I really care for him despite our food differences.
    If you don’t mind me asking, if Stephen hadn’t decided to try veganism, would you still think the same of him/continue your relationship ? Or can a guy respect you and your vegan lifestyle and yet still eat meat around you? I hope this isn’t to personal to ask, I just wish to find some clarity within my dating life moving forward. I greatly admire what you have with Stephen and because i know I will be vegan for life, I’d love to know how to approach a situation like this and make it work. <3

    • Obviously you like this man and equally obviously he respects your food choices enough to accommodate them. The question is, how much emotion do you invest in a partner doesn’t share an important part of your identity? It’s a bit like marrying out of a religion that you actively participate in. Unless you and your partner choose one path together, whatever it may be, you’ll always be at odds to some degree and only you can determine whether or not the dissonance is tolerable. If you’re serious about the relationship then just as you would discuss any other big life issue – children? money? careers? city, suburbs, country? – your food issues need to be discussed very openly.

      Wishing you the very best outcome!

  4. This is a great post Gena! I empathized with it so much! While my parents (especially my dad) are fantastic about my veganism, I come from an extended family that is simultaneously traditional and very foodie. This basically manifests itself in all of the wrong ways regarding veganism–they always want to go to trendy but generally “New American” restaurants but eat traditional staples at home-based family occasions. Relating to food between they and I is an impasse with a rickety rope bridge where you have to watch your step or you fall–they can’t understand why I’ve made the choice to go vegan, and they don’t want to examine it because it forces them to examine their own eating choices. We’ve had minor successes over the years, but never regarding any of the traditional foods that they’re so attached to. I agree with you Gena, that it’s probable that veganizing a beloved dish might be taken as insulting, because it doesn’t taste exactly the same, and it’s tarnishing (to them) the thing they love so much. The only success I had in this area was in veganizing my grandmother’s raisin bread recipe that I loved as a child. I made her a veganized loaf for Mother’s Day this year, and it tasted just like the original, so she loved it.

  5. Your transformation is beautiful to witness. Offering my veg food for my family in a way that speaks to them has been helpful for us all — though I did have to put my foot down to raise consciousness about where they can help me (ex/ when they are expecting me to be there it’s entirely inconsiderate and unacceptable to use chicken broth in mashed potatoes). Also a yogi, I have fallen in love again with food as healthy sustenance as I discover Ayurveda. As you illustrate so lovingly, I am taking it in gently and slowly without rigidity. I’m enjoying the expanding choices and awareness. Namaste’ dear one.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this tough issue. I’ve had a difficult relationship with meat for years, (am not strictly vegan but eat ~95%, and have gluten and dairy-intolerances), and come from a family of very heavy meat-eating ranchers. Social settings at home are hard, to put it mildly, and I find that I struggle so much to “fit-in” with the food culture of my family. I am still on a journey to figure out how to comfortably provide options that I can/would be willing to eat at food gatherings without offending, when slabs of meat and cheesy potatoes are the name of the game. Sometimes, I’m aware I isolate myself more by not providing options for me, and instead snack on raw fruits and vegetables while everyone else is enjoying a big meal, and in thinking others care more than they really do. Overall, the practice of different eating patterns is a tough issue, and one that I think will be explored more as our society (particularly the younger generation) makes more transitions away from their traditional way of eating.

  7. Gena,

    I appreciate the discussion, a timely one as I look for ways to coordinate meals with my omnivoric large brood and husband. Similar to what has been said, we share meals but all do not always eat all of the same items on the table. I try to prepare enough selections that all get enough protein and plant foods. There are meatless meals and then there are meals with meat and quinoa or beans. Most of the time they are fine with the selection. Meatless lasagnas, chilis and bean burritos have been surprisingly well received.

  8. I really love all your thoughts here. I think it is really about the ‘energy’ if you will of the diners – especially the one who is eating ‘different’ than it is about the actual food on your plates. I have shared many dinners with my family as a vegan that felt totally isolating and terrible, and others that felt totally inclusive and wonderful – both were caused by how I was perceiving their perception and reception of me. When I decide my different food is not an issue, it really tends not to be. When I come with the idea that I am there to be with them and connect, it happens. Regardless of what the details of our meals are.

  9. I agree with Steven that the ritual of eating together is sufficient in and of itself to connect those around the table, regardless of what (or how much) each person is eating. Commensality does not require everyone around the table to eat the same thing – it is the “table” that is shared – not the food necessarily. People living under the same roof will often have different tastes, different energy needs, different ethical commitments, but what brings then together around a table – love, friendship, family ties – renders those differences trivial. Personally, I think those differences only become problematic when there’s something else going on – judgment, for example, or a feeling that one is being judged.

    Of course I recognize the importance of food, which for me too is a powerful source of connection, to nature, to culture, etc. I love that quote by Deborah Madison that the more disconnected a people is from its culture, the more cookbooks it produces. But I guess I don’t feel any pressure to replicate recipes to experience this connection, I have no problem adapting them to my tastes, to what’s in season, etc. I think by veganizing one’s ancestral cuisine – as you are doing with your Grandmother’s recipes, as Bryant Terry is doing with traditional African American dishes, one is engaged already in a practice of “connecting.”

    Eating for me is a profoundly spiritual practice. But I feel the spiritual connection hinges more on the mindfulness I bring to the selection and preparation of my food, whatever it is, than on what it is I’m eating. I think in the cases where people equate food with love and interpret your rejection of their food as a rejection of their love, “eat it any way,” as many encourage, is not the answer (unless you can do so without feeling sick, distressed, etc.). We have to gently educate those who cook for us … hard but not impossible.

    All that said, I understand and admire your evolving stance and your decision to share more of your meals with Stephen, even if it means adjusting some of your routines. Certainly it speaks to the strength of your recovery, to be able to prioritize your relationship over … but I hope you also realize that recovery (not early on, for sure, but after some years) is not a precarious thing. We should not be substituting the prison of anorexia for the prison of “normality” (guess there’s little risk of doing that when you are vegan, but you know what I mean). My own recovery was wider than deep for a long time. I was incorporating more and more foods, relaxing restrictions around quantities, black-listed ingredients, etc., but I ate “3 meals a day absolutely nothing in between” for what feels like forever! Unless I was sick, I did not skip a meal … But since I started eating mostly raw, some years ago, I have found myself skipping either breakfast or lunch more often than not. I eat the same number of calories each day, but I have come to prefer eating them at dinner. I think I am stronger in my recovery than when I “needed” to eat three times a day – it certainly makes for easier traveling. I don’t worry anymore about “passing for normal” “deflecting attention,” etc. I don’t worry about what others are eating or what they think of what I’m eating. If they are eating at my house, obviously I’ll do my best to accommodate by preparing something I know they’ll love, but I don’t (always) feel compelled to make the same thing for myself.

    I’m lucky, I know, that I have passed on to my son my love of food and that he just doesn’t see anything else. He knows I love food, our house is full of it, etc., so I don’t really worry about not eating what he’s eating or sharing every meal with him. And he, fortunately, doesn’t seem bothered or perplexed if I don’t eat this or that meal, if I don’t eat pasta but make it for him (it puts me into a coma, literally). Still, I couldn’t help but pay some attention to the article in the New York Times (early April if I’m not mistaken) by a mother in response to her daughter’s question, “When do grownups stop eating breakfast?” The author is clearly concerned with feeding her kids well, and amply, but her failure to care for herself in the same way doesn’t escape her (young) daughter’s attention. This leads her to reflect – in what I thought was a quite honest and self-searching manner – on ways her eating disorder lingers. Even though her body is no longer anorexic, she’s not quite free of “anorexic thinking.” I admire the writer for her willingness to address her unresolved issues (if only for her daughter’s sake), to prioritize her daughter’s happy relationship with food over her own fraught one. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the comments section – stuff like, “If you aren’t eating three meals a day, you are practicing your disease.” That *might* be true in very early recovery, but it’s just not true after one is “recovered” – at least it doesn’t have to be.

    • All really well said, Elizabeth. I agree that the idea of “breaking bread” (metaphorically) and gathering at a table are the point of this emphasis on food as communion and shared experience. In this day and age, I think more and more of us are shifting our diets around to incorporate health concerns and also ethical/philosophical priorities, and this means that we all have to become more capacious and accepting. More eager to welcome a variety of different plates to one table. Experience and gathering matter most.

