January has been dubbed “Veganuary” in recent years, with a campaign to encourage people to “go vegan”. I have always been in the camp of “that’s weird”, and didn’t really feel the need to try and change my eating habits just because it’s a new month. I also never subscribed to the “Dry January” campaign either, but that is because I am not a heavy drinker and so if a cocktail came my way, I wasn’t going to decline the generous offer. I talk about drinking much more than I actually get to drink — my body can take two cocktails a week max — but my crazy collection of alcohol might give you another impression.
In 2015, my husband and I went to a nutritionist for some tests and investigation. The results were interesting, and the regime that the lady offered me was pretty strict. No wheat, no soy, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, no sugar. No Fun! Seriously, with restrictions like that, who could possibly consider change? I could imagine myself as the one crying my eyes out while gnawing on a stick of celery in the corner! She told me about FODMAPs, I downloaded an app, and away I went. I can definitely say that not much change occurred in my diet.
At this point, my husband and I had not been drinking regular milk for a while. We had been on rice milk for ages, had returned to cow milk for a while, but then we switched to coconut or oat milk. Amid the craze for almond milk, I find it too watery and coconut doesn’t curdle in tea or coffee. The coconut milk was good. I noticed a few changes in my health. I started buying lactose-free cheese products. Things were ok, but dairy was still present in my diet through ice cream and such. Slowly, I have started to research and try non-dairy products. In 2019, I started buying dairy-free cheeses and experimenting with oat-based creams.
The ‘wake-up call’ happened a few times when I would eat something with dairy, only to feel absolutely horrible for two days. The rumbling and churning of my stomach and intestines would cause so much pain, it confined me to sitting or laying down. I told my husband, “I have felt this way before, almost daily, but I just thought it was due to stress or work or something. I lived with this feeling all the time. I didn’t realise it was caused by food.” And that, is how this all began.
During lockdown, I spent time on TikTok and saw lots of vegans cooking. Let me be clear, I’m not a ‘vegan’, nor do I think the vegan community would welcome me as one of their own. But they were using this dairy-free cheese in their recipes, and I was vegan-curious. Then, as I would subscribe to one chef or another, I started to see how they would substitute ingredients for vegan-friendly options. I got more curious — could it taste as good as it looked?
Living in London since 2001, I have learned the ‘art’ of substitution. It is a necessity when you are craving some American dish, but the Brits don’t have it. Or the ingredients. I have become a master in the art of reverse engineering and substituting foods in order to create dishes that I miss from Texas. Pimento cheese spread is one of my culinary masterpieces. A typical down-home food that doesn’t exist in England, so I had to scramble to find the ingredients (they don’t have pimentos in a small jar here — I had to get fancy and create my own or use some kind of Italian ingredients) and experiment with the right portion of mayo, sugar and vinegar. (side note: vinegar here is also limited to malt, distilled, or white wine. So you can never achieve the sourness that you can in Texas. It’s a mystery.)
If you have read my Thanksgiving blog, you’ll know that I am one to hunt and seek out ingredients in order to create food. All of this substituting and reverse engineering became something of a hobby for me, and offered little challenges that made the success of creating the food item even more glorious!
Now, with that in mind, you can see how the vegans pulled me in. “Come on, Amber…. we are experimenting with food and ingredients. We are having fun! It’s like a science experiment!” They called to me, and I was indeed intrigued. In 2018, we bought some delicious 18-month aged parmesan at a Christmas market in Vienna. I brought it home, cut it into small pieces, used my food vacuum (yes, I have one - yes, it is awesome - yes, you should buy one) to store it in the freezer. I would pull a piece out every once in a while and use it in our cheese grater that lived in the drawer of the fridge. Soon, the parmesan was the suspect in my stomach pain. “Oh come on!” I said. “It’s just a tiny bit of parmesan on my grits! Why is it making me feel horrible?” But then, I saw this lady on Tiktok create some vegan parmesan from nutritional yeast, cashews, garlic powder and salt. I tried it. Tastes great! No pain! Sold!!
