Food for thought

Monday, November 11, 2019 - 4:52pm

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Danyel Tharakan

The old adage goes, “You eat with your eyes first.” This happened to be the case for my mom when she skimmed the Food Network magazine and discovered a picture of cookies that looked irresistible. With gooey chocolate chunks and crunchy oat flakes, they were worthy of a “phone eats first” Instagram post. She immediately turned the page for the recipe, which read “Vegan Cowgirl Cookies.” Vegan. She didn’t even know what that meant, but she was curious about vegan baking and compelled to try this recipe. After sampling her final results, she decided that they tasted “legit.”

Before “Vegan Cowgirl Cookies,” I hadn’t given the legitimacy of veganism or plant-based diets much thought. When my second grade gym teacher reviewed the food pyramid and taught us the importance of a balanced diet, including the staples of meat, dairy, grains etc, the word vegan wasn’t mentioned once. 

Upon hearing someone call themselves vegan, my knowledge of the colored food pyramid grounded my initial impression: a vegan diet was a flawed nutritional lifestyle. I was under the impression that a strong sentiment for animal rights was the only thing that drove people to become vegan. 

When my younger sister, Tatum, returned home from her freshman year at Columbia University and declared she was vegan, I watched her choose not to consume any meat or animal products (poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, gelatin) or even purchase any animal byproducts, such as leather clothing.

Slight chaos ensued in our household thereafter. Tatum’s vegan options took up too much space in the freezer and she’d inconveniently make her own meals concurrent with my mom’s dinner preparations, leaving a mess in the kitchen. At the family dinner table, my other sister Geena, an avid, unapologetic steak lover, would comically fight with Tatum over their respective food choices. As for me, I was confused why Tatum would eat all these “imitation,” or alternative products — all of which contained ingredients that seemed so fake, unnatural and unhealthy. 

Nothing was more complicated than deciding what restaurant to eat at as a family. Even though Tatum vowed she could find something to eat on any menu, we’d still cater our restaurant choice to meet her dietary restrictions. One could say veganism caused some beef in the Meyhoefer household.

Despite our mealtime dilemmas and the occasional joke, our family was respectful and accommodating of Tatum’s lifestyle choices but it still took us a while before completely understanding the reasoning behind them. To be fair, Tatum didn’t want to cause any inconvenience: She didn’t want to act arrogantly about her view or appear high maintenance, conscious of the way some vegans are perceived in society. At one point, Tatum explained how she physically felt better based on what she was eating. The logic of that reasoning for a vegan lifestyle piqued my attention and made me think how the ethical sense of veganism merges with the physical sense. Tatum mentioned how she now has more energy after meals as well as how she is less stressed in regards to what she eats, since it is now in line with her beliefs. Eating clean isn’t necessarily the same as eating healthy.

The inner “foodie” in me is always excited by the opportunity to try new foods and restaurants, so I adjusted to my rationale on what I thought was restrictive about veganism and embraced the possibility of the new foods I could expose myself to and now include in my diet. With an academic’s mind and adventurous spirit — I hit the books and went grocery shopping.

After scouring a multitude of websites on the internet, I began to unravel the layers of veganism. Someone’s reasoning for living a vegan lifestyle could range from ethical, to religious, to health, to sustainability reasons. I was primarily drawn to the subset of environmental veganism; I was astonished by the environmental implications of a plant-based diet, especially with the recent devastation of the Amazon. In alignment with that revelation, studies have revealed correlations between raising animals and the exertion of resources such as water, land and greenhouse gases. Some studies go even further, claiming a vegan diet is “essential” to avoid climate change. My research also yielded information on how large of a spectrum veganism is in regards to the environmental impact of meat and dairy production. Veganism is nuanced in this way, since no two vegan lifestyles look the same. The term “vegan” is nebulous, and the intensity of a vegan lifestyle may vary given it is an individual decision. Honey, for instance, is contentiously debated among vegans as to whether or not it should be avoided.

Whether or not I chose to eat vegan at a particular meal, I became intrigued by the ingredients of what I consumed and where they were being sourced. To me, veganism is substantiated on the knowledge of where and how products are sourced, rather than a list of what one can and cannot consume. I’m reminded of the chickens in my friend’s backyard, whose eggs would not technically fit into the plant-based category yet are ethically sourced and humanely harvested. Alternatively, a product such as coffee, which is undeniably plant-based, could be deemed unethical when grown on deforested rainforests that emit higher greenhouse gases compared to coffee grown on suitable land under sustainable practices.

