By Lindsey Gallagher
Lindsey Gallagher (they/them) is a non-binary nonfiction writer from Shelter Island, New York. They are currently pursuing their MFA at Northern Arizona University. They serve as the Editor-in-Chief of Thin Air Magazine and teach English Composition. Their work can be found in The Oval and The Palhouse Review. Outside of writing, they enjoy running and outdoor adventures of many sorts.
Interviewing a Vegan!
Welcome back! This week, I interviewed my sister Emma, who has been vegan as long as I have! Emma (she/her) is currently a student, entering her senior year at George Washington University. She is majoring in environmental science, along with political science and geographic information systems minors. She is an exceptionally involved member of her community, and fighting for climate justice is one of the causes most important to her. In our interview, we talked about her journey to veganism, how she has managed challenges the diet has presented, some of her favorite vegan foods, her experience being vegan abroad, and much more! Let’s hear what Emma has to say!
When was the first time you learned about vegetarianism and veganism? What was your initial opinion of it?
I don’t remember exactly when I first learned what it was, but I do remember the first time I really considered it was something that a lot of people actually did. The summer after 10th grade, I went to a summer camp where there was a significant group of vegetarians and vegans. It was the first time I really saw people encouraging and being respectful of the choice in a group setting. In fact, it was so encouraged at the camp that some people even decided to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet just for the duration of the camp. I think prior to that, I had only experienced vegetarians and vegans being made fun of. I think like most people my initial opinion was probably judgmental, an “I could never do that” attitude. I remember laughing along to jokes at the expense of vegetarians and vegans without really knowing what it was like or why people did it.
Why did you first go vegetarian? Why did you decide to take it further and go vegan?
Around the time I went to this camp, I was simultaneously becoming more aware of the climate crisis and the impact of my individual behavior. At this point, it had become clear to me that I wanted to study environmental issues and ultimately pursue a career that would allow me to turn my love for the environment into something good. I remember reading articles and watching documentaries about the environmental, health, and socioeconomic impacts of plant-based diets. A few days after I had returned from camp, I distinctly remember sitting in the living room with my mom and Lindsey and saying that I had been thinking about going vegetarian. As it turns out, Lindsey was too, and we decided to embark on the journey together. It was great to have a support system from the start. I remember making fun vegetarian meals together that summer. It was only a few months before Lindsey and I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan. I think once I realized how much I enjoyed being vegetarian, and that it actually wasn’t that hard, I saw the jump to vegan as an easy feat.
Has your reason(s) (your why) for being on a vegan diet changed over time?
Initially, my decision was driven by a desire to reduce my environmental impact. But when you are doing something and you love it, it is easy to realize other positives. As a runner, I knew how important health was for performance. I remember reading more articles and watching more documentaries about the negative health impacts of too many animal products. During this time, a group of people on our team also started experimenting with vegetarian and vegan diets. As time went on, I learned more about the practice of factory farming in the US and I was appalled. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Micheal Pollen, and it really opened my eyes to how detached from our food system we are. I think that it is possible to ethically produce and consume animal products, but I believe most of the products in our stores are not derived from ethically sourced places. It would be a stretch to say I am totally tuned into where every single ingredient in every single thing I eat comes from, but I certainly feel more aware than I did before. So I would say my initial reason still stands, but other reasons for doing so have compounded and reassured me of my decision.
How was the initial transition to vegetarianism and then veganism? Was it easier or harder than you expected? What things were challenging? What things were easier?
Honestly, I don’t really remember struggling too much. Sure I faced some annoyances and challenges, but I was loving my decision. It is totally worth it. At home, it was easy because our family was supportive. I was motivated and excited about my decision, so any cravings for animal products were far outweighed by my larger goal. Plus, it was fun to find so many alternatives I had no idea existed. I often think about how lucky I am to live in a time when vegetarians and vegans have so many more options aside from the staple fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, grains, etc. (but many places still have a long way to go!) Certainly, the most frustrating part was attending events outside my home. Although places usually scraped together something to accommodate me, they were not nutritionally adequate or always pleasing to eat. Most often, the vegan option was a salad or some grilled vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, I love both, but after a while, it gets old when that is the only option when you’re out to eat.
The other aspect was pushback from people who didn’t understand my decision and were judgemental. I remember getting really mad sometimes and thinking, since when do people care so much about what I am putting into my body? Suddenly everyone is thoroughly and deeply concerned about my protein intake! I remember snapping a few times at my friends or family members because I was so annoyed. Since then, I have come to peace with the fact that no matter what you do, people are always going to question or judge you, so you might as well get on doing what makes you happy and what is best for yourself. Now when people share their concerns about my “protein intake,” I just move along. Keeping track of your nutrition is essential, no matter what diet you choose, but I find that people often speak without knowing all of the facts (I know I still have a lot to learn). I think there are a lot of people who consider animal products the best and only source of protein when that is so far from the truth. Many plant products are just as rich, if not richer than their animal-based counterparts, in protein (which you have probably already read about in this blog).
What was the biggest surprise when you went vegan?
I think the biggest surprise when I went vegan was really becoming more aware of what I was consuming. I suppose most people naturally become more conscious as they get older, but I think being vegan amplified that for me. It made me more aware of the nutritional content of food, where my food was coming from, how to be creative with limited ingredients, and many other things. I somehow feel more respectful of my food now. I was also surprised that there are so many vegan alternatives!!
What are some of your favorite vegan foods?
I am always obsessed with Oatly chocolate oat milk. On holidays at home, I usually make a vegan frittata with JUST Egg that turns out great. MorningStar Chik’n Nuggets and SIMULATE CHICKEN NUGGS (dino shaped) are also delicious. Miyoko’s classic chive cheese is a favorite of mine. Ben and Jerry’s has an assortment of vegan flavors but vegan Phish Food is my personal favorite! I go through phases where I am obsessed with Hippeas and White Cheddar Skinny Pop. Many of my favorite snacks growing up, like Oreos, Sugar Wafers, Tofutti Cuties, pretzels, and chips and salsa were already vegan! I love tofu because it is so versatile—you just need to know how to cook it properly (luckily it is actually quite simple). As much as I love all the vegan alternatives, they do tend to be more expensive and processed, so I enjoy them in moderation. On a day-to-day basis, I rely on oatmeal, rice, pasta, bread, beans, nuts, other grains, and lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Burritos are one of my favorite things to eat; I love them for any meal (and they are so easily made vegan). Last summer, one of our close family friends found the most amazing recipe for a vegan lemon cake from Nora Cooks. It is one of the best cakes I have ever had. At home, we use Purple Carrot, and some of my favorite meals are General Tso’s tofu, lemon pepper tofu, black pepper tofu (there’s a theme here haha) and buffalo cauliflower quesadillas.
How do you manage people who aren’t welcoming to veganism?
I have come to terms with the fact that there are many people who will be judgmental of my choice. Generally, if someone makes a comment, I try my best to share my perspective and experience in a respectful manner. Some people are receptive and engage in a good conversation, but there are others who remain close-minded. I have learned some people just make comments or ask questions without actually being willing to consider the legitimacy of my response. They really just want to get a rise out of me. In these cases, after I have tried and failed to engage with them, I have learned to just hold my tongue and move along. I understand that there are a lot of misconceptions about plant-based eating out there, like our diets are lacking in protein, and some people just don’t want to try to understand when you go to correct them. But many people are willing to listen. In the beginning, I remember even some of my close friends would make snide comments and I would get mad at them and make comments back. Now, these friends are supportive and have even considered it for themselves. I always try to remember that it is easy for us as humans to attack things that are unfamiliar to us.
It has been almost four years since I started my plant-based journey, and I have learned a lot. One of the things I have learned is that vegetarians and vegans can be just as rude and critical of others as non-vegetarians or non-vegans. Early on, I remember feeling a sense of superiority because of my decision, but I have come to strongly disapprove of that holier-than-thou attitude in myself and in others. In thinking my diet was “better” than someone else’s, I was being just as judgmental as those who gave me pushback and made me feel frustrated. Even more than that, there is absolutely no “right” diet for anyone. Every person has their own health, cultural, religious, financial, and emotional considerations in determining their diet. Deciding what food to put in your body is a very personal choice, and no one, myself included, has the right to make that decision for another.
I believe I will be a champion of a plant-based diet for the rest of my life, but I am very intentional about respecting others’ choices. Of course, I am willing to have conversations with and support people wanting to make the change, but I try my best not to make anyone feel shameful or guilty over such a personal decision. I guess what I am trying to say is that because I have experienced and perceived many benefits, I hope anyone willing and capable will try it out, but I never think forcing someone into something, especially something so personal, is a good idea. I have seen campaigns try to use guilt and shame to get people to go vegetarian or vegan. Sometimes it may work, but most often it has the reverse effect and drives people away. If the goal is to encourage plant-based eating, it should be done in a positive, intelligent, and respectful way. Sometimes if someone makes a rude comment to me, it is still hard to hold my tongue, but I am getting better at it.
How do you manage social situations (or eating out) when there are limited (or no) vegan options?
