What’s It Like to Be a (Temporary) Vegan?

Vinny’s cheeseless veggie pizza

So, what’s it like to go from an oyster slurping, pork braising, cheese grating, cream swilling chef and eater to one that’s not?

It’s incredibly easy and hard at the same time.

For the most part, V-month was FABULOUS. Much better than the time I tried to drink Soylent for a week. Unlike Soylent week, which was mindnumbingly boring, I’ve had tons of room to experiment with new foods and flavors.

I’ve concluded that it’s best to understand vegan food as vegetable, fruit and grain based dishes, not meat or cheese imitations. For the most part, vegan alternatives are invariably not the same as the original, and this leads people to be uncomfortable about “weird” textures and flavors. We go down the wrong path when we tell people “you won’t miss X, you’ll love this (can’t possibly be the same as the original) vegan version instead!” The dish might be good on its own merits, but I can’t help comparing it to what I’ve had before. But when I don’t try to mimic meat dishes, there are no voices in my head trying to compare what I’m eating to something else. In other words, it’s better to get pizza without cheese than pizza with soy cheese, so that you can divorce yourself from your prior expectations. I’ve tried two kinds of vegan cream cheese so far, and while they were fine, mentally I never really got over that they weren’t the same as cream cheese. So I switched to just using hummus or peanut butter on my bagels.

On my own, I can stick to a vegan diet relatively easily. However, external pressures and social obligations complicate matters. On one occasion, I ended up at a bar near Penn Station for dinner, and pretty much the only thing I could eat was French fries and beer. (Wait, I guess that’s not really a problem.) It’s also awkward to say no when people offer me food. After a good friend made red-wine braised oxtail for dinner and invited me over, I had to say no. As someone who often gives food as a sign of care and affection, it feels terrible to turn down someone else’s offering, especially if it’s homemade. I told people at the beginning of the month that I was trying a vegan diet, but no one really remembered. For this particular dinner party, I ended up bringing my own food, which was a good compromise but I was lucky that I’d cooked ahead of time.

For the first time, I also have to read food labels carefully. It gives me a sense of what it’d be like to have a food allergy. Is that milk in the frozen naan? Why on earth would you put milk powder in gluten-free flour?

Vegan Mapo Tofu

What have you been cooking?

Lots of things! There’s the usual assortment of grain salads, beans and vegetable sides, but for me, the easiest jumping point is to cook Asian food, which is generally dairy-free already, and easy to make vegetarian. I loved these recipes for mushroom mapo tofu and braised eggplant with tofu. I also made time for vegan desserts (who says vegan means healthy?) and had a blast with this chocolate cake and these carrot cake cookies.

The seemingly Sisyphean task that I wanted to accomplish was to create a good vegan cheese sauce (read: one indistinguishable from your average cheddar sauce). I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of vegan cheese sauce recipes, and honestly, none of them are great when I compare them to actual cheese sauce. This recipe for vegan mac & cheese left me wrinkling my nose initially. However, if I tried to think of it as pasta tossed with butternut squash and creamed cashew sauce, then that changed matters entirely and I could enjoy it on its own merits.

One unexpected perk was that I could now swap food with vegan and veg-inclined friends, who tend to cook a fair amount out of necessity. I usually cook in massive batches over the weekend and end up eating the same thing for days afterwards. Suddenly I had more people to swap food with, and that was a nice communal experience.

Dunwell Donuts
Dunwell donuts

What about eating out?

I found that eating at restaurants from cultures with a long history of religious vegetarianism netted the best results (think Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian). You don’t feel like there’s anything missing, because there isn’t. In my (admittedly limited) experience, restaurants that specifically focus on serving vegan or vegetarian food tended to be lackluster, and also pushy with moralizing platitudes. While I agree with many of their values, I don’t need a dose of spiritual advice with my food, I just want something that tastes good. For a quick guide to plant-friendly restaurants in NYC, I like this Serious Eats chart.

Friends suggested that a falafel sandwich is the best meal option if you’re in a pinch, but for the most part, I planned and cooked my meals and was able to look at restaurant menus ahead of time to make sure I’d be happy. The one time I forgot to bring lunch, I panicked until I realized that my office was within a quick bike ride to Scratchbread, which recently revamped their menu to include convenient markers for meat-free, gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free items. (Thanks Scratchbread, you guys rock!) Minutes later, I was eating a slice of broccoli rabe pizza and a roasted vegetable and babaganoush flatbread sandwich. Crisis averted.

