Sweet home Alabama was my sweet home, indeed. Over the course of 7 long years, it was the place where I transitioned from childhood to adolescence, got my first taste of adult freedom, and re-connected with what it meant to be American, despite the rather conspicuous English accent I was rocking.
For anyone who’s never had the good fortune of experiencing the sheer eclecticism of this particular area along the Bible Belt of The United States, let me give you some insight.
Alabama is a place where iced tea is made with two entire cups of sugar. Strangers will talk to you from their front porch, the bathroom sink at a fast food restaurant, and especially while waiting in line at the check-out counter of a gas station. The first question to follow after, “How are y’all?” is always, “So, what church did you say y’all went to again?” and there’s a general consensus among the people that reside here that unless a food has been deep fried at the very minimum of two times, it’s probably not going to taste very good.
If there’s one thing to understand about Alabama, it’s that tradition here equals religion — and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything southern folk take as seriously as they do their religion.
Ignoring the peculiarity of the circumstance that led to my family’s arrival in the beautiful state I now consider my childhood home, about 5 years into living there, I had had enough.
Between the boys who would come to school with dead deer bleeding out of their mouths on the back of their trucks, to the grown adults I watched suffocate baby sharks on the beach for their own sick sense of gratification, I was completely exhausted.
The bible teaches us to slaughter the lamb, I was told.
God put animals here for us to use and eat, I had heard.
Animals have no soul, and they’re too stupid to know what’s coming, anyway, they had argued.
You see, for as much as the south may be known for it’s sweet tea and southern hospitality, there is a strong culture of exploiting and oppressing animals for pleasure, here, that was impossible for my 16 year old self to shake. I remember trembling as I sat alone, at the desk in my room, tears cascading down my face as I watched the slaughterhouse footage of how bacon was ‘made.’
I recall feeling angry, my blood boiling as I sat in a sermon at church —my attendance the likely result of parental insistence, a consequence of having a Saturday sleepover with any of my Christian friends. The pastor was explaining how, as a way for his people to temporarily atone for their sins, God had demanded the slaughter and bleeding out of a goat. I remember the rage I felt at the notion of a loving god demanding anything from his people, let alone the gruesome murder of an innocent baby animal.
What kind of god would ever ask for such a thing? What kind of omnipotent creator would give animals a nervous system — and the ability to suffer pain just like we do — knowing he would later demand their sacrifice and consumption? And finally what kind of people could be so blinded by faith that they could consider these acts to be holy in nature?
It’s safe to say, I was never sold on the idea of religion, and much to the dismay of my devout friends and family, I would take my personal commitment to heresy even one step further: veganism.
In the 16 years of life I had amassed back then, I don’t believe I had ever met a vegan before. I often try to put myself back into the shoes of my pre-plant-based-self to try and ponder what my view on the whole thing might have been, but truth be told, I can’t remember. What I can remember, however, is how much I seemed to upset everyone else around me when I made the choice to stop hurting animals with my diet, clothing, beauty products, and way of life.
Now, I don’t know about you at 16, but myself at 16 wasn’t altogether confident in my ability to fully cook rice, let alone sustain myself on a vegan diet in a world of baby back ribs, family barbecues, and buffalo wild wing buffets. So when I trotted down the stairs and announced to all members of my family that I would no longer be eating meat, cheese, milk, butter, honey, gummy bears, or eggs, I was understandably met with a cacophony of sarcastic, ‘yeah, alright’’s. Despite this, I was undeterred.
And if anything, the resistance that followed my decision to reject the beliefs and behaviours of the culture I was partially raised in only strengthened my personal convictions. I quit eating animals cold turkey — or tofurkey, rather (although I detest the product).
This isn’t to say to that adhering to plant-based diet didn’t come with a steep learning curve, because it did. I had to teach myself to cook, first and foremost, and then I had to teach myself to speak about the subject without being reduced to tears of frustration. Understand that when you come to the personal realization that veganism is the only ethical way to proceed in your life, you optimistically presume that it will happen the same way for everyone else around you.
Going vegan in a society that can’t fathom valuing sentient life over the pain of living without Chickfila chicken sandwiches is honestly tough shit. Try as I might, and try as I certainly did, it quickly became clear to me that there was no way to force people to care about subjects they were actively benefitting from not caring about. It’s safe to say my perhaps youthfully naive faith in humanity took a few too many hits too quickly during those first few months.
Dinner time became debate time which swiftly then became ‘Alex is forbidden from bringing up poor murdered animals’ time. Hanging out with friends became an attempt to navigate stupid questions, ignorant suggestions and unsolicted nutritional concerns, and eating out at restaurants became trying to explain why cheese isn’t vegan to the waiter, the head chef, and the restaurant manager. It was exhausting to constantly be made out to be this rebellious extremist with unnatural views.
At Thanksgiving, my Grandmother refused to alter any of her precious and perfected recipes in order to accommodate me, and when I responded to her obstinacy with my own vegan thanksgiving menu — hand cooked and baked over the span of 8 hours by yours truly — everyone refused to even take a bite and try. No longer concerned with politeness, I remember excusing myself from the table, sitting outside on the front steps of the house, and cry-laughing at the sheer childishness of everyone else’s behaviour.
Going vegan in a place like Alabama will make you feel crazy five different ways from Sunday, but it wasn’t all bad, I can assure you. Naturally, there were times I lived on nothing but french fries and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there were also times I got to experience the joy of proving to my friends that vegan butter was largely indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing. Times I convinced my mum to permanently swap meatballs for the better tasting and less greasy plant-based version, and many a time I got to bask in the sheer joy and peace of mind that came along with knowing no animals had to suffer for my breakfast.
Now, nearly half a decade into this whole vegan thing, I look back fondly on my struggles as a new vegan with a huge appreciation for the patience, persistence, and commitment I gained as a result. In the land where and hunting, fishing, and shooting rule supreme, I learned that standing apart wasn’t all that bad, and that sticking to your guns probably feels a whole lot more rewarding than ever using them.
I’m happy to report that as of the last time I checked — around June of 2020 — the grocery store in the center of my Alabama hometown now has a entire freezer, refrigerator, and free-from aisle exclusively for vegan food. The vegan population has increased exponentially, with plant-based meals options popping up anywhere from university halls to drive-thru fast food chains, and I take personal (tongue-in-cheek) credit for converting at least 15 odd members of friends and family to the dark side. Also my Grandma will be happily attending both a fully vegan Thanksgiving as well as Christmas at my house this year. Fortunately for her, and everyone else on the guests list, my recipes have improved drastically in the past 5 years.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m under no delusion whatsoever about the impact of my teenage rebellion; because despite what I might like to believe, I don’t, in fact, possess the ability to change the world…but 16 year old me did understand the power available in changing oneself, and for that I will always be grateful.
So fuck the norm, don’t always listen to your parents, and for god sake teach yourself how to cook. Also #govegan if you havent already ;)
Alexandra Walker-Jones — October 2020