Sunday, 20 November 2011

My Life - The Vegan Year

Well, folks, it's coming up to that time of year when we spend too much time reflecting on our life choices and we wonder what, if anything, we've gained from the last year of our lives.  Up until this point, I've been a bit hesitant to make any bold statements about my transition to veganism, but at 11 months in, I think I'm finally ready to summarise some of my thoughts and feelings about my life as a vegan so far.

So what have I gained or learned or lost? 

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the food related aspects of becoming vegan have been the easiest part.  No, I don't miss cheese.  No, seriously, I really don't.  I will admit, about a month and a half into the year (for those of you not aware, I became vegan on New Years Day), I had some pretty powerful urges to eat cheese and store-bought, dairy laden pastry.  Solution?  I made some cupcakes out of the super-awesome-amazing-califragalistic Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (thanks Patty!).  I bought Cheezly and put it on my pizza.  And amazingly, my cravings have largely disappeared. I don't even think about what I'm not eating now.

To be honest, I think I've just been having to much plain ol' fun with food to miss dairy. I thought my culinary horizons were pretty broad already, but vegan cookbooks aren't messing around when it comes to gastronomic experimentation, and I've been making at least three new dishes every week.  If you really want to make something no one at your dinner table has ever had before, pick up a copy of Veganomicon.  Mole skillet pie?  Butternut squash summer rolls with Cranberry dipping sauce?  Yes please. 

My tastes have lightened up, and I've become more in tune to dishes that are full of flavour but are lacking in heavy fat.  That's not to say that you can't eat very heavy, creamy, fatty food on a vegan diet; those recipes are out there in droves, but I think I've learned that even as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I was still quite addicted to animal fat, and I think a lot of dairy and egg eating vegetarians have a similar addiction.  I've stopped relying on something fatty and unhealthy to provide the happy in a recipe (note: that doesn't mean I've stopped liking fatty and unhealthy things).  My palate has really opened up in the last 11 months, and I get more enjoyment out of simple, clean, flavourful food than I ever have before.  A good peach isn't just a good peach anymore.  It's like a religious experience of peach holiness. 

 By throwing food out the door that I was probably actually addicted to, as many people are addicted to the casomorphines in cheese, I think I've learned that I can give up any one food without inflicting trauma on myself.  My happiness is not reliant on cheese.  If this seems like an overly-obvious statement to you...well, no, I don't think this does seem like an overly-obvious statement to anyone.  I've come to realise that a significant proportion of people really do believe their happiness is reliant on cheese. 

The health aspects of becoming vegan are pretty self-evident, and to be honest, I don't have that much to say about my own experiences health-wise.  I didn't really have any significant health problems before becoming vegan, so it's kind of difficult to report on any changes in this area.  What I can say is that besides saturated fat and dangerous animal protein, there is a lot of processed junk that many people eat mindlessly at the office, or the way home from work, or at parties that is automatically left out of the vegan diet.  So in a way, there is a certain amount of effortless improvement to your diet that comes along with veganism.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be doing anyone any favours if I suggested that veganism is a panacea for all health problems, and that personal responsibility doesn't factor into your health at all.  There are still health traps for the vegan.  Sugar, white flour, added oils, and processed vegan foods can show up much too often in many vegans' diets.  If I have noticed a significant change in my health it would be that in avoiding a wider array of unhealthy foods in my diet, I have started to really notice the difference in how I feel after consuming different foods.  Eat fresh green salads, vegetable soups, whole grains and beans and I feel light and happy.  Eat too much sugary food, white bread, and alcohol and I feel crappy and moody.

Easily the most difficult part of the transition has been the social aspects.  Dining out, going to other people's houses for dinner, or trying to navigate through the mire of misinformation out there about animal products and animal rights has not been easy.

But on a positive note, I know a lot of people run into confrontations with others when they stop eating animal products, and while I have definitely experienced some very bull-headed and flat out rude behaviour in regards to my eating habits, I haven't really encountered very much of this as a vegan.  Keep in mind, I am writing this from a country famed for its polite and reserved residents, so perhaps it's not that surprising that while living in England I haven't received a lot of flak about my diet. 

