How do I live without cheese? Well, I don’t, exactly. It’s taken nearly ten years of analyzed food consumption and varying dietary extremes to develop my approach to food. While I expect my views to continue to evolve, the following is how I came to eat the way I do today.
In January 2009 I started eating vegan overnight. I read a book that shocked me into action and the next morning I ditched coffee, cigarettes, and animal-based food products in one go. At that time I was smoking a pack a day, coffee was a daily staple for me, and, like most people in the south, I loved Whataburger.
The first three days were spent with a gnarly withdrawal headache, furiously scanning labels in the local health food store as I held tightly to my basket and newfound convictions. I didn’t recognize half of the ingredients vegan recipes called for and didn’t anticipate brusque questions from suspicious meat eaters. If I was unable to answer right away, I was written off as ignorant or alarmist. I was hungry. I was vulnerable. Being vegan in Texas in 2009 was eccentric to most, blasphemous to some.
When I arrived at my grandparents’ house for weekly Sunday lunch, the first one since the big switch, I informed my grandmother of my decision. Nany is inquisitive but doesn’t press, and she’s always affirming. She and I began rooting around her kitchen for something for me to eat, at long last settling on an apple. She apologized as if she somehow could have been prepared for my dietary curveball, and I assured her that I would eat well as my food education and preparation grew in tandem. The next Sunday, Nany met me with extensive research on B12 and a freezer stocked with Amy’s vegan meals.
As a baby vegan, my limited knowledge included the problematic nature of antibiotics being injected into animals that people later consumed en masse. Meat had become so prevalent in human diets that quality control over the sheer volume was impossible to maintain in modern factories and slaughterhouses. Keep in mind, this was before antibiotic-free, organic meat was sold in conventional grocery stores. Later, I would learn about things like the environmental effect of humanity’s extremely high beef consumption, high dollar marketing that preaches osteoporosis prevention and unnecessarily high protein consumption via animal products, and the FDA being heavily lobbied by companies like Tyson.
When my mom found out about my vegan diet she was annoyed, seeing my diet change as an expensive experiment and a waste of the perfectly good grilled chicken in my fridge. My brothers snuck meat into my food and for years my dad offered me bites of his cheeseburgers and steaks. Time would prove this wasn’t a college phase, though. I’d made a lifestyle change composed of considered consumption.
I quickly reintroduced coffee, my least impassioned elimination, but I was excited about my progressing food knowledge and the rainbow of foods I was eating. The food experimentation with veganism was unexpectedly fun. I began using the ingredients I’d never heard of with aplomb, thrilled to locate them in the health food store like Easter eggs. My tiny apartment didn’t have great ventilation so I’d show up to my sorority house for weekly chapter meetings smelling like sautéed garlic or curry. My good friends laughed with me at my newfound way of life, supported my choices, amicably incredulous of how I lived without cheese. Other sisters would inspect me carefully like an insect they’re unsure whether to squash.
All too aware of the “How do you know someone’s vegan? They’ll tell you” trope I was careful not to discuss my diet unless pointedly asked about it. I also became sensitive to the fact that all people have emotional connections to food, and any time someone eats differently with conviction it can feel threatening. When you think about comfort food given to you when you were sick as a child or the foods that are special to your culture, it hurts when someone insinuates they’re ethically or environmentally problematic.
I studied abroad in England in 2011 and moved to New York City in 2012, and vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are common and easily accommodated in both places. My second wave of vegan knowledge really began in NYC. In three short years, the sophistication of vegan food alternatives had evolved greatly and there was an increasing err toward a plant-based, whole foods diet, not just one that simply did not contain ingredients from animals. After all, you can eat Sour Patch Kids, Oreos, Fritos, and drink Dr. Pepper and successfully be a strict vegan. Processed vegan foods, GMOs, and forms of sugar were now under my investigation lamp. I began to take a closer look at Tofurkey, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), and “Chik’N”, meat substitutes that were good in a pinch but not healthy for day-to-day. I read up on agave nectar, carrageenan, and overconsumption of conventionally grown soy. I tried on a gluten-free diet for a few months and dabbled in the realm of raw eating. The right diet for me was proving to be an evolution, an ever-changing definition without finality.
Married to a Meat Eater
I suppose it was my lot in life to leave Texas only to marry a man who looked like a southerner lost on the Upper East Side. Rick is a Manhattan native, but the optics are incongruent: he exclusively listens to country music and, when I met him, he drove a massive truck. He is also a meat enthusiast. From New York hot dogs to Texas BBQ and every cheeseburger and chicken strip in between, Rick is a devotee, a purist. When we were dating, our opposing diets weren’t a hang up, we just chose restaurants that had options for both of us. This ease changed in marriage. Accommodating two very different diets in the same home day after day is a challenge! A brief stint living in DC afforded me the luxury of kitchen space where I created multiple course vegetarian meals from scratch and got Rick to expand his palate a bit. I stepped out of my comfort zone by buying meat for the first time in several years, organic frozen chicken strips for Rick. Did I mention he thinks organic meat is a racket? We are a house divided in terms of food, but are always taking steps to meet each other half way.
Being back in NYC means Rick and I are spatially limited again, but the consumption journey continues. In the fall I am attending The New School for an MFA in nonfiction writing, and for now Rick and I are living with my gracious in-laws (and two massive, loving golden retrievers). While one in-law is an enthusiastic herbivore, the other is a comical grumbler, muttering about “health food” while paradoxically spooning heaps of it into their mouth. The golden retrievers are simply elated there’s so much happening in the kitchen!
My diet has become more nuanced than one label can capture. While I still don’t eat meat or seafood, I do eat eggs on occasion, especially if they’re organic and free range. I enthusiastically eat cheese as a special treat, again organic when possible. I no longer believe veganism is the dietary ideal for all, but that different bodies require different diets. No matter the diet, I believe that organically grown food is best for the environment and our bodies.
The American food landscape can feel overwhelming and like a moving target, and the thoughtful and sustainable coexistence of plant-based and meaty diets is increasingly pertinent. Consumption choices are deeply personal, and I look to respectfully examine these choices and progress the conversation.
I ultimately hope to bring people together in the kitchen and in health. I hope you like what you find here.
Now, let’s cook!