Serious Eaters Ed, Leang, and Ben wrapping up a month of eating vegan alongside Kenji, our Managing Culinary Director. Last week, they worked on better snacking habits and wondered a bit about how privilege makes an experiment like this easier. How'd they fare in the final week? Well...let's just say it's difficult to hold a hard line.
I've been thinking about what I'll take with me when vegan month ends. There's quite a lot: Ingredients that I'd never used or had only used occasionally will be mainstays of my pantry, such as miso, Better Than Bouillon No-Chicken, and kombu. And there's a whole bunch of new recipes I'll be making all the time: Lentil soup with gremolata, polenta and kale soup with miso, vegan bean chili, and the miso-olive topping that we've taken to calling Flava Shake.
I'm not counting down the days to the end of my vegan month, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited to dig into a big cheese plate, a bowl of wonton soup, or a pile of buffalo wings. I've missed these things, and countless others, and the idea of doing this permanently, and saying goodbye to those things permanently, is too much for me to even consider.
But going vegan for a month has been an eye-opening experience. Especially when cooking at home, I barely miss meat at all, and I can't deny that I feel great. But I will say that I still have huge doubts about the vegan lifestyle. It's nice to know that I'm not harming any animals, but how do I account for the fact that I'm eating vegetables flown halfway across the world for dinner? Clean eating is a nice idea, but my intake of carbohydrates has shot up by at least 200% even as I tried to keep it down, and I wonder how good that is for my health.
For my part, I'd rather eat meat and dairy that I buy at the farmer's market than stay completely vegan and shop at a supermarket where I have little idea where things come from, whether they're marked "organic" or not. And vegan food, like the "Philly" "cheese" "steak" I ate for dinner last night, can be just as highly processed as anything else (the sandwich was delicious, though). I know that just opting to shop locally won't solve the planet's problems, but it's something that's important to me. There are so many complicated decisions we all face when coming to terms with the political and environmental results of our food choices, and I don't claim to be an expert, but simply going vegan doesn't address many of these issues. Still, it's been nice to temporarily recalibrate myself and look at things through a different lens.
The culinary highlight of this week was dinner at Dirt Candy. The place has to be one of New York's best restaurants of any type, and probably among the best vegetarian/vegan restaurants in the world. You can actually walk right into their new spacious location and eat at the bar, an impossibility in their old space (where there were just a handful of tables and no bar to speak of). Everything on the menu, save one side and a couple of desserts, can be prepared completely vegan. This was the only vegetarian restaurant we went to all month that felt like a truly great restaurant. We also had a good experience at Blossom on Carmine, but good as it was it still felt "good for a vegan joint," not truly special. Dirt Candy is a restaurant I'd recommend to anyone, and I can't wait to go back.
We're rounding off the corner and the finish line is in sight. So far this month, I've been able to avoid the lava pools of temptation (Daniel's fondue), the targeted red shells of coaxing (birthday Popeye's chicken), and banana peels of slipping conviction (Niki's seemingly endless grilled cheese tests). But like any Mario Kart veteran will tell you, you're never safe until you cross that finish line.
The blue shell, the unflappable obstacle that can effortlessly knock you out of the race, comes in the form of my parents. I'm going home this weekend and there's nothing more difficult than explaining to immigrant parents why you're on a diet (I lied—it might be pretty difficult to explain why you're still single). They decry the ethical reasons as foolishness ("Food is food! Back in Cambodia we were so hungry we ate anything!"), the health benefits as misguided ("You're going to starve without enough protein!"), and the prideful challenge component as completely unnecessary ("You're just going to go back unchanged after the month is over!").
Like many a high schooler, I proclaimed my vegetarianism years ago after reading about the terrible conditions of meat processing in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. My parents starved out my idealism in 4 days.
I won't be surprised if my mom sneaks in chicken bouillon into my greens—it's her favorite way to prepare them. I'm half expecting playful ignorance as she shakes in fish sauce into soup—in her mind it doesn't count if it doesn't look like an animal. I can't just make my own food or order out—refusing food in my parents' house is akin to refusing love.
So there's a likely chance that I'll cheat this weekend. I'll pick around the meats and stick to the greens as much as possible. I might be able to convince my parents to let me cook for them for a change. But one thing I learned this month is that minimizing animal product exposure does not equal eliminating animal exposure; like Kenji says, you can get incrementally closer, but nobody is really going to get truly 100% vegan.
In Mario Kart, if you're ahead enough, sometimes it's best to just take the hit from the blue shell and start back up again.
Ok, you got me. I CHEATED this past weekend.
We were taking our teen-age nephew and his friend (per their fervent desire) to a Korean barbecue joint in K-Town, the New Wonjo. Going to a Korean barbecue joint as a vegan is like taking a lactose-intolerant person to a dairy farm. But that's where they wanted to go, and I looked at the menu and discovered plenty of things for a vegan to eat.
I ordered japchae, cellophane noodles with vegetables. The other three members of our party ordered Meat-Mania, consisting of short ribs, boneless ribeye, chicken, and spicy pork. The japchae were good, and the (editor's note: probably-not-vegan?) ban chan that preceded the meat festival were excellent. I thought I was going to get through the meal pretty much unscathed, but then they bought the baskets of burning charcoal to our table to prepare for the parade of meat about to commence.
Our server put the meat on the grill above the charcoal, and it smelled so good that I took morsel-sized bites of each kind of meat. In total it was probably 10 grams of meat. And so I come to you, dear Serious Eaters, to confess and seek your absolution.
Still, ten grams of meat in a month is certainly better than I did at my first attempt at veganism. I'm kind of a professional vegan now. I have become a little less reliant on carbs, and have discovered new and creative ways to eat vegan. Max's Chinese food round-up reminded me about the joys of hand-pulled noodles with vegetables, so I've had those twice. And the fried tofu-wrapped vegetable rolls at our local vegan restaurant have become a lunch staple for me. I've been eating peanut butter and beans and tofu and other forms of vegan protein. And I've discovered the joys of eating pumpkin chia oatmeal with dried fruit from a local Swedish coffee shop, Fika, without any kind of milk, soy or otherwise. To be honest, I haven't missed milk at all, or even bacon and sausage.
When I return to civilian food life next week, I'll be eating less meat in general and watching my carb intake. I have seen during my vegan month what an irresistible food crutch carbs can be, and this month has made me a bit more mindful of what I'm eating. I'm glad Vegan Month is almost over—I have to admit that—but I'm also glad I did it. I'm already looking forward to next year's vegan month.