Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Mostly Vegan"

Paula and I recently wrapped up our six-week vegan experiment.  We went into it powered by  horrific images of animal cruelty from our viewing of Vegucated, coupled with an ethical calling to eat the right thing on a planet straining to feed 7 billion people.  The experience was interesting, and in its wake, my diet is a lot less animal protein-rich -- about 80% less.  I'm calling that a win.   

It was not at first an easy transition.  On the second day of the experiment, I woke up and realized that none of my breakfast go-to faves were in the mix anymore.  As I entered week two, I felt vaguely unsatisfied most of the time.  The girls and I were up in Pt. Reyes, away from home, and it seemed that I was living off avocados and bread.  I never, ever thought I would get sick of avocados, but suddenly, I wanted something I haven't craved in two decades: meat.  Paula was staffing the vegan experiment support line from the home front:

P: Have a glass of wine.
K: How is it that I've been a vegetarian for like 20 years and all I want right now is a bucket of fried chicken?  To go with my wine.
P: I want to take a bath in gravy.
K: I'm about ready to go outside and shoot an elk and eat it raw.

Still, I persevered.  And as time went on, and I stopped trying so hard... I realized that there was great vegan food all around me.  Half the menu at my favorite Thai restaurant, a long list of entrees at the Chinese place, the sofritas tacos at Chipotle, stuffed grape leaves at Costco... even if I didn't feel like cooking, the options were plentiful.  And the best vegan food didn't have a long or complex list of ingredients.  It wasn't masquerading as a burger, or chicken, or a hot dog.  It was just itself.  I read dozens of vegan recipe blogs, but for the most part, the staples that satisfied me required no recipe at all (with a few exceptions below...)

As with most changes, it was worth muscling through the withdrawal.  I don't think I could have converted to "mostly vegan" without going to Ground Zero for a while.  It forced a level of adaptation and exploration that paid dividends.

Since my original post, many of you have told me that you're trying to, or already have, cut back on animal products.  It's starting to feel like a groundswell.  With that in mind, I hereby share some of Paula's and my takeaways from our vegan experiment.

Karen and Paula's Vegan Experiment Post-Mortem

- A great many things taste excellent with cheese.  But the absence of cheese doesn't make them bad.  I've gotten used to making and ordering sandwiches, salads and burritos without it.  Even the caprese salad we relish, with our bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes, is pretty delicious even if you leave the mozzarella out. 

- Nothing that isn't made from cheese tastes like cheese.  Not even if it melts.  Daiya is not cheese, and to a cheese eater, it tastes something like the stuff at the bottom of the sink trap after it's been burped up with a little stomach acid.  And I hear that Daiya is as good as it gets.  We threw out our bag after one serving of ruined burritos.

- God Almighty could not have come up with a finer salve for the forlorn vegan than La Victoria's orange sauce.  We don't know what's in it, but it makes just about everything better.  Especially when accompanied by a few fried corn tortillas.

- It is relatively easy to make a satisfying vegan meal.  Nuts, avocados, pumpkin seeds, tofu, tempeh, rice, roasted cauliflower and butternut squash and red peppers... all of these things taste great and fill you up.  I had the most amazing tofu scramble - hold the cheese - in Tahoe last weekend.  And it is a piece of cake to order a table-full of vegan delights at a sushi place, from tofu dishes to shiitake rolls.  Trader Joe's will happily provide you with a 4-page, single-spaced printed list of all the vegan foods they stock, from chocolate chip cookies to vegetable gyoza.

- It is much easier to make a satisfying non-vegan meal.  And sometimes, my body feels as if it needs it.  Maybe this would change over time, but that craving for meat has surfaced once or twice since our trip to Pt Reyes.  I tend to discount my cravings, as it's pretty clear my body doesn't need as much chocolate as it craves - but still.

-  Mushrooms are a miracle food that makes you feel as if you've just eaten a lovely fillet of Mushroomasaurus, rather than a fungus that grows in poop.  We almost always have them on hand now.

- These banana cupcakes with peanut butter frosting are delicious.  Not "vegan delicious"; really delicious.

- So are tempeh reubens.  And you can make a decent Russian dressing substitute starting with pine nuts.

- We avoided eating most of the fake meat and dairy products out there.  But occasionally, a little Gardein chicken kept us from taking out an elk.  And I will suffer whatever the consequences for an occasional soy latte.

- I didn't even attempt to include my kids in the vegan experiment.  They live off wheat and cheese; vegetables and legumes are to them a side dish.  I'm still in awe of friends who have managed to convert their kids, even partially. 

