Thursday, February 24, 2011

Happy, Healthy Vegan

Throughout The Kind Diet, Alicia Silverstone talks about these crazy surges of energy and rushes of ecstasy you start to get when you sustain yourself only on plant sources. She talks about feeling giddy and head over heels in love with life all the time. And to be honest, she can be a little corny about it. She uses phrases like "groovy" and "peace out," and, in the section on dairy cows, she refers to them "our cow girlfriends." But as much as I sometimes roll my eyes at her word choices, she's so positive and sunny about the whole thing that my heart can't help but feel warmed. Come to think of it, that's probably why she uses such language in the first place: to help balance out the grim and graphic nature of some of her more gruesome subject matter.

On page 10 of The Kind Diet, Alicia talks about the beginning of her own journey into veganism: "I noticed that my whole body felt lighter. I was more vibrant and spunky. I felt like my heart had sort of opened a bit and my shoulders could relax, as if an overall softening had taken place. I no longer carried heavy animal protein in my body, which takes tons of energy to digest. Plus, I didn't have the heaviness of the suffering in me; frightened animals produce lots of cortisol and adrenaline right before slaughter, and we can become stressed from eating their meat.

"Something seemed to be happening on a deeper level as well. The decision to be vegan was one I made purely for me, an expression of my truest self and deepest beliefs. It was the first time I'd stood up and said a definitive "NO!" My real self began to emerge. It was powerful."

When I first read this passage, I found it completely inspiring. I often thought about these words of hers during times when being vegan just seemed really hard and depressing, like, say, when I had a craving for a milkshake or something. (No Shamrock Shakes for me this St. Patty's Day season.) I liked believing that I had the good feelings she described coming to me by sticking with the vegan diet, although, to be honest, it was hard for me to picture actually feeling that good about myself, since I never have before. 

Then, when I was sick last week, I felt really down in the dumps, both physically and mentally. I was exhausted and felt like five kinds of shit no matter how much I rested. I couldn't laugh or talk without going into a major coughing fit. All this physical discomfort made me depressed as well. And having to stay home from school for a week, on doctor's orders, really got to me.

Being sick for an extended period of time like that always gets me down. And even though I know that it always happens, I can never seem to prevent it from happening. So last week, I was, as beloved cartoon cat Garfield would say, in a deep blue funk, and I knew I could expect to stay there for at least as long as my illness lasted. I just had to wait it out until my antibiotics kicked in and did their job.

When they did and I finally returned to health (which, for the record, took place approximately two days ago), the happiness and relief I felt was awesome. I mean, I feel really good. The positive attitude that I beat myself up all the time for not having is finally just there without me having to work so hard at it, and it feels great! It's never been so easy for me to feel this hopeful. This change in me has been so profound, I have become convinced that it has to do with the way I've been eating for the past month, and not just due to the absence of my respiratory infection.

I honestly feel as if there has been a huge weight lifted off of me, both physically and metaphysically. Like Alicia said, I'm no longer lugging animal protein around in my body, tiring out my natural mechanisms. Trying to digest animal flesh and by-products is notoriously hard on one's body, and contributes to many health problems such as premature aging, cancer and heart disease. Studies have shown over and over that when you switch to a plant-based diet, your risk of suffering from these health problems decreases significantly and dramatically. I do honestly feel lighter now that I am free from the grip of "nasty foods," which is Alicia's term for meat, dairy, and white sugar and flour. She says right on page one of The Kind Diet, "When you begin to eat whole grains and abstain from crazy-making foods like white sugar, you will see how amazing and joyous and peaceful life really is." And corny as it may sound, I'm discovering that it really is true.

And, I'm not eating pain anymore. As Alicia says, animals secrete stress hormones when they are slaughtered, which make us stressed and anxious when we eat them. At one point in The Kind Diet, Alicia muses, "Maybe it's time to ask the questions: Is consuming all this pain and terror hurting us on levels we can't perceive? Is it cutting us off from the compassion deep within us? By not only condoning cruelty but literally consuming it, have we become desensitized to violence--against not only animals but ourselves and one another?" I definitely feel that abstaining from eating poor animals' pain, suffering and fear has changed my life for the better. After all, you are what you eat.

I feel genuinely good about life for the first time in, I think, ever. I'm not trying to sound dramatic. My anxiety level has drastically decreased, my energy is up. I feel good about myself, my life and what I'm doing with it. And a lot of the credit for these positive changes in my life goes to not eating animal protein. I know it does. Because I've never felt myself operating at this level of positive mental health before, and I have never completely cut animal protein and products out of my life before, until now. I feel there has to be a connection. If I were a detective or a scientist, I would definitely latch onto that as the answer.

