One year as a vegan

It feels like only yesterday that I wrote about my experiences six months into going vegan. Everything in that post remains relevant; both another six months has elongated the learning curve. So, what else have I realised?

  • Confidence comes with time! For a while, I couldn’t talk about veganism with family members without getting angry, accusatory, and upset. Now, with more knowledge under my belt, I can engage in conversation and am trying to improve my method of pointing out ethical hypocrisies, e.g. my meat-eating brother cooing over newly hatched chicks; the ridiculousness of happy smiling Percy Pig sweets made from pork gelatine; the idea that organic eggs are more acceptable to eat than battery farm eggs. I’m really impressed by the dialogue technique used by some activists in outreach: mostly asking questions, and letting the other person join up the dots, while you empathise with their realisations.
  • Remember that you weren’t always vegan (unless you were). When my vegetarian father protests that he doesn’t like soy milk, therefore doesn’t want to ditch the dairy in his tea, I often forget that I went through the exact same thought process. Coming from a place of understanding and empathy is so much more effective than accusing, or expecting a person to go vegan immediately after you’ve explained why they should.
  • Veganism prompts a chain reaction. It took me two years to see the light after one of my closest friends went vegan. At the time, I didn’t understand what it meant, and I hadn’t a clue why anybody would go even further than vegetarian. A few months after I went vegan, my twin brother said he wanted to go veggie (although this wasn’t an immediate process), my housemate went vegan after conversations about the egg and dairy industry (and now sends me links and screenshots of other people’s hypocritical behaviour), and a few months ago, my dad went vegetarian. Amazingly, my younger brother – who had previously admitted that meat-eating is unethical, but continued eating it nonetheless – watched What the Health and informed my dad that we’ve all been lied to. The fact that animal industries weigh in heavily on the information put out by professional health organisations made him feel cheated. A week on, the teen who for many months ate three eggs for breakfast hasn’t touched animal products. You are a role model to other people, even if you’re not aware of it. Individual efforts are not futile!

Who knows what the next year will entail!

Here’s to another year! x

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Volunteering @ the Vegan Society

A while ago, I read a little notice on the Vegan Society’s website calling for remote editorial volunteers to help proof-read articles. What a good way to get a little extra experience on my CV, I thought, and to have some involvement with a charity that works hard to get the vegan message out there. I quickly signed up and within a week, I had arranged to actually do a week’s worth of volunteering in the offices. The Vegan Society provide invaluable resources in nutrition, products, transitioning to veganism, and perspectives on the lifestyle, so volunteering seemed a fantastic way to get an insight into how they work, and learn a lot on the way.

The offices are based in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, and I learned from Dr Sam Calvert (Head of Communications and expert on history) that the city was chosen over other destinations for its good cost of living and location. The Society was founded by a group of non-dairy vegetarians, including Donald Watson, marking themselves apart from the Vegetarian Society. You can find more about the Vegan Society’s history on this webpage, including a really fascinating history of the Society’s beginnings by Dr Calvert.

In my week of volunteering, I met officers of campaigns, PR, the CEO, dietitian, the senior advocacy officer, and more. There’s far more going on than I was aware of, with the trademarking of vegan products a significant operation – that little logo our hearts fill with joy to see. They’re a committed group and do a great job!

I spent time researching an article for the Society’s magazine, The Vegan, and penned a couple of blog posts for the website, including one on the interaction of veganism and minimalism. I wrote a film review (of Okja, nonetheless), helped to edit a section of the website posting news, and subtitled YouTube videos. I researched worldwide vegan animal sanctuaries for a directory, which gave me so much optimism – there are so many people out there absolutely dedicated to caring for vulnerable animals.

The most striking aspect of volunteering is the sense of community: used to the fact that you have a minority belief, coming together with like-minded others bolsters your sense of the impact you’re having. It’s easy to lose sight of the growing population of vegans until you come into contact with so many at once! If you do feel disconnected, I’d really recommend taking steps such as joining vegan Facebook groups (UK Vegan, Vegan UK, Vegan Dogs United, What Skint Vegans Eat, and local groups), going to vegan festivals, or finding vegan cafes. YouTube is obviously an inexhaustible treasure trove of resources: try Nutritionfacts.org for everything you need to know health-wise, Mic the Vegan to debunk vegan myths and anti-vegan studies, Joey Carbstrong and Earthling Ed for fantastic activism, and vloggers such as Naturally Stefanie and Jon Venus if it’s gains you’re after.

