Being Vegan: What a Vegan Actually Gives Up

Originally written January 23, 2017 Updated and Revised February 19, 2021

A Vegan in a Sea of Omnivores

I love omnivores; I know so many of them. The list includes all of my family and friends. While a few of the children in our group attempt to walk the road of a vegetarian, none are vegan. In the 27 plus years that I have been a vegan, I have yet to find another friend who is a vegan buddy; thus, in my experience, vegans are fairly rare in the scheme of our society. 

Only Vegan in the Group

I find it a fun fact, being the only vegan of the group, considering I have lived and gone to university in food diversified communities twice: first at UC Santa Cruz and second at Humboldt State University. These two places have large populations of vegetarian and vegan friendly communities. 

Regardless of the many people I have spoken to and have gone to university with or taught and worked with, none of them were vegan. To this day, I have yet to meet another vegan who has become a friend. I find this quite odd, but it is my reality. 

Mostly, the only way that I know we vegans exist has to do with the recipes that I have found over the years in books and now on the Internet. Recipes are the connection I have with others who have either decided to live this life, or they have had no choice but to eliminate specific food categories. 

Being a Vegan Isn’t Easy

Being a vegan is not simple or easy; It never has been. If it were, everyone would be vegan, and my dream of a vegan world would have happened years ago! When I started on this road, I dreamt of a world that is vegan (now also gluten free) because then I would be included in people’s food palettes.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my choice–not for anything–not even to be included in people’s dinner parties or to be able to share the same meal everyone else is eating during regular dinnertime, dinner parties, and holidays. 

Meat and Dairy: The Industries that Drive Our Food Choices

Our world is geared toward meat and dairy products. If you read the ingredients on every box in your pantry, the most common items listed on those boxes will be: salt, sugar, some form of dairy product, some form of meat product, and wheat. Go ahead, please do read the labels–all of them– to know which industries comprise our food supply to the point of becoming the staple of the common U.S. diet. 

Change Only Happens When People Want It

I could start down the path of our degraded food supply and the exposure to various chemical substances that have entered it and created the need for organic farming; however, I have learned from many years of experience and my own proclivities: I do not preach, judge or try to change people. It does not work; It’s not worth my efforts. 

I can only do what is best for me and those who are interested to learn from my experiences. Thus, I am sharing with you, dear reader, that change, even if hard, does not mean that it has to happen all at once or without testing the waters. Real change can happen in a flash, or it can be a slow process. Progress is what I ask for–real progress toward incorporating food that may not be what one is used to. 

People change because they want to do so, or they do not have a choice. Even if people do not have a choice, even if it means loss of life and limb, even then, people refuse to do what is best for them and their environment. 

Humans are strange that way. It takes a catastrophe for the majority of our kind to muster the energy to implement action that benefits us. We have to see death and destruction, or at least destruction, to realize that something has to change to improve the quality of the experience. 

Don’t quite believe me, then please do watch the news, any news, and please then ask why we still build in areas that we know will flood or have mudslides, or where there is undrinkable water or no water, or we work in toxic environments either physical or emotional. 

Just watch the news and read the labels on packages, and it will quickly become apparent that change for the better is especially slow to happen. BUT, change does happen, and it does happen for the best sometimes. I have seen it, and you have too. It’s what I’m asking from omnivores who have vegan friends. 

In the Beginning: Why I Chose the Vegan Path

In the beginning, when I chose this path, I was 19. I was a student at Fresno City College when I was shown the reality of our meat supply. I understood with quite a jolt that I could not kill animals, though I had been eating them up until then. I figured if I couldn’t kill them, then I had no business eating them. 

There was no handbook to make this change, though there was a vague notion that becoming a vegetarian was a process of elimination, not a straight plunge into the depths of a no meat diet, period. The first thing I did was to eliminate beef and pork. I just stopped eating them, and I relied on chicken and fish, which was easy enough. The real fun didn’t occur until I quit eating dairy years later. 

