Being vegan

Once upon a time as a child I refused to add salt or pepper to my food. I don’t mean one meal. Not for a day or for a week. I mean for years. I mean for a substantial chunk of my childhood. But why? I liked salt; I liked pepper. I liked food. I think I just could not accept the ubiquity of salt and I was aware of its hazards. But why pepper? Well, I would have to put that down to my fondness for symmetry. And then for no special reason the prohibition broke and I moved on.

Not long after, I found something more profound to eschew: flesh. I stopped eating animals at age 18 and learned to cook for myself. At the time, vegetarianism was not big in New Zealand, and was considered a personal affront to the culture of the time. People told me that I would give up after a month. People told me I would die. People told me that if we didn’t farm animals then they would have no life at all and isn’t a short brutal life better than none at all? But for me it was all far too simple: if you want to eat meat, you have to be prepared to kill, and I wasn’t.

I was a loner; my best friends were animals.

But there are so many dark secrets closeted in the hearts of the dairy and egg industries. Male chicks are killed at one or two days of age, often by shredding or gassing. After a year, a hen’s daily egg production declines, and she is slaughtered. She could have lived for another ten or twenty years. Cows don’t simply product milk by magic. They are impregnated every year, and they give birth every year. Male calves are raised for beef or veal, females for dairy. Dairy cows are slaughtered after 3-4 years, when they could have lived for 25. Even in the best conditions, even setting aside cruel cages and stalls, there is no getting around the killing that is an essential part of production of both milk and eggs.

And so, for the past few months, Sarah and I have been experimenting with veganism, and I feel like I’m 18 again: veganism in New Zealand is about where vegetarianism was in the late 80s. Here is what we have discovered:

Restaurants don’t really know what vegan is, but they understand dairy-free. Many Indian restaurants have no problem with dairy-free. This intrigues me as ghee is such a key part of Indian cooking. Perhaps it is simply cheaper to add oil? Vegan pizzas are straightforward, although commercial ones are often rather humble (I have found at home that a generous splash of olive oil when you bring the pizza out of the oven is key). In Christchurch, the Lotus Heart Cafe is a refuge for a vegetarian, and it is directly across the road from the hipster-chic Darkroom Bar, run by the clever T’Nealle, blogger, dressmaker, photographer, vegan, barmaid. The Mainstreet and Dux de Lux cafes are, sadly, gone. However, there is a new Morroccan cafe on Colombo which offers a delicious (although probably unintentional) vegan tagine. Small consolations. Interestingly, Subway’s vegetarian option is now a vegan option too.

Vitamin B12 is not available as part of a natural vegan diet. Deficiency is serious and causes irreversible damage. However, the body stores several years’ supply of the vitamin, so the situation is not urgent. andis only produced by bacteria. Options for vegans are fortified foods such as some cereals and soy milks, and vitamin supplements. Oddly enough, Marmite yeast extract contains B12, but it is out of stock nationwide due to earthquake damage in the Christchurch factory. Vegemite, the Australian analogue, does not contain B12. Some nutritional yeasts also contain B12.

Historically, beer contains isinglass, a fish product, used in clarifying the beer. Better production methods mean that most beer is now vegan. Beer from smaller craft breweries may not be vegan. Wines are traditionally clarified with milk and egg products. However, these are both considered allergens and so must be listed on the label. If there is nothing listed on the label, then it’s a vegan wine (or so I believe). Further information is available at Barnivore.

Western cooking is basically French cooking, and the French love their œufs. Eggs are a mainstay of cooked breakfasts, desserts, and baking. But we are learning to use coconut oil instead of butter, to puree tofu and to grind nuts for desserts. With Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Post-Punk Kitchen website and cookbooks, we have learned to make some very good cakes and desserts.

A cheap tofu outlet is essential. In Christchurch, Kosco Asian supermarkets sell two-litre tubs of tofu for just a few dollars. This tofu is quite soft but may be pressed to make it firm. Or you can freeze and thaw it to make it stringy. Bin Inn is a quaint chain of bulk food outlets throughout New Zealand. The shops are drab and smell funny (I think it’s because they sell pet food). However, they stock a remarkable array of grains, beans, dairy-free or gluten-free products. If you are looking for vegan items in a supermarket (i.e. chocolate cookies), then head for the gluten-free section. Vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free often cohabit. The Moorhouse Countdown and South City New World both have strong offerings, including the Fry’s range of vegan frozen convenience foods. Finally, of course, Piko in Richmond offer a diversity of vegetarian wholefoods, organic and gluten-free foods. Eternal Delight, Revolution Food and Angel Food have intriguing products online.

Socialising is hard. We no longer get invited to friends’ houses for meals. We can eat out at a very small number of restaurants. Cake at work on birthdays is out. And we have very few vegan friends in Christchurch. It’s a lonely business.

Finally, I don’t believe that everybody should be vegan. I certainly don’t believe people should try it, find it all too hard, and give up. If you want to try it, learn the techniques, find the shops, ease in. Be happy to be partial. I believe that everybody should make their own choices, and that every single meal makes a difference. Having said that, I also believe that cheap meat is an outrage, and that cage eggs and veal should be outlawed. If we are going to exploit animals, we should give them respect.

I am glad I have a partner in this adventure. There’s no going back.

Let’s end with a couple of movies:

And some amusing snippets of animal intelligence:

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