Guest post: Viv’s Vegan Month

A couple of months ago, when I found out about World Vegan Month in November, I published a rare Facebook status which read: “To all of you who eye up my food whenever we eat together… To all who have eaten something I’ve made and enjoyed it… And to everyone else who admits I am fit and healthy… Try a month without animal products in November and I promise I’ll help you out with a plentiful supply of dairy-free egg-free baked goods!”.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, so I was pleasantly surprised when my friend Vivien, whose blog Where’s Viv? I have often linked to, replied that she would take up the challenge. Viv is smart, dedicated, and hard-working in everything she cares about in life, so I knew she would have no trouble making the most of her time on a plant-based diet – there would be no doleful salad-eating! However, I never would have hoped for such an overwhelmingly positive verdict. Enjoy Viv’s post, I hope you find it as inspiring as I do!

I’m someone who easily falls into the trap of eating the same old meals over and over again. Its not that I’m fussy – there is very little that I won’t eat (the rodent-containing soups that I ate on more than one occasion over the past summer can attest to this) – but I am unimaginative in the kitchen, and have a fear of spoiling beautiful (read also: expensive) ingredients with my poor culinary skills. So endless bowls of pasta and pesto, pasta and marmite (yes really), pasta and stock cube (there is debate as to which is worse), pasta bake and macaroni cheese formed the mainstays of my diet, all topped with huge quantities of grated cheddar. This huge carb fest did not always prove filling, and during stressful periods I would supplement with sharing-size bags of Doritos- which I did not share. All this added up to steady weight gain, interrupted only by occasional periods of rapid and unintentional weight loss during crisis times (jaw fracture and subsequent liquid diet, or poor calorific planning before a 5 day trek through Icelandic mountains), marvellous intentions about maintaining current form, followed by seemingly inevitable return to steady weight gain.

On returning from Summer is Ghana (rapid unintentional weight loss due to potential intestinal parasites etc. I joke. Sort of) I felt it was time to shake up my diet. For Good This Time. The first step was to place a self-imposed ban on the purchasing of all varieties of pasta (what on earth would I eat?). Then a link popped up in my Facebook newsfeed alongside a promise of vegan baked goods. It seemed like the perfect time to take The Challenge.Viv's first vegan food shopSo on November 1st, I trotted off to Waitrose with only the vague notion that I needed to buy huge volumes of mushrooms, and a hope that the odds of finding vegan icecream (and more importantly, wine) would be higher there that at any other major supermarket chain. I was impressed with my haul – sufficiently impressed to photograph it – and set to cooking up a spicy tom-yum style soup with mixed vegetables, spinach (frozen spinach cubes were a total revelation), mushrooms and coconut milk, with fine rice noodles. Vegan month was off to a flying start, and this meal was to become a favourite.

Viv thai soup

First meal: vegan tom yum soup

Friends, family and colleagues all seemed eager for regular updates on vegan progress, and I was constantly asked whether I had “cheated” or “given in,” usually with a mischievous grin. My honest response was that I was finding the change in diet surprisingly (I feared deceptively) easy. Sure, I had the occasional hankering for a pepperoni pizza when I came home late on a Friday night and saw a Domino’s leaflet on the table, but no more so than I normally would when hungry and tired. Even at 4am, and faced with the prospect of (free!) fry-up and milkshake leftovers after an exhausting night of dancing (and many helpings of gin – yes, I was careful even with alcohol) I found the lack of temptation puzzling. Ladies and gents, I do here most solemnly declare that, to the very best of my knowledge, not a single trace of animal product crossed my lips during November.

Vegan cooked breakfast

Vegan cooked breakfast

It probably helped that I had a busy schedule and was cooking the majority of my meals myself. A standard day would see me have porridge with added raisins for breakfast, either made with water alone or with an added splash of soy- or hazelnut milk. For lunch I’d have hummus and crackers, with a bit of chutney or chilli sauce and maybe some fruit or something sweet for afters. Then dinner was generally either a Thai curry or soup, lentils, risotto, or a vegan burger or similar, generally with huge volumes of frozen vegetables involved. I’m not usually an avid baker, but I made multiple batches of peanut butter cookies and at least two trays of flapjacks. It was satisfying to bake (and did wonders for my popularity amongst my new housemates), but also put a natural curb on sweet-treat eating – if I wanted it enough to go to the trouble of baking myself I could have it, but couldn’t just mindlessly pick up a muffin in the canteen.

Baking flapjack

Baking flapjack

I anticipated that eating out might be more of a challenge. I didn’t anticipate what a pleasant surprise it would be! Before visiting a friend for a catch-up in Plymouth, I had casually mentioned that I was vegan for the month. A dyed-in-the wool omnivore like myself, she turned to google, and booked us into the first vegan/vegetarian restaurant that came up. We were both utterly blown away.

Vegan burger and chips at Samphire

Vegan burger and chips at Samphire

Samphire served up the most incredible burger with sausages, cheese, friend onions and mustard, with fries, coleslaw and “popcorn chicken” made from soy, followed by a sumptuous chocolate brownie with chocolate ice-cream. The service was some of the best I’ve ever experienced – when my friend enquired as to what “tempeh” was, she brought us a complimentary taster to nibble on while we browsed the menu. Ten out of ten to you, madam.

This meal captured something for me, something that had never occurred to me before – how easy veganism could be. I had always imagined great difficulty – maintaining nutrition, navigating menus, dealing with friends/family, financing it, just sticking with it. That delicious, sumptuous, filling food could be crafted from plants alone, at a reasonable price, was something of a revelation. With so many vegan options available, and affordable, it occurred to me that it was supply and demand, rather than some imagined difficulty, that seemed to prevent vegan options from being as widespread (or as cheap, or as accepted) as they might be. If the world was vegan, I’m not sure I’d ever even miss animal products. This was not how I expected to feel.

Viv got her promised baked goods!

As the end of November drew near, I found myself flirting with the concept of a longer-term vegan diet. It just seemed so unnecessary to eat animal products when alternatives were available. November 30th was a Saturday, and I was staying with my grandfather for the weekend. Saturday is fish and chips day in his house, and I happily tucked into a portion of fish and mushy peas, while he asked in dismay as to why I wasn’t having some fish. At the mention of vegan month, his face fell like a child dropping a lollipop. “Well, that really scuppers Sunday lunch plans. I’ve bought a duck in specially!” I hurriedly reassured him that Sunday lunch, December 1st, would not be a problem. And so it was, the next day I tucked into roast duck with Lincolnshire sausages and all the trimmings, and everything was back to normal. Or was it?

10 days into December, and I’ve eaten meat just twice – and not once bought it for myself. Neither have I bought eggs, or cheese. I’ve had a little milk to splash in my tea, but the mounds of cheddar have gone. Its approaching dinner time as I write this, and I’m hungry. I’m going to cook spicy coconut noodle soup, with beans, spinach and peas. Its vegan, but I’m not eating it because I have to, I’m eating it because I want to. Because its tasty, healthy, filling, affordable, and even quicker to make than a pasta-and-cheese mountain. In fact, most of my meals are vegan now.

Congratulations, Viv, and thank you for such an entertaining and inspiring guest post! I will have to visit soon for some of that delicious-looking soup!