At this point, please allow me to thank my friends and family. They didn’t question my choices, nor did they judge me or try to make me return to my former eating habits, though they have had a lot of fun trying to get me to eat meat again. 

They understood that I couldn’t continue to eat meat, so they made room for me and my dietary changes. The real challenge for everyone I knew and ate with was when I stopped eating dairy–that’s when I discovered just how alone a vegan can feel in a room of omnivores. 

At first, when I started on this path, I didn’t feel alone. After all, I was still eating chicken, fish, and dairy. I had no idea that I was allergic to dairy, and I always had been. Eczema is so much fun to deal with when you’re a kid. 

The dermatologists had told me and my mother, “She is allergic to chocolate.” Uneducated, all of them. I was allergic to dairy, severely so. Anyway, I jump ahead. As I was alone in my vegetarian leanings, I started to read what was available on the subject. 

In the mid 1980’s, which is when this journey began, I came across a book that really helped me lay out a path to eventually transform my diet and become a vegan, Linda Goodman’s Star Signs. OK, you can laugh now. 

In her book, she explains a way to transition from meat and dairy into no meat and dairy. She also talked about many other subjects, but what I remember most was that I had a guide. Someone else understood the road I was on, which no one else around me did. 

My Journey to Become a Vegan

The journey through vegetarianism is not one of cut and become. It is one of removal to gain mastery. It’s simple. The body needs time to change and accept the change that it’s going through. According to the information from Linda Goodman, the path to becoming a vegan and eventually a fruitarian begins with the removal of red meat and pork. 

The process she laid out in the book includes stages of change that comes in seven year increments. The first seven years removes beef and pork. The second seven years removes chicken and fish–no meat period. The following seven years all dairy products including eggs are removed. Another seven years as a vegan, one can remove grains and other vegetables to become a fruitarian. It’s a very long process, but at the time, it was the resource I had to work with. 

I followed the removal of the items, but not along the same timelines. I began my journey by removing red meat– beef and pork. I spent more than three years eating only foul and seafood. I paid attention to my body as to the way it felt and reacted to food when I ate something. A little over three years into the process, I made a sandwich with chicken lunchmeat. I went to eat it when my body said, “I won’t eat that.” The sandwich went to my brother, and I ate a PB & J. Chicken and fish were gone from my diet. 

I spent another three years as an ovo-lacto vegetarian, meaning that I ate no meat but still ate dairy and eggs. Actually, I haven’t eaten plain eggs since 9th grade, but that’s what my style of eating was called, so that’s the terminology I used. More than six years of transitioning off of meat, my body decided it was time to quit dairy too. 

I didn’t realize I was allergic to dairy until one day in April at 26 years old, my body said, “I won’t eat it anymore.” My eczema cleared up a few weeks later. But anytime dairy was present in the food I ate, it would flare again. Eczema became my warning light: Warning, Warning, Warning, dairy in the mix. Reject, Reject, Reject–LOL!

As a vegan, I had to relearn how to cook and bake. Going to the grocery store was no longer a short trip down the block. It became an all Saturday experience. My family and I would head to the Pasadena area to visit Mrs. Gooch’s, which was the largest local health food store available. 

Reading labels on almost everything is something I had learned early in life. My brother had a lot of allergies, so my mother and I spent hours at the grocery store reading labels when he was very young. Now I was reading labels to make sure dairy and meat products didn’t enter my body. 

The Aisles in the Grocery Stores

Grocery stores are a smorgasbord for many people. Most of the food in grocery stores my body will not tolerate. I walk in and look around and am grateful for the fresh vegetables and fruits, and the additions of vegan, gluten free items to the dairy aisle and freezer section, plus the baking aisle. 

Over the past decade, there has been a trend toward adding more plant-based alternatives to the various sections in major grocery store chains. I appreciate the additions to the aisles that include things I can eat, but the majority of items are still off limits because they include the big three: dairy, wheat, and meat.

