Category Archives: Vegan

“I Could Never Be Vegan Because I Love Cheese”

When some people consider veganism, they think it’s a sacrifice to give up certain foods. I was as guilty of this as anyone. For years, I would say, “I could never be vegetarian because I like chicken too much.” Chicken was one of my favorite foods. I had a personal investment in maintaining my belief that eating chicken was ok because I have fond memories of baked chicken and homemade chicken soup my mom made when I was a kid. I carried those traditions into adulthood, and once married, I made many meals with chicken for Husband and I to share. Reframing a symbol of family and nourishment into something unjust and ethically wrong took time and reflection. I was challenged to gain clarity about how to more respectfully and authentically “like” chickens, amazing sentient beings with robust, fulfilling social and emotional lives when they are allowed to live free from the threat of becoming someone’s dinner

The Last Block of Cheese
The Last Block of Cheese

Once I reconstructed what chickens meant to me, I faced the hurdle of all hurdles. Cheese. “I could never be vegan because I love cheese too much.” I said it many times. In listening to various podcasts about veganism, I’ve learned that cheese is often the last hurdle for many vegans. Since I started my vegan journey, several people have expressed to me their opposition or reluctance to give up cheese, and I can’t help but relate. I was an admitted cheese snob. American cheese wouldn’t do. I liked fancy cheeses of all sorts, from domestic artisan to imports. There are probably ten different supermarkets that are closer to me than Whole Foods, but I would schlep to Whole Foods just to get my favorite cheese, Wensleydale with cranberries, and while I was hovering over the cheese selection, I’d grab some Asiago, Piave, or maybe some Stilton, just to mix things up. Cheese was a simple snack that didn’t assault my blood sugar too much, and I enjoyed it. Giving up chicken was one thing, but I couldn’t fathom sacrificing cheese.

Towards the end of last summer, I was enthusiastically on the path towards veganism, but still eating omnivorously. I was grappling with changing beliefs and mixed emotions, and in retrospect, I think keeping animal products in my diet gave me a sense of security that I wouldn’t disrupt my family and social life too much. I was committed to having at least one vegan meal a day, although most days I was having two. I even had three vegan meals on occasion, but I was still having some non-vegan snacks. I bought a block of Wensleydale cheese with cranberries in early September, intending to eat it for snacks. I bought it because it was familiar. I bought it because I’d been buying it for years. I bought it because I associated it with pleasure, gratification, and comfort. We had served this cheese as part of the cocktail hour of our wedding reception, so I bought it because I had positive memories associated with it. However, I remember picking up that last block of cheese, placing it in my basket, and feeling unease and doubt.

It sat in the fridge, and occasionally, I’d pull it out to inspect it for mold. As days turned into weeks turned into months, I was increasingly surprised that I didn’t see any mold on it. I’d put it back in the meat & cheese drawer, and tell myself to eat it before it became inedible. I really do hate wasting food, which continues to be a struggle for me as I look though my cabinets, fridge and freezer at non-vegan food items, almost all of which I bought before I ever imagined going vegan. “Just eat it so it doesn’t go to waste, and then don’t buy anymore.

Expired Cheese
Expired Cheese

I couldn’t do it though. I pulled it out a few days ago to inspect it. It was buried under Field Roast chipotle sausage, Daiya pepperjack shreds, a half-eaten Daiya cheddar wedge, and Upton chorizo seitan. It looked like maybe there was a bit of mold growing under the cellophane wrap. Finally. I held it, I studied it, and I took a couple of photos. I thought about what it represented once upon a time, and what it meant to me now. I thought about the cows that gave their milk for that block of cheese, and wondered about the calves who were taken from them. Amid the quiet morning, the cheese made a resounding thud as it hit the bottom of the trashcan.

As symbolic as that untouched 5-month old cheese became, I actually don’t recall the last time I ate dairy cheese. I’ve been eating Daiya cheese at home for months now, most notably on grilled cheese sandwiches and sprinkled on veggie-seitan tacos, so I haven’t missed dairy cheese. The last dairy cheese I ate would have been at a restaurant or as a guest in someone’s home back before the New Year. When I ate it, I didn’t mean for it to be the last dairy cheese I ever ate, but as it turns out, dairy cheese isn’t as hard to stop eating as I thought.

