Veganish: How Plant-Based Foods Can Work for Everyone
A reluctant, yet grateful omnivore speaks about humbly using animal products to heal her family in her new vegan cooking guide Veganish: The Omnivore’s Guide to Plant-Based Cooking.
I was a devoted vegetarian for twenty years, and during the last twelve I was exclusively vegan. I spent those years learning and teaching about natural foods and began cooking professionally in 2000 as my practice of activism, to demonstrate the ease and pleasure of a plant-based diet. I earned my culinary certificate from Bauman College, an institute of holistic nutrition and healing culinary arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. I thank my career choice for my excellent health, because the natural restaurants and retreats I cooked for provided effortless access to fresh juices, wholesome meals, supplements, and cutting-edge health information while I was following such a restricted diet.
During those years, I would have protested anyone using the term restricted to describe my vegan diet. I’ve always enjoyed food enthusiastically and never lacked for inspiration from the plant world. Friends and colleagues often questioned whether I would partake if I could raise my own animals, but I could never give an easy answer. I relish animal-based foods as much as any gastronome, and was never fundamentally opposed to the natural course of life-taking-life-to-sustain-life, which indeed occurs in a plant-based diet as well. My complaint was, and still is, with the heartless practices of modern animal husbandry. I don’t believe that humans have a right to treat sentient beings the way we treat most farm animals. We cannot possibly thrive by consuming the product of such intense suffering.
During the course of my vegetarian diet, the bigger question in the back of my mind was how I would handle a health threat that called for me to consume animal products — and eventually I found my answer. When a dentist prescribed surgery for my two-year-old daughter’s severe tooth decay, with no promise of actual healing, I had to find a better solution. I discovered that tooth decay is linked to nutritional deficiency, and is somewhat common among vegan children. We began a healing regimen based on a book titled Cure Tooth Decay, which restricts grains, beans, nuts, and seeds and uses plenty of bone broths and marrow, raw dairy, and organ meats. My daughter’s condition improved astonishingly quickly.
I am now a reluctant omnivore, humbly and gratefully using animal products to heal my family. I would prefer to hunt wild, free animals for our meat, but for the time being I have settled for hunting through information, seeking the most honorable farms and learning about which industry practices can — or can’t — be avoided. I am grateful for the farmers who do their best to give their animals a decent life and an honorable death.
I continue to grapple with my choice to include animal-based foods in our diet, yet I am not willing to risk my daughter’s long-term health for the uncertainty. This choice has been bizarre yet empowering as I endeavor to heal my family and serve our meals with respect and love. I expected to raise my daughter with vegan principles, but now it seems I am charged to teach her about the dilemma of using animals for our nourishment, even as our diets will surely continue to change course. Learning how to cook with animal-based foods while writing a vegan cookbook has humbled me and opened my heart, and I strive to walk gracefully on the narrow path of such a paradox.
Indeed, a plant-based diet is cleansing and healing, both physically and spiritually, and some steadfast, long-term vegans do thrive. I believe it fosters compassion and peacefulness, and I have witnessed it heal life-threatening diseases. Nutritional needs change through different phases of life, though, and many people may need occasional animal-based foods to maintain optimum health in times of growth or recovery. If this is indeed true, we who rely on them must find ways to truly husband the animals that serve us. They deserve to be cared for with the greatest tenderness, respect, and gratitude we can muster. We must support and buy from the farmers and ranchers who are raising animals with this ethic. We must learn the traditional ways to use their entire bodies to honor the life that is taken. And we must become moderate in our consumption, for their sake as well as our own. This is key.
By now, most people understand that a healthy diet includes more vegetables and natural foods than the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) provides. The inhumane yet ingenious model of the factory farm has made it possible for modern people to consume unnatural quantities of animal-based foods, and it’s making us spiritually and physically sick. Nutritional recommendations change constantly, though, and the conflicting advice from multiple sources can be perplexing, especially when the latest discoveries are distorted into marketing hype for the food industry.
