Little known fact: About 15 or 16 years before I said adios to animal products, I made a one-day attempt at vegetarianism. I was a self-proclaimed animal lover. One of my best friends and constant companions was my Doberman. To continue the compassion that I already had for her and other dogs and cats to include pigs, cows, and chickens made all the sense in the world. There was only one problem standing in the way. I was just starting high school, and I had no idea what a meal looked like without meat and cheese. In my repertoire a sandwich was meat, cheese, and bread. A pizza was meat, cheese, and bread. And a salad? Well, it was iceberg lettuce, carrots, bell peppers, celery… and meat, cheese, and melba toast (i.e. bread). To top it off, I’d add bacon bits and a creamy dressing. Salads are healthy, right?
I liked the vegetables, sure, but what kept me going back for more salad was the mix of crunchy, smoky, salty, and creamy. There’s a reason why it’s hard to stop with one bite of a restaurant appetizer, and that’s because they hit us just right in our pleasure sensors with all of that salt, fat, and crunch we crave. Add those elements to a salad, and I might as well have been a rabbit.
So on this day that I decided to be vegetarian, I made the one thing that I knew vegetarians ate – salads. I wish the internet had existed at that point, because I know I would have gone vegetarian sooner if I’d had the resources. If I’d learned more about the processes behind raising animals for food and if I knew more about what to eat once animals were off the plate, I would have transitioned earlier. However, on this day I was flying blind, and as I plucked the vegetables from the refrigerator and put them onto lettuce, it all felt very meager. It didn’t look like a salad with substance. It looked like a starter. Eventually, after feeling vaguely hungry for a day, I gave up, and believed for years that I wasn’t quite up to the challenge.
I’ve been vegan for nearly five years now and vegetarian for a couple of years before that, and now a salad for lunch, dinner, or even breakfast feels far from meager. I’m not saying that that’s all vegetarians eat, of course, but I do love them. I pile on as many different vegetables as I can: sugar snap peas, cauliflower, broccoli, artichokes, avocado, oranges… But some days there’s something deliciously simple about returning to the standards.
No, I’m not adding bits of smoked pig to my salad. However, it is interesting to note that many of the bacon bits on the shelf of your ordinary grocery store are actually vegan. The first ingredient is often textured soy flour, and it’s followed up with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, caramel color, hydrolyzed soy, corn gluten, and food coloring. Of course, I wouldn’t eat those bacon bits regardless of their vegan status, but they are surprisingly animal-free. Instead, I’ve been eating the new whole grain bacony bits from Wayfare called Pig Out. I’m already a big fan of their hickory cheddar spread. (Have you tried my hickory cheddar cauliflower soup? It’s a keeper!)
So when I saw that they were offering free samples with a self-addressed stamped envelope, I went for it. (I’ve since gone to a favorite specialty store to pick up a full-sized bag.) They’re made with whole grain cereal, whole grain oat flour, torula yeast, safflower oil, sea salt, and natural hickory smoke powder. They’re not gluten-free, but they are non-GMO and soy-free. I like to put them on top as the finishing touch to a salad, so that every bite gets a little hit of salty, smoky crunch. I top it with a mild, creamy dressing, squares of easy lemon baked tofu, and add it to my favorite greens with a few familiar vegetables.
If only I could go back in time, I’d offer it to my teenage self. (Although, I’d have to trade out the kale for lettuce. My soda-guzzling palate wouldn’t have known what to do with that hearty green.) I’d say, “Here, Cad. This is how you do it.” Then while I was there anyway, I’d give myself a talking to about my sky-high bangs. I’d let it slip that Doogie Howser’s career will only improve in 20 years, but my then-beloved Adam Sandler will be putting up Jack and Jill. Once I’m ready for it, I’ll break it to myself about why it isn’t going to work out with my 15-year-old, theatre-loving, show tune-singing boyfriend. Maybe I’d better bring dinner too. It’s going to be a long day.