I thought giving up cheese would be a sacrifice. I imagined a vegan diet was defined by sacrifice. Now that I’m all in, I’ve come to a new understanding. I think the best analogy is perhaps having children. Do you sacrifice a lot to have children? Being childfree, I can only comment as an observer, but I think it’s fair to say that people do sacrifice a lot. However, as far as I can tell, the parents I know don’t define parenthood as a thankless sacrifice. In exchange for what they give up, they get so much more in return. So. Much. More.

I think that aptly describes veganism too. Veganism is not a sacrifice. Veganism is a gift.

It’s allowed me to open my heart, extend my compassion, feel more deeply, and connect to my world more authentically. No perfectly roasted chicken, scrambled egg or block of cheese has ever given me such joy. Now that I do not intentionally contribute to death, I am finally living, and as it turns out, not sacrificing animals isn’t a sacrifice at all.

"Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary" by Mark Peters (Some rights reserved)
“Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary” by Mark Peters (Some rights reserved)

Can Anyone Hear Me?

Now that I feel committed to veganism, I find I have moments when I feel like I’m moving among people who are frozen in time. I’ve standing in front of them, telling them how veganism has changed my life for the better, I’m showing them videos that explicitly show the horrors of factory farming, I’m sharing articles and websites with ideas and information that seem irrefutable. I’m admittedly enthusiastic, but I’m trying to be positive and gently encouraging. Yet they remain frozen, and I wonder, how are they not compelled? Why does it seem like they don’t care? In resignation, I move about my business. They wake up, sort of, but they’re still asleep, eating bacon, burgers and cheese, as if I hadn’t been there at all. Am I invisible? Can anyone hear me?

I remind myself that my awareness of the atrocities that happen to animals has been increasing for several years, and it took time and reflection for me to arrive at the obvious conclusion: I had to stop being complicit, the way I eat needed to reflect my values. I remind myself that perhaps something I’ve shared is being absorbed, and it needs time. After all, one doesn’t plant a seed, and instantaneously have a tomato plant heavy with ripened fruit. Maybe I’ve planted a seed that will germinate and grow, but maybe I’ve planted a seed in infertile soil, or maybe my technique is wrong, and nothing will take root. When I’m ignored, dismissed, challenged, or mocked, by default, the animals I’m trying to represent are ignored, dismissed, challenged, or mocked. I don’t want to fail them. I could never have anticipated the elation and clarity that veganism has brought to me, mixed with disheartening defeat that everywhere I turn, it seems people don’t care. It is an unlikely and disorienting combination of emotions.

A couple of days ago, I caught a discussion on Facebook about an article that said sugar contributes to high cholesterol. The responses to the posted article amounted to a chorus of friends and friends of friends singing the praises of eggs. I tried to gently suggest that regardless of health benefit or cost of eating eggs, there are other implications for eating eggs that are worth considering, including public health issues, environmental costs, and of course, the despicable treatment of egg-laying chickens who suffer immensely. Let’s just say my comments weren’t well-received, and seemed to be misconstrued. Then, as if my comments were irrelevant, someone contributed a comment about the supposed merits of eggs and liver. Liver.

I was surprised at how taken aback I was. I would have been just as offended if that person said they barbecue golden retrievers over an open fire, and everyone chimed in about how delicious barbecued dog is. At its essence, it would be no different from how the consumption of a cow’s liver was enthusiastically promoted. It felt so surreal to have this clear notion of how barbaric his comment was, and yet, no one saw it. At that point, I was done. I was so upset by the liver comment, and the defensive responses to my comments that I left the discussion, sorry I even tried.

I’m new to this. I want to reach people. I want to change the world. I want to save the animals and the planet. I don’t have kids, but I want to make the world a better, less violent place for other people’s kids. It’s hard in the face of opposition, hostility, ambivalence, and silence though. It’s hard to inspire people who are unwilling to change, who close their eyes and tune me out, who are stuck. It’s hard to compel them to move.

