Parsons, Kansas — “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” — Native American proverb
As a mascara addicted, omnivore Okie who grew up cowboy boot top deep in the beef industry, I’ve been criticized by my plant-based diet peers for my so-called “barbaric” lifestyle.
“You’ll be much healthier,” they say. “You’ll feel so much more alive. You’ll be thinner...”
I heard it over and over again but when I’d argue my side I’d always be met with the coup de grace:
“How do you know? You’ve never actually tried being vegan.”
And they were right. I’ve never tried to be a vegetarian, let alone a vegan.
When it came down to it, though, I had to ask myself how I could be a true advocate for animal agriculture when I had only one side of the story?
With a lot of trepidation, I decided to live the vegan lifestyle — no more meat, no livestock products.
It was going cold turkey without the turkey.
This was one experiment I couldn’t do alone, so I recruited friend David Hayden. While I may be one of the world’s most “un-vegan” people, David is that times two — he is, after all, a meat scientist.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recommends trying a vegan challenge for 30 days. For David and I, 30 days was out of the question for both of our occupations, so we cut the recommended trial period in half. We were both fairly convinced two weeks as vegans would kill us.
There are different levels of veganism. Some choose to eliminate meat, dairy and eggs, others also eliminate animal by-products from their life as much as possible.
We chose option B. Gone not only was milk, cheese, eggs and the bacon cheeseburgers I loved, but hair products, cosmetics, toiletries, my purse (it’s cow hair and leather) as well as any footwear not vegan approved.
In other words, my entire lifestyle was being stripped from me.
Along with living a vegan lifestyle for two weeks, we also wanted to open-up discussion about the topic. Vowing to be as open-mined as possible, we took to our perspective blogs to announce the project. We also created #DandDgovegan on Twitter so others could follow along with constant updates and engage in a group conversation on animal agriculture as well as a plant-based diet.
On Monday, Jan. 14, David and I launched our “Project Vegan” YouTube video and I was suddenly faced with the realization that it was day one and I had nothing vegan-friendly to wash my hair with, and the only pair of vegan shoes I had were a pair of TOM’s. Shamelessly, I strolled into work that day, TOM’s on feet, hat on head and makeup-less, because I was vegan, and I could do that.
The first week of Project Vegan, David flew out to Kingston, New York, which just so happens to be 10 miles outside of Woodstock, the breeding grounds of vegan-friendly restaurants. Since he had found a health food store near his hometown in Kentucky before heading to N.Y., he was stocked up on vegan-friendly toiletries and a few steps ahead of me, I having resorted to a baking soda and vinegar routine.
As he rolled in the glory of gourmet vegan food and name brand toiletries, I frantically searched Parsons, Kan., for any way to make my vegan lifestyle easier. Being in two completely different areas of the world quickly set the pace as defining me as the “Rural Vegan” and David as the “Urban Vegan.”
To my surprise, our newly defined roles and the increasing attention on our experiment brought forth a crowd of encouraging vegan followers who supplied me with advice on making rural veganism easier, as well as a support group of farmers and ranchers who cheered us on.
All the advice from other vegans, and sideline cheerleading from agriculturists couldn’t have prepared us for the withdrawal of leaving livestock behind. Halfway through the first week the symptoms set in. Headaches, fatigue, cloudy thoughts and extreme irritability hit us both head on. “You aren’t very smiley these days,” my co-workers said.
“People are just annoying the daylights out of me,” David said.
I had to focus very hard on my tone of voice, but unfortunately a lot of times words would come barreling out of my mouth dripping in sarcasm and coated in barbed wire — a far cry from my usual pleasant disposition.
As week one wore on, we both began to wonder if the end of the two weeks would ever appear, and then we received an email from PETA.
“Dear Danielle and David, Greetings from PETA! We wanted to pass along our good wishes for "D and D Go Vegan"—we're looking forward to reading about your two-week adventure...” the email began.
As neither David nor I are PETA supporters, the fact they had picked up on our project was kind strange to us and we were both surprised by their support.
From the other end of the spectrum and on the very same day, beefmagazine.com wrote about our project on its daily blog. That was the icing on the cake and in the midst of our withdrawal and was the boost we both needed to keep going.
We powered (crankily) through the rest of the week, through the weekend, and began week two. I was finally settling into a routine with my temporary vegan lifestyle. I had been sent enough recipes to make it through the rest of the project and I was equipped with two vegan care packages — one with vegan junk food from my family, the other vegan products sent by VegNews.
However, for week two David’s job in
Kingston was finished and he was being sent to a meat plant in Broken Bow, Okla.
Broken Bow being the complete opposite of Kingston, and living out of a hotel room, David was in a world of hurt, and trying to survive off of Subway Veggie Delights.
One afternoon as I gloated to him with lots of “Who’s the rural vegan now!” I looked down to see my hands and wrists had turned completely blue.
While David had been wise and had spent the money on vegan vitamins to make up for the nutrients he would be lacking, I had opted out with the mind set of, “I’m not spending money on that for a two week project,” and as a result of my hard-headedness had become anemic.
I had been ignoring all the other signs leading up to that moment — extreme fatigue, cold hands and feet, loss of color — but blue skin is kind of hard to brush off. So, vitamins in tow, I pressed on through the rest on the project.
When Monday, Jan. 28 finally arrived, I joyfully pulled on my boots, globbed on mascara and bounded through the Farm Talk doors feeling like a different person.
And when lunch rolled around, and I finally got to enjoy my long-lost bacon cheeseburger, I couldn’t help but think that all felt right with the world.
Both David and I can now say from experience that a plant-based lifestyle is not in our cards. While it was difficult, however, it was an eye-opening experience.
I believe the most surprising part of the experiment to both of us was the amount of everyday junk food that is actually vegan.
It’s safe to say most people would assume a vegan lifestyle would be a healthier option — I certainly did — but in reality it’s just as easy to indulge in high calorie, non-nutritious snacks as a vegan, as it is as a meat-eater. And thanks to my vegan comfort food, Oreos, I actually left this experiment a couple pounds heavier than when it began.
Overall, I believe the main goal of this project was achieved. We succeeded in opening a conversation about agriculture with people we would normally have not come into contact with.
With most of society separated from the farm by a couple of generations, it’s more important than ever to be open and transparent about agriculture practices. If we want consumers to be more open and understanding, producers need to be willing to do the same.
So after two weeks of taking a walk on the vegan side, my advice is to go out and try something new and open up the dialogue about our incredible industry.
And, above all, enjoy your bacon cheeseburger. £