I went vegetarian my senior year of college, and for the most part, people greeted the news with a shrug. Vegetarians, after all, aren’t that unusual. But sometimes their reaction reflects more interest than a shrug, and when it does, it usually takes one of two forms. The first is basically a preemptive bristle: “Well, did you do it for dietary reasons or ethical ones?” A sort of trial balloon to measure the wind speed of my hippy-dippy bluster, the question (usually from avowed omnivores) is often paired with an unprompted defense of their own diets and, if I’m lucky, with a citation of Genesis 9:3.
The second reaction is less ideologically loaded. It’s also, I should add, exclusive to Calvin alumni, who, in my experience, like to deliver it with a knowing grin: “Did you take PHIL 153 with Halteman?”
Matthew Halteman of the Calvin philosophy department had, and I imagine still has, a reputation for churning out vegetarians and vegans from his gateway philosophy class. And this is to his credit. A scholar of animal ethics, Halteman was an enthusiastic and effective teacher. More than that, his pedagogy reflected a reluctance to shrink education down to a mere information-broadcast, to an uncomplicated dumping of facts into the empty noggins of his students. Rather, he emphasized philosophy as a way of life, as a full-body affair—as a discipline that should engage not just our intellect but our emotions and imagination. His instruction certainly engaged mine. True, the theoretical knowledge I developed in that class was essential in learning to examine an aspect of my life I habitually ignored: what I shoved down my gullet. But by far it was the class’s formative effects on my desires and imagination—those unconscious and less-than-conscious parts of me—that prompted me to make my own, modest change.
So, senior year, I went vegetarian. It was a baby step, of course. Halteman’s class had convinced me that cutting out meat was just a start, that probably I should drop dairy, too, and while I was at it, revise my relationship with the supreme convenience of supermarket- and fast-food culture. But it was a step nonetheless. I could, I would, build from there. So when I graduated that spring, the prospect of, among other things, eventually turning vegan felt less a hazy possibility than a logical necessity, a coming certainty. Distant, but gliding steadily down the tracks toward the station. If you listened, you could hear the whistle.
Then five years passed.
As of today, the train is nearer, yes, but it’s still arriving
Although my diet has, in some respects, shifted closer to the views I first formed in college, it has remained effectively the same. Inertia, I’ve learned in my post-Calvin years, is a hell of a drug. And so is cheese. And so, too, is the unthinking ease with which I can gobble up cookies and omelets and French fries because they’re there; and because I want them; and because stepping back to consider the network of labor-relations, human and non-, that make possible the momentary high of a satisfied hankering sounds an awful lot like work. (Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: vegetarianism is an easy thing to do on autopilot.)
And it’s even not that my views re: ethics and food have changed substantively since college. In fact, I’ve probably got more reasons today to object to the practices of big agra and modern food culture than I did at twenty-one. It’s just that today, left to my own devices and outside deliberately formative contexts like Halteman’s class, I often can’t bring myself to care. Not enough, anyway. Not enough to do something.
Contradiction, it turns out, is an easy place to rest your head, so long as you never look at the pillow.
Curiously, these days, the latest force for change in my diet has precious little to do with high-flying convictions. Though I’m (still) not 100% vegan, my wife is—and not for ethical reasons, but for dietary ones. Jes has an autoimmune disease, and anecdotal evidence suggested that a no-meat, no-dairy diet might help rein in her symptoms. So a year ago she made the switch. Six months later, she added two other prohibitions: no added oils, no processed food. She’s now on what’s called a whole-food, plant-based diet—basically veganism on steroids—and since it’s cheaper and more convenient to prepare a single meal, I’m on that diet, too, for the most part. We eat salads with tahini dressings; whole-wheat bread with just five ingredients; “carrot dogs,” which deserve a blog post all their own. And the totally unsurprising—yet still somehow surprising—thing about all this is that as we’ve adjusted to Jes’s diet, my own palate has changed. Barbecue chips no longer make my mouth water. I prefer dressings without oil. Even cheese—heaven help me—doesn’t scratch that itch like it used to.
Put differently, history seems primed to repeat itself. If my decision to ditch meat in college owed more to the harnessing of my imagination than of my intellect, it will likely be my taste buds—and not the litany of facts and anti-capitalist critiques I’ve learned—that pave the way to my tossing out eggs and dairy, too. Sure, the brain confers the patina of thoughtful, rational respectability on human endeavors. But in the end, it’s the gut that has the louder voice.
So when the train finally pulls into the station, I suspect it’ll be my convictions that will be playing catch-up.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.