"Not Listening" by Christian Bucad
“Not Listening” by Christian Bucad

Birthday Dinner! Sriracha Ginger Stir Fry (Recipe) & Cake

Sriracha Ginger Stir Fry
Sriracha Ginger Stir Fry

My birthday was yesterday. I love my birthday, and I’m always eager to celebrate, but this year, Hubs and I kept it low-key because he’s been under the weather. Happily, my birthday fell on a Friday, which meant I had painting class in the morning. Doing something artsy-fartsy was the perfect creative beginning for my 41st year, and for me, serves as a metaphor for all that I hope to create for myself and the animals this coming year as I fully embrace veganism.

Painting was followed by lunch with a friend at Chipotle. I sampled their new sofritas in a salad, and thought it was quite good – a slight spicy kick and meaty texture without being overtly tofu-y. I think sofritas could be appealing to people who might otherwise turn their nose up at tofu. Coincidentally, late last night, I saw several posts on FB that Chipotle is introducing sofritas nationwide. I loathe restaurants where my choices are reduced to fries and a house salad, minus half the listed ingredients. I don’t want bacon, cheese or questionable croutons, but if I’m hungry, which is normally the case when I end up in a restaurant, I can’t say that a bowl of iceberg lettuce with random carrot shreds and, if I’m lucky, a couple of grape tomatoes, is my first choice either. Compared to that, I’m grateful that it’s so easy to order vegan fare at Chipotle.

After Chipotle, I hit Whole Foods for dinner and cake ingredients. As I’ve become more aware of vegan businesses in my area, part of me wanted to support a local vegan bakery I recently discovered, but the other part of me didn’t want to pay $30 or $40 for a cake when I can make one myself. Historically, I usually make my own cake anyway because it’s fun. For the first time this year, I was not only going to have a vegan cake, but I was going to make a cake from scratch instead of a box mix (even though I know there are vegan box mixes). After perusing various recipes, I honed in on Post Punk Kitchen‘s Just Chocolate Cake. Instead of the accompanying chocolate ganache, I opted for The Cake Merchant‘s vegan vanilla frosting. As a side note, instead of 8″ springform pans, I used well-greased 9″ regular cake pans, and the cakes came out without any issues. The frosting recipe made way too much frosting. If I use that recipe for a double layer cake recipe again, I’ll halve the recipe. (See photos of the cake below.)

Dinner and cake ingredients in hand, I stopped at a regular supermarket to pick up candles, and had planned to get something to decorate the cake, but using the handy ‘Is It Vegan?‘ app, discovered that none of the cake decorating items were vegan. So my homemade, slightly lopsides non-bakery cake ended up looking quite rustic. Maybe next year, I’ll more thoughtfully source simple vegan cake decorating options.

Dinner was a stir-fry with rice noodles. I made chicken salad last weekend, but Hubs isn’t a fan of chicken salad, so he had yet to try Beyond Meat, so I decided to use that in my stir fry to see what he thought. There are challenges to figuring out how to eat together in a way that honors each of our dietary preferences, but to his credit, he’s been willing to try most anything I make as long as it doesn’t contain ingredients he doesn’t like. Overall, we’ve had more successes than not, and the sriracha ginger stir fry was no exception. When I asked him what he thought of the vegan chicken, it seemed that he didn’t even notice that it was vegan, so as I said when I shared the chicken salad recipe, Beyond Meat is a great compromise that is likely to please mixed herbivore-omnivore homes like ours.

After dinner, we created a considerable fire hazard with my birthday candles, but I’m a traditionalist who prefers the exact number of candles. Hubs ate his cake with dairy ice cream, while I tried vanilla almond milk ice cream for the first time. I’m not sure I’d want a plain bowl of it, but that’s more because I prefer more exotic ice cream with swirls and chunks of stuff in it. That being said, with a slice of cake, the simplicity of it with its subtle nuttiness worked. We topped our cake and ice cream with dollops of Soyatoo soy whip. I don’t usually eat whipped cream, but hubs is a big fan, so I was happy that he liked it. He really liked the cake and the frosting too – another small, but meaningful plant-based success!