      As for your point about recovery, I also tend to bristle when I come across any monolithic idea about what one “must” do or how one “must” eat in order to qualify as recovered. For me, skipping meals feels neither organic or satisfying, and yes, it does evoke memories of behaviors I’ve parted with, so I almost never do it — but it’s not so much because I fear relapse, but rather because my recovery has been all about letting pleasure and appetite guide me, and they don’t guide me to skip breakfast. Likewise with my recent adjustments. I think a lot of my emphasis on vegetable volume was organic (I love vegetables), but some was also rooted in a sense of obligation and duty that stemmed from firm ideas about what is “healthy” and what is not. So, I’m trying to ease up there. But I would hesitate to make declarations about what others should do (i.e., I’m far from declaring zucchini noodles “disordered”–I still love them, just not all the time and not at the expense of rice pasta), especially as I know how personal recovery is. Some would call my veganism “not fully recovered,” and they would be mistaken.

      It’s definitely true that I occasionally make something that wouldn’t be my first choice because I know Steven will love it, but more often than not it’s a small concession (like using more garlic or onion than I like, which is not hard to do). And the small concessions do feel like a meaningful part of partnering–all new to me right now, and very sweet.

      Finally, thanks for mentioning that Times article — I’ll check it out! It sounds as though you and your son have a lovely shared experience of food.

  10. What a beautiful, articulate post, very thought provoking and I enjoy your honesty and warmth. Thanks for the food for thought..

  11. Loved this post because it felt like the continuation of a deep and nuanced conversation. I especially appreciate the various angles you took on this idea of sharing food, Gena, because there can definitely be more than one thing going on in these community relationships. In reading our comments, I noticed that we picked out the angle that hit us the most. Mine was the recognition that it is true that in some contexts, particular foods are a vehicle for shared experience. In addition, my personal take away is your sentence about the desire to share food in a way that feels fully participatory. Sometimes food is just food and sometimes it is a participation in something else pretty much unrelated. And often it’s something along that continuum. Came across an article today that made me smile in recognition. It’s about a grown married man whose mother sends him home with weeks’ worth of food because that’s how she loves him and how she expresses her own worth also. And how can he stem the tide and keep the love and her self-worth? Don’t know how to link it but I think a lot of people would enjoy it. It’s called ‘Overfed on a Mother’s Affection’ by Sung J. Woo and it’s in the NYT May 9, 2013 in their Modern Love section. Thanks, Gena. I have lots to think about now.

    • That article kind-of makes me think of my boss, who is a old gay man in his late 60s, and does lots of gardening. His neighbor is an older Asian lady who speaks very little English, but he is pretty much her only friend since they both bond over plants and gardening. My boss jokingly complains about all the food she brings over to him since it is bland and more than he can eat, particularly bamboo shoot soup (that uses bamboo from his garden). Sadly lots of the food goes to waste because he is super concerned about freshness (I think a side effect of taking care of his partner who had AIDS)

    • You have given me a lot to consider, too, Rebecca, so thank you. Food is so complicated, and I think it’s important always to consider both sides of a food feud — ie., in the synopsis you describe, one has to consider both the son’s autonomy and the mother’s desire for self-expression (of love) through cooking. I look forward to checking it out.

  12. This insightful post brings up so many important points. I agree with Steven that the enjoyment of shared meals shouldn’t be dependent on the food and on eating the same thing. I’ve found that the cheerful attitude I bring to the situation eventually reshapes that of my worried or uncomfortable fellow diners with the exception of a family member or two.

    On the flip side, I also love what you say about easing up on our own health concerns so that we can enjoy our communal experiences more. It definitely helps me to enjoy my company more when I am not worried that my friend is cooking with earth balance or when I choose to eat glutenous calzones filled with tofu ricotta, vegan sausage, and daiya with my friends. It’s not what I typically eat, but it’s vegan, so no worries! Shared experiences while eating the same foods is really nice, but it’s also not everything. Again, great post!

  13. Thank you!!! What an incredible post, that totally hit home for me. Your writing style is so wonderful and a joy to read. I am so grateful for your blog!

  14. “I wish I’d been able to prioritize my own health concerns a little less, and our shared enjoyment a little more. I wish I’d known better how to turn vegan food into a bridge, rather than a source of difference.”

    And how.

    A year or so after I went vegan, a friend making her way in the food business (in other words, voracious, enthusiastic, and steeped in the French tradition) asked me if I’d done it for the challenge. I immediately told her it was a reaction to the realization of what it meant to farm an animal, but I had to admit that veganism had come effortlessly to me. And I had to admit why that was. I had previously attributed it to the fact that I was already a vegetable-lover. I didn’t have to completely overhaul my diet. And I’m sure there’s truth in that, but I had also previously completely ignored the fact that restriction and strict boundaries were how I’d defined my relationship with food for years. And so a new restriction—even one that allowed abundance otherwise—was entirely natural to me. I had to admit that there was a part of my brain, absent in someone who coos over fresh mayonnaise, wondering why all these normies couldn’t just suck it up and quit going on about cheese (after all, I hadn’t dared to so much as touch a piece of cheese as an omnivore for, what, 15 years?).

