Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Tale of Tastebuds - Advice for New Vegans, Seasoned Vegans, and the Vegan Curious...

Since going vegetarian, and then vegan I’ve witnessed many different changes, both physically and mentally within my body. There are of course the standard things you might expect - weight loss, increased energy, improved mood, better digestion, etc. - but the one thing that never occurred to me to consider is the one thing that never, ever fails to amaze me - even now after nearly 3 years of veganism - and that’s the changes that took place within my tastebuds, and my those of my ever-developing palate.

The two most common reasons omnivores always give me for why they could never go vegan are these. 1) I could never give up - insert animal flesh or by-product here - because I’d miss it too much. And 2) I could never go vegan because I don’t like - insert nuts, beans, tofu, tempeh, or assorted vegetable here. These are the two most common reasons people give me personally when I’m engaged in conversations about veganism, and to be honest I think they’re both pretty silly reasons. After all, people - most people - don’t go vegan because they don’t like the taste of animal-flesh or animal by-products. People go vegan for their health, for the animals, for the environment, and when you go vegan for these reasons it becomes a part of your ideology. If it’s something you truly want, then you make it happen, end of story, and overtime you forget that you ever liked this product or that product and you realize that yes, you really can live without meat, or cheese, and wow it’s actually super easy. We vegans know this well enough and I think a lot of omnivores know it too even if they’re not ready to admit it, but it isn’t this that I want to really talk about. What I really wanted to address today was the second reason that people give for not being able to go vegan. The “I don’t like this/that” reason. I think most people have some sort of preconceived notions about one type of food or another. Sometimes it’s based on a childhood experience, or a really bad meal they had once, sometimes it's reinforced by the media, and sometimes it’s based on nothing at all.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. Close your eyes, and think back to your childhood. Did your mom or dad ever cook something that you didn’t particularly like? I’m sure they did, after all it’s pretty universal, but did they ever tell you that when you grew up your tastebuds would change? Well my Mom sure did, and you know, she was right. Over the years growing out of childhood and into adulthood as an omnivore my tastebuds changed here and there, and my preferences for certain foods shifted. Not a lot, but noticeably, slowly I became a more adventurous eater. When I went vegan however my tastebuds, flavor preferences and food preferences all shifted monumentally. Of course it didn’t happen all at once, it took time, perhaps it was a gradual shift that took place over the course of a year, maybe my palate is still developing who knows, but changes did occur.

I remember when I first became vegan I would often hear other vegans - usually vegan authors and educators, - talk about food, the things they cooked, the things they liked, and so often the foods they were talking about seemed so super simplistic to me. I thought how could I ever chow down with relish on a bowl of raw kale coated thinly in lemon juice, olive oil, maple syrup and salt? It didn’t seem reasonable to me, and it didn’t seem realistic. Plain steamed veggies with a drizzle of olive oil didn’t sound appetizing to me, baked tofu didn’t sound good. I thought these people were scamming, I was perfectly committed to veganism by then but I didn’t quite get what they were talking about. I wasn’t a junk food vegan either, - though I did eat more oil, salt, sugar, pastry, and convenience foods then, than I ever would now. - but still I thought all this high-minded talk of loving the natural taste of food, and how plain vegetables were more amazing then anything else on the planet was all a bit of a ruse. A charlatan trick to convert more to the cause, but I was already converted and so I just shook my head in skeptical disbelief. I think a lot of brand new vegans might feel this way, certainly vegan-curious omnivores might be a little skeptical, it’s pretty damn hard to transition from the standard American diet to a bowl of steamed kale.

But then it all clicked for me. You see, when you become vegan it’s like a new door opens, a door you’ve never seen before, and out of curiosity you step through and are thrown into a whole new universe of possibilities. You discover all sorts of new foods that you’ve never even heard of let alone seen before, foods you previously thought you didn’t like suddenly start warming up to you and calling your name, you begin combining food groups and flavors you never considered before. All of this happens because there isn’t any meat, and for the most part, for most of us starting out anyway there aren’t any rules. You’re like that kid in a candy store who’s aloud to go wild and crazy. Without meat, and without cheese you’re forced to get creative. What’s for dinner tonight? Well it isn’t roast chicken and potatoes, and it isn’t fried, breaded pork chops and fries, it isn’t a steak sandwich or a bucket of chicken wings, and it’s not a bowl of dairy cheese and butter laden macaroni. You may still want these things in the beginning and so you have to come up with new ways to enjoy them vegan style, and sometimes the best way to satisfy yourself is to go so far out of your tastebuds comfort zone that you’re not sure whether or not you’ll ever make it back.

We’re conditioned to love and crave the taste of fat, salt and sugar. Our plates and our palates are so loaded and coated with animal flesh, animal based foods and animal fats that we’re no longer capable of enjoying the delicate natural taste of plant-based foods. When you go from the SAD diet to vegan or even just vegetarian it takes time for your tastebuds to adjust. It may take you a few days it may take you a few months but the adjustment does eventually come. When you’re an omnivore or a new vegan hearing that for the first time from a seasoned vegan it sounds like hocus pocus, but I can assure you it’s true. The longer you stay away from animal products the more your tastebuds awaken, and the deeper you delve into the world of vegan food and see just how fun and creative it the wider that door opens.

