My Plant-Based Diet of Delusion

January 21, 2011 · 18 comments

I’ve always been such a wannabe. It’s totally disgusting and I’m often filled with self-loathing because of it.

Twenty years ago, my ex and I went down the vegetarian path. It was a time of crystals and past-life regression therapy and hands-off chiropractic where one’s aura was manipulated and one’s insurance company charged. At home, we made the decision to not eat anything that had a face, which wasn’t easy since I was working for Dean & Deluca at the time, and my lunch of choice often involved a three-meat sandwich consisting of speck, bresaola, and Prosciutto, depending on what bits and ends were left over from a morning of high-class deli slicing.

“You could go next door to Whole Foods and have a salad,” my ex said, but I was constitutionally incapable of buying my lunch and my colon cleanse in the same place.

One night, we went off to a local vegetarian cooking school, which every week opened its doors to the public for dinner and an evening of music. The food was brown and bland and covered with a spackle-like sauce the color of a Crayola Burnt Sienna crayon. The music was provided by one man, his electronic keyboard, and a drum machine that went BOOM chunka BOOM chunka BOOM in the background, regardless of what song he was playing or its rhythm, and which continued long after the tune was over and the music man was standing over at the bar, sipping a glass of non-alcoholic cider.

But still, we tried. I bought felt Birkenstocks. Wherever I had to replace meat in a dish, I used cheese. My cholesterol skyrocketed to over 200. As a Christmas gift that year, we were offered the keys to our friend Tim’s cabin in Woodstock, New York while he and his partner Peter went off for a week to study with Louise Hay. We were given the strict orders not to cook any meat in the stove, for fear that its karma would seep into the walls and rafters. After six days of eating rice and beans, we went into town and bought a roast, a can of oven cleaner, and a smudge stick.

We made a nice dinner. I ate. She cried.

A while later, we broke up after I unearthed a used Gray’s Papaya napkin from the bowels of her acid-washed jeans’ pocket while doing the laundry; she accused me of being too judgmental. I took a cab to Peter Luger‘s, where I ate the porterhouse I’d been dreaming about for two years.

So, living a plant-based lifestyle and I got off to a rocky start. But here I am, 20 years on. I’m a food journalist. My cholesterol’s through the roof. I’m about 15 pounds heavier than I should be. I have a mostly rare, recently-diagnosed heart thing that’s controllable only by an extreme blood pressure reduction. And every January, Susan and I announce to each other that we’re going to eat a plant-based diet. We spend weekends pouring over piles of vegetarian cookbooks, and by the end of February, there’s so much meat in the fridge that the sausages clog up the vegetable drawers.

But I get it. I really do. And that’s what makes it so hard, even for me, the daughter of a furrier and the great granddaughter of a butcher. I understand it, ethically speaking; it makes sense to me from a global-warming, farmer-supporting, vegan shoe-wearing, earth-dying point of view. And certainly, from a me-dying point of view. But I’m in my forties, and like most Americans my age, I grew up eating my weight in hamburgers and hotdogs, fried fish and grilled cheese with bacon; when the ’80s rolled around, I ate things like foie gras drizzled with Silver Palate raspberry mayonnaise. In the ’90s, there was a ton of Italian food, and dinners at Danny Meyer’s restaurants. And now, I’m on a near-constant search for dishes that will allow me to do the right thing because I really want to do it for more reasons than I can possibly list: I really want to be a vegetarian.

I’ve read Mark Bittman’s book countless times, and honestly, I can’t get my brain around his doing the vegan-till-six thing so willingly, unless a doctor said to him “you’re gonna die if you don’t stop with the pizzocherri.” It’s just so not Mark Bittman. It’d almost be like Bourdain doing it, and that would never, ever happen unless someone said to him “You know that hottie wife you’ve got? You know that two year old daughter you’ve got? You won’t be around to see either of them in ten years unless you start eating differently.” Then, maybe.

So what’s with the delusion? If I’m acting and functioning like a vegetarian most of the time, can I call myself one? No. It’s like being a little pregnant; either you are, or you aren’t. It has to do with the fact that it’s human nature to love labels, and to desperately want to categorize ourselves amidst the disorder and confused throng of everyday life. The fact is that any of us who want to be something we’re not simply cannot just wake up one morning and in clear conscience give ourselves a label unless it’s true.

Listen up: you’re not a vegan if you’re an almost-vegan. You’re not a locavore if 80% (or 50%, or 20%) of the stuff in your kitchen is imported from Parma by way of Costco. And, like me, you’re not a vegetarian if you still eat your bubbe’s kreplach, which I do and likely always will, even if it’s just on occasion, and even if it’s made with grass-fed beef. Note to self: Grass-fed beef is not a vegetable. Not. A. Vegetable.

