Posts Tagged ‘vegan’

Cheating, Vegetarianism, and Other Things on My Mind

I’m a vegetarian. Yet once or twice a year, my friend and I go down to Monterey and I indulge in one of the few things I miss from my omnivore days: decadently creamy, perfectly seasoned clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. This is the only exception I am willing to make to my vegetarianism, but I do make it, without offering excuses, without feeling guilty.

Does it make me a cheater? Instead of calling myself a vegetarian, should I call myself a semiannual bivalverian? Is that really a more accurate description or just a statistically improbable phrase?

In the wake of the recent Alicia Silverstone controversy in which she admitted to eating cheese every now and then, I’ve been thinking about how vegetarianism/veganism mean such different things to different people. And why shouldn’t it? We all have different reasons for not eating animals, some of which allow for more or less flexibility. From reading the comments on the Alicia Silverstone article, I’d like to suggest that we fall into two basic camps (admittedly, the Alicia thing is more complicated because she’s such a prominent and influential figure):

Group 1: People who see a vegetarian diet as a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the impact of their diets on animals and the planet. For this group, total impact matters more than the single action. Alicia Silverstone’s occasional nibble of cheese? Negligible. A diet that occasionally includes fish but no dairy and ends up being lower impact than a  dairy-based vegetarian diet? Viable from an environmental standpoint. The label doesn’t matter as much as the end result that more animals and the planet are significantly better off than on a traditional diet.

Group 2: People who see their diet as a solemn commitment to not harming any animals / fighting animal agriculture and see the label as a major part of their identity. If you define yourself around not eating animals or using animal products, then the occasional voluntary cup of clam chowder becomes a — or even the  — major infraction.

Not too surprisingly, I belong to the first group. Vegetarian is a convenient and concise label for letting others know what I eat, but I’m not strongly attached to it as a label. I don’t identify with other people solely on the basis of what we both don’t eat, and I’m not going to judge you if your diet is only 95% vegetarian but you still use the label. I’m all for workable solutions for your life that reduce your impact, and if that means compromising for your family and eating turkey once a year, so be it. There are 364 other days each year.

At the same time, while it does sometimes result in snippy one-upping, I see the appeal of the second group’s more black and white attitude and strong sense of righteousness. Moderation is hard. I’ve been cutting down on dairy but find that my ‘cutting down’ attitude doesn’t stand much of a chance against the attraction of things like almond scented white cake. And if friends or family see you making exceptions, they’re more likely to assume you’ll make other ones. Labels give you rules to follow, even if you sometimes fall short. And that’s useful, too.

The first group’s inclusive and flexible attitude might win more converts, but the second group’s zeal is going to push its members into trying harder and doing more for their cause. Luckily, there’s enough room in the world for lots of different kinds of vegetarians. From a pragmatic, results-oriented perspective, however, I’m just going to throw it out there that all of us could be doing more constructive things than criticizing other vegetarians. If you have that much free time or energy, come with me to the cat shelter next time.

The Veg Holiday Survival Guide

Once I hit my teens, I spent most holiday dinners in my room, giving my turkey to the cat. I hated the relatives who came over, hated the joviality, and wasn’t going to be pleasant or social if it killed me. (Oh, teenagers.) But I have to say, the loneliest and hardest Christmas dinner I’ve ever experienced was the one I spent with only my immediate family plus my sister’s boyfriend the year I stopped eating meat. My dad hated my boyfriend, so he wasn’t invited.  That left me the only vegetarian at a table full of meat enthusiasts. My mother didn’t bother to prepare a vegetarian main dish, so I picked at green beans on the far end of the table while everyone else dug into the ham. I never felt so rejected in my life. 

My parents were, shall we say, unenthused about my decision to go vegetarian. I can’t blame them; both grew up in poverty where an egg was a special occasion and meat happened a few times a year, on very special occasions. My dad, in particular, still associates meat with having made it in this country; being able to provide meat to his family was a mark of his success and hard work. To have his daughter voluntarily reject that ideology and the culture it came from must have been rough.

