Hailey Middlebrook: What the hell is veganism?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 5:31pm

Whenever I think “vegan,” the person who comes to mind isn’t some earthy yogi, but rather his stark opposite: Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation.” If you haven’t seen the show, I’ll give you some insight as to just how obsessed this man is with meat.

For instance, when he finds his soul food: “I’d go to a banquet in honor of those Somali pirates if they served bacon-wrapped shrimp.” At a restaurant: “Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have ... I worry what you just heard was ‘give me a lot of bacon and eggs.’ What I said was, ‘Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.’”

And finally, when he walks in onco-worker Chris Traeger doing yoga: “There’s a hot, spinning cone of meat in the Greek restaurant next door. I don’t know what it is, but I want to eat the whole thing.”

Don’t get me wrong; Ron Swanson is hilarious. But the guy’s dietary habits, to put it nicely, are not something to emulate in real life. There’s never reason to eat an entire cone of meat. Or all the bacon and eggs. And according to hundreds of dieticians, doctors and scientists, there’s really no reason — close your ears, Ron — we need meat or eggs in our diets at all.

But before all the Ron Swansons of the world run away, or even the more moderate, chicken and greek yogurt inclined eaters scram, hear this article out. (It might make you run a little faster — in a good way.)

“Veganism,” both a diet and a philosophy, can be loosely defined as a lifestyle that abstains from consuming animal products. Like vegetarians, vegans exclude meat from their diets, but they also reject dairy products, eggs, honey — all foods produced by animals — as well as processed foods with traces of animal, such as marshmallows that contain gelatin. Instead, vegan diets are plant-based, majorly consisting of unprocessed grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes (mainly beans), seeds and nuts.

They may sound like squirrels, but vegans are slowly but surely taking over the world. Though humans have been eating plant-based diets since our ancient scavenging days (berries and edible mushrooms, anyone?), the term “veganism” was properly coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, former secretary of the UK’s Vegetarian Society. At the time, vegetarianism was growing more popular, largely for ethical reasons. Soon, discussions surfaced about not only the maltreatment of animals in the meat industry, but also the unethical exploitation of animals for dairy and eggs.

In the decades that followed, veganism gained traction, especially in the 1960s countercultural food movement. Then the 2000s brought a surge of vegan support: In 2004, Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s bestselling “China Study” argued that animal products are the real culprits in causing cancer and other diseases; the book prompted a group of filmmakers to produce “Forks Over Knives” in 2011, focused on case studies of people who improved their health by nixing a meat-centered, high-sugar American diet. Though vegan proponents have been met with criticism — largely stemmed by doubts that veganism provides enough protein and other nutrients to be healthy — the American Dietetic Association affirms that a properly planned (read: you’re not only eating apples), plant-based diet is perfectly healthy.

What does a vegan meal look like? It might be a rice bowl with black beans, avocado, roasted sweet potatoes and pico de gallo, tortilla chips on the side. Or macaroni and “cheese,” noodles topped with a creamy blend of butternut squash and roasted peppers. If your mouth is watering, don’t worry — these steaming bowls of plant-based goodness are right here in Ann Arbor.

To learn more about veganism — and yes, eat that rice bowl — I visited The Lunch Room, Kerrytown’s all-vegan restaurant. After devouring my lunch, I met Phillis Englebert, co-owner of the restaurant, to pick her brain about veganism and see what her advice would be for college students interested in adopting the diet.  

In particular, I asked what the biggest misconception people had about veganism was.

“Four things,” Phillis said. “First, everyone thinks they won’t get enough protein. They don’t realize there’s protein in everything, even vegetables.” She pointed to my empty bowl of rice and beans. “See that? You just ate a bowl of protein.”

She continued, “Then they’ll think a vegan diet won’t fill them up. And that they’ll need supplements to make up for lost nutrients. Finally, people will say that it’s just too hard to figure out — too much sacrificing of food, too much planning for meals, too weird.”

For Phillis, cooking vegan meals has become like second nature. An on-and-off vegetarian since she was 16, Phillis adopted veganism in 2007 when she discovered she was lactose intolerant. Before opening The Lunch Room in 2013, she and co-owner Joel Panozzo hosted vegan dinner parties with their friends, which eventually led to operating a vegan food cart in Mark’s Carts on Main Street. Customer reactions — from vegans and non-vegans alike — were so positive that The Lunch Room was born.

“Looking around this room, I’d bet $100 that not one person is vegan,” Phillis said. There wasn’t a small crowd, either. Turns out, you don’t have to be vegan (Exhibit A: myself) to enjoy fresh, tasty, satisfying food that boosts your health and doesn’t break your bank. A hearty bowl of rice and beans, for example, was just $6 — a hell of a lot cheaper than Ron Swanson’s 16-ounce ribeye.

I also asked Phillis what her advice would be for a college student who was considering veganism.

“First of all, you need a good vegan cookbook,” Phillis said. (Her favorite is “Isa Does It,” available at Literati.) “You need about a dozen pantry staples, like grains, beans, spices and dressings. Then it’s all planning; I make a huge salad with grains, roasted veggies, nuts, chickpeas and dressings every weekend, and that’ll be my lunches for the week.”

Phillis said it’s all about experimenting and roasting, tossing together nuts and grains and fresh produce to make a meal that satisfies you. She added, “And feel free to stop in The Lunch Room, if you ever want to talk to a living, breathing vegan.”

And if I had to guess, I’d say they’re probably living and breathing better than the rest of us.