Born in a suburban New Jersey town, I grew up eating everything from roast beef and hamburgers to cupcakes and ice cream—and lots of it! My father owned ice cream stores, and we had a separate freezer for the tubs he would bring home. From a child’s perspective, it was a pretty fantastic way to grow up. Looking back, I realize that much of my bliss was due to my ignorance about what I was actually eating.
My taste for animal products bumped up against my affection for animals, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced was remedied by willful blindness. In that I am not alone. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that used the images of baby animals to create feelings of peace, joy, and security. My bedroom was not unlike that of any other child. Animals were everywhere—hanging over my crib, stuffed on my bed, painted on my walls, and printed or sewn on almost every piece of fabric I wore.
Even more striking is the fact that animals—in books, on television, and at school—were used to teach me my most basic skills: how to count, spell, read, and talk. Through the use of myths and fables, animals even taught me such values as respect and kindness.
At the same time, I was being fed those very animals.
Like most children, I had a natural instinct to act compassionately toward animals; I intervened when I saw they needed help — taking in strays, nursing baby birds until they could fly, avoiding hurting anyone if I could.
My parents —like all parents who seek to encourage compassion in their children—were supportive of my actions and praised my responses. Kindness toward animals is usually a good indication of a child’s ability to empathize with others. It’s a virtue we admire.
But when I asked about what I was eating—about where my hot dogs came from, for instance—the adults around me either evaded the question entirely or deceived me completely, creating specious arguments and misleading justifications for eating animals, their milk, and their eggs.
The messages around me were so predicated on disguising, rationalizing, romanticizing, and ritualizing eating animals that, as a child, I was totally unaware that I was saving one bird while eating another.
By the time I was five or six, my innate childhood compassion and empathy for animals was dulled, and I learned that animals were arbitrarily categorized in our society: those worthy of our compassion and those undeserving of it because they happen to be of a particular species. Puppies, good. Calves, food.
I was nineteen years old when I read John Robbins’ book Diet for a New America, which examines how our animal-based diet affects the animals, our health, and the Earth. It was the first time I had ever seen the images of “food animals,” regarded merely as machines and valued only for what they could produce. I remember staring at those photos in utter shock. How could I not have known about this? How could this even happen? I knew I didn’t want to be part of it, so I stopped eating land animals that very day. I began reaching out to others, informing them about what I learned, but I was still disconnected.
I read every book I could get my hands on. My eyes were open, but I wasn’t fully awake. I was eating aquatic animals, and I was consuming chickens’ eggs and cow’s milk. I justified my actions by declaring that I was buying “free-range” eggs and “organic” milk, as if these marketing terms absolved me from my responsibility.
My true awakening was yet to come, and it’s the one that expanded every aspect of my life and subsequently led to the work I’m honored to do every day. I read a book called Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry by investigative journalist Gail Eisnitz.
In the few excruciatingly painful days it took me to read this book, I literally woke up to the truth about our treatment of animals and realized that no matter how they were raised and what they were raised for (their flesh, eggs, or milk), they all wind up in the same violent place: the slaughterhouse. The process of breeding, transporting, and ending young and innocent lives is ugly and violent—whether on a small farm or in a large factory-type operation—and I wanted nothing to do with it.
My outreach increased, and I found that most people had the same reaction I did. Their first question was always “How can this happen?” But it was their subsequent questions that led me to begin teaching cooking classes, writing books, giving lectures, and producing a podcast. “Where do I shop?” “What do I eat?” “How do I cook?” “Will I get enough protein?” “Where will I get my calcium?” “Will I get enough iron?” “How will my family react?” “What do I do when I travel?” “What about the holidays?”
I realized that a huge gap needed to be filled, one that would provide resources, answers, and empowerment to people who desperately wanted to make a change but just didn’t have the tools to do so. And so I found my vocation — one that enabled me to combine my love of language, communication, animals, food, wellness, and people. And so here we are 23 years later.
I feel privileged to combine my skills and passion and am honored to witness the many transformations I see people experience. I never set out to “convert” anyone, and yet over the two decades I’ve been doing this work, I’ve guided thousands of people through the transition. My intention has always been to raise awareness and offer a different perspective to allow people to find their own answers.
With every book I write, every lecture I give, every recipe I share, every cooking class I teach, every video I make, every article I write, and every podcast episode I produce, I’m responsible only for speaking my truth and sowing the seeds that others may one day reap. I strive to have no attachment to what people do with the information I provide. Their journey is their own, though I am grateful to be a messenger along the way. That’s all any of us are.
Thank you for letting me be part of your journey.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, affectionately known as the joyful vegan, is a recognized expert and thought leader on the culinary, social, ethical, and practical aspects of living compassionately and healthfully. A long-time animal advocate and vegan, Patrick-Goudreau is a bestselling author of seven books, an acclaimed speaker, producer of one of the longest running podcasts, a regular contributor to National Public Radio, and the host of luxury vegan trips around the world. She can be found at JoyfulVegan.com.