Confessions of a Wannabe Vegan
Fat Tuesday. The very last day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Spring was approaching: more light, warmer days, radishes and pea shoots soon to appear in the garden. The Lenten season is also a time of giving something up, a time of making a sacrifice.
After briefly recalling the Lenten suppers of childhood, spent in the basement of the Lutheran church, slurping the orange-ish broth of canned vegetable soup (the kind with cubed potatoes, carrots, and mushy peas), I decided maybe this year I would attempt to be a vegan.
Becoming a vegan meant no animal-derived products crossed my lips: no meat, dairy, eggs, or cheese. Being a vegan also encompassed giving up honey (the bees), gelatin (made from animal bones), and marshmallows (ditto ). I felt no fear moving forward with the decision. I’d checked out three incredible cookbooks from the local library to aid in my inspiration, and I was developing a serious crush on vegan chef, Tal Ronnen. I recalled my entirely satisfying and mouth-watering experiences at Asheville’s own vegan restaurant, The Laughing Seed, and sighed with delight. This was going to be easy!
I decided to begin my adventures with a vegan birthday cake for my husband, Ben. I gleaned the recipe from Ivy Manning’s useful book, The Adaptable Feast: Satisfying Meals for the Vegetarians, Vegans, and Omnivores at Your Table.
“Guess what, Ben?” I said cheerfully. “You’re going to be blowing out the candles on your very own vegan birthday cake.”
“Grrreeeaaatt,” he replied, unenthusiastically.
It was a chocolate cake with white icing, and it was a snap to prepare, but the resulting layer cake did look a little sunken in the middle. I shrugged off the imperfection and got to work on the icing. The entire recipe for both cake and icing was loaded with soy milk, and it was my first encounter with a most wonderful creation: Earth Balance vegan butter.
The vegan birthday cake was, well, a vegan birthday cake—but Earth Balance was not bad, not bad at all. In fact, if no one told me it wasn’t butter, I wouldn’t have asked.
Next vegan experiment: seitan. I mixed together vital wheat gluten flour, soy sauce, and vegetable stock in the Kitchen Aid. The dough felt rather springy and was an unattractive brown color. I let the dough sit for 30 minutes, then divided it into balls. Next the balls were stretched into strips, and placed in a simmering pot of vegetable stock and soy sauce. I allowed the seitan, which I supposed fell into the “faux meats” category, to cook, and I returned to the pot half an hour later to flip the patties over with the tongs. I peered into the pot. It looked like I’d made small piles of cat vomit. Later, I served the seitan to my husband and my daughter, a toddler.
“It is kind of rubbery,” I explained.
“It does kind of look like cat vomit,” my husband mused, “But it also kind of resembles the underside of someone’s balls.”
Another day. Breakfast: oatmeal with bananas. Lunch: quinoa with everything but the kitchen sink. More specifically, beets, carrots, onions, garlic, capers, walnuts, flax seeds, tahini, and balsamic vinaigrette. It was… ok. Two lukewarm cups of tea later, my stomach totally hurt. Digestion? Was it that hard to process that intense amalgamation of plant products?
After a little research, I learned I’d missed an important step: rinsing the grain in cold water prior to cooking. This helped to remove the saponins from each little quinoa pearl, thus aiding in digestion.
Speaking of digestion, I replaced cow’s milk with almond milk, and I could not be entirely certain it agreed with me.
In Tal Ronnen’s book, The Conscious Cook, there was a recipe for “the magical ingredient that makes it easy to live without dairy—cashew cream.” Following, to the best of my ability, Tal’s instructions, I soaked the cashews for 24 hours in water, then I processed the hell out of them in my food processor. The resulting mess, made with my throwback machine from the 80s, had nothing “creamy” about it.
I dubiously added this to my parsnip apple soup. There were small chunks of nuts floating here and there, and the soup certainly left something to be desired in the realm of color. I sighed. It was edible but, unlike the vegan creations of Tal Ronnen, not a work of art.
I began to feel like I was overdosing on soy. Scrambled tofu and soy nuts, tempeh and a tofu knish. Purchasing soy yogurt seemed like it was just going over the top. I passed on rice cheese because I knew I could not fill the void with a sub-par imposter. I settled to dreaming about the tang of cheddar or stilton, gouda, and even those pink port wine cheese balls. I milled about the co-op. Beer. Beer’s vegan. Thank God.
There was a conversation in the bulk section with a co-op employee. She agreed that seitan sucked, she wasn’t sure what the heck Gardein was, and she lamented the difficultly of branching outside the soy family when “going vegan.” We began a discussion about milk, and how I believed dairy amplified the phlegm-iness of my two-and-a-half-year-old.
“Definitely,” she confirmed. “Have you tried hemp milk?”
Hemp milk? Does that cost more or less than an eighth of weed?
