If you’ve wandered onto social media this morning, you’ll probably have heard something about today being World Vegan Day. This year it is commemorating 72 years since the establishment of the Vegan Society. Before 1945 I guess we were just called “those people who don’t get invited to dinner parties”.
In honour of this day, I thought I’d celebrate with a delicious vegan smoothie (fresh mango and coconut milk, in case you’re wondering) and share my own vegan story. Unlike most vegans I know, my reasons for choosing a plant-based diet were more to do with the fact I genuinely don’t like the taste of most meat and my lactose-intolerance. I’d not been feeling great for a few years despite eating what I thought was a “balanced” diet and veganism was something I thought could help with the sluggishness, nausea and migraines. Be warned, this is a VERY wordy post, so maybe make a cup of tea and get comfy.
My Vegan Story
A strange thing happened to me just before my birthday a couple years ago. My mum and I are both born in April within a week of each other; sometimes we may not phone each other for a few days, but when it comes to “Birthday Season” we fall into a routine of calling a few times a day just to catch up. I am very much a Mummy’s Girl.
There’s the whole myth of the Chinese matriarch as a super-strict Tiger Mother, which I’ve always suspected was a control issue stemming from the total lack of a balance of gender equality in traditional Chinese homes. Little girls used to be married off at an appallingly young age, and their own mothers didn’t allow themselves to show love or grow attached to the daughters who only transiently “belonged” to them.
My mother, however, isn’t a Tiger Mother. She is softly spoken, has never really learned English, and tiny at 5ft in her socks. I swear, I have never in my life met someone with such capacity for silent strength and quiet intelligence as my mother. In 1960s China during the cultural revolution, rather than following the rest of her comfortably wealthy family to Hong Kong she decided to stay in China to help raise her sister’s two daughters whilst working full time as a biochemist. In Maoist China. I’ll let that one sink in.
My mum told me a story I’d heard a million times before throughout my childhood; she told me about how she and her nieces had bought a live chicken at the market, but neither she (in her early 20s) nor these two adolescents knew how to kill this chicken. Food wasn’t exactly plentiful, and the bird would do the three of them for dinner for a week. My mother tried her best but the story always ended with a headless chicken running around the concrete courtyard in Central Shanghai much to the annoyance of their neighbours. There was chicken blood everywhere.
This time though, my mum said something that’s stuck with me. Maybe she had said this before, but this time it really resonated. She told me that when she was a little girl they rarely got to eat red meat or chicken. It wasn’t considered a “treat”, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford it. There just wasn’t enough to go around. Once a week the amah came back from market with a chicken for their family of 6. When she first moved to Canada she was shocked to see people eating meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When my mother was a child, breakfast was a bowl of rice with egg, or vegetables, or congee (a sort of porridge made from leftover rice and the broth from beef or chicken bones. If there were spare ribs on the table, each family member took one small piece to top their noodles. Absolutely nothing was wasted, because there wasn’t enough food around for there to be an “excess”.
When I was a child I was a carnivore through and through, and felt it was my god-given right to eat meat whenever I damned well pleased. My dad had come out of Cultural Revolution rationing a dyed-in-the-wool meat lover because as the only male child in his family of 4 girls and the oldest to boot, his mother had put great importance in him. As his only child I was always given the best pieces from every dish. It was a status thing, just like a boy-child would have been given if we’d still lived in China.
What my mum said got me thinking. Was my diet a reflection of my own tastes, or was it a product of society and potentially (if I were to read more into it) a way of gaining acceptance from my stricter father as a child? I have one distinct memory from childhood that one of my dad’s favourite dishes was a Chinese version of chicken curry. We ate this once a week, and my mum remembers this as one of my favourite dishes as well. It basically contained chicken legs and thighs, cut up into pieces by my mother and her magical cleaver which never needed sharpened, potatoes, and boiled eggs cut into quarters. I never once ate a piece of that chicken. I was never a fan of poultry, though every Christmas and Thanksgiving I demanded a roast turkey dinner because I knew this was what all my friends and my cousins would be enjoying. Oh my god I actually cringe at what a brat I was.
Full disclosure here: I’m not actually a fan of the taste of meat. Ever since I was old enough to know better, I knew to buy the best that I could afford. I knew about corn-fed, organic and free-range, and bandied those terms around before anyone knew what the hell I was talking about. I was also the only of my friends who ate vegetables in halls of residence my freshman year. I knew what kale was in the 90s. I ate hummus before it was popular, and my favourite breakfast wasn’t a fry up, but a pomegranate. I was probably a vegan in the making well before I’d even heard the word.
After 2 years of study at and agricultural college, I became disillusioned with the whole industry of farming. The ecological and environmental impact of livestock farming made me feel uncomfortable. It seemed that the colleges were teaching Agricultural students that the highest echelon or measure of success of their trade was to sell to the supermarkets. I hated that ideal. The goal was uniformity, because when it comes to large chains like Tesco, uniformity sells.
So for a confirmed carnivore, I found since the beginning of 2015, I’d eaten very little meat. I started to tell people I was vegetarian because I just didn’t want to eat meat, and I found to my surprise I didn’t fancy eating fish either. There was no lightbulb moment, no great epiphany. I just didn’t miss it. I enjoyed going out for dinner and not feeling slightly sick afterwards. When a friend bet me I couldn’t do the vegan thing for a whole week, I was well up for the challenge. The week turned into a month, then Christmas came and I was drooling over vegan festive recipes in magazines. The idea of having a turkey didn’t even cross my mind, but I looked forward to sautéed sprouts with mustard greens, maple roasted root veg, roast potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce.
I’ve been vegan for about a year and a half now, and if I’m honest, I still prefer “proper” vegan food over cookies and cakes. I’ll take a Buddha bowl over a packet of Oreos any day. I’d been eating at restaurants like Fresh in downtown Toronto since the 90s, places that served huge steaming bowls of delicious, hearty and healthy food that fill you up more than a steak ever could. It’s actually thanks to places like this that I was made to realise that transitioning to vegan isn’t as difficult as some people might think. If I’d thought I’d be munching on cold salad leaves and raw carrots for the rest of my life, I probably wouldn’t have made the initial plunge. I like my food warm, thankyouverymuch. Sautéed greens with noodles is my favourite dish, and if the greengrocers runs out of Cavalo nero, I get a little bit upset. What helped me with the transition was all the amazing vegan Instagram accounts showing plant-based food porn.
I love animals, though I might be one of the few vegans I know whose decision wasn’t initially based on this. I’ve never watched Earthlings, or Cowspiracy, and I don’t plan to. I went to Agric college and I’ve worked on farms, so I’ve seen what is problematic with animal agriculture first-hand; the trend for intensive industrial farming that’s been escalating for decades because of society’s need for more meat, and more meat fast, is not sustainable.
So how do I feel now I’ve been vegan for awhile? I feel great. I won’t ever claim that cutting out animal products is the cure-all to all that ails ya, but for me I haven’t had a bad migraine since I stopped eating meat, eggs and dairy products, and I don’t feel as lethargic as I used to before I made these changes. I’ve got more energy, my hangovers aren’t as bad after a night out, and I don’t feel queasy or dizzy as much as I used to. My diet hasn’t changed much aside from the obvious lack of animal protein and fats, so it’s not even that I’ve suddenly gone on a health kick since I became vegan. I still eat out in restaurants, I still go out to the pub, and my gin consumption hasn’t changed much either. I just feel…better.