For somebody who doesn’t *like* the taste of meat, I was an adamant omnivore for most of my life. Now I’d be the first to say we should all be given a choice, and of course there are people who love the taste of bacon, just as there are people who hate kale. There are even people who like celery. I’m not sure I trust those people.
I used to nod in agreement when friends said they couldn’t start the morning without a bacon roll, or that nothing beats a full cooked breakfast. Even though I didn’t agree. I thought I must be missing something, that maybe if I just somehow attuned my tastebuds to the status quo I would fit in. Maybe I was a freak because to me, pork always had a weird musky, perfume taste that I couldn’t get past. I’d eat things because it was expected of me to like them, and I’d pretend so hard that I did. IT SUCKED.
Last year I went through a period of a few months without a flatmate, when I didn’t have to think what someone else might want to eat when doing a grocery shop. Have you ever noticed that you find out all sorts of things when you are faced with the prospect of cooking just for yourself? Not needing to be accountable for someone else made me realise that I lived on diet of mostly noodles and pasta, tofu and vegetables. I started to try things like faux chicken nuggets, which tasted infinitely better than actual chicken to me. I discovered the joys of cavalo nero and rainbow chard. I realised I loved avocados. I actually started to enjoy cooking again. When left to my own devices, I preferred a vegetarian lifestyle and food tasted GOOD.
Years ago I was in a horrible, abusive relationship. The person I was with used food (amongst other things) as a means to control me. I wrote about it here, but I didn’t realise for a long time how this had affected my relationship with food. I was never much of a meat-eater growing up but the things he’d said made me feel like I was “abnormal” for not liking certain things. Like steak, and burgers, and chicken. So I just pretended I liked these things, nodded and smiled along with everyone else, and I kept my mouth shut.
Last year was a bit of a revelation for me. I started to stick up for myself more, embraced my fabulous feminist self and decided I wasn’t going to let someone else’s opinions dictate how I should act or what I should eat. Friends I’ve known for years were surprised to hear I’d gone meat-free at first, but I realised pretty quickly that no one really gave a toss about what I ate as long as I was happy. No one who mattered, anyways.
I remember a conversation with an old friend who I used to date in high school; they’d stopped eating animal products years ago for health reasons and we had a bit of a giggle over the fact we were both vegan now. They brought up the point that I was always veggie when we were kids, and did I remember that time at boarding school the head teacher phoned my dad because they were concerned I had an eating disorder? I went to school in Switzerland, the land of meat and cheese, and because I didn’t want to eat the endless dinners of schnitzel and unidentified beef/lamb/chicken served up every day, I lived on pasta and rice. My dad’s response was, and still is, hilarious. “I don’t think she has an eating disorder, but I think she might be a vegetarian.”
I used to be the first to say that vegans were “too extreme”, and how I could never imagine life without meat. Now looking back on it, I can’t imagine eating any of these things at all.
1. A meal isn’t complete without meat
When I first moved to Edinburgh, I invited friends round for dinner once a month. I’d cook elaborate meals, we’d feast until we were about to pop, and then proceed to get drunk on cheap wine and cheap tequila. Ugh. I actually feel queasy thinking about how much we drank on a typical “quiet night in”. I couldn’t imagine having people over for dinner without a huge platter of meat on the table like some ridiculous centrepiece. Et Voila, Le Turkey! There was always too much, and almost every time there were leftovers that I would end up feeding to the cat. We wasted so much food, and I still feel a little guilty about that.
I had a few vegetarian and vegan friends, so there would always be a meat-free option on the table for them. My veggie lasagne always went down very well with both meat-eaters and meat-free friends alike, and pretty much all the vegetarian “sides” were swiftly polished off by everyone. I once caught an adamant carnivore friend sneaking into the kitchen to munch the rest of my lemon and almond crusted green beans, though of course he would never admit he wasn’t just going back for the lamb.
When I was growing up, my mum was primarily vegetarian, though she still cooked things like chicken and beef for my dad. Being Chinese, she would turn up her nose at overcooked, boiled veg and so our meals were always full of interesting dishes of vegetables and tofu…alongside dad’s meatstravaganza. When I was a kid, one of my favourite dinners and something my mum still makes for me when I’m visiting, essentially cabbage and vermicelli done “a la Chinoise”. Vegetables weren’t a side dish or an accompaniment to a main meal, the were the main attraction. Now if my mum would only share her recipes with me so I can adapt them to be entirely vegan, that would be great. I think it’s her tactic to lure me home for a visit though, so I might be out of luck there. My mother is clever like that.
2. Vegans are all extremists
Everyone has heard of that tired old joke: How can you tell if someone is a vegan? They’ll tell you within 3 seconds of meeting you!
I’ll be honest, this was one of the main reasons I didn’t “admit” to being a vegan for a few months after I actually made the transition. I have met some seriously militant vegans in my time, both online and IRL. I understand feeling passionately about animal welfare, but I have known vegans who would think nothing of making someone cry just because they are “not vegan enough”. For dating an omni. For eating “meat replacements” that look too much like the real thing. For honey. For palm oil. For keeping pets, for going to the zoo, for feeding their dog on anything but a strict vegan diet. The list goes on.
Conversely, I have also met some of the most incredible, kind-hearted, wonderful people since becoming vegan. People who care about the environment, care about the animals, and care about other humans – because these things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I have had countless conversations over cups of soy latte, over a few glasses of wine, or over delicious vegan dinners and lunches and everything in between. I have met a group of people who have similar ideals and who are so accepting of others. I remember when I first posted on Facebook that I was “trying out” veganism, for a week at first, and the responses I got were so encouraging that they played no small part in me sticking with it. When I said I missed cheese, I had friends send me their recommendations for dairy free alternatives. They posted recipes on my wall and links to their favourite vegan instagrammers. They made me simultaneously happy and hungry with all the vegan food porn, and I am utterly grateful for the amount of support I got when I was just a wee plant-based newbie.
