What You Eat
One Saturday afternoon in summer, back when my cousin Dan and I were still friends, I was sitting on the far right end of his big, red sectional sofa, playing Nintendo in his old apartment. I came here most Fridays and Saturdays whenever I was home from school. After I went away to college, from New York to Pennsylvania, Dan and I couldn’t see each other year-round like we used to. Dan never moved anywhere for school, always stayed in Whitestone where we grew up. Throughout my high school years and earlier, I could always call him up on weekends, and if he wasn’t out with friends, we’d hang out, watching movies or playing Magic the Gathering, week after week.
As afternoon slipped into evening, my stomach gurgled with emptiness, wondering where my dinner would come from. “Susie and I are gonna order Papa John’s delivery,” Dan said. “If you want regular pizza, I’ll order it but you gotta pay for it. Or, I’ll order pizza with no cheese for all of us, and I’ll pay for it.”
Dan’s odd offer was due to his new vegan diet, chosen not for health but moral principles. He’d been dating Susie for a few years, and she’d been a vegan from the start. I didn’t oppose his choice, but I also harbored a little resentment that he’d changed while I was away. What else might change in my absence? What if, one of these breaks, I came home to a family member I no longer recognized?
I weighed my pizza options in a debate between my taste buds and my wallet. The prospect of generic, chain-franchise pizza sounded bad enough without removing cheese. But with the right veggie toppings, maybe it could be good, like a bruschetta. And besides, I was a guest in Dan’s home. I should at least try to do things his way, rather than flaunting my lactose-tolerance. “I can’t say no to free pizza,” I told him.
Soon I found out that no quantity of onions and mushrooms could make the thin, dairy-free slices of soggy, warm dough seem appetizing. As I wolfed down three pieces, I held back my grossed-out cringe-faces, struggling not to squint and pucker my lips. I stared at the big-screen television set in the corner of the small living room packed with sofa, chair, bookshelf, coffee table, videogame consoles, two laptops, and hardly any floor space to walk on. Dan’s pit bull, a rescue, sat at our feet, wagging his tail and wanting human food, not knowing what an awful treat this so-called pizza would make.
I didn’t say much as I stomached the limp bread-triangles, nor was I really watching the Jimmy Kimmel segment on TV. I was remembering how things used to be. Was this the same apartment, with the same two tenants, where just six months prior we watched five back-to-back episodes of Man Vs. Food? Not my choice, by the way, as I had no love for the show, found it boring, but the old Dan couldn’t get enough of watching this overweight man take on gastronomical challenges, umpteen-pound hamburgers and world’s-hottest hot wings. New, vegan Dan wouldn’t even sit in the same room as a TV tuned to the Food Network.
And could this be the same cousin who, when I was in high school and he in his fifth year of not finishing college, introduced me to Cristina’s Deli, my favorite eatery in all of Queens? The old Dan went there three times a week, late at night, drunk on vodka Red Bulls, because they were open 24/7. “One large mozzarella fries, no gravy,” he ordered every time. The Middle Eastern man who worked the graveyard shift there came to recognize him. When Dan picked up his food, this guy at the counter would say, “Hey, Cheesy Fry, how you doing?” New Dan, who orders pizza without cheese, must feel ashamed of his former nickname.
Growing up, Dan was always a picky eater. I could count on fewer than ten fingers the foods he liked—cereal, pizza, ziti, Vienna Fingers all at the top of the short list. For a snack he put tomato sauce and a Kraft single on a bun and microwaved it for thirty seconds, which he called a “Sloppy Danny.” In high school his favorite food became Taco Bell chicken quesadillas, with a packet of “Fire” sauce for each wedge. Chips and salsa became a staple as he got hooked on the heat. He drank cans of sugar-free Red Bull. Then came the vodka and a taste for light beer.
In his early twenties Dan had a stomach ulcer. His doctor told him to avoid anything too acidic. “Stay away from spicy food, carbonated drinks, alcohol.” This, Dan complained, was his whole diet.
As a kid, I never understood Dan’s eating habits. I loved when my mother made hamburgers or hot dogs for dinner, and I preferred ketchup to marinara. Food was one area where, out of the two of us, he was the oddball, not me. But I rarely teased him for his culinary eccentricities; because anytime I mentioned food I gave him an excuse to call me fat. In elementary school, I preferred Ben & Jerry’s and Nickelodeon to the outdoors and gym class. Dan used to call me “Pop ‘N’ Fresh,” the mascot for Pillsbury. A pudgy little white blob-boy. I had no idea how to defend myself, or retaliate, to be anything but an outcast, the butt of the joke.
