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Veganize Me

Is it possible to be a vegan in New Orleans? One man goes down the rabbit food hole for a month in the Big Greasy

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It's a diet in which you may have Abita beer but not Bunny Bread, Tanqueray but not Zapp's. I wasn't sure if I'd be losing weight or getting drunk. Anthony Bourdain once compared the diet to Hezbollah. But I did it, and this is how it started: For $67.67, I had enough tofu, fresh vegetables and whole grains to last a week and then some. My inaugural meal: vegetable tamales smothered in homemade salsa verde. A month of this? Easy. Maybe.

  From July 5 to Aug. 5, I put myself on a vegan diet. For one month, every meal, every snack, every shampoo and soap would be vegan.

  Veganism, unlike vegetarianism, eschews animal products altogether. No dairy. No honey. No eggs. Scrupulous vegans check every food for ingredients that have animal origins; gelatin, for instance, which is derived from collagen in animal bones, is added to hundreds of foods for various purposes.

  In Austin, Texas, there are dozens of vegan restaurant options. The West and East Coasts are filled with them. Meanwhile, New Orleans' only vegan restaurant — Cafe Bamboo — shuttered earlier this year. But vegans live here, too, and I wanted to avoid the rabbit-food stereotype.

  Can one thrive in New Orleans as a vegan — missing out on Kermit Ruffins' barbecue, fried seafood (all seafood, for that matter), roast beef po-boys, headcheese — and enjoy it?

Chelsea Clinton is a vegan. There was no chicken or fish at her recent wedding (though there were grass-fed organic beef burgers), prompting The New York Times to ask, "At vegans' weddings, beef or tofu?" Similar stories about vegan conundrums pop up frequently. In a recent essay on Slate.com, Christopher Cox pondered the vegan possibility of oysters. These sorts of discussions, along with Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, along with documentaries like Food, Inc., have thrust the conversation into American households: What are we eating, and why?

  Career vegan and vegetarian advocate Peter Singer, author of 1974's Animal Liberation, argues in the book that discriminating against animals is indefensible once you realize their capacity for pain. Singer says veganism boils down to two basic tenets: "A vegan could be saying any combination of (these): It's wrong to participate in the commercial exploitation of animals, which almost always involves cruelty and suffering for animals, (and) it's wrong to participate in killing animals, and all forms of animal production involve killing animals," he says. "We should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and animal products — especially beef and dairy — are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases. It's healthier to eat a vegan diet. I don't like eating animal products."

  And the benefits?

  "If done properly and healthily — the disclaimer — a vegan diet will provide no cholesterol, lower saturated fats than a traditional meat-based diet, and more fruits and vegetables means a higher vitamin and mineral intake," says Katelynn Phillips, a New Orleanian who works as a dietician in Austin and has been a vegan for 14 years. But, Phillips warns, "When eating vegan, your food plan for the day is going to be so different. You're going to be looking at food differently."

  For instance, rather than finding protein from a redfish fillet with a few butter-coated vegetables, it needs to come from somewhere else: nuts, soy, beans, legumes, lentils and whole-wheat products. It's a nutritional jigsaw puzzle.

  Getting $67.67 worth of groceries doesn't usually take me more than two hours — but that's how long it took me to shop as a vegan on Day One as I checked labels. There are the obvious things a vegan should avoid on food labels, like casein, gelatin, rennin, whey, honey. Then there is lactylic stearate, calcium stearate, clarifying agents — even "natural flavors" and vitamins are suspect. (Vitamins A, A1, B12 and D's 1 through 3 are typically animal-derived.) And this is the short list.

  Animal-derived ingredients, whether dairy or fat, are casually tossed into the most unassuming, presumably innocent snacks and preservative-packed standards, including our beloved Hubig's pies. (Oreos, curiously, are accidentally vegan. That "cream" filling is just sugar and soy between wheat and more soy.) Many beers, wines and liquor contain some kind of animal ingredient (usually isinglass, a fish collagen) — and that's not counting the glue used for the labels on the bottle. (Solution: cans.)

  But not all vegan foods are the best options: Soy burgers and franks are mega-processed junk foods, filled with soy and sometimes hexane, a petroleum byproduct. I avoided these for a month, treating them as I would fast food. But I would still be asked, "Well, what are you going to eat?" as if a vegan diet somehow is synonymous with starvation.

  "If you think about all the plant varieties in the world, there are thousands. And there's really not that many meat options, so there is a ton of stuff you can eat," Phillips says. "People are just used to the American diet."

  In Week One, I enjoyed portobello mushrooms with organic buckwheat soba noodles, black-eyed peas in tomato sauce, vegetable tacos, several apples and a few pints of beer. I cooked more often than my non-vegan self and invested time to plan meals way ahead for the week and then some. I had to, otherwise I'd be eating spoonfuls of peanut butter (which I ended up doing, anyway). I also started a food diary, making sure my nutritional needs were met.

  "Sometimes people think it's healthier than other diets, but just like any diet or lifestyle, it takes planning," Phillips says. "A vegan diet is not necessarily healthier unless it's planned to be healthier." It needs good sources of fat (avocados and nuts) too, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  But by Week Two, I needed to get out of the kitchen. I knew my options would be limited — falafel, the occasional tofu dish at Vietnamese restaurants, breakfast specials Uptown and in the Bywater. Could I have the po-boy experience (yes: french fries with lettuce and tomato), or was I destined for breakfast joints and limited to Mediterranean and Asian restaurants?

  Scott Gold, a New Orleans writer now based in New York and the author of The Shameless Carnivore: A Meat Lover's Manifesto, can't fathom the concept of veganism in a food destination like New Orleans.