Anyway. That was the main underlying experience behind my sentiment that one of the prices of vegetarianism (even more so veganism) is social and cultural. I’ve come to recognize that my parents won’t accommodate my vegetarianism, so it’s my responsibility to do what I can to make the whole holiday socializing thing bearable (when I absolutely can’t get out of it). Assuming you like people, you may be more willing to put effort into the following suggestions. And please, by all means, add to the list!

The Vegetarian/Vegan Holiday Survival Guide

  • Make sure your hosts know your dietary restrictions well in advance. Especially if they’re having a lot of people over, it’s possible they will forget. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but do mention it.
  • Decide how strict you’re going to be. There are three types of vegetarian dinner guest: 1) the type who tells the host beforehand that marshmallows, wine, and many brands of cane sugar are not vegan; 2) the type who asks about everything at the table; or 3) the type who compromises out of politeness and avoids what she can and doesn’t attempt an emetic after finding out there were marshmallows in the sweet potatoes.
  • Have a list of tasty possible recipes to suggest if your hosts ask what they can make you instead.
  • Express gratitude for any effort to accommodate you. Realize that you are, in fact, requiring them to put in more effort and time.
  • Offer to bring a dish. Make it a really good one so you can make a point that meatless food is, in fact, tasty and satisfying.
  • Host the meal yourself and treat your guests to an awesome meat-free meal filled with the vegetable bounty of the season.
  • Bring a fellow vegetarian for company. If all else fails and there’s nothing you can eat, at least you won’t be alone.

And just a handful of don’ts to keep in mind:

  • Don’t attempt to educate your fellow diners at the table on the cruelty implicit in their Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not gracious, it’s not good form, and it’s not likely to do you or your cause any good. Besides, they’re the ones with the carving knives.
  • Don’t think that it’s up to other people how well the evening goes. The work you put into it (or not) makes a huge amount of difference.
  • Don’t take this opportunity to remark on how surprising it is to you that all meat now smells like cat food to you. Even if it does.
  • Don’t give up on dining with omnivores. Although vegetarianism/veganism can be the basis of friendships, I’d like to think that the people I love and respect are more than their dietary choices.

Well, any horrific holiday experiences with omnivores to share? More tips? Bring it on!

Veganism, Idealism & Living in the Real World

More than any other diet I can think of, veganism is a diet based on ideals. I respect its adherents and admire them for upholding their principles despite considerable social and cultural adversity. But. (And you knew there would be a but.) Veganism does tend to attract extremists who either a) equate people who eat the occasional egg as evil, environment-and-animal-hating, er, haters, and/or b) paint their own diets as completely compassionate, morally faultless, and ideal for everyone, in every situation.

Here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: even a vegan diet comes with a considerable price tag in animal suffering and exploitation. When it comes to eating and morality, it’s not about whether to compromise; it’s about where, and how much. I’m a vegetarian, a moderate, and a pragmatist, and I’m officially tired of hearing these things:

Vegan myth #1: No animal dies for my food.

I wrote about my experiences visiting a local organic farm a while ago. I can’t get the memory of that trembling, wretched squirrel in the trap out of my head. This was a farm that was not aggressive about trapping ground squirrels (even though they cause serious damage to crops) and clearly felt bad about killing squirrels. Yet they and virtually all non-hobby farms engage in forms of pest control that involve animal death, to say nothing of the ones that are killed incidentally. And even deterrent methods mean that some animals don’t get enough food or land or resources to survive. Either way, a lot of small, cute, fuzzy animals — and plenty of insects, worms, and arachnids — died for our spinach.

Vegan Myth #2: My diet does not exploit any animals.

