I’m vegan. I never thought I would write that. Last Christmas, a had a turkey dinner with all the trimmings; this Christmas we cooked a delicious nut roast.
Over the past year, my relationship with food has changed dramatically. I haven’t eaten meat since 1st January 2016 and have been mostly vegan since May. But it’s not only what I eat that has changed, but also my entire philosophy on animals, and our environmental responsibilities as human beings.
Telling the story of how I went from Instagramming towering bacon cheeseburgers to scouring supermarkets for vegan gnocchi is also a way for me to make sense of the past year. Writing is an extension of thinking, and my veganism is the result of considerable thought!
I don’t intend to ‘convert’ anyone to a vegan lifestyle, but if it gets you thinking about what you’re consuming, where it came from, and whether that’s the right thing to do, I’ll consider my job done.
Growing up with meat
I grew up in Northern Ireland. You might think the home of the potato would lend itself towards vegetarianism, but it was quite the opposite. My family come from a farming background. My granny used to tell a story about how, in the winter, she would walk to school with a baked potato in each pocket to keep her hands warm. (“If you were hungry when you got to school, you could eat the potatoes”.) After World War II and the effects of rationing, meat changed from a luxury product to an intrinsic part of the diet, and that passed down from grandparents to parents to me.
We were raised on “meat and two veg”, although sometimes no veg. (One of my brothers is a fussy eater.) Roast turkey, chicken, or beef for Sunday lunch; meat piled high on every dinner and wafer-thin in every sandwich; meat sizzling on barbecues during that one day of ‘Irish Summer’. The idea of not eating meat never occurred to me. I thought that meals were meat.
Our house was never without milk or cheese. Ireland takes pride in local produce, and much of that is dairy (some Tayto crisps are thankfully vegan, although my beloved cheese and onion are now off-limits). On any given day, you’ll see cows everywhere as you drive through the countryside. More than anything, you smell them. My dad would tell us that the smell of cow manure was “good for us”, which I’m sure was a joke at our expense. My brothers and I would hold our noses during car trips, trying to make each other laugh and thereby inhale the noxious fumes, taking turns to check if the smell had subsided.
Learning to cook
My unquestioning attitude towards eating meat continued into university and when cooking for myself for the first time. I discovered that I loved cooking. I started with the basics: stir fries, curries, lasagna, roast dinners, grilled fish. I bought a couple of cook books and learned how to properly chop an onion (note to self: save this idea for a future blog. Watching other people chop onions annoys the shit out of me.)
I met a couple of vegetarian friends while at university, something practically unheard of back home — like atheism, or accents outsiders could understand. One day, I asked my friend Barry why he was vegetarian. He replied “animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends”. It was a funny (not laughable) response at the time, but now I think there’s a kernel of truth in that statement. I was aware of animal welfare and food quality — I bought ‘free range’ eggs, avoided Danish bacon, never bought those Farmfoods sausages whose ingredients contained “beef connective tissue” — but didn’t think about it much beyond a cursory glance at the labels. The food had friendly farmers and smiling cows on the packaging. Why would they lie about it?
I learned a couple of great vegetarian recipes at this time, including a great summer courgette risotto and a legendary vegetable jalfrezi, which we’ll share with you on this site in due course.
The Last (Meat) Supper
It wasn’t until a decade later, summer 2015, when I started to care more about what I was putting into my body. I was training for my first marathon, and when you put your body under long-term physical stress, you quickly learn what is good for you and what’s a mistake. (If you don’t believe me, try running a half marathon off the back of a drinking session.)
I sought the best quality food. Organic, free-range meat; fresh vegetables; protein shakes and (sensible, vaguely scientific) supplements. When you’re cooking at home, you know what’s going into your meal, and it’s easy to cook healthy. I moved to a largely vegetarian diet, eating ‘high quality’ meat once a week, more out of ritual than dietary necessity.
I didn’t miss the meat. I felt better… cleaner somehow. Looking back on that time, I don’t think I was eating enough protein — although this is a vegan diet myth we’ll address elsewhere. Part of the reason we started Reasonably Vegan was to help people transition to plant-based diets while staying well-nourished!
Then I met Jess, and the rest is history. She had been vegetarian since she was 12: the more time we spent together, the more vegetarian food we ate, so it wasn’t a big leap for me to commit to a vegetarian diet from New Year’s Day 2016.
From Veggie to Vegan
Meat-free life was good. We ate what we wanted at home, and when dining out, even brasseries and barbecue restaurants had decent vegetarian options. I enjoyed the change and completed my first marathon in Brighton that April, proving that you don’t need meat to be an athlete!
Jess and I spoke a little about vegan diets, and my Auntie Donna had laid out some of the ethical arguments when we visited Northern Ireland over Easter – often in sentences that included “milk” and “pus” – but we’d ruled it out as essentially incompatible with our lifestyle. How would we survive without milk, eggs, and the undeniable fact that so many delicious things are made from those products?
We knew that the dairy industry was, for want of a better term, fucked-up. We knew that egg production was equally unpleasant, and it would probably take one trip to a farm for us to swear off both milk and eggs completely. It’s easier to treat meat as another food product we grow in fields and barns like beans and grains. Somehow killing and eating a pig is a dietary necessity, but killing and eating a dog is a sign of insanity. Once you’re concerned enough about animal welfare to go vegetarian, veganism is a slippery slope: now I wonder whether it’s more merciful to kill and eat a cow, rather than keeping it alive for milk.
But we weighed this psychological guilt against the perceived difficulty of going vegan: the dietary changes, the inconvenience to family and friends, not to mention the negative connotations associated with ‘vegans’ and their unwashed, hemp-clothed, extremist ways. We were not like those stereotypes, and therefore could never be vegan! So we kept up the lie that it was all OK and many portions of scrambled eggs / cheese toasties (that’s ‘jaffles’ for our Australian readers) were consumed.
The tipping point was when we watched a documentary called Cowspiracy (no, really). It laid out the environmental case for veganism, in addition to the ethical issues. The argument against animal agriculture was so compelling that we knew, without even saying anything to each other, that we both wanted to commit to a vegan lifestyle. Unfortunately that evening I left for a week-long training course. I had specified a “vegetarian” diet and ate my body weight in cheese. But I ate a vegan breakfast from the buffet all week!
It took a couple of months to get the animal products out of the house – some we used up, others we gave away – and it will take years to wear out my leather shoes and belts. On the whole, going vegan has been surprisingly easy: I constantly scan food labels for hidden ingredients, and I never read dessert menus, but I enjoy what I eat more. It feels like a natural end point to my relationship with food, but at the same time, the beginning of a whole new adventure.
Reasonably Vegan is what’s next: sharing our experiences of living as vegan, addressing some misconceptions, but also constantly questioning the standards to which we hold ourselves.
I’ve always been annoyed when people say atheism is a religion, and comparisons of veganism to religion are equally eye-rolling. Yet there is undeniably something about the lifestyle that turns you into a missionary, because I think vegetarianism and veganism are important for the environment. Compassion for animals is important. As you’ll read from our travel notes, it’s often not an easy choice, and if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, I wouldn’t invest the effort.
There’s a long-running joke: “how can you tell if someone is vegan? They won’t stop talking about it!” but honestly, most people start the conversation with me, and I’m happy to have it. That conversation begins on this blog, but it shouldn’t end there – continue it through our Facebook or Twitter pages!