Really, there is such a wealth of food available to us in this country but as omnivores we tend to get stuck in a rut. We make the same old things over and over again and never branch out. There are certain vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains that are entirely neglected in the average American cuisine, many foods don’t even get consumed at all in the standard American diet.  Even health-conscious omnivores aren’t exempt from this fact. I was a health-conscious omnivore once and still there was a world of food that I’d never heard of nor tasted. Omnivores always say veganism is limited, but it’s not. When I think about what I ate as an omnivore and what I eat now as a vegan, I can only describe veganism as expansive and unlimited where as my diet as an omnivore was almost totally restrictive. Meat - vegetable - grain. Meat - vegetable - potato. Pasta with meat and bread, and really, what's more restrictive then eating the same 3 or 4 protein sources day in and day out. - Pork, Beef, Chicken, maybe fish, oh spaghetti again, tacos again, pot roast again? BORING! Take the meat away and you have all the freedom in the world.

This creativity fuels my life. I have never been as adventurous in the kitchen as I have been since going vegan. I love to try new flavors, new tastes, new dishes new foods, new combinations, new cuisines. Heck you best believe that if I come across a food in the grocery store that I’ve never eaten or heard of then I’m going to be buying it, and bringing it home to cook. Excluding meant and dairy of course there isn’t a single food I neglect or refuse to eat these days, and considering I used to be such a picky eater this is pretty damn amazing! Even my husband - a self-described bean and nut hater is slowly changing his ways after nearly 2 years of veganism! - tastebuds change with time, so do preferences and opinions. But it’s all well and good for me to tell you this, if you’re an omnivore or a new vegan and a skeptic like I was then you’re probably thinking I’m just the latest charlatan spewing hocus pocus in an attempt to convert new recruits. But trust me, new vegans, stick with it and you’ll see the changes for yourself.

And since examples are often more powerful then sentiments I’ll leave you with two lists. One is a list of foods I absolutely hated as an omnivore and wouldn’t have eaten to save my life, but now eat with much love and relish. The second list is a list of foods that as an omnivore I’d never heard of or tasted, these foods I never tried until I was vegan, and once I did try them I couldn’t believe I’d never eaten them before because I love them so much.

Foods I absolutely Hated as an Omnivore 

1) Mushrooms - ALL kinds. Since I was a little kid these were the bane of my existence.
2) Beans - all kinds except Chickpeas, and when I grew into my teens I gradually began to enjoy black beans and edamame. All other kinds I hated until I found veganism.
3) Eggplant
4) Fennel - especially the seeds
5) Anise - extract, seeds the lot
6) Brussels Sprouts
7) Dates
8) Avocados
9) Tofu - thought it tasted like mush and made me want to puke
10) Chocolate - I know, strange right? I would eat Chocolate occasionally but I was never a great chocolate lover until I went vegan.
11) Tempeh and Seitan - These I never actually ate as an omnivore but as a new vegan I hated them. And actually didn’t start to like seitan until I started to make my own at home.
12) Arugula
13) Sauerkraut
14) Apple Juice & Apple Sauce
15) Raisins
16) Green Olives, Spanish Olives
17) All Seaweeds
18) Marinara Sauce
19) Spaghetti Squash and Acorn Squash
20) Maple Syrup - I know, strange right?

Foods I’d never eaten or never heard of as an Omnivore 

1) Kale - OMG what? I can’t get enough of this stuff now
2) Collard Greens
3) Mustard and Turnip Greens
4) Dandelion Greens
5) Carrot and Beet Greens
6) Broccoli Rabe
7) Broccolini
8) Kohlrabi
9) White Eggplant
10) Chia Seeds, Sancha Inchi Seeds
11) Quinoa, Millet, Amaranth
12) Red Rice, Forbidden Rice
13) Farro
14) Christmas Lima Beans, Cannellini Beans, Navy Beans, Great Northern Beans, Borlotti Beans,  all heirloom variety beans
15) Micro Greens
16) Fiddleheads
17)Raw Cacao
18) Coconut - like actual real coconuts that you buy in the store and crack open yourself
19) Coconut Butter
20) All nut butters except peanut and almond butter
21) All non-dairy milks except soy
22) All non-dairy cheese, yogurt, butter, and mayo products etc..  (except soy yogurt and rice cheese)
23) All vegan meat products
24) Fresh Figs
25) Polenta
26) Spirulina
27) Blood Oranges
28) Dragon Fruit
29) Capers
30) Virtually all olives except kalamata and black.
31) Tahini
32) Black Sesame Seeds
33) Virtually All Squashes except Butternut, and the ones indicated on the list above.
34) Garlic Scapes
35) Ramps
36) Living Pea Tendrils
37) Daikon Radish
38) Heirloom Tomatoes
39) Beluga Lentils
40) Sichuan Pepper

This is by no means a comprehensive list, I’m sure there are plenty of things I’m forgetting but it gives you a good idea. I mean there are over 50 items on this list that as an omnivore I’d either never eaten or wouldn’t eat and that’s just foods themselves. This doesn’t even include cuisines I would avoid or particular dishes - onion rings I’m looking at you! Yes I had a bad onion ring experience when I was 7 and never touched another onion ring again until after I’d already been vegan a year.

The foods on these lists are foods that I never in a million years thought I would eat or enjoy, and now I eat them all, and love them all. Well I’m still experimenting with fennel and mustard greens but I certainly don’t hate either of those, and in fact I really love them in certain preparations. I think preparation is one of the keys to helping your tastebuds evolve. I always say this, but just because you don’t like something cooked one way, doesn’t mean you won’t like it cooked another way. Trial and error, keep on plugging along until you find that combination that works.

Preparation, Creativity, Strength, and Perseverance. Keep these things in mind and if you’re a struggling new vegan or an omnivore struggling to make the shift to veganism just take it one step at a time, and have faith that overtime your body and your tastebuds will adapt. Your preferences will change, and your senses will awaken to a glorious and magical new way of eating. When the door opens to you, be brave, and step through!

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