The real reason to convert to a plant-based diet
What 7 consecutive months of cooking and eating vegan taught an omnivorous foodie
I adore food. I love eating it. I relish cooking it. I enjoy reading about it on a menu and thinking about how the chef will prepare it. I plan vacations around the ability to try a local cuisine I’ve never before sampled.
Like many midwesterners, I grew up feasting on a meat-centric diet. Scrapple, a don’t-ask-what-is-in-it-just-eat-it breakfast food, was considered a delicacy in our house. I briefly managed a Bob Evans and ate my salary in sausage gravy. I was the target demographic of those Taco Bell commercials that describe burritos as simultaneously beefy, chewy, cheesy, and crunchy.
I lived and cooked this way for 40 years. If a recipe called for milk, I subbed in heavy cream. I taught myself to make a killer osso buco. I ordered every cheese plate possible. New Year’s Eve meant a mixture of beef, pork, and Velveeta. I had dreams about foie gras poutine and the salmon at my favorite Italian restaurant. And then, suddenly, I didn’t.
Since January 1 of this year, I’ve adhered to a strict plant-based diet. I traded Eggs Benedict for tofu scrambles, Eastern Carolina-style barbecue for carrot-based “pulled pork”, and veal parm for zucchini with tomato sauce and hemp seed parmesan.
There were multiple reasons for this change. I worried about the environmental impacts of the livestock industry. I fretted about the nutrition in my diet. I harbored fears about the way meatpacking workers were treated (rightfully so, apparently). I suspected I’d have more energy on long runs with less animal fat in my diet. So I stopped eating animal products. No meat. No dairy. Just plants.
I initially planned on adhering to the diet for just a month. Here it is August, though, and I’m still only eating plant-based foods. The initial motivators of the change are still present, but I also discovered a surprising additional reason: It’s just more fun.
While cooking omnivorously, one can mask a number of flaws in a dish with melted cheese. Someone with no seasoning knowledge can grill a delicious steak because beef just naturally tastes good. Cooking plant-based presents a new challenge that has inspired me.
I’m now experimenting with new recipes and styles and methods and ingredients. I’m cooking more from scratch, challenging assumptions, and trying new things. And I’m having a blast doing it.
My wife is allergic to both gluten and soy, so dishes I prepare for both of us can’t rely on typical vegan staples like seitan or tempeh. I get to plan a weekly menu that provides us a decent balance of carbs and protein, tastes good, and doesn’t relegate her to hours of intestinal misery.
Sure, I can talk about having lost a few pounds, feeling more energetic, and enjoying the moral superiority of being plant-based at a time when the meat industry was actively advancing the spread of a deadly virus. If I’m being honest, though, I haven’t switched back because it’s just too damn fun.
I started out cooking a lot of old standards with some Beyond Meat substituted in, but that’s tailed off as I really push to expand my boundaries. I learned about nutritional yeast. I made deep dish pizza with cashew “cheese”. I cooked so many lentils. I found multiple uses for jackfruit.
There’ve been some flops. The chickpea, black bean, and oat “meatloaf” hasn’t reappeared after its disastrously dry debut. More of the grilled zucchini salad ended up in the compost pile than I’d have liked. I should’ve known better than to add beets to the store-bought Alfredo sauce.
For every failure, though, there’s been a smashing success. Socca has become a staple, preferably with some steamed asparagus or broccoli. These fajitas and corn cakes and quinoa bowls make regular appearances.
Will I continue adhering to a strict plant-based diet indefinitely? I don’t know. When international travel becomes a thing again, I can’t imagine visiting France without cheese or Italy without cannoli. I’m sure I’ll strongly consider an exception for Thanksgiving turkey with Grandmom’s sausage-potato stuffing.
I think I can safely say, though, that a plant-heavy diet is a firm part of my future. I love cooking too much to eat any differently.