The week Giles and Esther went vegan (article from today’s Times magazine)

Here is an article published in today’s Times Magazine, written by the gorgeous Esther Walker.  I’ve scribbled my thoughts below it….

Giles Coren and Esther Walker photographed at home in London. Photographed by John Carey

Esther Walker loves a burger, and her husband, restaurant critic Giles Coren, eats anything and everything for a living. So how will they survive giving up meat and dairy?

Are you or aren’t you? Lily Cole is. So is Brad Pitt. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were  (for 22 days). Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow are (on and off). Jamie  Oliver is rumoured to have dabbled. And Jamie Hince was (until he walked in  on Kate Moss in her knickers making him a bacon sandwich).

I’m talking about veganism, obviously. Along with the 5:2 diet, it’s the new  food mantra. The off-duty A-list accessory used to be a milky Starbucks to  go; now it’s a green juice.

Veganism was once just for crazy hippies or obsessive-compulsive Californians,  but now it’s busting into the mainstream. You can join in with Veganuary –  going vegan for January – the Movember of the dieting calendar. There are  even glossy vegan cookbooks. Once they were just cheap, picture-less  paperbacks. Now they have actual photos and shiny paper. Last year’s It’s  All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow and the new The Vegan Pantry by Dunja  Gulin and Leon: Fast Vegetarian by Henry Dimbleby and Jane Baxter are  all glossy, all lifestyle.

And if vegan is just too hardcore, you can mix’n’match. The New  York Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote VB6, a book praising a  “flexitarian” diet – ie, eating only vegan food before 6pm and then whatever  you like.

The strict diet once based on an animal-loving ideology (no honey, no leather  shoes) has been hijacked by the A-list, and veganism is now well and truly a  fad.

So I decide to do it. One week as a vegan. How hard can it be? My husband,  Giles Coren, restaurant critic of The Times, is game for anything,  though he has always found vegans or vegetarians or any extreme dieter  sinister. Hitler, he always points out, was a vegetarian. “It’s a short step  from nut cutlets to Belsen,” he will say loudly to anyone who will listen.

But if he had his way he’d eat mostly plants at home. If I ever go out in the  evening, he will make himself a bowl of edamame beans or braised kale – and  nothing else – for dinner. He is fanatical about not getting fat, which as a  restaurant critic is a major occupational hazard. “Veganism isn’t about  eating sugar and bread in the place of meat,” he says. “It’s about just  eating lots and lots and lots of veg. And adding more salt. You just have to  think like a vegan. It’s like being kosher – it’s a diet that emerged from  working with what’s available. The trouble with being vegan here, now, is  that there’s too much available. Imagine you live in a forest surrounded by  mostly nuts and berries…”

I am a self-taught cook and one lesson I learnt early on was that almost  anything is delicious if you cover it in a lot of butter and salt and  cheese. I like eating meat but I think I could eat less and not miss it.  It’s butter, yoghurt, cheese and milk I will miss. Frothy coffees, bircher  muesli – farewell, dear friends.

It’s all right for Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who went vegan briefly towards the end  of last year: they don’t have to think about the practicalities of whatever  new diet they fancy. They can just skype their personal chef and say, “We’re  vegan now,” and then be presented with completely edible, thoughtful, vegan  food three times a day. If I’m going to be vegan, I can’t just do an  “instant shop” at my online grocery shop. I am going to have to make an  effort. Urgh.

So I know being vegan will be hard, but I don’t think it will be awful. I am a  good cook. I am creative. I can do this.

I didn’t think I would find myself, as I do, sitting at my kitchen table at  7.15pm on my first day of veganism, crying (just a tiny bit) and eating a  bagel covered in cream cheese, while drinking a (non-vegan) beer. Yes, there  are some non-vegan beers. Didn’t you know? There’s a fish oil, used in  beer’s clarification process, called isinglass, and so for the truly vegan,  these are out.

It all started out fine. The first morning I have muesli with soy milk and  then soy milk in my tea. Not terrific, but never mind. The rest of the day  was a lot like being on any old tedious weight-loss diet. Handfuls of nuts  here and there, fruit, chopped veg and miso soup for lunch.

