How I Became Vegan

My route to becoming vegan has an unusual start in that it was motivated not by ethics or health concerns (those came later) but simply because I’d had enough of being disappointed by food.

You know how it is: you’re out and about and smell something delicious, you buy it… and are disappointed. Bacon butties and the smell of “cheesy straws” wafting from a bakery were two that got me on numerous occasions, and rarely lived up to expectation. Then there are those delicious looking sandwiches and burgers… that bear little resemblance to the item that gets handed over the counter.

Then there was the cook at home stuff that, given that I don’t enjoy cooking, never seemed worth the time and effort it took to prepare.

Thus I decided, towards the end of 2016, to get savvy with food i.e. to look more closely at what I was eating and what could be done to improve my enjoyment of it.

Some things I already knew about, but had been lazy about. Like for example, that heat and cold reduce the effectiveness of our sense of taste. This is why ice cream taste far sweeter when melted. It’s also why cheese and salad items that have just come out of the fridge are far less tasty than if you bring them out earlier and let them approximate to room temperature prior to consumption. It requires a little extra planning and takes some getting used to if you’re used to eating them cold, but it’s worth it in terms of taste, to at least let the chill go off them.

I also started looking at what was IN food. I had already observed how sausages and meat pies had become far more peppery since the previous flavour booster for cheap meat products (salt) had been popularly accepted as “bad for you”. Without salt, the manufacturers of these products needed something to boost the flavour. Pepper, chillies, and herbs came to the rescue… which is why it’s now quite difficult to by a plain pork, or beef, sausage; they’ve all got something added in the name of being more cosmopolitan, but in reality it’s there to give some flavour to an otherwise cheap and nasty product.

And I say nasty because along with this we have things like packs of smokey bacon containing 87% pork. Say what? 87% pork? So what’s the other 13%? Mostly water (which is why it shrinks so much when you cook it), plus colourings, preservatives, and smokey flavourings. You didn’t think it was actually SMOKED did you?

Those of you who enjoy meat and dairy… might want to stop reading at the end of this paragraph. I’m not evangelical about this stuff but if I’m to explain how my initial desire to get more enjoyment from food turned into veganism, then I’ll be going into the realms of stuff you don’t want to know. Some days I wish I didn’t know because once you know it, you can’t un-know it. Basically what happened next was that my investigations into the whys and hows of modern food, very quickly lead me into the realms of my just not wanting to eat that stuff. So take a tip: stop reading, stay ignorant, and be happy. Trust me: you don’t want to know this stuff.

Still here? Well don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So around the time I was discovering that there are animal products in things like fruit juice and 2 minutes in the microwave rice, and that MacDonalds french fries contain 14 ingredients (so that’s: potato, salt, the oil they’re cooked in, and… WTF are the other 11?), one of my friends posted a meme on Facebook that said “not your mother, not your milk”.

I was already wondering about the mysterious ingredients that hide behind terms like “natural colours and flavourings”, which hides a multitude of sins… such as the flavourings derived from the anal glands of beavers. Yummy.

As someone with a “mystery illness” (CFS) for which medical science have an explanation never mind a cure, I had to wonder about the “mystery ingredients”… and indeed the stuff that is stated on the ingredients panel but which is still surprising (like the thing with the fruit juice and the rice). I had to wonder: what effect might they be having on me, and whether I might improve my lot by ceasing to ingest them.

Getting back to the dairy:

In my early teens (late ‘70s) I had a holiday on a dairy farm where the cows spent 99% of their time in a field, eating grass. Twice a day the farmer would open the gate, give them a whistle, and they’d all trot past him, into the milking shed, and into their favourite stalls. All seemed well… and back then, for the most part, it probably was.

Dairy farming… isn’t really like that anymore.

Another coincidental occurrence on my road to vegan eating was a conversation I had with two foreign students who told me that while they could happily drink milk back in their Eastern European home countries, milk in the UK left them feeling bloated, tired, and generally unwell.

A thing we need to consider about milk is that the label on the carton says: milk. Just milk. That’s all there is. But we’ve all heard the warnings about how breast feeding mums should avoid X, Y and Z. What goes into mum, goes into the milk. And if mum spends 24 hours a day in a shed, standing in her own faeces, dosed up antibiotics (those close packed shitty sheds do not promote good health), and hormones, and eating… whatever it is that cows eat these days… well you have to ask yourself: what’s IN the milk? Ever wondered what happens to all the scrap and byproducts from the food industry… not counting sheep’s brains because of course as a result of the mad cow epidemic you CAN’T put those in cow food anymore.

So the dairy in my diet… it had to go. For two reasons:

Firstly because I haven’t spent half my life playing video games and repeat watching Zombieland to end up being patient zero when some virus jumps species! Hey, I want to live long enough to at least see the beginning of the end. Seriously though: I just don’t want to ingest that stuff any more.

