I started a vegan diet this past week and I plan to carry it through Thanksgiving.
Before this thanksgiving, I tried going vegan, and since then I haven’t looked back. That’s not to say it’s been easy.
I’ve had to scrape the cheese off of a slice of pizza. I had to decline an amazing éclair I would have normally shared with a friend. Those acts of willpower taught me something about myself. Once the time is here to be with family and sit around the dinner table enjoying a meal together, I will refuse whatever animal product I am faced with, including the ham and the honey glaze. But that’s not how I envisioned my Thanksgiving would go just a short while ago.
I started the journey a couple of weeks ago when my supervisor challenged me to it, but I wasn’t fully convinced until I saw a movie the same day about factory farming, “At the Fork.” I realized the animals I was eating were emotionally complicated.
I also realized the importance of how I was spending my money. More often than not, I was buying and eating whatever was most convenient to me so I could get to where I was going. I didn’t consider the entire process involved in purchasing something or where my money went.
As I learned from the film, when I’m buying something, it usually has the effect of increasing demand for that item. Once demand increases, a company assesses what it needs to do to meet the demand. Somewhere down the supply chain, you reach the point of animal agriculture, where your dollar means you want cattle that are cheaper and taste better. This translates to cattle that are fatter, have shorter life spans and have a lower quality of life to live.
The film showed animals in a variety of situations to which they reacted with a variety of emotions. There were calm pigs in a pasture, a mature female pig getting visibly distressed because she couldn’t be with her children, and a herd of them squealing as they were forced onto a truck.
Emotions, for the most part, are how I understand whether something is right or wrong. I don’t mean that how good or bad something feels determines whether I do it. I mean that, after thinking about it, my emotional response to something leads me to a conclusion. So, contrasting the idyllic with the chaotic scenes in the movie, I felt that the animals portrayed were worthy of respect.
So, in response to these scenes, I went vegan. My thoughts on the diet have changed drastically since I have actually had the experience of adapting to it. Before, I had made lifestyle changes that are similar, like not eating meat for a month, but vegetarianism is only half of veganism. There’s a whole other realization when you go through the grocery store, looking for products without dairy, meat or eggs, and you find that most, if not all of what you usually get, contains at least one of those. There’s much to learn from these restrictions and the opportunities they provide.
First off, I started eating out more. The first night I went vegan, I went out with a friend. The food was avocado tostadas with perfectly seasoned waffle fries, both of which went well with the vegan chai latte I had gotten. On top of these, I got a non-dairy pumpkin pie shake. Getting all of this in one night was new for me. I hadn’t been one to splurge when going out, but going vegan gave me the opportunity. I appreciated the break, and I felt like it was earned. I was eating according to a new moral code.
Second, I was forced to cook. I couldn’t go out to eat forever, so something had to change. Before going vegan, all I wanted to eat was right in front of me. Plain Greek yogurt and buttered toast every morning; Baja chicken wraps for lunch; turkey, provolone, lettuce, mustard and mayo sandwiches on toasted buns or strips of tender, juicy beef for dinner. These staples, what I had been eating everyday, were now out of reach. So I had to replace them too. I realized that I had taken what I was eating every day for granted and how little I knew about cooking.
I hadn’t used vegetable oil before. So now was the time to be a cook, and to do that I needed patience and practice. There was no patience in rushing to make as many sandwiches as possible in the morning or eating whatever was left over in the work fridge. I needed to take the time to understand what I liked and disliked in what I was eating. No, I didn’t like eating the same thing everyday. I should change it up.
So, by practicing, I was able to tell if what I was cooking was good or not. The wait time was annoying, but the satisfaction in the end is worth it. I either made something I liked or something that could have been tweaked in a few ways. Either way, I made something that I enjoyed eating.
When I tried cooking, it was accidental. I started with a salad of spinach, peppers and tomatoes. I was considering whether I should add something to it that would give it some warmth and more flavor, so I started cooking some veggie burgers. While I was doing this, I started using vegetable oil and decided to cut the burgers into pieces, and eventually I had a whole pan full of mixed vegetables. After piling the vegetables onto the salad and mixing the two together, I had a meal I was proud to enjoy. I improvised, and it turned out well.
Even if I had gotten something wrong or it hadn’t tasted right, trying it out is a step in the right direction. And anything I would want to make, I could find by looking it up. I thought vegan chocolate was impossible, but there are chocolate chip cookie recipes that look delicious. And conchas, sweet breads that I absolutely love, have vegan substitutes too.
But veganism has its challenges – serious ones. On the same night I began the switch, after having dinner, I went to a dessert bar. I bought the vegan cupcakes and, once I bit into one, realized they were not good. The flavor wasn’t all bad but the texture was awful. Something I learned later was, without an adequate substitute for eggs and dairy, baked goods are hard, grainy and lack the texture you expect from non-vegan ones.
And, now that I was eating out more often, I had to pay the bill. I didn’t know what to eat while I was on campus, and I was too lazy to go home and make something. I didn’t want to look around the school for the best price, so I picked the most convenient option, a vending machine. After scrolling through the options for a minute, I found something I liked, a sweet and savory napa chickpea wrap. I was soon spending nearly $30 a day on food.
Eating at home was another challenge. I was also too lazy to figure out what to eat that wasn’t already at home. So I had a few options. These were: peanut-buttered toast, raisin bran with almond milk, and fruits and vegetables. If you aren’t making anything with the last option, you are going to get bored with the first two. There are only so many times you can eat raisin bran and almond milk and appreciate both, and there comes a point when you realize you’ve eaten six pieces of peanut-buttered toast within the past 12 hours.
There was intimidation from non-vegans too.
An unsuspecting club lunch became torture. I was faced with squash while nearly everybody else at the table had some combination of turkey, gravy, biscuits, apple pie or pumpkin pie. Even worse, someone next to me insisted that I try the turkey and gravy and described how good it was to me.
On another occasion, I was at a drive-thru and had to find something vegan. I didn’t want to look through the menu, so I quickly asked if they had any vegan options. A friend next to me, grinning, said I sounded like a dork. As I came up to the window, the employee’s expression gave me the same impression. The bean burrito was disappointing, but I looked forward to better days.
And those better days seem to be on the horizon.
At first, Thanksgiving felt like a formidable event. I would have to explain my eating habits to my relatives and hope my grandmother spares me the ridicule for refusing to eat what she made. There was no hope in sight until I realized that, not only would I be waiting another month for extended family, but that preparations were made for a semi-vegan Thanksgiving. Now I can look forward to a casserole I can eat, and with my newfound confidence in cooking I can create almost anything I want.
I’m still considering what I need to account for nutritionally, but overall veganism has helped me realize the importance of what I choose to eat and the potential in cooking. I wish I had known these things earlier, but the sooner you know the better. And there’s no better way, to me at least, to experience these things than to try it for yourself.