Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Days 28: Friday
Breakfast: Skipped (late for the bus!).
Lunch: A very poor salad and some french fries (from Burger King—I was on the road and forgot my lunch.
Dinner: A ten-course vegan tasting menu blowout at Craigie on Main.
It's been four weeks of complete veganism, and I'm finally back on my regular diet again. Well, that's a bit of a stretch, considering the fact that I don't think I'll ever go back to eating the way that I did before. For the past few days, the first question most people have asked is, "so what did you eat to celebrate?" It's a surprising question because to me, celebration implies that somehow eating meat for the first time in a month is a reward, something I had been working my way towards.
I haven't felt that way at all.
I don't consider meat to be a reward at all, rather I see it as simply another ingredient, one that's culinarily no better or worse than any other ingredient. Sure, meat has its merits, but when it comes down to it, can I say with confidence that a steak or a hamburger is better by my own high culinary standards than any of the unbelievable variety of vegetables there are in the world? Better than candy-sweet beets or juicy, savory braised kale or—my favorite—chickpeas? Definitely not. Different, but not better.
Now I know there are those who'd disagree, and I myself probably would have a month ago, but if being vegan has taught me anything, it's that my love of meat-based foods was not something that's innately ingrained in my body. It's not an irrepressible urge that makes me desire pork belly. It was, for lack of a better term, culinary laziness.
Meat is the easy option. Easy to cook, easy to store, easy to buy, readily available no matter where you are—in this country, at least, meat is the path of least resistance when it comes to answering the question, "what's for dinner?"
For some people, that's a perfectly valid reason to choose meat. It's safe, it's pretty easy, even when it's not its best, it's still edible, it's comfortable and familiar, and it's fast. Meat comes in ready-to-cook, pre-packaged portions. One chicken breast per person.
Vegetables, on the other hand, take some planning. A bad salad is just plain sad. Poorly cooked asparagus make me want to weep. Undercooked beans or potatoes are, well, literally inedible. The freshest greens usually come with dirt or sand in'em that needs to be washed off. Vegetables require a bit of knife work that meat (at least these days) doesn't.
There's no doubt in my mind that for the average person not used to cooking vegetables, they are far more intimidating than cooking meat. But that doesn't mean it has to stay that way.
Admittedly, I have it easy. I eat and cook for a living. If I want to spend an extra hour in the kitchen preparing some really great food, well, I have that privilege. Heck, I'd be remiss not to do it. It's my job. Couple that with the fact that I live in New York, smack in the middle of some of the best farmer's markets, vegetable shops, and vegetarian/vegan restaurants this side of The Rockies, and I'd have to be a complete idiot not to realize that my personal vegan experience is not anywhere near the same as what the average person could hope for.
But that's alright. We all do the best we can given the situations we're in.
The hardest days were the first few. That was before I'd got my rhythm down, because I realized I'd need to give myself a few extra minutes of prep time before dinner, before I'd restocked my pantry with veg-friendly sauces, condiments, and other miracle ingredients. For me, cooking meat was easy because my kitchen was equipped to do it. Nowadays, it's well-equipped to cook vegetables, and hey, guess what?
By the third week or so, cooking vegetables had become just as easy as cooking meat was before.
The Costs And Benefits of a Vegetable-Based Diet
If there's one thing I learned as a part-time vegan, it's this: for most vegans veganism is not do or die. Indeed the founding principles of the movement specifically state that one should live a life free of animal exploitation as much as is reasonably possible. It's this part where many non-vegans get hung up over the whole thing.
Here's the truth: Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody is a perfect vegan. To some level or another, by merely existing on this planet and choosing to stay alive, somewhere down the chain, an animal's life is being affected. What this means is that for every person, the degree to which you take your veganism is a completely personal decision based on your own personal cost/benefit analysis.
I'd actually go so far as to say that whether you are a vegan or not, you make this same decision in your life. Put it this way: Nobody wants to see animals suffer.* All other things being equal, given the option between killing a pig and not killing a pig, not many people would choose to kill the pig. It's when personal incentives come into play—whether those incentives are bacon, ham, money, or whatever—that people can then make a conscious decision as to whether or not the death of that animal is worth the bacon on their plate.
