Growing up, love tasted like bagels and lox at Uncle John’s apartment in the Bronx, Nai Nai’s homemade sticky rice with pork over stories about her childhood in China and Poppy’s angel hair with white clam sauce after a day at the beach. Food is how we show love, and it’s at the heart of all our family gatherings. So, you might imagine the controversy when I refused Grandma’s spaghetti for the first time and took my budding environmentalism a step further by announcing I was going vegan in seventh grade.
In 2010, the United Nations (UN) warned that humans must shift towards a vegan diet to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. Makes sense when you consider that about 70 percent of the grain grown in the US is used to feed livestock, and plant-based replacements for animal products can produce twenty-fold more nutritionally similar food per unit of cropland: enough food to feed 350 million more people. In fact, there simply is not enough arable farmland to produce enough meat for all people on earth to consume the average American diet. To me, that is the clearest signal that a dietary shift in America is essential.
Don’t get me wrong: I still struggle to stomach the look on Aunt Christine’s face when I won’t eat the beefsteak she cooked to serve over her Nom Hoa Chuoi. Food is important to culture. But I also know that coastal Vietnam—the region where Aunt Christine was born and raised and learned to cook so well—is particularly vulnerable to the natural disasters expected to worsen in coming years due to climate change. I question how I could sit in an American suburb and justify eating red meat by claiming it is important to my family’s culture when doing so contributes so heavily to the environmental degradation that threatens the very people and cultures I seek to preserve. What makes my taste buds special enough to justify eating foods that take so many resources that it would be impossible for the rest of the world to match my consumption?
Culture should not justify environmental exploitation when the consequences will be felt by populations across the globe!
I have the immense privilege of enjoying access to a wide variety of different foods, as do most Brandeis students. It is a privilege to be able to adopt a fully vegan diet, but luckily, as more people adopt plant-based diets, more products and recipes arise that make cutting back on meat easier and more affordable. You can use your consumer power to play your part in the transition to plant-based eating by choosing vegan meals whenever you can because the more demand there is for vegan products, the more accessible they become. Thanks to the vegans of the past, by today, vegan meat and dairy replacements now line the shelves not only at specialty stores but at affordable staple shops like Market Basket or Trader Joe’s. We should use our privilege to protect those without the luxury of choosing between endless grocery isles of foods, each with different environmental consequences, by making sustainable decisions when piling our plates.
For recipe inspiration, there’s a whole litany of badass chefs who make their favorite cultural dishes approachable to amateur cooks while educating viewers on the cultural significance of the dishes and the reasons they cook vegan. Some of my favorites on TikTok are @DorasTable, who shares veganized Mexican recipes including a dairy-free tres leches cake, @theCanadianAfrican, who shares veganized food from Ghana and the rest of the African continent like her green peanut soup or her tomato stew and @PapayaPetite who shares vegan recipes from Southeast Asia including vegan Pad Kee Mao aka drunken noodles. Of course, substitutes can never perfectly replicate real animal products, but they can fill the void when you have a specific craving, and you’d be surprised how quickly your taste buds can adjust to life without meat if you stick with it through the admittedly more difficult transition period.
Of course, giving up meat is far from a cure-all for climate change, but you don’t even have to completely cut out animal products to have a big impact! Just reducing your consumption, particularly of red meat, can reduce your ecological footprint. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying animal products, but there’s no excuse for basing your entire diet around meat, dairy, and eggs—as many Americans do.
Since disowning meat in seventh grade, food is still at the center of my family life, but now love tastes like pizza with cashew cheese on my Uncle Max’s roof in DC, Aunt Pat’s roasted garlic while we listen to Natalia Laufourcade and Nai Nai’s sticky rice—without the pork. Going vegan taught me to love food and connect with my family in a new way, and I can feel good knowing that the way I eat is helping move us towards a more sustainable environmental future. I urge you to share some delicious vegan meals with your loved ones too!