I grew up as a carnivore but was a pesco-vegetarian (one who eats fish, eggs and dairy products, but not meat) for 23 years before I went vegan about ten months ago. Veganism has helped me to lose weight and has yielded some (but not enough) improvement in my blood pressure and blood sugar. Overall, I am pleased with the results so far. But I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that I made the change for health reasons.
I went vegan for a combination of philosophical and pragmatic reasons. I don’t believe that we have the right to kill our fellow creatures so that we can eat them. I don’t believe that we have a right to appropriate the milk that cows use to feed their calves or the eggs that are chickens’ method of creating the next chicken generation. But also, I am appalled at the cruelty and violence that occurs daily at abbatoirs and poultry farms around the world.
“And you think by not eating meat and dairy you’re going to change any of that?” I am frequently asked. My answer used to be “Oh no, but I can’t control what anyone else does; I can only control my own actions.” Nowadays, however, my answer is “maybe.”
Do I expect the beef, pork and dairy industries to give it up and shut down because I went vegan? Hardly. But I do maintain the spiritual belief that everything is connected and the practical belief that each of us exerts a great deal of influence over far more people than we might realize. They, of course, influence the beliefs and actions of many others, and so on down the line.
So, no, I don’t expect to be able to talk anyone into going vegan. However, I do hope to promote awareness that some of us have indeed taken the vegan leap, and to explain why. I hope to help others realize that the vegan life is not some sort of utopian fantasy. It is a possibility.
Being a vegan is harder some days than others. When a well-meaning friend joked that he is “a second-hand vegetarian” because “cows eat grass and I eat cows,” that was a hard day. When my 80 year old mother told me that my eating habits are “crazy,” that was a hard day. When I happen upon websites that post dire warnings that vegans will die prematurely due to a lack of taurine and L-lysine in their diets, those are hard days.
When I hear people say that vegans needlessly limit themselves when we should be expanding our horizons and enjoying as much as possible of what the world has to offer in this short life, that’s a hard day. When I hear people say that vegans are crazy ascetics and “holier than thou” self-righteous asses, that’s a hard day. When I hear people say that we’re never going to change anything, that we’re just wasting our time and that we’re the ones missing out, those are hard days.
But when I check in with a blog that I’ve been reading for months and suddenly discover that the writer and her entire family are vegans, that’s a good day. When it dawns on me that poor, unemployed people on Food Stamps (that would be me) can be vegans and still get their protein thanks to PEANUT BUTTER, that’s a good day. And when my niece tells me that she’s decided to go vegetarian, that’s a very, very good day (even though she later changed her mind “because it’s too hard,” but hey, she actually tried it for a couple of months!).
And despite the naysayers, I’ve actually expanded my culinary repertoire by learning to enjoy a whole pantheon of protein-rich soy-based foods. Some items I found I didn’t like, but at least I tried them. I do wish I could get everyone to try hummus at least once. And (trust me on this one) if you’ve never tried chocolate flavored coconut milk “ice cream,” you don’t know what you’re missing!
Going vegan has improved my eating habits in at least two distinct ways: It has caused me to cut down on my consumption of junk food and it has helped me to alter my decidedly unhealthy relationship with food in general.
Don’t get me wrong. At some level, I will always be a junk food junkie. I love potato chips and pretzels. I’ve discovered a non-dairy chocolate bar that may yet be my undoing. But just today I read a blurb about how most Americans consume an inordinately high percentage of their daily calorie intake in the form of commercial baked goods. Let’s just say that I can relate. For years, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster had nothing on me. At the moment, we still have two boxes of cookies left over from Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday party. As I pointed out to my wife, prior to my vegan days, those cookies would have been long gone. Most commercial baked products, however, contain dairy and eggs (and even meat products, in some cases). It’s hard for me to believe that I don’t miss them.
I’ve noticed that the way I approach food and eating has changed somewhat. I have been obese since childhood and I still have a tendency to overeat. I reject the term “food addict,” at least until such time as a healthy means of going cold turkey (cold tofu?) is discovered. Now that I can’t just grab almost anything out of the refrigerator, however, I am forced to become more aware of what (and how much) I am putting into my body. This is from a guy who would once eat eight eggs or an entire package of cheese in a single sitting. I am much more unlikely to eat an entire package of tofu or celery in a single sitting, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much damage. (If I have coconut milk “ice cream” in the house, however, all bets are off.)