“It’s going to be a long old week,” I think at about 4pm as I am cling to my  children’s tea: fish fingers in butter for Kitty, 3; sweet potato, spinach  and cheese purée for Sam, 6 months. Lucky them. It all smells amazing.  Normally, I fall on their leftovers like a fox on a bin. Not tonight.

Tonight, dinner for Giles and me is a seaweed salad with ponzu dressing and  then a vegetable broth of my own creation made with garlic, chilli and soy.  It will be plain, I tell myself, but delicious. I always order seaweed salad  in Japanese restaurants because it is my favourite thing.

But the seaweed that I have bought from my local health-food shop, and which  is now boiling in a pan on my stove, is just an evil, stinking, horrible  mess. It’s like alien intestine. Not food. Simply not for eating.

“Phew, what’s that smell?” says Giles, coming into the kitchen.

“Seaweed. It’s disgusting,” I say, carrying the still steaming pan out into  the garden, dumping it on the compost and returning to the stinking kitchen.

The broth is no better. It tastes of nothing, like spicy hot water with some  veg floating in it. The rice noodles I add at the last minute taste like  very fine shoelaces. Giles covers the whole lot with salt and declares it  “perfectly OK. It’s just underseasoned, that’s all.”

But Giles, as discussed, will eat pretty much anything as long as it is hot  and he can cover it in salt.

I can’t finish mine; I still have the death stench of the revolting seaweed in  my nostrils. “I look forward to my dinner all day long,” I whine to no one  in particular. “I am tired. I’ve got two children. Having a nice dinner and  a glass of wine is pretty much what keeps me going during the 800th  rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider and bloody bathtime.”

I feel cheated and upset. So I gobble down a huge onion bagel, covered in  cream cheese, and wash it down with the beer. As soon as Giles is out of the  room I let out a few tears of disappointment and frustration. Then I chase  the feeling away with a bar of Dairy Milk. Then I hate myself for the rest  of the night.

It’s just an emotional attachment to animal fat, I think next morning as I  spread Flora on a piece of rye toast. It’s like trying to give up smoking.  You think cigarettes are your friends. Cheese and cream are not my friends!

Just as elevenses rolls around I happen to be eating an apple and wheeling Sam  past a Pret A Manger; from inside I can hear a flat white and a pot of  bircher muesli jumping up and down and screaming, “Drink me! Eat me! Yummy  yummy!” I resist. But only just. Giles often looks horrified at how much  dairy I consume – he would turn green at the thought of drinking a huge  frothy coffee followed by a pot of yoghurt. “All that sloshing around in  you. No wonder you’re knackered all the time. And, you know…” He pats his  hips. Maybe he’s right.

I feel trapped without animal fat to fall back on. It’s a simple, essential  building block of taste, of flavour. I didn’t think I cared much about food.  I didn’t think I had an emotional relationship with it. I pride myself on  being unfussy, on eating anything from a cold jellyfish salad in an obscure  Chinese restaurant to a McDonald’s cheeseburger, and finding merits in both.

When I’m on a diet I can tune out the world and snack on hazelnuts, apples and  carrot juice. But not all day long. Not for ever. At some point I will go  insane and shoot up the high street in search of a cheese sandwich.

“Just make a big salad,” nags Giles. “A big crunchy salad. Your salads are  delicious.” Yes, I want to reply (but don’t, because I value my life), my  salads are delicious because I make the dressing with about a pint of  mayonnaise and snip in bits of bacon or chicken – or, at the very least,  some cheese.

Giles has become competitive about all this. I explained at the start that he  didn’t have to be vegan all day, just that he would have to eat vegan  dinners with me. But now he is coming home declaring, “Well, I had a fully  vegan day today. I feel great.” I don’t want to say that I had a fully vegan  day, too, and I just feel empty and bored. Maybe he is a natural fanatic,  like Hitler. (I don’t say this, either.)

We are having some friends round for dinner, who are warned that it will be  vegan.

I was going to wing it again with tofu curry but I have lost my nerve. I ring  up a friend and beg for his two best vegan curry recipes.

Both use, in the place of animal fat, a lot of nuts; both use curry pastes of  the usual garlic, chilli, ginger and spices with additional sesame seeds,  cashew nuts or peanuts. I am so down on veganism by now that I am convinced  both will be disgusting and that I will have to run out for pizza. But they  are both absolutely terrific. We all clean our plates and drink some strong  red wine and talk about how, actually, this vegan thing is OK. “This is  great stuff,” declares Giles. “We should eat like this all the time.”