The most difficult thing has been dining out, particularly in any British restaurant/pub.  I've had to send back a few things that came with little bits of diary even after asking for the dish without.  I've encountered odd situations, such as:

Waiter:  Hmm, let me it a milk allergy that you have?
Me: No, I'm a vegan.
Waiter: Oh, I know we don't have anything vegan.  Absolutely nothing.  Even the vegetarian stuff has diary in it.
Me: Oh really?  Could you ask the kitchen if they could maybe make the vegetarian tomato and basil soup without dairy?
Waiter: Wait, let me see.  It might not have any dairy.  Just a second." (calls down the kitchen) "Yeah, it's vegan.


Waitress:  So the chef can do a soup and a tagine, and some roast potatoes. 
Me: Great!
Waitress:  Are potatoes vegan?

My best advice is to never use the word vegan when trying to specify what you can or can't eat at a restaurant.  No one knows what it means and it seems to terrify the living daylights out of servers.  And yes, if you're wondering, I managed to respond that last waitress without laughing. 

What I have found is that, firstly, calling ahead to the restaurant is the best idea.  Secondly, being both polite and optimistic will go a long way.  If you act like you are putting people out, they may believe you.  If you act like you expect people to offer you the world, you will not be well received.  However, if you are polite and cheerful, clear about what you can eat, and come prepared with some ideas of how the restaurant can modify something already on their menu for you, you will find most people surprisingly accommodating.  Afterwards, be grateful, and be sure to thank the chef if he or she went out of their way to make you something special.

As for going to other people's houses, I find it's best to offer to bring something for yourself.  Since I like to cook, I genuinely don't mind bringing something.  And if someone wants to try to make something for you, at least you've offered, so you don't have to feel like you are a burden to your host. 

The last social aspect that I've mentioned can be the hardest.  Listening to other people talk about meat or hunting, or watching meat being cooked on TV has become much more painful for me than it ever was before.  To be honest, I haven't found a great way of avoiding it.  I've become acutely aware of the many, many different ways that non-human animals are abused by humans, and sometimes I find it hard to have a conversation with people without the subject coming up.  I don't want to upset anyone, and I don't want to be constantly bringing the subject of animal rights up with people.  I've yet to find a balance between speaking my mind when I really need to, and leaving something alone when it's just not the time and someone isn't going to be interested or open-minded.  Often people have been more interested in what I know than I expected, and I've left the situation feeling that I should have been more open and honest with them, and given them more credit.

As for the personal aspects, these have been the most powerful but also the most distressing.  Discovering how much abuse is in our society, and how inherent this abuse is was, and continues to be, very disturbing to me.  On the other hand, I've seen my friends be open-minded and willing to change when hearing the truth about the animal agriculture industry or the health risks of animal products, and I've been amazed and thrilled with their reactions. People want to and can change. I know this for certain.

But the bottom line is, when I think over the last year and the decision I made, and the information I now know about the abuses inherent in dairy and meat production, I'm amazed at the change in my mindset more than in my practises.  Making the decision to give up all animal products and attempting to make a change in the world with one little action, or rather lack of action, has been the best decision I've made in a long, long time.  I can't imagine my life, or the person I would be without veganism, and thank God, thank Buddha, thank Zorathustra, or thank pure dumb luck that I found it.

Ethical Eats

Roasted Beets 'n Apples

Speaking of simple, flavourful food, this easy peasy dish will make a beet lover out of you.  How can anyone not love beets anyway?  Look how pretty!

Olive oil for drizzling
2 large beets or 4 small ones, peeled and sliced into centimeter thick slices
2 large apples, of a medium acidity variety, peeled and sliced into centimeter thick slices
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400/200 degrees.

Place the beet and apple slices on a large roasting tin or pan.  Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over the beets and apples and toss to coat.  Season to taste.

Roast the beets and apples in the oven for about 20 minutes or so, tossing them after 10 minutes.  You can roast them until they are just tender, or a few more minutes until they are a little sticky and chewy.  Toss the walnuts in for the last 5 minutes of roasting.