Sriracha Ginger Stir Fry

2 tablespoons dark sesame seed oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced or crushed
2 tablespoons ginger, minced
1/2 sliced red onion
1/2 cup soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons sriracha (to taste)
1/2 cup low sodium vegetable broth
Black pepper to taste
1 package Beyond Meat or other vegan chicken ( I used the lightly seasoned variety)
3 pounds stir fry vegetables (I used broccoli, red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, and bok choy)
1 bunch scallions, chopped
Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Heat oil on medium heat in wide skillet or wok, and cook garlic, ginger, and onion until onion is softened.
2. Add soy sauce, sriracha, broth and black pepper. Stir to combine.
3. Add vegan chicken and vegetables. Cook until vegetables are almost to desired tenderness, stirring frequently.
4. Add scallions, stir to heat through, and remove from heat.
5. Serve stir fry atop rice or noodles, and sprinkle with cilantro leaves.

Classic chocolate with vanilla frosting, veganized
Classic chocolate with vanilla frosting, veganized
Birthday cake & ice cream, veganized
Birthday cake & ice cream, veganized

Vegan Chicken Salad

Vegan Chicken Salad
Vegan Chicken Salad

This past week, I found a recipe for Lemon & Dill Vegan Chicken Salad on the blog, Meet the Shannons. I immediately bookmarked it with the intention of finally using the package of Beyond Meat I had stashed in the freezer last month. I tend to tinker with recipes, but I decided to make the recipe as instructed, and then if I wanted to make it again at another time, I could try doctoring it up in one way or another.

That plan quickly unraveled as I pulled out the ingredients, and got started. My compulsion to tinker with recipes seems to always get the best of me. Sometimes that works, sometimes not, but I’m very happy to report that it turned out wonderfully this time. I can’t comment on how it would be with Gardein, which is what the original called for, because I’ve yet to experiment with Gardein. Beyond Meat was perfect though, a very convincing chicken substitute that could easily win over any fan of chicken salad. The dressing is fabulous, so next time I think I’ll make extra to use on green salads or for a veggie dip. Seriously, if I had used a wider bowl to mix it instead of a glass measuring cup, I would have stuck my face in to lick up the extra.

Whether you make the original recipe, or try mine, I hope you enjoy it, and don’t waste a drop of that delicious dressing!

Vegan Chicken Salad Ingredients
Vegan Chicken Salad Ingredients

Vegan Chicken Salad

1 package Beyond Meat (I used the Lightly Seasoned variety), or other vegan chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 dashes liquid smoke
1/2 red onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 apple, diced
3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 tablespoon sunflower seeds

Dressing
2/3 cup vegan mayonnaise (I used Earth Balance, but any brand should be fine)
Juice from 1 lemon
Zest from 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
3 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400. Chop vegan chicken (see photo below to see how coarsely I chopped it). Whisk olive oil and liquid smoke. Add chopped began chicken to to baking dish, stir in oil-liquid smoke mixture. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, and return to oven for an additional 10 minutes. Chicken will be lightly browned when done. Set aside, and allow to cool.

Combine onion, celery, apple, dill, parsley, and sunflower seeds in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together vegan mayonnaise, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon pepper, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, celery seed, and black pepper until combined.

Combine cooled vegan chicken with onion-celery-apple mix. Pour dressing over salad, and stir to combine.

I ate a sandwich, before putting the leftovers away. The leftovers completely filled a quart-sized container. I’m guessing the recipe makes enough to 6-7 sandwiches.

Coarsely Chopped Vegan Chicken
Coarsely Chopped Vegan Chicken

No, I’m Not Allergic

Wholly Cow Restaurant by Flickr user, promoterest
Wholly Cow Restaurant by Flickr user, promoterest

Last fall, Husband and I were invited to a going away party at a restaurant for a good friend who was moving cross-country. A steak and seafood restaurant. Fuck. I went to the restaurant website to scope out the menu. Fuckity fuck.