    I was able to explore and make peace with that realization, but it did—and does—make me worry about what it means for the animals and our planet. I don’t believe that a tendency toward self-flagellation is a prerequisite for going vegan, but some days I still feel like walking proof that it doesn’t hurt. I try hard to express joy in vegan food, but I’m very aware that for many people that’s not enough.

    My mother is easy to please, and we’ve never clashed over my diet. My de-facto MIL, on the other hand, I found out was deeply intimidated. When she suddenly, out of the blue, made a big speech at an intimate holiday brunch that she had decided not to let my food choices bother her anymore (awkward), I had to quickly gather my thoughts with bacon under my nose and find compassion for a woman with issues of her own. As much as my vegan diet defines me to a lot of people, it’s not the whole of who I am. It’s a boycott that I practice, and that I think is an important, doable way to be gentler to the world. But I have to remember that as much as the bacon on the table upsets me, and as much as I get embarrassed being singled out as a source of familial stress during a meal, my boycott isn’t about me. The animals are the creatures being oppressed, not me. I live very comfortably. Okay, I have to navigate social situations because of my choices. But my body is not confined and sold. (Ali Seiter’s been writing explicitly about that these last months.) I said something like that as gracefully (and quickly!) as I could at the time.

    I wish I could put a bow on this comment, but I’m torn between celebrating the possibilities Gena outlines and the heartbreak induced by some of the comments here that highlight how hard relationships are, with and without food. I guess the thread in all this is that I can’t ever stop being open. Once I had the compassion for animals, I still had to keep engaging in difficult situations and emotions with my fellow humans. I have to keep learning how to be fluid and acknowledge tension, to keep using my words to try to build bridges when my food isn’t enough. Because for some people, it never will be. And reaching out instead of turning inward is what this is supposed to be all about for me.

    • As usual, Amanda, such an amazing comment.

      I love your point about how, at the end of the day, it’s really not about you. This is so vital to keep in mind. A lot of conversations about the vicissitudes of going vegan are very centered around the individual human’s experience, and that is fine. Truly. We have to support people who are trying to support animals. But at the end of the day, I think all of us have to remember that our worst inconvenience or moment of tension surrounding veganism is nothing in comparison to the circumstances that face the animals we’re trying to help.

  15. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I agree that this is a significant issue. Unlike you I went vegetarian after leaving home because I could finally eat what I want. And going veg at this age is awkward because it is an awkward time for everyone as they transition into adulthood. It took a while to feel comfortable to eat with others – though my determination not to eat meat made it easier. But I think what you mention about Stephen’s family being a lot more welcoming than you expect is often true – that the fear is more in the mind than in society. (Though not always). This is more and more the case with more and more thought going into ethical ways of living life.

    These days my family has a vegetarian, gluten free and nut allergies to contend with at family dinners but we manage very well because everyone wants to share a meal rather than tell others what to eat and we manage to find common ground in some dishes – for example at one of our favourite meals (Mexican) we have meat and veg chili, tacos, tortillas and little bowls of lettuce, cheese, tomato etc.

    • I have the same thing where my married family accommodates my diet better than my own family (which does nothing, I bring the food XD) I think it has to do with my sympathetic parent-in-laws, I think they sympathize with animals, and are very environment & health friendly. Then the extended family have experience with dietary restrictions (allergies and diabetes) and always have some foods I can have. It does feel great to have my needs considered, but then I have to eat their terrible food. XD I am a little of a food snob, my family is food obsessed, which is why I make my own food, it a battle for who claims which dish during holidays.

    • I think you bring up two really important points, Johanna. The first is that our anxieties are often not borne out by experience. I have often dreaded interactions that turned out to be totally painless vis-a-vis my veganism, so it is important to keep a neutral, open mind.

      Second, I love your point about how your family accommodates so many eating styles. These days, as folks become aware of food allergies and the impact of food on chronic health conditions, it is more and more common for many “special diets” to be represented at one table. So I think that a lot of these tensions will become less and less dramatic as our culture becomes more accepting of the notion of different people eating different kinds of food.