To sum up – my volunteering experience made me realise that you don’t have to dedicate yourself to activism to be a ‘proper’ vegan. There are some people who would have you think such a thing – but I think that as long as you’re touching other people’s lives, you’re making them think about issues they might not have previously considered – and that in itself is enough.

Vegan fried chicken: the mock-meat question

Not everyone is in agreement over mock meats. Are they helpful in weaning omnivores off meat? Do they provide a healthy source of plant-based protein? Is it really vegan to advertise a product which “tastes just like meat”?

For me, I think that whatever helps a person give up meat is a very valuable tool to the vegan cause. So, an uncannily beefy burger made from soy is infinitely better than the actual beef itself. That being said, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy eating products which recall the taste and texture of meat. Although that sounds quite puritanical, if a friend kindly provided me with a veggie sausage at a barbecue, I would happily accept; and, I’m quite partial to a Quorn fishless finger. On the other hand, the new variety of burgers which supposedly bleed take the mock-meat to the next level, one which I don’t necessarily agree with. Why does a vegetable burger need to square up to its animal counterpart? Why can’t we hold it as something entirely separate to meat, rather than comparing it constantly with something it’ll never quite be? A burger which bleeds models itself on a product of extreme injustice and cruelty. Perhaps this burger seeks to perpetuate the so-called human craving for meat, in tricking both our eyes and our tastebuds. This carnivorous ‘instinct’ is not innate – from the moment we’re born, humans are conditioned to think, act, and be a certain way,  and foods we are taught that we need to eat is a part of this. Arguably, a mock-meat which looks to satisfy this conditioned craving for meat, to the extent that it bleeds, damages the vegan attempt to argue that eating flesh is not natural. 

I like to believe that in consuming the average soya protein sausage, we are parodying the meat-power association: meat has always been a symbol of inequality, from the days in which the wealthy flaunted their meat consumption over the vegetable diets of the poor, to the diners today in expensive restaurants who buy vastly overpriced steaks or consume a live octopus to show off their wealth and refinement. I read a study recently which corroborated Carol J. Adams feminist-vegetarian critique in The Sexual Politics of Meat (an absolutely eye-opening and fascinating read): men today eat more red meat than women, and see reducing meat intake as a perversion of Western masculine hegemony.  So, through eating burgers which look and even taste like meat, but essentially are not meat, we can challenge the performative aspect of meat-eating as associated with power and masculinity.

I recently tried vegan fried chicken for the first time, out of curiosity. That might make me a hypocrite, but it’s better than unfairly condemning the mock-meat family. This variety was made from seitan and deep-fat fried; they smelled quite like chicken nuggets, recalling the McDonald’s of my childhood. Resembling popcorn chicken, they were crispy on the outside, and ‘tender’ on the inside; my omnivorous friend said that there was a definite similarity to chicken, although not a striking one. In all honesty, I wasn’t too keen. They didn’t taste fantastic, even when smothered in barbecue sauce, and I felt laden down and heavy after eating five or six of them. What’s more, they cost more than most other options on the menu, at £13.50 – which for me highlighted the way in which the vegan diet is often made out to be ‘exclusive’.

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Veganism is not a binary. There are shades of opinion and varying beliefs within the conscious choices vegans make. I know those who don’t like salads, and marvel at others who shun cooked food. Where we stand on mock-meat is another issue. When we can get enough protein from beans, pulses, grains, and nuts, soy burgers aren’t essential; but not everyone has the time or motivation to plan what they eat quite as carefully, in which case soy mince in a spag bol is the best option. Moderation, as always, is key, so eating a lot of mock-meat isn’t the best way forward. Experimentation with wholefoods can lead you in new directions, including to the beautiful discovery of homemade lentil and beetroot burgers. But there’s nothing at all wrong with vegan popcorn chick’n once in a while.

Six months as a vegan

Admittedly, six months is a mere blink of the eye in the relative scheme of things. But this period of time as a vegan is something of a milestone, and a learning curve if I’ve ever had one. I’ve made a few observations in this short duration.