Veganism isn’t all salads and tofu. With the rise of plant-based alternatives, including Beyond Meat and Daiya “cheese,” it’s easy to assume veganism is merely a trend. However, a closer look at the history of veganism reveals otherwise. Diets like veganism have ties back to over 2,000 years ago in eastern Mediterranean and ancient Indian societies, who resorted to plant-based food for religious and philosophical intentions. The term “vegetarian” was later coined in the mid-1800s and in November 1944, Donald Watson established the Vegan Society, in which an early definition of modern veganism originated. The definition has since been slightly modified and eventually grew into how veganism is thought of today. 

Inevitably with my deepened understanding of veganism, when returning to campus in September for my senior year, one of my first stops was The Lunch Room, a popular vegan spot in Ann Arbor. As I was enjoying every bite of my vegan pad thai, I couldn’t help but take in the atmosphere and overhear the conversations around me. Their welcoming staff seemed to attract all demographics and the tables were filled with families, students, first dates and old friends catching up. Comments on the food casually slipped into the conversation, whether it was simply on how tasty the food was or how they couldn’t believe the mac and “cheese” was vegan. And, of course, I caught others taking pictures of their food, myself guilty of doing so too. 

Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo, co-owners of The Lunch Room and Detroit Filling Station restaurants, epitomize the unifying dynamic of veganism in the hospitality industry. “The restaurant is sort of a combination of vegan diet and cooking, plus community organizing, plus liking to plan and have parties,” Engelbert said. When describing the extensive range of people the restaurant entertains, quite literally with live music events, Engelbert added, “Vegans are probably a small minority of our customer base.”

As much as I agree and support such a lifestyle that leaves a greener footprint, I am still perplexed by how veganism fits into other narratives of society. Food is a language of its own; food speaks to us when we don’t know what to say. Similar to how some cultures or religions refrain from meat, specific foods are expected in the traditions of other cultures. In my Italian background at least, Thanksgiving isn’t complete until Grandma Francine’s meatballs and mostaccioli are on the table. 

Also on the issue of a vegan lifestyle, I’m an advocate for listening to one’s own body — even if that encompasses the need to consume non-vegan foods or products. For instance, certain individuals have blood types that recommend a higher meat or dairy intake. Additionally, most vegan alternatives rely heavily on soy ingredients. In that case, for individuals with soy or gluten allergies and medical conditions, a completely vegan diet may not be realistic. Veganism also brings up questions of accessibility to everyone on the basis of food inequalities. Especially in today's society of “diet culture” and the “wellness industry” there is also an underlying pressure to make food decisions not based on biological instincts, but rather through guilt based on what people eat or don’t eat.

So where does this leave me now? Vegan? Flexitarian? Pescetarian? Non-vegan? “Naughty” vegan? In all honesty, I’m not sure. But, I like knowing that I can make a marginal environmental impact with some of my efforts to reduce meat and dairy intake. I find satisfaction in opting for vegan alternatives, especially with today’s luxuries of so many options, even in the milk aisle alone. However, given the multi-dimensionality to veganism, there doesn’t need to be any identities or labels assigned to it that would continue to perpetuate stigmas and divisiveness. 

I suppose I’m taking a stance on no stance; I may sound hypocritical as a non-vegan in support of veganism, but I like to think my awareness counts for something. I’m still hungry for knowledge, though, and when it comes to learning, one can never be overly satiated. 

But really, who am I to tell anyone what to do or eat or not eat? I realize not everyone will be stocking their freezers with veggie burgers and Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream after reading this, but I like to hope there’s some take away from my own meandering conclusions about veganism  – even if it’s one less eye roll upon the mention of someone saying they’re vegan. 

Or it could be an open door to another way of thinking about sustainability efforts; such as, but not confined to, limiting one’s single-use plastics, cleaning the beaches of trash, planting a tree, composting or simply remembering to turn off the light when leaving a room. Sustainability looks different for everyone, but regardless of what one brings to the table it all makes a difference. 

By the end of the summer, my family learned how to agree to disagree. We visited vegan-only restaurants as well as steak restaurants that included a tasty vegan alternative on their menus. If Geena and Tatum can get along over veganism, and if restaurants like the Detroit Filling Station can find success in their communities, I think veganism can be more unifying than people imagine. And whether you’ve labeled yourself vegan, not vegan, somewhere or nowhere in between, my mom’s vegan cookies are incontestably a favorite. So, I leave you with some food for thought:

            1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds

            3 tablespoons water

            ½ cup vegetable shortening

            ½ cup granulated sugar

            ½ cup packed brown sugar

            1 vanilla extract

            1 cup all-purpose flour

            ½ teaspoon baking soda

            ¼ teaspoon salt

            ¾ cup old-fashioned oats

            1/3 cup rice krispies cereal

            ½ cup chocolate chips

            ¼ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

            1/3 cup shredded coconut