The Vegan Experience: Welcome to Year 4

Welcome to year 4 of The Vegan Experience! [Doodle: Robyn Lee]

Editor's Note: Welcome to the fourth year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts and recipes in the series, check here!

I can't help humming it in my head, even though we're long past December: It's the most...wonderful time...of the year!

February has fast become my favorite month. It's not because it's the shortest. It's not because of Valentine's Day. It's not even because thus far it promises to be the most pleasantly well-weathered month in the half a year of extremely pleasant months I've had since moving to San Francisco. It's not even just because it's the one month out of the year in which I focus 100% on vegetable-based recipes.

The real reason I've started to love February so much? It's because, despite my initial thoughts that a month of strictly adhering to a vegan diet would be at most an interesting and challenging thought experiment for myself and perhaps of passing interest to a few of you Serious Eaters, it in fact has turned into something so, so much more. Not only has it turned out that veganism is extremely compatible with both my palate and my moral compass, but as it happens, it's also something that many many people are interested in, and more and more folks join and support me each year.

The first year I went at it solo. The second year, I was joined by a few colleagues and readers. Last year, the impossible happened and Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine himself came along for the ride. Year after year, the number of voices in support rise, the number of readers searching for vegan recipes increases, and the occasional tired "hurr durr beef is vegan because cows eat grass" or "where do you get protein from" comments go further and further toward the sidelines.

Ed's doing it again this year, joined by a good chunk of the Serious Eats team (stay tuned for weekly reports ), not to mention all you folks out there who have already told me that you're getting involved via comments and social media.

I know it already: This is going to be the best Vegan Experience yet.

Why Vegan?

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People go vegan for a variety of reasons, though the strictest of them—those who forgo the use of animal products even outside of their diet—do it for ethical reasons. The argument: In the modern world, we can live perfectly full, healthy lives without the need to inflict pain or death upon other animals, and if we have that choice, is it not our moral obligation to take it?

Others are dietary vegans: they do not eat any animal products. Many folks adopt this lifestyle for environmental reasons: A plant-based diet has the possibility to leave a smaller environmental footprint than a diet that also contains meat. Why just the possibility? Because there can be arguments made that the worst type of plant-based diet—those high in processed foods that require extra energy to produce or transport—are worse than the best omnivorous diet consisting of mostly plants and animals that are raised on lands unsuitable for plant-based farming. But you get the point.

Still others are dietary vegans for health, based on a number of well-researched (though heavily disputed) studies on the effects of an animal-free diet on human health.

For me personally, the moral argument is the most compelling. Shouldn't I, as someone who considers myself an animal lover and all-around good guy, feel a strong compulsion to limit the pain I cause other animals, even if they aren't my own? I sure feel like I should feel that way, though perhaps I'm not all the way there yet.

What to Expect This Year

What am I planning for this year? Well one of the biggest changes of heart I've had since my first year as a vegan is a markedly looser approach toward faux meats and substitutions for meat-based foods. Back then, I took a fairly hard-line Say No to Faux attitude. In some ways, I still feel that way. I cringe when I see vegans eating pre-packaged faux meat patties topped with faux cheese that barely melts. I still feel mildly nauseated when I see vegan not-chicken patties or faux ribs made from god knows what processed corn and soy by-products. But what I've realized is this: I feel the exact same way when I look at the crummiest frozen burger patties or mystery-meat chicken patties. It's not faux meat that turns me off, it's faux foods in general: Foods that are so far divorced from their initial state as to be nearly unrecognizable.

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For me, what this really means is that so long as I 'm starting with fresh ingredients and making things from scratch, I've got no qualms with making vegan foods that somehow emulate their meatier counterparts. In many ways, this is one of the choices one makes when becoming a vegan: it's a diet that was founded on ethics, and thus ethics trump all. It's not that I don't like bacon, it's that I don't like that bacon come from a living, breathing, animal that is at least as intelligent as my dog. If I can manage to get similar carnal pleasure from, say, homemade mushroom bacon, well then, does it really matter that my "bacon" needs to have quotes around it?

These days, I think not. (By the way, that mushroom bacon, made with mushrooms slow-roasted until crisp with maple syrup them smoked on the stovetop is f*&king fantastic.)

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In some cases, I'd say that my faux versions of certain foods are actually more "real" than the originals. My vegan nacho cheese sauce? It's made with cashews, potatoes, chipotle chilies, spices, and aromatics. The original cheese sauce from a little pump at Fuddrucker's that it's meant to emulate? Cheese, water, fat, and a bunch of chemical emulsifiers. Now, I'm not one of those "chemicals are bad for you!" folks who doesn't understand the most basic things about chemistry. But at the same time, I find it hard to come up with an argument for why eating my vegan nacho cheese sauce in place of the regular stuff is any worse for you, and plenty of reasons why it's probably better from a health, environmental, social, and ethical standpoint. It certainly tastes better, so why the heck not?

