The V Word: How to talk about veganism and avoid dinner tables being flipped this Christmas
Source: The Daily Telegraph
They say don’t talk about politics or money at the dinner table, but it seems the V-word — vegan — should also be added to the list. It’s already divisive among strangers, but when it’s said around family it can be potentially explosive.
As the Christmas season approaches, some of the meat and dairy free are preparing to head into a battleground with loved ones, ready to sink in their chairs and deflect statements like “god made animals for us to eat” and “you look low on iron, you should eat some meat.”
Christmas is wonderful, but it can also be anxiety inducing for vegans (the gluten free are likely to feel this too) for multiple reasons.
For one, the holiday season is heavily focused on food — especially the giant cuts of meat plenty of households look forward to devouring each season.
Turkey, ham, pork, chicken stuffed with herbs, covered with sauces and enjoyed with cheese, wine and bread. Meat and Christmas have gone together like long-term lovers for years and it’s a seemingly unbreakable bond.
Being vegan at one of these dinners is more like being the sad ex who isn’t over the breakup, it’s awkward and uncomfortable to sit there and watch your loved one fawn over something you can’t stand to look at.
But stats show veganism isn’t going anywhere. A recent report from market research firm Euromonitor International found Australia was the third fastest growing vegan market in the world after the United Arab Emirates and China.
It also predicted that by 2020, Australia’s packaged vegan food market would be worth $215 million.
This week, supermarket giant Woolworths introduced a Christmas soy-based loaf with breadcrumbs, sweet cranberries, chickpeas, green lentils, herbs and spices to meet vegans’ needs.
Recent Roy Morgan data has also shown that more than two million Australians are now living meat-free.
The number of food products launched in Australia carrying a vegan claim has also risen by 92 per cent between 2014 and 2016, according to The Food Revolution Network.
And News Corp website Delicious has seen a huge increase in the demand for vegan recipe options online in the last 18 months.
Australian celebrity chef Mike Ward, who now works in Canada and is launching a cookbook, featuring fifty per cent of recipes which are meatless, told News Corp there were three reasons driving the rise of veganism.
“Veganism used to be seen as very fringe, now there are so many organisations that are mainstream, that have made it easier for people to get the facts across to people,” he said.
“Social media’s role in showing people slaughterhouses where they treat animals in a nasty way has also helped and people have realised the old school thinking of only using meat to get protein in the diet has also changed.”
Mr Ward, who also launched a plant-based superfood powder called PlantVital, said non-vegan cooks can try adding nutritional yeast to dishes.
“It’s a vegan magic dust, it can be put on anything, even cardboard and it tastes beautiful,” he said.
Now, some of Australia and the world’s long-term vegans have now weighed in on whether it’s worth addressing the V-word over the Christmas table, and if you do choose to go there, how to keep the peace.
FOOD FIGHTERS: THE TABLE FLIPPER
One of the biggest difficulties vegans faced during Christmas (and other) dinner parties is navigating conversation when it turns to their veganism.
Organiser of Australia’s largest vegan market, the Sydney Vegan Market, Kate Jones said the V-word could definitely lead to a hostile Christmas dinner if not approached carefully.
“It’s a topic that can lead to tables being flipped. It’s a conversation that could lead to an argument so it’s up to you,” she said.
“Understand that people have different opinions and politics and everyone is entitled to it. Communicate some boundaries and let everyone know if it’s not a discussion you are up for.
“If it’s really too hard, if it is just going to be awful then I would recommend that they just don’t go and protect their energy.”
Grace Watson, founder of popular Sydney-based vegan eatery Verd said she tried not to draw attention to her veganism but she had an honesty policy if asked.
“Most of the time people change the subject because they don’t want to hear about it,” she said.
She said if you do come into trouble at the table and the conversation turns sour to “play it cool”.
“It normally annoys people if you’re just relaxed about something that they’re getting riled up about. If you’re confident with your choice to be vegan, it should be easy to talk about. “Normally everyone has the same questions anyway, so you’ve probably heard them all before and can be prepared.”
KILL HOSTILITY WITH KINDNESS
Seth Tibbott, founder of one of the world’s first vegan food companies Tofurky, said the holidays can be a challenge with vegans and non-vegans sharing a table that’s often full of cooked animals.
“But it’s also a teachable moment,” he said. “Serving tasty vegan options at a meal can surprise and inspire your guests, possibly opening new ways of thinking about food.”
Tofurky has been around since 1980 and has been selling meat-free holiday roasts since 1995. Earlier this year, the company announced they had sold five million of them to date and the demand for them in Australia is rising.
Despite being a key figure of veganism, Mr Tibbott said he did not shy away from gatherings that weren’t strictly plant-based.
“With veganism being so hot right now, I have found there is great curiosity about plant-based foods. It’s all about being respectful and being able to deliver your message in a kind, loving manner. Nobody likes to be chastised, shamed and painted into a corner.
“I would say be positive and respectful and don’t escalate the tension. We are all in this together and with the current mainstreaming of plant-based foods, who is a carnivore today may be the meat reducer or vegan of tomorrow,” he said.
“Remember what Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win!” People who make it a point to be aggressive towards veganism are not ignoring you. They may be closer to making dietary changes than you realise. Fighting is one step away from winning.”
