And now, please join me in welcoming Jess!
Why I Cut Cheese
It was about comfort.
My stomach ached, my BMI [body mass index] was creeping into the realm of obesity, and I couldn’t shake the weight of the sentient beings that suffered for my egg and cheese bagel.
I was trapped by my own patterns. A recent bout with depression and the resulting havoc had been my impetus to make some simple but far-reaching changes to my attitude. I started to gain some insight into the person I am – thanks in no small part to an incredibly supportive partner, therapy, and very wise family and friends. My faults were right there, like always, staring me down. But I also saw some other stuff I hadn’t really noticed before. Stuff I could use. I decided to start building from there.
As a child, I liked to help name the calves born in my grandparent’s field and bottle-feed the orphans. Once or twice I happily walked alongside my brothers with a whip and pretended to help move them to a fresh pasture or cringed as plastic tags were punched into their ears. I never saw them taken away for slaughter. I knew where meat came from but, like the deer hanging upside down in our garage most hunting seasons, I tried not to think about it. That is, until the first time my grandfather told me the name of the steak on my plate. When I was no longer eating a stranger, that subtle weight rested on my conscience and didn’t budge until I gave up meat at age fifteen.
Livestock are a major part of a lot of local economies, including the one depended on by much of my extended family. They’re also terrible for the environment and their effects on the human body are mixed. I didn’t know if my decision was right for my community or for the world. I just knew in my heart that it was right for me. It’s one of only a handful of times I’ve felt sure of anything in my life. In a lot of ways, abstaining from meat felt like a betrayal of people I loved and respected. As I learned later on, that’s just how being honest feels sometimes.
My mom joined me in solidarity, for which I am forever grateful. But despite the skepticism and displaced defensiveness I occasionally encountered, I didn’t struggle much with the decision. I loved the taste of meat – there are a lot of pictures of a toddler-sized me gripping a hamburger with tiny fists – and my mouth still waters at the scent of fried chicken drifting from the grocery store on Sunday afternoons. I just couldn’t live with the price anymore.
As I ate my way through high school, college, and cubicle life, I started to encounter people who shared some of my values -- especially once I arrived in Portland. Information about the dairy and egg industries was everywhere and hard to ignore. The more I learned, the more uncomfortable I became. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to give up all animal products. My limited cooking skills made melting cheese an invaluable skill. Eating out was a perpetual decision between salad, a cheesy appetizer, and another garden burger. And honestly, it always came down to the latter two. On top of that, the evangelical zeal of certain proponents was a turn off. I was kind of a tree hugger but I definitely wasn’t going to stop eating pizza. That would be crazy. I was already different enough. How many more people could I stand to alienate? My partner and I switched to free range eggs, eased off the cheese a bit, and called it good.
Seeing friends thrive on restrictive diets started to make my excuses seem pretty flimsy. If the tasty food at their parties wasn’t so meticulously labeled, I might not have known that a lot of it was vegan and gluten-free. They introduced me to [local Portland vegan restaurants] the Bye and Bye, Vita Café, and Hungry Tiger Too. Instead of scouring the menu for the one or two available vegetarian options as had become second nature, I became just a little more adventurous in my food choices. I learned to cook some simple dishes. I bought a perfect purse and wallet from Queen Bee Creations. And then I moved to St. Johns in North Portland.
One Proper Eats’ Tempeh Reuben later, and I knew I would try going vegan. I made the commitment in November 2010 and gave up about three days later. Undeterred (well, okay, a little deterred), I spent the next two months reevaluating my motives and strategy, reading blogs, and thinking of ways to make an easy transition.
I didn’t make a New Years Resolution to go vegan. Those words have baggage that overcomplicates what should be a pretty straightforward decision. Somewhere along the way I realized that I was going to have to keep it simple. My battles with Spicy Nacho Doritos will always have the same outcome: orange fingers, heartburn, and an empty bag shoved deep into the trash can. The only way to come out on top is to completely remove myself from the fight. To do that, I have to forget about doing things the right way, and focus on doing them my way.
I gave up dairy and eggs on January 1, 2011. This time, I’m sticking with it. Office potlucks, Girl Scout cookies, and the snack aisle haven’t been the torturous experiences I anticipated. It’s not that I’m never tempted; it’s just that I know with absolute certainty that I won’t give in. And if I do, it’s no big deal. I read labels and try to be mindful of what I consume, but I don’t ask waiters to describe how or where my meal was cooked. I really don’t want to know. If I’m hungry away from home and the bag of chips in my hand contains those mysterious “natural flavors”, I’m going to eat them.
A key element to my success has been adapting our own favorite foods rather than relying too heavily on unfamiliar recipes. My vegetarian partner hasn’t crossed over to the dark side, but she is a great sport about trying my “experiments” and answering the inevitable, “what should I do differently next time?”.
My conscience does feel a little better, as does my stomach. The pounds didn’t immediately melt away; I was just happy to stop gaining. My initial concern about getting sufficient protein, vitamins, and minerals has turned out to be a non-issue. Because I’m on alert for animal products, I’m gradually, effortlessly making other changes as well. I’ve never been much of a tea drinker. My habit was a coffee in the morning and after lunch. Within the first week, I had replaced my afternoon coffee with green tea. I’m more aware of how much sodium, soy, gluten, and oil I’m ingesting. It doesn’t always convince me to make a better decision but sometimes it does. I gravitate toward products with recognizable ingredients. I recently made Sloppy Joes with lentils, mushrooms, and onions instead of TVP (see my picture below!). Sure, the sauce still came from a can. But maybe someday it won’t. The vegetables on my plate aren’t always local or in season but they are the main component of several meals a week. Knowing I can do this had given me the confidence to tackle a few other vices, like gorging myself on internet news and television.
Although I have implement some positive changes into my life, I’m still me; neurotic, scatter-brained, introverted, sensitive, and overweight. Still, as my lifestyle begins to align more closely with my principles, I am increasingly more comfortable in my own skin – not to mention my clothes. Showing compassion to cattle and chickens has made it easier to show compassion to myself. I’m trying new things, I’m having fun, and I’m madly in love. Life is good.
A few yummy convenience foods:
The Higher Taste wraps and sandwiches (I highly recommend Yahoo Bar-B-Q)
New Seasons [a local grocery store] has Veggie Tots that have very few ingredients. I can’t find them on the website so I couldn’t tell you the brand. They’re in an orange bag in the refrigerated section.
Amy's Kitchen Tofu Scramble (They also put this in a pocket)
Cholula Hot Sauce has practically been a staple of my diet for years. By happy coincidence, it is also completely vegan.