I had planned to carefully document my vegan experiment this month, but I got recruited into a last minute (and very very fun but intense) project that’s gobbled up most of my discretionary time. I’m writing this quick post because several of you have followed up on me during the past two weeks, and I feel I owe you all at least this short update.
The month is nearly over, and I am still holding myself to the vegan standard, though I’ve lost grip on my added restriction to eat healthily. It’s been both easier and harder than I expected. I can’t say much more without processing, so I’ll save that for the wrap-up post, which I should be able to write this weekend.
I’ll leave you all with a question: many folks have asked me, what are you going to eat on October 1st. I’m going to turn that around on you: can you guess (generally or specifically) what I’ll dine on tomorrow? What would you recommend, and why?
So, yesterday I had my first knowledgable, willful transgression of the boundaries I set for myself at the beginning of this month.
I came home after a long day at work–a day without any exercise, which is my equivalent of a chill-pill–and spent two hours making two dinners: the rawsta primavera that was a hit with Jana and CatGirl last week, and a hot vegan lasagna more along the lines of what GameBoy would enjoy. The lasagna was a lot of work. In addition to prepping the noodles and spinach/mushroom filling, I had to make a cashew and tofu based ricotta. It turned out to be one of those uncommon dishes that delighted every member of the family. I was about to take my first bite of the pasta when it occurred to me to check the noodle ingredients. I pulled the box out of the trash, and saw “egg” listed about half-way down.
I was cranky with low blood sugar, and ate my serving of lasagna anyway. It was delicious. There are plenty of leftovers, but I’m going to pass on them. Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste. The family will devour the rest.
I’m about half-way through with my month-long experiment with a vegan diet. Observations at this point:
This isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I mean, I could never give up cheese and ice cream, right? Sorbet fills my need for Ben & Jerry’s, and I find myself walking past farmer’s market specialty cheese-sellers without any sense of longing or temptation. There’s so much goodness in our farmer’s market that it suffers little for want of cheese. There are at least a dozen varieties of pluots, for crying out loud, and each one is differently delicious.
When I started two weeks ago, I thought of veganism as a sort of strait jacket or a set of blinders, as something hugely constraining. And without a doubt, it still is when compared to an omnivore’s choices. But I don’t *feel* that restricted now. I’m excited about the possibilities that still exist in fruits, vegetables, legumes, pastries, etc. I mean, even as omnivores, how varied are most of our diets?
My family and friends have been very supportive, but since I’m public about this, I encounter occasional snarkiness or even criticism. My first reaction is defensiveness, but I’m trying to soften this. It’s interesting to me that the public treats veganism simultaneously as a casual lifestyle choice (getting annoyed at lack of flexibility) and as a strict and foreign ethical code (with ever an eye out for perceived hypocrisy).
This prompts some introspection. It makes me wonder how often I’ve belittled and held to my own stereotypes other folks’ behaviors (mostly American Christians). People are complex. The last thing I should do is imagine what their moral/ethical code is and then berate them for not upholding it.
Physically and emotionally, I’m doing well. I’m still climbing and biking and slowly increasing my weekly running mileage, and I seem to have as much energy as I ever did. I’ve lost about three pounds in the past two weeks, which is an acceptable rate for me. And I still don’t sleep much, but I didn’t last month either.
Lastly, I find that vegan concerns mesh nicely with my own desires to respect life, and to be as aware and conscious of my impact on others, and on the world as possible. These are rooted for me in my politics and in my Buddhist/Shinto and Quaker background, and these life-approaches all seem to complement and reinforce each other very well.
Now that I’m almost over the hump, I wonder–how much of this vegan approach to life will I take with me past September 2010?
I’m a week into my experiment with a vegan diet, and I think I’m falling into a rhythm. I’ve decided that if I’m in control of the food, it’s not that tough to do this. And currently I do most of the meal planning, purchasing and preparation in our home. It also helps that we’re already pretty vegetarian, and the family is supportive. And I’m not stopping them from eating all the cheese, ice cream and milk that they want. And we’ve discovered some amazing new foods, like the raw zucchini pasta primavera (rawsta primavera) that’s pictured above.
I did encounter some periods of hunger. I lost two pounds in this first week. This is in a week in which I ate nachos and calorie-rich coconut-milk ice cream and 500-calorie vegan chocolate chip cookies. I don’t mind slimming down some, but this was too quick for me, so I treated myself to a pint and veggie chili-fries at the university pub.
This calorie drop may also explain some of my mood swings and crankiness a couple of days last week.
I’m amazed at how supportive my friends have been. My dear neighbors worked really hard to make their pear-torte vegan friendly, and when they couldn’t track down Earth Balance spread, they made an extra dessert just for me.
And I think this is one of the things that I’m discovering. Like a lot of dietary codes, vegan restrictions are not difficult to apply in isolation. I don’t know if we’re aware of this as a society, but it seems to me that social eating is something that we experience at a pretty deep, if not quite primal level. I’m amazed at how threatened others feel, at how defensive I sometimes feel, when someone says that they can’t eat something that is an important part of our culinary experience. It’s like we’re saying, “This cheeseburger is my friend, it’s been there for me through many a hard time, if you condemn the cheeseburger, you condemn me!”