TO STAY OR GO
Owner of Australia’s vegan supermarket, The Cruelty Free Shop, Jessica Bailey said she avoided meat heavy dinner parties for two reasons.
“I find it too upsetting, I know what the animal has been through and also see people who are such lovely people who have their blinkers on to it. That’s the most upsetting thing, that I start to doubt my friends and family so I stay away from those situations,” she said.
Ms Bailey, who has been vegan for 16 years, recalled being caught off guard at a party once.
“I walked in, it had a pig on a spit and I just walked out. I didn’t say anything or make a fuss I just thought I can’t deal with this. It was just the shock, most meat is sanitised and in packaging so you can easily cut off from the fact that it is an animal, but that was so confronting. I was horrified,” she said.
Vegan Australia conducted a survey last month to find out how vegans navigate Christmas dinners.
Respondent Sue Moran told a similar story to Ms Bailey, but said she did her best to just block out the meat eating happening around her.
“My family eats prawns at Christmas. They sit at the dinner table pulling heads and tails from them … I can’t stand it, it makes me want to steer clear of the family get-togethers.
“The only thing to do is to try to ignore it. I don’t think it’s fair to ask them to desist from doing what they love, and I don’t want to avoid social events and become a hermit. But it does make me miserable,” she said.
ON THE OUTSIDE
Another respondent, Kylie Lewis said she was a newer vegan, only making the switch two years ago, she said she found it challenging at family dinners as she felt “on the outer.”
“It got easier with a bit of planning,” she said.
‘The following Christmas, I made my own salads, sushi and garlic bread. I also made some chocolate cherry, coconut balls and vegan cheesecake. If I didn’t mention anything and just filled my plate, no one really noticed or cared about what I was choosing to eat.”
MAY BE TOXIC
Despite the risk of tears and fights across the tablecloth, Jessica Bailey said any opportunity to talk about veganism with loved ones was a good one.
“If you don’t talk no one is going to learn anything. It’s always good to have conversations and let people know why you’ve made the decision,” she said.
“Even if someone seems aggressive or negative, they may just take some information to think about later on. Being defensive doesn’t get you anywhere it just adds to the stereotype of being anti-social and aggressive. If you’re kind and approachable I think you can make a difference.
“If you refuse to eat with people who eat meat then you lose the opportunity to influence them. You can influence without saying anything … by just enjoying a delicious vegan meal that some might want to try.”
Mr Tibbott said the dinner table was an obvious time to speak about what you are eating. He said the V-word shouldn’t be avoided “just don’t make it toxic.”
THERE’S BETTER TIMING
Vegan Australia Director Greg McFarlane, who has been vegan 25 years, said he found the holidays particularly difficult due to the social pressure.
“The problem is not getting enough food. That’s easy. The problem is the social aspect. It’s quite difficult for vegans who are eating with dead animals right in front of them, on top of some of the attitudes of people they’re eating with,” he said.
“The wrong time to discuss veganism is when someone is eating meat in front of you. It can be divisive at the dinner table.
“Everyone has an uncle (or aunt) who says “you’re looking sick” or “not eating meat is unnatural” or “god made animals for us to eat”.
“If you go to a table and there’s a dead turkey there it’s a very visual thing, to have an understanding of the living animal and see the dead one in the middle of the table it puts you off but there’s no easy answer. The answer would be a vegan world where there’s no turkey, ham or lamb on the table,” he said.
On top of this he said the holiday season was a time where there was lots of advertising and celebration of meat and dairy products.
Despite having some awkward conversations and enduring the onslaught of advertising in the past, he said it was easy to get through as he knew why he was vegan.
“Any of the problems that might come up while being vegan go away when you put it into perspective, if you know the reason why you are doing it is to avoid the suffering of animals,” he said.
“I think a lot of vegans feel the reaction of wanting to get away from it and not wanting to be there (at Christmas). The equivalent is going through a family fight that you cannot help or stop. It’s the same emotional feeling. The main thing I’d advise is to not get into heated arguments about veganism at the dinner table.”
POTENTIAL FOR UNITY
Mr McFarlane's sister-in-law Yvonneh McFarlane did hear him talk at the dinner table though.
The 70-year-old said she turned vegan at 60, after learning about the lifestyle from him.
Flash forward ten years and Ms McFarlane mostly eats a raw plant diet and loves the challenge of vegan cooking, she even took up lessons so she could cook a vegan Christmas feast with Greg in mind.
“It was hard work but it was absolutely wonderful, she said.
“I did the roast, falafel, a hot salad and lots of veggies and the whole family ate it. I did it because I thought Greg was always missing out every year.
This year she’s hosting her family Christmas again but it won’t be entirely vegan as she said there was “too much whingeing” from her non-vegan family members.
“It’s difficult when they’re so set in their ways and say ‘there must be ham and turkey’ at the table … I’m not very happy about it though.”
Ms McFarlane said her veganism made her feel empowered.
“You walk with a spring …” she said.
“People say you don’t get enough goodness … I get plenty in me, that’s for sure.”
Delicious Editor-In-Chief Kerrie McCallum said it was important for Christmas cooks to ask their guests what their dietary requirements are ahead of time as it was likely one or two of them will be vegan.
If you’re serious about keeping the peace these holidays, that’s a great start.
To prepare, check out delicious.com.au’s vegan recipe ideas.
- Jessica Bailey