Outside of a few truly sadistic individuals who, for practical purposes, should not be counted amongst the rest of more civilized society.
Let's take a quick look at both sides of the equation.
For the most part, the cost of eating meat is the same across the board. Sure, you can choose to eat a well-raised animal vs. a poorly treated animal (and I hope everyone does), but in the end, to eat a hamburger, a cow must be raised and killed. What changes on this front is your relative awareness of these costs.
The meat industry works very very hard to make sure that the normal folks consuming their products—you and me—are kept insulated from the reality of the costs of meat production. They know that the more informed a customer is about the origins of their meat, the more care they will take in either selecting more carefully raised meat, or in cutting down or even eliminating their meat consumption. This is not good for their bottom line. Their entire goal is to make sure that when a customer sees a steak at the supermarket, that nowhere in their mind do they make the connection between that steak and the living, breathing animal it came from. At this, they are quite successful.
On the other side of the equation is the benefits. These I find are a little more liquid from person to person and from point to point in a given individual's life. The benefits of eating meat are, for many, undeniable. It's tasty, it's easy to cook, it's convenient, with proper planning it can be healthy, it makes eating on-the-go a simple matter (just try getting vegan food on the side of a normal American highway or in a food court; believe me, it's not easy). There are social benefits, like being able to go out to restaurants with your friends without causing a fuss or resorting to eating lukewarm veggie burgers on dry bread.
A Shift in Balance
So given that you're an informed eater and do your best to educate yourself on where your meat comes from, the costs of meat eating are essentially fixed. This is how it was for me. I've hunted, butchered, slaughtered, and fished. I've taken whole animals from in-the-wild or on-the-farm to the dinner table, so believe me when I way I was well aware of where my meat came from.
What has changed for me—and this is something I did not forsee—was the perceived benefits of meat eating. Over the last four weeks, I've come to realize that I can lead a perfectly fulfilling life even when drastically cutting down on my meat and dairy intake. Indeed, I've felt more rewarded and interested culinarily than I've felt in years. Would I have felt equally rewarded and challenged with any sort of restrictive diet? Possibly.
Whenever you throw yourself into a new situation, some amount of original thought and planning is going to be necessary. But in this case, it helps that the things I'm planning for actually tend to be things that I pretty strongly believe in—more vegetable consumption is better for the body and the world, less animal husbandry is better for the animals and the environment.
I firmly believe that given a supply of good, fresh vegetables, a few basic techniques and recipes up your sleeves, a modicum of commitment, and a genuine willingness to welcome a mental shift, that anybody can be convinced that eating a diet richer in vegetables can be every bit as satisfying, better for the environment, and better for your body than a meat-based diet. Heck, last Friday night, I even took my dad (an avowed meat eater) out for a surprise 12-course all-vegan tasting menu at Craigie On Main. Now, granted, that's a hardcore, James Beard award winning chef cooking vegetables, but still, we were halfway through course five before my dad even realized that we'd thus far had no animal products of any kind. If my Dad can be convinced, I'm confident that anybody can. (P.S. You can expect a full photo slideshow and wrapup of that meal tomorrow).
A lot of folks have asked me what my plans are for the future. Am I going to stay vegan?
The answer is no, I'm not going to stay 100% vegan. I had a cup of tea with some milk in it the morning after. I had a slice of braised beef, a few shreds of chicken, and some ground beef in an otherwise largely vegetable-based Sichuan lunch. I do, however, plan on maintaining a largely vegetarian and vegan lifestyle at home, outside of work capacity. Given the amount I have to eat and cook for work, I estimate that about three out of four meals will continue to be vegan or vegetarian, with meat being consumed only when it's required by my job or when vegnism becomes prohibitively restrictive (say, when my friends invite me to brunch, for instance).
Even in those cases, I'll be choosing less meaty options than I used to, largely because I've lost 10 pounds and 80 points of cholesterol, and I look and feel better than I've felt since my college days. That's a pretty strong incentive to continue doing something that's been pretty fun anyway.
