A new case for veganism

It’s time for a new justification for veganism—one that willfully neglects the old strategies of conversion. That veganism is healthier or better for the environment than other ways of eating is probably at least slightly if not completely true, but is ultimately debatable. And in any case, these things are easily sidestepped by the cunning carnivore or brushed aside by the bristling paleo-devotee.

I’m talking about something a little more philosophical and, I hope, meaningful, which is that veganism most successfully caters to each person’s latent desire to change and be renewed.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. Ask any vegan why they chose to drastically alter their eating habits and even the most noncommittal answers seem to retain vague traces of a metamorphic narrative. I contemplated my own decision to go vegan out loud while visiting Plum, a vegan café in Seattle. Yes, I was clearly among biased company, but my waitress informed me that she decided to go vegan like me—“just to try it.” That was five years ago for her, and she said she’s never looked back.

I should mention here that I’m a proponent of radical change over incremental adjustments, and that this has gotten me into some trouble on various occasions (I tend to bite off more than I can chew, if you don’t mind the pun here; or abandon plans like one might abandon a sinking ship). I consistently operate this way because I like starting over; I like to feel new. And if I’m in the mood to bury the past, let it be a shallow, hasty grave, one that I can dig immediately and quickly.

In this sense, veganism offers the perfect departure point because it’s almost always the most extreme change you can make to your diet, and because there are at least three opportunities every day to institute that change (or two if you’re on the 14 meal plan). What’s more, who can ignore the literal and symbolic power of food? What better way to reshape oneself than with the nutrients that one consumes, the things that continually flavor the life they impart?

Now, enter: Sharples. With its numerous options, the dining hall allows one to eat healthfully, poorly and/or neurotically, completely unchecked. More often than not, you might end up feeling a little ambivalent about your meal simply because it’s hard to know what to pick. Here, too, veganism lends a guiding hand, if only due to its strict criterion. Forego the meat and dairy, which also means the omelets and ice cream. All because you must. And though it might hurt, it’s in the same way that leaving home for a faraway, strange place hurts; the pain of being imbued in something new.

Remember too, if you do give in, for that day, the experience of a rejuvenated self is nullified. Because if you lose the discipline and power to stay vegan, you can also lose the conviction it takes to strive towards a reinvented self. That’s the beauty of this method: there’s more at stake here besides your mere health. Namely, the power of your own perseverance.

Speaking of health, allow me to acknowledge here and now that veganism—at Sharples or otherwise—is by no means going to be the most healthy option in every scenario. For instance, Toffutti is sort of macabrely interesting but also invidiously bad for you, and at most diners or pizza joints, the only vegan options are oftentimes French fries and wilty salads. But rest slightly assured knowing that no way of eating is the healthiest in all cases.

I’ll say too, something that tends to shock people—that eating vegan can also be a genuinely delicious and even revelatory experience if you know where to look. I think every serious eater in general must remember the moment they tried legitimate vegan cooking—something that does not taste like paltry light fare or an “alternative.”

At Plum, where I visited, people come from all over Washington for cuisine that verges on the decadent. Head chef Makini Howell slowly incorporates a craft soy milk (which has a creaminess and depth of flavor that in no way resembles the industrial gruel found in the mega-mart) with raw olive oil and lemon juice to create a rich aioli that rings with acidic notes and provides a formidable base for their potato salad, which is slathered on sandwiches with a heavy hand. Here, dairy goes completely unmissed.

Not to mention, many vegan staples like tofu, miso, tempeh and seitan have as much, or more, complexity and versatility than that parched chicken breast with the fake grill marks hanging around a lot of restaurants these days. Tofu charred with tahini (something you can do at Sharples) yields a supple, ricotta-like creaminess, and, at Vedge—chefs Kate Jacoby and Richard Landau’s vegan upstart which is arguably the best restaurant in Philly, vegan or otherwise—they grill their seitan until deeply caramelized and pair it with swiss chard, pickled turnips and za’atar (a melody of several Middle Eastern spices).

Having argued the point that vegan food has the potential to be enlightening, I think it’s important to reassert that taste isn’t actually the important part. Like anything else, veganism can be delicious or downright ugly, and that should be admitted forthright. It’s really about the ethos with which you encounter it.

This is the way to go: relax; plan two days a month, say, to deliberately break and eat something that had formerly crawled, walked, swam or flew (as a mere mortal, I could no longer resist the gravitational tug of In-N-Out Burger’s intense cult following, and, during a recent trip to LA, I heeded the call—double-double in hand). But do not ease into veganism either, lest you completely forfeit its radical—and redemptive—powers. You must meet it and embrace it with a certain fervor, otherwise you might as well be a pescatarian.

Returning to my waitress: I see her a little more clearly now, with her slightly gnarly hair and homemade jewelry. She wouldn’t eat anything grown within 20 miles of a non-organic farm site. Her conviction, resolve and general radicalization makes me think, Don’t look back really should be veganism’s mantra. A reinvention is implicit in that phrase; that there is something not to look back on alludes to the creation of a separated, forward-looking self. Veganism adds remarkable distance between those two selves—the old and the new—because each meal you eat that is free of meat and dairy constitutes another unmistakable mile marker.