Then there are the challenges associated with dining out and travel. There was a time in my life when I ate one meal in a restaurant (sometimes even two) nearly every day. Even after those years, a day would seldom go by that I wouldn’t wish I were eating in a restaurant. Now, I find eating in a restaurant to be more of a chore than anything else. It is usually difficult for me to find anything I can eat other than a baked potato (hold the butter, hold the sour cream, hold the bacon) or a salad (hold the cheese, hold the croutons, hold the dressing). In an Italian restaurant, it may be possible to order what Alex of Ox the Punx refers to as “eggplant parm without the parm.” But at a chain such as Olive Garden, even without the “parm,” the breading in which the eggplant is fried contains cheese. One can always resort to a Chinese restaurant, most of which serve some type of tofu and vegetable dish, often called “Buddhist’s Delight.” Of course, you have to ask for it steamed (not fried), no sauce, to even approach a vegan entrée.
Some restaurants claim that one of their soups is vegan, but unless it’s at Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation or a small, local place with a separate vegetarian menu, I take such claims with more than a grain of sea salt. As for condiments, well… I occasionally carry my own soy margarine (to avoid eating dry toast) or almond milk (to avoid drinking black coffee) into a restaurant, but you can’t get away with that everywhere. In general, it’s just easier for me to eat at home. Think of all the calories and money I save.
When I can’t eat at home because I’m on the road, I am faced with another entire set of headaches. As Shannon from dirtnkids so elegantly pointed out recently, there are things you can do if you’re willing to take food with you or stop in supermarkets along the way. Things like hummus burritos, PB&J, bananas, nuts, avocados. I’ve had more than a few experiences with eating bread and hummus in motel rooms or struggling to open a little individual package of tofu with a plastic knife and my car keys. Sometimes you even luck out (as Shannon did in Colorado Springs) and find a restaurant with items on the menu that cater to the vegans in town. My guess is that this doesn’t happen too often in places like the Midwest or Texas. I’ll never forget the time I walked into what turned out to be a steak place in a tiny town in the Big Bend area of south Texas around lunchtime. The place was full of men in Stetsons and boots eating enormous slabs of meat. I wanted to hide under the table when I ordered “just the salad bar, please.”
Shannon also referred to the black bean burgers at Cowboy Café in Dubois, Wyoming. She didn’t happen to mention whether those are vegan. One of the great things about California is that the majority of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, have some sort of veggie burger on the menu. In the course of my vegan journey (and many road trips), however, I have discovered that most of these are not vegan. You can generally count on them to contain cheese and nonfat dry milk. It is no exception to this rule when a restaurant refers to their “black bean burger” (the family restaurant chain Chili’s, for instance). The only chain restaurant that I can count on to have a vegan burger is Red Robin. If you happen into a local place that caters to vegetarians, of course, you may get lucky.
Then there is the matter of French fries. I recently noticed a post online in which the writer jubilantly rejoiced in the fact that “French fries are vegetarian.” Well, sort of. Potatoes are vegetarian, yes. I am a big fan of fries, too, but whether they’re vegetarian or not (never mind vegan) is largely a product of what type of grease the potatoes are fried in. If you just assume that it’s pure vegetable shortening, you may want to think again. You may be surprised at how often commercial frying oil contains beef tallow and/or lard. You can always ask what type of oil is used on the fries, but the server won’t know and the cook may not know either. He just uses the bucket of gloop with which he is provided.
I’ll conclude by relating a little story about my visit to Red Lobster back in my pesco days. My father, a huge shellfish fan, harbors an intense love for Red Lobster (he claims that, upon his death, he wishes to be cremated with his ashes scattered over Red Lobster) and takes my mother out to eat there once each week. Once, when I was visiting my parents, I joined them for dinner at RL. Now, my mother grew up kosher and still tries to keep a kosher home (more or less… no longer as strictly as she used to). She doesn’t eat pork or shellfish. But she does enjoy Red Lobster’s filet of sole. On this particular evening, she and I were both going to order the fried sole, so just for kicks and edification, I asked the server what it is fried in. Canola oil, she assured me, “with just a touch of lard for that crispy goodness.”