Learning to Navigate My Vegan Social Life

In many ways, the commitment to avoiding all animal products forced me to dismantle many of my personal social norms, to evaluate and to rebuild them.
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I recently read a book where the author believed the rudeness of refusing a food (such as parmesan cheese) in a host's home was reason enough to break with one's commitment to veganism. For the author it was more important to eat the cheese, sparing the feelings of the person offering, than to continue along a path of consciously choosing not to eat animal products.

In my experience, the issue of whether or not to indulge in an animal product in the interest of politeness is a non-issue. It comes down to common sense. Which is more painful to a sentient being, a guest saying "no" to a spoonful of cheese, or living in packed quarters without access to the sun or grass, with your newborn offspring quickly taken away from you (as happens to most dairy cattle). Read more about the lives of dairy cows at Farm Sanctuary's website.

In my dairy-eating days, I would have seen the parmesan indulger as the more compassionate person -- being sensitive to the host's feelings. Now that I've learned the pain that dairy cows endure, there is no question in my mind that the more compassionate path to take would be to just say "no."

In many ways, the commitment to avoiding all animal products forced me to dismantle many of my personal social norms, to evaluate and to rebuild them. It's been this way for me other times in my life when I discovered and started to live in a new truth. When the green movement was in its seedling beginnings I, like many of us, found collecting cans and newspapers, instead of throwing them in the garbage, a nuisance. In prioritizing what was best for the planet over personal convenience, it became my norm.

When I first went vegan the idea of asking a waitperson what was in a dish scared me -- sometimes into silence. It was the knowledge of what consuming an animal product meant in the bigger picture that helped me to find my voice and speak up. I knew that with each of these small decisions that I made as a consumer on a daily basis, I could help animals to live happier lives.

I wanted to go vegan for a while before I did, convinced it would be too difficult for me. One of the fears binding me was the thought that I would never again be able to go to a non-vegan's house for dinner. I thought requesting a meal other than the one that was planned would be so rude and imposing. I envisioned my social life diminishing dramatically.

I also imagined that going out to a meal with non-vegan friends would be near impossible. How could I possibly suggest to an omnivore that we meet at a vegan restaurant? If I went to a non-vegan restaurant would I end up just dining on bread and water while friends indulged? And what about dating? Would omnivore men think I was being overly demanding or picky by not eating any animal products?

All these fears and questions spun around my head. They kept me from moving forward into the truth I was so certain of. And they all proved unfounded. When I made the commitment to cut animal products out of my diet, these fears fell down around me. Like committing to meditate when I believed I had no spare moment in the day to do it -- once I leapt, I found a way.

I've found that, since going vegan, friends are usually happy to accommodate my diet. In fact, when I am invited over for a meal, they are often excited to explore new animal-free recipes. Upon an invitation, I usually say that since I am vegan and may not be eating what they serve, but that I would be happy to bring a dish for everyone. This way I'm not demanding more work of them, and it gives me the opportunity to contribute to the meal. It's always fun to see vegan-doubting dinner guests' faces light up upon tasting a new delicious treat.

When I first became vegan I usually went along with friends to whatever restaurant they suggested (it's generally easy to find a vegan meal on any menu). Even if there are no vegan entrées, most restaurants will adjust an existing dish so that it is animal-free, or quickly create something to accommodate vegan guests.

As the years have passed, I more frequently suggest great vegan restaurants to my friends when we make plans. With the increasing popularity of veganism, and the growing number of veg restaurants, many of my friends have been eager to explore new plant-based menus. I try to take into account their personal tastes. So if a friend enjoys Asian food, I could suggest a restaurant such as Dao Palate that serves Bibimbap and General Tso's Soy Protein. If they are more interested in innovative gourmet food, I might point us to Candle 79, a divine vegan restaurant that artfully presents it cutting edge cuisine in a manner that any foodie (vegan or not) should be able to appreciate. Of course some will refuse to take the vegan route when dining out. In those cases, I go to their restaurant of choice and order a vegan dish. No problem.

My fears about dating as a vegan also proved unfounded. Of course, exclusively dating other vegans is always an option. The truth is that I wouldn't want to date any person who disparaged me for being vegan. I found one omnivore date was eager to try the great vegan restaurant I chose for us. Another had formerly been vegetarian and was interested in my veganism. These experiences reinforced the lesson that I am constantly learning -- the closer I get to the truth, the more rewarding life is for myself and for others.

No matter how daunting crossing the bridge to veganism was, once I ignored the fear and went forward, everything fell into place and nothing was as scary as I imagined. Not even saying "no" to a spoonful of Parmesan cheese.

Maya Gottfried is the author of books, essays and articles for children and adults. She has previously written on her experience with cancer for Her autobiographical essay "Untitled" appeared in the book "Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes." Maya's most recent book for children, "Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary," is about the real-life residents of national farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary. Read her blog on Red Room.