Yup, that's right. Pizza-loving, pork-obsessed, barbecue-crazed me is going to try to scale a gustatory Mount Everest by sticking to a vegan diet this month. I am doing this for a number of reasons: to try to understand the world from a vegan's perspective; to lose some weight; just to see what it's like; and this might be most important—to prove to Kenji that I can do it. He is justifiably skeptical, as I said I would do it with him last year and I lasted three hours (a pathetic performance, I must admit). But this year is going to be different, I swear on a stack of vegan cookbooks.
I must admit to being a thoughtless vegan-basher in the past. I associated vegan food with tasteless health food, and I thought of vegans themselves as preachy, self-righteous ideologues. But after a careful read of Kenji's previous posts regarding his reasoning and rationale for going vegan for a month, I have to admit I was pre-judging veganism as both a philosophy and a lifestyle. I regard myself as an empathic, compassionate human being when it comes to humans and animals, and if that's the case it does beg the question of why I have been so cavalier about my meat-loving ways. One rationale is that when I can I try to buy meat that has been sustainably and humanely raised, but I'll admit that I find myself in many circumstances eating meat or fish whose provenance I know nothing about. So I hope that at the very least going vegan for a month will lead me to asking more questions about where my animal proteins come from, and to caring more about the answers. See, even deciding to embark on this adventure with Kenji has already opened my mind up in ways I never thought possible, and I'm only in week one!
One thing that makes it particularly difficult is that I am a serious eater and a good home cook, but I often go several days without cooking anything other than toast in the morning and pasta with jarred sauce in the evening. I try to cook one meal a week for my wife, usually on Sunday nights, but other than that, I buy and assemble or eat most of my meals out. So the challenges facing me as I begin my vegan month are in some ways greater than the challenges Kenji faces. I don't derive the same satisfaction from cooking that he does, and recipe development of any but the most rudimentary kind is simply not in my skill set. So eating out, at restaurants casual and not—as well as in other people's homes —is going to be a big part of my vegan month.
As the month was starting on Super Bowl weekend, I did ask Vegan Pope Kenji for a special dispensation or waiver to begin our vegan adventure a day later, but he turned me down flat—ice cold —or whatever else you want to call being given a vegan smackdown. So this is what I ate last weekend.
Friday, my last day before entering Vegan Land, I had excellent pizza for lunch from Prince Street Pizza, steak that was cut too thin for dinner, and an ice cream bar and a chocolate covered graham cracker for dessert. The clock struck midnight. I was trapped like a mouse in a vegan maze.
Saturday breakfast was tortilla chips that I was saving for the Super Bowl and a couple of Stoned Wheat Thins with unsweetened peanut butter. Lunch was a falafel sandwich from Maoz stuffed with tons of veggies and an order of their Belgian fries, which aren't all that good. I realized a couple of things: vegan, schmegan, there's no reason to eat mediocre french fries just because you can, and I can't just eat carbs 24-7, again, just because I can.
Dinner was with friends at Glasserie, a restaurant we have reviewed really favorably on Serious Eats. I ordered all the vegetables I could, with yogurt sauces and cheese on the side. I ended up eating a boatload of brussels sprouts, fried cauliflower, beets, and mushrooms. I did end up having two bites (loin and confited leg) of the justifiably famous rabbit dish. I had read Kenji's top ten tips for first-time vegans, and he talked about not beating yourself up if you have a bite of something non-vegan, and frankly I wanted to taste the rabbit to see what everyone, including Jamie, had raved about. Well, everyone else were right—that's some serious rabbit, and it's an important part of my job to taste things. Even though rabbit is definitely not vegan, it came with all kinds of vegan side dishes, which is mostly what I focused on. I had semi-fresh dates for dessert and a spoonful of cheffy chocolate pudding/pot de creme, again for the same reason. I actually felt good after the meal—full from all the vegetables and proud that I had gotten through the first day in pretty good shape, for me, at least.
On Super Bowl Sunday we went to an old friend's house for brunch. I brought bialys from Hot Bread Kitchen and vegetable tofu spread that according to the ingredient list had no sugar, which is forbidden during vegan month (interestingly, the scallion tofu spread did have sugar listed). So while everyone had strata and cranberry orange bread and quiche, I contented myself with bialys with tofu spread and fruit salad.
For Super Bowl eating I brought some tortilla chips, potato chips, salsa, guac, and popcorn for a small gathering I had. I contemplated cooking up some of Kenji's snacks, but I had too many other things to do. I went to Red Farm's Upper West Side location and ordered a vegan feast, pressing the manager to find out if the vegetable curry was indeed vegan. In the end we had mushroom and vegetable spring rolls; charred long beans, brussels sprouts, and fermented black beans; vegetable fried rice (no egg); vegetarian and peanut dumplings; Thai-style vegetable curry, and a mess of white rice. I drank Diet Coke throughout the dreadfully boring game (and I was rooting for Seattle).
So with the first two days out of the way, including my usual meat-filled Super Bowl and a serious restaurant meal, navigated fairly successfully, I was feeling cautiously optimistic. This week I'm going to work on limiting my potato chip and French fry consumption. Note to self: Just because they're vegan doesn't mean I have to eat them at every opportunity.
The first week has been challenging in unsurprising ways. A terrific New York chef, Alex Guarnaschelli, invited me to an intimate dinner party at her new restaurant in Midtown. I warned the publicist that invited me that I was eating vegan for the month, and the publicist assured me it was no problem. And for the most part it wasn't—there were plenty of vegetables and salads to fill up on. Alex does love her meat, though, so I was sitting in a sea of prime dry-aged bone-in rib steak, house-cured veal bacon, and creamy chicken liver toasts. But I managed to overcome the insane ribbing (pun intended) by some of my meat-obsessed tablemates, and in the end they admired my discipline.
On Tuesday night I accompanied my wife to a very formal dinner party where the gracious hostess was serving a crown roast of lamb. In the middle was some rice that looked mighty tasty—I thought was going to be my salvation, but it turned out to be studded with ground lamb. Even a neurosurgeon couldn't have picked around it. Oh yeah, there was chocolate mousse for dessert. So I moved the lamb and rice around my plate so that it looked like I had eaten some of it, and I tried to fill up on the broccoli and carrot accompaniments.
Wednesday dinner was some leftover Thai vegetable curry I had from lunch. Lunch around our office —in a neighborhood dominated by Asian restaurants and markets—has been pretty easy. Having a great falafel place, Taim, a few blocks away, is the cherry on top when it comes to my vegan lunch forays.
So the week has gone by surprisingly easily. I didn't have any pizza or barbecue or fried chicken or burger cravings, and I didn't feel deprived, so, so far so good for me. Finding and eating seriously delicious food is still my MO, but what I have found is that I can still do that on a vegan diet, and that's something of a revelation. Stay tuned for more.
About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of Serious Eats.