I'm treating myself well and this results in me expecting the same from others, as well as me treating them the way I want to be treated. This includes animals. It might sound funny, but I do feel an improved relationship and closer bond with my pet animals now that I am not eating any other animals. And I can honestly say that the compassion that comes from practicing veganism has helped me in my relationships with my fellow humans.I feel like we on this planet, both humans and animals (humans are animals too, of course, but we tend to separate ourselves from them in our heads), are all one big happy family, and I feel better as a family member by not eating any other members of my family. (Now who's being corny?)

You hear it all the time: Happiness is a choice. I've learned that for me, it is a choice that is easier to remember to make while vegan. I want to use today's blog post to commemorate this sentiment. I don't want to ever forget how good I feel on this day, or how alive abstaining from dead flesh has made me feel.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sick Vegan

I haven't written so far this week because I've been laid up with a severe respiratory infection that keeps me coughing and hacking half the time, and too exhausted to move the other half of the time. Needless to say, I haven't been doing much cooking this week. Luckily, I made lentil stew last weekend before I got sick, so that's been lasting a while. I've also been relying on pizzas with thin crust, no cheese, and vegetable toppings, which, although they are convenient, are not the healthiest and also contain next to no protein.

I did have a delicious vegan lunch at Border Grill on Wednesday after I went to the doctor, while I was waiting for my prescriptions to be filled at Shopko across the street. I had a vegetarian burrito with no cheese in a spinach wrap, and a bowl of their Black Bean Wheat Berry Chili. May have been a little too much food for me at the time, but damn was it good.

When I first got sick this week, I was afraid that perhaps it was due to my diet, that maybe I wasn't getting enough of something I needed and that my body was rebelling. I didn't have a chance to bring this concern up to my doctor, but she did tell me that this sort of infection is going around like crazy right now, so that made me feel better. I was concerned that I wasn't getting enough protein because I've been so tired all the time, but she assured me that this fatigue is just part of the infection. I can't wait for it to go away. It's been almost a week now, but I still can't stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. Very frustrating.

Well, I'm going to go now so I can rest up for class tomorrow. Sorry I've been slacking on my blog duties this week. I have a lot of stuff stored up in my mind to write about, but don't have the energy to get it all out right now.

One last thing. When I e-mailed my teacher Jen this week to let her know that I was sick and wouldn't be able to attend class, she joked with me by asking if antibiotics are vegan. This made me laugh because I had the same exact thought while sitting in the doctor's office! My doctor wrote out a bunch of prescriptions for me and slid the pile of slips across the desk to me, saying, "I know this looks like a lot of medicine, but: you're really sick." I nodded wearily, since I hate having to take medicine in any form, especially antibiotics. In answer to Jen's question, I'm pretty sure that antibiotics are not vegan, but unfortunately I have no choice in the matter. Such is the plight of an infected vegan.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sweet Water & Rubaiyat Love

Last Friday night, my boyfriend Sean and I went out for dinner at the Rubaiyat, and I had a burger and fries. Here's the best part: it was vegan!

For those of you who aren't familiar, the Rubaiyat is a beautiful Indian/Mediterranean restaurant sandwiched between the Marquette Food Co-Op and the Children's Museum on Baraga Ave. The Rubaiyat has always been one of my favorite restaurants, but now that I'm vegan, I have a whole new appreciation for it, since it's one of the only places in town where one can get delicious and truly satisfying vegan meals. (Basically, it comes down to the Rubaiyat and the Sweet Water Cafe. Third St. Bagel makes a pretty good vegan Middle Eastern bagel sandwich, too.)

At the Rubaiyat, I ordered the Taj Mahal, which is described on the menu as follows: "Curried black bean burger served with chutney, red onion, lettuce, and tomato on house focaccia." It was accompanied by Greek fries, which are a combination of white and sweet potatoes tossed with the Rubaiyat's house seasoning. I dumped malt vinegar all over them, dipped them in ketchup, and was in french fry heaven. The burger itself was wonderfully spiced, black bean-y and filling, and the chutney was excellent. The focaccia bread was, of course, incredible, as focaccia always is in my experience.

I'm so glad that pita bread, or naan, and focaccia are generally vegan, because they have always been my favorite kinds of bread. I also love sourdough. The Sweet Water Cafe sells loaves of their homemade vegan bread, with their ingredients listed right out on the glass display case so you know exactly what you're eating. I really appreciate that. Their Three-Seed and French Sourdough breads have been staples in my kitchen ever since we went to the Sweet Water for breakfast the week before last. 

We also went to the Rubaiyat back during my first week of veganism, and I had the House Salad with Lemon Tahini dressing. That dressing is so good, I don't even know how to describe it to you. It's an experience. You just have to try it. When I raved about it to our waitress, she answered, "Oh, I know! Good thing it's good for you, because I eat it on everything!" For dinner that night, I had the Kath Katha Curry, which is spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers and cabbage in a "highly spiced coconut curry sauce," served over basamati rice. This meal was hearty, flavorful, and just made me feel good about life. It was also a huge serving, so I even had leftovers for two more meals after that.

