Things I learned while accidentally becoming vegan, or how I learned to stop worrying and love hummus.

Vegan Chocolate cupcake

Disclaimer: I am not this Claire Askew. That Claire Askew has been a vegan and vegan activist for many years, from what I can see. I am by no means trying to hijack her bandwagon, and I do intend to buy her book. You guys should, too.

So, I’ve been vegan for nearly three months now, but I’ve been trying not to tell people. Not because I’m ashamed, as such, but because one of the first friends I told — the artist formerly known as The Boy, in fact — reacted in a very angry, aggressive way. “Why have you gone vegan?” he demanded to know. “That’s ridiculous. You don’t have a reason! People like you just become vegan so they can tell people about it and get ethical brownie points.”

I was kind of shell-shocked by this outburst. I mean, I should have expected it — this is my ex-boyfriend, who has never really trusted me 100% since he found out that in my whole life, I have never eaten steak, spam or a kebab. But his accusation about just wanting “ethical brownie points” has floated through my head every time I’ve uttered the v-word since. Because actually, I don’t really have a reason for going vegan. I don’t want anyone’s brownie points, but I don’t have any other real motivation.

It’s been an unexpected transition. Less than a year ago, I was still a carnivore. I’ve always been extremely squeamish about meat, admittedly; I have many vegetarian relatives and was a committed veggie myself as a teenager. But then I moved in with the aforementioned Boy, to whom a meal without meat just wasn’t a meal, and who didn’t really cook. So mainly out of tiredness and convenience, I started eating what he ate, which meant meat.
I wouldn’t eat beef or lamb, and so our lasagne and chilli were always veggie. I started sneaking Quorn chicken into some things I made to see if he noticed (he often didn’t). I’d cite expense as a reason for not buying any meat in that week (a fair point) — so I wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic carnivore.

Therefore, when I broke up with the artist formerly known as The Boy (amicably, and nothing to do with steak) it was easy for the artist now known as Lovely Boyfriend (many years veggie) to swoop in and convert me. I became pescetarian pretty much as soon as we got together. For a while I clung on to my love of seafood, but then, “I just like it” began to seem like a bit of a weak argument, particularly since I only ever ate seafood when dining out in fancy restaurants (so, not often). So I reverted to veggie-ism, and didn’t miss a beat — it was very easy.

But why become vegan? I still don’t know, really. My best friend in the whole world, Martyna, is a committed vegan and animal rights activist. For a while she shared a house with the artist formerly known as The Boy and I, and she and I would chat a lot about veganism. I’d also had chance to observe her habits. More recently, I’d had chance to observe Lovely Boyfriend’s brother, Dave, also long-time vegan and animal rights activist. Lovely Boyfriend — an incredible chef — cooks vegan food for Dave whenever he’s home in Scotland, and makes light work of it. I guess all of this demystified veganism for me — many people have no experience of it at all, and just find it totally scary.

I toyed with the idea for a few days, and then I just did it. I decided to do a one-month trial, to see how it went, and to be honest I fully expected I’d be back eating cheese within about three days. But it just kept being OK… then it got to be normal. Comfy. I still don’t know why I made the change. I suspect a combination of factors, mainly to do with (of course) books. I’d started reading about ethical shopping in some books and pamphlets I’d picked up from Word Power, and as a result I was confronted with some grim facts about the lives of dairy cows. I also read Oryx and Crake and then The Year of the Flood back-to-back (if you’ve ever fancied reading either of these, this is the way they ought to be read, I’m convinced). The former includes a bit about Atwood’s imagined future society’s inroads into the world of test-tube meat (ew), and the latter focusses on a vegan sect whose members seem to be the only people who’ve noticed that the dietary apocalypse is coming. Atwood’s depictions of these vegan folk are actually pretty tongue-in-cheek, but I think they got ideas about veganism buzzing in my brain, and it seems that’s all it took.

So what have I learned that I can pass on to other hapless veggies, thinking about taking the vegan plunge?

It’s easy…
People talk about going vegan as being really, really hard. I used to talk about this, too. “Oh, I don’t think I could manage without cheese!”, “what about Dairy Milk?!”, etc. But actually, I’ve barely missed cheese at all. I’ve got used to dark chocolate and love it now. I haven’t really missed anything with the sort of passion that I initally missed bacon sandwiches when I first became veggie as a teen. For the first few weeks, I kept waiting for it to get difficult. I’d convinced myself it’d be a real fight and probably one I’d ultimately lose. I kept waiting for the fight to start… then it just didn’t.

