Can we stop with the omnivore-splaining?

By Charlotte Shane
Updated February 13, 2018
Credit: Photo courtesy Sunaura Taylor

One of the best books of 2017, in the opinion of this proud vegan, was Sunaura Taylor’s Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. It’s a moving, relentlessly intelligent exploration of the ways humans use animals and the ways we stigmatize disabled bodies. As a committed vegan who explains her choices as “an embodied act of resistance to objectification and exploitation,” Taylor is quick to point out the structural barriers that face many people who would like to change the way they consume. In her words: “Some of us are in a better position to challenge animal exploitation through our food choices than others.”

Taylor and I had an email discussion about her breakfast routine, what it’s like to raise a vegan child as a disabled mom, and the inaccessibility of most Manhattan restaurants.

Extra Crispy: How do you feel about breakfast? I think I might be in the minority of vegans in that I find itterribly depressing.
Sunaura Taylor: I love breakfast. It is my favorite time of day and the meal I look forward to most. I love the ritual of it. This is definitely due to my husband David, who every morning gets up and makes yerba mate in a French press, and sprouted grain toast with some combination of cashew or peanut butter with jam. It's so simple, but somehow the best thing. We both love to write in the morning while drinking our mate, but we also tend to have really great conversations. Since having our daughter two years ago, it's also some of the nicest time to spend with her. Her breakfast nearly always begins with frozen blueberries, followed usually by vegan yogurt and applesauce. I often wish I could have multiple breakfasts.

I do know what you mean about breakfast being a bit depressing for vegans sometimes. Breakfast and brunch places tend to be really egg and dairy heavy, so unless you happen to live somewhere with great, affordable vegan breakfasts, you are often left to order black coffee and maybe some potatoes. Which is frustrating, as great vegan breakfast foods are totally possible to make—from pancakes and waffles, to scrambles and biscuits. The ingredients and recipes are out there, and so much more accessible than they used to be.

A lot of people struggle with their families around food, which adds a whole other dimension of difficulty and tension. I am in the unique position of having a family that is all vegan, but I've certainly spent many breakfasts with friends or colleagues nibbling on a plain bagel or fruit cup as it was the only vegan thing available.

Credit: Photo Courtesy Sunaura Taylor

Yes, the tragic plain bagel with some flavorless honeydew on the side. Do you ever go all-out and prepare a big spread?
Sometimes we'll have steel cut oats, and every once in awhile David will make a tofu scramble and home fries. I think the light breakfast followed by early lunch is more our style. Cooking is pretty challenging for me as a disabled person. I make simple things here and there, but it has to be a really special occasion for me to attempt something fancy. I once made vegan crepes for a gathering I hosted of disabled artists. It took me hours—"crip time" as we say in the disability community—but they actually turned out super good.

We don't ever make non-vegan food. Our friends who aren't vegan are really supportive because they know it's a political stance for us, not a diet or lifestyle. I'm vegan because I'm a feminist, an environmentalist, because I believe in disability justice, and I'm anti-capitalist. It's not something they expect us to alter for them. This is a really privileged position to be in and a lot of vegans are in much more complicated positions when they eat with other people.

I'm curious about how challenging it's been to raise your daughter vegan. Have you encountered a lot of criticism for it from people outside your supportive circle?
When I got pregnant, I thought this was going to be a huge issue, but honestly it just hasn't been. It's probably partly where I live in Manhattan; vegan pregnant women and vegan kids are just not that unusual for pediatricians here. Maybe it's also that the evidence is just so increasingly clear that, if done well, being vegan is a perfectly safe and healthy way of eating for people across their lifespan.

To be perfectly blunt, I think being vegan was and is totally overshadowed by the fact that I'm a disabled mom. People are too busy wrapping their minds around a mom in a power wheelchair to worry about whether my daughter drinks milk. As a society, we have a hard time acknowledging that disabled people are sexual beings, that they can be givers of care, that they can be parents.

Before you were a mom, do you think disability provided a similar sort of cover for people who might otherwise want to argue with you about how you ate?
I've never had anyone assume I was vegan because of my disability, and I've certainly never had anyone suggest my disability would benefit from meat consumption, but I totally have had people who eat meat explain to me how careful I need to be as a vegan, telling me about B12 or the importance of protein. Could we call this omnivore-splaining? Not very elegant sounding, but you get the idea.

Credit: Photo via The New Press

Your question makes me think about how people on both sides of the debate use disability and illness narratives as a sort of fear-mongering tactic. That if you don't eat or do this or that, you are more likely to be unhealthy, have some disease, get sick, or become fat, which can very quickly turn into a kind of body shaming. Food does of course play a large role in health, but there is a way in which these conversations can be very troubling.

The sorts of comments you are talking about get to the ways in which issues of justice and ethics can be erased from conversations about meat—veganism becomes a conversation about health and beauty versus a conversation about justice—and the ways in which people depoliticize health and disability. They assume that everyone is striving towards the same kind of health, and that it is a personal versus political issue.

Is there a place in NYC where you love going out for breakfast or brunch?
There are a lot of good restaurants in Manhattan, but a lot of them aren't accessible. People excuse this by saying the city is old, but let’s be honest, most of the time it's only one or two steps, and we're talking about places that have undergone all sorts of expensive renovations. There are simple things a venue can do to show they are welcoming to disabled people even if they legitimately can't put in a ramp. So I think instead of promoting a particular restaurant here, I'd rather just ask vegan venues to think about access, and access broadly conceived: Who can and who can't visit your restaurant or store? Because there is a lot more to veganism than food.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Charlotte Shane, PROUD VEGAN, is the author of Prostitute Laundry and N.B. She lives in New York in spite of the fact that the best nondairy ice cream is in Boston.