My month as a vegan
The author in a friend's kitchen after baking a handmade vegan pizza. Photo courtesy Taylor Swope.
The clock read 11:55 pm and I was faced with a predicament. How should I spend my last five minutes as an omnivore before going vegan for a month?
I could let the time slip away or stuff myself. It didn’t take too long to decide. I shoved slices of pumpkin roll into my mouth. It’s not that I love pumpkin. It was all about the cream cheese.
Which brings me to an essential point about my experiment in animal-free eating. Do you have any idea how much living without cheese sucks? Well, I do, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Then again, what happens to cows in making cheese kind of sucks, too, but I digress.
Living as a vegan for 31 days sounded like fun, since that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. I also blame these factors:
My job: I write about restaurants for Columbus Monthly, so I’m always drooling over local menus and I’d noticed a trend. Just to name a couple, Betty’s Family of Restaurants and Columbus Brewing Company offer vegan-friendly options now.
My brother: He’s been a vegetarian for six years. He also had a brief stint as a vegan, which should have scared me away.
A guy (isn’t there always?): I met this guy who happens to be vegan and cute. One night last spring, a group of mutual friends congregated at Huntington Park for Dime-A-Dog night and Cute Vegan Guy actually brought homemade “sausages” to eat so he wouldn’t have to beg for lettuce from a concession stand. (I was impressed he snuck in fake meat instead of, say, booze.) We also went a few times to the Burgundy Room, where he negotiated with servers to ensure he wasn’t ordering anything with breading that could have been dipped in an egg batter (or something like that).
But shifting from meat-eater to vegan—skipping the whole vegetarian phase—was an extreme choice for me. Plus, choosing December, a month full of big social events centered on eating, was probably the worst idea I’d ever had, besides that one time I cut my own hair.
Although I gagged every time I prepared tofu (it looks like a block of curdled milk), I emerged from this journey a changed woman. I now think differently about my diet, how food is processed and veganism itself.
But don’t expect to see me naked in a PETA ad anytime soon.
Veganism is not for wimps
Going vegan sounds easy. It’s just plants, right? Yes, but I went from never thinking twice about eating anything to obsessing all the time about everything I ate (more on that later).
Although I did feel healthier and greener, the urge to eat processed food that would eventually clog my arteries sometimes was overpowering. On numerous occasions, I really, really, really wanted a pizza with greasy, wonderful cheese. As you’ll learn, I wasn’t always up to the challenge of resisting temptation.
I also discovered vegans have to learn to explain themselves. A lot. People are curious and ask questions. For instance, there was the wedding reception I attended where I got a different meal than everyone else at the table. And there was a holiday outing with the Columbus Monthly editorial staff at Marcella’s in the Short North when my diet became a main topic of discussion. I felt uncomfortable—guilty that I was dominating the conversation without trying to fuel it.
Eventually, I got used to the attention.
Grocery shopping for dummies
On my first trip to Kroger, I spent two hours trying to figure out what to buy.
It was exhausting.
I did what any good vegan would do and parked myself in the Nature’s Market section. I inspected labels until my vision started to blur. I realized that if I were going to be a super-strict vegan, my only food choice would be grass. So any item that said, “May contain milk or eggs” wasn’t crossed off the list.
Here’s a sampling of my cart: Silk soy milk, Gardein “chicken” breasts (three for $7), Yves “ground beef” ($10 for one pound!), tempeh (vegetable protein that can be substituted for meat), “bacon” strips, lentils (which are still sitting in my refrigerator), tofu, vegetarian refried beans for tacos, soy yogurt ($1 per carton), Lightlife lunch “meat” and wine, wine and more wine (hey, I had to dull the pain of no cheese with something).
When I finally made my way to the checkout, I was worried what the damage might be. For good reason: I had spent $127. Usually, my bill is that much for my two roommates and me.
There are two co-ops in Greater Columbus: the Clintonville Community Market and the Bexley Natural Market. There were times I left the Clintonville Market wondering about some of the things I’d seen on the shelves, such as menstrual cups and sea sponges (don’t ask). And there’s PMS tea, too. The point is, it has a natural approach to everything. So it’s a great place for people who see veganism as a lifestyle and not just a different way to eat.
And I learned that the Clintonville Market carries the most convincing non-dairy ice cream I came across. Pick up any flavor of soy-based Purely Decadent ice cream and thank me later.