I mean, you tell me that you wouldn't want to house this down:

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Am I right? (Want the recipe? Vegan baked potato with broccoli and cheese, right this way.)

It's with all that in mind that this year I plan on going even further in that direction. I haven't completely finalized the lineup yet, but don't be surprised to find some vegan baked macaroni and cheese, a vegan cheeseburger that feels and acts more like a real cheeseburger, vegan pizza (with homemade cheese, NOT that non-melting, plasticky Daiya stuff, thank you very much), vegan dumplings—I may even finally get around to a full-on rich and sticky bowl of vegan ramen.

Beyond simple recipes, I'll also be looking more at general kitchen tips for vegan success, like how to stock a vegan pantry, or miracle ingredients to keep on hand. I'll help you steer clear of foods you thought were vegan (but aren't!), and perhaps this year come up with a list of my favorite foods you'll be surprised to find actually are vegan.

And What About Eating Out?

Of course, I'll also be diving even deeper into the other side of the vegan lifestyle: how to eat out, mingle with friends and relatives, stay healthy, and lead a relatively normal life. In the past, I've looked at everything from how ordering at a restaurant changes to the basics of vegan nutrition. From how to deal with travel in airports to dealing with waiters who just don't get it. This time I'll be sticking myself out there in even more situations-vegans-have-to-deal-with, and, well, I'll deal with them.

Hopefully I'll be able to accomplish all this with a minimal level of navel-gazing.

This year, with an entirely new coast to explore, I plan to reexamine many of these topics from a West Coast perspective. In many ways, I'm sure it's going to be easier: Folks in the Bay Area are pretty much born knowing what a vegan is. On the other hand, I've now got a car to my name and a state to explore, which means I spend a great deal of time traveling outside the city limits for various non-urban adventures. Despite California's reputation, it can be surprisingly difficult to find vegan-friendly options outside of larger cities. Guess who watched the Super Bowl from a Chinese restaurant in Vacaville yesterday because it was the only place showing the game with any vegan-friendly menu items? (It was so fun that I might plan an annual Chinese Super Bowl party.)

What Are My Goals?

I'm not one of those pie-in-the-sky types who truly believes that it's possible for the entire world to go vegan. The data are simply overwhelmingly against that outcome. I'm also not the type to ride in on a high horse and think to myself, it's OK, as long as I do it because I'm so much better than those weak meat-eaters down there. It's just not my style.

What I am is practical. My goal has always been to create vegan recipes so damn tasty that it doesn't matter that they're vegan. They're not just "good for vegan food," they're f*&king good, period.

The Ultimate Fully Loaded Vegan Nachos

I strongly believe that you can have a better, longer lasting influence on the world by convincing many people to make minor changes to their lifestyle than by convincing only a few people to make drastic changes. If I can convince a thousand people to put a recipe, like, say, this Mapo Tofu or these Mexican Fried Eggplant Sandwiches or this Pasta With Mushroom Bolognese on their regular rotation, I'll consider my time spent a success. My heart sings with joy and pride every time someone tweets at me that they're serving my vegan nachos at their next party. Heck, if I can get a devout meat-eater to just try one of these recipes once, I'll walk away happy knowing that I've helped push someone in what I believe to be the right direction.

So You Wanna Join in the Fun?

Woohoo! Come on in, the water's fine! Whether you're diving headlong by going full-vegan with me or just dipping your toes into the shallow end by trying out a few recipes, I couldn't be happier that you're coming along for the ride. After having done this so many times and having made several permanent lifestyle changes due to it, many things have become old hat to me: I no longer worry about what I'm going to snack on if a late night craving hits or what I'm going to eat for breakfast (hello, toast with beans and avocado!). But I remember what it was like the first time, and I know how easy it is to throw in the towel or worse, give in to the all-carbs-all-the-time trap.

To help get you started, here are over 80 vegan recipes that run the gamut from simple to complex, low to high, breakfast to dinner. On the same page you'll find feature-length articles covering basic vegan cooking techniques as well as stories discussing the ins and outs of veganism.

For a quick and dirty head start, here are my top ten tips for first time vegans. Hopefully they'll make the whole thing a little less scary.

  • 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.

These things are always easier when you've got a good support network around you, and one of the most rewarding experiences for me has always been the great conversations it's generated both in the comments and over on Twitter and Facebook. Let's keep the conversation going this year!

If you or someone you know has stories to share or advice to give about going vegan, please reach out to me—I'm trying to gain as many perspectives as I can. If you can email me directly at [email protected] with the subject "Vegan Experience," I'd be greatly indebted to you!

Are you all ready? Grab your forks and knives, it's gonna be a blast!