Being a Vegan With Ham-Loving In-laws Is Harder Than It Sounds

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Photo: J.V. Aranda

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Not eating ham in Spain is a little like refusing communion at church: If you’re not going to participate, why did you even bother coming in the first place?

I learned this the hard way, as an American vegan woman married to a Spanish man, one who enthusiastically partakes in this part of his native culture. When it’s just the two of us, it’s easy enough for us to get by with two sets of radically different eating habits — but good luck declining the jamón when your mother-in-law passes it around the table.

My husband, Víctor, caught me right on the cusp of full veganism. After a fateful viewing of Food Inc., I’d already given up meat and dairy, but I had yet to say good-bye to eggs, which meant we did share a tortilla de patatas or two on early dates. But I eventually stopped, and we kept dating; living in Spain, where veganism is rare, my new normal was politely asking waiters if a dish contained productos animales — and then following up with, nada de queso ni huevos ni nada? (no cheese, eggs, or anything else?) just to be sure. I didn’t relish being the girl who orders a dish with 11 modifiers, but I thought if I was strong enough to resist a piece of tortilla, I could brave the judgmental winces and dismissive hand waves of Spanish bar owners.

Víctor eased the pain by ordering plates that were usually vegan(ish) by default — olives, salad, gazpacho — which spared me from having to inquire about each ingredient on the menu. But even as my personal restaurant advocate, he seemed constantly shocked when I revealed that I had never even tried Spanish ham. After all, ham was hardly just food.

“Didn’t you come to Spain before?” he’d ask.

Yes, I reminded him, I’d studied abroad here in college.

“And you never had ham?”

Nope.

“Not even once, just to try?”

Not even once.

“Well, that’s it, then. If you tried it, you wouldn’t be vegan.”

This was something I would continue to hear, many times over: I just didn’t know what I was missing. It’s hard to feel offended in the face of that type of confidence. When I eventually met his family, they were the same way, but even more so: Once it was clear that I wasn’t refusing ham on any religious grounds, they were dumbfounded, a little mystified, and sure that I’d love it if only I took a bite.

According to Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, I shouldn’t take it too personally. She explained that people develop their specific worldview — including their opinions about what is, or isn’t, a “normal” way to eat — based on a combination of biological and social factors, including “our hardwiring, our experiences, and the environment we’re in.”

“People are drawn to patterns, routines, or ways of doing things,” she says, so that “we don’t have to overthink every decision. We end up getting into a system of how we do things and of what we think is right and wrong.” In other words, with an ocean, a language, and a culture separating my experiences from Víctor’s and his family’s, it’s no wonder that we developed very different belief systems.

Food can be a particularly fraught issue because it’s all around us, Gallagher says. “If you have a belief about the president, you don’t have to say it in every situation,” she explains, “but people, on some level, are going to know how you’re eating.” She explains that since, ultimately, I can’t control what others are going to think about me, the important thing is to learn to manage distress. In part, this means knowing that it’s time-limited (I won’t be declining ham in front of these people forever); it also means being okay with other people’s discomfort, and not letting it deter me from interacting with them.

By now, Víctor’s parents have learned to take me for what I am; they still ask me if I want un poquito de jamón at dinner, but only in jest. (I still demur and ask them to pass the hummus, por favor.) It took time for us to slip into this sort of banter — to get here, I’ve spent plenty of meals listening to his father explain that Iberian pigs live stress-free lives, that I didn’t have to worry about them like I did their American cousins living in tenement farms. And he, in turn, has spent plenty of meals listening to me explain that while I’m very happy for the Spanish pigs, I’m still not going to eat them.

Try as I might, though, I’ve never been able to articulate a better answer as to why that was the case, even though my in-laws want to understand as much as I want them to. I’ve always blamed that on the language barrier, but after some reflection, I know it was also probably fear that a deeper explanation of my veganism would turn them off — that they’d think I was turning up my nose at their culture, that they’d never see me as someone who could fit neatly into their family. That even after Víctor and I got married, I’d never progress beyond the foreigner dating their son.

Our hypothetical future children don’t help things: My in-laws have made clear that they expect ham-eating grandchildren, and I’ve toyed with the idea of raising a vegan kid. So while Víctor and I don’t have religion or politics as a wedge to contend with, food feels like an equally weighty ideological difference.

According to Erica Szusterman, a Long Island psychotherapist who often works with couples and families, the best way to deal with my in-laws’ expectations there is to understand where their carnivorous demands are coming from: that their wariness of their son and grandchildren living in a vegan home is likely be less about ham and more about what it represents. “Maybe a genuine fear for them is, ‘I’m not going to be important to my grandchild and my culture is not going to be as important,’” she says. Part of that fear may be directed at Víctor specifically, she adds: “’You started this new chapter of your life with someone who may not find us as valuable, as we want to be in this child’s life and in your life.’”

That feels much easier to address, and a lot like I missed what now seems like an obvious potential concern of my in-laws’, disguised by meat. Of course I value Victor’s culture, and I want to make sure it’s present in our lives no matter where we live. But I wonder if he knows that.

Víctor and I live in New York now. When we go out to vegan restaurants, I return the favor from our time in Spain and order for both of us — not in a this-is-my-domain kind of way, but in a he-can’t-remember-if-he-likes-tempeh way. We talk about kids in the abstract: Maybe we’ll have them, maybe we won’t. We FaceTime with Victor’s parents when schedules and time differences allow. They only ask about my diet when we visit, when I can be fully appraised. His mom will reassure me that I look healthy, that she’ll always make extra gazpacho for me, and that she will always support my choices — until I get pregnant, at which point, she tells me, I will obviously need to start eating meat. For now, that’s progress enough.

Being Vegan With Ham-Loving In-laws Is Harder Than It Sounds