Wednesday, February 20, 2013


It is so perfect that I watched Vegucated right around the same time that I started reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams! I won’t be covering why in this post, but when I do, it may be helpful to keep Vegucated in mind. Just so you know. (Cliffhanger!)

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Anyway, a brief summary of Vegucated: the documentary was written, directed, narrated hosted/tour-guided by Marisa Miller Wolfson, who begins the documentary by describing how, after doing some research about the food industry and particularly the animal-based food industry, decided to “go vegan” and was pleased to find that she became healthier, lost weight, and felt good because she felt she was no longer contributing to the inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals. Because of the positive impact this had on her life, and because of her awareness of how many unthinkable/detestable/impossible/joyless many people think a vegan diet is, she decided to conduct a social experiment in which three meat-eating New Yorkers would go cold turkey (ha!) on all animal products in favor of a completely vegan diet to see if they like it.

Wolfson posted an ad on Craigslist to recruit volunteers for this experiment, and ended up choosing three participants: Tesla, a college student in her twenties who loves the traditional Peruvian, mostly meat-based meals her father cooks and was drawn to this project mostly for the challenge; Brian, a meat enthusiast who seems skeptical of veganism and vegans, and whose motivation for participating in this project is never really made clear; and Ellen, a psychiatrist, stand-up comedian, and single mom of two who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend on cooking but is interested in improving her health and that of her children. Under Wolfson’s guidance, Tesla, Brian, and Ellen (sometimes accompanied by her children) learn about animal exploitation by the animal-based food industry, the health benefits of a vegan diet, and how to buy and prepare vegan food. At the end of the documentary, it is revealed that after the six-week challenge, all of the participants made dramatic changes to their diets: Tesla adopted a vegetarian diet, Brian adopted a vegetarian/mostly vegan diet, and Ellen adopted a completely vegan diet. Even Ellen’s young daughter decided to adopt a vegetarian/mostly vegan diet.

There were a lot of different aspects of veganism and food practices in general covered in this documentary, an a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the documentary itself (like that it’s release and some aspects of its production was funded through Kickstarter, for example). But I think one of the most interesting issues covered in Vegucated was that of the social discomfort of trying to maintain a vegan diet when the people around you (whether they’re the people you live with or the people you just sometimes socialize with or the new people you meet) are not. And then this gets even more complicated when the not-vegan food the people around you are eating embodies a culture or tradition or emotional significance with which you want to be connected, like a family recipe, or a meal prepared for you by someone you love and who loves you. It’s one thing to switch out cow’s mild for soy milk in your refrigerator, but it’s a totally different thing to go out to a restaurant with friends and discover that there’s nothing on the menu you can order, or to tell your grandma that you’ll never be eating her homemade lasagna again.

I think that this had a large impact on the extent to which each of the participants vegan-ified their diets. Tesla lived at home with her parents and sharing a meal with her family every night was an important part of their relationships with one another. And the food being cooked wasn’t just about taste or nutrition, but about maintaining a connection with her dad’s Peruvian heritage. Brian lived alone, on the opposite side of the country from his family. For him, there were definitely certain foods that he enjoyed at least partially because they represented the familiar or family tradition, or were part of certain social situations, but there seemed to be less social pressure or emotional significance connected with food in his life. And in the case of Ellen, although she did live with a family for whom mealtimes were important, she's the sole parent of the household, not a co-parent or a child. Therefore, she is the most influential in the family when it comes to determining what foods are purchased, what meals are prepared, how social/familial/emotional values surrounding those meals are constructed, etc. And because Ellen was the one in her family who was steering the family’s diets, her children (especially her daughter) ended up adopting and valuing this diet as well. And, not surprisingly, Ellen made the greatest dietary shift (from meat-eating to total veganism) of the participants, Tesla made the smallest dietary shift (from meat-eating to vegetarianism), and Brian was somewhere in between (from meat-eating to vegetarianism/mostly veganism).  The extent of their shifts seems to be inversely correlated to the extent that meat-containing food was significant in their social/cultural/emotional/familial lives. These factors were more important (and more difficult to overcome or control) than concerns about health, animal welfare, environmental concerns—pretty much everything. So does that mean that the food choices people make have a lot less to do with what people think or even sometimes what they want and more with how certain foods and eating practices make them feel, and make other people feel about them?

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