And it’s no accident that dietary codes are a primary way of separating people and reinforcing distinct identities: think kosher, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Mormon Word of Wisdom. Based on my limited observation, I believe that adhering to a vegan diet in mainstream US culture does reinforce a sense of separation, of a strong difference in cultural values, of difference and strangeness.
For this reason, I need to take a deeper dive into following a vegan ethic in public spaces: eating out with friends or at friends’, eating with coworkers, eating at restaurants that don’t cater to vegans and vegetarians and interacting with them. So expect to see more of that in coming weeks.
That said, I believe that vegan diets are slowly becoming more popular, better understood, and even more accepted in the US. The following picture represents fewer than half of the vegan cookbooks at the local Borders:
Jana and I celebrated our anniversary, and it was the second day of my vegan trial. Jana was very accommodating, but I realized that my dietary choices did impact our ability to enjoy a meal together as we had in the past. We’ve always enjoyed eating out together, but my vegan parameter severely constrained our restaurant options.
I should clarify at this point that I’m not being critical of veganism here. I’m communicating my personal experience as honestly as possible, and I hope that no one feels that I’m disrespecting their life choices.
I asked Jana if she would be interested in eating at the Tibet-Nepal House in downtown Pasadena. Because there were a lot of vegetarian choices, I thought there would be good vegan options as well. Ultimately, however, the vegan dishes I selected were much blander and uninteresting than even the vegetarian dishes I’ve eaten at similar places in the past.
Partly, I think this was poor choice on my part. In spite of its Buddhist heritage, animal protein and fat sources are extremely important in Tibetan cuisine. When I talked to the waiter, I discovered that almost all of the vegetarian items had at least some butter or milk in them. There were probably other cuisines I could’ve suggested to Jana, if I had researched a little more beforehand.
So, today I learned that *for me,* as a foodie who previously could go to just about any restaurant and enjoy any item on a menu, there is a considerable cost in terms of freedom of selection. And in a culture in which enjoying particular foods together is an important ritual of social cohesion, I am already feeling other costs of adherence to a vegan diet.
This communicates to me that going vegan is not something that anyone does lightly. This is no casual choice.
There was some awesome food today, too. I started the day with the steel cut oats and fresh berries pictured above, and ended it with the amazing sorbets (tomato, ginger plum, and tamarind pepper) pictured below. Jana’s flight of fortified wines was also vegan.
Today I began my Vegan for a Month experiment. As much as possible, I’d like to explore what it means to adopt not only a vegan diet, but to the best of my ability, a vegan approach to life in general. You won’t get a grocery list of all the food I ate each day. I hope to learn a little about myself in the process including my personal limits and my ethics of consumption.
Ultimately, this month at Mind on Fire should be about more than my experiment. I’d like to increase empathy and understanding for the growing population of vegans and vegetarians in the U.S. I am planning to invite a few friends to help out. These are bloggers who are currently vegan, formerly vegan, or who seriously contemplate the impact of their dietary choices on themselves and on the world. I hope that they will share their why, what, how, where and whens. How and when did they become vegan, what are their varying approaches to veganism, why did they make such a decision, etc.?
I’d also like to examine public perceptions of vegans, too, and the social ramifications of holding to a vegan diet.
I’m not making a completely radical shift today. I’ve been transitioning into this lifestyle over the past few weeks. Even though I only ate meat twice last month, and I stopped eating eggs and drinking milk for the most part, I’m still amazed at how careful I have to be now.
The picture above shows a few of the products I bought at lunch today to fill the void left behind by vacated dairy and other animal products. I went to take my vitamins this morning and realized I had been habitually swallowing fish oil supplements. So I replaced those with flax seed oil.
I exercise daily, and am currently in the steep beginner’s curve of increasing strength as a rock climber, so I’m concerned about getting adequate protein. I also already eat a lot of soy, and don’t want to add more, so I found a 100% vegan, soy-free protein supplement.
Over the past couple of weeks, I realized that it’s easy to have a few hours with food in easy access, but with little or no healthy vegetarian or vegan options. Those are painful, crabby, hungry hours. So I’m going to start carrying a couple of Clif-bar type snacks and maybe have little boxes of almond milk and fresh fruit and nuts on hand in my office.
One of my first realizations is that vegan does not necessarily mean healthy. An order of fries (in most cases, these days) and a Coke is technically vegan. I start each day with plain, organic, nonfat European-style yogurt, sprinkled with raw almonds, and sweetened only by pure distilled awesome (and fresh fruit in season). This morning I had to make it with the only soy based yogurt I could find at Trader Joe’s and it was syrupy sweet. And it had saturated fat. So I have a dual-challenge: not only do I have to completely eliminate animal products, but also to maintain a heart-healthy, strength and endurance athlete-friendly diet.
Anyhow, wish me luck!
Or taunt me. I shall only grow stronger.