OK, I know that Vegebruary is not a thing, but it was a spur of the moment decision on the 1st of February to try veganism for a month and, well, I’d missed Veganuary. It also did not go unnoticed that February has notably less days than the other months – only 28 days of animal and animal product-free dining – and this would increase my chances of successful completion.
It would also give me the opportunity to try some of the excellent vegan dining options in Ubud, of which there are many, and which I have until now studiously avoided due to a misguided inner prejudice that vegan food is not fit for non-vegans (a prejudice that I have managed to disprove during my month of mainly fine dining), but I will detail these in a separate blogpost.
So, decision made to go vegan on a bit of a whim, I haven’t given too much thought as to what I hope to gain; is it improved health, less harm to animals or helping the environment?
I’m not too sure but I am keen to find out what the experience of being vegan is like, also to educate myself and perhaps to discover why vegans are so damn angry all the time!
1. Fish Sauce
I was under the mistaken assumption that going vegan would simply mean cutting out a few extra things from my diet; no more fish, butter, eggs, cheese or ice-cream. Tough but doable for a month.
However, it was only day 2 that I made my realisation that going vegan was much more of a learning curve than I expected. I had arranged to cook dinner for some friends, thinking that the best way to still attend dinner parties as a vegan is to throw them yourself and make sure the food is vegan. I was pleased with my super-healthy menu of Thai Papaya salad with fresh papaya from my tree, and organic pumpkin and spinach Thai green curry.
The non-vegans reading this will be thinking “That sounds like a nice vegan meal – well done!“, whilst the vegans will be screaming “FISH SAUCE!”
Fish sauce is an important element in a Thai salad dressing, it gives it the saltiness, like anchovies on a pizza. But fish sauce is made of fish (duh!), so not only is it not vegan, it’s not even vegetarian! So, on day two I’ve already lost Thai cuisine which I thought was a dead-cert, vegan-friendly option: Thanks, fish sauce!
On doing some research, I find that fish sauce can easily be replaced with soy sauce. Unfortunately the shopping has already been done and I have enough to do without going back to the supermarket so a blind eye is turned and I think Im starting to get an inkling as to why vegans are so uptight.
So, after my fish sauce error I started to think more carefully about what was in stuff. Being vegan is not just a stricter form of being vegetarian; as a vegetarian all you need to do is avoid eating animals, pretty straight forward (unless you are in Chile – see below).
However, as a vegan, you have to know what is inside every dish, making eating out a bit of a nightmare. Somewhere like Ubud, you can pretty much stick to vegan-friendly places when you are out but, go anywhere other than these established safe havens and you have to be on high alert.
I realised this when, in the cinema, I took an innocuous-looking cone of complimentary popcorn (‘corn = vegan’, right?), but only when I put it in my mouth and taste the unmistakable delicious flavour of butter do I realise – NOT VEGAN!
One of the many things that may be cooked in butter is popcorn. But it makes me think of all the other things that could be cooked in butter. What are you supposed to do? Ask every time you are at a restaurant, or being cooked for what something has been cooked in, what the broth is made from, whether something contains egg, or gelatine, or honey Why the hell can’t they tell you if something is cooked in butter?
I am starting to feel the angry vegan rising from within.
But it’s not just eating out where you have to be careful. Anything that you buy from the supermarket has to be scrupulously examined and checked for traces of milk powder, gelatine and crushed beetles. As a smug non-consumer of processed food, I didn’t think this would be an issue, I basically use the supermarket for rice and oats and otherwise cook with fresh vegetables. Then someone tells me milk powder is often used in the production of wine.
I thought my holy trinity of wine, coffee and dark chocolate were safe from the vegans but, no. Then you start to wonder what other products are similarly afflicted and it starts to make your head spin.
And this brings me onto the honey question because, whilst it may not be one of the most difficult things to avoid, it may well be one of the hardest things for a non-vegan to understand.