A plant-based diet is in fact highly dependent upon the labor of one animal: the honeybee. About 1/3 of our diet is produced through insect pollination. (This is why colony collapse disorder really, really sucks.) While it’s true that wild honeybees pollinate during the course of their own natural activities, to pollinate on the scale we need to produce enough food for our population, we cultivate honeybees, move them around the country from farm to farm, rent them out, and otherwise manipulate their lives.  Want to let honeybees go back to being wild? Be prepared to give up things like blueberries, peaches, and almonds and watch as world hunger skyrockets.

Also, and I don’t know why this doesn’t come up more often, but the workers picking our morally righteous organic produce are almost certainly either 1) underpaid, 2) overworked, 3) illegally here or in another situation that would make it hard for them to demand better pay and working conditions. Exploitation of animals includes humans. Short of growing your own food, there’s no easy fix for the system.

Vegan myth #3: Veganism is always better for the environment

You won’t get much argument that industrial agriculture is a major part of how we screwed over ourselves and our environment. However, I think it’s also reasonable to keep in mind that a vegan diet requires a greater variety of plant foods to cover nutritional needs, and that not all places on Earth are well suited for producing that variety. To offer an extreme example, an Inuit eating a native diet of primarily fish and other meat will have a smaller impact than a vegan Inuit who has to import fresh vegetables, grains, beans, and supplements. In other areas, ruminants and chickens can take advantage of nutrients unavailable to humans and turn them into essential sources of vitamin B and protein. No doubt most vegan diets in the west are lower impact than the SAD (the highly appropriate acronym of the standard American diet), but even so, your total impact will depend on how much processed, non-local, and non-organic food you eat and a bevy of other lifestyle decisions you make.

Vegan Myth #4: Veganism makes me morally superior.

Morally consistent, perhaps. But superior? That depends on how you treat the other people and animals that you’re not, um, not eating. One of my personal heroes is a nurse by day, a hero to stray and feral cats by night. She started a no-kill cat rescue out of her own resources and has since rescued, cared for, and adopted out hundreds of cats. She’s not a vegetarian. But see, I think it’s as much about what you do for animals as what you don’t eat that decides your ultimate karmic balance, or whatever you want to call it. Your compassion brownie points.  

Feel discouraged? Don’t. The takeaway here is not that we should stop eating in order to have a truly compassionate and cruelty-free diet. (Compassion should extend to our own bodies, too.) It’s that any moral absolute, taken too far, starts clashing with the realities of the physical world.  It’s good to think about and take food seriously. It’s great to have ideals about your food, and it’s great to try to live up to them.  But as physical beings, falling short is inevitable. Marble pedestals are not appropriate.

Does Going Veg Make Your Tastebuds Mutate?

Forkful of brussels sprouts halfway to mouth, I am stricken with the sudden, not entirely welcome epiphany that I am now an adult who voluntarily eats brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts. The one vegetable I despised as a child who had to be reminded to share the green beans and broccoli. I’ve become one of them, those scary brussels-sprouts-loving-vegetarians that the rest of the world thinks have aberrant tastebuds. 

Naturally, I hopped on Google to find the answer to the question: does going veg screw with your tastebuds? There don’t seem to be many studies on this topic, and I can’t really answer it myself. I went vegetarian at an age when most people are transitioning to adult taste preferences anyway, so it’s hard to say whether I’m now more into spicy food, bitter greens, and mushrooms because I stopped eating meat or because I grew up, moved out, and discovered Ethiopian food. Probably a little of both. I have noticed that roast chicken no longer smells appetizing, though bacon is another story entirely.

What really prompted this post, however, was my recent experiment with kale chips. The idea is pretty basic. Tear kale up into pieces, toss with olive oil, salt, and spices, and bake at a low temp until crispy. The vegans from whom I got the idea have written gushing panegyrics to kale chips, including: “More addictive than potato chips,” and “like fries,” and “amazingly delicious.” I was skeptical, so I made my own. They were interesting. Texture not unlike desiccated autumn leaves (not that I’ve ever eaten one). Mostly salty, with a hint of roasted broccoli (not one of my favorite vegetables to roast), and a slightly bitter finish. Verdict: OK as a way to eat kale, but not life changing, and not even close to replacing my Kettle chips (chipotle barbecue flavor, please). And that’s to say nothing of the gastro-intestinal distress the kale chips caused me later. Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to details.