If you’re near Brooklyn, one of the best starting points into veganism is the Vegan Shop-Up in Bushwick. It’s a monthly fair with all sorts of animal-friendly food and lifestyle product vendors. Plus, the Bloody Marys are excellent. At the January market, I sampled some excellent nut cheeses, coconut jerky, ice cream, veggie burgers, granolas and more. For someone who was used to immediately eliminating the majority of items on a menu as off-limits, it was a relief to walk in and know that I could let my guard down. I particularly loved the cinnamon roll and wraps from Cinnamon Snail.

Ultimately, if you’re going to stick to strict veganism, always be prepared with your own food or snacks because you’ll invariably be put in situations where you don’t have good options. I stashed trail mix, dried fruit, fruit strips, coconut cookies and other items in my bags and at the office, so that I’d never be hangry.

Birthday Cake
Birthday cake, dairy & egg-free

What new ingredients/techniques have you discovered?
The other day, I looked at a recipe and found myself automatically thinking about how I could turn the dish into a vegan version with little sacrifice in flavor, effort and convenience. It’s really not that hard. Here’s a few of the ideas I’ve been playing with:

  • Nutritional Yeast: Also known as “noosh,” these are inactive dehydrated yeast flakes that impart cheesiness and are often used to make cheesy sauces or purees. I find them to be pretty strong and sometimes overwhelming in aroma. Then again, a lot of people also find certain aged cheeses to be overwhelming and unpleasant in aroma. So maybe the issue is that I need to keep working with noosh. For the most part, I liked noosh when it was used sparingly, and thought it was very effective in pestos, or other uses where it wasn’t a primary flavoring. When I tried making cheesy mashed potatoes with noosh and mac & cheese with noosh and squash, I quickly got tired of the smell.
  • Vegan butter/shortening/whipped spreads: These look and act like regular butter, and I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Yes, they’re not going to taste the same as fancy, cultured European butter, but they will be more or less indistinguishable in flavor and usage from your average stick of butter. You can use them in cakes and buttercream frostings with comparable results.
  • Ice cream: I was a big fan of Soy Delicious’ Turtle Trails ice cream and the cinnamon coffee ice cream from Steve’s. Both of these were made with coconut milk bases, which has the requisite fat content needed for rich ice creams. I’m sure it’s possible to make icy, unflavorful non-dairy ice creams, but I thought these could more than hold their ground against regular ice cream.
  • Yogurt: I tried coconut yogurt and was disappointed at how different it was from dairy yogurts. It reminded me of Chinese almond jelly desserts, which I like normally, but are pretty different in flavor and texture from yogurt. I did like soy yogurt and thought that was pretty close to a standard 2% dairy yogurt.
  • Cashew cream: You’ll see many vegan recipes which call for soaking cashews for 2 hours or overnight, then blending them until pureed. Cashew cream acts as a vehicle for creamy flavors, and when blended with spices, acids and other elements, it works as a stand-in for everything from sour cream to bechamel sauce. Basically, any time you need a hit of cream or richness, you can drizzle some cashew cream on.
  • Blitzed mushrooms: Unsurprisingly, I went through a LOT of mushrooms this month. Mushrooms are, after all, traditionally considered the “meatiest” of the vegetables. The problem is they contain so much water. To really maximize your mushroom umami potential, cooked them down until they are well browned and dehydrated. If you chop the mushrooms finely or blitz them in a food processor, then cook them down, you can use the mushroom bits as a substitute for ground meat.
  • Soy and nut cheeses: Ah, we come to one of the biggest struggles for newly converted vegans: cheese. I tried lots of nut cheeses, many of which were delicious and interesting, but the fact is that they’re not going to taste exactly like regular cheese. They may be similar, they may be flavorful, but ultimately they will be different. So you have to stay open minded and realize that while one door may be closing, another door of exploration is opening. And with that attitude, if you get a chance to try the blue cheese from Cheezehound, I think you’ll be impressed at how well it captures the tang and funk of a blue cheese. Soy cheeses, on the other hand, left me disappointed, particularly grated mozzarella alternatives like Daiya. They look like mozzarella and sort of melt like mozzarella, but the flavor is just a depressing mess of chemicals and thickeners. Besides, I wouldn’t buy heavily processed products if I weren’t on a vegan diet, so there’s no reason to start now. Really, the lesson here is that you can make perfectly respectable pizza without cheese, so don’t ruin it with Daiya.

