A Meat-Lover Turns Vegan — and Doesn’t Hate It (The Final Word Opinion Column)
The reluctant vegan: A friend’s off-the-cuff challenge results in a surprising lifestyle change
Illustration by Chris Reed
All I wanted was a cup of coffee. But the woman in front of me at Bread Alone in Woodstock had other ideas. “Does the sourdough bread contain honey?” she asked. No, it does not. “Do you have tofu cream cheese?” Yes, they did. “Could you make a latte with soy milk?” Sure could. “Because,” she said smugly, “I’m veeeeeeee-gan.” She stretched those two syllables until it sounded like she was giving the State of the Union address.
I texted my pal Kitty, who had recently broken my heart by moving to the Midwest. “Do you think vegan is a misspelling of moron?” I asked.
“No doubt,” she replied instantly.
A few weeks later, in a spate of texts about how happy I was and how I felt like I could pretty much do anything I set my mind on, Kitty said, “Yeah? Let’s see you be vegan for a month.”
I laughed. I pride myself on loving meat more than most. I have sung the praises of the just-this-side-of-medium-rare burger, waxed poetic about a perfectly roasted chicken, and spent countless hours poking fun at people who choose seitan over strip steak. Vegan? Not very likely. I asked my Sunday night dinner crew if they thought I could be vegan for a month. They have been my friends for decades, and know what I like (meat) and what I don’t (non-meat). In the immortal words of my Aunt Tillie, they plotzed (“burst with laughter”).
“A week,” one said. “No,” another quipped, “two days, max.” I agreed. But there was something in Kitty’s challenge that kept pulling at me. When I said I could do anything, did I just mean the easy stuff? Is anything worthwhile ever easy? And is anything easy ever worthwhile?
Just what would going vegan look like? Would I just cut out the main course, and eat salad and veggies for a month? As an amateur chef, this had no appeal. So I bought Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet. Carr’s adherence to a totally plant-based diet certainly seemed doable. Her enthusiasm was infectious, too.
But I wasn’t convinced. So I got a copy of Mark Bittman’s VB6 (Eat Vegan Before 6 p.m.). Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times, was told by his doctor to become a vegan or die: His weight had skyrocketed and he was veering towards diabetes. He adapted to his vegan diet very well, and when he had reached his goal weight, he decided to keep to a strict-before-six plan; for dinner, he lets himself have whatever is on the menu.
None of it seemed too scary, although some of the vegan rules — no honey, no eggs — seemed completely preposterous. What, are there angry bees? Chickens with a grudge? But like everything else I do, I decided to do it all-out: a strict vegan diet for one month, with absolutely no cheating.
My birthday was a week later, so after I had a burger for lunch and then a lobster dinner, I cleaned out the fridge. I threw out all the cheese, because dairy is like some weird, incessantly awful boyfriend that keeps seducing me into believing it’s not so bad for me. A few days later I got a Nutribullet and taught myself to make green smoothies. Over the next week I found out which legumes had the most protein and made sure there were always some available. Then I started rethinking my favorite recipes, and figured out how to make delicious vegan schwarmas, tagines, and stews.
That month had its challenges: what to eat on the road (bring food with or order a baked potato), what to eat at a dinner party (ask what’s on the menu, eat beforehand, keep snacks in the car), what to do when you realize the couscous you just devoured was made with chicken broth (nothing).
The best part of those first 30 days was that I lost eight pounds, effortlessly. For the first time in my life, my relationship with food seemed healthy and easy. There were fewer choices because I was vegan, and for me, that’s a very good thing.
The worst part was the self-righteous vegans who wanted to talk about how sick meat would make me if I ever had it again. But meat didn’t make me sick: It was as delicious as ever when I finally had some.
The joke among my friends is that I am still mostly vegan, months later. Once or twice a week I have some meat or fish for dinner, but I think of it as a treat, and if there’s something vegan to be had, I always go for that. And the rest of the time I am as strict as ever.
Last week at Bread Alone I asked the waitress for some soy milk for my coffee. In a barely audible whisper I told her, “Sorry. I’m sort of a vegan.” She smiled.