Without really meaning to, I’ve filed kale chips in the ‘foods only vegans could love’ mental category. There it is joined by anything in which tofu is used to substitute for cheese. Any dessert that calls for a significant quantity of beans. Anything raw and sprouted, but especially for breakfast. Wheatgrass or other dark green smoothies. (Note: I am not a ruminant.)  That’s where my ovo-lacto vegetarian tastebuds draw the line. If I went vegan, would these things start to taste good? The question, at present, is unanswerable.

While I’m certainly aware that plenty of vegan food is simply food without animal products, the fringier recipes definitely strike me as acquired tastes. What do you think? Have your taste preferences changed significantly since going veg?

Quick Summer Recipe: Cold Noodles

There must be a more elegant name for this, but ‘cold noodles’ is an exact translation of a simple summer supper I grew up with. On really hot days, when even our usually sepulchral house got unbearable by about 5pm, you’d find us slurping down deliciously cold, savory noodles for dinner. I think every Chinese family probably has a different version; this one is passed down from my grandmother. And like most family recipes, the proportions are to taste. I finally measured them out to give you an idea of how much of what ingredient, but you’ll probably want to tweak to your liking. Oh, and it’s vegan. And fast. And remarkably tasty. All good things!

Cold Noodles with Raw Vegetables & Savoury Peanut Sauce
Serves 3-4, can be doubled very easily

1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil (available at Asian supermarkets)
1 1/2 TB peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp sugar (optional)
dash of chili powder or chili oil (optional)

1/2 lb wheat noodles or spaghetti
vegetable oil to prevent noodles from sticking
1 large cucumber, shredded
1-2 carrots, shredded
handful of bean sprouts (optional)
toasted sesame seeds or chopped peanuts to top (optional)

1. Whisk all sauce ingredients together until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings to liking. The flavors seem to improve when the sauce has a chance to sit for an hour or two, but you can use it immediately if necessary.

2. Next, boil a big pot of water and cook  noodles (or spaghetti — any type of thicker wheat noodle will do) according to directions. Drain, toss with oil to prevent sticking, and chill until cold. Freezer works if you’re hungry.

3. While noodles are boiling, shred the cucumber and carrot(s) and wash the bean sprouts.

To serve, pile noodles in bowl, layer on vegetables, pour on sauce to taste, and mix. Sprinkle sesame seeds or chopped peanuts on top, if you like a little extra crunch. I prefer not to mix the whole batch at this time because the leftovers taste better if you keep everything separate until you’re ready to eat. If you run out of sauce, it also tastes fine with a drizzle of soy sauce and sesame oil. Lazy is good.

Vegan Week Recap

It’s a day early, but I’m officially ending vegan week. Like a bad relationship, a promising start fizzled into something where  my vegan diet and I sat sullenly in the same room and stared at opposite walls. Up until  about Wednesday, things were great. I had fun trying out new recipes, enjoyed the moral clarity, didn’t miss dairy or eggs, and really thought this had long-term relationship potential.

Then on Thursday, I started to feel tired, headachey, and a little dizzy.  I wanted an omelet. Instead, I made and ate a nutritious vegan dinner, complete with barley, spinach, wild mushrooms, and whole wheat focaccia. I popped a vitamin, which I almost never do.  Friday: bleah. No energy, dragged myself to work, no appetite for my lunch (last night’s leftovers), so I ate a handful of berries. I got home with no energy (surprise!), didn’t want to cook, couldn’t think of anything I wanted to eat, didn’t have anything fast that I could eat. So I finished off the last 1″ of a bag of Fritos, had some almond soy milk, and ate a bowl of strawberries. I put on Ratatouille, which exacerbated my omelet craving. Finally, egged on by Kevin, I got up and made a perfect omelet, a golden crescent of gooey awesomeness, and ate it with new appreciation for the role eggs play in my wellbeing. 