It’s usually a hit and miss scenario when I step into a grocery store because the items I may need are typically not there. Even in stores that advertise a plant-based slant, think Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Natural Grocers, for example, still have multiple items that cater to mainstream diets. The majority of vegan, gluten free products do not make it to these stores. Personnel from all three have told me repeatedly that it all depends upon the distributors. 

For people who have fairly restrictive constraints from the mainstream diet, it’s more than frustrating. Imagine going into the grocery store and not finding your favorite brands, so you go without or you have to go to three different stores to find something compatible. It’s ridiculous, but it’s how the majority of people who have diets that aren’t mainstream manage their shopping lists.

Disconnection at Meal Time

It’s not just food or animals and animal products that one gives up when going vegan–no that’s just the beginning. An individual who is vegan gives up sharing with others the main course of the meal, the side dishes and the dessert. We give up sharing tastes and new experiences, including restaurant outings and bbqs, not to mention cooking with the majority of our family and friends. 

After all, how many omnivores have eaten a full vegan meal and then decided to start on a vegetarian path? Seriously, not many, or else the world would be far different, as would the Cooking and Food channels, plus the Travel channel would not continue to show meat, lots of meat and dairy, as the staple for gourmet dining around the world.

Vegans give up sharing the food our friends regularly eat. I don’t think people mind giving up eating animals, which I know is difficult and odd to some, but it is giving up fitting in with the group that makes going vegan so tough. 

Outside the circle is a scary place to be because the feeling of unity that binds us through food, and which many species crave so deeply, has faded. There is no real replacement, unless the omnivores decide to eat the vegan dish or dessert. Still, I would argue that it is not the same as cooking and joining in on an entire meal. That’s my experience. 

What Vegans Really Give Up

Vegans give up eating what everyone else does, so we give up eating at many restaurants because no one wants to eat salad and fries or baked potato, plain, constantly. It gets old, and it’s really not that nutritious. After all, how many people would give up eating meat for salad and potatoes? 

Though so many people, my family included, have said to me, “Well, they have salad and French fries.” As if those two items are supposed to be some sort of consolation that there were no vegan options for me to eat on the menu that included protein. Somehow salad and potatoes were supposed to be as scrumptious as eating a gourmet dish of protein and vegetables, slathered in butter or some other delicious sauce. 

Yes, well, I love salad and potatoes, but they are not my all time favorites, and they are not a consolation for eating protein suitable for vegans. I don’t think any omnivore goes to a restaurant and spends money to eat just potatoes and a salad of leafy greens. Hence, many restaurants are not accessible to vegans because so many do not provide options for those of us who do not survive on animal flesh and animal products. 

Yes, I wrote flesh because that is what it is. If you are going to eat it, then you have to call it more than just meat: It is the flesh of an animal that had a mother and father, brothers and sisters and had emotions and knew it was about to die. If omnivores can call my food rabbit food, then I can call meat “flesh with feelings.” 

Life On the Outside of the Food Circle

You see then the dilemma of becoming a vegan, yes? Life on the outside of the food circle with family and friends, which also means having to rethink and relearn how to cook, yet another dilemma. No longer being able to choose whichever restaurant we want or would like to eat at, or being able to eat at the majority of fast food restaurants, which has its own issues, plus bbqs and dinner parties become BYOF (bring your own food). 

Jeez, life as a vegan can be tough! It is ostracization from the most important part of sharing in our society, FOOD. No wonder so many people choose to stay omnivores, or choose to remain on the chicken and fish side of vegetarianism: Our society, our world, makes vegans the outsiders of the food community. Who wants to live as an outsider? 

Rethink Your Cooking Abilities: Include a Vegan Dish

Evidently, I do, and so do many others who have chosen this life, or maybe have not had a choice about what they can and cannot eat, which is me too. So, I have something to ask all omnivores: Could you, would you please try to provide one dish, just one, for those folks who have chosen a vegan palette? A dish that includes protein and flavor, but it does not include flesh and dairy? 

