At brunch this past weekend, a friend explained that he would attempt to keep “kosher for Passover,” wherein he would abstain from eating leavened grains for the entire week. He gave us the Sparknotes version of the Torah story: When the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise and had to subsist on unleavened bread instead. This weeklong dietary restriction serves as a way to commemorate the event.
He lamented the thought of going the entire week without bread, jealous of his Jewish friends that were not going to practice the ritual of keeping kosher, even though they knew the backstory. We tend to refer to this non-observant, latter half to be only “culturally Jewish.” They understand the meaning behind the ritual, even if they don’t practice it themselves.
In defining how we eat more generally, I think we can borrow from this discourse of being “observant” or “culturally” something. People eat certain ways for all sorts of reasons. We eat for nourishment, but sometimes we are guided by other reasons like health, religion, taste, convenience or concern for the environment.
Rarely is the way we eat limited to one or just a few rules. It’s important to recognize that it can be hard for our food choices to match up seamlessly with the principles that inform our eating.
Case in point: I eat meat and I love cheese, but I’m acutely aware of the impact animal products have on the environment. Vegans and vegetarians are often quick to point the finger at meat as a significant drain on water and energy, and their eating reflects a desire to mitigate the effects climate change. Even the government is catching on. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released a report this month claiming that “the organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality.”
But even if I did eat an entirely vegan diet all of the time, would it have any measurable effect on the environment? No — not unless everyone ate that way. This is a problem of collective action: Nothing would change unless everyone did something. And the chances of everyone becoming vegan are slim. Animal products are ubiquitous in the American diet, and choosing what to eat is a privilege that not everyone is afforded. The anxieties that come with strictly eating vegan might not be worth it.
“That’s stupid, Austin,” I can hear you say. “If you think the environment is so important, then why don’t you eat a strict vegan diet? Why don’t you practice what you preach?”
I think it’s okay not to radically change my diet, so long as I think reflexively and critically about what I do eat. Keeping kosher for Passover is a nice example of practical, reflexive eating, because it’s only one week of the year; the event serves as an opportunity to answer the question, “Why do we eat like this, again?”
In the same vein, it’s easier for die-hard carnivores to hop on the vegetarian or vegan bandwagon if they only have to “practice” vegetarianism once in a while. That’s why I like to describe myself as “culturally vegan.” It encompasses my values on food, but frees me of the strictures of a vegan diet.
If I’m not “observing” veganism, so to speak, at least I’m aware of the implications, the backstory, of the way I eat. It’s a way to explain that I’m not eating meat in ignorance, and in some ways. The didactic nature of eating — when what we eat teaches us a lesson — is something that everyone benefits from, whether or not a certain eating ritual is observed.
That’s why campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” in dining halls across the country have been so popular, or why Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” series, which suggests observing a vegan diet, but only until 6 p.m., has been successful. At the surface, they seem like weak attempts to practice vegan values. But the cultural veganism they espouse serves as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the fossil fuels that spew from their fork.
By no means does my contribution to the way we talk about our food choices solve the problem, but it’s a starting point. Even if you only practice what you preach some of the time, the preaching is unequivocally important. From there, larger conversations about food can begin.
Austin Bryniarski is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .