Probably the most common question I hear is “Why did you go vegan?” Well, it was twenty years ago, so I can’t remember.
KIDDING! Of course I remember. It was a simple choice that changed every aspect of my life for the better. Because so many have asked, I am going to share my story, as this month marks 20 years…
20 years for me! 5 years for the Dirty Hippie! Woo-hoo!
As a teenager in the 1990s, I was fascinated by the idea of going meat-free. I secretly admired the few girls in my high school who were “out” as vegetarians. They had a rough road. High school kids can be cruel and I remember incidents when jerks would do things like throw lunch meat at them. So I sat by silently and would often choose vegetarian items like omelettes, but never mentioned it to anyone. Around that time, I was lusting after a cookbook in a local bookstore called “Hearty Vegetarian Soups” – the first veg cookbook I remembered seeing. I would stop by and look at it, admiring the luscious-sounding soups. Again, I was terrified about what others would think of me – even if my parents or brother saw this book in my possession. What would they say? So I never bought it and tucked these thoughts way deep inside, trying to ignore them.
Via the amazing technology of the modern world, I found the book I wanted back in 1993! This is the one. Now I have to find a copy for sale…
In the meantime, I was an active teen environmentalist. I used to paddle canoes for scientists doing water testing in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay, headed up my school’s Eco Club and was active in the effort to bring recycling to my school district. As if the universe was prodding, at an arts festival, I saw a tee-shirt with statistics about animal agriculture and the Earth. It haunted me. I thought about it every time I ate meat. Again, I entertained the idea of going vegetarian, but was too scared to make the first steps. And I really didn’t know how to even make those steps. So again, I tucked the veg idea into my back pocket – for a brief time…
The shirt I saw was a lot like this one… with statistics about water use, land use and other startling facts about animal agriculture.
At age 19, after only two-ish years in college, I became ill with serious gastric distress. It was on-and-off, but I was sick a lot and at age 20 got the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis (UC).
Though commonly diagnosed nowadays, UC was rare at the time. Ulcerative Colitis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and open sores (ulcers) in the lining of the large intestine. It frequently affects the lower section and the rectum, but can affect the entire colon. In general, the more of the colon that’s affected, the worse symptoms will be. The disease can affect people of any age or ethnic heritage. Most people who have it are diagnosed before age 30. No one is sure what causes it and there is no cure. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, fevers, joint pain, wasting/weight loss, rectal bleeding and diarrhea up to 20-30 times a day. It can lead to an increased chance of colon cancer over time.
This was the least graphic drawing I could find to show was UC looks like….
My doctor said surgery to remove my large intestine was the only option, and that I would never lead a normal life. This doctor advised me to drop out of school, move back in with my parents and basically wait to die (imagine how well my family took this news!). He cited data that people with my diagnosis had a 40% chance to live even 15 years after first onset of the disease. It was 1995. I wasn’t 21 yet. Despair barely begins to describe the feeling I had. This doctor’s only lifestyle suggestions were to cut red meat, all dairy foods, coffee and alcohol from my diet. His other suggestions were surgeries, pills – and of course, giving up on my life to wait for death. (As a side note, all the indoor plants in this doctor’s office were dead. I always thought it was weird to take health advice from someone who couldn’t even care for a house plant…)
But a lucky visit to a dietician changed the course. This woman, whose name I wish I still had, told me to get “The McDougall Program” book by Dr. John McDougall. Dr. McDougall recommended a plant-based, low fat diet to control UC. I got my hands on the book and switched overnight to veganism. In only seven months, I was well. Never needed surgery. Was able to go without medication. It was so simple for me: eat a healthy, vegan diet = live a healthy, long life.
The book that saved/changed my life!
That first doctor with the dead plants had said my gastric issues were so serious, I would not live to be 30. I am turning 40 in a few weeks! I’ve met other people with UC and heard them say things like “I’d rather die than change my diet.” It’s always baffled me. I love my life and the food I eat is wonderful – tasty, nourishing and varied. I cannot think of a moment in the past 20 years I felt deprived. Often I think folks focus on what they “can’t” eat and fail to see the bounty of sensational foods that ARE vegan. Really, if a diet change could help avoid costly medicines, surgeries and other treatments, why wouldn’t you try it?!
