“You’re giving up pizza?” He lifted one eyebrow at me from across amessy table sprawled with notes and textbooks. “Like, the best food in the world? No, no, pack up your things. We’re going to get you a last piece of pizza. No, a whole pizza. You’ll eat the entire thing.”
“But we have to study,” I contested.
“Fine,” He was exasperated at this point, cutting me off, “but as soon as we get out of the exam tomorrow, we are getting pizza. With extra cheese.”
My decision to go vegan has confused and confounded nearly every person I’ve met in the past three years, but none so much as my friend who dragged me to that last cheesy dinner. He called it my “last supper.” We held up our slices of cheesy, gooey pizza, ceremoniously cheersing to the “end of my sanity.”
“Won’t you miss it?” he said.
My plan, at that point in mid-June so many years ago, was to commit to a vegan diet for the summer. If, at the start of September, I did “miss it”, if I wanted to return to the familiar territory of vegetarianism, I would do so, no hard feelings. My summer vacation began the day after that last slice of pizza, and while my summer was filled with doubt, September came and went without a thought of cheese, eggs, or milk.
While to most, the thought of forgoing meat, cheese, and eggs leaves them wondering what they would be able to eat (besides, of course, twigs and grass), I have found it to be an eye-opening, extraordinary experience in which I’ve incorporated more foods than I knew existed into my diet and developed a fierce passion for food.
That summer, I began to learn to cook. I started slowly, teaching myself to create vegan versions of my favorite cheesy, meat-filled meals using soy-based “meat” and “cheese products. The dreaded “tofurky” filled my sandwiches, and I relied upon veggie-hotdogs for quick and easy dinners. As time progressed, the foods from my omnivorous past that I tried to hard to recreate faded from my memory, and I slowly learned to love even the greenest of vegetables. After my first meal at Vedge, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s vegetable restaurant in Philadelphia, I realized that vegetables could be phenomenal in their own right. My focus and my idea of veganism both shifted, as I filled my shopping cart with Swiss chard and spaghetti squash rather than meatless sausages and frozen veggie burgers.
I transformed into the cliche of a messy-haired woman with a dirty apron working tirelessly in the kitchen with flour or some other mystery ingredient smeared on her face. I started a blog, and would take poorly lit photos of my meals with my phone’s camera. As soon as I finished eating breakfast, I would begin to plan lunch, excited by all of the new foods I was trying. Before going vegan, I had never tried barley, hearts of palm, or even Brussels sprouts, but now all three are staples in my fridge or pantry.
I have fallen hard for plants. Now, my lunches are monstrous salads, filled with a bright selection of vegetables and fruits. Marinated shiitakes, morels, and maitakes are my sandwich fillings of choice, and fresh herbs and chopped vegetables coat them rather than soy cheese. The contrast of warm, crunchy toast with cool, smooth avocado is the start to most weekday mornings, adding refried beans, hummus, or thinly sliced radish with fresh mint and cilantro.
A few weeks ago, I was out to dinner with friends. We sat around the table sharing storing and laughing, sharing a vegan pizza topped with mushrooms, rosemary, and truffle oil. In the three years that I’ve followed a vegan diet, the most important thing I’ve learned, to answer my friend’s question, is that I don’t have to miss anything. I don’t ever feel deprived; I have gained far more than I lost.