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Skipping the bird doesn't have to mean foregoing the family dinner entirely.
Skipping the bird doesn't have to mean foregoing the family dinner entirely.
Photo by shutterstock

A Mexican Vegan and The Five Stages of Food Grief

Standing in my family’s Texas kitchen one morning, I watched as my sisters, mom and dad bustled around cooking breakfast. I was visiting for Thanksgiving from Washington, D.C. – the city I escaped to earlier that year in order to find myself. I was anxious because I had a bombshell to drop. Two months prior, I had transitioned to a vegan diet, and before the holiday cooking got underway, I’d have to fess up to my family.

Mexicans going vegan is becoming increasingly common in places like Cali, but we are still far and few between in the South – in cities like Houston where hitting Tex-Mex and barbecue joints are commonplace and everything seems to be smothered in butter. In Texas, only one of my many Latino friends is vegan. I have one aunt and two cousins who are vegetarian. They were always considered the weirdos of the family, until I upped the ante.

While the thought of drastically altering my lifelong diet was initially daunting, I couldn’t silence the health concerns I was riddled with after watching the film What The Health. From one day to the next, with a newfound desire to fuel my body with healthier food, I stopped consuming all animal products. I went cold turkey…or tofurkey.

In D.C., the most common question I’d received from friends was whether or not I missed things like meat and dairy. Surprisingly, changing the foods I consumed really wasn’t a huge challenge for me there. Vegan options abound and the city’s overwhelmingly health-conscious crowd barely raises a brow at veganism.

My biggest problem was waiting for me back in Houston where I’d have to face my very traditional Mexican family and tell them that I could no longer indulge in our Thanksgiving feast. I wondered if I should just skip the holidays all together – postpone my big news until the new year and hide out in D.C., far away from judging eyes. But missing a Mexican holiday, let alone two, would be even worse than becoming the family’s first vegan.

So, there I stood, nervously in the kitchen, working up the courage to speak as if I was confessing a shameful secret. “I have something to tell you guys,” I said hesitantly. Then as quickly as possible, I blurted, “I’ve been vegan for the last two months.”

What followed was tougher to deal with than I thought – for myself and for them. For my parents, having one of their daughters go vegan was akin to suffering a tremendous loss. And like dealing with any other tragedy, they’d cope by moving through the five stages of grief.

STAGE 1: DENIAL. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN? YOU CAN’T BE VEGAN. WHAT ARE YOU GONNA EAT?”

In communities of color, we often believe veganism isn’t for people who look like us. I always thought of it as this hippie, crunchy granola thing that didn’t fit me. That was until my friend, who started a vegan food company for multicultural communities, blew my mind with vegan-friendly Mexican dishes and soul food. My family might get on board if they knew I wouldn’t be wasting away eating bowls of steam and leaves for the rest of my life. But before I could even explain that vegan eating could be just as flavorful and full of culture as my previous diet, we hit the next stage of grief.

STAGE 2: ANGER. “WELL, THAT’S STUPID. I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU EXPECT TO EAT AT THANKSGIVING. I GUESS YOU’RE GONNA GO HUNGRY.”

One thing is true about all Mexican families – we love to roast each other. It’s unforgiving, unapologetic, hilarious and brutal. Being Mexican is not for the faint of heart.

“So, what can you eat? Lettuce?”

“I guess that means you’re not Mexican anymore.”

“You move to D.C. and now you’re too good for our food?”

I expected this reaction above all else and was mostly prepared for it. Some of the snide remarks stung more than others, but I buckled in and let them get it off their chest without taking it too personally. If the tables were turned, Lord knows I’d have a million jokes. Eventually, we moved on to the reality of what this change looked like for me and our family.

How do you say no to a lovable dad proudly presenting his deep fried turkey?
How do you say no to a lovable dad proudly presenting his deep fried turkey?
Photo by Nicole Valadez

STAGE 3: BARGAINING. “YOU CAN STILL EAT THE THANKSGIVING FOOD WE MAKE, JUST PICK AROUND THE MEAT! CAN YOU STILL HAVE EGGS?”

No, I can’t have eggs.

Yes, that means I can’t eat mom’s stuffing because it contains eggs.

Yes, I’m aware it only has like two eggs. Even if I could eat the eggs, I can’t just pick around the chicken in the stuffing. It’s still made with chicken stock.

Yes, chicken stock still counts as chicken.

I tapped into my patience. I couldn’t rightfully fault them for not knowing the things I only recently became woke to, nor for thinking I was being extreme by cutting something out of my diet as seemingly innocuous as eggs. They’re the cornerstone of nearly every Mexican breakfast dish for Christ’s sake! They can’t be that bad.

My family simply hadn’t learned what I now knew about the negative effects eggs, chicken and other animal products can have on our bodies. I could see that a part of them really wanted to understand my quest for change, so I fielded their endless questions about this dish and that ingredient. The disapproval started growing in my mom’s eyes when she realized the relentless questioning wasn’t pressuring me to cave and admit this was all just some horrible prank.

STAGE 4: DEPRESSION. “SO, YOU CAN’T EAT MY COOKING ANYMORE? I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT TO MAKE YOU.”

Mexican moms (and in my family’s case, dad too) show their love by feeding their children home-cooked meals. Even in my late twenties, my mom would insist on cooking me breakfast, lunch and dinner anytime I visited home. For us, family and love truly is centered around the kitchen table. Telling my mom that I couldn’t eat any of her cooking was tougher for her to hear than it was for me to say. She felt like she lost her connection to me and the one thing we had always shared.

STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE. “I GUESS I CAN MAKE YOU A VEGAN GRAVY.”

That Thanksgiving, the only ones who got on board with my diet were my sisters. They helped me cook vegan versions of our favorite dishes from stuffing to (believe it or not) mac and cheese. My mom also made a small concession, cooking me a vegan-friendly gravy. Her original version requires chicken broth, which she swapped for veggie stock. Still, she made it a point to tell me it was less flavorful than the original and that, “wasn’t her fault, of course.”

Finding yourself isn’t easy, nor for the people who see you through transformation. They want to hold onto the old you and that can be a painful process. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I’m happy to say my parents are fully healed from the loss of their meat-eating, dairy-consuming daughter. Their rebirthed vegan daughter is alive and well, and this holiday season, we’ll be moving on from the five stages of grief to new forms of happiness and food.

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