Now, I will not claim that this road has been without bumps and that my health has been perfect for 20 years. After the initial 7 years in remission, the UC flare-ups occasionally returned. Once the situation was quite serious and I had to be hospitalized for almost a week. Each of these flare-ups has been preceded by a hard hit to my immune system. Things like pneumonia, giardia, flu, tonsilitis and sometimes just plain exhaustion. Flares don’t happen at random for me – a doctor made the connection when going through my history. Even the first flare was predceded by a serious bout of pneumonia (I’ve had it twice). These episodes don’t happen all the time. Most of the time, I am not sick. I can go months, and years, with no symptoms of UC. It is always with me though.
Treatments over the years have included western and Chinese herbalism, macrobiotics, raw diet/juice, acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, various kinds of massage/bodywork, chakra balancing, reflexology, aromatherapy, gluten-free/soy-free/oil-free/sugar-free/salt free diets, meditation, talk-therapy and reiki. Each has it’s benefits, for sure. But nothing beats rest, hydration, nourishing foods and being surrounded by positive people. Of all these various modalities of healing, botanical medicine and homeopathy both resonate with me deeply. Perhaps because I love plants, gardens and teas. Plants are healing in so many ways, I feel that in both medical and nutritional ways, they will always be a big part of my life.
Health is only one aspect of veganism, though. If modern medicine came up for a cure for UC tomorrow, I would maintain my vegan lifestyle. The idea of compassion found me first when I was in college. I used to attend meditation each week at a Buddhist Temple that was a 60 minute drive from campus, which was followed by a vegan potluck gathering. I went for the food and company, but I found so much more in the faith. The idea of not taking life to sustain your own was a principle of the Temple I went to.
It made sense to me, after all, I loved animals. I had a rescued ex-racing greyhound as my companion (another, Lochrima, shares our home currently), and volunteered for other animal groups regularly. Even as a small child, I loved animals and was delighted by birds, squirrels and bunnies in my yard. I used to make birdfeeders and took table scraps outside for wildlife and neighborhood cats. It took the Buddhist Temple to help me make the connection: not eating animals was the ultimate way to show your love for them.
This is me with our greyhound companion, Lochrima. We also call her Beastie. Photo was taken outside of Watkins Glen, NY on vacation two years ago.
My love of the environment came full circle too. During an internship in Raleigh NC, I discovered firsthand the environmental impact of animal-based foods. The newspaper I worked at had just won a Pulitzer for uncovering how pig farming affects the water table. The photos were shocking, revolting. Giant lagoons of manure – bigger than entire neighborhoods or college campuses – for one pig farm! The government regulations are so lax on this for pigs, cows, chickens, etc. that much of the waste ends up in the water table – that’s OUR water and OUR ocean. Those ocean dead zones? The issues with climate change? Yes, the tee shirt I saw in 1994 had it RIGHT – according to Oxford University, The United Nations, the World Bank and other experts – people raising animals to eat is the problem. A bigger problem than the entire transportation sector combined! It was one more reason to stay deeply bonded to the vegan lifestyle.
So, how did I do it? How did I learn an entirely new way of eating in the 1990s, WAY before it was cool – with so few resources? Well, I made a lot of mistakes. I got copies of all the vegetarian books I could find and altered recipes. There were some awful meals in the beginning. But I didn’t care. In the start, I was so sick, that the simple act of making hummus (yes, we had to do that from scratch -it was not yet available at the grocery store!) and layering it on a tortilla with lettuce and tomatoes was a victory for me. (Side note – there was no bread unless I made it – at the time, all breads had dairy or eggwashes or both!)
My first vegetarian cookbooks were treasured companions that traveled with me all the time, anyplace I went. Here they are… my old friends and still the rocks on which I built my perspective of food, flavor and cooking.
My first veg cookbooks – at that time, I couldn’t find any vegan books, back in 1995. This was pre-blogs, pre-Amazon and pre-Facebook. I was thrilled to have the few books I did! Each of these volumes is very well worn!
And gradually, I got well and learned to cook. I learned to bake my own bread. The kitchen was a place of sanctuary and I not only gained skills with food preparation, cooking and baking became my safe haven. Eventually, I met up with my first all-vegan cookbook, the Vegan Handbook by Debra Wasserman, who I have since met and has signed my well-used copy. And I went back to college and graduated.