I have friends I met through Twitter over a shared love of vegan pizza, and who have become friends IRL. Every time I see Laila or Jess, we stuff our faces full of lovely food and talk about Very Important Vegan Topics like cake. The first time I met the lovely Hannah, we got so carried away chatting that we entirely missed the panel discussion we had planned to go to. Terry and I got to know each other when I asked her for recommendations of the best places to eat meat-free in Czech Republic, and this year we finally got to meet and hang out IRL when she came to visit me in Edinburgh. Again, the list goes on.
There will always be people who try to make you feel like you are not “good enough” in all walks of life, and they will try to make you feel bad about yourself. They’re not a representation of a whole community. For every person who can’t or won’t accept you for the way you choose to go about your life, there are a dozen more who more than make up for it. These are the people I want to be around.
3. Vegan food is bland
Uh, only if you can’t cook! I went to a vegan dinner party years ago with the most dire selection of food on offer I’ve ever had the misfortune to let past my lips. Everything was boiled, nothing was seasoned, and the host was so proud of the fact they had prepared the whole thing without using any salt. Or fat. No sauces, no dressings, just plates of flaccid foliage slopped onto plates, choked down by sheer force of politeness.
If you do a search on Instagram for the #vegan hashtag, it’s fairly evident that plant-based food is far from boring. It’s colourful, and inventive, and there is so much choice out there and infinite flavour combinations that it’s difficult to go through someone’s feed without getting serious hunger pangs. Maybe a little drooling too.
Yes, it is possible to have bland vegan meal, just as it is possible to have a bland meat-based meal. I used to be friends with someone who didn’t see anything strange about eating the same meal of grilled chicken and rice, every single night. It’s boring, it’s beige, and just plain uninspiring. I’d rather just go for a nap if that was all I was offered, day in and day out. Food should be exciting, it shouldn’t be a chore to eat!
4. It’s hard to find vegan options when I’m out. What if I want to go travelling?
I love food. I mean LOVE food. When I visit a different city, the most important thing for me is to locate the best foodie destinations; in fact I’m not embarrassed to admit that there have been times I’ve done this before I’ve even booked my accommodation. If you’re travelling around the UK, there are so many wonderful vegan cafes and restaurants, not to mention vegan-friendly places that cater both to meat-free diners and omnis alike. I even made a Master List (currently just for Edinburgh and London, but I’ll be adding to these as I plan to do a bit more travelling next year). Download the Happy Cow app, which is just an amazing resource for would-be vegan foodies, or do what I do and check out some vegan foodie or travel blogs.
Last year I visited a couple of cities I’d been to as an omni, and I was a little worried about finding places that would cater to a vegan diet. I’d lived in Luxembourg as a teenager and from what I could remember food was very French in influence, with sauces laden with butter and cream and way more seafood that you’d expect from a landlocked nation. I was surprised to discover how easy it is to eat out as a vegan there, with restaurants catering to locavores, raw food enthusiasts, and quite a few omni restaurants that have a significant vegan section to their menu. Gone are the days a vegan in Central Europe has to resign themselves to filling up on bread. I also travelled to Prague on a business trip, where my Airbnb host actually made me a list of the best places for me to try out whilst I was there. Traditional Czech cuisine is very heavy on red meat and pork, but there was no shortage of vegan and vegetarian restaurants serving everything from health food, meat-free versions of traditional dishes, and fancy plant-based feasts. On my first night the clients I was working with took me out for dinner at a high-end veggie and vegan restaurant, and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life. Prague is also the first place I ever tried tofu scramble for breakfast!
5. It’s too expensive
The cost issue is one that keeps cropping up, so I thought I would address it here. I have to admit that I spend a large proportion of my weekly budget on edibles, but then again I go out for dinner at least a couple times a week. It is definitely possible to have a plant-based diet on a budget just as it’s possible to be an omni on a budget! Sure if you’re dropping dolla on several different kinds of dairy-free cheese and all the snack foods, gourmet olives, fancy chutneys and artisanal chocolates, you may need to get a second job. Or you could get some vegetables, a massive block of fresh tofu at the asian supermarket for a couple quid, and pad out your meals with beans, pulses, rice and pasta. Tins of tomatoes cost next to nothing, and a bottle of soy sauce will last for ages. It’s possible to do it on any budget.
The average omni won’t spend nearly as much on their weekly shop as someone who buys all their produce from the fancy deli, or who eats fillet steak several times a week. I ate a mostly vegan diet when I first went away to uni because I was so skint, and I ate pretty well.
6. It’s too difficult/I’m too busy
Let’s not beat around the bush here, I’m a lazy shit. I work from home, so most of the time what I eat is something thrown together in ten minutes so I can get back to work. The thing is, it’s easy to whip up a tasty vegan meal with next to no effort in the time it would take to boil pasta or cook rice. Vegan junk food is easily attainable, and you’d be surprised at how many things are “accidentally” animal-free. Like oreos, ritz crackers, Aunt Bessie’s fruit crumbles, flying saucers, love hearts, most brands and flavours of crisps, Biscoff biscuits and “cookie butter”, Co-op’s doughnuts and pies, Marmite, Nakd bars, Betty Crocker cake mixes, Hobnobs, and custard powder.
I’ve heard so many people say they’d never eaten vegan food before and don’t know what to expect. what they actually mean is they didn’t know they were eating vegan food. Pasta with tomato sauce is vegan. Vegetable spring rolls are vegan. Bruschetta, toast with jam, baked beans, and hummus are all vegan. Bagels are vegan. Crumpets are too.
Vegan food is just FOOD, without the added meat, dairy, or eggs.