I always prepare myself. I check out the menu beforehand and strategize about what I am or am not willing to be flexible about. Often a restaurant will not have a completely vegetarian or vegan option, so I will plan two or three options to modify. For example, if there is pasta with meat and a sandwich with cheese I will ask the server if the pasta can be served without the meat or if the cheese can be removed from the sandwich. More often than not, they are happy to make the change. Being vegan definitely requires more attention to detail. Sometimes it is stressful, not because I am questioning my desire to be vegan, but because I don’t want to be a hassle or make others change their plans. But I also know I deserve to eat food that I want to put in my body. And I have learned that my best friends are people that care to plan ahead and make sure there are options for me so I don’t have to compromise myself. If I am in a situation where there truly is no vegan option, I will just go ahead and eat something with a little milk, butter, or cheese because I know that I need to fuel my body. Even still, sometimes I leave a place a little hungry. In cases where I know this will be true, I just eat some more of my own food before I go out or when I return after an event. It is all about planning so you don’t have to compromise your health, well-being, or adherence to your diet.
What have you found is the greatest challenge to being vegan?
I think I answer this in previous questions, but it’s unaccommodating service. That is the greatest challenge for me, but I know how to navigate that after a few years of practice. Rude and judgmental comments are annoying, but I don’t let them get to me like I did at the start of my plant-based journey.
What’s the best vegan food you’ve ever had at a restaurant? (Both an entree and a dessert)
Oh god, it is really hard to just choose one. I will just brainstorm some favorites off the top of my head and see if I can pick out just one. Favorite desserts include vegan key lime pie from Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C., chocolate ice cream sundae from Flax and Kale in Barcelona, vegan red velvet and cinnamon apple cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcake in D.C., donuts from Donut Run in D.C., donuts from Veera Donuts in Missoula, cupcakes from Sticky Fingers in D.C., Oreo cupcake from Baked and Wired in D.C. Favorite meals include absolutely anything from Aunts et Uncles in Brooklyn, vegan chipotle super sandwich from Brunch and Cake in Barcelona, vegan caesar salad from Flax and Kale in Barcelona, chicken wings from Sticky Fingers. At Essex market in Manhattan, there is a vegan cheese shop called Riverdel that is amazing. If I have to pick just one, I think it would be the french toast at Aunts et Uncles and a Boston cream donut from Donut Run.
What is your favorite vegan memory?
The first thing that comes to mind was actually when I was studying abroad. Right across the street from my homestay in Barcelona was a little restaurant called Arc Iris. They always had a line out the door. For 14 euros, you got bread, a three-course meal, and a dessert. Every day the menu changed, and the restaurant displayed three options for each of the three courses outside on a chalkboard. The service was incredibly quick, the food was fantastic, and it was all vegetarian. I went a few times simply because I so enjoyed sitting up in the corner of the restaurant alone with my thoughts and my delicious plant-based food admiring the thriving eatery. The energy always felt so positive there. It was a simple thing, but I just remember being so happy in there.
How did you manage your diet while studying abroad? Did you decide beforehand that you would be flexible with your vegan diet? How did it feel to be off the vegan diet? How does it feel now that you are mostly back to being strictly vegan?
Quite honestly, it was often easier to be vegan while I was studying abroad than it was to be vegan in the US. Studying abroad has been something I have looked forward to for as long as I can remember, and I knew I was going to make the most out of every second. Before I went abroad, I knew I was not going to be strict. I wanted to experience parts of the culture and I knew that traveling around almost every weekend to new places would require some flexibility. At the end of the day, I needed to make sure I was eating enough to fuel my body!
I decided to stay with a host family for my abroad experience. At first, I was worried about my diet, but then I was assigned a host mother and roommate who both also ate mostly vegan. My host mother was an excellent cook, and it was fantastic to enjoy vegan versions of traditional Spanish food such as tortillas. I was very fortunate. I studied in Barcelona, and I was absolutely blown away by the number of vegetarian/vegan options at restaurants and grocery stores— even more so by the number of plant-based only restaurants. Within a few minutes walk of my apartment, there were three, and the food at each one was amazing! Most of the cities I traveled to in Western and Eastern Europe had great plant-based options. I expect my experience would have been different had I traveled to more rural places, but overall it was wonderful to see how celebrated and respected plant-based eating was.
There were a few challenging times, and I strayed from my diet due to need or desire to. One time, my friends and I went on a day trip to Andorra la Vella, the capital of a super small country called Andorra between France and Spain. We arrived early on a Sunday morning, and it was a very cold January day. It was one of our first trips outside Barcelona. We got off the bus and had absolutely no idea where we were going or what to do. We wandered for a while until we finally found a small breakfast place that was open (most things were closed because it was Sunday). The workers spoke French, Spanish, and Catalan, but no English. Between us, we knew a decent amount of Spanish and very little French. Not all of the menu items were available, and most of them were sandwiches with meat. I ended up having to order a sandwich with an egg. I ate as much of it as I could because I knew it was going to be a long day. I got a few bites in and eventually was too grossed out to eat anymore, so I just finished the bread. That was probably the hardest experience I had—yet I survived!
