Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.

 

Breakfast of Road Warriors

riverside-marriott-lobby

Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

Riverside Buffet.JPG

Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

Truck Stop Music

Vegan on the Road

santa-nella-music

A fairly ordinary truck stop at the edge of the interstate gets a musical makeover.

SANTA NELLA

Among the first things I notice in a restaurant or other retail establishment is the quality (or lack thereof) of the recorded background music piped in through the speakers tucked into the ceilings.  At the TA Truckstop on Highway 33 at the I-5 exit here in Merced County, central California, the vibe is decidedly 1970s, presumably to appeal to aging baby boomers such as myself.  Represented were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mungo Jerry, Bad Company, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, B.J. Stevenson, Chicago, Styx, Al Stewart, Abba, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan and, of course, the Pauls (McCartney and Simon). We were in there about an hour and a half, my wife working on her Thinkpad and me messing around on my phone, and we never heard the same song twice.  This was a little different than our last truck stop experience, in Reno, where we made only a short visit and still managed to hear Vanessa Carlton’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” four times.

The kitschy music theme of the dining room seemed like it belonged in Gatlinburg or Branson or somewhere.  There were fake guitar sculptures and framed photos of recording artists on the walls, giant G clef and music notes above the salad bar and plaques in the booths featuring large type lyrics of a smorgasbord of eras, including songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Righteous Brothers, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters and Hank Williams.  Snowflake mobiles dangling from the ceiling were probably meant to evoke wintertime, but still seemed like bedraggled refugees from some tacky Christmas display.  I suppose this should come as no surprise, considering that the truck stop Christmas tree was still up in the lobby, repurposed for the remainder of the winter season by the addition of red paper hearts along the fronds and a large Love sign at the top, where the star of Bethlehem or an angel blowing alleluias on a trumpet should be.

The last time I was here was more than three years ago, when I had a go-round with an impatient cleaning lady.  Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well.  I wasn’t yet aware that I am gluten intolerant, and it may have been a good thing for both of us that I didn’t know how to say “diarrhea” in Spanish.

Santa Nella is a convenient rest stop between northern and southern California, but we usually patronize Pea Soup Andersen’s, the faux-Danish overpriced tourist trap with the windmill, just across the road.  However, when we last made this trip, about four months ago, I was inadvertently glutened by a seemingly safe food item I consumed over there.  The opportunity to avoid that and the overpriced tourist schlock led us to try our luck with the truckers.

Even a gluten-free vegan can be relatively happy at a truck stop, particularly if you’re willing to “fudge” a bit, as I tend to do when I’m on the road.  These days, I find that I can tolerate a small amount of dairy or egg that may be hidden in restaurant food a lot better than even a little bit of wheat.  My body is still revolting from an uncharacteristically stupid food decision I made a few days ago. Let’s just say that it MIGHT have had something to do with a birthday and a chocolate cake. Pain!

When I’m on the road, a salad bar is a sight for sore eyes.  In San José last week, we walked into a tiny Italian restaurant that looked and smelled just like one of the mouth wateringly wonderful family-run holes in the wall on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  Finding no gluten-free pasta or pizza crust, we walked right out and headed across the street to a steak house where, my wife assured me via a visit to its website on her phone, a salad bar awaited my delectation.

Disappointment greeted me.  No salad bar!

It sounds like the opening of a bad joke.  “A vegan walks into a steak house…”  But as every vegan traveler knows, steak houses do have one good thing going for them (if you can grit your teeth and overlook the bloody cow carcasses):  Baked potatoes.  So there we were at dinnertime in a steak house, with my wife choosing a French toast breakfast and me settling for a dish of salad and a baked potato.  We are a strange pair.

santa-nella-salad-bar

Salad bar at the Santa Nella truck stop

Here at the truck stop, it is still early in the day and everything on the salad bar looks fresh, even the melons and pineapple.  I load up on beans for protein and grab some taters from the breakfast buffet.  Lucky me showed up just as the staff was switching over to the lunch buffet, which provided me with carrots, squash and rice.  I ate my fill, then headed out to the car and reclined the seat in preparation for an hour’s nap.

It was my wife’s turn to drive.

 

 

Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt.  A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street.  I was highly impressed with everything:  The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.

The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream.  My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course.  Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich.  My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”

After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented.  These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb.  I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo.  As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu.  Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan.  Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged:  I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily.  Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.

But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by.  I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant.  A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff.  And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve.  I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife.  In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented.  And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)

 

Hot Stuff

vegan chili (add $1 for loaded:  onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions)  (chili or guacamole $1)

gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese)  (toppings $1 each:  mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)

 

Sides

choice of hot veggies:  carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower

“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice

 

So, what do you think?  Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place?  Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture?  Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind?  Talk to me in the comments.

 

Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.

 

Saying the Wrong Thing (Vegan Edition)

My 19 year old niece recently spent a month trying on vegetarianism for size.  She even flirted with vegan meals a bit, as she shares my opposition to the murder of animals for our gustatory pleasure.

I took the opportunity to chat with her about nutrition and menus when we both attended a family event several weeks ago.  On that occasion, I shared a vegan “cheeseburger” with her (Boca burger with melted soy cheese) and left her with the remainder of my package of fake cheese.  My intent was to convey the message that one can enjoy many tasty dishes that do not include the rotting flesh of dead animals.  But I tried not to sugarcoat things.  Vegans do need to ensure that they are consuming sufficient protein rather than succumbing to the temptation to carbo-load all the time.  I also explained about the importance of including yellow and orange vegetables in one’s diet for Vitamin A, as well as citrus fruits for Vitamin C and leafy greens for iron.  I shared that I have a tendency to keep lists in my phone, both to ensure that the right items are purchased during our trips to the grocery store and to monitor my dietary balance.

