Essay by Janyce Stefan-Cole

“How I Lost My Vegan”
            By Janyce Stefan-Cole

It was easy in Mexico. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound in agreeable climates. The national staples: refried beans, rice, and corn tortillas are tasty, healthy peasant food. I was an art student then and, briefly, vegan.

I lived in a colonial town where meat was available but pricy, so I weaned off animal flesh. I taught an art history class, patching together money sent from home and my meager pay check. The sent money was a bit of a hustle since I knew my father wouldn’t approve of art school. I had a boyfriend; we pooled resources, sharing a small apartment in the center, behind the cathedral. He too became vegetarian.

Flat cornmeal tortillas, tacos, and tamales, you can hop from Mexican restaurant to Mexican restaurant and never quite duplicate the flavor of authentic tortilla and refried beans. It’s the lard they use south of the border that yields the flavor; probably not healthy lard. There were rolls called bolillos, purchased from a vendor on a donkey. The rolls were nestled into the extra-wide brim of his sombrero. He’d walk the street early each morning, calling, “Bolillos, bolillos, bolillos!” And I’d run down to buy the day’s breakfast.

I went almost daily to the big open air market. It had a powerful, live smell I eventually got used to. Things like lettuce and raw vegetables with high water content had to be soaked with a disinfectant like Microdyn. Even cantaloupes had to be soaked. If you didn’t wash your fruits and veggies a nice case of tourista—Moctezuma’s Revenge—awaited the other end of your dining experience.

I think some of the vendors lived in their overflowing stalls. One señora I frequented suddenly had a newborn with her. I had no idea she was pregnant behind all the colorful vegetables. I went to Juan for liquados, blended fruit drinks, and una torta. Every day Juan greeted me with the same joke, “Una tortuga, Juanita?” A tortuga is a turtle, torta a small sandwich. This was Juan’s little pleasure and we laughed anew each time he offered me a turtle for lunch. I doubt Juan’s blender was washed, or the fruits that went into it, but they were flavorful and local. I tried not to worry the avocado and tomato torta.

Once a week I’d take a big blue enamel pot to the market and wait in line to buy raw milk. The milk went straight from cow to market in giant canisters, often loaded onto donkeys for transport. When the milk ran out that was it. This was one of the few times I’d feel discriminated against by the locals. Somehow I kept returning to the end of the line. Most of the waiting mujeres had babies attached, snug in sarapes tied and slung over their backs. Eventually my pail would be filled. I could easily have bought pasteurized milk in one of the bodegas but I liked the rich raw flavor and experience better.

I ate vegetable tamales from a street merchant. Those had to be filthy. There were no public facilities; the tamale lady simply moved a few feet from her stand, hiked up her long skirt and apron—discretely—and relieved herself sans toilet paper or hand sanitizing. The tamales were so good, and I thought I was immune. Of course I wasn’t. I had plenty of bouts of tourista. One trick was eating jalapeño peppers in vinegar, straight from the jar, hot enough to burn a hole in the stomach. We figured the heat had to kill bacteria. We sucked on limes too, thinking the citric acid would work the same magic. It didn’t. For all the fears and sound advice we didn’t heed, we were healthy, robust. There was sun and fresh food, the Sierra Madres and wide open desert. The people were beautiful, and rice and refried beans never got old.

I left Mexico and the boyfriend to return to the material world of New York City. I stayed with my mother in the suburbs for awhile where I was able to maintain my vegetarian ways, but with difficulty. Abundant fruits and veggies yielded to dubiously fresh supermarket fare. In dead of winter the fruits and vegetables were flown in from Mexico and California and places farther afield, leaving a carbon footprint, some of the produce loaded with pesticides. If you wanted organic you pretty much had buy your own farm. The prices were high, and my mother had no idea how to prepare vegetables. Her generation thought of Jell-O as fruit and canned peas as garden-fresh.

Most everyone regarded my plant-based preferences as an eccentric moment that would pass. They were right about it passing but not the reason why. For one, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the right balance of nutrients. Already normally thin, I started losing weight. I went for a physical and was told I was low on protein, and calcium was becoming a problem too. The doctor said I’d better be careful with my diet. I added eggs.

Socially I was a drag as I pieced together meals out of appetizer menus. My new boyfriend made fun of me. We went to Europe together—a pre-marriage honeymoon—where it became even harder to find dinner. The Mediterranean Diet was fine but included small portions of flesh-based protein. I ate lots of omelettes and croque madames in Paris. Then one day I ate a burger. I’d not eaten meat for seven years. I threw the burger up in the street, lesson learned. But the tide had turned.

It became easier to just eat what everyone else ate, even occasional hardcore junk food like Burger King. Steaks made my father proud; meat and potatoes—hold the salad. I wasn’t happy about it but I no longer swam against the tide. I was happy about my husband and the first home of my own. I’d been transient for years. Mexico lasted over two but the inevitable departure hung over my stay. By the time we bought our own place I’d taken over the kitchen.

In summer there are farmer’s markets. In winter I try to buy organic. Fins and feathers are present in my diet but never in large quantities, often not at all as I adhere to my own version of the Mediterranean Diet. Yes, I’m a flawed plant-based eater, but my heart is in the fruits and veggies.

The arguments for going vegan are compelling. I think about chickens. I mean free range birds, minus antibiotics. But hens have been engineered to produce more eggs than normal. If kept in tiny cages, they are basically prison birds. Like humans, cows lactate when pregnant. Mega farms and dairies artificially inseminate cows to keep them lactating, yielding milk even after their calves are forcibly removed: basically, hormonal slavery. These practices should be banned, but are we supposed to abort eggs, ban all dairy milk and cheese? What do we do with all the cows and hens, sheep, pigs, goats and cattle? Eliminate most, keeping a few for petting zoos? An over-populating world is going to eventually over-eat supply anyhow.

Even the seas are over-fished. It’s hard to find the balance. We are what we eat, but no one knows the intentions of nature: are we plant-based beings? Are we morally obliged to give up all forms of flesh consumption? I know which way I lean, and I will say this: Respecting all life should be the beginning of every diet.

- Janyce Stefan-Cole is the author of two published novels, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and THE DETECTIVE’S GARDEN (Unbridled Books). Short fiction, essay, review and freelance journalism have appeared in: The Broadkill Review, The Laurel Review, The Open Space issue 21, “Things That Matter.” Her story, “Conversation with a Tree,” received the Knock Literary Magazine Eco-lit prize, and was republished in the anthology, BEING HUMAN: Call of the Wild (Editions Bibliotekos). Other venues include: Fiction Writers Review, Pank, The Healing Muse, Main Street Rag, FLYPmedia, American Book Review, WG News + Arts, And Then, the anthology, DICK FOR A DAY (Villard Books).

Copyright©2020 by Janyce Stefan-Cole. All Rights Reserved.