I know I messed up on the last day, but I’m saddened to have to come to either of these two conclusions: 1) I don’t know enough/didn’t plan well enough to keep my body healthy on a vegan diet; or 2) veganism isn’t right for my body at this time.  The first is more probable, but the fact is that I did plan this week and ate lots of beans, vegetables, and whole grains. I spent more time planning my meals this week than I ever do as a vegetarian who eats eggs and modest amounts of dairy. And I ended up feeling pretty crappy. Maybe I should have eaten more tofu.

I don’t really know what I did wrong, but I do know that continuing would have made me feel worse. I tried on my tight jeans that were still in their super tight phase just after being washed. They felt distinctly looser than usual. As someone who isn’t even three digits soaking wet and fully dressed, I can only afford to lose so many pounds and stay healthy.

This week wasn’t a total loss. I found some fun new recipes and got over the assumption that vegan cooking was any different from regular cooking. I’m very open to trying more vegan recipes and incorporating more meals without eggs or dairy into my life. I learned that almond milk smells divine when warmed and will probably try baking with it at some point.  I feel a lot of gratitude for the egg-laying chickens that made my omelet possible and will make a renewed effort to get eggs only at the farm where I can visit the chickens and know that they’re well treated and happy. And in a little while, after I read up more on nutrition, I may try again.

But today, I’m having yogurt for breakfast.

Vegan Week + Almond Milk Pudding Recipe

Some of you know that I’m about halfway through my weeklong experiment of eating nothing but plant foods (and fungi). As an ethical vegetarian, I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that eating dairy isn’t morally consistent for me, and while I’m not ready to forswear it for life, I’m interested in seeing what life is like without it. Baby steps.

So far, vegan week has been pretty easy. It helps that I’m mildly lactose intolerant and dairy has always been more of a food flavoring than staple. The only times I’ve even really seen it as a dietary restriction has been with company, and only then with desserts. (I had to turn down bananas foster. Ouch.)

What have I been eating?

  • Thick vegetable & kidney bean chili over crisp potato wedges
  • Miso noodle soup with wild mushrooms, green onions, bok choy, and edamame
  • Spicy pan fried noodles with basil
  • Coconut peanut sauce dip with roti
  • Bell pepper, new potato, and roast garlic pasta
  • Farina with sliced white peaches, brown sugar, and almond milk
  • Avocado and almond milk smoothies
  • Stovetop popcorn with olive oil, sea salt, nutritional yeast, and a dash of garlic
  • PB&J sandwiches

Last night I tried making pudding with almond milk, and I liked it so much that I thought I’d share. I was worried that it wouldn’t set well, but it totally did. And when warmed, almond milk has a marvelously fragrant aroma that makes it perfect in desserts and sweets. (Muffins? Hmm…) Anyway, this is the recipe for a creamy, mild pudding that could well pass for being dairy based:

Vegan Almond Pudding (2 small servings, can be doubled)

  • 1 cup vanilla almond milk, separated
  • 1 1/2 TB white sugar (more if you’re not using sweetened almond milk)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 TB cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp rosewater OR vanilla OR almond extract
  • cinnamon and/or slivered almonds to top

Pour 3/4 cup almond milk into heavy bottomed saucepan. Sprinke sugar and salt over liquid but do not stir. Bring to a boil over medium high. While waiting for milk to boil, mix remaining 1/4 cup almond milk with the cornstarch until fully dissolved. When milk has come to a boil, remove from heat, whisk in cold milk/cornstarch mixture, and return to heat (turn down to low). Stir constantly for 1-2 minutes, or until thickened.  Stir in flavoring. Pour into bowls, allow to cool, and refrigerate until set.  Top with a sprinkle of cinnamon and slivered almonds.

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