  "My first question would be, 'Why?' It seems masochistic," Gold says. "It's like if you hate children but work as a kindergarten teacher. Why do that to yourself?"

  When Phillips lived in New Orleans, she hated dining out. "It wasn't even enjoyable," she says. "There were no restaurants with vegan options on the menu, I had to ask waiters and waitresses what was in the food, and a lot of times they seem to be annoyed. 'Do you cook with butter or oil?' 'Yeah, either one.' I just stopped going out to eat. ... When my parents came in town, they'd want to go to Commander's Palace, or some place like that. And they'd cook me something not on the menu, but sometimes it gets kind of embarrassing."

  Daniele Farrisi, a vegetarian and food blogger on the website NOLA-Eats.com, says despite the pantheon of cuisines represented in the city, the most difficult to find is typical New Orleans fare for vegans. "It's kind of sad — people hear about all this great food and there's no vegan version of it," she says. What about special requests at a restaurant? Farrisi advises calling ahead and asking questions. "If people have a heads-up they can be very accommodating," she says.

  "I've become a lot more lax since I moved to New Orleans," she adds. "I used to be very strict about that stuff — I'd ask (if the restaurant cooked with) chicken broth, fat, but a lot of times I have only one option, and if I ask too many questions I might have zero options."

Day 21: $57.72 in groceries, including vegan rice "cheese" and flax-seed tempeh. The "cheese" melted nicely — and that's about it. The tempeh paired well with stir-fried vegetables. I picked up stuffed grape leaves, Creole tomatoes and a couple of vegan microwaveable burritos. I also discovered vegan pastries from my neighborhood coffee shop, and almond milk — delicious, lactose- and soy-free and available in a chocolate variety.

  It was at this point I wasn't sure if, at the end of the month, I'd crack and eat nothing but meat until my body declared mutiny, or I'd remain vegan — I was eating well and feeling lighter, well-rested and more optimistic.

  A week later I was dying for a million-egg omelet stuffed with cheese and slathered in butter.

  "I lost a bet to one of my vegetarian friends and had to go veggie for a week," says Gold, who recounts the story in The Shameless Carnivore. "And that was only a week — even with cheese and butter. That wasn't easy. I can't even imagine — veganism is not living to me. It's a sad, deprived existence."

  Elsewhere in the book, Gold recounts eating 31 different meats and every cut and part of a cow. "The whole idea of being shameless is not being an asshole about being a carnivore," he says. "It's being responsible — taking the steps you need to take to eat meat without shame. For me that means eating meat responsibly, sourcing it well, and — yeah, people are surprised to hear me say this — but you probably need to eat less of it. You can still have it in your diet, really enjoy it, take it seriously, cook it well, or go somewhere where it's going to be prepared well, have it in your life, and your life is going to be wonderful. If I'm going to shout from the rooftops about anything, that's what it is."

  It's a continuum of opinions. Gold agrees people aren't afraid to eat meat because they know it's just that — food. Pollan and Schlosser would say yes, it's food, but they're still animals, and even if their fate is the dinner plate, they deserve to live their lives comfortably and have them ended without suffering. Some vegans would argue for no factory farms or animal farms of any kind, and in some cases, for "total liberation."

  So what about oysters?

  "Strictly speaking, you can't be vegan and eat oysters," Singer says. "But many of the reasons for being vegan don't apply to eating oysters — I doubt that they are capable of suffering — so if you are vegan for one or more of those reasons, it would make sense to eat oysters, assuming you enjoy doing so." In his Slate.com article, Cox, a self-described vegan "flexitarian," went even further, saying oysters have minimal impact on their environment, don't need fertilizer or pesticides, and have no central nervous system responsive to pain, at least in the same way we experience pain.

  There is rarely any black and white in the vegetable-ruling world: some vegans may make exceptions for Jell-O or honey, or vegetarians may call themselves vegetarians even if they eat seafood a few times a month.

  "I don't think I'm raping bees when I eat honey," Gold says. "Not slaughtering a lamb for dinner — I get that, if it makes you self-conscious and queasy. But not eating honey? ... Eat what you want to eat, don't eat what you don't want to eat. If you want to have your gluten-free, vegan-whatever meat analog made from micro-protein, do it, if that's what you're about. When it gets to the finger-pointing and what's the best way to live ethically, that's when it gets rough. ... You just end up yelling at each other."

  But where else is there a voice advocating a diet different from, say, every food commercial on television? McDonald's, Burger King, KFC: Meat, meat and meat. And not even the "good" kind, the small farm-raised, slaughtered-by-hand kind of meat. (How often does Burger King advertise its Morningstar veggie burger? It's on the menu at most of its restaurants.)

  "Vegans can have a bad reputation for being judgmental of everyone else because they eat meat or wear leather," Phillips admits. "When I do tell people I'm vegan, the common questions are: Can you eat this? Can you eat that? How do you know you're getting your needs? Why?'"

  Phillips says even if you're not vegan, at least know what you're eating — read food labels and speak with a registered dietician. Gold says there's no reason to cut meat out from your diet.

  "Having a varied diet that comes from lots of different things, and you source it well, you're going to win on all fronts," Gold says. "Food is life, and people in New Orleans of all places have embraced that. It's not just fuel. You're not a biological gas tank. ... It's getting in touch with the ecology around you and celebrating life and all its diversity. If you choose to be a vegan — which again, is your choice — the sad thing is you miss out on a lot of that. And that would make me sad.

  "Also, a roast beef po-boy drenched in gravy is one of the happiest things ever."

After finishing leftover homemade black bean and chipotle tacos and a tub of guacamole, I cooked a final meal: a simple whole-wheat pasta salad.

  On Thursday, Aug. 5, I was done.

  I dove into a cheese pizza. And then I ate bacon.


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