Below is a recipe that is easy and tasty. It’s tofu cacciatore, but you could use any one of the “chicken” plant based alternatives. I like fried tofu. If you don’t want to use soy, may I suggest another alternative, such as seitan. I am limited to tofu or protein that includes soy. Beans in this dish are odd, but if you want to add beans, you are welcomed to do so. 

Tofu Cacciatore

Ingredients

1 block of firm tofu, cut into cubes (I use firm not extra firm because firm allows for better texture and chew factor. Extra firm can be too dry and not absorb the sauce as well.) If a plant-based substitute is desired, try Gardein chicken strips or scallopini. 

Oil for frying the tofu or plant-based substitute–a tablespoon or two (or the tofu can be air fried)

8 ounce can of tomato sauce

Salt, pepper and basil, plus some parsley and a pinch of garlic. All of these are to taste, and I use them fairly generously. If you are worried, a ½ tsp of salt and pepper each, a generous pinch or two of basil and parsley. Salt and pepper can be added to taste at the end of cooking as well. 

Prep and Directions

The first step is to prep the tofu for cutting. The tofu must be drained and washed and then dried and excess water pressed from it. I use paper towels for this process, but I’ve also used a very thin flour sack towel. 

To begin, cut the film off the wrapper of the tofu, and then rinse the tofu under cold water. Next, remove the tofu block from the package and wrap it in a few layers of paper towels to absorb the excess water. 

Squeeze the block with your hands to press out excess water.  Fresh tofu has practically no smell. If the tofu has a fragrance that is unpleasant or the water is cloudy, the tofu is probably not fresh, and I would toss it, but it is always up to the individual. 

After the tofu is cleaned and dried, place it on a cutting board for cutting it into cubes. Tofu is about 2 inches tall and about 5 to 6 inches long. 

Cut the tofu block in half, either vertically or horizontally–your choice. Then cube it by cutting the block into strips and cutting it into halves again–cubed tofu. Tofu should be about ½ “ all the way around. It can be cut into larger cubes–all up to the chef!

Pan fry the tofu by placing enough oil to coat the bottom of the frying pan or pot. I use a 2 quart pot, as this dish is meant to be cooked in a large stock pot. The olive oil goes in, the heat goes to medium high and the tofu goes in uncoated. I salt and pepper it before frying. 

Fry tofu until golden brown on as many sides as possible. The first side takes about 5 minutes, and then carefully turn over each cube and cook until all tofu cubes are golden brown on all sides. The process takes about 20 minutes or a little more. Salt and pepper can be added over the course of frying to the white sides of the tofu.  To turn the tofu, use tongs, silicone covered tongs if possible. 

Once the tofu is done frying, drain the oil from the tofu and then return the pot to medium heat and add the tomato sauce, a good couple of pinches of oregano and basil and more salt and pepper and at leat four to five ounces of water. Add some more olive oil for flavor, but only a teaspoon or two. Cook the mixture for at least 20 to thirty minutes, so the flavors combine. 

At this point, mushrooms can be added (canned or fresh) if you like. 

Typically, this dish is served with pasta. 

This dish can be made a day ahead and then reheated. It is also excellent the next day as lunch. 

Tofu Cacciatore can be served with mashed potatoes, rice or pasta, quinoa, millet, whatever side you like. Any of the starch side dishes will do. Also, broccoli and cauliflower go wonderfully as well to absorb the sauce. A good loaf of bread is also a nice addition to this meal–be it wheat or gluten free. 

Be the ultimate friend to your vegan buddy and try making a dish that will feed them– a dish that includes veggies and protein! 

Thanks for reading! 

Many thanks to my friends and family who cook for me, seek out places I can eat, and are always ready to make sure I am fed more than just salad and potatoes!

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