  16. This has been such a thoughtful post and an important topic not many vegan food bloggers address. Thank you for your sensitivity in dealing with the topic.
    I liked what you said, that vegan food can be used as a bridge.

  17. Excellent post, Gena. Thanks for your forthright and well written insights about being vegan and sharing food with loved ones.

  18. TEARS, you hit the nail right on the head, Gena, and I am so touched that someone else could understand the nuances of recovery so deeply and articulately. Thank you !

  19. Meal time was never a way for our family to come together. My father had rigid, Victorian notions of how we were supposed to behave at table. Following rules was more important to him than sharing either food or conversation. My mother side-stepped the issue by feeding us separately during the week, then she and my father would eat their dinner together. Weekends were hellish. Didn’t matter whether it was lunch in the kitchen or dinner in the dining room – manners were the center of attention and the game was rigged against us kids. I’m sharing this because it’s an entirely different perspective on the place of food in family life. Food actually kept us isolated.

    I’m about to visit my omnivore sister, and for the first time I’ll be fully facing the situation of Not Eating What Everyone Else Is. I’ve been vegan at home for several years, but not at my sister’s. This time I step completely into my choice and I’m nervous about it.

    When she recently asked if I’d eat anything baked with eggs in it I paused before skirting the issue by recommending that she not go out of her way. She likes to bake. And she’s very sensitive to anything she perceives as criticism. I hope she’s not seeing my food choice as rejection or judgment, of her but at some level that may be what’s happening. Still, I’ve reached a point where I must risk that in order to be who I am.

    My sister and brother know that I started eating this way for health reasons, and that is still important to me, but along the way I’ve learned a lot about how animals are treated and I want no part of that ever again. This is not something I’m comfortable discussing with them. My brother is dedicated to consuming as much beef as possible. My sister rejects grains, legumes and pretty much anything unfamiliar. I’d like to make vegan foods to share, but so far my efforts have been met with unenthusiastic politeness. Neither wants even one bite.

    So food continues to divide us, but hopefully we can survive our differences without feeling isolated.

    • I really despise picky eaters. I can understand occasionally disliking certain foods, but I can’t stand when people who have no medical or moral reason will NOT eat certain foods. This is how my father is, so there is a lot of not talking about what I made for dinner. I find it beyond rude when people eat around beans or won’t eat whatever vegetable that was made for them for dinner. I hated it before I went vegan as well.

      I know when I cook food for family get togethers I never tell my father it is vegan or what specifically in the dish because if I make a pasta casserole with pureed sweet potato, he won’t touch it if he finds out about the sweet potato. His close friends even make special food for him when he visits. A grown man! His pickiness gets in the way when going out as well, forcing me with real moral dietary restrictions to sit out until we get home. I mainly fear the day when I have kids and have to enforce you eat a little of everything before dessert rule with my father. XD Some family have other food issues, but they can put it aside. Sometimes you just need to lie and serve people the tofu ricotta lasagna and hand them donuts without revealing they are vegan. It always get eaten.

      • Jennifer,

        “I mainly fear the day when I have kids and, have to enforce you eat a little of everything before dessert rule with my father.”

        How disrespectful. You do enforce rules with your children. Not your father.

        I understand pickiness can be a problem. Yet, why do you make it all about how you feel about it?
        Have you ever wondered how it feels to your Dad? You see being picky as a choice. I don’t think it works that way at all. There are many reasons people are “picky” eaters. Yet, I don’t see “by choice” as a reason.

        I myself am not a picky eater. I enjoy most anything. But, I do understand we are all individuals. Give your Dad the respect he deserves.

    • Innerspacegirl, this was an important contribution to the dialog–thank you! Important because it must be said that the prevailing notion of food as a source of togetherness and communion simply does not apply to every person’s experience or home life or upbringing. And I tend to believe that all monolithic ideas about “how things are” / “what things are” / “how things work” can be damaging and painful to those who find themselves operating under a different set of circumstances.

      I have experienced food both as a source of shared experience and also as a source of profound difference, and I have witnessed it being used as a source of control/power manipulation. Because food is something I love and cherish, I do my best to create circumstances in my life where it really does create community, and this website (and everyone who reads and shares) is the best example I can think of!