The Rubaiyat offers many yummy vegan appetizers as well. They make what is quite possibly the best hummus in town, although you can't really ever go wrong with hummus and pita. Last Friday, I also tried the Babaganouj, which is a word that I've always heard but never known what it is. Apparently, it's "pureed roasted eggplant dip with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil." I am a sucker for anything that includes garlic, tahini, lemon juice, or olive oil, so I automatically knew I would like it. And I did, but not quite as much as the hummus. It's definitely worth trying, though.

That about wraps it up for tonight. Keep checking back for more tales of my experiences in the veganning. :)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Death of a Friend

This morning, my boyfriend Sean got a call from his mother telling him that one of their family's three beloved golden retrievers has begun to take leave of her life. She's the oldest one, Samantha. Sam or Sammie for short. She has beautiful red wavy hair and a very sweet face, where the fur has begun to go snowy white in her old age. She lives downstate with Sean's parents and their other two retrievers, Casey and Abigail.

All three of these dogs are huge sweethearts. Sean's family used to breed golden retrievers when he was a kid, and these are the dogs that are left over from that time in their lives. Sam is mother to both Casey and Abigail, though they have different fathers.

Abigail is basically a ten-year-old puppy. She's the youngest of the brood and remains in a perpetual puppy state, which is the role she's always held in the family. She loves attention! She will headbutt you and try to get in your way while you pet the other dogs until you pet her too. She has beautiful red hair like her mother and is very energetic and earnest.

Casey has beautiful, soft white-blond fur and is much more reserved than her sister. She was used for breeding purposes and once lost an entire litter of puppies, and has never been the same since. She now thinks any little pet or stuffed animal (or slipper, or pillow, etc.) is her "baby." The first time I went downstate with Sean to visit his family, he brought his ferrets, Walter and Perry, and set them up in a pen in the basement of his parents' house. Casey was so excited to see them. When she settled down by their pen to be near them, Sean's mother remarked, "Oh, she thinks they're her babies." That was the first time I saw her exhibit this behavior. I later saw that she always carries a stuffed animal, toy, or other object around with her in her mouth, and cuddles with it, bathes it and drapes herself protectively around it in her sleep like its her newborn pup. It breaks my heart to think that she carries this grief over her lost children with her always, even if it is subconsciously.

Sam is the wise old mother of these two lovely ladies. She is patient and quiet, and her family refers to her as the "Mama Dog." She has slowed down quite a bit in recent years. From what I've seen, she mostly lays underneath the table or next to the couch and lets Casey and Abigail run the show until you come over to pet her. She is a sweet soul who is secure in her role as Mama Dog and happy with her human family and doggy daughters.

Sammie is almost twenty years old now and has begun to exhibit signs of a dog shutting down. She's arthritic; she's gone blind. When she began to have trouble with her mobility, Sean's family still held out hope for a while that she could get better. But when Sean's mother talked to him this morning, she told him that Sam is actually getting worse. She can no longer walk at all, and has to bark whenever she needs to go potty. Sean's mother then has to carry her outside to do her business and carry her back in. Sean's parents haven't made any final decisions about whether or not they will have to put her down, but the inevitability of her passing has become an immediate reality. 

Of course, Sean was extremely upset and sad about this news. No matter how prepared you think you are for a loved one's death, it still comes as a terrible blow when it actually happens. Sean's family got Sam when he was eight years old, and he is 26 now, so he really has grown up with her. He told me he wishes he could see her one more time, to tell her how much he loves her. I know nothing can take away the pain of not being able to be with a loved one during their last few days on Earth, but I tried to make him feel better by telling him I think Sam already knows how much her family loves her. And I do. Pets know stuff like that.

After talking about Sam for a while, Sean decided he didn't want to call her a "pet" anymore, now that she was dying. He thinks it seems like the wrong word. I know what he means. Anyone who has ever loved a pet and watched it die knows that it is very serious business. To call this animal who you love like your own family a "pet" seems kind of undignified. "Pet" starts to seem like too demeaning and small of a word to call these beings who bring so much to our lives. Each individual animal enriches your life in their own unique way, and can never be replaced. The pain of losing them is great, but whenever it happens to me, I try to refer to the old adage, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

As I sat with Sean this morning after his mother's phone call, I couldn't help but think of the strange juxtaposition of the animals we keep as pets and the animals we eat. The differences between the two groups seem pretty arbitrary to me. As one of my fellow classmates pointed out in her blog, they still cook and eat dogs in many places in the world such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Over here, we would never think of eating a dog, and yet we eat cows every day of the week. Indians, on the other hand, consider cows to be sacred animals and would never eat them. Deciding which animals are appropriate to eat and which ones aren't really just seems to come down to the cultural context in which one was raised, rather than any specific characteristics of the animals themselves.

I believe each animal, pet or no, has their own distinct personality and essence, just like humans do. It's natural and necessary to mourn the deaths of the pets we've known and loved, of course, but who mourns for the thousands (millions?) of innocent animals who are slaughtered every day in the name of human consumption? I believe, even though we don't get the chance to get to know these animals the way we get to know our pets, that their lives are just as worthy of being remembered, their deaths just as worthy of being mourned, and their existences just as worthy of being honored as those of our pets.