  • Being a vegan can be alienating. I live with three ladies: one is almost vegan, the other two are entirely omnivorous. I watch them crack eggs and fry bacon with a strangled outrage. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that for most of the population, eating animal products is as normal as sunrise and Monday mornings.  My brain is hard-wired onto a different plane of thinking, and my eyes see through another lens; it is difficult to cast myself down on to the level of un-caring I used to occupy. I’m angry, but I always refrain from comments and ‘preachy’ statements. I know that I am not entitled to judge, but cannot view their dietary choices in any other way.
  • Social media can be illuminating, but contributes to this alienation. We live in a society where the information we consume is freely adapted to our own tastes: we can filter out what we don’t want to read and focus entirely on what we like. A reality confirmation bias, you could call it. My Instagram feed is and always will be a continuous stream of food, cats, and artful coffee shop snaps. Now, the food featured almost exclusively vegan, which obscures the fact that my lifestyle is a minority one, numbing me from reality. Subscribing only to vegan feeds causes me to forget what society’s norm really is.
  • There are people who just will never understand. At Christmas my grandma grilled me on why I have chosen this lifestyle. After a discussion on why grass-fed cows are still not a valid option, she said “Well, at least they’ve had a nice life.” Talking with her is probably pointless. If for seventy years, meat has been a daily feature on her table, then it would take a near miracle to persuade her to change. I can discuss the issues with her more; but it’s disheartening to accept that there are battles which may never be won.
  • My choice is empowering. I have always had difficulty in speaking out and defending my corner. With veganism, my self-consciousness melts away with fervour. I am quickly frustrated and often upset by the intransigence of others, but it’s a learning curve.
  • My health has improved. Certain bodily functions are no longer an issue; I have put on a stone, and my muscles have taken on better definition. I feel less tired, more energised. My skin hasn’t cleared up, though, but no-one said veganism cured everything.
  • Cooking has become more exciting. I try different flavours and dishes far more often than I used to. I’m more open-minded to cooking with different ingredients, and I’ve come round to tofu. Feeding myself now is more creative and experimental.

Here’s to another six months – in the grand scheme of many.

Going vegan

Such is my dislike of proclaiming my personal beliefs across the rooftops, that I’m nervous even typing this. I don’t like putting myself centre-stage – but as it’s relevant to my blog, I’ll make my foreclosure, even just to organise my thoughts on the subject.

After several months as a vegetarian, most of which I chose not to eat eggs, I decided this summer that to begin making a difference to animals’ lives and welfare, I had to give up buying animal products. It doesn’t make sense, I realised, to consider yourself concerned about animals if you drink Frijj milkshake or buy leather Doc Martens. But this wasn’t an immediate decision – I watched ‘Earthlings’ – the vegan-ator, the trigger, the documentary which is said to turn people vegan before the credits roll – and then made myself a milky cup of tea to help mop my tears. It was an awful, awful watch, one which left me feeling pretty low and angry. But even still, however lucid its clarity, the message didn’t sink in. Whatever clicked in the brains of others as they watched, didn’t click for me; and I continued in my old ways, buying milk, cheese, and chocolate. But there was a realisation, a little moral niggle, lingering there whenever I thought about why I wasn’t a vegan. I knew what was right, but for whatever reason, carried on delaying it.

My issue was that my imagined vegan scenario positioned me as the victim, unable to savour the delights of dairy whilst others tucked in to pavlovas and poured cream over their desserts. I couldn’t fathom a life without mature cheddar, Minstrels, and a decent cup of tea with semi-skimmed. So, my first attempts at veganism were fairly half-hearted, as I ate plant-based meals but drank milky cappuccinos, and continued nibbling at the chocolate hoard I kept in a drawer. I needed a little extra push, which came from a weekend spent in Edinburgh with friends, to whom I’d mentioned my intention to go vegan. Seeing myself from their point of view, I was embarrassed of my inability to commit, my lax morals in trying to pick and choose for my own convenience. It helped, too, that Edinburgh is a great place to be vegan, with an abundance of cafes, health food shops, and vegan-friendly options.

Since that weekend, I haven’t looked back. It has become plain and simple to me: to care for animals is to care for all animals, not just dogs and cats and horses, but for cows, pigs, chickens, and all other species. Just as I would not discriminate between races and nationalities, it’s not okay to place species in a hierarchy of value. An armadillo is worth the same as a guinea pig, a panda the same as a pig. The fact that one is perceived as cuter and more lovable than the other, doesn’t make it more valuable in essence.

