Veganism is no longer a Mona Lisa wearing googly glasses and a bikini. In other words, it is no longer ridiculed, deemed un-American, or held in contempt — at least not by the vast majority of the country. It is a lifestyle choice that has become popular, partly due to celebrities (Bill Clinton, Zac Efron, Beyoncé, and Natalie Portman, among others) who tout its merits and partly due to animal activists who point out the suffering that nonhuman animals endure on factory farms. The diet is also praised by top athletes who say it helps with their game, by health professionals who claim it reduces disease, and by environmentalists who argue that embracing it is the only way to avert a full-blown climate disaster.
These role-models ignite change. They motivate others via their words and personal behavior — something that has been my mission as well for almost 40 years (first as a vegetarian and later as a vegan). It has not always been easy. By declining to eat meat, I have experienced the full gamut of human craziness, mainly back in the 1980s and 1990s. I have been hated, taunted, belittled, nagged, lectured, and even bullied. But my experience dining with comedian Milton Berle at the Friars Club in the early 1980s was perhaps the most unusual. I had been invited to lunch by Milton’s son, Bill, who was a friend from college.
The 18,945-square-foot Friars Club looked like a windowless, grand yacht. It was anchored on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Milton and other old-time celebrities had started the private show business club in 1947. They frequented the venue for lunch and events. The ceiling was shaped like a rolling wave, and the dining room was a spacious cabin at the stern of the mighty structure.
The three of us were seated at Milton’s private table in the center of the room, and that is where I met the famous comic, who wore a blazer and gray slacks and treated me as if I were a deck chair rather than a person. By the end of the meal, it felt like I had been thrown overboard or walked the plank.
“I fucked Nancy Reagan, Lucille Ball, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe,” Milton bragged as if trying to impress me or somehow be funny.
“Nice … to meet you,” I stammered, truly disgusted by the vile and misogynistic language. The man totally lacked class, and although I had rejected much of my Atlanta upbringing, I was unimpressed with people who cursed a lot or made an effort to be offensive. The comedian brought out the “debutante” in me.
“I bet you’ve heard about my dick.” Milton slid into a monologue about his gigantic penis and then segued into kinky details about recent sexual exploits with women whom he clearly did not respect. I felt sorry for Milton’s wife and glanced at Bill. He looked embarrassed.
“She gave me head and I ate her snatch. … Me and that broad. We shtupped for three hours …” Milton suddenly noticed a patron on the other side of the room. “Oh, I gotta give that cocksucker a cigar.” He jumped from the table for one of his many flits to converse with diners on the other side of the room.
The menu was predetermined. A waiter appeared with a tray of dishes, which prompted Milton to dock himself at our table for a bite. “I’m a vegetarian. No meat, please,” I told the waiter as he spooned portions of food onto our plates.
“No. Give her some of that,” Milton said, pointing to a beef dish. The waiter seemed torn but ultimately decided to obey Milton.
“No, no,” I pleaded. “No meat, please.”
“Give it to her.” Milton motioned again at the beef dish. “And give her some of that chicken, too.” The waiter flashed an apologetic look but did as Milton commanded. My pleas had been firm, but the comedian did not care. He seemed to be on an ego trip or think he was at war with me. I had lost the battle of the Friars Club lunch, and my plate was contaminated. My innocent peas and crisp salad had lost the battle as well. Meat sauce oozed onto them, encroaching upon their purity and deliciousness. Tiny chunks from terrorized chickens tainted my once-pristine rice. Bill looked ashamed but stayed silent. It was as if he knew from experience that he could not confront his dad. I ate nothing for lunch, but Milton — still obsessing over sex stories — failed to notice.
“I hate your dad,” I told Bill at the end of lunch. Bill replied, “I know,” as if this sentiment had been expressed as often as Milton’s vulgarities.
At some point following the combative lunch, Milton ironically stopped eating meat and even went so far as to attribute his long life to a vegetarian diet. (He died at age 93.) Although some say he quit consuming flesh because of his conversion to Christian Science, a show business insider offered me a different story. “Milton became a vegetarian because of people like you. He was influenced by those who came into his life.”
Although I don’t think I influenced him more than any other deck chair on the Titanic, I do think the “cumulative impact” theory holds water. It is possible that as more and more vegetarians entered his life and set a good example, he began to rethink his habits and seek change.
If Milton can change, we can all change; and the time has never been better. The Economist calls this year — 2019 — the year of the vegan. Although veganism was once ignored by mainstream media, today it is discussed. Although it used to be the target of condescension by the meat and dairy industries, now many in these increasingly profit-challenged fields are scrambling to stay relevant by inventing their own meatless and dairy-free alternatives. In the past few years, there has been a 600 percent increase in the US by those who identify as vegan; this has prompted restaurants and grocery stores to provide more plant-based options.
Climate change — arguably the most pressing issue of the century — has done much to propel veganism into the spotlight. According to experts, meat and dairy intake in the US must be abolished or significantly reduced to avert catastrophe. The journal Science states that eliminating meat is the single most effective action that an individual can take to fight global warming.
We must all be role models for the sake of the planet, for the sake of nonhuman animals, and for the sake of ourselves. Let the food fight begin.