When Sean learned of the trouble Sammie was having with her legs, he wanted to be sure she was not suffering. He had always hoped she would go before she lost the ability to move on her own, but since it didn't turn out that way, he wanted her to at least be comfortable during her last days. "She's so good," he kept saying. "She doesn't want to die."

It's hard to watch or know about an animal suffering when you know you can't do anything about it. When I mourn for an animal who is suffering from natural causes such as illness or old age, I can't help but think of all the animals who needlessly suffer from such atrocities as abuse, neglect, or brutalization in a slaughterhouse every day. By nature, most animals are trusting and defenseless, which makes it that much more cruel for humans to mistreat them so horribly. An animal could never do anything bad enough to deserve the punishment some of them get in this world.

By not consuming any animals or animal by-products, I know I am not contributing to any poor innocent animal's suffering. That alone makes me feel a lot better about my life and who I am. Lately, now that I've finished reading The Kind Life and am not confronted with gruesome facts about animal death every day, the suffering of innocent animals and the damage done to the environment by the meat and dairy industries is easier for me to drown out when faced with food that looks delicious. There are times, for example, when I really want a bite of whatever happens to be around me, either of that amazing-looking Domino's pizza with extra cheese and white sauce, or the turkey, avocado and bacon sandwich, or that bowl of delectable macaroni and cheese from Doncker's. It was my choice to go vegan though, so I never do take that bite, even though I think about it really, really hard sometimes. I try not to forget why I was so passionate about veganism in the first place. As Alicia says in The Kind Diet, you need to get past the fleeting sensory pleasure of eating animal flesh and by-products and think about that animal who gave its life so you could eat, and whose suffering and death you are contributing to by eating that meal.

Sean argues that killing happens out in the wild, so that by eating other animals we're just participating in that natural cycle, the food chain. I understand that, but I would argue that there is nothing really natural about the way we genetically-modify, medicate, kill and mass-produce all the animals we do. I've said before that I don't think there's anything wrong with eating organic, cruelty- and toxin-free meat, eggs, and dairy, if that is your choice, but I feel there is no excuse for continuing to support industries and practices that you would consider unethical.  If everyone decides to turn a blind eye, how is anything supposed to change?

When it comes to the actual killing of an animal, Sean pointed out to me that there can and should be a mutually respectful relationship between hunter and prey. For example, the Native Americans knew that to be respectful to the animal who gave its life for their use, they needed to use every part of the animal. He's right about that, but we both know that the mass production and slaughter of animals in the dairy and meat industries today is about as far from this respectful view of taking lives as you could possibly get. Every life passing deserves recognition and respect, and to ignore this fact is to ignore our sense of humanity. 

If I am ever tempted to eat a hamburger, I just think of our cat Cinder, who, when Sean pets him, goes slack-jawed with happiness. Or my kitty Kai, who cuddles by putting his little arms around my neck and giving me kisses. There's really no difference between them and a cow, and I wouldn't eat them, so by virtue of that fact, I feel I shouldn't eat the cow either. This thought helps me get through my meat cravings, even if it's for something as little as one bite of a sandwich with meat. Even if it's just one bite, with that bite I will still have consumed part of what is, really, a corpse; a part of the body of what was once a living, breathing being with a consciousness and a personality all its own. I don't mean to sound like a hippie, but that's a pretty heavy cosmic burden to bear, if you ask me. One I can do without in my life.

Coda (A.J. Jacobs style): In the midst of writing this post, I discovered from Sean's sister's Facebook page that Sam has indeed passed on. We were sad to hear this, of course, but Sean did most of his grieving this morning, and he's okay. We take comfort in knowing that she is at peace now. R.I.P., Sammie. You will not be forgotten.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food, Food, FOOD!

I haven't concentrated that much on the actual food aspect of my being vegan yet, so I'm going to dedicate this post to just that: food!

Right now for breakfast I'm eating an Amy's microwavable pocket sandwich with scrambled tofu, shitake mushrooms, and peppers. It's delicious! I love Amy's. They are a wonderful company who make all sorts of amazing frozen organic, vegetarian and vegan food. They make what used to be one of my favorite frozen pizzas, with pesto, cheese, tomato and broccoli. Now if I want frozen pizza I am relegated to their two vegan varieties, one with no cheese and veggies, or one with just soy cheeze. I haven't tried them yet, because I am trying not to rely on convenience foods, but I know they'll be good.

I just said I'm trying not to rely on convenience foods, but that is definitely easier said than done. This morning, yes, I am having a microwavable sandwich and a large coffee from Starbucks. Not ideal, but still much better than a Burger King breakfast, which is what I probably would be eating if I weren't vegan. I have a bad habit of eating way too much fast food. I had cut down before I started my vegan diet (or at least was going to Subway more than McDonald's and Burger King), but it's hard for me not to go to those places at all. It seems like I have to cut it out completely in order to get any sort of handle on my consumption of it. So veganism is perfect for me when it comes to that.