The problem is that we don’t see what really goes on in the makings of our animal products: we let ourselves be convinced that the suffering we don’t see isn’t our problem. Education is the key to unlocking awareness: for example, I had no idea until a few months ago that producing eggs takes such a toll on a hen’s body, which is why she lives years and years less than she is supposed to. Or, that once she can’t lay anymore, it’s curtains for her. Nor did I realise that free-range and organic are generally labels which we take to make ourselves feel less guilty about our actions. Just because a cow was grass-fed on rolling pastures, and got to gallumph around happily in the sun, doesn’t excuse the fact that her baby was ripped away from her soon after birth. I have YouTube to thank for my enlightenment, if I’m honest. I’d followed one particular outspoken YouTuber for a while, but never took her very seriously – it was the less in-your-face approaches which engaged me. Rhetoric is a useful weapon in the arsenal of anyone looking to change public opinion, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

But I would quickly regress to point out that I am not morally superior to any non-vegan, and would never openly criticise a meat-eater for doing what I did for twenty years, unless they professed their unashamed support for industries which use and abuse animals. Lambasting individuals for their own choices doesn’t get you far; words can persuade, but it may not be enough to cause a lifestyle change. I’m an example of that. The choice I made was a culmination of sources, working over time to gradually open my eyes – but I did need that little external push. One of my closest friends has been a vegan for years: although she made me feel more aware of my own habits by the simple act of going against the mainstream, this awareness only kicked in seriously in recent months. As with everything, the decision was a laboured one – spontaneity and impulsiveness are my complete polar opposites.

My family received the change in interesting ways, with my dad initially thinking it ridiculous, but has come round to it – although he still likes to substitute ‘hippy’ for ‘vegan’. My mum was completely unimpressed, and made sure to voice her concerns for animals fed on vegan pet food, and vegan children – funny, really, when you consider our overweight cat and my elder brother, who for most of his teenage years subsisted on plain pasta and sausages. She’s also made comments on how my veganism relates to my interest in health and fitness, which in the past has been unhealthy. Fair enough – but not if she knew the progress I’ve made in combatting that, evident in the huge plant-based meals I eat whilst she’s tucking into a tiny bowl of spaghetti bolognese.

I still find aspects of veganism difficult, of course – the primary issue being telling people that I’m vegan. The coffee round at work became stressful when my standard order became black, instead of white; I felt too embarrassed to utter the v-word in front of an office full of omnivores. Such is my horror of controversy, that the words ‘I’m a vegan’ seem loaded with accusations of moral criminality.

But I’m positive that little minor issues like that will work themselves out, and they’re not enough to alter my mindset. I’m embracing this new part of my life, and in navigating a new world and discourse. As someone with a passionate interest in food, I see bags of potential in veganism and the possibility to create fresh and cruelty-free takes on omnivorous classics. I’m not sacrificing anything for veganism – I don’t feel that I’m missing out on anything at all.

If anybody made it this far – thanks for reading, and please comment so that I can visit your blog and learn more about veganism.

xoxo

The easiest Iced Tea

Hot weather poses a grave confliction: to drink or not to drink a cup of tea. I’m one of the endless brigade who resort to tea in times of distress, fatigue, pure habit, even boredom – a decent cuppa goes a long way in filling a void and occupying oneself. Yet, when the sun is beating down on England’s weather-adverse population, leading to general chaos and complaining, a cup of hot tea just doesn’t make the grade. Needing to reassure my subconscious mind that it was still getting its tea fix, at the same time as cooling myself down, I fixed some iced tea to enjoy on these often uncomfortably warm afternoons.

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Iced tea brings back to me memories of a summer nearly ten years ago, discovering the sweet refreshment of Lipton’s in the Vendee. It appeased perfectly the thirst engendered after a few hour’s of zip-lining and climbing through trees, and gave me the childish thrill of drinking something so laden with sugar that it would rot my teeth. While I still feel this nostalgia for a childhood of simple desires and satisfactions, iced tea is something I’d never drink now: fizzy soft drinks leave me parched and conscious of their nutritional shortcomings.