  20. I enjoyed this post and appreciated your and Steven’s thoughts regarding your experiences. Something that wasn’t discussed so much above, but that also bears consideration in the distance that can come between vegans and their non-vegan dining companions is the ethical perspective. Both my husband and I (and many other vegans, I’ve heard) experience a visceral discomfort at simply being in the presence of animal flesh and the conversations that inevitably arise around its consumption–just as your average omnivore would recoil at the very notion of eating a dog.

    I grew up in the midwest and whenever we visit we’re immersed in deep-rooted carnist culture. It can be alienating and, honestly, upsetting. My family was largely supportive and accommodating through the first couple years of our veganism, which always softened the experience. On our last visit, however, they became almost aggressively irreverent, cooking up entire sheet pans of meat and leaving us to pick at the vegetable sides that were shared amongst everyone. When we expressed our discomfort after the visit, we were called extreme and disrespectful. I’m guessing here, but I believe that the change in tone was because the ethical motivations behind our lifestyle have become more apparent through some of our choices in the last year or so. We’ve never advocated veganism to them, and they never asked about it, so it’s within the realm of possibility that it just wasn’t on their radar before. Again I’m speculating, but their realization that this is a moral imperative for us seems to have resulted in angry backlash. Incidentally, my husband’s family, upon having similar realizations about our lifestyle, had the complete opposite response. They now show even more care, consideration, and respect for our perspective, taking extra measures to ensure our comfort, and it has made every family gathering we’ve been to since infinitely more enjoyable for us–and, it has seemed, for them as well.

    Sometimes the mere presence of animal products can create tension on both sides: the vegans feel uncomfortable being around dead animals, and the non-vegans feel uncomfortable because they know that the vegans are uncomfortable (or perhaps more often because they imagine they’re being judged). I know of vegans who have a rule that if they’ll be dining with a non-vegan friend or family member, everyone must eat vegan or they’ll find a different way to spend time together. I don’t think this is necessary or practical for most people, but it’s also not a terrible idea. I think the chasm between many vegans and non-vegans at the dining table isn’t necessarily so much about the fact that different things are being eaten, but that either side of the table disagrees on a very fundamental level about what is and isn’t “food.”

    • I agree with everyone that this was an important comment, Britt. Thank you.

      While I think it would feel more uncomfortable to me to confine most of my social interactions with non-vegans to activities that don’t involve eating, that would certainly be a wise solution for me to adopt with certain family members who remain firmly unsupportive of my choices. It can be a relief for everyone, I think, to have these tensions lifted, and yes–it does remove the visceral pain and discomfort that can come from being around “meat.” (I put it in quotations because I also struggle to speak about an animal carcass as food.)

      One small change that I made recently was to start putting my foot down about restaurant dining with family. In the past, I think I went out of my way to be accommodating, often agreeing to meet up at restaurants that had nary a vegan salad in sight. I did it for years, in part because I wanted to make veganism look easy, rather than difficult, and in part because I felt grateful that I wasn’t being criticized for ordering vegan. It’s really only in the past few years that I’ve realized how absurd it was that I was expected to eat at restaurants where it was overtly difficult to order vegan, yet my attempts to advocate for a vegan restaurants seemed out of the question. I may be the minority, but no family member should force me into a situation where I’d have such a limited amount of options.

      The irony, of course, is that most of my relatives would have a plethora of things they’d like to eat at most of the vegan restaurants I like (pasta, risotto, falafel), whereas vegans often have nothing but small salads at many spots. So, there’s a lot of inequality there, and in my own way, I’m trying to stand up for myself.

    • Yes yes yes. I’m a long-time vegan and I’ve experienced this too. I usually refrain from talking about meat and veganism while at the dinner table when people are eating meat. It’s too stressful for everyone. I think I initially got that idea from Carol J. Adams’ useful book “Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook.” I need to re-read it. http://www.caroljadams.com/book_livingamong.html

  21. Thanks for the post Gena. It always resonates in me what you are saying. I have became vegetarian almost three years ago, and full vegan at the begging of this year. My family has been greatly accommodating and understanding of my choices and I don’t feel excluded in anyway. I appreciate the way you share your thoughts of food and eating disorders.
    I also have this strict rules about what I should and shouldn’t eat and especially geared more towards portions (only 3 portions of cereal etc..). Becoming vegan has definitively help to loose this boundaries I have inflicted on myself and eat more out of feeling.

  22. Great post Gena, I posted on something similar today on my site. I should have asked for your advice as well:) I really like your approach with less boundaries, I’m totally guilty of that and wrote about how I do that with zucchini noodles in my post today! Work in progress:)