At the beginning of becoming vegan, I wrote a lot in my notebook about how much I liked the paradoxical freedom of having less choices. Here is a direct quote from my notes: "When I have all the choices of food at my disposal, I feel ironically like I am locked in a cage: There are certain things I don't necessarily want to eat in my heart of hearts, because they aren't good for me, but I am compelled to eat them anyway, because I cannot resist the temptation. Then, not only do I feel sick from eating it, I feel guilty and ashamed that I once again fed this junk to my body, instead of respecting, honoring, and taking care of myself. All this anxiety is lifted by my limited choices as a new vegan." I went on to describe my midnight snack the night before. I had a case of the munchies, and we had vanilla bean ice cream in the freezer, leftover from when I bought it for dessert when I had some people over for dinner earlier in the week. Any other night, I would have gone straight for that. But since I was vegan, I popped some popcorn instead and seasoned it with salt, cayenne pepper, and a little turmeric and cinnamon. Totally satisfied my need to put something flavorful and/or crunchy in my mouth. This popcorn has since become one of my vegan treat staples. Sometimes I melt some Earth Balance buttery spread and pour that on top as well. After I started doing this, I read in The Kind Diet that this is also one of Alicia Silverstone's favorite snacks, so I guess I'm on the right track.

Being vegan does not stop me from eating ice cream if I want to, however. I didn't have any in the house the night I made the popcorn, but they sell many delicious varieties of Soy Dream and Rice Dream non-dairy ice cream at the store. So far, I've indulged in the Rice Dream Cocoa Marble Fudge and the Soy Dream Chocolate Fudge Brownie, made with real brownie bits. The Soy Dream was much better and more chocolate-y than the Rice Dream, but both were yummy and decadent and satisfied my desire to have ice cream.

Being vegan has not really stopped me from being able to engage in social situations involving food, either. My friend Steve, who works at Papa Murphy's, made a pizza for us--me, him, my boyfriend Sean, and our friend Brad--to eat one night while we all hung out. He graciously checked to make sure that Papa Murphy's crust and sauce were vegan, then made a pizza loaded with cheese and meat for himself and the guys, with the exception of two pieces made with no cheese and vegetables for me. It was very sweet of him to do as well as completely tasty. I was grateful that being vegan didn't stop me from being able to have a fun night in eating pizza with my friends.   

I have also discovered the magic of Newman-O's since becoming vegan, and pardon my language here but HOLY CHRIST ARE THEY GOOD! In my opinion, they are much better than Oreo's, their non-vegan counterpart. The filling in the middle of the Newman-O sandwich cookies is so much smoother and creamier than the gritty, sugary blast of Oreo frosting. I've learned that I can't keep them in the house all the time though, because my boyfriend and I ate a whole package in one night when we first got them, unable to believe they were that tasty.

Here, I am going to list some of the vegan recipes I've made so far and my reviews of them. (P.S., I don't know how to upload photos or embed links or anything like that, so if anyone can help me out with that, it would be much appreciated. I think the recipe sections of my blog would be improved with the addition of both links and pictures.)

-Vegan Pot Pie:

This was one of the first vegan recipes I tried out. Let me start by saying that I love pot pie. It's been one of my favorite foods ever since I was a child. Chicken pot pie is of course the old stand-by, the ultimate in comfort food. I used to love whenever my mother would make the chicken pot pie recipe that came on the side of the Bisquick box. When it came out of the oven in all its golden, flaky, crusty glory, with its insides bubbling, it was like a big comfy Christmas present in food form.

But when I was a teenager, I started to come to terms with the fact that I was allergic to chicken. It's kind of a weird, uncommon allergy, one that I never believed actually existed, until I had to admit that I got sick every time I had chicken, and that this had been happening to me for as long as I could remember. I finally looked it up online and found out that yes, chicken allergy is in fact a legitimate problem, and I have it. That was the end of chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets, chicken soup, and saddest of all, chicken pot pie for me.

So, at the beginning of this project, when I randomly came across a recipe for vegan pot pie online, I knew I had to try it. If it was good, it meant that I would no longer have to live without the culinary miracle that is pot pie. And honestly, that vegan pot pie was one of the most fantastic things I have ever put in my mouth. It is loaded with vegetables, and the flavor come from the addition of cornstarch, soy sauce, and full-fat coconut milk to the broth and veggies that make up the innards of the pie. It's a great example of vegan comfort food. I know Alicia Silverstone would frown upon the white flour and granulated sugar that went into the crust, but I could easily substitute whole wheat flour and either maple sugar or some other kind of natural sweetener to health it up a bit. My boyfriend and my sister, who are both non-vegans, loved this pot pie as much as I did and couldn't get enough of it. It was a complete success and will definitely be in my vegan recipe repertoire from now on!