Luckily for me, iced tea is just about the easiest thing to make at home, and can be sweetened to suit one’s own taste. To serve three generously, here’s how to make it:

  1. Boil 500ml water, and pour over three teabags or three teaspoons of tea leaves in a teapot, or in a large jug. Brew for three to five minutes, depending on how strong you like it.
  2. If in the pot, pour the tea into a large jug. Top up with equal parts of cold water.
  3. Slice a lemon in half, squeeze in a little juice, and give a good stir with a big spoon. Leave the lemon half in the jug to infuse.
  4. If you have any fresh mint to hand, muddle a handful of leaves and drop them in.
  5. Place in the fridge for around five minutes to chill. (If the jug won’t fit in the side door, even with removing any compartments, a wide-necked bottle (lid fastened securely) laid on its side would work fine.)
  6. When ready to serve, spoon demerara sugar to taste into a glass – a teaspoon is plenty. Pour in the tea, stir vigorously, and add ice. Garnish with sliced lemon and more mint if desired.

A jug of this is a fantastic drink to have at hand – make in the morning for something to look forward to after school / work / because you need it. It’s easily drinkable without the sugar, and using fruit tea would probably add an interesting twist.

Work experience on BBC GoodFood magazine

Recently, I’ve been pondering the future with some uncertainty and much apprehension. Over halfway through my degree, it won’t be long until I’m waving goodbye to the comforting walls of the education sanctuary – but, with only a half-formed career goal in mind, a independent income seems a long, long journey away. (Owning my own house is an idea I don’t bother idly speculating about: reality confronts me squarely and laughs in my face.) It seemed wise, then, to combine the only two interests and skills I have – food, and writing.

Food writing, though, is just like journalism: a very difficult nut to crack. There are different forms, roles, and limited doors in. Yet, why not follow what you love? My dream job is on a food magazine, naturally for someone who loves anything to do with food: cooking, eating, writing, and reading about everything from aioli to novelty egg separators.

After months of drafting CVs, making fruitless emails, and tweaking covering letters, I finally succeeded in securing an actual work experience placement on a food magazine; and not just any magazine, but BBC GoodFood, at the very top of the game. I was overwhelmed to even hear back from them, especially as I’d sent off my application with no expectation whatsoever of receiving a response – so much so, that I almost didn’t send it.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with BBC GoodFood: it’s the crème de la crème of food magazines, even with its own television channel. I consult its website often for recipes, ideas, and inspiration; spend hours combing through each edition; and have a backlog of editions at home. It’s my secret ambition to work there – or not so secret.

 

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I was extremely nervous on the morning of my first day, for pretty obvious reasons. I’ve never commuted to London before, but once I’d successfully made the two-train journey for the first time, every successive one felt like second nature. Needless to say, I felt quite small around the team: the editors, cookery writers and designers have years of skill and experience under their belts, degrees to which I aspire. What surprised me to begin with was the quietness of the office, and the sheer absorption of everyone in their work – but in reflection, that’s testament to the quality of the magazine and the dedication of everyone who works on it.

In my week of work (because of the short notice, I couldn’t make the whole two weeks), I had a go at range of different tasks. My first responsibility involved skimming a week’s worth of newspapers and selecting any snippets relating to food, which was great fun. Next, I helped out in preparing for and taking part in a strawberry jam taste test. Alongside putting together a Pinterest board on Father’s Day gift ideas, visiting a proper fishermonger’s, and getting lost in an Ideal Home show, I assisted in printing invoices and totalling receipts for the test kitchen’s finances, and reformatting GoodFood recipes for Easycook magazine.

Easycook’s editor was very generous in sitting down with me, taking an interest in my background and ambitions, and talking me through how to use software. Under his guidance, I even got to select recipes and think up a headline for a chipotle feature, to go in the October edition.

One considerable perk of the job was food brought out to the staff from the test kitchen. Sampling food I would happily pay for was my greedy stomach’s dream come true; I tried ice cream, tarts, blancmange, cakes… How nobody on the team is morbidly obese, I cannot fathom.

It was an all-round fantastic experience: travelling and getting to know central London by myself (and manipulating the Tube in a week of delays and a strike); seeing a group of talented people in their element; picking up new skills; and getting to grips with how a food magazine is produced. Work experience is so incredibly valuable to anyone considering a career in journalism – if you’re unsure as to whether you’re suited to it, or aren’t having much luck in getting responses, stick at it. It will be worth it in the end!