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.