-Black Bean Chili:
I am a huge fan of the Crock Pot. There's something miraculous about simply dumping a bunch of ingredients in a pot in the morning, plugging it in, and then having a delicious, warm, home-cooked meal at the end of the day. It's great for busy and even non-so-busy days, and it provides you with hearty leftovers for days to come. I try to use my Crock Pot at least once a week.

I am a fan of a site called The Crock Pot Blog on Facebook, and when this recipe for Black Bean Chili popped up in my news feed, I checked it out, saw that it was vegan, and decided to try it. It was fairly simple to make; the most work was having to saute the onions, garlic and spices before putting them in the pot in the morning. The chili itself was very flavorful and hearty, with a really good blend of spices. I also love this recipe for introducing me to the magic that is the pinto bean. I know I've had them before, but I've never bought them or cooked with them before this chili, and I was pleasantly surprised by their addition. I kept noticing this specific, different taste as I was eating the chili, and I couldn't place it at first, though I knew it didn't come from any of the spices I put in. Then I realized it was the pinto beans and got happy. I will not overlook what a pinto bean can add to a dish any longer.

-Sweet Potato-Lentil Stew: (I can't find a link, so I will just post the recipe below.)
1/2 cup safflower oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 small tomatoes, diced
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne
Fine sea salt
2-3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4" cubes
7 cups vegetable broth
1 cup brown lentils
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, deep pot. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes or until the onion starts to soften. Stir in the tomatoes and ginger and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in the turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, and a small pinch of salt. Cook and stir for 2 minutes, then taste for seasonings; try to use only enough salt to heighten the flavors.
Add the sweet potatoes, broth, and lentils. Stir well, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the lentils and sweet potatoes are soft.

YUM. This stew was amazing. It tasted like restaurant food. I got this recipe from my book The Kind Diet, which suggests serving it with steamed collard greens and a corn muffin. I did serve it with the Sicilian Collard Greens with Pine Nuts and Raisins whose recipe appears in the book a few pages later. (I'm not going to bother writing it out because it pretty much just is what it says it is, though it has garlic and balsamic vinegar in it too.) I really wanted to make the corn muffins as well, but I didn't have the right ingredients or any way to get to the store, so I just made Bisquick biscuits with soy milk instead. (Yes, Bisquick is vegan if you don't use any eggs or milk with it! I looked it up.)

I think this was one of the best meals I've ever made. I loved it, and my non-vegan boyfriend, sister, and friends loved it as well. I can't wait to try the stew with corn muffins next time, because after having it, I can see how perfectly cornbread would compliment this dish.

Sweet potatoes are an amazing and often overlooked source of vitamins and nutrients. The Wikipedia article says that they are "rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, beta carotene (a vitamin A equivalent nutrient), vitamin C, and vitamin B6." Not to mention they are completely delicious, with a wonderful, almost creamy texture when they're cooked and a taste all their own. Also, despite their name, they are only distantly related to the regular potato, which I think is interesting. 

Those are the main recipes I've tried out so far. Last night for dinner, though, I had frozen vegan BBQ chicken wings and potato chips. Ugh. Can you say LAZY VEGAN? I'm getting back on track tonight. I think I'm going to make Alicia's recipe for Lentil Stew, since I already have all the ingredients on hand.

As much as I get frustrated by not being able to rely on convenience foods, I also really like cooking for myself and knowing I am responsible for my own nourishment. I like having to hone my cooking skills and try new foods out of necessity, because otherwise, I might never do it. For example, I had never even considered buying a rutabaga before I made the Winter Vegetable Bean Soup recipe on the back of the Swanson's Vegetable Broth container. And it was damn good. (Actually, the recipe called for a turnip and I messed up and bought a rutabaga instead. But since they are both root vegetables and pretty close cousins, it turned out fine.) I also made my own pesto with fresh basil leaves to top this soup. The pesto was kind of weak, but hey, it was my first try.  I can only improve from here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Deprivation vs. Nourishment

Going vegan is hard, but I've found it can be easier if you keep this in mind: It's not about deprivation, it's about nourishment. Don't make it negative. Never forget that your focus, in diet as well as life, should be on nourishment; how best to nourish your whole self, body and soul.

At first, surviving on plant products may not seem as hearty or filling compared to eating a lot of animal protein. It is a cleaner, lighter sort of nourishment than what meat-eaters are used to, but it is not inferior or worse than that previous way of eating. It's just an adjustment.

Another hard part about making this adjustment is that people often have a tendency to get very emotionally attached to their food, and get sad or crabby about having to give certain things up. This is partly why I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon before. I made it about all the foods I couldn't eat, rather than focusing on what I still could. A vegetarian or vegan diet should ideally be about exploring and celebrating all the new foods and recipes it introduces into your life. It's about learning how to care for and nourish yourself naturally with fruits, veggies, and satisfying meatless and non-dairy alternatives. It's supposed to feel good, and relatively pain-free.

