I used to be a vegan. For 6 years. It all started when I began dating E, my university-and-afterwards boyfriend who was one of the major loves of my life. He had survived testicular cancer at the young age of 20, and in response to what he saw as a dietary imbalance, he became a vegan and an adherent of macrobiotic cuisine as part of a holistic attempt to heal and rebuild his body. Before cancer, E had been an amateur bodybuilder who had gone all the way in when it came to the weight-gaining aspect of the sport, eating huge meat and egg-laden protein meals that had very little to do with taste or aesthetic pleasure and everything to do with ingesting as many high-protein calories as possible.
E had gone way too far towards one end of the dietary pendulum, and when he became a macrobiotic vegan, he swung too far the other way. When I met him, he was still utilizing food as mere fuel, and a means to filling out a sort of food “prescription” for holistic healing. His meals were beyond spartan, and he was constantly anxious about having access to enough food that met his strict diet. We lived in Santa Cruz, one of the best places in North America–heck–the entire Western World–to source vegan and macrobiotic foods. Little Santa Cruz had as many health food stores as San Francisco does now, and had a weekly farmer’s market that put almost every farmer’s market other than SF’s Heart of the City to shame.
When I met E, I was settling into an off-campus life that allowed me to cook to my heart’s content, something I’d sorely missed in the dorms. I should mention that I grew up in a household where my mum cooked totally made-from-scratch meals 3 times a day plus after-school snacks that made me the envy of my classmates. She was an early health food adherent, but was of the sort who believed in whole food cooking and the elimination of processed crap, not the demonization of things like fat and sugar, as is so common in today’s American food “science”. Mum baked bread and made homemade granola for our breakfasts, as well as including liberal portions of fruits and veggies with our meals, which taught me, as a child, to love things like spinach and broccoli that kids weren’t supposed to like. (Of course, I should mention that this veggie love was encouraged at first by the promise of one of mum’s desserts!)
Mum never made us clean our plates. Instead, she raised us to eat as much as we wanted until we were full. It was this natural way of self-regulation along with her very balanced and homemade cooking that produced our thin and healthy family in a nation of hugely obese food illiterates. And it’s not genetics–my sister and I are adopted and my brother is not, yet all of us have remained thin and healthy well into middle age, and my parents in their early 70s, who are admittedly very good-looking people, are trim, look 20 years younger, and have no health problems whatsoever. So there’s something to be said about the way my mum brought us up.
She also instilled in me the love of cooking. I started helping her out in the kitchen at a very young age; I can’t remember a time when I didn’t spend long afternoons hanging about the kitchen, watching and helping her with kid-sized tasks. As a result, I can cook just about anything, and I love doing so, a real rarity amongst my generation and those younger than me. For me, cooking is as much a way of life as a fun thing to do. People are often surprised that I don’t love the new “food porn” of food TV shows and websites. A combination of being raised in my mum’s kitchen and working 20+ years in restaurants has made cooking an inextricable part of my life, not a luxury hobby, although I do understand the appeal of those glamorous cooking shows to those who are new to the game.
So when I met E, I was intrigued by his diet, but rather disappointed by his approach to eating. E was like me in that he loved to do research, and together, we learned everything we could about the diet he’d taken on. Besides the house music and raves that had brought us together, cooking and eating was the glue that made our young relationship strong. I immediately began to cook for E, and he LOVED it. His cooking skills were actually pretty decent for a typical dude of his age, but he knew very little of technique and the building block skills that I’d been taught/absorbed in my mum’s kitchen “laboratory”. Together, we began to shop and go to farmer’s markets, and I learned how to use the bounty of produce and health food store staples like whole grains and fresh tofu to make vegan meals that were healthy, but more important, were lavishly tasty and aesthetically pleasing.
I started to collect cookbooks of ethnic cuisines that were “naturally” already vegan, mainly those countries that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, especially Italy, Morocco/Tunisia and the Levant; Japan, India and Thailand. Certainly these cuisines utilized meat and dairy, but they also all have long traditions of celebrating the flavors and aesthetic beauty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains. There was such a huge variety of cooking traditions and techniques to match the bounty of amazing produce found around Santa Cruz on California’s Central Coast that I found myself having a great time learning to cook a seemingly endless parade of new dishes–and E was in vegan heaven.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the weird world of faux meat. Tofu I love–and that’s pretty much the only fake meat product I like, and it can be argued that tofu–fresh soybean curd–isn’t really a meat analogue but a protein source in its own category. Tofu is very minimally processed soybeans, in contrast to the massive amounts of processing and questionable lab-derived flavorings along with loads of sodium that goes into the production of wheat meats, textured vegetable protein, Quorn and the whole range of Morningstar products and the like. None of those faux products really taste or feel like quality meat, and they are so processed and fractional that they are horrible sources of nutrition and often cause digestive distress.
