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Raw Rehab: Dealing with Social Discomfort

Posted Apr 30 2010 3:08pm

Hello, friends.

TGIF. This was a long week, and I’m ready for it to be over. The highlight? Attending the opening of my mom’s current art exhibit, Illuminations , showing at First Street Gallery in Manhattan. The opening was a success, and I was so, so proud of my mother, who has been a working artist (as well as a full time art teacher) for over forty years! Here’s a little peek at what was hanging on the walls:

Go mom!

Because of the commotion surrounding the show, as well as some unrelated family sadness this week (my mom’s boyfriend’s son passed away after a struggle with cancer), I haven’t had time to devote to much un-cooking. So instead of posting a recipe today, I thought I’d check in with a little Q+A. Raw rehab , anyone?

This question comes from reader Alex, who asked:

I am newly vegan, as of March 1st, (eating a high-raw, vegan diet) and my question is about how you handle your difference in eating habits in social situations. I have become much more secure in my lifestyle choice (it doesn’t bother me anymore when people at work make comments about how healthy I eat), but I still can’t bring myself to tell my friends (who have known me before I was vegan) that I am now vegan. For some reason, I feel like I will be judged, but more so, that I will become a nuisance. A couple of my friends love to have dinner parties, and they usually make set menus – I have skipped the past 3 because I can no longer eat anything that they make, and I don’t want them to have to make something “special” for me. I think food and eating with others creates a natural social bond, and I can’t help but feel that I will be completely left out of that if I bring my own food to these dinner parties – how can I share how much I like the pot roast or the chocolate torte, if I’m not eating it? It’s not that I want to eat these foods, because believe me, I do not; rather, it’s the social bond that I will miss from eating these types of food with people I love. How have you and other readers dealt with the social pressures that occured when you first became raw/vegan?

Great question, Alex. I should preface my answer by saying that this is something I’ve touched on before, most notably in this post. But your question certainly brings to mind some immediate impressions.

My personal response is that I’m not particularly accustomed to feeling much social cohesion surrounding food. I stopped eating meat when I was a child, in a family of meat eaters; I was disordered on and off throughout high school, and still very food-conscious in college; on top of all of this, I’ve always been a picky eater, and there are certain ubiquitous foods–like onions and garlic–that I don’t enjoy much at all. The upshot? For me, the bond between social belonging and food is not a very strong one.

Now, you have to take that statement with a grain of salt: now that I eat with joy (as opposed to my fraught past), I can understand far better what people mean when they talk about collective dining experiences. Now that I’ve found a way of eating that suits my body perfectly, I can share it with the people I love. And of course, I’m no stranger to the joys of dinner parties or delicious restaurant meals. In spite of always having been an eater who was different, I’ve certainly had great restaurant meals with friends, and have attended fun dinner parties and given compliments to the chef. I work in an industry that runs on lunching, and so I also know what it’s like to do business over a tablecloth. Best of all, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing vegan foods with fellow vegans and non-vegans alike  in recent years, and it has definitely shown me how lovely it is to bond over a dish.

So I know what people mean when they talk about bonding over food. It’s just not something that I’ve experienced to the same degree as others, which means that I don’t yearn for it strongly. It’s not hard for me to go through life as a person who doesn’t eat what everyone else is eating, or does eat things that other people find off-putting. To be quite blunt, I don’t really care if people think how I eat is weird. Making peace with food, and finding a diet that was ideal for me, was a winding road. Now that I’ve reached a happy destination, I don’t much care how others perceive me.

There’s another thing going on here: I feel my best physically eating as I do. I don’t suffer from IBS anymore, and my health is vibrant. When I repeatedly eat foods that don’t agree with me–like processed foods or refined grains–I don’t feel as great. They’re totally fine once in a while, but not habitually. Which makes it extremely easy for me to eat the way I like to eat, even when it means eating things that other people aren’t. I prefer feeling great to the momentary pleasure of eating something that’s stimulating, but without nourishment. That’s just me: I’m an energy junkie, and a health nut. I eat accordingly.

Finally, there’s veganism. What began as a means of feeling better has now become a lifestyle I believe in spiritually and ethically , too.  It’s hard for me to enjoy a chocolate torte (to use your example) if I don’t really believe in the circumstances under which that torte was created. To me, the essence of a shared dining experience is shared pleasure; how can that be if one person at the table feels cognitive dissonance or discomfort with what he or she’s eating?

This is all a lot of personal stuff, I know. But the upshot, Alex, is this: it sounds to me as though you, like me, have crossed a bridge you don’t want to un-cross: you believe in veganism, and want to be a vegan. And you’re dedicated enough to veganism that “making exceptions” won’t feel good to you.

So far, you’ve handled this by avoiding certain social dining: in your mind, if  you can’t partake of a collective experience, the whole thing isn’t worth it. But what I’m trying to gesture at here is that the key to resolving some of this tension in your life may simply be a reconsideration of your notion of the “social bond” from which you fear exclusion.

What is that bond, really? In my mind, it’s not shared food so much as shared feelings: amusement, joy, sensual pleasure at the taste of food, mutual admiration. There’s really no reason why such feelings have to reside in the food itself. If you happen to bring a fun, high-raw vegan dish to a dinner party, and serve it right alongside your friends’ food (which is what I’d recommend for such an occasion), can’t you all still express your enjoyment? Can’t you all savor a good meal, even if the meal itself varies from plate to plate? Isn’t the expression of gastronomic pleasure what counts, rather than the specific food that bestows such pleasure?

What you’re really seeking to preserve are those feelings of conviviality. And they don’t have to be tethered to specific foods: what they should be tethered to is a feeling of collective joy–joy that comes from each person feeling 100% happy about what he or she is eating.

And here’s the best part: if your friends see that you’re experiencing pleasure right alongside them, they won’t think to criticize or ostracize you. I promise! What I find time and time again is that the key to being comfortable as a vegan in social scenarios is simple, unassailable confidence. If you bring a fun dish and share it with your friends; if you describe what you’re eating with a sense of enthusiasm; if you talk about your veganism in language that’s confident and positive, there will be simply no reason for anyone to make you feel excluded. And any friend of yours who would try to exclude you from the experience of a shared meal, simply because your diet is a little different, is missing the point of what dinner parties are all about.

I hope this helps, Alex. Finding your “vegan mojo,” as I like to call it, takes some time: you won’t feel 100% comfortable expressing your preferences all at once. But I do think that reminding yourself of what’s really at stake in a shared dining experience–that is, mutual respect and the shared desire for pleasure–can help you to feel less afraid of expressing yourself.

One more thing: it’s often hard for new vegans to tell old friends about the vegan shift because of shared history. You know your friends remember you from way back when, in the the days when veganism wasn’t even a glimmer in your consciousness. Won’t they “see through” this new identity of yours?

In a word, no. Any decent friend will accept that you are an ever-changing, ever-shifting being. Consciousness is always in flux, and identity is always in flux, too. Any friend who wants you to remain the same forever–especially if you’re taking a direction that, for you, signals growth and improvement–is probably threatened by the idea of evolution. And that’s a friend whose love you’ve got to question, or whose insecurity you ought to feel pity for.

Hope this helps. Stay the course! And congrats on your vegan journey :)

Keep the questions coming, guys. I love answering!

Have a great start to your weekends.


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