Still he was the funniest person I knew, and I wanted only to spend every weekend in his parents’ basement playing Super Mario and listening to Ska music with him. Those feelings hardly changed through three years of college. At home on holidays, I’d visit his apartment once or twice a week to watch R-rated comedies and play Call of Duty. Dan was the closest thing I had to a brother. But we don’t hang out anymore when I’m in New York, and we haven’t talked much in the last few years.
The change started with the cheese-less pizza. Dan scarfed down slice after slice, no toppings whatsoever. I believe he paid for dinner so that I would try it and like it, so that I’d see you could be a vegan and still have pizza, so that I might consider his way of life for myself. The effect, in fact, was the complete opposite. I couldn’t wait to eat cheese again.
“Pretty good, huh?” Dan said through a half-chewed mouthful, pointing his pizza crust toward me. I nodded and smiled, then took a big swig of soda to drown out the taste.
Later that year, I came home for Thanksgiving, which Dan’s mother hosted for our extended family. With help from her two daughters, she cooked all the standards of a holiday spread: a huge turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, corn, cranberry sauce, the works. Dan did not attend. I saw him the following Saturday, on my usual visit to his apartment.
“We missed you at Thanksgiving,” I said as he answered the door.
He scoffed. “Good,” he said. We sat at opposite ends of the L-shaped couch. He sipped a can of Coors Light. “I’m sure everyone understands why I stayed away from their celebration of gluttony centered around an animal carcass.”
“Your mom also made pasta,” I said, knowing the plain noodles were cooked with him in mind. Even before he was a vegan, Dan never ate turkey on Thanksgiving. Instead he’d have a big plate of ziti, which he ate across the table from me while I swallowed mounds of dark meat and stuffing.
“I don’t need to see my mom up to her wrist in a dead turkey’s butthole, shoving breadcrumbs in it,” Dan said.
“Most of us just call it stuffing,” I said.
“Yeah, but think about why you call it that.” He laughed. “Besides, I don’t need all the extra grief they’d give me. I’m sick of their jokes.”
The jokes, I knew, were made even in his absence. On Dan’s bookshelf I saw a photograph of a turkey. I grabbed it and flipped it over. On the back were printed the turkey’s name, date of birth, and the date that Dan had “adopted” it, along with a thank-you message from an animal sanctuary. Dan explained how a week earlier he had donated some money online so that this turkey would get some food and care instead of a trip to the slaughterhouse. Word of his compassionate gesture had made its way around our family days before. “I can think of better things to do to a turkey on Thanksgiving,” I heard my great aunt say at the dinner table. “I can think of better things to adopt,” said a cousin.
Since Dan “came out” vegan, flippant comments like these have become the norm from our family. His job, he told me, was even worse. He worked for a cable company, running wires and setting up Internet connections in office buildings around the five boroughs. His co-workers were older, blue-collar guys, bred on meat and potatoes, who couldn’t wrap their heads around the choice to live as a vegan. Day after day Dan heard questions like, “What do you wanna do with all the farm animals, just let ’em free?” and “Don’t you know how many animals would eat you if they had the chance?”
Dan’s foreman, and his ride to work, was his older brother, Ross, the ringleader in making a mockery of his convictions. At work and family parties, Ross loved to come up with phony questions of can you eat this, would you eat that. “If you were trapped on a desert island with a pig and another person,” he said once at their parents’ house, as Dan rolled his eyes and took another sip of Red Bull. He answered, “I can eat whatever I want,” which I’ve heard him repeat like a sitcom character’s catch phrase. “You know what they put in Red Bull,” Ross said with a chuckle. “Bull piss.”
To this day, over Dan’s years-long span of veganhood, family members’ jokes and questions, both behind his back and to his face, have hardly let up. Last winter, we were both at a birthday party for one of his nephews, and it seemed like not an hour went by without a sibling or a cousin or an uncle offering him a slice of pepperoni or a cube of cheese with a big grin on their faces. Dan gave each of them the fake laugh of sarcasm and slunk further into his chair.
I placed the turkey picture back on Dan’s bookshelf, the closest thing his tiny apartment had to a mantelpiece, where one might keep a family portrait. I wondered how he spent his Thanksgiving. It must have been like any other day off, sitting on this couch with his girlfriend and dog, watching Netflix and eating noodles. Were Susie and their pit bull enough company to keep him from feeling lonely? How many people in his life were pointing, laughing, and making him an outcast? He must need me, I thought, to take his side, to be a friend.
“The other day,” Dan told me, “I emailed my mom a photo of a piglet at a farm where Susie and I volunteered for a day. You know what she wrote back?” I didn’t want to guess. “‘Cute little guy, he’d look even cuter in my slow cooker.’”
