What Happens When Vegans Eat Meat

[Photo courtesy Café Gratitude]

The humorless, pedantic, and militant vegan may be the butt of countless jokes and clichés, but rarely do even the most dedicated real-life vegans resort to death threats. And yet that’s the new reality for Matthew and Terces Engelhart, husband-and-wife owners of West Coast vegan restaurants Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre.

For those outside of the Bay-Area-to-LA-Basin corridor, the Engelharts, who have five children and nine grandchildren, posted to their blog more than a year ago that they’d be introducing animals (and thus meat) into agricultural production at their Be Love Farm in Northern California. Note that this was a change at their private farm, and in their personal diets, and had no effect on the organic vegan fare served at their restaurants. According to a representative from the restaurants, the Engelharts aren’t involved with the daily operations of those businesses and are focused on Be Love.

Certainly, the most zealous among the vegan-vigilante posse that brought out their pitchforks for the Engelharts do not represent the majority response, even within the most dedicated of the vegan community. While most vegans were not particularly happy with the news, the more common reaction was along the lines of a lifelong vegan who told me, “I prefer there to be as many easy ways for people to make compassionate choices — eating vegan, not buying leather, not supporting shitty working conditions for a $5 shirt — as possible. So, totally, I’m in support of non-vegans starting vegan or any animal-friendly businesses.”

The message that greeted visitors to Café Gratitude’s Yelp page in the first week of May.

The change at Be Love went unnoticed (or, at least, unremarked upon) until the end of last April — but when it got noticed, did it ever. A flurry of outraged posts on vegan websites set ablaze a firestorm that began with angry venting on the restaurants’ Yelp pages, reminiscent of the outpouring on the web page of the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion. (Yelp quickly took the step of scrubbing the angry diatribes.) This was followed up by planned demonstrations and protests at Café Gratitude, plus the aforementioned death threats.

In short, it was a staggering overreaction from a small but vocal segment of a community that otherwise takes kindness and compassion as its core credo. Not to mention the fact that the nature of the negative response played into all of the worst stereotypes about vegan culture. So why did the vegan fringe react this way?

The storm took a relatively long time to boil into full fury, and that lag indicates that most reasonable vegans, upon receiving the news that the owners of a vegan restaurant chain have changed their diet and farming practices, don’t erupt in rage. To fully recap, in February 2015, the Engelharts posted about their intention to raise, slaughter, and eat animals at Be Love Farm. A couple of weeks later, after receiving questions from those in the vegan community, they clarified their reasoning. The explanation given by Matthew Engelhart may have contained a degree of nuance that some were not prepared to absorb. “The answer is non-violence but non-violence to the whole system, all species,” he wrote. “Agriculture is the most violent destructive force on the planet. It has caused the extinction of more species than any other activity.” Engelhart then went on to cite the specific example of a common and popular vegan product that can be found everywhere from Walmart to Whole Foods to the neighborhood co-op:

Earth Balance margarine is made from Canadian canola. Organic or not this product required a plow to destroy Canadian prairie — an act of violence against burrowing owls, ferrets, prairie dogs, dozens of insect and bird species. If that prairie had been maintained in grassland with well-managed cows or buffalo those species would not be killed or displaced.

Engelhart expanded his point to include the destruction of ecosystems on a global scale, something for which industrial farming (even of vegetables) is responsible. He wrote: “30% of the world’s surface is grasslands, grasslands need herds of ruminants to thrive; when they are removed, the grasslands degenerate into desert. Desertification is violence against all species, including humans.”

A complex rationale like the Engelharts’ incorporates a lot of moving parts — analysis of food systems and harm done, environmentalism, sustainability, economics, climate change, personal spirituality, the fractal geometry of nature, politics, and an embrace of biodynamics. But, in any principled community, there are those who gravitate to absolutes, to the point at which the absolutes become the identity. Nothing is worse than a threat to the identity. To this way of thinking, nuance is compromise, and compromise is what you burn away with torches. Add a few indignant D-list celebrity chefs and showboating animal-rights activists, and you have the perfect formula for rhetorical violence, trending toward intimations of actual violence.

As you would expect from people who had been vegan for four decades, the Engelharts gave further considered explanation of their decision to start farming animals, even as the conflict reached a fever pitch. A few weeks ago, they said through a representative:

[The Engelharts’] decision to transition to a non-vegan diet was a direct result of launching their private farm/residence, the aforementioned Be Love Farm in Vacaville, and subsequently discovering that part of operating a sustainable, organic farm according to regenerative agricultural practices necessitates having animals as part of the equation to produce manure to fertilize the soil, etc. They witnessed firsthand that like nature can’t be without animals, neither can “natural” farming.
Matthew and Terces Engelhart, at home on Be Love Farm. [Courtesy Café Gratitude]

There are all kinds of reasons why people eat the way they eat: cultural, economic, political, nutritional, moral, philosophical. And there is every kind of meat-eater in America—from the Lunchables-scarfing, bacon-wrapping, family-pack-of-industrial-chicken-buying variety, to those like Terces and Matthew, whose meat-eating is closely tied to their farming. It’s not like flipping a switch, in any case. “Be Love Farm is not strictly biodynamic, but we follow many of the biodynamic principles,” Matthew Engelhart told me this week. This includes biodynamic composting (which also incorporates animals). Engelhart believes that the best and most complete use of his cows, in addition to their role in maintaining the grasses and as a part of the growing system, includes providing the farmer with the energy they’ve collected from the sun in the form of grasses, so that he can keep on farming. Sometimes this energy partially takes the form of meat.

Any conscientious or ethical meat-eater, at one point or another, suffers pangs of meat guilt — the feeling that the piece of flesh in your mouth is an animal — and questions whether it’s wrong to keep chewing. But to many people, there is a clear line marking when an animal becomes food (as is thoughtfully and powerfully depicted by food. curated. in this graphic, James Beard Award–winning video inside a slaughterhouse). And there are those for whom that line does not exist. We all live, and often eat, side by side and generally without incident.

There are certainly many more vegans who feel that the Engelharts are free to go about their business and eat as they wish than those who feel that Café Gratitude should be burned to the ground. One longtime Venice restaurant customer told me that she was at first confused when she heard the news, but that she understands that the owners’ reasons for advocating veganism are different from hers. She and many others will continue to enjoy the animal-free dishes at their restaurants.

What motivated the antagonistic response to the Engelharts’ decision obviously hinged on a sense of betrayal, since there’s never a shortage of meat-serving restaurants within easy marching distance of any impassioned vegan revolutionary. Picking on one of your own who deviates from orthodoxy may be an empowering feeling. But when the reasons for change are both expansively compassionate and intensely personal, such attacks become an even graver hypocrisy than the one you’re trying to censure.

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