…if you live near a really good grocery store…
However, I can see how it’d be hard if you lived in darkest Northumberland, or somewhere. Edinburgh isn’t Portland by any stretch, but it’s still pretty hip to the hippie, vegan vibe. I’m lucky enough to live a block away from the Tollcross branch of Real Foods, which has made my vegan transition incredibly smooth. I just had a totally lush, raw, vegan cheesecake from there the other day. If you have a vegan-friendly store near you, you can literally still eat anything your heart desires, in some form.

…and if you can cook.
I can’t cook. Not really. But I’m lucky enough to live with Lovely Boyfriend, who, as I mentioned, ought to be a pro chef (his reason for not being a pro chef? “If you like sex, you don’t necessarily become a prostitute, do you?” Touch√©). Although he’s still a cheese-munching veggie, he’s cool to cook all-vegan, or to cook dishes where any dairy or egg type stuff can be added right at the end, after a vegan portion has already been served up. I’d imagine that if you’re a hopeless cook and not in love with the world’s greatest chef (seriously, folks), you might end up turning to beans on toast a bit more often than I have to. So learn to cook, before you leap. Or yaknow, find a cute Scotsman who knows how to wield a wok.

It’s not that expensive.
Yes, bottles of vegan wine are more expensive than their non-vegan cousins, usually. You either have to seek out all manner of seaweed and odd veggies or take vitamin supplements if you want to keep your calcium, vit B12 and iron levels happy, and either option costs money. However, these costs are, I reckon, balanced out by other stuff. Because my place of work has two main lunch options — vending machines and/or a canteen that specialises in burgers and greasy breakfasts — I’ve started packing my own lunch and have saved a wee stash of cash each week that way. If you eat out, veggie options are always cheaper and a lot of restaurants — particularly pizza places — will knock a bit extra off, too, if you ask for a veggie dish with the dairy taken out. I really haven’t seen a dip in my finances at all since taking the vegan plunge — although I have only just discovered those mini cheesecakes, and they’re ¬£3 a time…

You can still have nice things.
So, it turns out — cheese-less pizza? Way better than regular pizza (no, really). I can still order a curry, as long as it’s not one of the creamy ones (pretty icky anyway). Wagamama, one of my all-time favourite places, have several dishes I can order. My all-time most-loved food is Mexican, which I can still eat with aplomb as long as I hold the sour cream and cheese. I am still a regular at Illegal Jack’s. I’ve been amazed by the number of restaurants who have a veggie-dish-that-is-also-a-vegan-contingency, and places that don’t will usually be happy to make Something Tasty for you from scratch. I even got a from-scratch vegan meal made for me in a very old fashioned pub-grub, only-one-veggie-option type place in rural Cumbria. People are starting to hear about veganism. It’s not all celery sticks and hummus.

You have to love hummus.
That said, you do have to like hummus. If you don’t, I have no idea how you’d survive. Big chain coffee and sandwich shops are starting to do an obligatory vegan sandwich/panini option (Pret have a nice one), but it almost always contains lashings of hummus. When you go round to the houses of enlightened carnivore friends, hummus is what they’ve bought in for you, 99% of the time. Fortunately, I love the stuff — and Lovely Boyfriend’s homemade brand is the best, obv.

Some dairy substitutes are actually bloody excellent.
But you do have to be willing to try and fail. All the vegan cheeses I’ve tried so far have failed to impress, and I only tried vegan mayonnaise once before deciding ‘never, ever again.’ I’m cool with soy milk, but I know not everyone likes it and some folk would rather take their tea black and give up cornflakes than consume it. However, it is worth trying vegan versions of dairy things, even if some of them make you retch, because sometimes they’re incredible. Booja Booja vegan ice cream is bloody delicious (the maple pecan one is hands-down the best of the range). I’ve discovered that cashew cream is pretty much the best thing ever to happen to dessert. These things are also super healthy, too — often raw, often sugar free, gluten free, etc. At the risk of sounding like I’m after “brownie points”, this is kind of how food should be, really.

