During a month-long course on vegan cooking in Spain, I learned how to make a vast range delicious plant-based foods and listened to explanations of why people choose to go vegan. At the end, I decided it wasn't for me.
If veganism was made simple and easy, I would have converted in a heartbeat. But if it was easy, everyone would do it. After four weeks immersed in this lifestyle, I emerged surprisingly disenchanted. Here's why.
What is “Veganism”?
(I still have a lot of questions.)
The school I attended provided plenty of information for non-vegans, like myself. As defined by the Vegan Society, veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose," which seems clear until you get into it.
Most vegans will admit that there are multiple types of veganism; some people completely abstain from animal products of any kind, while others are only truly vegan when it comes to food, and of course each person has his or her own reasons for the decision. Among these nuances, I encountered a few contradictions along the way with which I am still grappling.
One thing that strict vegans give up is honey, because the production of honey requires animals being held in captivity. This seems simple enough. However, bees often also pollinate certain plants while in captivity, like orange trees, in order to capture the flavor of that plant in the honey. So if bees in captivity assist in the production of oranges, how can the oranges be vegan but honey is not?
The school took us on a field trip to see local salt production, which is done with water that washes into the salt paddies from the ocean. With the ocean water comes tiny crustaceans that are irrelevant to the salt production process, but are nonetheless trapped in the salt paddies. Is salt non-vegan because its production captures crustaceans?
Vegans often turn to the Vegan Society for questions and information about veganism. That association declared that it is acceptable for a vegan to kill bacteria, because they lack nervous systems and therefore cannot “feel,” but unacceptable to kill anything that can. However, I saw vegan classmates squash bugs on more than one occasion. Are they not true vegans?
You see my point. Once you start asking questions, you can't stop. It is challenging to commit myself to a major change when I still cannot answer a lot of these fundamental questions about what defines a purely vegan lifestyle.
Vegan Food by Any Other Name is Still Vegan
However, I struggle to see the necessity for some of the vegan "imitations" we made. For example, a piece of tomato sliced just so can resembles raw tuna sushi. While it's rather artistic, if you consciously gave up fish, why pretend to eat it?
Similarly, we made "vegan bacon" out of seaweed crisped in a frying pan, which looks like bacon crumbles but, obviously, tastes like seaweed. I have no problem with seaweed, but naming it after meat undermines the purpose of veganism by aspiring to be the very thing you've vowed to give up.
Vegan chefs should strive to create food that is inherently delicious because it is what it is, without trying to be something it isn't. If you want bacon so badly you're willing to close your eyes and pretend you're eating it, you should probably just give up and eat the damn bacon.
Vegans Aren't Crazy, but I Would Be
Just the logistics of being vegan would consume my life. No more strolling through the dining hall and picking up the foods that look the least scary; as I learned in Spain, you must read every ingredient list, check every label, and even research brands to ensure production is vegan.
Think about navigating family holidays and turning down your grandma's homemade pie because you don't eat eggs. As a pescatarian—I eat seafood but no other meat products—I have a hard enough time without turkey on Thanksgiving. With my family, like most, there would have to be exceptions and splurges for special occasions.
When my friends want to order late night pizza, I don’t want to scour the menu and call the restaurant to inquire into vegan options. The same applies to going out to eat and risking being totally left out if friends want to go somewhere without vegan options. College students barely have time to shower; becoming vegan would be a full-time job.
This is especially true for those who love to travel and immerse themselves in local culture. One classmate had traveled to Thailand and couldn't communicate her dietary restrictions in Thai, so she ate hardly anything for weeks—in the home of every college student's favorite cuisine, no less. If I go to Thailand, I want to eat like the locals do. Because of that, I could probably go vegan at home when I'm cooking for myself, but I would have to make exceptions for travel.
One major takeaway I got was that a semi-vegan diet is more realistic for me. Even though I know the potential risks of eating animal products daily, I can ease into reducing their presence in my diet. For example, cutting down dairy intake to only a couple servings per week, and fish to a couple times per month doesn't make me a vegan but it does make me more conscious and allow me to keep my social life and my sanity.
The Debate Over “Health”
Everyone sees the contradictory studies that grapple with what it means to eat healthily: Pasta Won’t Make You Gain Weight, Wine is Good for Your Memory, 10 Reasons to Eat More Chocolate. Okay, scientists, we get it, you can come up with anything you're paid to come up with.
This is not to say that the vegan diet is unhealthy, because its benefits are fully backed up by years of research. But it might not be the perfect diet for every human on Earth. Just because some science claims that wine is healthy doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you.
When a 45 year-old male thinks of health, he might be concerned about blood pressure, heart disease, or prostate cancer. Those are real concerns, but they are not the same thing that come to mind for me, a 19 year-old college female. I am likely to think of weight loss, skin clarity, and stress or lack of sleep.
During my four weeks at vegan cooking school, while eating almost entirely vegan, I actually gained weight. The delicious vegan food we made was often starchy, sugary, oily, and more. If done right, veganism helps with many ailments. But you can eat french fries for three meals a day and call yourself a vegan.
My biggest takeaway from this experience is moderation. I think everyone should be able to make vegan meals for themselves at home. It can be cheap, quick, and accessible. However, you can still be a smart eater without fully diving into veganism. Cutting back on animal products even just a little might have great impacts on the way you feel.
I am excited to incorporate vegan food into my diet and I am eager to share what I learned with my friends and family. Although this was not the completely life-changing experience I expected, I now feel much more informed when I am making food choices.