At that time, it had only been about two months since I had taken an interest in veganism. I was eating at least two vegan meals a day, and some days I was eating all vegan. I had started this as an experiment to see how I felt physically and emotionally. I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed, like I was changing my life (in retrospect, it has changed my life, for the better), so I was taking it one meal at a time, monitoring how it affected me, and trying to gauge the effects of my efforts on my relationships, which was and is a concern. I was essentially trying a new philosophy and a new purpose, and when this invitation to a steak and seafood restaurant arrived, I recognized it as a challenge to integrate the old parts of my life with all that was new.

The menu wasn’t exactly bursting with vegan choices. I could get a side dish of pan roasted wild mushrooms paired with a side dish of wild mushroom spinach saute – maybe, if they weren’t sauteed with butter, which I doubted. That sounded very, um, mushroomy. Don’t get my wrong. I like mushrooms, but can’t say I was excited about eating them for dinner under those circumstances. As infrequently as we go out to dinner, I at least want to enjoy it when we go. The mixed greens with walnuts and balsamic, minus the blue cheese, seemed to be the only other viable option. Even if I were resigned to having a vegetarian meal, as opposed to a vegan meal, that only added the mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese or creamed spinach to my short list. Ugh.

99% of the time, I don’t feel that eating a vegan diet is limiting. Quite the opposite in fact. That 1% of the time, when I’m with a bunch of people who have choices they enjoy, and I’m faced with an edited salad that I don’t even want, has been difficult for me to navigate though. I’m in a better, more peaceful place with this scenario now, but five months ago, I felt lost.

If it had been almost any other occasion, I would have politely declined. I didn’t want to miss my friend’s send-off though. I knew that socializing as an aspiring vegan was going to present a whole new set of challenges. I have always been a famously unpicky eater. My great-grandmother used to brag that I would eat anything put in front of me. The only thing I won’t eat is olives. I’m not a fan of rye bread, and until relatively recently, I avoided avocados, but I’m eating those now with great enthusiasm. Off the top of my head, that’s the extent of my dislike list. Previously, I’d eat what was served, and be happy. As an aspiring vegan though, I’m in bizarre new territory.

I googled to learn how vegans navigate more challenging social contexts. “Call the restaurant in advance.” I called to ask if they could accommodate my dietary requests. “Hello. I don’t eat animal products. I’m coming for a group event. I’ve looked at your menu, and would like to know if you’ll be able to accommodate me.” The man seemed understanding, and said that I could request a simple pasta primavera dish. I felt relieved and satisfied that dinner would be fine.

The night of the event, we were seated, and the first thing I noticed was butter with the bread. I asked for olive oil instead. Ask and thou shall receive. I fancied it up with some black pepper, and Husband, who’s omnivorous, asked to share with me in lieu of using butter. So far so good. Eventually, the waiter came around to take our order, and I explained that I had called ahead, and was told I could order pasta primavera. I specifically told him I didn’t want cheese, butter, or other dairy; I wanted it prepared with olive oil. “Are you allergic?” I didn’t like that he was asking. I told him no dairy, and regardless of my motivation, they should accommodate me. Instead of directly responding to his question, I paused before reiterating that I didn’t want dairy used in the dish. He persisted though, and asked me again if I was allergic. Again, I restated that I wanted the dish prepared without dairy. He indicated that he got it, the awkward exchange ended, and he took Husband’s order.

Now, I can’t say for certain, but I think there might have been cheese in the pasta sauce. I was a little paranoid because of the exchange I had with the server when ordering, so I worried that not saying I was allergic affected how the dish was prepared. I expected a dish of pasta tossed with veggies sauteed in olive oil, or something comparable. I was served rigatoni in a thick tomato-based sauce with a few slices of summer squash, and I was convinced the tomato sauce had Parmesan in it. I wasn’t certain, but I didn’t ask either. I didn’t want to make a thing of it, and I didn’t want to disrupt the spirit of the party by having to confront the server.

