8:11a.m. Sunday. Driving to the Bongo Room to meet a friend for breakfast, I pondered what I might eat. Recently having decided to return to my vegan ways, I realize the limitations I am putting on myself in the great food mecca of Chi-town. Should I break my newfound vow and eat eggs? Should I get the pumpkin pancakes, knowing they will be full of dairy? Why am I craving eggs and bacon? A steak? What is happening to me?
As I approach the restaurant, I see that it’s not open until 9. I call my friend and we decide to go somewhere else. Feast, closed. Hot Chocolate, closed. We settle on Toast, where I drink my coffee black (recently having kicked half-n-half, which was REALLY difficult) and a giant bowl of steel cut oatmeal. I look at my friend’s dish, a cheesy omelet full of veggies and a side of toast, and my stomach grumbles. I love eggs the way people love chocolate. I have had egg whites every single day since I was a teenager. This has been my first full week without them, and my mouth is watering. I eat my oatmeal and focus on the beautiful, cold day, the quiet morning and the scintillating conversation. I notice the scarf tied around my friend’s neck and her pretty hair. And the giant bite of cheesy goodness she is stuffing into her mouth. I sip my coffee and take another bite of oatmeal. Though I can make a million different things with oatmeal, it just isn’t as diverse as the glorious egg.
As a child, I gorged myself on meat. So much so that my parents feared something might be wrong with me. A tapeworm? Was I preparing for life as a cannibal? Who eats that much meat? Sure I was active: a gymnast, a dancer, a runner, and then a boxer, so I needed food. I had a voracious appetite straight from the womb, and it wasn’t until 7th grade, when I got sick on a school hamburger (that horrible gray meat riddled with gristles, the cheap bun which had disintegrated in a gluey pile on top of this so-called meat patty), that I decided I would never eat beef again. That might seem extreme for a child except that I had probably ingested more beef by the 7th grade than anyone – male or female – I knew.
Slowly, I became aware of what I was putting into my body, noticing the stick thin figures in magazines and wondering how I could look like that too. Like so many girls, I wanted to see my hip bones, my rib cage, and I dabbled with not eating and then decided I liked food too much, so I began exercising for 4 hours at a time, until I was so hungry, I felt I would pass out. I decided to get healthy and stay there. “I’m becoming a vegetarian,” I announced to my family. “As long as you’re not a Republican,” my mother retorted.
I clung to my new project with as much enthusiasm as getting a new Barbie. However, my foray into a non-meat lifestyle was not without mistakes. I reasoned that I loved all animals, so why would I want to eat them? I looked at our pets the same way as I would a cow, a chicken, or a pig. To me, there was no difference. But, I also thought that to be a vegetarian, I would eat broccoli and black beans and that was it. End of story. Oh, the perils my family suffered for that decision, but I continued this way of life for about 13 years, until I decided one day to eat tuna, then chicken, then turkey, and then the onslaught began… and I became, yet again, the protein whore of the past. However, I refrained from pork and beef… my first real loves.
What I didn’t know, however, was how the return to heavy protein would affect my internal health. Because, let’s face it: we don’t live in a time like our parents or even our grandparents, when the cows were fed more organic feed than they are now, when they weren’t mass-produced, when the milk went through a few hands straight to a glass bottle and then to a doorstep, instead of through hundreds of factories and processes to cheap plastic, all to be stored on some random shelf of the supermarket. It’s not always about the morals or ethics of eating meat – there will always be those who roll their eyes at vegetarians and there will always be those who are passionate about their quest to not eat meat or to be proud carnivores. It’s just the way things are.
Today, it’s more about the quality of our food, and how it is literally killing us: what that animal has eaten, how it was packed tightly with other sick animals, what parasites it had, how it was killed, “cleaned” and packaged, how long it has been sitting, dead, in the back of a truck, in a glass container, or in a package, touching other meats, before it’s wrapped up by blood-soaked gloves to be thrown into a shopping cart and taken home to sit in your refrigerator or freezer before being ingested; wherein the beginnings of the millions of tiny processes of digestion occurs, where the diseased flesh can latch on to your weaker cells, giving you parasites, making you fatter and sicker than you might already be. This, of course, is just an example. The bottom line is it’s not all about meat. We don’t just have fresh meats and fresh produce to choose from. Eating a steak from a 5 star restaurant is different than rolling up to McDonald’s. Why eat that? It doesn’t taste good. We have to start being more responsible about what we feed ourselves and our kids. Fast food isn’t the answer. Those establishments are about money – you can’t even call it food, and no matter how they “advertise” that they are getting healthier, they aren’t. Just think before you eat. Make smarter decisions.
Being a vegetarian is hard. It’s not the “not eating meat” that’s hard – it’s that a restaurant’s idea of feeding vegetarians is giving us a cheesy croissant, tons of pasta with rich sauces, vegetables smothered in salt, butter or oil, or veggie burgers that are higher in fat than hamburgers. The vegan restaurants might have things you don’t necessarily want to try: tempeh, seitan (and yes, that can sound like SATAN, which, considering what it sometimes does to your stomach, makes a lot of sense), tofu, etc. Why are there not restaurants where you can get clean, unsalted soups, enormous healthy salads topped with seeds, nuts and beans and a fresh stir-fry not drenched in soy sauce? Where are they? Why aren’t there caloric restrictions to fine dining? Nothing on the menu exceeds x number of calories, etc. Everything you order will not only taste good, but be portioned the right way. Sadly, this isn’t the case and we aren’t responsible enough to pay attention to what we’re eating. That’s why so many of us are overweight and shelling out billions of dollars a year to be thinner. When, really, it’s the single thing YOU can control: what you feed yourself. What you feed your family. Then why is it so damn hard?
Unless you are going to cook everything yourself, you must compromise when you are out, often reaching for processed things if you’re a vegetarian just because it doesn’t come from an animal, or “lightening up” on your diet because there’s nothing healthy offered. While you can ask for things dry, unsalted, with cooking spray instead of butter, with greens instead of fries, it sometimes still doesn’t add up. For instance, do I eat the breaded soy patty that tastes like chicken (and has almost 500 mg of salt) or the grilled chicken breast that has no salt? Do I eat the pasta with marinara because it’s vegetarian, or do I eat the egg-white omelet, even though it has eggs? And why, the moment I finish dinner, do I physically need a dessert? Where’s the compromise?
All I know is that I am on this quest to see how I feel with this newfound eating plan; to note the changes and see how strong and active I can remain with a diet based entirely around plants. Alex, formerly 40 pounds heavier, is doing this with me. A rugby player, I gave him an eating plan (slightly smaller portions, though eating ever 2-3 hours, around 7 times a day) and the weight literally fell off. He has not only become the fittest version of himself, but he sleeps better, he looks amazing and he feels as strong as he did before. We are doing this together and will chart our progress – as well as experimenting with interesting recipes, both good and bad.
Though we will continue to post just as many recipes (for meat eaters and vegetarians), we welcome you to our journey… of eating plants, of composing dishes and being as active as humanly possible, and loving food – just in a slightly different way.