It was always clear I'd stop eating meat, at least to me. When I was a kid and a young teenager, I just thought it was the cool thing to do. I thought vegans were especially cool, sadly because I first read about this alien lifestyle in the liner notes of Moby's Play. When I was starting ninth grade—after seeing Moby live that summer—a social studies teacher had us make collages of our personal cultures and explain with an essay; one of my goals there, I'll always remember, was to be vegan. "Currently, I'm an ovo-lacto-pesca-pollo vegetarian," was something I wrote, I think, which makes no sense; it was some distinction in some book I'd gotten for teens on quitting meat. It scared me into thinking I'd eventually have to be a fruititarian, then a breathatarian. (This mirrors later experiences I'd have in my serious yoga days about whether I wouldn't ascend to greater heights without a raw diet, but that's another essay.)
This was all about cultural or countercultural associations and a general rejection of authority, but I always failed for one reason or another. I wrote a bit about this in my essay about eating oysters. (I'd go on to become a bit more antagonistic and cynical in my later teens about what difference individual choices like this could really mean, but nihilism has never suited me.)
A main reason for the failures was that I was very attached to eating delicious food, and in the ’90s and early ’00s, there wasn't a big focus on vegetable-forward cooking and dining. I thought I'd have to eat tofu—something I had only enjoyed in miso soup at the Japanese restaurant—for every meal; the very idea of replacing butter for margarine sent shivers down my spine. I thought, like many people, that I'd have to eat a protein for every occasion upon which I'd eat meat, and these proteins might be things like a Tofurkey, which looked gross. That idea has only shifted in the last little more than a decade (I credit Amanda Cohen and Dirt Candy). When I realized "vegan" could mean "vegetables and grains and literally everything except animal products, and not necessarily a ton of soy," it suddenly became a possibility. And then it became reality.
I'm thinking about all this now because I'm writing a review of a memoir by a cookbook author who has long been associated with vegetarianism but is not a vegetarian, never has been. At first, I was put off by this, the ways in which this person has been exhausted by associations with something that most of the world understands as limiting, a moral stance that implicitly denounces omnivorism and by extension omnivores themselves, when she could be digging in her heels more to defend it as a valid and worthwhile choice. Eventually, though, I realized that I'm a vegetarian who's broadly thought of as a vegan, and I was mad at her because I wanted a solution for myself. Basically, I could sympathize.
The difference is that I took on veganism as an ethical stance and continue in vegetarianism as such, broadly. The idea of being an omnivore doesn't even register in my brain as an option anymore; the fact of eating animal flesh, no matter where or how it was raised, is simply against every molecule of my being. I became vegan after a Kundalini meditation in 2011—though clearly the inclination was there all along, just unearthed by breathing like a lion with my legs crisscrossed in a hot room—and aside from a few early nutritional missteps that required backtracking, that awakening has remained unmoved.
What has moved is just my philosophical reasoning, going from veganism as an ontological consideration—as in, do not use sentient beings because of that fact—to an ecological one—we are all animals working in concert, and these relationships don't necessitate exploitation—and then some ideas fell apart, and vegetarianism made more sense. In Puerto Rico, it's more useful in all senses to support small farmers by buying their eggs rather than buying imported vegan proteins. Nearly 90% of the food is already imported—for colonial reasons; look up the Jones Act, to start—and I want to eat in opposition to that. And while I believe meat is murder and sometimes can't help but say that, I also just can't tell people what they should do. It's a consciousness shift; either your brain clicks in that direction or it doesn't.
(When it comes to dairy, I personally think it's all disgusting, but I also think all vegan dairy is disgusting and only consume it when it's been hidden in a dish or cake or cookies. I did, strangely, write long piece on vegan cheese that should come out eventually. I like it conceptually; I’m big on concepts.
Lagusta Yearwood's essay on coconut as go-to dairy, written way back in 2007, sticks with me, especially now as I live where the coconuts grow. I had the experience just this weekend of someone biting into a cookie I made with my coconut butter blend and noting "coconut" as the first flavor they tasted—it was a sinking moment for my heart, but a teaching moment and a reminder of this piece. When I eat a traditional dessert, all I taste is cow milk, because my palate has been re-shaped. In general, though, I think what we all must seek is diversity, never becoming overreliant on any one form; it's why cashew cheese is cool but making it at scale is questionable. When it comes to the food system, feeding everyone, even every vegan, the same thing at all times is when things get hairy.)
