I’m a carnivorous milk guzzler. Which is not to say I chomp my way through meat at an abattoir-a-week rate, or that I have a direct pipe feed from the udders of a cow incarcerated in my bathroom. But I, like many people, have a diet built on the foundations of these two key foodstuffs and sweetened by the all-too-occasional egg-bound cake.
Although to be honest, ‘foundation’ is too grand a word for meat in my particular case; for most days pass without my eating meat at all, not so much out of deliberate avoidance as much as a lack of a desirous urge. Becoming a vegetarian for a week would therefore not have been much of a challenge and barely a novelty. Yet becoming a vegan – choosing to forsake all foodstuffs sourced from animals – that would indeed be a challenge, though not, as my diary of my vegan week reveals, for the reasons one might anticipate…
Sunday: V Day -1
In the morning, selflessly finish off a whole half-a-packet of chocolate biscuits which will surely perish or melt or emigrate to Finland were they to be abandoned, alone and unloved on the shelf all week. An inventory of the fridge and cupboards reveals many other dairy-based products which, possessed by a new spirit of abhorring waste, I laboriously work my way through over the course of the day.
In between biscuits, I compile a shopping list of vegan-friendly foods to fill the spaces of those I am dutifully digesting. At the supermarket, I buy enough fruit and veg to start my own East End stall and stock up on soya milk, a yoghurt substitute made from soya, and a dairy-free cheese substitute (which describes itself as “cheddar-like”). This is made, unsurprisingly, from soya. I think I might be eating a lot of soya over the next few days.
In the evening while researching veganism over a cup of hot milky cocoa, I realise for the first time that peanut butter is completely dairy-free. And, incidentally, soya-free. I think I might be eating a lot of peanut butter over the next few days.
Monday: V Day
For my first breakfast, I slosh soya milk over my usual cereal. Am disappointed not to detect any real difference from moo-cow milk other than that soya milk is somewhat thinner. I slurp it all down perfectly happily, and then set to the task of preparing myself a veg and salad wrap for lunch. I get a little carried away in chopping up the vegetables, and end up with so much filling that I cannot wrap the wrap. I shovel some of the contents into a sandwich bag, but there is still too much filling, and the wrap gets torn as I apply brute strength to compel the wrap into wrapping. I finally succeed in keeping the wrap wrapped by wrapping it in a tin foil wrap and can at last head to work.
I get distracted on the walk to work by a succulent line up of cupcakes in the bakery window, and forget to buy soya milk for the office. Have to therefore content myself with a black coffee, but after a few hours I’m salivating for a good cup of tea, which black tea in my books does not constitute. Veganism may demand many sacrifices, but ‘going American’ is not one of them.
During the morning I discover that my Riveta snack bags – a vital working-day fortifier – include milk in, of all things, their spicing. Consequently waste much of my lunch-hour in the supermarket reading the ingredients contained in different types of cracker.
For dinner, a simple sweet potato curry. Simple – until I realise I must have picked up the most acidic sweet potato in the shop, as in the course of my cooking the enamel begins peeling off the bottom of my wok. Must therefore spend most of my cooking time leaning over the stove, picking black flakes out of my dinner. As unappetising as it looked, it would take something rather more catastrophic than shrapnel raining into my food to convince me to cook two meals of an evening, so I determined to have my curry, even with the added zest of bits of wok.
Tuesday: V Day +1
Porridge for breakfast, made with water. Find it far too thin and, well, watery. Cannot improve the taste with a dash of honey as honey, being made by animals even if it is not derived from the animals themselves, is off limits. I begin to ponder whether one can ever argue for exceptions in veganism: if I could prove that a particular little bee, let’s call him Ian, was only too happy to offer up his honey to sweeten the lives of mankind; if I could prove that making honey for humans was Ian’s sole raison d’être – would I be allowed to pour his honey on my porridge?
The bakery window this morning is filled with doughnuts and buns bursting with thick cream. Thank goodness my soya pudding of the night before had proved a delicious delight.
For dinner I concocted a leek, mushroom and ginger pasta dish without any note-worthy disasters or cooking utensil casualties. The pasta was so good it may become standard fare in my post-vegan life, the same of which cannot be said for my late-evening snack: the tentative nibble of a cracker on which I’d dabbed “cheddar-like” spread. Conclusion: it does taste like cheese. In fact, it tastes so much like cheese that it is too cheesy, and I can only stomach a few crackers before feeling overcome.
Wednesday. V-day +2
I feel like I’m getting into the swing of things now, I’m certainly thinking less about what I’m eating. I have yet to miss meat, and barely miss dairy. The only food I have a real hankering for is milk chocolate.
