One day, the late Anthony Bourdain’s travels brought him to this moment: During a meal in Namibia, a tribal chief made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The person is sharing their story with you, and who they are is contained within that food, Bourdain asserted in a Fresh Air interview.
With that, he accepted a wart hog’s grilled rectum from the chief.
It’s not surprising that Bourdain felt that rejecting someone’s food dishonors that person. It’s an attractive philosophy. One should bond with your hosts, accept them as they are — not impose your own tastes on their hospitality. And those who don’t, such as vegetarians and vegans? Bourdain said: “They make for bad travelers and bad guests. …You’re at Grandma’s house, you eat what Grandma serves you.”
I understand where Bourdain was coming from. But I have to disagree. In today’s political climate, speaking up —including on food — matters. And you can do it in a way that respects your hosts.
My Yaya Frosou spent a century in the tiny village Pirgos Ithomas, nestled in the Greek Pindus mountains. She raised seven children in two wars. Food was scarce. But by village standards, they had plenty: bread, a garden, chickens, a few goats. Every day, she fed her chickens, and they squawked, talked. She talked back. Nearby, animals roamed, and sheep outnumbered villagers.
Frosou dyed her hair red with chestnuts, re-named my husband Rob “Kostakis,” so she could pronounce it, and rolled her eyes at my broken Greek. But she always welcomed us warmly with Greek coffee and a syrupy “spoon sweet.” Though I consider sweets an important food group, I abhorred this diabetes-inducing clump of fruit underneath a week’s supply of syrup.
Growing up visiting Greece, I ate everything my aunts made. Then I learned that an estimated 99 percent of the meat eaten comes from animals confined in factories — and discovered their helplessness at our hands through works including Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz and undercover investigations.
Newly vegan, I sat in Frosou’s home and was offered cake made with eggs and butter, and maybe even dashed with love. I pictured her hens clucking down the road. How could I communicate that beyond the horrors of modern agriculture, I genuinely did not think animals were ours to use no matter how amazing their lives supposedly were — but that I also appreciated her kind offering?
“Yaya,” I said, “The cake looks beautiful.” She said, “Eat! I made it fresh for you, today.” I smiled and told her that in addition to not eating animals, I didn’t eat their eggs and milk anymore. She stared incredulously, and I continued. “I know your chickens are treated well. But they are raised in factories usually and I don’t think we should use them. But thank you!”
Did she understand? Absolutely not.
The moment I refused her offering, I was disowned and Pirgos henchmen escorted me from the village.
However, and this is important: that did not happen. We continued to connect on that visit and many others over the years. Over what, if not cake or boiled chicken? I asked her to tell me about her childhood and village songs. Her kids, grandkids. How she cooked, what kinds of pots they used. Her favorite foods. Her husband, who died decades ago. Our family.
Discussions transform understandings. Over my own meat-free quarter-century, I’ve seen vegetarians or vegans struggle at family gatherings with relatives who cannot understand. Some avoid holiday gatherings altogether.
Yet we mustn’t leave the table. It is precisely our discomfort with speaking up that allows cruel traditions to endure. There are better and worse ways to call attention. Don’t yell at Grandma. Tell her where that meat came from — and tell her about Veganuary, a charity challenge to eat vegan through January 2019.
Eleni Vlachos is a drummer for Beloved Binge, writer at You Big Talker, filmmaker, 1/2 Greek, part-time marketer for the Social Intervention Group, volunteer for The Humane League, and a new South Philly resident.