Many other times, I willingly ate cheese or desserts with milk and eggs simply because I felt like it. I have no regrets! I did not eat any meat because at this point I truly have no desire to and don’t think I ever will, but this of course could change at some point in my life. The longer I have been vegan the more flexible I have become, and being abroad was a great reminder of how important it is to consider and celebrate the emotional and cultural significance of food alongside our moral beliefs about it. In the two months since returning from Spain, I have had an occasional slice of cheese, some ice cream, and Goldfish. Goldfish are definitely the snack I missed most being vegan. And they make me happy! Since they make me so happy, I have decided I will break from my vegan diet when I have a craving because it is not the end of the world if I have a few handfuls now and then. It felt good to break from my vegan diet while abroad, and it feels good to mostly be back to being vegan now that I am home.
This experience has reminded me of how dynamic life is and how crucial it is to check in with yourself. During those months, it was important to me to break from my diet, and now it is important to me to mostly go back to being vegan. I will add that although I had a relatively easy and positive plant-based experience while traveling abroad, this should not always be expected. It is best to err on the side of caution and do as much research as you can before you travel. Make any necessary accommodations, and look up grocery stores, markets, and restaurants that will have things you can eat. It is sometimes most convenient to shop and cook for yourself. But always be aware that the potential for you to stray from your diet is there. In some places, it is expected that you eat what is put in front of you. If you are traveling to one of these places and are uncomfortable with this, you might want to reconsider your plans. My personal opinion, and something I live by when I am traveling, is that I do not want to miss out on an opportunity just so I can stick to my diet. My diet is very important to me, but there are lots of other things that are just as or more important. Every person should consider their own priorities and what will make them the happiest.
What advice do you have for people who are looking to go plant-based (or for new plant-based eaters)?
The greatest advice I can give to anyone considering the move towards a plant-based diet is to remain open-minded and flexible. Don’t be too hard on yourself or others! You are not tied to anything, and you can always change your mind if something doesn’t feel right for you for any number of reasons. Be flexible, but also know your boundaries. You should know what you are or are not willing to break your diet for and in what circumstances. Of course, these boundaries can always change. For me, I know that eating meat is something I will not do, but I am okay with consuming some milk or cheese if that is the only option. Be as flexible as you are comfortable with and be an advocate for yourself. Sometimes people really don’t understand what you mean when you say vegan, so you might have to clarify what you can’t eat. Usually, restaurants are accommodating enough, but do be prepared to encounter some pushback now and then. It is going to happen! More advice: surround yourself with other plant-based eaters, or at least with people who are going to support your decision. It is a much more positive experience if you are not doing it alone. If there is no one immediately around you, seek out that community. It is there somewhere! (It might even be online ;).
Anything else you want to add?
I ended up writing my high school senior thesis about the implications of going vegan. While I am proud of the work I produced, looking back, I now have a much broader perspective. When I produced that project, I was very much focused on the individual environmental impacts of going vegan. I have mentioned that it is a very personal choice, and I do believe we should each be doing what we can to reduce our environmental impact. I believe even one person making a change can make a difference, but at the same time, I want to emphasize the necessity of situating our individual choices in the context of a larger system. It is very apparent there are several major forces driving climate change, and I wholeheartedly believe that fighting these forces is more impactful than my decision not to eat steak for dinner today. So, in terms of the environment, do as much as you can without compromising your needs, but do not take on the moral burden of forces out of your control!
I’m so glad I was able to share Emma’s perspective and experiences on plant-based eating with you! Emma had so many important things to say! I sincerely hope you enjoyed hearing from her!
Next week, August 11th, I will be taking a break from One Bite at a Time. I’ll be back on August 18th for one more post to conclude the series!
Thanks for reading!
Recipe of the week: Homemade Red Sauce (my mom’s recipe)!
Red sauce is a staple for most people, considering its versatility. Growing up, my mom made this delicious meatless red sauce that my family always adored. For this recipe, all you will need is one large can (28oz) of crushed tomatoes, 1-2 cloves of minced garlic, olive oil, garlic salt, and sugar. My mom doesn’t have exact proportions for putting this together, it’s mostly to taste, so do your best! To prepare:
- Put minced garlic in the middle of a big frying pan and drizzle with a fair bit of olive oil to surround it
- Pour on garlic salt
- Saute for 1-2 mins. Do not let garlic brown up!
- Turn off stove
- Add crushed tomato. Turn the heat back on low and stir a lot
- Add 1-2 tablespoons more of olive oil
- Add up to ⅛ cup sugar (to taste)
- Mix and taste adding more garlic salt and sugar as needed
- Keep mixture on heat for about 10 mins, stirring a lot
This sauce works great with pasta, for chicken or eggplant parm, for pasta bakes, for dipping, and really anything you can think of! Enjoy!