For dinner I have falafel, which I’d hitherto categorised as one of those foods that one goes out to get but never makes oneself, rather like crisps or a cappuccino. Mashing up the chickpeas in my blunted-with-age blender threatens to take hours, so in the end I decide to make “falafel surprise” instead: that is, falafel with lumpy bits. Since my wok opted for self-destruction rather than serving my vegan cause, I have to fry the falafel in a non non-stick pan. Casting the little chickpea burgers off in a deep sea of oil made turbulent by my persistent prodding seemed to spare both dinner and pan from harm, and although my first attempt did disintegrate into crumbs the rest looked and tasted remarkably like real falafel.
Thursday: V-Day +3
Over breakfast, I notice a mosquito poised on my window blinds. My instinct tells me to kill the beast. While living in China I waged constant war against these blood-sucking liberty-takers, slapping them mercilessly upon sight and decorating my wall with a unique black-and-red pattern of splattered insect. But I suppose as a vegan I shouldn’t kill a living creature. Even one as utterly pointless and evil as a mosquito. So rather than killing the thing – and let’s call the thing Steve – I shooed him out to go and play with Ian the bee.
For lunch, I have left-over falafel from the night before. It’s not quite as good cold as it was hot, but I feel both thrifty and healthy. Double smug points for me.
Dinner’s dish is dhal. The problem with making dhal is that it takes forever, it’s a long waiting game during which you cannot possibly stir the pot constantly but are constantly worried the bottom is burning and thereby ruining one of your few still-functional cooking vessels. Another problem with dhal is that it’s hard to make dhal for one. I ended up with heaps of the stuff, it was as though a swarm of lentils was laying siege to my kitchen. After having a bowlful, I barricaded the rest in my fridge for another day.
Friday: V-Day +4
It’s Freestyle Friday! I have nothing in the fridge for lunch, nothing in the cupboard for tea, and for the first time all week have not looked up any recipes. After four days of learning to think like a vegan, I’m going to head to the supermarket and trust in luck and ingenuity.
The supermarket in question, Waitrose, proved a disappointment. It turns out they don’t offer much by way of meat-free, dairy-free lunch options; even their hummus and falafel based wraps and salads contain milk. Waitrose, ye are on the shame list, if for no other reason than that I expected more from you.
I expected nothing of dinner, which was a meal out with work colleagues. At a pub. Now, I realise the options for vegans are limited in most restaurants, but as pub menus tend to be a who’s who directory of stodgy fare, I seriously doubted whether I’d find anything to eat at all. In the end, there was one option, and only one, and only after I requested for the cheese to be removed: a veggie burger. The real test however came after the mains had been cleared and a couple of the party declared a fancy for dessert. For there was absolutely nothing I could have on the dessert menu – and trust me, I inspected it very thoroughly. I therefore had to sit patiently and sip my tap water as people around me tucked in to the most delicious treacle pudding I’d ever clapped eyes on, knowing that my own dessert – a spot of cheddar-like spread back home, would be nowhere near as satisfying.
The Weekend: V-Days +5 and +6
Before I began this challenge, I had not finally decided whether my ‘vegan week’ would constitute a full week or merely a working week. But by the time the weekend rolled around the fact was unavoidable: I was enjoying my vegan lifestyle. After only a few days, I was feeling healthier than I had in weeks – after all, it’s pretty hard not to eat healthily as a vegan unless you spend an afternoon ploughing your way through a dozen tubs of peanut butter with a tablespoon. The need to cook or prepare almost all my own food made me feel more resourceful, and, after a stern talking to from a vegetarian about the awful consequences of the dairy industry for the health of animals, I was starting to feel ethically more responsible.
But the clincher was, being a vegan wasn’t actually that difficult. Occasional spasms for cake treats aside, I hadn’t missed meat, dairy, or eggs, principally because of this week’s chief revelation: I rather love soya. The hardest part about veganism is finding ready-made food on-the-go, a truth which was hammered home to me as I traipsed from shop to café to shop in hungry despair on Saturday. I will not recount my full arduous hunt for lunch, but suffice to say: M&S Food, you are a surprise entry on the shame list.
Feeling rather triumphant by Sunday evening that my vegan week had gone so well, I set myself one final challenge: I would bake vegan brownies. It was to be my last vegan hoorah, a chocolaty celebration of a plant-based week. Inevitably therefore, it all went wrong. In spite of baking it for twice as long as the recipe suggested, the deceptively simple mix refused to firm up, and when I finally gave up and broke into the crisp surface with a knife I discovered beneath not brownies but a sludge pile.
The kindest adjective my brownies’ appearance garnered at work the next day was “horrible”, but appearances aren’t everything: as with all my other vegan creations of the week, the brownies were surprisingly delicious.