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Jenné Claiborne: Why I’m Vegan

Note: This post, from cookbook author, personal chef, and founder of the popular blog Sweet Potato Soul was written after joining us to teach a Compassionate Cuisine cooking class on southern cooking. 

I remember my life before I became vegan. A handful of family members on my father’s side, practicing Hebrew Israelites, were vegan for religious reasons. At family gatherings they would show up with their own special vegan food, which I looked at with apprehension and confusion. Somehow no one ever explained to me why they were vegan, aside from “it’s their religion.”

I actually grew up a “semi-vegetarian,” as my Nana calls it. That means I ate chicken, turkey, and seafood. Not eating hamburgers, hot dogs, and BBQ ribs was strange in any part of the US, but living in the South made it extra bizarre. Since before I can remember I have been explaining my diet to curious people. The reason we didn’t eat red meat, or any mammals, was that it was simply unhealthy and morally wrong.

Still, we baked with eggs, milk, and butter, and we partook in Southern fish fries and Thanksgiving turkey, and it all seemed perfectly healthy and moral. Which is why I didn’t understand my vegan family members’ need to forgo all animal products. Weren’t beef and pork enough? Did the other animals really matter?

I tasted my first vegan food as a child. My dad, who was raised vegan and worked as a vegan cook in Atlanta, often made tofu dishes with nutritional yeast, and my cousins always showed up to get-togethers with an amazing vegan cake. Still, I didn’t become vegan until my early 20s. It took two decades of shallow exposure to veganism for me to finally discover what eating animal products is truly about.

Had I visited a place like Catskill Animal Sanctuary as a child, and learned about the animal agriculture industry, I would have, without a doubt, become vegan then. I was already aware of how amazing the food could be, yet without any explanation as to why one would make a cake without eggs and dairy, I didn’t understand the reasoning. Sometimes knowing that vegan food is delicious isn’t enough to spark a person’s interest in the lifestyle.

At the end of July I had the pleasure of teaching my third vegan cooking class at Catskill Animal Sanctuary. The first time I visited the sanctuary in 2013, I felt as though I had discovered one of life’s biggest secrets, the social, emotional, and physical lives of farm animals. Each time I visit the sanctuary, I feel my circle of compassion and my heart expanding. If only every American had a chance to spend time with goats, chickens, cows, sheep, and turkeys, and then learn about the horrors of animal agriculture. I think we’d have a lot more vegans.

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