But having said that, are there ways of making a significant change without going whole hog? Yes. Will there be a time when you wake up one morning and actually crave vegetables and grains? Yes. Maybe not every day. But sometimes. And that’s okay. Entire tomes have been written on the subject, which I’m not sure I understand. For one thing, where do bookstores shelve a volume that is mostly vegetarian except for the odd steak recipe? It’s a practical issue, when it gets right down to consumerism. Why not just buy the best of the best of vegetarian cookbooks instead, like my friend Deborah’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and dip into it on a regular basis?

Anyway, here are a few things to note as you travel down the wannabe plant-based path of glory alongside me:

1. It’s not your college tofu anymore. The tofu of the 80s was so rubbery it could be used as a squash ball and so bland that you had to infuse it with buckets of fat (sesame oil, marinades, etc) to make it taste like anything other than wallpaper paste. Buy good tofu. It’s out there. I buy artisanal, traditional Japanese-style tofu made in Middletown, Connecticut. It comes in one density: firm, and it’s made from non-GMO soybeans. I wrap it in paper towels and press it under a heavy cast iron pan, and then lightly pan-fry it in a little oil. For more on this subject, look for Deborah Madison’s stellar, stealthy This Can’t Be Tofu, a small book that’s worth its weight in gold.

2. Learn to love ethnic food. If you do, you’re already halfway there, especially if it’s Indian. Granted, not all Indian food is vegetarian, but when it is, it manages to marry booming flavor with incredible texture, which is my next point.

3. Understand texture: You know what it means to overcook vegetables, right? You get slime. If you’re making, say, a pile of greens for dinner, add other textures to it. Put braised hearty greens on top of a crusty piece of toasted sourdough bread. Give it a shave of Parmigiana Reggiano or a dollop of harissa. Top a bowl of soba noodles with a crispy-edged fried egg, a triangle of golden-brown tofu, and slivers of scallion. If you master texture, nothing will ever be—or at least feel—slimy again.

4.If it’s all brown, something’s seriously wrong. Vegetables are, and should be, colorful, as should their sauces. Nothing is more appealing than a bowl of braised vegetables and beans; nothing gives more flavor than a well-executed sauce, like a nutty romesco or a wildly pungent, mouthwateringly herby chermoula, both of which can be used everywhere from garlicky croutons to steamed cod (remember, I’m not a vegetarian) to roasted tofu.

5. Learn to cook grains. Grains don’t start and end with your grandmother’s kasha varnishkes. Learn how to make them, and then go wild: turn them into croquettes; stuff them into a small Delicata squash, sprinkle with some feta, and then roast; mix them with beans, add a little stock, a few tomatoes, some leftover greens, and call it a soup. Add some diced ham if you must.

6. Make meat a side dish: Everyone’s saying it these days, but it works. If you grew up in the ’60s the way I did and spent every dinner eating a meat and two sides (one potato dish, one flaccid green bean dish), rotate the plate and make the sides the main, and the main the side. And by side, I don’t mean considering  macaroni-and-cheese a vegetable side the way they do in the south, just because it has no meat in it. Sorry.

7. Don’t make any great declarations about yourself: It’s so bloody tiresome and nobody really wants to hear it. Do what you can do as you can do it. Sometimes you’ll eat vegetarian for weeks on end, the way I do, and sometimes you won’t, the way I do. Sometimes you’ll eat mostly vegetarian, sometimes you’ll eat a prime rib. And that’ll be fine, too.

It’s been years since my ex went off to Naropa to play lead doumbek in a drum circle, and I smudged my friend Tim’s stove in Woodstock because I’d roasted meat in it. It took me years of therapy to get beyond the deep-seeded aggressiveness of my actions, but I think I’m pretty much over it. And I’m fine with saying that I’m no longer the vegetarian I once was back in the 1980s, when whole foods were brown and a Gray’s Papaya hotdog was my secret breakfast of choice.

I still eat them today, but only once in a while.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carol Penn-Romine January 21, 2011 at 11:44 am

In our household, this winter has been all about finding great bean-and-green combos, like roasted garbanzos with braised chard. I agree–when you pack it with varied flavors and textures, you usually don’t miss the meat.