For all the goodness I found in the vegan diet, I also found it very socially isolating. The vegetarian club at my university had three members my first year there; it was more like 12 by the time I graduated, but that’s still a small number. No one knew the word “vegan,” so I normally told people I was a vegetarian that didn’t eat eggs or dairy, a practice I continued until only about six or seven years ago. I was made fun of. I endured jokes like “I’m a member of PETA – you know, People Eating Tasty Animals.” Once a well-meaning friend advised me that I wasn’t married because of my diet – that no man wanted a woman who was so “different.” Geez – I was only 25! I wasn’t even looking for a husband!
Like I said, socially isolating. But I stayed the course. I found a few vegetarian friends like Leslie and MJ (shout out!), some who have become lifelong friends. I met a great guy (that’s the Dirty Hippie) and we were married ten years ago; he chose on his own to go vegan 5 years ago, after first stepping from the Standard American Diet to pescetarian, then vegetarian in our time together. All his own decisions.
The Dirty Hippie & I at a party last year. Married ten years! He’s still the cutest guy I know!!!
In these past 20 years, I have seen vegan go mainstream. There are literally thousands of hits for vegan recipes online. My personal vegan cookbook collection numbers over two hundred volumes. Vegan foods are easy to find at national fast food chains, fine restaurants, cafes and at the grocery store. CVS carries almond milk and I’ve seen hummus in gas stations. Incredible companies have come along, like Vegenaise, Tofurky, Silk, Earth Balance, Beyond Meat, Field Roast, Hampton Creek, Neat, Vegg and Gardein – changing the game for vegan eats nationally. Plus there are now no shortage of non-leather shoes and belts and coats, as well as cruelty-free cosmetics, soaps and beauty products. Even AAA advertises their “vegan luggage options.” There is a growing vegan community. Basically, I am no longer alone.
On this occasion of my veganniversary, I wanted to think about what change in the world my being vegan has meant. First, my own health – after all, I am alive to tell this story against medical prediction. Second, according to some counts, by not eating animals for 20 years, I have spared at least 1,860 lives. How much water, land and natural resources have I saved? Hard to guess, but since eating vegan has a greater impact on conservation than driving a hybrid, my estimate is that the numbers are pretty high. Plus we drive a hybrid.
My goat friend, Faint, at Burleigh Manor Animal Sanctuary. Second cutest guy I know, after my husband!
I feel like there is a lot more I could say about the past 20 years. But instead of going on and on, I’d rather close with two recipes. These were the first two vegan favorites I made. Both are based on Vegetarian Times recipes I altered to be vegan and suit my fancy. Both were made so many times, they were just part of my routine for more than a decade. And they’re still delicious.
To celebrate my 20 year veganniversary, I invite you to share two of my favorite, simple dishes… dijon tofu and carob chip cookies. Enjoy!
Peace, the Bohemian Girl (aka Rissa)
This is just a marinade. You can eat the tofu any way you like. Grill it. Stir fry it. Toss it in a salad. Plop it on some rice. Fold it into a wrap. You may come to crave this as much I as did… beware!
1 block firm tofu, frozen and thawed
3 Tbl. dijon mustard
3 Tbl. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or soy sauce
3 Tbl. lemon juice
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tbl. sesame oil (or use olive oil, if that’s what you have)
Once tofu is frozen and thawed, press out water and cut into cubes or strips, as desired. you don’t need to use frozen/thawed tofu, but the texture holds the marinade much better!
Mix together dijon, Bragg’s, lemon juice, minced garlic and sesame oil. Pour over tofu cubes in a container with a lid. Allow to marinade overnight or up to 24 hours. Eat any way you like!
My favorite thing is to put it in a food storage container and shake it up, then just add the tofu to marinade. This can easily be doubled, as well.
~ adapted from the Vegetarian Times
Carob Chip Cookies
1 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
2 cups all purpose or white whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup vegan carob chips
Preheat oven to 350. Cover two baking sheets in parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Sift together whole wheat flour, all purpose flour, baking soda and cinnamon in a large bowl.
In a second bowl, combine applesauce, vanilla and maple syrup. Pour into dry ingredients and fold together. Dough will be thick and sticky. Gently add carob chips until they are speckled throughout.
Roll 1-tablespoon side balls of dough and place them on the baking sheet. Use cool water on your hands if dough is sticky. Makes about 3 dozen cookies
Bake at 350 for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are set and carob chips are soft, but not melted. Allow to cool on baking sheets 5 minutes before moving/eating.
~adapted from Vegetarian Times