As the miles stretched on and fields of soybeans and corn clipped by the roadside, we looked for ways to pass the time. The radio was offering options of country tunes or spirituals. We weren’t feeling up for 20 Questions. But it was still hours before we’d return from our road trip to Kansas City with our friends, Melissa and Ray. As the darkness descended on the horizon and leftover fireworks from the Fourth dotted the skies, the topic turned to veganism.
Melissa and Ray went vegan about three years ago. This month marks my 6 year veganniversary, and David is not far off of that. We talked about how much our diets have changed as the years have passed, and it seemed like the perfect fodder for a new car game.
“Let’s all name foods that we’d never eaten before we went vegan,” I suggested.
“Wow,” said Melissa, “that’s practically everything.”
We all started chiming in.
“Any Ethiopian food!”
“Tempeh, seitan, red lentils!”
“Leeks and fennel!”
“Millet and amaranth!”
“Oyster mushrooms and turnips!”
“I thought kale was just the thing that decorated the buffet line.”
Before I went vegan, I’d never cooked beans from scratch. In fact, when we started dating almost ten years ago, David hated all beans. He flat out wouldn’t eat them. Now chickpeas and black beans are two of his favorite foods.
While I had tried tofu at Chinese restaurants, it was far from something that I craved. And even after I went vegetarian (and then vegan), it took a long time before I cracked the code on preparing it.
I’d never made seitan from scratch or split pea soup that didn’t come from a can. I wasn’t familiar with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I didn’t know that French lentils du Puy were the Cadillac of lentils or that cashews were the magicians of nuts.
“Collard greens,” said Melissa.
“Yep, me too,” David announced.
I’d had collard greens before I went vegan at soul food restaurants and made by friends who grew up with that cuisine, but I’d never attempted to prepare them. And the first time I tried to make kale or collards, I don’t remember it being a wild success. They were bitter. Too strong. It took time for not only my palate to adjust but also for me to figure out ways to prepare dark greens in a way that fit my preferences. Now I love raw collard leaf wraps or tacos, adding them to a tofu scramble or Asian stir-fry, but it wasn’t always that way.
As I’ve marveled in the past, it really is amazing that going vegan expands variety for so many people. Leaving out chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and sea life seems like it would make one’s meals become less varied. But going vegan is not only expansive in a spiritual sense, it’s expansive in a practical sense as well. Choosing to do something different gave me license to explore more. The real estate on my plate where animal products had been was now available for business. Every farmers market, every season, every cookbook continues to offer a new discovery.
And it seems to be endless. I am constantly trying something new, something I’d never tried before. Ironically, often these foods have long histories like millet or amaranth. They’re not new foods, and yet somehow I’d never noticed them in the grocery store before.
There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that replacing the six or seven animals I used to eat regularly with plant foods instead wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But with the heavy focus that animals and their secretions take up in many cultures, including my own, it certainly seemed like it would be a tough adjustment.
As we trailed off, driving into the thoughts of our own minds, I traveled to where I was six years ago – a vegetarian wondering if I could live without brie. At that point I couldn’t imagine my en croute going kaput. But my regrets from those days aren’t that I didn’t take one last bite of cheddar or feta. They’re that I didn’t go vegan sooner. In my last few days as a vegetarian, I was well aware of what I would be giving up, but I had no idea of what I was missing.