As a teenager, I was sincere in my commitment to not eat meat, but I was also not in a position to be able to think very positively about it. Growing up in an alcoholic home, I struggled with major anxiety and depression. I started out wanting to be vegetarian at thirteen because it just felt more natural to me not to eat meat than to eat it, and I truly wanted to be healthy. Despite my good intentions, I just didn't have the skills to care for myself bodily, spiritually, or emotionally at that point. As a result, my vegetarianism began to represent all the wrong things to me: deprivation, self-punishment, self-hatred. All of my pent-up frustrations, angers and hurts manifested themselves and I descended into the worst kind of asceticism. I started to make a game out of what new 'unhealthy' food I could cut out of my diet, trying all the time to become more perfect, pure, and disciplined. I wanted to differentiate myself from those around me who I perceived as out of control, namely, my parents. 

An eating disorder is not about food so much as it is about control. With so much about my life that I couldn't control, I thought I could at least control my body. Eventually, the way I ate became less about making healthy choices and more about having an excuse to punish myself. I cut more and more from my diet until my vegetarianism bled over into my struggle with anorexia, from the ages of 15-16.

I have had an uneasy relationship with food all my life. Growing up, food and eating were never simple things in my house. My father struggled with substance abuse all his life, and was also bulimic, a fact we all knew but rarely spoke about for most of my childhood. He never ate meals at the table with us, and on the rare occasions that he did, he would load up his plate and eat it as fast as he could, before escaping into the living room with his newspaper and T.V. to eat more by himself. We got used to taking more than we wanted on our first helping just in case, because once my dad got to the food, there wouldn't be anything left for us. There were almost never any leftovers in my house. My dad would usually eat the rest of whatever we were having, and then throw it up an hour or two later.

I noticed that all through his life, he had a problem eating in front of other people. One instance in particular sticks out in my mind because it was so strange. We went out to Applebee's as a family for my brother's birthday dinner, one of the last times we would all go out to eat together. We all ordered our meals, and a sampler platter of appetizers. When the platter came, my dad didn't eat anything except for the Spinach and Artichoke Dip, which for some reason he insisted on only eating with a fork and not dipping anything in. We all thought that was kind of weird, since it was, you know, dip. So he ate all the dip and we didn't get to have any. When our meals came, my dad never touched his plate the whole time we were eating (I think he just ordered a salad of some kind). Then, when we were all done, he got a doggy bag for his untouched meal and took it home with him, where it sat in the refrigerator and rotted until it had to be thrown away. I have no idea why he even ordered a meal at all if he wasn't going to eat it. I think it was just an attempt on his part to be normal and order a meal like all the rest of us, but he obviously wasn't capable of following through with the rest of what a normal meal would entail.

At home, my mother would have to hide food in new places all the time, so my father wouldn't eat the whole package in one sitting and immediately throw it up. We were not financially well-off, and she hated that whenever my dad puked up food she bought for the family, it was money down the drain, literally. This hiding of the food pissed my dad off to no end, and there were many tense afternoons when I would come home from school to him rummaging angrily through the cupboards, grilling me on where my mother hid such-and-such because he knew she told me where she hid this stuff so I would still have access to it for after-school snacks. It was true, I did know where it was, but I also knew I wasn't supposed to tell him. I tried to hold out as long as I could, gripping the kitchen table until my knuckles turned white, but nine times out of ten I broke down and told him where to find the Oreos or the peanut butter. Afterward, I always felt ashamed, guilty, and weak for giving in to him, and perhaps over time I felt like I needed to make up for my father's over-indulgence by consuming less and less.  Growing up in a home where food was treated this way, it's no wonder I developed such unhealthy associations with it.

An eating disorder is one of the saddest, loneliest, and most isolating experiences anyone can go through. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Luckily, as a teenager, I was only ever diagnosed as "borderline anorexic." It didn't get as bad as it could have. I truly think it began simply as a search for the best way to nourish myself. But again, I made it about deprivation. I took it too far and, after awhile, didn't allow myself any nourishment at all.   

This time, with the vegan diet, I'm taking a different, more positive approach. I'm trying to think of food solely as a source of energy and means of nourishment. Of course, it should still taste good and make me feel good, but it's not healthy to get so emotionally attached to it, whether the emotion is negative or positive. I think the goal should be to approach food as neutrally as possible, and really think about what repercussions eating certain things will have on your body, your health, and the environment.

For instance, when school was canceled the other day, my boyfriend Sean and I decided to spend our unexpected free time by going out to breakfast. I was quite hungry, and my first thought was I wanted a dish called "Cudighi and Eggs" from the Coach Light, a little restaurant just up the street from our apartment. My mom used to eat there too when she was going to NMU. She would walk over for breakfast from her apartment on Sixth Street. Now, I'm going to NMU and I live on Fifth Street, one street over from my mother's college apartment, so whenever I walk up to the Coach Light for breakfast, I feel like I am carrying on a family tradition of sorts.