As for Serious Eats recipe development, I've been overwhelmed by the number of positive responses I've gotten for starting this vegan recipe series (we'll be posting a roundup of all the Vegan Experience recipes later this week). Comments, personal emails, heck, people have asked me if I'm interested in writing an entire vegan recipe book, and here I was thinking that you folks only wanted to read about burgers, chicken wings, and meatloaf. Serious Eaters, it makes me proud to be part of such an active, accepting, dynamic, and passionate community. I couldn't have done it without you.
From here on out, you can expect at least a few vegetarian or completely vegan recipes out of me every month. Heck, I might even develop a vegan burger recipe this summer.
Top Ten Tips For New Vegans
OK, OK, people like lists, so here are the first ten things that come to mind when I think about what I wish I could've known before starting with my Vegan Experience. These are in no particular order, some are practical, others are philosophical, but I think all are useful. Ready?
- Start with an open mind. There's no surer way to guarantee failure than to go into it with a bad attitude. Unfortunately, this is not something that's easy for many folks to do. If you think that going vegan is going to be a punishment or that you won't last, then it will be, and you won't. I hope that this whole series of articles has helped at least a few people realize that it doesn't have to be that way.
- If cooking at home, give yourself extra time to cook, particularly at the beginning. For most people, designing meals 100% around vegetables is going to be a completely foreign concept, and one that requires planning and extra time in the kitchen, even for a seasoned pro.
- Take a look at your pantry. Is it full of meat-based condiments, dried pasta, rice, potatoes, and the like? If so, you're not going to have a fun time trying to cook. Make sure your pantry stays stocked with plenty of beans and whole grains, hearty leafy grains like kale, spinach, and collards, and other vegan-friendly sauces.
- Avoid convenience foods. I've yet to taste a vegan convenience product that I've liked. If all you subsist on as a vegan is poor frozen pizza, frozen vegan burritos, veggie burger patties and ready-made meals, you will not be a happy eater. Regular frozen foods are bad enough. Vegan ones are simply abysmal.
- Take a walk down the produce section. Going vegan is the perfect excuse to load up on all kinds of vegetables that you never regularly ate before. I call it diversity through restriction. As a meat eater, I often found myself resorting to the easy options—the steak or the burger—avoiding the often more interesting vegetable-based options. As a vegan, my diet has become much more diverse, and as such, more enjoyable.
- Do not be embarrassed. There has been the occasional moment when I felt I needed to explain myself, to rationalize to others why I'm doing what I'm doing. "Oh, it's just a writing project," or "just wanted to know the enemy, you know? Heh heh..." and I never felt good doing it. On the other hand, when I come right out and say, "it's something I've always wanted to try, because I tend to agree with a lot of vegan philosophy," I end up getting a lot more respect, an interesting discussion out of it, and the potential to actually impact another person. That makes it worth it to me.
- If you're going on a road trip, pack food with you. In fact, have snacks and emergency rations available to you at all times. It's not that you'll get hungrier as a vegan (at least, I didn't), it's just that on the off-chance that you do end up missing lunch or forgetting it at home, your options as a vegan on the road or in unfamiliar territory are not good. Some fresh fruit, a good salad, or even trail mix can be a life saver in those situations.
- So you messed up. Don't sweat it. Again, the key to being a successful vegan is to live the lifestyle as much as is reasonably possible. There may be some who disagree with me on this, but if you've just realized that you accidentally ate some butter or that the curry you just tasted had fish sauce in it, don't kill yourself. Stuck on the road with no prospect of vegan food for the next couple days? Well don't starve yourself, just do the best you can. The moment any diet stops being fun is the moment you begin to think it might not be worth it. That said...
- Stay strong. The first few days might be tough, but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes easier and easier. It's at the point for me now that even when I think about what to cook for dinner for me and my wife tonight, meat doesn't even enter my mind. (And I don't miss it).
- Don't judge others. So you disagree with someone else's lifestyle choice. So what? You're not perfect either. The best way to help people and win them over is to teach by action, no lecturing. Bring some vegan food over or treat them to a vegan meal. If you want to make the change and keep your friends while you're at it, you have to realize that not everybody is at the same place in their life, and not everybody has the same value system as yours.
It's been a fun ride folks. So long, and thanks for all the beets!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.