What do you do when you or your children either a) discover that you ate something that wasn't vegan, or b) are served something from a loved one that isn't vegan?
We have encountered this a handful of times over the years as we've dined with well-intentioned family members and friends. Though I don't think there are any hard and fast rules as to what to do in these situations, I will share what we've done in our family.
I'm not sure why, but vegan cheese seems to throw some of my family members through a loop. I don't know how many times various people have bought shredded soy cheese containing casein for a dish they were making! I think they must believe that soy=vegan or perhaps that there are only two choices for cheese: dairy and vegan, and that if the product is soy-based, it must be vegan (or else why would it exist if vegans couldn't eat it?). Who knows? Maybe it's simply due to the fact that pre-shredded soy cheese appeals to them more than having to go through the work of shredding it themselves. But anyhow, I can think of at least three or four times we've been served soy cheese with casein.
Once, my dad kindly made stuffed mushrooms for us as an appetizer at a party. (He always makes us vegan versions of the appetizers he's serving at a gathering). I can't recall exactly how I knew that the cheese in the mushrooms was soy but not vegan (maybe I saw the bag on the counter) but I knew that there was some not-so-nice stuff in the mushrooms he was serving myself and my family. What did I do? Well, I had a few options to choose from, right?
I could either say, "Dad, I'm sorry, but I think that cheese you used has milk in it," and not eat the food he had take the time to prepare. I could also pretend to eat the mushrooms, but if none went missing, the jig would be up. I could also just eat a mushroom or two and show my dad that I appreciated the effort he went to to make us something.
It's a difficult situation to be in: Your host clearly knows you are vegan and knows what vegan means. They simply failed to read the ingredients carefully enough, though I wonder how people miss the allergy warnings, "contains milk," but I digress...Your host intended to make something tasty and suitable for your diet and is happy to be able to offer you something other than carrot sticks or an iceberg lettuce salad.
Should you be a pain-in-the-ass vegan who is so rigid that she makes being vegan look difficult, perhaps impossible, and doesn't appreciate the effort and thought? Should you choke down something you know is tainted by animal products--though a small amount--and hope you don't gag, get discovered by the "friendly" vegan police, or restart your vegan calendar and count yourself a new vegan and not a 5-year veteran veggie because you not-even-accidentally ingested an animal by-product? Whew! Not a nice choice to make, and not so black-and-white as it might look, at least not to me.
You see, I did eat a couple of mushrooms, though they didn't very good to me knowing they had a little casein sprinkled in, and I did feel a little like gagging. And now that I've admitted it in my blog, I fear the vegan police will soon be calling. The door to veggie heaven might now be closed to me and I'll be forced to take the elevator down to the hell where I'll be welcomed by Colonel Sanders (think of the bloody, knife-weilding caracature depicted in the PETA ads) and forced to eat buckets and buckets of fried chicken pieces all day long...
Wait, no I won't! I think the only thing that did happen to me is that I felt a little grossed out for a short while after eating the mushrooms and my dad continued to make me vegan (or nearly vegan) dishes when I'm guest at his house. His feeling weren't hurt and I still count myself as a seven-year vegan. I'll say that my decision was also based on my intention to "accidentally" come across the bag of shredded cheese in my dad's kitchen later on in the party, and to point out kindly that it contained casein and that the best option for vegan cheese was a block of Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet only available to us at our local Whole Foods Market. (That was before shredded Daiya cheese was invented and the fact that it is now widely available at many grocery chains. Woo hooo---but that's another story...)
Now, I am SURE some vegans will disagree with my decision to eat the mushrooms (or whatever has been served to me over the years). We all need to do what is comfortable for us, and eating something with dairy--or worse for me, meat, in it could make us want to cry or vomit, or both. (By the way, I have never accidentally been served meat, and I know I would never be able to eat it if I was. I think meat is more obvious to people, and it would be odd for someone to mistakenly serve it to a vegan.) I also think a person's decision is dependent on the situation. If there had been a dip on the table for everyone to eat, and my dad had said, "Oh, I made the spinach dip vegan for you," but I knew it wasn't totally vegan and plenty of other guests were eating it and my dad would never know if I ate it or not, I wouldn't eat it. But, when he brought the tray of specially made mushroom caps to me, I decided to take one. My dad was happy, I didn't discourage him from cooking for us in the future nor did he feel bad that he had "failed," but I also used the opportunity to educate him so that the mistake would, hopefully, not happen again in the future. I felt I made the best choice for myself in that situation.