As for our tomcat, Cosmo, I keep trying to explain to him that there’s really no bunny in a dust bunny, but he just keeps right on gobbling them up…

2 Jenny January 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm

In my family we deal with a lot of meat-related issues. I was raised on a Midwestern meat-centric diet, and my husband comes from a family of strict vegetarian South Indians. He doesn’t like meat to be cooked in the house. Like you, I prefer to be mostly vegetarian, but simply have never been able to shut meat out of my life entirely. For many years I felt guilty, but have come to accept that it’s OK to eat meat now and then and just go with it. For one thing, I have a very hard time turning down food people have made and are offering to me. For another thing, sometimes I really just want to try something I’ve never had before, and am not going to say no because it has fish sauce, for instance. My husband has no qualms about turning anything down however. But he’s been vegetarian his whole life, and is just coming from a totally different space. Luckily I do love and have learned how to cook Indian food, and so many other wonderful things, we are able to enjoy our meals together. I feel so lucky to be with him because it has opened the door to so many interesting and delicious things for me. And I am really forced to be creative sometimes. Also if I want a burger I go out with a friend to the local burger joint. Ha ha. I really liked your comment that “grass fed beef is not a vegetable.” I could really relate to that.

3 Tim F January 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I tell people that I am not a vegetarian but most of my meals are. The bulk of my shopping is done at the farmers market, or the co-op, or the health food store & I will not eat a lousy chili half smoke (a DC area specialty). But I will eat low-salt beans & greens & squash all week so I can savor every fatty, salty, bite of as GOOD chili half smoke on a rare indulgent occasion. I won’t even ask where the meat byproducts in the sausage were “sourced”, but I’ll keep my “eat local” philosophy intact by washing the mess down with some good local & seasonal ale.

4 Dick Hopkins January 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Elissa: Maybe the following will give you a different perspective on this whole eating and health debate.

Q. I’ve heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life. Is this true?
A. Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that’s it! Don’t waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually, so speeding up your heart will not make you live longer. That’s like saying that you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap.
Q. Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables?
A. You must grasp the idea of logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism for delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also a good source of field grass (green leafy vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vegetable slop.
Q. Is beer or wine bad for me?
A. Look, this relates to the earlier point about fruits and vegetables. As we all know, scientists divide everything into three categories: animal, mineral, and vegetable. Since we all know that beer and wine are not animal and are not on the periodic table of elements, they can only be one thing – vegetable! My advice; have a burger and a beer and enjoy your liquid vegetables.
Q. How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?
A. If you have a body and you have body fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.
Q. What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?
A. I can’t think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: no pain = good.
Q. If I stop smoking, will I live longer?
A. Nope! Smoking is a sign of individual expression and peace of mind. If you stop, you’ll probably get so fat you can’t move and stress yourself to death in record time.
Q. Aren’t fried foods bad for you?
A. You’re not listening. Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil. In fact, they are permeated by it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?
Q. What’s the secret to healthy eating?
A. Thicker gravy!
Q. Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?
A. Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.
Q. Is chocolate bad for me?
A. Are you crazy? Cocoa beans – another vegetable. It’s the best feel good food available!

I hope that this discourse has cleared up any misconceptions that you may have had about food and diets. Now, have a cookie – flour is a grain!

5 Mizgreenjeans January 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Very funny and timely post. This week after an annual physical I was slapped upside the head by my elevated cholesterol number, first time it had ever been high. I admit to needing to exercise more and lose weight (tell me something I don’t know Oh Great Doctor.) But never had to consider changing diet because of this. So I’ve been pouring over my various Vegetarian cookbooks (went Vegan for about a year back in the late ’90s, but it didn’t stick.)

Happily, my daughter left behind her Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamunda Devi, and I am going to roll up my sleeves and dig into it this weekend (although here in the WhiteBreadLand of northern KY I know I’ll have to mail order some of the ingredients.) And I won’t be going vegan again, no way I’m giving up eggs from my flock of heritage chickens. My goal is to seek a happy medium between Total Carnivorism and being a vegan.

6 Liz January 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last decade +, and it’s really amazing how much mishegas goes into what you call yourself/how often you deviate from your regular diet/how you eat with others.

I agree with you entirely that trying for a plant-based diet most of the time is an excellent choice for many, if not most people. It takes some money out of factory farming, places emphasis on healthier foods, and keeps people more focused on and knowledgeable about what they’re eating (much less in the way of grabbing fast food, I find!)

None of us need to make grand proclamations about our eating habits or use them as a moral bludgeon. Enough, already.

And I eat frequently out of Deborah’s Vegetarian Suppers – one of the BEST veggie cookbooks I’ve ever found! Delicious, simple, and has convinced more than one of our dinner guests to give a few meatless meals a try.

7 Devra Gartenstein January 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Thanks for writing this. I think the whole issue goes much deeper than the simple fact that meat tastes good. Meat is more than just a food; it also carries so many layers of socio-cultural meaning. Rich and powerful people have historically enjoyed meat more often than ordinary folk. The idea that meat is more special and inherently more valuable than vegetables has stayed with us even though it is now readily available and reasonably inexpensive.

