I am not sure where to place the credit (or blame?) for the dietary restrictions I endured the past month. It may have been the subject matter of the past few columns causing a growing, not quite fully repressed, need to exercise an active conscience before devouring things. It might just have been my growing, not quite fully ignorable waistline.
Vegetarianism has undergone interesting transformations since it was my way of life for several years. In the early 80's being a vegetarian was one of the great reasons to start learning how to cook, up there with moving out of home or trying to stay on a budget without eating rubbish. Not too long afterwards scorning meat would become popular enough to lose its social stigma but I can still remember the absolute bafflement that often resulted when veggies tried to eat out.
In those days a vegetarian offering could be anything from a dish 'without much meat in it' - evoking images of spam, egg, beans, spam and spam - to chicken - that's not really meat is it?
Indian cuisine was the first logical haven, but as catering consciousness arose there were soon a few token choices, mostly of the mashed-veg-shaped-into-a-burger variety, on most menus. This quickly evolved into what seemed like full acceptance, helped in part by widening choice in general, and ethnic cuisines with stronger vegetarian traditions.
Now there are plenty of options for the non-carnivore, but I seem to detect that attitudes have bumped the bloodless diner to the wayside again. Trying everything available - and nearly everything really is available now - has become proper foodie etiquette these days. Vegetarians are better understood, but their concerns seem to have gone past their sell-by-date. Jeering attitudes like this are more evident.
Although a part of me still resents this, I have to confess that I have more sympathy with the try-anything-once school of thought. And the smell of frying bacon was a constant torment and reminder of how little of a fragrant forbidden ingredient could have sufficed to transform even the most ascetic of meals. In the end, the bacon won, and all its allies followed.
Nevertheless, I can remember a definite feeling of lightness and health from those meatless years, and had developed a cooking repertoire that made it an easy way of life. For some unknown reason I decided to try an extreme version in an attempt to recapture the challenge of the old days.
Vegetarianism being a piece of cake these days, I thought a fairly militant veganism would be an appropriate way to make up for lost time. Out with animals, dairy, sugar, processed foods and grains. And of course no alcohol, coffee, oily goodies or other unhealthy temptations that didn't happen to be on the first list.
There were still plenty of old friends that made the grade. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, pulses, herbs and spices. Wonderful, nutty, short-grain brown rice. After about a week I could feel a noticeable rise in energy and it was impossible to achieve that all too familiar dull, bloated feeling after a meal. How hard could this be?
Very hard. The experiment raises consciousness levels - one becomes acutely aware of how unsuitable 99% of the corner store's wares are with a strictly health-first attitude. And I confess to being handicapped by being unable to see how processing a liquid out of a soya bean and calling it milk qualifies for the label of 'natural' food. I considered sampling the even odder process that results in soy becoming 'cheese', but could not arrange the necessary bank loan. I was a vegan that had lost the faith.
After a few weeks even the obvious advantages were being worn down by the increasingly loud cries from bacon and his friends. The cooking imagination and repertoire got a heavy work-out, but with so many restrictions one begins to notice with horror that once loved ingredients have long overstayed their welcome.
When Swedish scientists announce they have found a link between such staples as bread and potatoes and cancer, food producers show more alarm than consumers. There is no way people are going to stop cooking starchy foods. A week later another Swedish study indicates drinking milk fights similar cancers. Can drinking cow milk really be so good for adults? Sorry, now there are just too many rules, and they are changing too often. Soon a balanced meal will be one whose courses neutralise each other.
I was thinking of offering a few of the recipes that made my month as an extreme vegan palatable, but couldn't help adding footnotes that they would be tastier with a scattering of meat, which dents their credibility. I do feel clearly better for the experience though, and would do it again. And I expect it will take some time before this suspicion wears off, which probably doesn't hurt. You can be too careful, but it isn't that easy to manage.
Jonathan Tisdall is a Japanese-Irish-American freelance journalist who emigrated to London before settling in Norway. This has resulted in a wide range of influences, and he still occasionally forgets where he is.
© Jonathan Tisdall, 2002