I’ll admit, I stole the phrasing a little from Michael Pollan, but a Netflix documentary called “Cooked” inspired by his book by the same name brought the matter to the forefront of my mind, particularly as it relates to veganism.
Most of us, as we transition from our former ways of eating and living into the more conscious, kinder way that the path of veganism promotes, start with commercial vegan products that quickly and easily replace the things we used to eat. Although the fact that these things exist is wonderful, there is a bit of a problem here. Namely the fact that although they’re animal product free, one can hardly call many of these products healthy.
“Healthy,” is somewhat of a trigger word for many. Because of how much contention there is among scientists about how to define it, I’m going to equate it with mostly whole foods closer to the way they were in nature. All processed food isn’t bad, and we shouldn’t treat it as such, but the closer to nature, the more “healthy,” in general a food can be said to be.
However, “healthy” is also a word that needs to be applied to our relationship with food. If it was made in a factory and plopped on a plate, stuck in a microwave or frying pan, and eaten with an urgency and swiftness befitting an emergency, where is the joy in it? How can that be considered “healthy?”
Veganism, I believe, presents a unique opportunity for those of us that choose a different path, mostly because of the lack of availability (or extreme expense of) vegan processed food. Worcestershire sauce, mayonaise, microwave dinners, cheese, deli meat, instant soup, heck, even ramen and dry cereal become landmines of label reading and potential animal product contamination. Doesn’t that feel like a lot of work?
If you’re accustomed to a Western diet in which these foods are prevalent, it certainly must feel that way. But often, cooking and preparing these products yourself, or vegan versions of them, seems even more so. I’ve met many fledgling vegans who have given up out of sheer despair, deprivation, and “kitchen phobia,” who look over beautiful photos on vegan food blogs and wistfully declare, “I wish someone would make that for me.”
In reality, I would argue the choice to go vegan is truly an empowering one. I may disagree heavily with Michael’s premise that animals and plants are both needed on farms for a balanced ecosystem, or that animal’s presence must always eventually be for food purposes, but I do agree with him on the fact that more people need to return to their roots. Aggressive marketing campaigns from companies dating all the way back to WW2 have convinced most of us that cooking our own staples is a hassle, that our lives will be sacrificed on the kitchen counter and our livelihoods bled away chopping and mincing and sauteeing.
As vegans, the lack of availability becomes an opportunity to return to a form of self-reliance much of the rest of the “civilized” world has forgotten. In an effort to ensure that our food is animal-product free, I would argue that crafting our staples by hand from the best ingredients we can procure and enjoying them wholeheartedly is a much better solution. For although convenience food is becoming more readily available for us, the wondrous flavors we can coax from homemade seitan, marinated tofu and tempeh, hand-aged nut and soy cheeses, craft mustards, fresh condiments, and home-canned sauces tend to end up superior in every way to those that are available for us. Not only that, but having made them ourselves, we know exactly how we like them and precisely what they contain.
One of the most liberating moments for me in my transition to veganism was the purchase of a nondairy milk maker. It was advertised as a soy milk maker, but also had settings for grain milks, nut milks, and soup. Buying the soybeans in bulk and sweetening it to my specifications was liberating for both my diet and my wallet! The milk I made was thicker and more wholesome than the milk I could purchase from the store, had less sugar, no emulsifiers, and I even managed to fortify it with a b12 powder used for smoothies and shakes by bodybuilders. It helped me stay my course and opened my mind to other possibilities, from the thick, brown “beefy” stocks I canned when I didn’t think I could use the whole batch to the fresh scents flooding my winter kitchen from a home-canned tomato sauce.
Cooking quickly becomes a form of self-expression, a conscious affirmation of our beliefs. I would even argue that it is a form of protest, since many of the companies that make vegan options have been purchased by companies who also make animal based products, further inadvertently supporting those industries. Although the argument can be made that “the demand will increase the percentage of vegan products on the market,” why should we support their business practices now? Isn’t there a better way?
Processed food has gotten cheaper and cheaper (though you wouldn’t know it from the price of vegan processed food), while whole foods and produce has gone up and up. Part of this has to do with government subsidies, but a much larger percentage has to do with increased demand for processed food. As vegans, the entirety of our diet is composed of plant foods, so we as a group have enormous power to help turn this trend around. Plant a garden, buy from farmers markets, support a CSA, buy seasonal produce from the farmers market, eat as fresh as you can afford. We’ve heard all these things before, but think truly about how much of an impact it would have if you made it your norm! Even just the impact on the taste of the food you eat every day is huge.
I’m going to be starting a series on saving money as a vegan (because this really is a HUGE concern) and another on self-crafting vegan staples. I’m hoping that these help begin a journey for you. Because making it yourself, taking the time and effort that is required, is in itself an act of self-love. You’re declaring that you are worth the time it takes to craft luscious, interesting, and sustainable food. We often forget that in our quest to help the animals, but really, it’s as much about helping ourselves as well. To live by the tenet of “harm none,” after all, includes the self.