Monday, 20 January 2014

vegan for the love of food by Natalie Bradbury


photograph by Natalie Brabury

Veganism, and the practice of scrutinising the reasons behind individuals' choices for foregoing animal-based foods in their diets, has been in the media a lot lately. After Beyonce and Jay Z announced that they were to undertake the so-called 22Days Challenge and live on plant-based foodstuffs for a few weeks came a predictable slew of articles about how veganism was no longer 'weird' or 'niche', but a trendy and viable lifestyle choice, published alongside a parade of photographs of other vegan celebrities to back it up. Even my local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, surveyed readers and published a list of the best places to get a vegan meal in Manchester in time for Beyonce's concert in the city. The resulting list was long and varied, including both specialist vegetarian and vegan eateries as well as mainstream restaurants which make the effort to cater for all dietary tastes, challenging the assumption that vegetarians are awkward and make lives unnecessarily difficult for themselves. And this brings me to the main point of my article. Unlike many vegetarians and vegans, who have commonly adopted a meat or animal-free diet to highlight animal welfare, or increasingly because of concerns about the sustainability of an increased global appetite for meat and dairy and the impact of this on land use and the environment, Beyonce and Jay Z's foray into veganism appears to have been prompted by ideas around spirituality and physical and mental cleansing. My reason for adopting a vegan diet just over a year and a half ago is slightly different still, stemming partly from the fact that I just love food. 

For the first 22 years of my life, this love of food meant primarily a love of meat and traditional British cuisine: English breakfasts and bacon sandwiches, roast dinners, cottage pie, toad-in-the-hole, bangers and mash, meat and potato pie, followed by rice pudding, fruit pie or crumble and custard (I can count on both thumbs the number of times I have eaten a salad, and neither time was it out of choice; I have a fundamental problem with seeing a pile of leaves as 'food'!). I grew up in a family where meat was frequently eaten three meals a day and all butter and milk was very much of the full-fat kind. Although I knew vegetarians and and occasionally went to vegetarian cafes, eating meat was integrated in my background and my culture. Vegetarianism was seen by those around me as a high-maintenance lifestyle choice that required extensive knowledge and careful balancing of food groups in order to avoid wasting away with anaemia, and as a result I continued believing that I needed to eat meat every day in order to be healthy. When I first started cooking for myself as a student on a tight budget, therefore, shopping involved a trip to the supermarket, bulk-buying Tesco Value mince, pork, beef, chicken and bacon and freezing it in the minimum amounts I thought necessary to comprise a day's portion (I was always conscious that this was something that my more enlightened, ethically-attuned friends looked down on). Treats would involve going to restaurants where I could eat a big, juicy steak, and I can vividly remember the first time I ever encountered anything as exotic as hummus, at a house party at the age of 21.

I can't remember when this changed exactly, but eventually I realised that it's not necessary to eat meat in order to be healthy, or even to enjoy food. It was also linked to becoming more adventurous with cooking. As I became more accomplished, I began to experiment with other ways of making my favourite foods, for example replacing the mince in cottage pie with lentils, or the sausages in toad-in-the-hole with vegetables, and came to realise that these substitutions were not just healthier but more cost effective than buying the cheapest, nastiest meat I could find. But the temptation to buy and eat cheap meat was still there, and that's why I became vegetarian: I have no moral problem with killing animals for food as it seems like a perfectly logical thing to do, and I admire those who can eat a mainly vegetable-based diet and reserve good quality, ethically-produced meat for a rare treat. For me, though, becoming vegetarian, and removing the temptation to eat cheap meat, was simply the better choice once I realised that there were other foods that I enjoyed eating just as much as meat and that I did not require it so sustain me.

Like vegetarianism, I also came to realise that I didn't need dairy products in my diet to be healthy and to enjoy food. This realisation took place around the same time as I became concerned about mass-produced, processed food, industrial farming methods and the environmental impact of raising cattle for meat and dairy production, and I began to look to other culinary traditions with less emphasis on dairy and more emphasis on combinations of spices and ingredients to create flavour. Vegetarian and vegan food is often perceived as being bland, but I have found that the supposed restrictions of a vegan diet can make cooks more creative, as they have to find flavours and textures in different ways. I consider meat and cheese substitutes to be overly expensive and nutritionally lacking (plus what's the point of being vegetarian or vegan if you're just going to eat fake meat or cheese?!) so began instead to fill my kitchen with spices and herbs with which to experiment, finding that, to give just a few examples: apparently bland tofu provides a perfect base for bringing out the flavours of turmeric and smoked paprika; a sprinkling of chilli flakes enhances any dish, from pasta to a simple bean soup; a quick shake of a spice mix like ras el hanout adds a whole new level of flavour to potato wedges; the addition of cumin and rosemary enlivens simple roasted pumpkin and aubergine; and that lentils, a stereotypical vegan staple, really are incredibly versatile, lending themselves to everything from curries to pastry-fillings to vegetarian burgers and roasts. All this, and I still cook my favourites like crumble, pie (many shop-bought pastries are vegan, although it's just as easy to make your own) and rice pudding, simply using soya milk or margarine instead of milk or butter. I adopted a vegan diet incrementally, starting off with not buying animal projects myself and therefore not eating them at home, but accepting them if they were in food provided to me elsewhere (most notably work buffets, where the vegetarian option was always egg =or cheese sandwiches and I didn't want to stand out by requesting they buy me something different). When it came down to it, though, I didn't really need to worry: taking a home-made packed lunch (something like scrambled tofu with sesame bagels, or a hummus, sundried tomato and roasted beetroot sandwich) to work on those occasions when there is a work buffet really isn't too much of a hardship.

So for me vegetarianism and veganism hasn't been about going without certain things; it's been about expanding, rather than reducing, my diet. It's been about rethinking my relationship with food and trying to challenge assumptions about what food is, excluding meat and dairy simply because I have no need to eat them and there is so much more food out there to explore. Ask me to guess what I'd be given to eat in any mainstream restaurant outside major cities and I can almost guarantee that there will only be one vegetarian option and it will involve mushrooms, risotto or some kind of stuffed vegetables. But I think this is incredibly lazy and shows a lack of imagination: a vegetarian dish shouldn't just be a meat dish with the meat removed or replaced with a layer of cheese on top, and likewise there is no reason why a vegan dish should just a vegetarian dish minus the cheese, because there are a whole range of other ingredients, cooking styles and combinations out there to play with. In summary, then, far from taking the joy out of eating, being vegan has enabled me to explore my love of food and I hope to inspire others to do the same.

Natalie Bradbury is a Manchester-based writer, editor, curator and occasional musician. Her personal interests include art and design, architecture, cities and town planning, regeneration, public space, social history, film, canals, food and travel. Her professional interest encompass education and co-operatives. She is currently a PhD candidate researching 'Pictures for Schools: Art, Education and Reconstruction in Post-war Britain' in the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston.



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