According to the vegan society:
Honey is made by bees for bees, and their health can be sacrificed when it is harvested by humans. Importantly, harvesting honey does not correlate with The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which seeks to exclude not just cruelty, but exploitation.
Are bees really aware of who they are producing the honey for? Do they have hopes and dreams of escaping the hive and setting up their own honey farm somewhere idyllic? Will they get dia-bee-tes if we eat all their honey?
I wonder how many insects are killed through pesticide use in the cultivation of the wheat used to make that slice of vegan avocado on toast and this makes no sense to me. In addition, pesticides are bad for our health, and the environment! I feel that bee exploitation is not high enough on my list of concerns and that maybe I’m just not cut out to be a vegan.
So, the question is, after dipping my toes into the world of veganism, will I continue it into Veg-arch, Veg-pril, Veg-ay? and the answer is, unfortunately, ‘no’.
Although I respect and admire Vegans and their dedication to the welfare and protection of animals, it is indeed a way of life and a moral standpoint that goes beyond my own personal values.
Let me break this down:
- My concern for animals – My concern for the welfare and suffering of animals is real, but also has boundaries, within which I weigh up the harm I am doing against the reality of how the world operates. As such, inconveniencing bees to eat their honey seems like a minor thing when compared to eating any food, which is farmed non-organically and which has undoubtedly killed many more insects through the use of pesticides. Which brings me onto my next point
- Healthy Eating – When going from meat eater to vegetarian, you are almost guaranteed to start eating healthier. Not so with veganism. Your choice becomes so limited that quite often, you end up eating rubbish. It seems crazy to be sitting by the ocean, watching the fisherman bring in the latest catch whilst you eat french fries and oreos. Cutting out eggs as well often leaves you short on choices, particularly when it comes to breakfast, and you end up filling up on empty calories like bread or rice (and don’t get me started on margarine). And it’s not only the junk food which is the culprit, soy is a hugely common protein substitute for vegans, coming in the form of tofu, tempeh and filling many veggie burgers. Soy is a 90% GMO crop, unnatural and filling the pockets of Montsanto whilst also subjugating farmers. Whilst fairly easy to eat healthily as a vegan in a place like Ubud, there are few other places like it and I know that being back in Europe I’d be likely to eat even less healthily.
- Practicality – Going vegan was more difficult than I anticipated and not because of the foods you are eliminating, but because of the impact it has on your social life. Going vegan in your 30s is on a par with cutting out alcohol in your 20s: You become a social pariah and it actually becomes too stressful to even go out, having the constant anxiety every time you eat something you have not prepared yourself, even if you have given the waiter in the restaurant, or your dinner party host, the third degree. You’re the one who makes it difficult to go out to eat or the one no-one wants to invite to a dinner party.
So, no-one said it was going to be fun, and maybe all this stuff becomes easier with time but, be under no illusion, going vegan requires strong principles and commitment and I guess I just don’t cut it in that respect.
I understand that part of the reason of going vegan is to educate yourself and others as to the harm we are causing with some elements of our diet that we take for granted and in that respect I feel that I have learned a lot. In some ways though, I feel it’s a missed opportunity. In being so black and white in its philosophy, veganism puts off many people who may support some of the main principles, and it can sometimes feel like vegans are too busy feeling self-satisfied about being in an exclusive club instead of opening the doors to everyone.
I have decided on somewhere in the middle. I will continue to eat fish and eggs, but more consciously, and when there is no healthy alternative. But the main change I am making is to finally cut out all dairy. That’s it, no ice-cream, no cheesecake, no pizza.
That’s a fairly big one for me and, yes, if there is milk powder in my wine, I may just turn a blind eye, but before going vegan I wouldn’t have had a clue that it was even there!
This will give me an excuse to keep eating at some of the amazing vegan restaurants that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered in Ubud, so it’s all good.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a freshly caught grilled snapper down on the beachfront washed down with a nice crisp glass of white wine and maybe next January I will take another dip in the vegan waters.