- The hardest part for me - the reason I don't ever see myself going 100% vegan - is that food is so entwined with culture.  The rituals that enhance our lives involve gracing our home with guests, observing holidays, traveling and visiting with others - often with meals playing a central role.  When we invited guests for Rosh Hashanah dinner two weeks ago and Yom Kippur break fast last week, I couldn't envision a vegan meal that would feel celebratory.  I didn't want to bring in the new year without challah.  I wanted to break the fast with bagels and cream cheese.  And most importantly, I wanted our guests to enjoy themselves - without feeling self-conscious or judged (or hungry).  The same goes for my family.  I want to sit down together sometimes and actually share a meal, not just the space around the table.  As long as the rest of the household is not interested in going vegan, I won't be entirely vegan either.

So there you have it.  As a steadfast believer in middle ground, I am happy to have found it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Rosh Hashanah reflections, 5774

Say what you will, but I prefer the Rosh Hashanah children's service to the adult one.  It's a little under an hour, and it's lighter on the lengthy recitations of the full evening service.  There's a lot of singing, the cantor plays guitar, and if your mind wanders from the core service, there are little thought exercises in the margin of the prayer book to keep you engaged.  "Recall a time when something went wrong and then went right..." "Remember a time when you felt that you were doing exactly what God wanted you to do."  These are interesting questions- for me, more interesting and thought-provoking than the recitation of all the ways people will die in the coming year.  (I know the point is that we can temper God's judgment through our righteousness, but I get a little hung up on whether it would be worse to die of thirst, drown, or be gored by a wild beast.  I think maybe thirst.  Anyway, it's distracting.)  Throughout the family service, I feel connected: we do enough of the traditional Hebrew prayers and hymns that it feels calmingly familiar, but the material is less dogmatic, more designed for minds that have not yet been indoctrinated.  Maybe, after all these years, I am still there: wrestling, unpersuaded, cynical.

For someone who attends services as infrequently as I do, the High Holy Days are not only a time of personal reckoning but also a fidgety re-visitation of why I continue to include myself in organized religion at all.  There is so much in the liturgy that I have to gloss over to feel that the service is right for me.  Would it be better to craft my own relationship with the divine, to chart a path that fits my belief system and maybe doesn't have its core weekly ritual on date night?  Something that might not make my kids groan and complain so much?

 I wrestle with this every year, and so far, every year, I've renewed our membership.  Why?  Because my own personal faith might get too busy or too lazy to carve out an annual journey of reflection and renewal, and I cherish it.  Because the unity of so many voices reciting words of reverence lifts me up - even if every one of us is struggling with our relationship to them.  Because the simple act of rising up onto my tip-toes as I recite "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" rouses in me, inexplicably, a more beautiful mind-body connection than any yoga posture.  Because in between the verses I find hard to take are gems that go straight to my heart, that make me murmur Amen under my breath because there is no other word for how true they feel.  Because, although I don't see anyone else doing it, no one seems to mind that I bring my journal to services and write down things from the prayer book that I like - and my own meditations - when the liturgy loses me.  Because I love to sing loudly without being able to hear the cracks in my voice.  Because there is something comforting in the observance of rituals so ancient, amidst a community whose values are so modern. 

Most of us as parents have had to answer the question, "Do you believe in God?" If only it were a yes or a no.  As we enter into this time of t'shuvah, of turning or returning, I ask myself again, do I believe?  What do I believe?  What is drawing me?

Not too long ago, a friend was talking about her relationship with her boyfriend - how much she cherished it because he loved and accepted her exactly how she is.  That's important, I thought, but for me, not enough.  I want to feel inspired, not just loved.  I appreciate in my partner the things that make me want to be a better person - as well as those that make me feel good about who I am today.

In a simplistic sense, I wish for the same from my relationship with God: the love reassuring me that I am enough, and the inspiration reassuring me that I can be more.  They are not incompatible.

In the words and meditations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I find both the love and the inspiration.

As Jews gather in congregations around the world, I'm heartened by the inherent optimism in our ritual: we messed up last year.  But we're definitely going to do better this year.  We affirm this, even knowing that we will be back next year, at the same time, to do it all over again.  We set our intention and detach from the outcome.  The detachment doesn't weaken the fervor of the intent.  This optimism is so crucial to our survival.  Without it, the news of the world would crush our spirit, and we would fade away.

To all those who are wrapping themselves in this time of reflection, introspection, and connection, I wish you a very happy and sweet new year.