But, later, I find him eating a ham and peanut butter sandwich by the light of  the fridge. “Look,” he says, licking something off a greasy finger, “you  can’t possibly be a vegan if you’re pissed.” He burps richly and then heads  towards Match of the Day.

After the successful vegan curries, I make vegan tortillas. I am pleased as  punch with these, which use a fresh tomato, cucumber, avocado and sweetcorn  salsa. I make a batch of Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous “Mexican green goddess”  dressing – an entire herbaceous border put in a blender with some vegan  mayonnaise, which is not as nasty as it sounds. Giles is not as crazy about  these because he is an even bigger carb-dodger than me. After four flour  tortillas he boings his hands off his tummy and says, “I feel like I’ve been  blown up with a bicycle pump.”

Overconfident now, for the next dinner I make a different nut-based curry (as  a vegan, without nuts or curry you are a bit lost), but something goes  wrong. Although it works well and is more than edible, I feel bloated and  perfectly sick for the first half of the next day. I can barely face my  falafel lunch until about 2.30pm.

At the end of the week I don’t feel better and I’ve put on weight. Before I  started I was 9st 9½lb; now I am 9st 10lb. Cheers for that.

Veganism is, if you ask me, just not necessary. We should all be more mindful  of what we consume, eat more plants and less meat. And, if you do feel  non-specifically ropey all the time, then an exclusion diet such as veganism  can locate gluten or dairy as the culprit.

But the faddism and freakiness (real or invented) of celebrities and their  diets knows no bounds; it is just an externalisation of their rampant  solipsism. This kind of craziness is simply not meant for the likes of you  and me. The key to a healthy life, as everyone knows, is everything in  moderation. And that’s the hardest thing of all.

Besides being very amusing – this article is really frustrating!  There is absolutely no reference as to the many very important reasons why someone might choose to go vegan – Esther’s only reason for trying it seems to be because some celebs are doing it and that she seems to eat a lot of dairy and worries that it might be sticking to her thighs….  If these are your only motivations for going vegan then no wonder she was buried in a cream cheese slathered bagel by the end of day one – I’m surprised she got that far actually.  I know how little resolve I’ve had in the past for half-hearted fad diets in an attempt to shift my semi-resident love handles.  I rarely got past eleven I clock without leaping into the biscuit tin.  But I managed to go vegan over night and haven’t looked back once. 

How?  What’s the difference?  Well just about everything.  You can’t compare veganism with a faddy weight-loss diet in any way shape or form! Veganism is about soooo much more than trying to shift a few pounds (although weight loss is a lovely bonus!).  But to change your entire eating habits over night on a momentary whim is of course going to end up in failure and tears!  Veganism is about eating in the most compassionate, sustainable, environmentally-friendly way that you can, and if done properly and carefully, it is also an incredibly healthy way to live.  But I would happily admit that one of the biggest downsides by far of veganism is having to give up many of your favourite foods but the thing that makes it all worthwhile and enables you to carry on, is knowing that you are no longer a part of something which is having such a devastating effect on the environment in so many different ways; that you are no longer part of the evil hideousness that is factory farming; that you are no longer a tiny cog in the cruel, pointless and wasteful wheel of the dairy industry; that you are no longer contributing to the mindless slaughter of millions and millions of innocent animals every day.  Now that’s what makes people persevere with tofu over tuna, lentils over lamb and mushrooms over mince!   

Do vegans care less about taste, flavour and food?  Of course not!  Usually the exact opposite in fact – most vegans I know are huge foodies.  I certainly use a far bigger variety of flavours, spices, pickles, sauces, marinades, herbs and oils now than I ever did before.  My pestle and mortar has never been so battered and bruised, or my chopping knives needed sharpening so often!     

Do I miss croissants, nutella and slow roast belly of pork?  Sometimes.  Enough that it tempts me to give in occasionally? No. Am I now used to vegan mayonnaise and veggie bugers?  Yes.  Have I grown to actually love them even?  Yes.  Have I now got a plentiful supply of really delicious vegan meals up my sleeve? Absolutely.  Do I have as much choice on the average restaurant menu?  Hell no.  Over all is it worth it?  100% yes. 

But maybe that’s just me. 

 

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