Maybe there’s room to keep innovating and with enough experimentation we can come up with a perfectly meltable vegan mozzarella and cheddar, indistinguishable from the original? Like kosher winemaking, one of the issues is that the majority of people making vegan cheese are vegans themselves, and thus have limited taste memories of dairy cheeses and may not fully remember what cheese tastes like, or may not have even been exposed to it at all. I found myself nodding and smiling with vegans who raved about how similar a parmesan substitute was to the original, while knowing full well that this was not the real deal.

As a chef, I would be horrified to lose my taste memories. To permanently forget flavors and stop using animal products in cooking feels like painting without using all the colors of the rainbow, or throwing away tools in my toolbox.

Carrot & Potato Soup with Gochujang, Sesame & Shiso Leaf
Carrot & Potato Soup with Gochujang, Sesame & Shiso Leaf

Are you tempted by meat or dairy products?

For years, I’ve told myself that sans social pressure, I could easily and happily be vegan/vegetarian forever and not feel like I’m missing anything. But now I’m realizing that maybe I was just lying to myself. As a food industry marketing professional, I spend a lot of time at work and elsewhere looking at food photos and recipes, and when I see a pork chop, I definitely still think “Wow, I really want that.” It feels like this uncontrollable reflex, or a primal impulse, and it’s weird for me to tell myself, “No, stop thinking that.”

It helped that I committed to a vegan diet for only a month, so it felt easy to say “I’m going to skip this, just for now.”

I asked a long-time vegan friend if he still had cravings for meat or dairy products, and he replied, “The idea of meat really grosses me out now, so I don’t have cravings for that. When I have gotten drunk enough in the past couple years and tried it, it has always been gross to me and reminds me not only do I not want to eat it, but I also just find it gross. I suspect that happens to most people after they’ve given it up for awhile. I love vegan desserts and if they were available everywhere it wouldn’t be a problem for me. The issue is 95%+ of places which sell dessert items have zero vegan options, so I’m usually stuck wanting and not being able.”

“Ultimately I agree with many vegan philosophers: don’t do it to the point where you resent it. If you’ve vegan the majority of the time but you’re stuck at a conference and the only option is pizza, it might be better to let it slide then, instead of spending a lot of time thinking about how being vegan always limits you. On the other hand, if you slide once it’s a slippery slope and you very well may end up sliding again.”

But does it even make a difference?

Good question. Because poultry and fish provide significantly less food per animal life-year than pigs and cattle, there have been claims that removing only poultry, eggs, and farmed fish from the diets of one hundred people would affect more animals than turning ninety-nine people vegan. On the other hand, when it comes to carbon emissions, red meat from larger animals typically is more problematic.

When you reorder food carbon emissions by their caloric content, the differences are striking. Low calorie vegetables like broccoli and tomatoes are now right behind beef and lamb for emissions/1000 calories, while poultry and pork come in behind some vegetables. So the short answer is, yes it does make a difference, but it’s complicated. And for those vegans and vegetarians who object to eating animal products on the basis of improved animal welfare and limiting death, then it doesn’t matter with the carbon impact is.

Butternut squash, kale & pomegranate quinoa bowl
Butternut squash, kale & pomegranate quinoa bowl

What are you going to do from now on?

There’s a growing “reducetarian” movement for people interested in just reducing their meat/animal product consumption. After all, if we all went from eating 2 burgers to 1 burger, that saves the same number of cows as going from eating 1 burger to 0. And folks generally agree that eating less meat is better for you/the planet.

But to be a committed vegan, one who identifies with the label, is to bring yourself into a maelstrom of stereotypes, finger-pointing and wary attitudes. If you have 3 minutes, I highly recommend watching 1:10-4:30 of this TED talk, which captures the awkwardness of telling people you’re vegan really well. Even in veg-friendly Brooklyn, to be vegan is often to be an Other, and you will be reminded of this on a semi-daily basis.

I don’t want to throw up unnecessary barriers between people. I want to make sure that eating stays pleasurable, but I also want to reduce what animal products I use, be more mindful about it and only use them when absolutely necessary.

So here’s my plan: I will maximize plant-based meals subject to minimizing resentment. I’m going to do my best to stick to a vegan diet and give myself some slack to make exceptions if:

  1. It’s a weekend, holiday or vacation
  2. Someone else wants to split a dish with me
  3. It will be thrown out otherwise
  4. It was cooked by someone who cares about me
  5. It is professionally educational

Ok, let’s do this!

Drop me a line!