But faux meat (and faux dairy) has good marketing–I guess it has to in order to convince supposedly health-oriented consumers that they should buy an ultra-processed, nutritionally barren product that is essentially meat and dairy-free junk food, and also tastes inferior to the item it’s trying to replace–when there’s a whole world of delicious and gorgeous alternatives in the produce section just waiting for vegans to notice them.
When E and I would talk with other vegans we knew, the latest faux meat that “tasted almost like the real thing” was always a big topic of discussion. I was always shocked to learn how many vegans didn’t really know how to cook past heating up pre-made stuff. In order to maintain a healthy and interesting vegan diet, you really haveto cook. But that’s just it: a great number of vegans we met were eating unhealthy, unbalanced diets full of over-processed vegan junk food, resulting in the odd phenomenon of the chubby vegan. The chubby vegan also exists because vegans are continuously anxious about finding and getting enough vegan food in what they see as a hostile meat and dairy-eating world. Finding and getting enough “pure” vegan food becomes an righteous obsession, resulting in overeating and extra pounds.
From what I gathered, a good percentage of vegans had a somewhat strange attitude towards food, bordering on an eating disorder. Meat and dairy were labeled “bad” for various reasons like animal rights and health reasons stemming from swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction of unhealthy American/Western diets full of huge quantities of cheaply produced and poor quality meat and dairy. But things stopped at “bad” and there never was any “good”. This sort of attitude leads quickly to the “churchmarm syndrome”, where the vegan becomes a negative scold, focusing on the preachy aspects of becoming vegan rather than the sensual pleasures of discovering all that that nature has to offer with gorgeous, amazing vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains. If the vegan doesn’t have the liberating background of cooking skills, he or she remains stuck in the “bad”, and becomes sadly focused upon meat and dairy, perhaps also leading to the obsession with meat and dairy analogues.
Most vegan restaurants are focused on presenting vegan versions of junky foods like mac’n’cheese, hamburgers, hot dogs, breakfast meats, buffalo wings, and the like instead of focusing on cuisines that make the most of healthy, natural vegan ingredients. Veganism becomes more of an exercise of holier-than-thou denials that produces the expected fiending for junk food binging on “treats”, very much like a yo-yo dieter on the lam. Which begs the question: if the vegan craves meat and dairy products so much that they’ll gorge on way over-processed junk, why not then eat high-quality, humanely and sustainably produced meat and dairy IN MODERATION?
After 6 years of veganism with E, I finally admitted that I still loved fine cheeses, a really good steak with sauce Bearnaise, the wonderful world of European cured meats, and real ice cream, to say nothing of buttery pastry, oysters, BLTs and eggs Benedict. The same forces that drove me to kick out the jams cooking soulful vegan meals brought me back to meat and dairy. But one thing my mum taught us whilst growing up was moderation in almost every aspect of life, but certainly with food.
My diet as a child featured a great deal less meat and dairy–especially junky meat and dairy–than most of my peers, so it wasn’t too hard to revert to this style as an adult making my own dietary choices. For an aesthete and food lover like myself, sticking to a purely vegan diet was leaving out too many luscious delicacies. And I’ve never had any trouble moderating food or drink. Besides the limitations of a vegan diet, I was ultimately troubled by the rigidity and dogma in vegan culture that seemed way too similar to pleasure-denying Fundamentalist religions. Humane and sustainable animal husbandry negates the vegan concerns of animal cruelty and environmental degradation, and moderation alleviates dietary worries as well as it keeps the meat and dairy industries at a sustainable level of existence.
I’m 100% certain that a strict vegan would argue till Kingdom come that I’m a hypocrite. And I sincerely doubt that this essay will convince any vegan to change their ways. But this was my journey, and cooking and eating are two of my dearest loves, and are an important part of who I am. And so, as I finish this marathon of typing, I shall retire to the kitchen to fix myself a tasty slice of my homemade blueberry-raspberry pie made with a butter and lard pastry, and a nice scoop of French vanilla bean ice cream. Yum!