There is something about vegans and food. Specifically, vegans and their food. I know that that is somewhat of a sweeping generalisation, but I can confidently declare that most of the vegan crowd I hang with sure do have a thing about the glory of what they choose to eat.
Years ago, as a child discovering my world, I was eating my dinner in front of television with my father. That was quite the norm in our house. Suddenly overcome with that childlike curiosity, I asked Dad where meat comes from. Wouldn’t you know it, a cow just happened to be on the screen, right then. Saving himself too much trouble, he pointed at the cow and simply said, “Them.”
What a slap in the face! Never would I have expected that I was eating the very beings for who I felt so much love and connection, even as a four-or-five year old. “I’m never eating meat again,” I spluttered. The irony of that scenario is that I didn’t have the remotest clue as to what was involved in turning a living, breathing, sentient being into a piece of flesh on a plate, but just like that, I knew it was wrong.
My resolve must have lasted at least for a meal or two. I made a couple of attempts at vegetarianism in my teens, even though Mum always made sure I at least ate gravy so that I would get some “goodness”. (Vegetables obviously weren’t good). It wasn’t until after I had moved out of home, had turned 26 and above all, witnessed the foulest thing I had ever seen to that point in my life (the commercial slaughter of a cow) that I finally gave up eating meat for good. Blissfully ignorant of things like battery cages and bobby calves, of castration without anaesthetic and infants being torn from their mothers, I carried right on eating eggs and dairy. I made especially certain that I got my three serves of dairy every day so that my skeleton wouldn’t desiccate by the time I turned 40 (yeah, clever marketing, dairy industry).
Besides, I was particularly fond of scrambled eggs, ice cream and – the big one – cheese.
If I were inclined to wallow, I would waste energy on wondering why it took another 17 years before I properly became vegan. Because it was only when I made my commitment to that philosophy and lifestyle, that something profound happened to my food. The Food Blinkers came off!
I can bet money that many vegans reading this will be nodding their head and smiling wryly in agreement. It’s not intellectual; it’s this thing we viscerally understand. Our lifestyle choice is not all about the food – but omg – the freaking food! More about that later.
The first tentative steps into veganism were on a lonely road for me, back in 2000. There were no mentors, no vegan friends; my Mum thought I was aiming straight for malnutrition. Soy milk tasted like ear wax. I certainly didn’t get 99,300,000 hits when I Googled “vegan”! My biggest ally was one supportive friend with whom I grew up. She moved to London and would visit her Mum back in Perth a couple of times a year. This dear friend would prepare suitable meals for me when we all caught up at her Mum’s, and she also presented me with my first vegan cookbook (called The Vegan Cookbook), which she lovingly and thoughtfully brought back for me from England. As far as I recall, there were no vegan cookbooks available pretty much anywhere in the universe at that time (apart from England!), and if there were, either I couldn’t find them or they must have been forgettable poop.
And you can’t jimmy a banquet out of forgettable poop.
I faltered soon after; admitting my Achilles Heel was made of little more than Jarlsburg. And most certainly the cheapest kilo block of cheese in the supermarket chilled section, because I ate so much of the stuff. When I ordered a deep pan pizza at Pizza Hut, that thing had extra cheese on it anyway, but I would order it with extra cheese on the extra cheese. Couldn’t be arsed cooking? Cheese sandwiches for dinner. Cauliflower was invented to be smothered in cheese sauce, because otherwise – what’s the point to a cauliflower? Dessert? Cheesecake. Tiramisu. Cheese and jam sandwiches.
What I have since discovered is that cheese is often the stumbling block for many humans who are vegetarian and are considering veganism. While they earnestly gravitate towards giving up all animal products because these people are truly compassionate and realise the moral implications of their continued consumption of, in this case, dairy, their yearning for cheese is a powerful yearning indeed.