As a former flight attendant, I can tell you that on a flight — food is entertainment. In lockdown, that statement is again true. Food became entertainment, and cooking (as has always been a passion) was something for me to do when I couldn’t conduct tours. So, while browsing on TikTok, I discovered the lovely Tabitha Brown, @cafemaddy, and a few other vegan cooks, and started to try out these ingredient-subbing recipes (aka vegan stuff). It was fun. It was tasty. It was easy.
I started to notice that the vegan culture, which is riddled with stereotypes and also genuine crazy people, sets up an opportunity for someone to have an identity crisis. At one point, we went an entire month on a vegan diet. But we weren’t vegans. We don’t have strong beliefs in areas that really matter to vegans. I mean, we are from Texas — livestock becomes food. It’s a fact. And in the time when I did eat steak, I liked it rare. Still do !(background: we stopped eating beef in 2001, but we eat all kinds of other meats. It’s a long story. Maybe a future post?) Was I becoming a vegan? That’s impossible….
I credit Tabitha Brown (@iamtabithabrown) as a catalyst for much of this change. She has found phenomenal success as a vegan. She also gives amazing little TikTok pep talks! In an interview, she talked about some of the misconceptions about being a vegan. She said that as a black woman, she always thought it was a ‘white person thing’ because she had never seen a black person talk about being vegan. She said she thought it was ‘too expensive’ because the processed foods (like burgers or cheese or ready made desserts) are pricey, but she explained that by just eating raw foods and wholefoods, you can avoid the expensive stuff. That perked me up. I have always associated the vegan world with a price tag. But then she said that she had suffered from health problems, and after watching a film called What the Health, she decided to go vegan for one month. At the end, her body was a testament to the process, so she stayed on the diet.
My husband and I watched the film, and his words were shocking. “Let’s try it!” What? Come again? Really?! So we did. I started making foods with veggies and mushrooms instead of meat. Again, it was lockdown and I needed something to do. I started with simple stuff… I made my amazing enchiladas (seriously, my enchiladas are out of this world) with zucchini (which is courgette here in England!) instead of slow-cooked chicken. Verdict: Tasted the same and didn’t get stuck in our teeth! This is a serious victory — I floss way more than the average person.
Next, I tried my General Tso’s recipe. Again, this dish doesn’t exist in the UK (believe me, I have searched all the Chinese restaurants) so I have already reverse engineered and perfected this dish. But now, I used eggplant (UK - aubergine), mushrooms, zucchini, and a few other things instead of chicken. Verdict: Tasted the same, almost more filling.
This adventure in cooking continued. I would watch a vegan TikTok, give it a try, announce to my husband, “This is a plant-based meal” and we would be shocked at how good it was. (let’s be clear, not shocked in my culinary skills, but shocked at how the meat was not missed) The option for no meat also served another purpose. During the lockdowns, I noticed more and more that meat I purchased in the stores would go bad quicker than usual. It started happening on every shop. I would buy some chicken thighs, they would have 6 days left on their sell by date, but I would open them on the day of shopping and they would smell off. The more times this happened, the angrier I got at how much money I was wasting. Plus, going back to the store (via bike) with an open container of meat for a refund isn’t ideal. So, the no-meat option really started to solve this problem.
There is alot of connotation and negativity that might be associated with the vegan label, so I am not here to profess that “I am vegan” — because I’m not. I still love meat and fish. In my fridge right now is a package of pepperoni and I will thoroughly enjoy it later today as I make French Bread pizzas. I will still be ordering some venison chateaubriand to make a version of beef wellington. I’m also not doing this because of the killing of animals. I mean, I love animals…. but I also order steak by asking to “Knock its horns off, wipe its butt and put it on my plate.” I’m also not motivated by the links with vegan and climate change, yet I am noticing that I am using less waste by making these small changes. So while I didn’t sign up for all of the philosophical stuff, it is actually a bi-product of choosing to eat a plant-based diet. I’m not going to be waving the vegan flag in anyone’s face, because that’s not what I’m about. But I am really glad I got to discover a new way of eating, cooking and new recipes that use foods I had never tried before.
So I am here to say that being vegan-curious was a good thing. And it might even spill over into my tour guiding. London is full of restaurants and the vegan offering is exploding with options. I’ll be going out there “for research purposes” to try new food options and sharing them on social media. With luck, there might even be a food tour in the works — the possibilities are endless!