You have to be willing to get yelled at.
The most difficult thing about becoming vegan, for me? Other people’s responses. I’ve had eye-rolls, I’ve been laughed at, and I’ve been yelled at. I’ve had concern-trolling like crazy: “but you’ll make yourself ill!”, “it’s tantamount to an eating disorder!”, and the classic “your mother must be worried sick about you!”. I’ve also had a lot of folk — usually carnivores — smugly tell me that it’ll only be so long before I “crack”, run out and scoff a whole wedge of Edam. And people demand, really demand, to know why… before, usually, dismissing you as a poser hippie. I’ve tried really hard to understand the aggressively anti-vegan stance so many people take, and I just don’t get it. Are they frightened? Do they think veganism is some sort of cult? Are they worried I might try and convert them? (NB: I don’t do this. Martyna used to, but I’m happy to sit next to a friend who’s chowing down on a steak. Whatever.) Je ne comprends pas. But it happens. And as I tentatively start to tell people I’m vegan, it this that’s really hard to get used to.

Got any vegan tips? Good stores? Tasty treats? Vegan “coming out” stories? I WANT TO HEAR THEM! Get ye to the comments!

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4 Responses to “Things I learned while accidentally becoming vegan, or how I learned to stop worrying and love hummus.”

  1. Harry Giles Says:

    I was a strict vegan for a couple of years, and am now veggie and want to get back to vegan eventually.

    I found it cheaper to be vegan in my daily diet, but what’s more expensive is treats and comfort food! I wouldn’t find the budget at all a problem if it weren’t for that. The way I cope with this on a budget is to allow myself to be freegan — to eat dairy treats from the bins — but it is true that that can be a slippery slope.

    I never found getting all my nutrients a problem, mainly thanks to Alpro and Marmite. Alpro fortify their products with most of what you need, and Marmite is packed with that tricksy B12 — with those, I didn’t have to spend on supplements. Another good tip is to go for locally-grown veg, preferably with the dirt still on, if you can find / afford it: the less processed a vegetable, the more nutrients it has.

    You’re totally right that the scorn from others is the biggest challenge. People complain about preachy vegans and veggies, but I’ve met a greater number of far more obnoxious carnivores than I ever have vegans or veggies. It’s astonishing! And that’s usually the comeback I have when someone is aggressively anti-vegan, especially if they accusing you of posing or preaching — calmly saying that you’ve met more posing and preaching meat-eaters than you ever have vegans.

    I find it much easier to be vegan if I’m living with vegans, because of the cooking thing. That’s such a vital element. I like cooking, but don’t have the will or desire to cook every day, so I rely on sharing cooking around a house. Shared flat meals are vegan at the moment, which has made my diet much more what I want it to be!

  2. Regina Says:

    i’ve been a vegan for some time now… and i can’t believe how easy, how satisfying and how good i feel, not only about not eating animals but about causing less suffering on the planet and not taking suffering in to my body when i eat. i’ve started cooking a lot of ethnic meals and vegan baking is my specialty! omg, vegan cupcakes! my favorite vegan cook is isa chandra moskowitz- everything i’ve made of hers is fantastic! and colleen patrick-goudreau is excellent too! and i make a fantastic pizza! i use daiya shredded cheese, the cheddar and pepperjack- i’ve made it for other people and not told them it was vegan cheese and no one knew the difference. i don’t know if you can get that in scotland.

    and once you get used to fresh food- nothing coming out of a box, pre-packaged or processed, you can’t ever go back. the only thing is i find myself running to the grocery store a lot but i’ve become a different shopper- a better shopper, more discerning and better educated.

    i’m so happy for you, claire. yay for you and yay for the animals and the planet!

  3. Tracey Says:

    When I became vegetarian (around 8 years ago), it was mostly for ethical reasons, but also I just didn’t eat a lot of meat anyway. I told myself that if I wanted a hamburger, fine, no problem, but I’d need to get the meat from the farmer’s market, where I could talk to the people who owned the cows. I never did this, but it might work for others; there’s no reason not to set one’s own boundaries.

    I suspend vegetarianism when I’m travelling, if strict adherence means either a) I will miss out on local culture (if I’m going to have a few pieces of sushi, Japan is the place) or b) I will starve. However, I’ve rarely had to invoke this. It generally means things like not worrying about whether the noodle dish uses fish stock; I haven’t yet had to eat hunks of meat because nothing else was available, though I did get mighty tired of couscous and vegetables when I was in Morocco and I probably would have cracked if I’d been there any longer! Oh, I loved India; ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ were pretty much equal in terms of selection and yumminess.

    The only time I find vegetarianism a hassle is at lunch buffets, when I have to elbow my way to the vegetarian platter before all the omnivores help themselves. I generally feel sorry for the vegans in these cases, because (apart from hummus) everything seems to be egg and cheese based! And what hope do you have at pizza parties…?

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