It is a bit challenging for me to relate to this now, but I went through it big time. Nowadays the thought of eating a huge chunk of solidified, salted fat hardly has the pulling power it used to. I have since discovered a little dairy opiate called casomorphin and the subsequent suggestion that addiction to dairy is real. Jonathan Bechtel can give you a leg-up about it: “Beta-casomorphin-7 is a naturally occurring opiate, which is a compound that creates euphoria and is the basis for drugs like morphine, codeine, and oxycodone”. There is plenty of information about casomorphin; the fact that casein is present in the milk of mammalian mothers and its conversion into casomorphin helps calm an infant. There are also plenty of references to it as “Nature’s crack”. The short story is that if you tell yourself that you would go vegan except that you are addicted to cheese, you are exposing your crack for all to see…. The truth is you are an addict and should immediately enrol in a 12-Step program.
None of this was relevant to my epiphany about dairy, though, especially since I found out about casomorphin long after I embraced veganism. I once walked into a Peter Singer lecture in Perth a vegetarian. He talked about what happens to calves in the dairy industry. And I walked out vegan. Message received and understood. Me suffering withdrawals from cheese could in no way justify what happens to those babies.
Human mothers reading this, if you aren’t vegan now….consider how you would feel if someone took your baby away from you after he or she had suckled just enough colostrum for it to do its job. The wonder of motherly love is often represented by an image of Mother Cow and her baby. You think she doesn’t feel loss when a human takes her newborn away for the entirety of its infancy or even its life? Or do you believe that because she can’t tell you her pain in a language that you understand, that she doesn’t suffer? She might meet her daughter again when she (her daughter) is introduced to the dairy herd to begin her own continuous cycle of pregnancy, calving, loss, lactating and, finally, slaughter. Her sons are not so lucky – you can’t get milk out of a boy; many will be killed within five days; many will be slaughtered at four months of age for veal. Some will be allowed to mature into bulls to inseminate the dairy herd, after semen is artificially collected for artificial insemination. Are you shuddering in disgust yet? This is shudderworthy stuff.
Just another thing to remove those big, gentle beings from their natural urges and instincts.
Once I became vegan it did not take long and I was meeting other vegans and being shown all sorts of things of which, till then, I had been unaware. A couple of vegan social groups were forming as other people tested the waters around them. We started to gather once a week and share food and ideas, stories and information about new products. Then my partner, Jiffy, watched Earthlings and renounced his vegetarianism for veganism too. Together we embarked on an adventure that has been so incredibly rewarding and, just as a bonus, we have picked up some of the most amazing friends one could ever wish for.
They are kind, compassionate, generous; they love animals; they love their food, and they are eye-wateringly funny.
When we get together for a social gathering you can pretty much bet on the fact that the gathering will involve two things – firstly, food. Lots and lots of food. Secondly, lots and lots of laughing. We gather, we eat and we laugh. And eat. Mainly eat. And laugh.
Most gatherings involve a fair amount of awe to boot. I could tell you that I respect life and nature enough to feel humbled by it all, and cultivating a sense of awe helps one to stay grateful (and it would certainly be the truth). But mostly we are in awe of the food. You see, there is something about vegans and food. Speaking for myself, I experience sheer joy and amazement when I gaze upon a vegan spread. Commence fanging, and the experience becomes slightly transcendental.
This is probably beautifully described by my recent exchange with a shop assistant I met in a health store in a suburban shopping centre. I was looking for something and I asked him to help me locate it. I informed him it would have to be vegan and he piped up that he was a new convert to vegetarianism. He had been vego for only three months and boy, was he ever enthusiastic about his newly-adopted lifestyle. I listened to his exuberant sharing and thought I must have sounded a lot like that at times. Actually, I probably still do.
Then he told me all about how he had gone to a store or market and bought an organic cucumber. “The taste!” he squeaked, close to happy tears. Ah yes, Grasshopper – you are on your way.
So, what is it about vegans and food? For a start, the food is awesome. It is amazing. The vegans I hang out with give a damn about making meals tasty and, mostly, nutritious. Some omnivores are under the mistaken impression that vegan food is all healthy, but it isn’t. We have junk food too! But pretty much all of it, healthy through to junk, is delicious.
