Day five, my last day of vegan (mini) week, began with my usual oatmeal breakfast, my morning coffee laced with So Delicious Coconut Milk Creamer. It was, to quote a slogan on a local beer, "not bad."
After a morning writing, wrapped up in a fleece blanket against the damp chill, I decided to drive to Sheboygan for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Field to Fork. I had already settled on the hummus and giardinera as a suitable vegan lunch, but when I arrived I saw that minestrone was one of the soup selections.
Their soup is thick, hearty, and not tomatoey. Chunks of root vegetables and seasonal-ish squashes intermingle with beans and hearty greens. I ordered a bowl, and was surprised when it arrived garnished with a skiff of cheese. I've ordered this soup so many times, always reassured of its vegetarianness, and clearly not mindful of the cheese.
I pushed the cheese to the side of the bowl, but it was melting into the soup anyway, a distinctive tang and sweet saltiness.
Oh, it was delicious.
Later that evening, Gregg and I headed to a graduation party, where we huddled outside, hands wrapped around too-cold soda cans, trying to stay warm in the unseasonable cold. We wandered into the garage (all the best Wisconsin parties include a garage) to fill our plates. Well, Gregg filled his plate with a variety of meat dishes kept warm in Nesco roasters (another ubiquitous Wisconsin party favorite), while I spooned some salsa and grabbed a handful of corn chips. Our friend T proudly told me his taco dip was vegetarian and even included a layer of beans. It looked delicious: cool, creamy, and crisp. Gregg explained that I was dairy free this week, and we walked back outside to shiver and munch.
Restaurants and social situations challenge our dietary lifestyles. While some vegetarians and vegans choose to overtly share their politics in these moments, I usually try to eat inconspicuously. At moments like this--the restaurant, the grad party--part of me longs for a more conventional dietary lifestyle that doesn't complicate social relations.
I realized during my vegan experiment how relatively easy it is to eat and socialize as a vegetarian--how friends make subtle modifications to foods, or how many side dishes and party foods are vegetarian friendly. Living vegan is much harder. Eggs, butter, milk, and/or cheese linger in unsuspecting foods. Especially in Wisconsin, these items are abundant on buffet tables and menus.
On Sunday, Gregg and I, along with his parents, headed to our county's annual celebration of Dairy Month: Breakfast on the Farm. This breakfast couldn't be a starker contrast to my short week of plant-based eating. Scrambled eggs dotted with onions and ham, glued together with cheese; cinnamon bread spread with butter; donut holes; link sausage; handfuls of cheese curds, string cheese, and cheddar cubes; milk; and ice cream make this an absolute dairypalooza.
We noshed our full plates under a big tent, listening to polka music and visiting with friends and neighbors. This year I particularly appreciated the squeaky creaminess of cheese curds.
After our large, generous, non-plant based breakfast, we toured the farm, checking out huge farm equipment and mooing at dairy cows small and large.
I was struck by the size of the farm--800 cattle!--and the "propaganda" displayed on tables and posters. These cows eat silage that is largely corn based, as described by a large sign. And, in another information booth, a major pharmaceutical company explained the importance of antibiotics for sick cows, and mitigated worries about the drugs entering the food system.
After reading many books about modern agriculture, environmentalism, and humane treatment of animals, as well as the effects antibiotics have had on our ecosystem, I believe that we have harmed our animals and ecosystem in some fairly substantial ways. Cows, as ruminants, are meant to eat grass. Studies show that they need antibiotics because of their diet of corn. And, new strains of bacteria like MRSA and e. coli can be traced, in part, to the influx of antibiotics at all levels of the food chain. Bacteria are smart, mutating and resisting the drugs we create to kill them.
Enough to make veganism seem like a feasible, safe solution.
And yet, I love dairy.
And, I love breakfast on the farm: the camaraderie, the community celebrating and supporting one its most storied and historical ways of life, and a huge economic force (our county has more cows that people).
And yet, I wish we hadn't reached this point where we alter animal diets to our timeline and our production needs. Cows become machines rather than sentient beings. If we all ate a little less animal food or animal produced food, couldn't we preserve the animals' more natural ways of life? Frolicking in the sun, nibbling grass, and roaming pastures rather than bedding in sand, eating mixed silage, and standing bracketed indoors?
I recognize that many people disagree with me and question the logic of my beliefs. I don't want to proselytize, but I do want people--including myself--to have as much information as possible and then make an educated, informed, ethics based decision on what to eat. Balancing ethics and tastes is perhaps one of the most difficult struggles we face. My mini-week of plant-based eating showed me the conflicting desires between preserving another creature's way of life and satisfying my omnivorous tastes.
For now, I will continue to eat dairy and eggs, but I will also continue to support alternate foodways, seeking out organic, humanely sourced milk, eggs, and cheeses, recognizing that this is, for me, a necessity, for which I will pay higher costs. (and that touches on another tangent about the cost of such foods and the critique that such foods are the provenance of the "wealthy." Despite what you may have heard about professor salaries, I am not wealthy, but I do try to spend my values, to put my money where my values and ethics are, recognizing yet again that not everyone has this capability.)
Thanks to my readers for following along and sharing thoughtful comments that supported and challenged me throughout my mini-week.
And thanks to Gregg, who ate vegan dinners with me all week long:)