There's also, of course, that "grandma rule" that Anthony Bourdain popularized, and so many people bring it up: If you're a guest, wouldn't you eat whatever is served? And the answer is, yes, whatever didn't require the killing or exploitation on a mass scale of animals. Like, can that just be cool? The idea that it would be more hospitable for me to cry through eating a steak than to just abstain, because eating a steak is what's normal, is—forgive my banality—so fucked up. Why is the onus on people who don't eat animals to explain or make a rich dish that can make any omnivore happy or demure and apologize? Could the people still eating beef and shrimp despite the conditions suffered by workers and animals alike, along with the industries' incredibly destructive environmental impact, please start to feel a bit more pressure to defend themselves? I’m sure you saw the news about the spikes in the virus at big “meat processing” plants. This is an industry that really gives a shit about more than the bottom line, clearly. Never mind that the global food system being centered on meat leads to diseases such as Covid-19 in the first place. Again, the problems emerge when we are dependent on any one thing, when we don’t localize as much as possible and consume thoughtfully.
But not being 100% vegan, even if I'm 80% vegan and always bake vegan, puts me in a weird spot (even if only in my own head). What am I endorsing? But vegetarianism simply gives me more room to consider and question some issues that have become primary to my thinking, around localized food production and agroecology. It's easy to be vegan in New York City and not feel like it's making me part of a very questionable supply chain; it's not as easy here. After years of being very black and white in my thinking on this, I am comfortable in gray, even if afraid—afraid of the label and stigma the community gives an "ex-vegan," even a vegetarian and one who promotes veganism professionally at every turn. Here, I sympathize with the author of the memoir around her exhaustion with labels. I want to be a person; I don't want to eat dead animals. Beyond that, I’m learning.
This learning and questioning was the reason I did a podcast called Meatless that you can still listen to or read transcripts of—there were 30 episodes and probably one for everyone. On Friday, in the first paid subscriber post that I’ll be publishing, I’ll be posting a lost episode with chef, farmer, and cookbook author Abra Berens that we conducted a year ago when her book Ruffage came out along with an update on her life since, which includes a James Beard Award semifinalist nod.
Also: I’ll be doing an Instagram Live with Feminist Food Club tomorrow at 7 p.m. Eastern time to discuss my Epicurious piece on sustainability during Coronavirus, and how we have to look at these issues on both an individual and systemic level. Follow me or follow them to get in on the action.
And Food Without Borders made my conversation with Sari Kamin for MOFAD a podcast, so you can listen to it while doing whatever without necessarily looking at my face.
Some Tenderly stuff went up, namely this quick reminder that Diet for a Small Planet is still an essential text. Maybe more essential now! Certainly more urgent.
My In These Times piece from the March issue is online now, on why Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat add up to… not much for the environment.
I’ve been so focused on finishing this book for review. You’d think creating this section in the newsletter would hold me accountable and keep me from shaming myself. It doesn’t help that all the books are in boxes: out of sight, out of mind. But the review’s deadline is today and then I’m free, and there’s also the new blue table on the patio for leisurely reading. I’ll figure it out.
We watched Volver and my boyfriend was convinced that Irene was an actual ghost, which led to about half a day of arguing and I still don’t know whether he was serious or busting my balls. I’m letting this remain a mystery because I was getting too worked up, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, is that people think it’s funny when I get worked up so they keep going.
It was a simple week, and I liked that about it. There was the falafel from Mark Bittman, which is a pretty flawless recipe. I did Penne alla Vodka alla Nigella, subbing cashew cream for any dairy, and can’t believe she suggests two pounds of pasta! The sauce nicely coated just one pound. I baked a hazelnut version of my salted chocolate almond cookies, then layers of pistachio cake to photograph for a forthcoming Tenderly recipe. To frost this cake, I thought I’d use coconut whipped cream to approximate some naked and rustic English cakes I’ve been eyeing lately, but the cream—though chilled overnight—turned watery. I thought, Let’s add aquafaba. It seemed like it was going to puff it up, until it went limp. I thought, Surely the issue is that I should have folded the coconut cream in after whipping the aquafaba to stiff peaks. I drained a large can of chickpeas and whipped up two cups of the stuff, ensuring there is now none for cocktails, the only thing this ingredient is really good for. This also failed and tasted terrible, to boot. One cannot win them all, especially when one lacks all the usual things—powdered sugar, chocolate—that make frosting cakes simple. It was a failure and I thought I’d show it to you… You can’t and won’t win them all.
That sad orange drip is some passion fruit jam I thinned out. It was all so pretty in my imagination.
I go forth into the week continuing with simplicity: a curry served with tostones, cashew mac and cheese once some nutritional yeast is found, perhaps a focaccia garden, despite my distaste for form over function. Quarantine’s empty canvas is my oyster—my only one, at least until I can go to New York again.