“Being vegan is like being in food prison”
After our adventures living plastic free for a month, my fiancée Rosa and I decided to up the ante. She’s already a fulltime vegetarian and I’m sort of a veggie leaning flexitarian who doesn’t eat fish (if that makes sense). The goal was to be vegan for the whole of October; so no dairy, no eggs, and of course no meat or fish. Going vegan is something that many people find “a little extreme”. Quite some people we talked to could see themselves going vegetarian, but vegan? No way! As we did some reading, we found this to be a strange attitude. There are many reasons why you could go vegetarian or vegan, the main ones I think are:
- the massive environmental impact of raising and catching loads of animals for our food requirements (deforestation, climate change, pollution, depleting natural populations, and diseases)
- the welfare of those animals (stress, injuries, minimal living space, extensive transports, again diseases and the overuse of antibiotics, maiming animals (without anesthetics) to maintain them in very high densities, and not allowing the animals to perform natural behavior)
- your personal health (obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, zoonotic diseases, exposure to antibiotics and hormones)
- the inefficiency of animal based foods and their effect on food availability to the entire human population now and as that population will increase towards 2050
If you decide that those reasons are enough to make you go vegetarian, then why not vegan? Vegetarians in general consume dairy and eggs. Both these industries have many of the downsides of the meat industry; the only concrete difference is that an animal did not directly die for your food. However, to produce your eggs and milk, male chicks and calves need to be born. While male chicks are for the majority immediately discarded (i.e. killed), male calves are destined to be raised for veal (go check out that industry). Female calves have the chance to follow in their mother’s footsteps and produce milk for a couple of years before a drop in milk productivity causes them to be written off and discarded. On top of that, the production of dairy and eggs costs an enormous amount of energy, crops, and water; far more than would be needed to produce the same amount of food from plant-based sources (soy, beans, nuts, etc.).
I am sure many people know the above mentioned reasons, so why are they still hesitant? When I started to read up on vegan options, I kind of felt like Russell Brand at the top there: a vegan diet must only contain vegetables and beans, how dreary. I was convinced that tofu has a negative flavor, it even sucks tastiness out of the rest of your ingredients. Feeling like this was a challenge which needed some solid prep work, Rosa ordered some vegan cookbooks online to give us some inspiration. These had titles like the “Oh she glows” cookbook and mainly consisted of overly perky American housewives showing off their kale and pine nut casseroles. I was also not really convinced by their tone indicating that some of those recipes would even convince their beastly men and kids to skip meat for a day. However, ignoring those issues, we did find some cool recipes to work with (tofu scramble is an awesome breakfast egg substitute, and many of our guests over the month were more than happy with our apple pie oatmeal and applesauce pancakes).
As we progressed through the month, it started to dawn on me that we all have a mental framework of habits that is hardwired into us and which needs substantial effort to be shifted. If we are capable of getting all our dietary requirements from plant based sources (vitamin B12 excluded, but that can be remedied with a twice a week supplement), then why do we maintain a highly inefficient and enormously costly livestock/dairy industry? This is normally the point where somebody trots out that we’ve always eaten animal products, evolution has made us omnivores, and so on. Now the argument from tradition is always the weakest argument people can have. A history of doing something is, by itself, no reason to continue doing it. Deciding to change your habits due to new insights is called progress which is generally considered a good thing. On top of that, consumption of animal products in the western world has exploded over the last 65 years. The average Dutch person now consumes 85 kg of meat per year where this was 36 kg in 1950. People from the US top the charts at an average of 118 kg per year. While animal food products cost more energy and lead to more environmental damage, we have made them the default setting for our daily consumption pattern. A clear example of this was the one big difficulty during our vegan month, eating out. It didn’t matter if it was just a sandwich, or going to a fancy restaurant, animal products are everywhere. Often, there is an abundance of meat/fish options with one or two vegetarian alternatives which in the Netherlands and Belgium generally means cheese. Eating a vegan alternative in a normal restaurant means calling ahead and then you are left with the vegetarian option with the cheese removed.
Over the month, we experimented with lots of Middle Eastern and Asian options like humus, baba ganoush, marinated tofu, tempeh, seitan, as well as more local options like the Dutch Weed Burger (the weed stands for seaweed, not the other kind, go try it!), and alternatives to meat from the Vegetarische Slager (vegetarian butcher). I started noticing that there are very few animal based things for which there is not a decent plant based alternative. Making soy milk mayonnaise is super easy and fast; add garlic and you’re good to go with falafel sandwiches for a quick snack. Vegan pestos are awesome with sundried tomatoes or basil, cashew nuts, and nutritional yeast. Combine with pasta, some rocket, and cherry tomatoes and pasta night is saved as well. There was however one problem which all our efforts over the month could not fix. Cappuccinos need milk. Many attempts were made, but the right frothy foam and taste could not be produced. Unsweetened soymilk was the worst of the bunch and Rosa still refers to it as smelling like musty rodent bedding. Overall that is not a bad score and the quest for the vegan cappuccino continues. Having completed the month, we seem to have moved ourselves into a new mental framework. Meat and eggs no longer seem like an essential diet component. Dairy in general is off the books as well, while I’m making an exception for the 1.5 kg of Parmesan we still have left from our Italian road trip in September. Will I go full vegan after that bunch is finished? At home for sure, but I think I will make exceptions when eating at friend’s places or in restaurants.
At the end of this experience, all I can say is try it for yourselves, make it a new year’s resolution! You don’t need to go a full month, maybe make it two days a week, but do some experimenting with your daily food, you may find out you also love tofu for breakfast (seriously, the recipe is below, it’s awesome!)
Take your tofu block the night before you want to eat it and place it between 4 layers of paper towels between plates with something heavy on top. Place this stack in a stable place and leave overnight to squeeze the moisture out of the tofu.
The next morning, shred the tofu and slice some onions and mushrooms/chilies and whatever else you like. Fry the other ingredients for a few minutes in oil and then add the tofu. Add paprika powder, curry powder, ginger powder, and ground cumin. Stir fry this for a few minutes and then add a splash of sweet soy sauce (ketjap manis for the Dutchies and Indos). A few more minutes and your scramble is done.
Eat on your favorite bread with mashed avocado!