Thursday, September 6, 2012

How I Became Vegan

In this post I'll talk about my roots, or, how I became vegan.

I'm proud to say the vegan lifestyle is one I've had for 7 years now. I first adapted it when I was in college living on my own in Washington, DC. What started it all was not particularly profound: I was working in an upscale pastry shop as a summer job when a blonde, athletic customer came in asking about our salads. She asked if there was meat in them. When I responded that they didn't have meat but affirmed to her they had cheese, she tilted her head in apology and said she was vegan.


What did that even mean? I had no idea. I had heard the word before, but only in context to other radical lifestyles. Like, I growing up I heard conversations go, "first you stop eating fish and then some people go way too far, like going vegan." Or I'd hear about an environmental protest and someone would say, "It was probably started by a bunch of commune-living vegans." Thus, veganism always had a tone of radical, dangerous extremism to it and my brain never thought to probe the topic based on these falsely related attributes.

But of course, college is a great time to analyze and dissect previously held beliefs. When I went home and Googled veganism, I very quickly found out that veganism was a diet. It wasn't a religion, or a political group, or a call to do anything more than abstain from the consumption of animals. That was it.  After wrapping my mind around the concept of giving up meat, I decided to order a book on the topic.

The book, if memory serves, was "Becoming Vegan." It was one of those typical books with sketched veggies on the cover. There wasn't the staggering variety of books available back then as there is now, so my options were limited. The book itself wasn't anything special--it was kind of boring like a textbook, actually! To give you an idea, amongst the first pages in the early chapters was the line, "By the 20th century, the prevention of manutrition became a growing priority for North American and British government." Definitely not a rebellious and edgy read.

In a way this relieved me: I seriously thought veganism entailed some type of official membership, possibly joining an organization that met every week... I didn't know. I just knew I didn't want to be a part of something that if my mother found out, she would freak out. Given that this book only mentioned veganism as a dietary change, I decided to give veganism a go. In the interim between figuring out what I could and couldn't eat ("is pasta okay? What about these biscuits?") I basically ate nothing but fruits and vegetables. I felt amazing and within a month lost the classic Freshman 15, or, the 15 pounds I put on upon entering and adjusting to college. Of course, with time I was exposed to delicious vegan ice cream, cookies and bread, thereby having to refine my diet... but that's for another post. I also learned about the atrocities of the slaughterhouse industry and knew I wouldn't touch meat or eggs again.

For the first 14 days I kept my veganism under wraps. I didn't want to be a girl who said she'd commit to something, only to be found eating a steak within 5 days. There was a sense of solemnity of veganism, and at that time, I knew nobody else embarking on this lifestyle other than the customer who came in that one day (never to return again, given that we had no vegan salads, hah).

I remember being nervous when I called my mother on the phone to tell her the news of my diet change. My voice was a little high-pitched and squeaky when I said, "so I'm vegan now... I've been doing it for the past two weeks and I think I want to keep it up." She was wonderful about it, citing my sister's vegetarianism since the age of 6 as a reason for why she couldn't be fazed by our eating habits anymore.

In my early days of veganism, I wanted to prove to the world that vegan food can be delicious and satisfying. Just one problem: I'm a pretty lousy cook. I worked to change this by baking eggless/milk-free cupcake and brownies at every possible opportunity. Believe it or not, I convinced the university's local coffee house to let me bake and sell vegan muffins there. I also thought to enroll in the famous Culinary Institute of America after I got my BA and possibly do something as a vegan chef. Well... several batches of bitter brownies and the realization that the Culinary Institute of America still mandated its pupils to prepare meat, I realized that maybe my passion for veganism might not ever marry the food aspect. So instead, I enjoyed the delights of naturally vegan foods; I tasted masaman Thai curries and Ethiopian teff with simmered lentils at the restaurants in the city. My palate expanded to appreciate basic yet long-neglected foods like mango and cucumber.

To this day I'm trying to rectify the tragic disconnect between my vegan label and my woeful lack of cooking skills. I'm thankful to have a great Indian family on which to practice, but how I ended up here in India will be part 2. =)