Monthly Archives: July 2013

Why being a home vegan works for me

It’s often debated whether or not it’s hard to be vegan, but in all of this online discussion I rarely come across the two issues that have been most difficult for me. One, I got over with time; the other is why I don’t think I’ll ever become a strict vegan. I’m going to leave the one I overcame for another post and talk about the one I didn’t – the reason (or cluster of reasons) why home veganism works for me.

I was brought up to be a very flexible eater. This is a set of family values that extends beyond eating what is put in front of you, and even beyond showing appreciation for the fact that someone has provided you with food. It was just as much about being open-minded: never knowing what you like and don’t like until you try it, and understanding that tastes change, so the things you don’t like often deserve another try – and another. These are values I was taught to apply to the rest of life as well, and I often thank my parents for the degree of openness and flexibility I have been able to take out into the world, and for all of the experiences that have unfolded from this.

A lot of people say they’re not picky eaters, but in my experience this statement usually comes with a list of caveats – maybe a short list, but still a list. In my old life, I would truly eat almost anything. Of course I had preferences, but I was always willing to be adventurous with sampling local dishes when I traveled, and never declined to try something that was prepared for or served to me. It’s not so much that I worry about missing out on food encounters or opportunities now that I eat almost entirely vegan. I know my new diet opens all sorts of other doors. It’s more that my openness to food was a big part of my identity, and one I’ve realized I was quite proud of.

It wasn’t my ability to choke down the bizarre that I was proud of (ok, maybe a little), but the kinds of experiences and relationships my openness helped me find. People loved to eat with me and this opened all sorts of doors – literally and figuratively. It also helped put people at ease around me in ways I was thanked for on more occasions than I can remember.

This old identity is probably 90% of the reason why I’m a home vegan. Food is best shared and, for me, this means a two-way street. I love exposing the people in my life to vegan foods, whether through restaurants or my cooking (or, now, my blog!). So much of why I love it, though, is because I get to share the experience of these foods with them. I can’t let go of being able to return this – not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of balance that is at the heart of my identity. This doesn’t mean I won’t propose vegan alternatives or work out vegan options, and it doesn’t mean my ideas of how to maintain this balance won’t shift (they definitely have already). It does mean I’ll still eat turkey with my family on Christmas. It does mean I’ll join you at your favorite ice cream shop even if it doesn’t have any non-dairy alternatives. It does mean I’ll have a taste of your chicken curry if you want me to see how amazing it is. And, of course I’d love a piece of your birthday cake (just hold the ice cream, please)!

As for the other 10% of the reason why I’m a home vegan, I’d sum that up as taste, practicality, and ease. Interestingly, I realized only as I was writing this that I’ve become vegetarian in this space.

It’s been very strange to have this rupture emerge between how I eat in and outside my home, and it’s a divide I’m still in the process of working out how to navigate. I’m amazed and ever-more intrigued by the complexity of our engagement with food and its surrounding culture. I’d love to hear about your experiences as well – either trying to follow a restrictive diet (of any type, for whatever reasons) or cooking for, travelling with, marrying, etc. someone who does.

 

The Beginning…

 

As I start this blog, I’ve been what I call a “home vegan” a couple months short of two years. I eat vegan at home, but generally go with the flow when I’m out. I know a lot of people would say this makes me not vegan at all. I also know a lot of people get around the language issues of what actually constitutes “vegan” by saying instead that they eat a plant-based diet. But, for whatever reason, vegan – as label, identity, and community – feels like food culture home to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become a strict vegan. That said, I’ve gone much further down the vegan rabbit hole than I ever imagined I would. It’s not just that I’ve stepped things up from my initial 80% home veganism, but also that so many of my feelings about food and how I eat have changed.

Unlike many of the accounts I’ve read where people made a very conscious decision to become vegan, whether for health or ideological reason, I ended up vegan by accident. I was staying with vegan friends (a.k.a. http://forkoffheartdisease.wordpress.com/) and it turned out all of my favorite dishes were the genius of Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. I went home and ordered Veganomicon and Appetite for Reduction pretty much as soon as I got in the door. I figured it would be a nice shake up to integrate 2-3 vegan recipes a week. The food turned out to be so good and so in alignment with how I like to cook and eat (lots of flavor and variety, but simple and affordable ingredients) that it was all I craved.

At first, I still put milk in my tea and coffee, didn’t pay much attention to whether there were eggs or dairy in the baked goods I bought, and cooked meat-centered meals on special occasions. Gradually, these things fell away. I’m still working my way through my old bottle of Worchester Sauce (though I did finally throw away the chicken and beef stock cubes from the back of my cupboard a few weeks ago) and I very occasionally still bring in baking without worrying about its contents (there are four bakeries on my street!), but that’s it – at home.

The progression from 80% to 99% home vegan, though, didn’t really involve any kind of mental shift. It happened mostly as a result of learning more about how to prepare vegan alternatives – and developing a serious taste for black coffee. The real change has been in how I feel about eating outside my home. When I first started cooking vegan regularly, I thought of it as a treat to eat animal products when I was out. Quite quickly, this shifted to being less a treat and more a sense of better value for money. Funds have been tight, and if I wasn’t at a specifically veggie restaurant, it felt less financially wasteful to shell out for sophisticated meat or fish dishes than for veggie pasta or risotto that I could top with ease at home.

With time, there was a third shift. Without really thinking about it, I found myself making ever-greater efforts to keep vegan (or at least veggie) form when I’m out as well. Partly, this is because I feel noticeably better when I stick to plant foods. But also, feeling as good as I do without animal products, I find it increasingly difficult to take pleasure in consuming them, however rarely (even my old favorite restaurant treat, crab cakes). Still, while I believe whole-heartedly in the value of eating vegan – for health, for animals, and for the environment – there are social and cultural factors that keep me “just” a home vegan. This is where I will pick up with my next post: Why being a home vegan works for me.