About nine months into his veganism, Dan and Susie moved into a new, slightly bigger apartment. On a Friday when I was home from college, he instant-messaged me, inviting me over. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just grab a few things and be right there.” Sometimes I brought my own food to his old place, leftover pizza or a sandwich, because I’d stay for hours and didn’t want to mooch from his kitchen.
“About that,” Dan typed. “So far we haven’t had any animal products in our new place, and we’d like to keep it that way.” Bit strange, I thought. It’s not like I was bringing food for him or Susie to eat. But: his place, his rules, so I agreed.
I looked through my parents’ kitchen for anything that could cross Dan’s threshold. I searched every shelf in their fridge, the cabinets, and the pantry for food that contained none of the “secretions” (his word) that Dan despised. All I found was a box of Saltines. I put a sleeve of them in my messenger bag and left.
Twenty minutes later I was back in my place on the red sofa, watching Conan with Dan and Susie in their new living room. Soon I took the plain Saltines out of my bag and started snacking on them. Dan saw my crackers and laughed. “Is that how you think we eat?”
“It can’t all be this bland,” I said. “But I’m not gonna buy special food just to bring to your apartment. I did the best I could with what we had. All our snack food is, like, Oreos and junk.”
“Oreos are vegan,” Susie said.
“No way.” She insisted. Later I found that a website called “Is It Vegan” has a page on Oreos that states, “It depends on your stance on refined sugar.” I can confidently say that I hold no position in the refined sugar debate.
Had I known Oreos would pass the Vegan Apartment Test, I still would’ve left them behind, because my dad might have been saving them for a batch of his famous “Oreo balls.” For a few years his hobby was making desserts: maple-flavored whoopie pies, shortbread cookies with strawberry jam. After Dan became vegan, Dad bought a book called The Joy of Vegan Baking. For a party at Dan’s parents’ house, he made an unfrosted vegan chocolate cake. Its real intended audience, Dan, never tasted it because he doesn’t like chocolate. Before I even tried the dessert, I came up with a slogan for it: “Vegan chocolate cake—the only cruelty is to your taste buds.”
This brand of comedy shows why Dan and I don’t hang out anymore. Once he declared his veganity, his newfound passion for animal rights revealed a sincere side of him that I’d never seen before. We used to joke about everything, but on this issue, Dan has no sense of humor.
I could no longer visit his apartment without hearing a story of how a friend or co-worker didn’t understand his plight. When I was at school, all our online conversations became about what he called his “soul’s purpose.” I couldn’t IM with him without reading sly reminders about my enjoyment of “dead flesh” and my approval of “legalized genocide.” “Martin Luther King spoke in defense of animal rights,” he wrote to me in January, “but they didn’t teach us that in school.”
The worst of his preaching started about a month after his move, when he joined Facebook. The old Dan insisted he’d never have a Facebook, that it was a pointless waste of time. What changed, I’m guessing, is that his friends were spending less time with him, and he wanted to reconnect with people. Or maybe it was his plan all along to use Facebook as a pulpit to spread his gospel to all his meat-eating friends with posts like: “‘Once you come to terms with why you don’t eat dogs, cats, monkeys, and dolphins, you’ll begin to understand why I don’t eat cows, pigs, chickens, and lambs’ ~ Edward Sanchez.” I listened to Dan and heard the conviction of a prophet and the martyrdom of a messiah.
After he friended me, I saw his vegan propaganda in my News Feed every single day. For weeks, getting online felt like having his political campaign crammed down my gullet like so much stuffing in a turkey’s butt. I finally had my fill the day I logged into Facebook and saw a crudely drawn comic strip that he had found online and reposted. In it, a man thanks a pig for his “sacrifice,” and the speaking pig insists it doesn’t have a choice. “But I don’t want to die,” reads its word balloon. Was that supposed to be a punch line? What annoyed me was not the message, but the fact that, like New Dan, it wasn’t funny.
He had changed while I was away, and he was unwilling to let others stay the same. When he first told me he was vegan, for a while I thought, this shouldn’t affect our friendship—it’s only the way he eats. It turned out his choice would overshadow his whole identity, and start to impose on mine as well. I first sensed that danger when he invited me over and put limits on what I could eat in his space. As I chewed the Saltines, I understood he didn’t just want my emotional support; he needed me to change with him.
Almost a year into Dan’s vegan life, I was again in his second apartment hanging out with him and Susie, drinking Coors and watching reruns of The Office, as their pit bull curled up next to me on the couch. I scratched his neck and belly, called him nicknames in my best cutesy, taking-to-a-dog voice, and leaned in to let him lick my unshaven face. Dan saw how happy the canine affection made me. “How can you just melt so much over a dog, and yet you don’t care about other animals?” he asked. I had no good answer.