I find it fairly easy to discuss the cruelty of factory farms, the horrors inflicted on chickens and the way that bulls are killed and butchered.  I have no problem holding forth on vegan food options, nutrition and menus.  But there are other things that I have a much more difficult time talking about.  I refer to the “social” aspects of veganism.  The truth is that, even at my age, I still have a lot to learn about human relations.  How should I say this?  Manners have never been my strong point; I tend to put things bluntly to the point that many find me inconsiderate and even downright rude.  I don’t believe that my coarse demeanor quite rises to the level of, say, Donald Trump, but I have had my moments.  I have been compelled to issue many apologies in the course of my life.  So when I became a vegan nearly three years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dangers of social gaffes lurk around every corner.

How do I refuse a cookie?  You’d think “no, thank you” would be sufficient, but some folks won’t let it alone.  Others think you’re just being a snob.  Yes, I know you’ve seen me eating cookies, but mine don’t contain animal products.

How do you tell someone that you are unable to eat a single thing that is being served?  Possible responses include:

  • “It looks lovely, but I’m really full. I just ate a little while ago.”
  • “I’m diabetic, so I have to be really careful. I’ve already maxed out my starches and fats for the day.”
  • Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t know that I’m kosher. I’d really enjoy a cup of tea, though.”

I find that successful vegan eating away from home is all in the planning.  You can check restaurant menus online in advance.  You can warn your hosts well before showing up at their homes.  You can make sure to eat before you go or after you leave, or you can prepare your own food and bring it along.  This last option, as convenient as it is, can be problematic as well.  I have learned through painful experience that some take offense when you show up with a Gladware container of tofu and broccoli and ask to use the microwave.  It’s a minefield even for the socially savvy.  For someone like myself, however, eating with others is clearly a losing proposition.  What I must do is try to keep my mouth shut, and not just because of the food being served.  I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that whatever I say is likely to be the wrong thing.  And no matter how disgusting I find the food being consumed by others, I am nearly always better off keeping my opinions to myself.

Vegans remain a tiny minority in the United States, a situation that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.  My dad, now in his 80s, admits that he never heard the word “vegan” until about ten years ago.  Fortunately, awareness of the vegan movement is increasing.  While this is, overall, a positive development, it has also given rise to an increase in deprecatory comments.  For example, my wife recently showed me a meme on Facebook that asked whether the mouth-watering sensation one gets upon smelling steak on the grill is similar to the sensation experienced by vegans upon smelling a freshly mowed lawn.  So excuse me for a moment while I head outside to graze.

Okay, I’m back.  Baaaa.  I mean, “yummy!”

I have no clue how to fairly address this conundrum with my niece.  I do want her to know what to expect, but I don’t want her to run away screaming.  She’s already experienced a bit of vegan social woe when she clearly expressed her expectation that her family provide her with vegetarian meals. Umm…

I hate to say this, dear one, but this is not how to ingratiate yourself to those closest to you.  It’s a cruel, hard world and it’s every vegan for herself.  You have a job, you draw a paycheck, so you can get what you need when you visit the grocery store.  Make lists.  Plan menus.  It’s really not that hard.

For such things to come out of my mouth is very much in keeping with the rudeness that seems to have become my personal hallmark.  I need to heed the adage about not judging until I walk a mile in another’s moccasins.  It’s easy to say “take care of your own needs and don’t expect anything of others” when you earn a good salary and have a wife who is willing to do the shopping.  It’s not so easy when you work part-time making FA wages and have a three year old to take care of.  Not to mention the fact that, when you’re 19, you want to eat fast food like the rest of your friends do and you don’t want to have to think about your upcoming meals.  You want to enjoy the convenience of eating what’s readily available, what’s cheap, what everyone else is eating.  You don’t want to have to explain your food choices and your philosophy to anyone.  You want to fit in.

The other day my wife told me about a phone call she received from my niece.  “I did a bad thing,” my niece prefaced her remarks, before admitting that she was unable to resist an egg sandwich at Starbucks.  My kind, gentle wife very patiently explained that it’s not the end of the world and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating an egg once in a while.  “Yes, but there was bacon on top of it,” my niece added.

I had to laugh.  If I’m to be honest, I have to admit that I was more relieved than disappointed.  Being a vegan is a tough row to hoe, and all the more so when you’ve been raised eating meat at almost every meal.  I had a head start in that I grew up with a mother who kept kosher and have never tasted bacon.  Kosher meat is expensive and it just wasn’t a big thing with us.  So when I stopped eating meat 26 years ago, it wasn’t the type of sea change that it would be for my niece.

A few nights ago, my niece and her little one were visiting us in our tiny rented house at dinnertime.  I was chopping onions and tomatoes to prepare vegan nachos while everyone else was enjoying microwaved pepperoni Hot Pockets.

“I didn’t like the way eating vegetarian made me feel,” my niece told me as she was heading home.

“It’s not about eating meat,” I reminded her.  “It’s about getting enough protein.”

Leave it to me to say the wrong thing again.  It’s the story of my life.

 

The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.