My transitional mindset about my relationship with food and animals was already undermining my confidence going into the evening, so suspecting that I hadn’t been taken seriously when ordering my food, even after having done what I thought was the right thing to do – calling ahead, planning ahead – flattened my spirit and momentum in that moment. When it was time for cake, I had a slice. I knew better, but I felt angry and alone, and just said, fuck it. I know that was shitty. I’m not perfect.

As Husband and I were driving home, he asked how I liked my meal, and I shared that I thought the pasta had cheese in it. He’s very pragmatic, so he suggested that I tell people I’m allergic to dairy to ensure they prepare dishes to my liking. I see his point, and from a practical standpoint, agree that it would be efficient. This incident has been on my mind lately because I’ve been listening to the Our Hen House and Food for Thought podcasts about finding my voice, refining my language, expressing my truth, advocating my cause, raising awareness, and upholding my principles. If I were in the same situation tomorrow, how would I manage it?

I’m not confident that even if I stated my truth, requesting a plant-based dish because I do not want to consume animal flesh or secretions, that my dinner would have been made to order. I’m not sure that the outcome would have been any different. Why would anyone who works in a steak and seafood restaurant honor my wishes, or understand the ethics behind my request? I understand that the server felt obligated to clarify the allergy issue, likely following restaurant policy since allergies are serious business, but in the end, that seems irrelevant. It assumes that my request would have been more valid, and they would have made a greater effort to honor it if I were allergic. It suggests that ethical reasons shouldn’t be taken seriously. I wouldn’t feel any better getting a meal prepared to my specifications by obscuring the truth, as if my truth were invalid, than I felt by getting a possibly adulterated dish by evading his question. The truth is that I don’t want to consume something that is the direct result of suffering, and no, I’m not allergic.

Complicity

“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have a marginally unhealthy obsession with documentaries. My obsession goes back many years, but Netflix has completely enabled my addiction. More recently, camping out on the sofa to watch documentaries has become one of my favorite ways to avoid making progress on my doctoral work. Educational, thought-provoking procrastination at its best.

On the off chance that you don’t already know me, I’m trying to get my PhD in expressive therapies. It’s a low-residency program, which means I’ve had to travel to Boston from Philadelphia to be on campus for three weeks in the summer for three consecutive years. Those three weeks are spent in class and slogging through my research. I spend the other 49 weeks of the year working independently from home, relying heavily on the university website to access library resources, connect with professors and peers, and share papers and projects.

Last summer was my last summer residency, and I spent a lot of time holed up in my dorm room, researching and writing. The seclusion and absence of the usual distractions – laundry, dishes, yard work, dog, etc. – meant I could get a lot accomplished, but too many hours of reading and writing meant my fried brain needed a break. I opened Netflix to find a documentary, and after perusing my options, decided to watch Vegucated. Vegucated, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a documentary about a vegan woman who turns to Craigslist to recruit three New Yorkers to try veganism for six weeks.

Over the last several years, I’ve seen a bunch of documentaries about the wretched American diet, many of which dedicated screen time to modern animal agriculture’s factory farming practices. So before seeing Vegucated, I knew what was happening to farm animals. I knew farm animals were kept in despicable conditions. I deliberately use the word, “kept.” I can’t even say “they lived in despicable conditions” because they aren’t living. Existing in a cage, having your reproductive capabilities commoditized, never being granted compassion, never experiencing the rightful joys of your existence, only knowing dark warehouses, abuse, pain, and cruelty is not living.

Vegucated (2010)
Vegucated (2010)

It’s with a heavy heart that I admit that despite this knowledge, I carried on. Business as usual was eating the occasional burger or pork sausage, pounds of chicken, tons of cheese, and dozens of eggs – scrambled, extra dry. I made a kickass chili with chorizo and steak. As I was trying to cut back on beef, pork and chicken, I was eating more yogurt, tuna salad, and egg salad. I was in conflict about it though. I frequently had the thought that I should eat something other than meat, but brushed the lingering doubts aside because changing meant acknowledging that what I had been doing my entire life was ethically wrong. How would I come to terms with that? Vegan author and host of one of my new favorite podcats, Vegetarian Food for Thought, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, describes the mental state before one awakes to the horror of their complicity, and decides to take action – I was asleep.