I could already tell he was recruiting. Susie had just told a story of her local activist group trying to liberate some rabbits from a pet store. “See,” Dan had said, “we have the same cause, only she’s more of a rebel, working outside the law, like Magneto. I like to take more of a Professor X approach, gentler, more inviting.” He was trying to appeal to me with nerd language, while keeping the mood light, though he only increased the tension in the room by comparing himself and his girlfriend to comic-book nemeses.
“I get it,” I said. “I love dogs. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Maybe when I’m on my own, I’ll cut down on the meat. Right now, when I’m at home I eat whatever my mom cooks, and at school I have a meal plan, so I eat whatever the cafeteria serves. Trust me, they don’t put much thought into a vegan option, unless you love Brussels sprouts.” I, too, was trying to lighten the mood, but no one was laughing.
“Can I show you a video?” Dan asked.
I sighed. I knew what this was. “I’d prefer if you didn’t,” I said, “but I probably won’t get up and leave if you do.”
“We’ll watch the short version,” Dan said. He already had the video loaded and ready to play. He connected his laptop to the TV so we could see it on the big screen.
What I saw was a documentary-style educational short film that exposed what happens at large-scale factory farms around our nation, composed of footage with blurry faces, obtained illegally, I assume, by activists with cameras who infiltrated these organizations. The five-minute video was divided into sections including “Beef” and “Poultry,” so I got a good look at where my mom’s supermarket-bought meat likely comes from. A solemn narrator spoke about cows forcibly impregnated so they would produce milk. I saw hundreds of fluffy, yellow chicks lined up on a conveyor belt carrying them to a machine that chopped off the tips of their beaks. I saw crippled cows trip and fall in their own shit. I watched a faceless, laughing man hold a squealing, wriggling piglet in one hand and cut out its tiny testicles with a knife in the other.
Throughout all of it, I was concentrating hardest on maintaining a blank expression and not looking away. I neither winced nor flinched. I measured my breaths in seconds so that I wouldn’t gasp. If I could have stopped blinking, I would have shut that off, too. Yes, I was sickened, but I wasn’t going to let them see that. I couldn’t let him win.
The video ended, and Dan turned off the TV. “What do you think when you see that?” he asked. This was a test, and I was going to fail.
“I’ve heard of some of it before,” I said, unprepared to explain my carnivorous ways, yet reluctant to change them.
“And I assume you don’t want this to go on,” he said.
“You’re right, all that was horrible. But nothing I can possibly do will ever come anywhere near stopping it,” I said, aware that I was repeating sung by all my spineless ancestors who lived to see enslavements, genocides, and other travesties that were convenient for them, or “none of their business.”
Dan shook his head. “I have to believe I can stop it,” he said. “We’re going to make it stop.”
If I were talking to the old Dan, I would have laughed then. It sounds like a joke: a twenty-something college dropout and his ragtag band of vegans overthrow the factory farm moguls, rewrite the USDA regulations, unfetter all the captive animals and pamper them at rescue shelters. But this wasn’t Dan’s usual comedy; it was idealism that kept him going. He wasn’t kidding when he painted himself as a superhero. If I think his dreams of a cruelty-free world are naïve, I must seem like a cynic and an asshole. If I don’t fight the good fight beside him, what does that make me—an innocent bystander, or the villain?
When I went home that night, I drank a tall glass of milk. I thought I should embrace my role as brazen, heartless bad guy. I searched for stories online about dolphins that raped one another and chickens that incessantly defecate in their own food supply. I reveled in any signs that animals share our penchant for malice, or that non-humans are mindless poop-machines. Anything to support my flimsy justifications for eating the way I was raised to eat. I faced a decision to either change or stay away from a friend I grew up with. I chose to stop visiting Dan’s apartment.
Six months after the night of the video, I moved into my own apartment in Ohio for graduate school. As I shopped for my own groceries and cooked my own meals, I continued to eat chicken cutlets, pork chops, fish filets, cheeseburgers, the occasional lamb, all kinds of cheese—everything Dan lies awake at night thinking about. Meanwhile I slept well believing myself an insignificant part of the problem because I would buy certain items “locally.” Every Saturday I went to the town farmers’ market, where I purchased ground beef patties from a woman who assured me that all their cows were grass-fed and given a humane amount of space. Dan would roll his eyes if he heard this. “Oh, good for you,” I imagine him saying, “giving your money to small-town murderers instead of big corporations.”
By rejecting Dan’s way of life, I’ve rejected him, too. For as long as I can foresee, we’ll both stay this way. Dan will carry on his mission as a militant vegan, and I’ll continue drinking milk from the local creamery, and we’ll never meet somewhere in the middle, and we won’t spend weekends drinking beer and playing videogames (at least not together). He’ll go on telling stories of animal torture, and I’ll keep eating what tastes good, and we’ll remain set in our ways, brothers in stubbornness.