8 robin January 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Oh Elissa- you are moving toward being a flexitarian, and I sure hope you get your cholesterol and blood pressure down. You are not alone, millions of people are deeply bonded to foods that are not doing them any favors, at least in the volumes that they seem to crave. I can tell you, now that I have been writing and eating vegan for a couple of years (again) that you can re-train your palate. If you really give up the complex, loud tastes of meat and cheese, and let your palate readjust, you will notice other flavors. I know you will never forget meat (I remember it well, from 30 some years ago, with total disinterest) but you can build complexity and intensity into plant based foods that will satisfy. You know how to cook-roast, caramelize, amp up the umami. I just wrote a book about it, which I hope will be the vegan book for omnivores who want to eat more plant based.
Then when you eat your small portion of animal, you can really appreciate it and move on.
And remember that nothing tastes as good as being healthy feels. Being good inside your body is really a pretty good time. You get wine and chocolate!

9 Monica January 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Why all the guilt? That you’re eating fewer animals is great for your health (not to mention the animals and the planet). Way to go, Elissa! Your vegan friend 🙂

10 Mary January 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm

I think Part-time vegetarian is a perfectly fine thing.

And part-time locol-vore too.

At our house we all eat differently based on our allergies, metabolic and digestive difficulties.

I have no qualms about it. I haven’t gotten too deep into the spiritual meaning of it all.

11 Susie Middleton January 21, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Hey Elissa,
Congratulations on your book — incredibly well-deserved, and I’m happy for you. On the whole vegetable thing…I’m writing (actually deadline is 3 weeks away) a sequel to Fast, Fresh & Green that’s vegetable main dishes — pastas, pizzas, tarts, soups, ragouts…all kinds of fun stuff. For people who want to eat more vegetables (but that’s it–no special interests here…I come at the subject from a totally flavor-based, die-hard cook’s point of view. I want to help people learn to love veggies by learning how to cook them well, but other than that…steak on the side is okay with me.) Will hope to catch up with you soon. Take care! Susie

12 Nina January 23, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Love the main article, but (like the vegetables) the comments are what really made my night!

13 dave wolven January 28, 2011 at 12:32 am

amusing article (and comments) provided much food for thought (pun intended). I became vegetarian a little over a decade ago, right after turning 40. i gave it little thought – my partner decided to “go veggie” and it seemed natural to join him. it was one of easiest life decisions i’ve made, with little or no back-sliding. by comparison, quitting smoking was an ordeal, and i will NEVER give up my red wine, my martinis, my microbrews. why am i veggie? multiple reasons – animal rights being the main one. but i also have a familial history of heart disease, and as a critical care nurse of 20 years, i’ve witnessed the effects of diet on patient’s health. so many americans are commiting slow suicide at the dinner table. i’ve become a compulsive label-reader, but am a healthier and more informed consumer for that. knowledge is power. rather than viewing vegetarianism as a sacrifice, i view it as an opportunity. my diet is more interesting, more varied, more colorful, than ever. i’ve learned new cuisines, new cooking techniques, with new ingrediants i didn’t know existed. luckily, i live in an urban environment where ethnic (and veggie friendly) options are bountiful: indian, thai, ethiopian, nepalese. i am also blessed with a supportive partner who shares my enthusiam. vegetarianism is not for everyone, but for many of us it becomes so natural that one barely remembers one’s prior life as a carnivore.

14 Elissa January 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

Thanks so much for your thoughtful note Dave—It’s hard to do, and I want to do it, but it’s always a challenge.

15 Nina February 2, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I love the photo of sandals–as if vegetarianism and sandals go together. Sort of like Woody Allen (who contemplates converting to Catholicism in Hannah And Her Sisters) unpacking a catechism with white bread and mayonnaise!

16 Jenny February 25, 2011 at 12:23 am

I think one of the tough things about going vegetarian, at least for me, was giving up a lot of amazing local meat. Eating tofu and beans did not allow me to eat out of my backyard and fully experience my food culture, which is what caused me to give up vegetarianism after four years. I now eat a diet that is high in meat, fish, and veggies, with very few grains (the big difference maker for me was cutting out almost all sugar and bringing those calories back with healthy fat). This allows me to support the amazing local food culture around me, and I feel(and am) the healthiest that I ever have been yet now that I’ve reintroduced meat.

That being said, I don’t regret my short four year experience as a vegetarian, because it really opened up my culinary eyes. Anytime you have to change your diet in any drastic way, it really gives you a fresh set of eyes for food, which is good for anyone I think! Good luck on your food journey!

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