Promoters of all sorts of diet trends — including the FDA — have led and misled generations of earnest eaters. We now have very convincing evidence for the benefits of vegetarian, vegan, and even raw plant-food diets, but another perspective holds to studies showing that elements of traditional diets that rely heavily on animal-based foods are critical to good health. One diet advocates meat but eschews grains and dairy, and yet another is mostly vegan while balancing ingredients according to energetic principles and seasonal changes. These diets and many others claim incredible health benefits and are promulgated with accounts of miraculous healing. As different as they all may seem, they do share common ground: an emphasis on plenty of vegetables and pure, natural foods.
What is pure and natural food? The answer can be somewhat subjective, but it implies food grown without chemicals and not adulterated beyond what’s possible in an average home kitchen. Labels on packaged foods are not reliable guides for healthy choices, so we’re left to our own devices to navigate the grocery aisles. My best advice is to eat a wide variety of naturally grown, unprocessed foods, and pay attention to how your body feels. Buy ingredients that you recognize from nature and cook your meals from scratch as often as possible. Make an effort to avoid unnaturally altered, refined ingredients. Be moderate, balanced, and flexible. Trust your intuition and maintain a healthy curiosity about what you find.
Another cornerstone of a healthy diet is diversity. As much as possible, eat with the seasons, as nature intended. This ensures a wider variety of nutrients from multiple sources, increasing your chances of getting everything you need. Fruits and vegetables that are in season are more delicious, and are usually grown more naturally. Try to shop at farmers’ markets or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, a local farm box subscription model), and try new greens, roots, squash, and other vegetables when you see them at the market.
This is more complicated during the winter months for folks who live in cold climates, so we can only do our best. Consider putting up some foods in late summer/early fall to get through the season, and just be reasonably mindful of the distance your food had to travel to get to your shopping cart. Kiwis flown from Australia in December might be something to pass up, but lettuce from a neighboring state is certainly something to be grateful for in the dead of winter. When choosing supplements, try to buy those made from whole foods rather than those synthetically produced, or drink herbal infusions instead. Common nourishing herbs like nettles, oat straw, red clover, and comfrey are easily found at herb shops or online.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably know that your health could be improved by eating more vegetables. If you already follow a vegan diet, you’re going to love my recipes, but you may not like my story. I’m another ex-vegan reluctantly encouraging you to pay attention if you feel compelled to include animal foods in your diet. It’s not a simple choice, but we mustn’t shy away from complicated, challenging conversations like these.
We are on the brink of a third-wave vegan dialogue that calls for courageous honesty, faith, and open-mindedness. The early vegan movement was so desperately passionate to get the message out and wake the public out of its stupor to see what had become of animal husbandry that the nutritional aspect was glazed over or exaggerated for many years. We asserted that it was nearly impossible not to get enough protein and didn’t provide enough education about critical supplementation to keep vegans thriving.
Many who did thrive were “cheating” occasionally, contributing to a dangerous and misleading climate of secrecy and shame. Now we’ve seen a trend of ex-vegans angrily speaking up about their failing health, and their ensuing recovery by adding animal-based foods back into their diet. Next up is a frank discussion about the nutritional complications of the vegan diet, and how we might reconcile them with compassionate food choices. I’ve found a few accounts of devoted vegans successfully recovering their health with professional help and intense supplemental therapy, so it appears to be possible in some cases. I am excited to see what changes this more candid approach may bring to vegan outreach.
I offer the title Veganish very lightheartedly. It is ambiguous, like pregnant-ish, and I don’t mean to dilute the integrity of a vegan person’s earnest commitment. I’m using it here to acknowledge the benefits of plant-based foods, to encourage better treatment of farm animals, and to imply that any meal can include elements of a compassionate diet, contributing to the well-being of all concerned. Veganish gives a lot of room to explore how plant-based foods can work for everyone.
Adapted and excerpted with permission from Veganish: The Omnivore’s Guide to Plant-Based Cooking by Mielle Chénier-Cowan Rose (Viva Editions, Cleis Press, 2014).