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My so-called vegan life

'Taking a stab at a meatless, lactose-free, honey-deprived diet'

Ponder a life without bacon cheeseburgers. An existence devoid of mashed potatoes, ice cream sundaes, beef jerky or tuna melts. Imagine a world where cows kept their milk, butter was a dirty word and the only things we hunted were bargains. Or a universe where the Monte Cristo was nothing more than half a book title on a dusty shelf.

There are those among us who inhabit such a place, people who'd rather starve than snap into a Slim Jim. They're called vegans, and they believe that any food derived from animals should never be eaten. Some are vegans for health reasons, others for ethics and some choose this dietary journey because, well, their girlfriend suggested it ("You're so right - meat is murder. Anyway, let's check out my uncle's hot tub!").

The list of foods vegans won't eat is long. No beef, pork, fowl, fish, reptile or insect, cooked or otherwise, may pass a vegan's lips. And anything that comes from an animal - milk, butter, ice cream, eggs, or yogurt in any form is also forbidden. A vegan's philosophy is simple - eat nothing with eyes or anything that came from a creature with eyes. Vegans avoid honey for the reason that bees suffer and die in its production, and hardcore vegans eschew processed sugar because it's filtered through charcoal, often made from animal bones. I can't speak to those who play the piano or collect scrimshaw, but I can only imagine the hassles they get at the vegan arts festivals.

But my ham salad-eating mama always told me you shouldn't knock someone until you've walked a mile in his hemp and canvas sandals. I took the challenge and became a vegan, giving myself two weeks to forego eating meat, dairy and honey in all their forms.

I didn't do much preparation other than find a paperback vegan cookbook, conduct some web research and brace myself for my first taste of soy milk. My wife suggested I not try to become a master vegan chef over the ensuing two weeks. So I avoided grand plans for millet and tempeh casseroles, legume-themed soups and fishless sushi party platters, sticking to the basics. I chose a few recipes, learned about what I couldn't eat and jumped right in.

The first few days were rough. I found out black coffee is wretched, brown rice cakes are no substitute for Suzy-Q's and salads without bacon bits, buffalo chicken strips and ladles of bleu cheese dressing are nothing more than piles of wimpy lettuce.

I scanned my pantry to discover most of what I normally ate was now verboten. Everything from wheat bread (honey) to energy bars (milk) to pesto (cheese) to eggs (eggs) was a no-no. But we vegans are creative, and between the extra fruit, unsweetened applesauce and cereal with almond "milk," I managed.

I even tried my hand at two simple vegan recipes: a vegan waffle, which weighed about 7 pounds and had the consistency of supple burlap, and a meal of soba noodles and broccoli in a soy, ginger and peanut sauce. It's best to describe the meal as "Japanese spaghetti with peanut butter," which sounds hideous, but when you're subsisting on twigs and apricots, you'll seek any safe harbor.

I ordered a black bean burger for lunch that first week and soon realized that ketchup and mustard are condiments, not miracle workers. And no amount of condiments could mask the vile bastardization of the all-American meal that black bean burger perpetrated on my palate.

Then things went horribly wrong. After a week of diligent vegan stoicism, I found myself in my kitchen, surrounded by friends and family: a dinner party in full swing. The aroma of pan-seared chicken breasts draped with prosciutto and pasta in a pancetta and ham-filled sauce assaulted my senses. I tried to stick to the cucumbers and bread but couldn't stop myself, any shred of vegan decency cast aside as I crammed piece after piece of chicken and fancy paper-thin Italian pork into my dishonest mouth.

I then went from weak to pathetic as I arrived in New York City for business. Spending a few days in Manhattan as a vegan is like a teetotaler spending spring break in Cancun. All the willpower in the world faded away as my environment surrounded me. I'd like to tell you I was pure, the pinnacle of principled veganism, but after the bagel with cream cheese, the steak slathered in garlic butter, the turkey BLT with mayo, the bucket of beef brisket nachos and the three pieces of classic New York pizza, I'd only be fooling myself. Yet I dare any vegan among us who's claimed to resist such temptation to cast the first fiddlehead.

The next morning, at home in Concord, I did my best to reclaim my vegan pride, but as I poured a dollop of nondairy soy milk into my coffee, the swirls of pretend creaminess made a sad face in the java, its lactose-free eyes filled with disappointment.

"When does this end?" I asked myself. I began to hate potatoes, despise bananas and resent peanut butter. I think the serving of quinoa bean salad finally killed veganism for me. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a protein-laden grain from the foothills of the Andean mountains boasting all sorts of health-related benefits, none of which has anything to do with flavor. Sure, Peruvian highlanders live for centuries eating this stuff, but I'd rather die on my 63rd birthday, facedown in a suet-flavored ice cream cake than live 400 years with a belly full of keen-wah. Veganism is for the birds - at least the ones that don't eat worms and grasshoppers.

My last day as a vegan was a mixture of remorse, anxiety and gastric distress. It started off just fine - fruit for breakfast, vegan chili for lunch, an apple and almonds for a snack. But as I arrived home after work, I began secretly wedging chunks of stale bread into a tub of cream cheese, and at the dinner table, I snuck a pad of butter while no one was watching. I was falling apart. Then, later that night, my wife asked me, "So do all vegans smell like garlic?" Once your spouse complains that your dietary life choices are adversely affecting your body odor, it's time to return to the world of omnivores. No one ever told me to stop smelling like pork rinds.

My two-week vegan experience was a failure. I spent my days either dreaming of deli meat snacks as my hummus-filled stomach grumbled like low-rolling thunder, or I gorged myself on an anti-vegan menu in fits of delirious indiscretion, justifying my actions through a combination of deceit, rationalization and head fakes. It's no way to live - this vegan life. I'll leave the tofu and berries to them. Besides, that means more cheeseburgers for the rest of us.

(Comments, suggestions? Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com or visit his blog at timoshea.blogspot.com.)

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