June 23, 2010
Trista Cornelius, Contributing Writer
During finals week of spring term, I faced a dilemma. My students had requested pizza for their final exam. Always, for finals week, I gave a very-hard-final-exam. However, this group of students had been an impressive bunch, and although I told them "No," I privately took the pizza request under consideration.
After a few days of deliberation, I finally decided to forego the very-hard-final-exam for this one outstanding group of students this one time, but this is where the dilemma began: I did not want to purchase meat. I did not even want to purchase dairy. However, I also did not feel right providing only vegan pizzas. I was sure when the students said "pizza," they’d meant "pepperoni."
I daydreamed of turning this into a "learning moment" and providing a banquet of colorful, savory, vegan foods. However, the logistics were far too complicated, the content of the class (creative writing) had nothing to do with food, and ultimately, it felt wrong to grant their request for food and celebration by providing only what I sanctioned right to eat, no matter how much I longed for them to bite into a lentil burger and suddenly crave tantalizing plant-based alternatives to meat.
Finally, the night before the exam, I studied the website of the one pizza place near the college. Pressured by the deadline, I selected two vegetarian pizzas and two chicken pizzas. Chickens are no less of an animal than the cows and pigs I avoided, but this is the absurd compromise I settled on rashly, in spite of all my prior hemming and hawing. I didn't even call to ask about a vegan pizza; I think I was just tired of thinking about it and gave up.
I asked my husband if he thought my order was all right. He asked if everyone in the class liked chicken or veggies. I didn't know. Would anyone prefer sausage or pepperoni? Before I had a chance to get defensive, he reminded me of how accommodating everyone in my life has been with my vegan commitment. Didn't I want to extend the same inclusivity and acceptance? I’d already submitted my order, but his point lingered on my conscience.
After the final "exam" time, only a few grains of cornmeal were left in the pizza boxes. I'd also brought a large bowl of kale salad, a last-minute compromise with myself. I thought I'd share a taste of "my food." To my surprise, only a speck of green clung to the side of the otherwise empty bowl.
I'm still learning from this experience, but here is what I know so far--every dollar spent is a vote. I believe this, and by ordering meated pizzas, I supported the meat and dairy industries. Worse, I bypassed a chance to talk with someone at the pizza shop about vegan options, about local produce, about cruelty-free ingredients.
However, it was a pleasure to feed what turned out to be a very hungry group of people who deserved a break. The empty bowl of kale showed me the students were willing—maybe even eager—to try "my food," and I should not have been so scared to include a vegan pizza. Nor should I have been so set in my ways that I did not accommodate the students' food culture, even if it conflicted with my own. If I'd invited a group of people to my house for food, that would be a different matter. This was a diverse group of writing students eager for a fun way to wrap up a tough year of school, and as their writing teacher, it did not feel like my place to assert my food values too strongly.
As it turned out, one lactose-intolerant student delicately navigated the cheese but thanked me for the pizza anyway. It never dawned on me that a vegan pizza might have been inclusive and accommodating to others! Her negotiation around her food allergy reminded me of the "gluten-free" symbol I'd vaguely noticed on the pizza menu. Not only could I have provided a gluten-free option, surely a pizza parlor with gluten-free dough would have been amenable about creating a pizza without animal products.
I know now that there were other ways to negotiate my pizza dilemma, better compromises to be found, but I only know this now that I've been through it one time. Ultimately, I am glad for this experience that complicated my vegan values. Even so, I will be glad to go back to the very-hard-final-exam.