Encouraging you child to eat something non-vegan is a little different, perhaps. I can't exactly remember if my kids ate the mushrooms. I think they might have, but seeing as the appetizer was mushrooms and not mini-veggie dogs wrapped in vegan pastry (as my dad also likes to make for us) I don't think they ate too many! There have been other times that my kids and I accidentally ingested eggs and dairy, though.
My grandma is just about the sweetest lady around, and she is always looking for vegan foods for us when we get together. She has made us chocolate cake and a mexican layered dip (using recipes I provided), and has made trips to several health food stores to accomodate us. When I've taken my kids to her house for play times or parties, she always buys large containers of plain soymilk, chocolate soymilk, vegan ice cream, vegan candy from PETA's candy list, and other goodies. (I don't think she's picked up on my low-sugar vibe, but I don't say anything because she's so darn thoughtful and we don't get together that often!)
When we met my grandma at the park one time last summer, she wanted to bring the snacks. She brought vegan chick nuggets with Wildwood's Garlic Aioli (yum) and gluten-free donuts from the freezer section at Whole Foods. She was so excited because the donuts said gluten-free (one of my kids had been avoiding gluten due to a breathing issue) and dairy-free, and she assumed they were vegan (probably because of the dairy-free claim on the front of the box). We all ate the food at the little picnic tables, and I wondered if the donuts we really vegan or not since I thought I remembered examining the package on a previous shopping trip. When my grandma went to play with the kids on the playground, I sneaked a look at the box. Yikes! There was milk and eggs in them.
I knew I could have read the box before letting the kids eat them, but I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place sometimes. My grandma really is sweet and goes to so much trouble to please us and is generally on the mark. She truly is excited to find things for us, and she spends money from her retirement fund to buy the often pricey vegan items for my kids. So...I didn't check the box and we all ate the animal-tainted donuts. Sadly, there are even vegan donuts at Whole Foods now so it could have all been avoided! Aw, nuts!
But it wasn't, and we ate them, and now I had to decide whether or not to let my kids know about it after the fact and after leaving Grandma's company, of course. I DID tell them, though, because I didn't want them to think that the particular brand of donuts was indeed vegan when they were either out shopping with another grandparent (I know, they have awesome grandparents who do tons of stuff for them!) at Whole Foods, or if on the off-chance they were served the same donuts in a different situation. I make sure to avoid being negative about someone's mistake and to focus on the fact that the person was doing their best to do something kind for us. I also try to take out the "yuck" factor and not say something like, "Ugh! The donuts from Grandma had eggs and cow's milk in them! How gross it that?" That would only make my kids feel bad and encourage them to have ill feelings toward Grandma.
My kids are already hypersensitive to whether a food is vegan or not, and come up to me at parties to check things before they eat them. They are also comfortable asking the host what available foods are vegan. My poor daughter was at a different great-grandma's house for a holiday celebration with her cousins when she was served a grilled-cheese sandwich made with sliced soy cheese. My grandma had made dairy sandwiches for the other kids, and "vegan" ones for my kids. Kaylee was insistent that the cheese wasn't vegan, and really didn't want to eat it. My mom was there and said that the soy cheese (from Trader Joe's) was vegan and that it was okay to eat. Reluctantly, Kaylee ate the sandwich, and my mom told me the story when I went to pick my kids up. My grandma gave us the rest of the cheese slices to take home and, guess what, Kaylee was right! They weren't vegan! They had that sneaky, gnarly casein in them!
My poor little daughter, so devout in her veganism and courageous enough to speak up, only to be coerced into eating the sandwich that she correctly guessed wasn't entirely vegan. I think she was a little disgusted, but it didn't have any long-lasting effect on her. I think it's good that she is comfortable asking questions and saying "no, thank you" if necessary, but that she doesn't freak out if a mistake is made.
We will probably eat small amounts of animal products here and there through out our lifetime, knowingly or unkowingly, and it is up to us to decide how we handle it. We can turn our nose up at a mostly vegan food served us with love, or we can eat a little bit of something and create more harmony between vegans and nonvegans. We can talk meanly behing people's backs with our children, secretly scolding grandma for her mistake. Or we can accept the imperfections in ourselves and in others, and make our choice to be vegan more accessible, and sometimes, more peaceful and enjoyable. It's up to us to to draw the lines and navigate our tricky road. We are our children's best examples, and whatever we choose to do, we should do it with love and compassion--for the animals and for our fellow humans. Isn't that what being vegan is all about, after all?