Secondly, vegans get a big kick in ‘veganising’ old favourite recipes. Just last weekend I was looking through my books for a banana cake recipe. The only one I could find without hitting Google was in one of two favourite vegetarian cookbooks I hoard from my former life. It called for milk, butter and eggs. Milk and butter are a no-brainer to substitute (soy milk or homemade cashew milk, and vegan margarine). Eggs? I made a vegan egg substitute staple – use a stick blender to blast a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with three tablespoons of water (equivalent to one egg). The recipe said two eggs, so I doubled the amount. Organic flaxseeds and filtered water, I might add. The cake came out of the oven all risen and cake-like. I split it in half, loaded on sliced, fresh strawberries macerated overnight in maple syrup, clapped it back together and topped it with a ‘cream cheese’ frosting. It was moist (mwah!), succulent (mwah!) and tasted so very, very, really very good.
While cakes are easy to veganise, the point here is that veganism is not a ‘diet’; it is especially not a lifestyle of doing without. It is a lifestyle of creativity and invention, wherein is thrown even a little bit of ingenuity, and you get the whole cornucopia of good stuff. Spaghetti bolognaise? Check. Gourmet hotdog with spicy Italian sausage? Check. Pizza? Of course! Lasagne – with ‘cheese sauce’. You got it. Breads, pies, cookies and the entire gamut of desserts from trifle to tiramisu – complete with whipped cream! If a soy cream is not to your liking, soak some unroasted cashews in water, then blend the crap out of them in a good-quality blender, one that purees those suckers at 38,000 rpm into the smoothest, creamiest consistency possible. Maybe add maple syrup or vanilla essence. Presto! Cashew cream! I even found a recipe for meringue on a packet of commercial egg replacer a few days ago. Haven’t gone there yet, but it is on my list of things to do. I now have visions of vegan pavlova.
And the best thing about veganising? Besides the deliciousness and the fact that nobody gets hurt? One has a really appreciative bunch of munchers who will gratefully lick their plates clean and weep with joy as they declare the cook a Vehicle of Greatness.
Ultimately, though, what I believe is the thing behind ‘vegans and food’ is less about the food itself than one might think. After all, there are plenty of omnivores out there who get almost as much pleasure from eating. From my own experience, I am convinced that this tangible lightness of being is more to do with the absence of guilt.
Oh, did you just feel something?
When I used to eat animals I could easily wipe off an annoying sense of doubt about what I was doing by declaring profound statements such as, “Humans were meant to eat meat!” This was clearly when I was someone’s God’s right-hand person and had an intimate knowledge of His (or Her) plan. As if! The truth is, I thought I did. I heard my Dad say it a few times in an effort to underscore his ‘right’ to consume someone else’s arm, although I’m not sure who gave him the right. Why was I feeling doubt about eating meat? I didn’t want to feel it; frankly it was interfering with my enjoyment of chowing down on someone else’s leg, not to mention all those other bits of someone else that tasted so good. I adored animals, but it was simply their lot to lie down and die so that I could eat their corpses.
That’s right, punters – ‘meat’ is just another word for ‘corpse’.
When I look back, I remember sometimes feeling horribly guilty and I guess that the guilt was actually always there – young, healthy animals being killed just so that I could have steak or a Christmas turkey. A few moments of taste, is all. Burdened with empathy, it is hardly surprising that I did become vegan – but it was hands down the best thing I have ever done. The added bonus was that once I made my life’s commitment to veganism, I unwittingly shed the guilt yoke. Granted, it took me a while to notice. I knew I felt better about not eating animal products right from the get-go, but sensing and acknowledging that aforementioned ‘lightness of being’ didn’t happen for maybe a couple of years. Once I became aware of it, that sense of lightness was and is a most wonderful way to be.
Perhaps this is why we often hear omnivores complain about vegans wanting everyone to go vegan. Never mind that it is better for the planet, for us and of course, the animals – we have simply discovered a better way to be that goes far beyond walking the talk, and we really want everyone to feel this amazing way. It also goes far beyond ego and the human concept of us being the centre of the universe, or God’s chosen, or whatever you like to call being plain old selfish. In the Grand Scheme of Things, it is possible that we are no more a miracle than a dung beetle. Or, to put it another way: a dung beetle is every bit as much a miracle as we.
The bearable lightness of being. Why try it?
Because it is just awesome.
For the critters