Veganuary, Schmanuary!

For the recipe pictured above, click here (Moo Goo Gai Pan)

January always seems like the perfect time to try something new! New year, new YOU! Most of the time, those new things revolve around the general notions of improving health, fitness, and diet. Additionally, there seems to be a lot of focus these days on mental health practices that lessen stress and anxiety. At the core of this ideology, you see commitments to simplifying, relaxing, and centering – we will get to that in other blogs though. Let’s talk about food. Many people around the country kicked off this new year (2021) by joining celebrities, social media influencers, athletes, and neighbors and friends in VEGANUARY! The pledge is to spend the whole 31 days of January eating vegan/plant-based foods. I am already vegan but I was just as excited as nonvegans to join the challenge! To be supportive! Comradery. Camaraderie. All that. Blah blah blah. Last year (2020), during the month of January, I decided to practice an uber-vegan diet by eating only 100% whole foods; no processed products whatsoever. I did, however, make a small exception for the occasional tofu and nutritional yeast – I always factor in a wee cheat so I don’t feel guilty when I cave (guilt will be my next blog topic – OY!). I also gave up alcohol for the entire month last year. It was an extremely hard month but I made it! And, I learned a lot. These sorts of month-long challenges/practices force you to think about what you eat, to read ingredients on labels, and to do some research. It’s awakening for sure.

This year, since we are still in the throes of the Covid crisis, giving up my Friday Fancy Cocktails seemed totally unrealistic and maybe even a little inappropriate. Everything going on right now is made better and clearer by a nice, sophisticated adult-style beverage. I also decided not to give up things like tofu and instead try different recipes and methods of preparing vegan food. I even ordered some of the new vegan products that have sprouted up over the last year; most of which would probably be considered processed, but oh so good. My goal this year is to get out of my rut of eating the same food all the time, so I can continue to grow and challenge myself in the kitchen.

I’m not going to lie, I really joined Veganuary because Mayim Bialik posted it on social media. I was curious about how the program leaders would present the ideologies related to veganism and I figured there might be some good recipes to boot. As I mentioned in one of my blogs last year, hatred toward vegans in the U.S. is real. It’s seen more as a form of social elitism rather than about diet, health, and ethics. The leaders of Veganuary even mentioned this in one of their daily emails. Veganuary’s Stuart Giddens, who keeps us veganuarians on track and offers excellent guidance and tidbits, said [paraphrasing] it might not be the best idea to shout you are vegan from the rooftops. People aren’t always friendly toward vegans. But, beyond the social pariah factor, lack of understanding and fear of the unknown are what really challenge people who are interested in experimenting with veganism. I teach a class at the university about sense of place and how food, music, tradition, and story shape how we perceive our identity. Of all of these factors, I believe food to be the most powerful. Food is the foundation of our celebrations, expressions, emotions, and culture. We sing about food (Cheeseburgers in Paradise). We tell stories about food and food preparations. We share hundreds of years of traditions in our food. We really are what we eat! And, at least in American culture, meat is usually the main dish and the vegetables merely serve a complimentary role as “sides.” I think that’s why there is such animosity toward vegans. Veganism seems to be a slap in the face to our American family traditions and the bond we share as community. Imagine the Montana cattle rancher’s child who decides to become vegan. Whoa! Or, telling your award-winning Grillin’ Granny that you can’t eat her barbeque anymore because you don’t eat meat. That’s never the best way to Granny’s heart!

The other issue, which is really what I want to talk about, is trying to find what tastes good and is satisfying to YOU.  We don’t all “taste” things the same way. A good example of this is cilantro. Some people think it should be included, in large amounts, in every dish at every meal, yet others think it tastes like soap. It basically boils down to the density of papillae on your tongue – those little bumps you see in the mirror when you stick out your tongue – and how your brain processes flavors. Folks who have a lot of bumps (supertasters) are usually more sensitive to things, like spice, than those whose bumps (subtasters) are less dense. Read this – it’s interesting! So, if you’ve ever heard someone say, “I can’t believe you eat those extra hot peppers like that; you must not have any taste buds,”  – it’s sort of accurate. In addition, when we are introduced to new tastes and textures, we don’t always like them at first, but we can “learn” to like them. Think of all the things you didn’t like when you were a kid but are now on your top-20 hits list. It’s about acquired taste and developing the palate. There are five basic tastes: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. The first three are easy to learn; it’s bitter and umami that take time to discern and appreciate. And, well, even defining umami is just about impossible; you just know it when you taste it! The best ways to improve the palate are trying new foods, being adventurous, and savoring your food (focusing on the taste and eating slowly).

My point with all of this is sometimes you have to try new things more than once. It might be that you like one flavor of the food more than another. Or, the texture and taste changes and is more pleasing to you if it’s prepared another way. Or, one brand tastes or smells better that another. As my mama would have said, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Soooo, you know I have a story, right? Of course, I do! I remember when I was about 5 years old, my mom let me go to a friend’s for dinner – it was my first time without her, so she gave me three strict rules to eat by. She reminded me that a) I was never to say I didn’t like something to my friend’s mother (I was raised before men learned to cook), b) I was not to put my elbows on the table, and c) I was to “clean my plate.” I agreed to these parameters and eagerly ran across the yard in the middle of the four-plex to my friend’s apartment. Everything smelled so good and it was served “family-style” – not how we did at all. I quickly eyed a bowl of what I thought was mashed potatoes – I LOVE potatoes!!! I proceeded to spoon a double (may even triple) portion of this white gloriousness onto my plate – I was so excited to dig in. A shoveled a whole fork full in my mouth and all of a sudden, my brain said THESE ARE NOT POTATOES!!! OMG! What is this?! I quickly swallowed them whole, trying not to activate my taste buds, and washed whatever this was down with a huge gulp of milk. I repeated this process until it was all gone – mom’s orders. YUCK. When I got home, mom wanted to know all about dinner, what we had, etc. I told her she served something REALLY yucky. I tried to describe it but all I could say was yuck. Mom learned later that my friend’s mom had presented me with boiled mushy cauliflower; no butter, or salt, or anything else flavorful was added (my interpretation of course). My mom, being the good woman she was, set out to give me a reparative experience. She prepared some steamed cauliflower, loaded it into a casserole dish, added some buttery bechamel sauce, and topped it with about a pound of sharp cheddar cheese. She baked it until it was bubbly on top and just a wee brown. She didn’t tell me what it was when she served it but I remember the gooey, stringy wonderfulness of that first bite. SO GOOD!  After dinner, she informed me that I just ate the same thing I had at my friend’s house. The lesson? Sometimes it’s about how you prepare the food. I love cauliflower just about any way it’s cooked now but I had to “train” my palate in cheesy increments to acquire the taste. I’ve had the same relationship with oats my entire life. I have just recently found a way to prepare them that suits my fancy.

I write all this to say, trying new ways of preparing food is fulfilling in itself but when you do so with purpose (like ideology, ethics, environmentalism, or even curiosity), it’s life-giving on every level – mentally, physically, intellectually, spiritually. It is my goal to use this webpage to share recipes that offer optional preparations and ingredients; so you can experiment until you get it “right.” These recipes take time to perfect and upload to the page, so please bear with me. I am horrible about measuring, so I have to create the recipes with sharing them in mind. I tend to meld multiple recipes until I find the perfect combination of ingredients. In the meantime, I have the following few suggestions for vegan guidance in the kitchen (my top five):