On Sunday, Melissa McEwen at Hunt.Gather.Love offered advice to someone whose vegetarian girlfriend wants to eat meat but is afraid she doesn’t like the taste anymore. (Coincidentally, Richard Nikoley at Free The Animal did a post on the same subject.) The man who emailed Melissa also contacted me, saying “I’ve never not eaten meat, so the idea of not having a taste for it is just completely alien to me.”

I was vegetarian when I first encountered the psychosomatic power of ethical beliefs. At a buffet I bit into a harmless looking slice of pizza that tasted a little strange. As soon as I saw that there was meat hidden beneath the cheese, I felt physically ill and left. I thought my body couldn’t handle meat anymore.

Less than a year later, I was vegan and that cheese would have been just as sickening to me.

I liked meat, dairy and eggs before I became vegetarian and then vegan. Most vegans don’t quit animal products because they hate the taste. They just hate the cruelty. But this moral opposition to animal use can make animal products indefensible and inedible.

This change was so severe in me that trace amounts of animal products were enough to gross me out. This was before the Daiya Fake Cheese Revolution and as much as I wanted to be able to eat a rice-, almond- or soy-based cheese, the casein in those products was a complete turnoff. Even if I’d been willing to bend my ethics, I wouldn’t have wanted to. I visualized that dairy derivative lurking in there and it revolted me.

There haven’t been studies on this phenomenon (shame on you, science), so I can only theorize why this is. But I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s conditioning.

Veganism has only one rule: don’t use animal products. You can slip now and then, but make a habit of it and you’re not vegan anymore –- in fact, you’ve become the thing all vegans hate. So for vegans, it’s pretty damn important not to eat animal products.

This philosophy affects you at every meal. Vegans are constantly thrust into scenarios that test their ethics. Imagine if a horny young Christian had to turn down premarital sex three times a day. Learning to hate animal foods viscerally is the most practical way to stay on the straight and narrow. This is one reason that freeganism is often discouraged. Eating meat that will otherwise be wasted doesn’t increase the demand for it, and that’s the main thing, but vegans worry that by not taming their taste for animal products, freegans are at greater risk of making exceptions and then giving up all together.

Some vegans never develop this aversion either. For them, it can be enough to associate animal products with suffering. Reading about the philosophy and finding support through a message board can keep these meat-loving vegans on the side of good.

But for most vegans, a meat aversion just happens. It’s a byproduct of constantly turning down immoral food. Eventually your subconscious catches on that there’s something wrong with these things. That can be true for diets in general. But veganism is even more dramatic because it goes beyond “That makes me gain weight” to “That food is torture and murder and eating it would make me less of a person.”

Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals that being vegetarian is a daily workout of your “compassion muscle”:

[T]he decision to eat with such deliberateness would itself be a force with enormous potential. What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption? … [C]ompassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us. (257 - 258)

No wonder my vegan brain was so tired!

One of the things that annoys me about Eating Animals is that Foer often discusses vegetarianism as if it’s never been tried before. What would our sons and daughters be like if we raised them vegetarian?! What would Thanksgiving be like without a turkey?! What would happen to someone who chooses to be vegetarian and then sticks with it… would they become hyper-compassionate mutants?!

Why speculate? Foer could have researched Donald Watson, the man who coined “Vegan” and identified as one for the last 60+ years of his life. Did Watson become a hyper-compassionate mutant? Yes! In fact, doctors believe Watson could have lived even longer than the 95 years he pulled off, but his over-stimulated compassion muscle finally outgrew his skull just as his chest burst open from all the love in his heart.

Not really. Like other long-term decisions, once you get used to being vegan, it ceases to be much of a choice. Vegans do not internally debate and renew their pledge against eating animal products at every meal. They open the menu and find the one meat-free entry that can hopefully be made vegan. It’s automatic. Nothing is being exercised other than the reinforcing power of routine.

What is different about veganism is that it doesn’t just take non-vegan options off the table. It makes them repellent. Married people know it would be wrong to cheat, but they don’t consequently find everyone other than their spouse to be completely disgusting. But for a lot of vegans, that is what happens with non-vegan food.

A better analogy than a compassion muscle, then, is the Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange. Vegans make the initial decision to give up animal products, but the conditioning assures they stick with it. Except nobody has to strap vegans to a chair and give them sickness inducing drugs as they stare at photos of meat trays. They do it to themselves.

Figuratively, of course.

veganconditioning

I don’t mean watching slaughterhouse footage, which most vegans don’t do very often. As a vegan, I thought that one of the advantages of giving up animal products was that I didn’t have to watch these things because I wasn’t contributing to them.

It’s the way that vegans think about animal products that turns them into nauseating untouchables. Vegans research where food comes from, which is good, but they tend to focus on the least appealing aspects, at least regarding animal foods. Some vegans, especially the more activist sort, believe that terms like “tortured animal corpses pumped full of antibiotics” “blood- and pus-filled secretions” and “chicken periods” better convey the reality of non-vegan foods than less graphic terms like “meat,” “milk” and “eggs.”

Plants can be disgusting too, if you think about them the way vegans would have us think about animal parts. I had a roommate in college who refused to eat fruit because they were the sexual organs of plants. But you’ll never see PETA referring to fruit as “rotting plant ovary corpses.” Probably because fruit is what PETA wants you to eat. 

Vegans’ vivid, bloody literalizing of animal product terminology is blatantly intended to promote unpleasant connotations. Here is PETA’s take on the odd human tradition of eating “periods" plucked from the ass of a bird:

Besides the fact that each egg eaten represents 34 hours of suffering for chickens (who, as it turns out, score higher than dogs and cats on cognitive tests), when you eat an egg, you’re putting a bird’s period directly into your mouth. Tasty, huh? If you’re going to eat an omelet, you might as well suck on a used tampon.

Not very convincing, but the very existence of such comparisons makes it that much harder to leave veganism.

The health argument for veganism contributes too. According to conventional wisdom, cholesterol and saturated fat are nutritional anti-christs, and vegans have good reason to buy into this — they don’t eat much saturated fat and they eat no cholesterol.

As Billy Thogersen pointed out in my interview with him, vegans sometimes rationalize the existence of healthy looking meat eaters by imagining that their insides are coated with plaque, their veins about to snap shut. Even when vegans have decided meat is healthy and morally okay, and are ready to re-introduce cholesterol and more saturated fat into their diets, this imagery can be hard to shake.

And then there are stories vegans tell each other about ex-vegans who started eating animal products again and felt sick. These are mostly myths but they add to the perception that animal products are something to fear, and not just for ethics.

This is a great way to think if you want to keep yourself vegan. “Meat is gross and wrong!” is easier to stick to than “Meat is delicious and nutritious and I want it but unfortunately that would be unethical.”

It becomes a problem, though, when a vegan wants to take the next logical step into ex-veganism.

As Melissa and some of her commenters pointed out, eating little bits of meat at a time helps. Sushi is a good start because it’s surrounded by a protective coating of veggies and grains. Small portions of meat overwhelmed by vegetables was my route.

Many vegeterians and vegans weren’t exposed to a wide variety of animal products before they gave them up. Raw fish and duck, two things I’d never had before my vegan years, are probably my favorite foods now. So aspiring ex-vegans should also try small doses of animal products that they’ve never tasted. If pork chops weren’t enough to keep you out of veganism, they may not be the best way out.

Like a lot of ex-vegans, you might eventually find yourself eating the organs, tendons and bones that terrify many lifelong omnivores. I wonder if these ex-vegans develop a love for the “nasty bits” as a final triumph over the period of their lives when they thought every part of the animal was a nasty bit.