Perhaps the most ridiculous shopping experience I endured was when I went on a scavenger hunt through a Kroger to find ingredients for holiday spice cupcakes. I learned an important lesson about cooking as a vegan after I spent $50 to make 24 cupcakes. I had to buy two tubs of Tofutti’s “Better Than Cream Cheese,” almond milk, almond extract (which better last a long time because it was $5 for a tiny jar!) and oat flour, which took me 30 minutes and several laps around the store to find at the very bottom of a shelf in Nature’s Market. The cupcakes were good, but I’m still bitter about that almond extract.
I should have just gone to Pattycake Bakery and saved myself the trouble.
I would swear off eating animals right now if I had someone cooking for me every day—just like the personal chef Oprah used for her recent dip into veganism. But since I’m not a media mogul (yet) I had to get by on my own. And that definitely was the most challenging part of the experience for me, considering I once confused steam with smoke while attempting to boil water.
A couple of weeks into December, Cute Vegan Guy helped me make two pizzas with vegan dough from Trader Joe’s: one with Daiya mozzarella “cheese” and one with just tomato sauce and vegetables. A veggie pizza was a new world for me. We grilled onions and peppers and threw them over a mess of tomato sauce (I went a little crazy). Still, it was better than the one with cheese since I was still coming to terms with substitutes.
I also made spinach lasagna. Cute Vegan Guy loves to cook, but he thought it would be funny to put me in charge of this particular dish. After I had been cutting the same onion for 20 minutes, he retracted his idea and took over. (Unless you’ve almost cut off your fingertip with an X-Acto knife, don’t judge me, OK?)
As it turned out, blended tofu is a great substitute for ricotta cheese. We added soy milk, cloves of garlic, those damn onions and other spices to add flavor. After mixing this in a food processor, it looked like cheese and it tasted almost as good. (I made this dish on Christmas morning to take to our family dinner that consisted of meat, eggs, meat, dairy, meat and more meat; I disregarded the hippie vegan jokes and enjoyed my cooking victory.)
I don’t want to give the impression that I did everything right. For example, I tried to make spinach and artichoke dip for my friend Mike’s homebrew unveiling. Even Cute Vegan Guy, who normally tried to encourage my culinary attempts, made a funny face when he tried the inedible blob. And it’s pretty hard to screw up a taco salad, but when I proudly texted my mother a photo of one I made, she replied, “Don’t eat that. Love, Mom.”
You won’t die
When I told my family about this experiment, my mother the nurse tried to convince me I was going to lose weight or die. So that she could sleep at night without worrying about her firstborn wasting away, I promised to talk to a dietitian or two, which I did after my experiment.
Here’s what I learned: Being vegan can be healthy if people plan a diet, says Alyssa Bixler, a registered dietitian at OhioHealth’s McConnell Heart Center. But, she adds, “If you’re eating Pop-Tarts and potato chips, you’re not going to have those health benefits—weight management, blood sugar control, cancer prevention—even if they’re vegan.” She stresses the importance of vegans supplementing their diets with vitamin B12 (which meat eaters get from bacteria found in animal intestines).
And vegans should choose websites such as eatright.org, the national registered dietitians organization, for information, instead of those run by animal rights groups, says Mike Folino, assistant director of nutrition services at Ohio State University Medical Center. “Their motives aren’t based on health; they’re based on animal rights,” he says, “which is important, but shouldn’t be driving your health.”
I cheated probably 10 times during my month as a vegan. One night when I probably could have used some of that co-op PMS tea, I reached for a handful of gooey, buttery popcorn that my sister practically was waving in my face. I ate a lemon bar without even considering the poor cow’s bone marrow. I also had a piece of orange chicken at P.F. Chang’s a week into the experiment.
But since I had that chicken in early December, I haven’t eaten any meat (fish and other sea creatures included). I’m a vegetarian now. I eat dairy and eggs, but usually only if they’re cooked in something. I’m fairly certain I’ll never enjoy a scrambled egg again and I blame Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I picked it up after I heard actress Natalie Portman say in an interview that his research caused her to go vegan after being a vegetarian for 20 years. It’s a tough read, especially the ways (cruel, to me) animals are treated before and while they’re slaughtered.
I used to think if I bought eggs marked “cage free,” I was doing OK. But here’s the thing about that label: It’s basically designed to make the consumer feel better. Foer writes he “could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.”
For me, this experiment was invaluable. I no longer think ignorance is bliss. I read labels thoroughly and I have an insatiable desire to know how what I’m eating became food. My goal is eventually to go animal-free all the time.
I still have some work to do with my diet since I ended up losing two pounds during the month. My plan is to take a few cooking classes, do some more research and gradually build my pantry into a vegan-friendly place.
Before I did this experiment, I thought vegans were a little nuts.
I learned my lesson.
Taylor Swope is an assistant editor for Columbus Monthly.