I had been making changes prior to the evening I watched Vegucated. With the exception of fish, I was intentionally eating less meat. For many years, I had been eating veggie burgers and dogs at home, but I had been making a point of ordering veggie burgers when we went out too. I had also experimented with soy-based ground “meat” when cooking at home. I insisted on buying Certified Humane cage-free eggs. Instead of cow’s milk, I had started buying almond milk. In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like much, but these were important first steps, changes that reflected my growing desire to know where my food came from, changes that were easy to make. These first steps gave me a glimpse of my capacity to change, and made me feel like my actions mattered. I was still eating regular yogurt, but pouring almond milk on my cereal meant I was doing less damage to dairy cows. I knew I could do more though. I just didn’t know what next step to take, or what it would mean to other areas of my life since food is an important aspect of family and friendships.

Sitting in the stark dorm room, temporarily away from my day-to-day omnivorous life, watching the vegan experiments unfold in the documentary, changed me. It became clear that taking the next step was less frightening than the prospect of remaining complicit. As I watched the documentary, I saw people I could relate to, people with meat stored in their freezers, and dairy and eggs in their refrigerators. I saw families and friends that had no intention of getting on board with eliminating meat, half-jokingly teasing or challenging the vegan experiment participants’ plant-based diets. I saw the self-doubt and conflicting emotions of trying to stick to a lifestyle that others belittled. I felt their sense of marginalization. I saw aspirations to do it perfectly, and recognition of the obstacles to achieving that. I saw how the emotions were overwhelming at times. I saw them approach veganism as a short-term endeavor, but as the six weeks dwindled down, I saw their hearts open to new possibilities. I saw them waking up.

I saw that I could overcome fear and doubt, and I could change. I saw that I could eliminate meat, and begin to eat more vegan meals. I saw that I could extend compassion and understanding. I saw that learning more about my food naturally led to more considerate, ethical decisions about what I would eat. I saw that I needed to finally wake up.

Tortilla Soup

I started with this recipe for Weeknight Tortilla Soup, found at Delicious Knowledge, but I made some adjustments. I added more veggies, which led to more broth, which led to more spices. The extra veggies mean more chopping, so it’s more involved. With more ingredients, more labor, and more time, it might be the weekend version of the weeknight soup that inspired me. Although, I just used tortilla chips instead of frying soft tortillas, as was done in the original, so that evens things out a little.

It ended being quite spicy, comparable to a medium-hot salsa, so you might prefer to cut back on the heat by scaling back the spices or eliminating a jalapeno, unless you really like spicy food. You can always spice it up if you decide it’s too mild. We really liked the result though. The avocado, cilantro and non-dairy sour cream nicely temper the heat.

Tortilla Soup
Tortilla Soup

Tortilla Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 large onion, diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
3 tomatillos, diced
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 15-oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes
1 28-oz can fire roasted crushed tomatoes
2 16-oz bags frozen corn
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
6 cups low sodium vegetable broth

Garnishes
Tortilla chips
Avocado, diced
Fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
Non-dairy sour cream (*see note)
Non-dairy cheese (Daiya pepperjack shreds are perfect for this recipe)

1. In large soup pot, on medium heat, saute onion, garlic, poblano, and jalapenos in oil until onion is translucent.
2. Add carrots, celery, tomatillos, bell peppers, and spices. Cook until vegetables soften, stirring occasionally.
3. Add canned tomatoes, corn, beans, and broth. Stir, bring to a boil.
4. Reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Note: I’m a big fan of non-hydrogenated Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream. If it’s not indistinguishable from the dairy-based sour cream, it’s incredibly close. You can also make your own.

Sauteed vegetables before step 3
Sauteed vegetables before step 3
Simmering Soup
Simmering Soup