I still had high hopes for the vegan sloppy joes Ben and I planned to make that evening. I bent down to scoop some Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) to use in that dish.
The old man standing above me muttered, “Looks like nasty stuff.” I did not have the energy to retort about what went into hotdogs. Now that was really nasty.
I went to the cash register to check out. I fumbled with my wallet and myriad coupons. It cost to be a vegan, and I was trying my best to make this an affordable endeavor.
“I’m trying to use more coupons,” I explained to the cashier. “You know, to save money?”
“Ahh,” he said.
I kept shuffling all of my papers, none of which were cash.
“It’s kind of hard,” I said. “Hey, do you sell amaranth?”
Amaranth, another tiny South American grain, could be made into a breakfast porridge, and I also wanted to make vegan amaranth cornbread. The cashier led me again to the bulk section.
“Here ya go.”
“I’m trying to be a vegan,” I explained. “It’s kind of hard.”
“Even harder than using coupons,” he responded.
This whole vegan business had me remembering a winter evening Scrabble game, played by a number of verbose English majors. Years later, none of the wit or Scrabble skill of the evening could be recalled, only the absolutely horrific stench of someone’s gas. And everyone blamed it on the vegan in the room.
The vegan sloppy joes were a success. And there were more successes: vegan cassoulet and spaghetti squash cakes, a delicious French lentil sauce from brilliant vegan chef Myra Kornfeld’s book The Voluptuous Vegan, and another of Kornfeld’s recipes for a chocolate pudding tart (made with tofu) that was to die for. Ben made a vegan jambalaya with which we were quite impressed. Even the baby partook in these dishes.
Well-sated, I later reflected. What we were really aiming for here was not necessarily the extreme dietary changes of veganism, but rather a mindfulness about eating. Where did the food come from? How did it get to me and my table? Who prepared it, and what processes were involved before I began cooking it? If it was an animal product, were the animals treated ethically, humanely? During my days of veganism I ate many avocados, apparently a “superfood”, which I believed (whilst pregnant I ate three a day). But, avocados came from Chile and California, and despite their fatty deliciousness, I lived in Western North Carolina and many, many miles of transportation and oil were behind those things. Back in the old days, kids were so darned excited to get oranges in their Christmas stockings. They were exotic treats. Now the exotic was commonplace—and at what cost?
Regardless of all those pork-loving people out there, and the intense American devotion to things like bacon, hotdogs, and hamburgers, giving up meat was an important and relatively easy way to help out in our current environmental crisis. Meat production was steadily polluting the water and destroying valuable forests for grazing purposes. In America, many selfishly consumed to the point of obesity, while those in the Third World starved. Animals in the factory “farms” were treated with little to no respect for life, including our own; they were laced with hormones.
Jane Goodall, a staunch advocate for animal rights, quoted writer Ervin Laszlow: “A diet based on meat-eating is not only unhealthy, it is immoral; it indulges a personal fancy at the expense of depleting resources essential to feeding the entire human population.”
So, there ya go. What I’d learned from my adventures in veganism was this: it was all about moderation. Eating soy three times a day was not quite akin to eating meat three times a day, but there still needed to be a balance. Same with spending oodles of money on specialty “vegan” products. Not to mention, there was nothing wrong with a good ol’ plate of rice and beans. It was what the rest of the world ate nearly all the time.
“Even if you cut out animal products just two days a week, you can make a huge difference in your health and the health of the planet,” wrote Tal Ronnen. “Forcing a radical change that you won’t be able to stick with, doesn’t make sense. Ease in at a pace and depth that feels comfortable.” His words should be reassuring to all.
In a recent issue of Food and Wine magazine, Chef Wolfgang Puck was quoted as saying, “If someone gave me $25 for a party, I’d go to the farmers market and buy the best vegetables, grill them, and set them on the table like a bouquet of flowers.”
The real solution to the health of both population and planet was not fakin’ bacon or tofurkey. It was supporting local farmers and local economies, and contributing yourself—perhaps by something as small as having a tomato plant on your deck or sharing a sourdough starter. As for meat-eating, I shall not completely condone it, though I do believe we need to look to the wisdom of our ancestors for how they treated the hunt and the harvest.
Around Easter, I made a tart with watercress and risotto, vegetarian, but not vegan. I was back to being a tried-and-true flexa-tarian. Ben cooked up a venison stew made with meat given to us by our neighbor, who’d killed the deer. Ben thickened the stew with Asheville’s own Highland Brewing Company’s Black Mocha Stout, and baked a loaf of dark cocoa bread to accompany it. It was warming and hearty, and even I ate it, thanking Ben for his kitchen skills, my neighbor for his generosity, and God for it all.
Kristin MacLeod enjoys eating a variety of things. She is a graduate of Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia. She is available for freelance writing, and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org