The second is because cows aren’t the big milk producing dumb ass blocks of meat that we might prefer them to be in order for it to be okay for us to treat them the way we do. Cows are actually kinda like big dogs. They can learn to respond to their names, learn tricks, and they can most certainly have fun. If you wouldn’t eat a dog, or take its pups away at the very soonest moment so you can have it’s milk, but you think it’s okay to do that to a cow, then you are a hypocrite.

And it goes on:

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met over the last decade of so who have kept chickens… until they realise that chickens don’t lay eggs until they keel over and die. Chickens can live for many years after they stop laying… and in our vacuum packed far removed from nature society we can’t stomach the idea of eating an animal that we actually met while it was alive, it begs the question of what to do with the “pet chickens” when they no longer lay eggs.

So HOW did I become vegan?

We’ve kinda dealt with the why and for me it’s a combination of health grounds and ethics even though that wasn’t the starting point. But in the same way I had a gradual awakening, so the process was gradual too.

It pretty much started with meat because I wasn’t a big eater of quality meat anyway. Bacon, ham, chicken, and some occasionally some beef. There are a lot of vegan alternatives (be aware that vegetarian alternatives often contain eggs and dairy). But consider this: when you eat a burger, curry, lasagne, stew, even a ham sandwich, what are you actually tasting? Not the meat. Spices, sauces, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise (you can get vegan mayonnaise). Okay, so if your favourite food is steak or a rack of ribs (and I did love those) then you’re not going to find a vegan replacement, but a lot of the other stuff is not as difficult to replace as you might think.

Don’t expect it to taste exactly the same though. That would be like expecting beef sausages to taste like a pork sausages. They taste different and so do the various brands and varieties of non-meat options.

Similarly with spreads i.e. alternatives to butter. Now I LOVED butter. Actually I loved dairy full stop. But as I didn’t want to eat it any more I tried alternatives.

I was lucky with soya milk because I took to it straight away; both on cereal and in coffee. Not so much in tea… but I have a story about that, which I will relate shortly.

Spreads… I think I tried four others before I found Pure brand Olive spread. Pure also do a sunflower spread and a soya based spread. But I liked the Olive one. You might prefer one of the others. Or another brand. But stick at it because:

At first I didn’t like soya milk in tea. I just couldn’t take to it. So I stopped drinking traditional tea and drank herbal teas or coffee instead. But then, after a few months I went to stay at a mate’s house and he’d kindly got some soya milk in for me… but he only had Yorkshire tea. So I was kinda obliged… and was surprised to find that I liked it!

My point here is that: your tastes change. Some of the vegan products that I though would becomes staples when I began my journey: I no longer like them. They’re just too much like what I was used to eating before hand. To my mind they’re the vegan equivalent of baby food. You know, that mushy stuff and those biscuits that you use to wean babies off milk and onto solid food, but that no adult who can handle proper food ever eats.

I’m not saying that the vegan products are mush and biscuits. What I’m saying is that for me personally some of them have become staples but others acted more as stepping stones or props that I used while I developed a taste for more natural foods.

Cheese… was really bloody difficult for me, but I have found alternatives. Again: you have to shop around. To my mind Sainsbury’s range knocks spots off the rest. It’s also something you get used to. I’m pretty sure that it tastes better to me now than it did when I started. My tastes HAVE changed.

Beyond meat and dairy it’s a case of gradually working though the things you buy, checking what’s in them, and finding alternatives. This is probably the scariest part because unless you’ve already researched this, you are going to be truly surprised what goes into the things you eat. That fruit juice and rice are often not vegan was a surprise to me. Apples… from the fresh fruit section: that’s another shocker.

My top tip for becoming vegan:

Changing overnight is going to take a lot of will power. More than I have. More than most people (who actually like food and aren’t just looking for an excuse to live on chips) are going to have. And there’s an easier way:

People often say to me “Oh I couldn’t go vegan because I love X”, to which I reply: so continue to consume X but how about cutting down on Y and Z?

Of course most of the time this is just an excuse and so long at they haven’t recently been diagnosed with some life threatening illness and don’t have to look the animals in the eye, most people will continue to consume X, Y and Z.

If you want to go vegan, or feel that you should either for long term health or ethical reasons, then my suggestion is to start with the one thing that concerns you most, and seek out alternatives to that one thing. Find an alternative to butter. Eliminate chicken from your diet. Stop eating prawns. Whatever is the thing that bothers you the most and/or is easiest for you to change. Do that one thing and then, when you’ve achieved it, tackle another.

You’re tastes WILL change. Towards the start of my journey I consumed rather a lot of Smoky Bacon Flavour Pringles (they’re actually vegan) as I weaned myself off bacon… but I no longer like them! How weird, and good, is that? 🙂