I honestly didn't crave meat at all during my first two weeks of being vegan, but that morning, I just wanted to walk over to the Coach Light for a cup of coffee and a big ol' plate of cudighi, buttered toast, and eggs sunny-side up. I knew my craving had a lot to do with what that meal represented to me emotionally rather than the food itself. I do like the taste of cudighi, but I am not a fan of the texture. In fact, every time I eat any meat, I'm grossed out by the fact that I'm consuming another animal's flesh. If I want to enjoy eating a hamburger, a hot dog, or any other piece of meat, I need to put the fact that I am eating animal flesh out of my mind, or else I can't enjoy it. (This is one of the indicators to me that perhaps I am not that comfortable eating meat and therefore shouldn't do it.) But who do I know who absolutely LOVES cudighi? My mother. My mother also loves eggs, and coffee, and toast. And the Coach Light. And I love my mother. Perhaps part of why that particular meal makes me feel so good is that it makes me feel connected to that young woman my mother once was, the shy English major over on Sixth Street whom I will never meet.

It makes me wonder: how many of my favorite foods are my favorites because they taste good, or because I have an emotional attachment to them? I bet most of the time it's at least half-and-half. Anyway, once I thought it through, I knew I didn't really want to go to the Coach Light and eat a meal that was positively dripping with animal fat and protein, feel like shit after and waste the whole afternoon sleeping it off. I also didn't want to blow my blog project by eating meat and eggs, of course. So we went to the Sweetwater Cafe on Third Street instead, where I knew they offered tasty vegan meals, and I ended up having one of the best breakfasts of my life. I ordered the Arame Spud Plate, which is described in the menu as follows: "Grilled potatoes tossed with arame sea vegetable, sesame oil, Braggs liquid aminos, green onions, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach, on a bed of organic mixed baby greens." I also had a side of French sourdough toast and coffee with maple cream (which is vegan and AMAZING). It was completely delicious and satisfying, with the added bonus of being good for me. Also, in The Kind Diet, Alicia Silverstone raves about the many health benefits of arame and recommends having an arame dish at least once a week, so I felt good about that as well.

It's all about finding new ways to treat yourself. The day after the Sweetwater breakfast, when lunchtime rolled around, I started craving a McDonald's cheeseburger. I knew my body (or my mind, or both) was just craving the sense of security and enjoyment I get from eating McDonald's. A McDonald's cheeseburger has never been just a simple sandwich to me. My parents used to reward us with Happy Meals as kids for things like staying in bed all night, having to get a shot, etc. I think I still feel the way I did when I was a kid about getting McDonald's, like it's a really special treat, like I'm being taken care of. When I really stop to think about it, a McDonald's cheeseburger is definitely not something I want to put in my body. It doesn't even taste good all the time, and even when it does, it still makes me feel like crap. I just hate the thought that I can't have it even if I wanted to. I feel like this is a maturity thing. I have to remind myself; it's not a matter of can't. There's no person standing above me telling me what I can and cannot have. This is a choice I made for myself, based on how I want to take care of myself and live my life. It's not about deprivation, it's about nourishment.

So instead of a cheeseburger I drove up to Starbucks and got a soy latte. Still treating myself, still not necessarily good for me, being coffee and all, but it satisfied that itch to drive through somewhere and get a treat for myself. I felt much better, and the idea of eating a cheeseburger stopped nagging at me.

I will admit that I did stray from the vegan path a little bit last night, however. I went to Vango's with my boyfriend and although I ordered a vegetarian pizza with no cheese, which is a vegan meal, I also had a few onion rings (even though the batter had milk in it), ranch dipping sauce (even though I didn't know if it was vegan or not), and part of a piece of Death by Chocolate cake (which was definitely not vegan, but which was delectable). It was satisfying in the moment, but after going over two weeks without any meat or dairy in my system, my body rebelled with horrible stomach pains all night and a not so pleasant trip to the bathroom this morning. It served as a good reminder, though. Again, it's not as if I can't have those foods. I proved it to myself last night. I can have them if I want to. But when I do, I discover over and over just how bad they make me feel, and how much happier and more alive I feel when I avoid them, and that's really what it's all about.

I quite like the word "vegan." It sounds light, elegant, earthy, green, willowy. I enjoy thinking of this concept as I journey along the vegan path. When I get stopped up by emotional hang-ups or indulging in 'forbidden' foods, I don't have to feel bad or beat myself up about it. I just remind myself that it's all about treating my body and my mind well. It's about discovering how to properly nourish myself without feeling guilty or deprived. And it truly is a journey, one that I am grateful to be able to take. I want to take this time to cultivate a happy, healthy relationship with food, one that I will continue to work at my whole life. If food is going to arouse any emotion in me, I only want it to be joy at all the wonderful, natural, and healthy ways I can take care of myself. I think I'm on my way.