“Is this vegan?”
That was a question I never thought I would be asking, yet here I was, staring expectantly and half-embarrassedly at the Trillium salad employee who let me know that yes, the honey dijon dressing I obsessed over every day was, in fact, vegan.
I wouldn’t call myself a meat lover, but I do eat meat on almost every occasion. I’m picky about the types of meat I like, and when I can, I try to only eat meat that’s been locally sourced. The pretentious Ithacan in me would call myself a locavore; the honest journalist in me would say that I occasionally pretend not to notice the labels on the packaged meat I buy.
When I was growing up, my parents would purchase meat from a local farm and have it butchered locally, too. We were even given the option to meet the cow we were purchasing beforehand (a concept which really creeps me out). But this past summer, I was living alone and cooking for myself for the first time. I learned that not only do most grocery stores not really care where their meat comes from, but also pre-cooked meat is disgusting to work with and potentially dangerous if not cooked correctly. Mainly as a result of my disgust at touching raw chicken, I cooked almost entirely vegetarian dishes.
However, I supplemented my vegetarian-cooking diet with frequent meat-filled lunches and Thai takeout. It got me wondering: could I actually survive as a real vegetarian? Would I crave meat too much? Is it even feasible? What if I took it a step further and went vegan? Living in Ithaca, a town filled with vegans, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find vegan food at most places. Personally, I guessed the abandonment of eggs, milk and cheese would be harder for me than giving up meat. I also doubted that a brief vegan diet would make me feel any healthier, although Facebook friends who went vegan seemed to swear that after two days they felt better than ever. Regardless, I had nothing better to do, and figured I should give a vegan diet a try.
And thus, the concept of my week of veganism was born. To be clear, this is not an article on the morals of going vegan. For my purposes, I really don’t care about the ethical background of not eating animal products. I care about weighing the costs and benefits and documenting my week-long vegan journey.
Full disclosure: I actually had intended to begin my vegan diet on Sunday, but I couldn’t figure out how to deal with a vegan hungover Sunday brunch. I wasn’t willing to alter my brunch plans, so I figured that I better start my veganism with an easier challenge.
My only food-related plan Monday morning was getting my pre-work coffee. I had learned the night before that Starbucks caramel drizzle was not vegan, so I decided against an iced caramel macchiato (my summer favorite). I sent a text to my occasionally-vegan, nutrition major friend: “Iced soy vanilla latte. Vegan?” You would think that as someone who consumes food on a daily basis and who has a basic understanding of the word “vegan,” I would be able to determine for myself whether or not something fell under that category, but you’d be wrong. As it turns out, soy milk, vanilla syrup and espresso are all vegan, so I was set with my morning coffee.
My go-to campus lunch is a Trillium salad. My typical order is light on the vegetables, heavy on the meat, cheese and eggs. Over-aware of everything I was ordering, I became paranoid. Was hummus vegan? Were onions? I was so nervous I would mess up my veganism during my first meal, but I was eventually successful, swapping out my usual chicken for tofu and getting hummus instead of cheese and eggs. Overall, the salad tasted almost exactly the same as usual. Maybe I could do this.
I ran into some road bumps with dinner. A group of friends and I had planned to go out to dinner that night; however, the consensus was to go to Ithaca’s latest poor excuse for a restaurant, Texas Roadhouse, where even the salads contain chicken and steak. I then had to give the fakest-sounding excuse of my life: I had to cancel dinner plans because, starting that day, I was briefly going vegan so I could write about it. I’m not sure if anybody believed me.
I was already really missing meat and cheese. For lunch, I went to Bus Stop Bagels, but I had to forego the best part of any bagel: cream cheese. Instead, I got hummus on a Long Island bagel. I was starving again before I even finished classes.
For dinner, I had to do one of the most painful things I’ve ever done: order fried rice from Taste of Thai Express with no egg. Egg is the best part of fried rice. I put egg in almost everything, but I consider it absolutely essential to rice. Typing “no egg, please!” in the Grubhub request line was almost enough to make me call off this whole vegan thing after less than 48 hours. But I stuck with it, and was actually pleasantly surprised: fried rice with tofu (and no egg) was the most filling thing I had had in my vegan journey thus far. It was almost as unhealthy and delicious as the meat-eater’s version. I considered just eating that for every meal the rest of the week, but I decided that that wouldn’t make for a good story (or a happy bank account).
I felt a little more positive about my vegan journey after the fried rice dish. I had heard that Synapsis was a good vegan lunch spot, so I decided to try it. Synapsis dishes have the option of something called “vegan cheese.” I had no idea what that was, nor did I really want to find out (for the record, it’s a weird substance made out of soy protein). My options were either to get a pizza covered in vegan cheese, or pasta with a sample size of the fake dairy substitute. I went with the latter, getting penne with vegan garlic sauce. If I didn’t think too hard about the vegan cheese, I could almost pretend it was real cheese that had just been made incorrectly.
That night I decided to actually cook something for dinner. I find that cooking vegan is much easier than ordering vegan is. I even have a couple of favorite vegan recipe blogs: Minimalist Baker and Thug Kitchen. I typically find that curries are the best vegan food to cook because they use coconut milk already, and then you can throw in whatever vegetables or proteins you have on hand. I attempted to make sweet potato noodles with a spiralizer and then made a curry to go on top. Since I’m used to avoiding raw meat when I cook, it was pretty easy to forget the dish was vegan.
I decided to try Bus Stop Bagels again, armed with the knowledge that vegan cheese exists. I ordered one of their signature bagels with olive spread, arugula and goat cheese. At first, I was told I couldn’t make any substitutions, but after I told the employee that I couldn’t eat goat cheese, she allowed me to get vegan mozzarella instead. I still wasn’t sold on the concept of vegan cheese, but it was a decent-enough substitute.
My friend had a Chipotle gift card, and the quality of vegan Chipotle was obviously something that I needed to assess, so we picked some up for dinner. I’m already a picky Chipotle eater — I hate beans and their assortment of vegetables — so my vegan order was not the giant pile of food most Chipotle consumers are looking for. It consisted of rice, sofritas (which I had always wanted to try, and which was actually pretty good), mild salsa and guacamole (which I never get, but my bowl looked so empty that I felt forced to pay the extra money). Definitely not worth it.
I made the fantastic (and late-to-the-game) discovery that Manndible offers Curry Bar Fridays, so I was quick to try their tofu curry sans yogurt dressing. Curry is easily my favorite food, and it was pretty good for a quick lunch.
My friend had been bugging me about getting Italian food for days, so that night we went to Ciao. I’m declaring it right now: Ciao is the best non-vegan restaurant for vegans. Ciao isn’t known for its vegan dishes, but it has a separate vegan menu that you can ask for upon being seated. I got the eggplant manicotti with vegan cheese, and it was so good that I panicked for a minute thinking they had made a mistake and it wasn’t actually vegan. But it was vegan, it was just really good. I realized that up until this point, I had been associating vegan food with bad food, and that doesn’t have to be the case.
I got lunch at Plum Tree, and once again fell in love with vegan food. I ordered their tofu teriyaki lunch box, which is maybe the best deal in all of Collegetown. It costs $8.95 and comes with the tofu teriyaki (which I dreamt about for weeks after), vegetarian sushi (I had never had sushi before — update: it’s really good), rice, dumplings, salad and edamame. Plum Tree is now my favorite lunch spot in Collegetown, vegan or otherwise.
My cousin was in town that weekend, so I took him to Moosewood. When I told him I was taking him to an all-vegetarian restaurant, he was extremely apprehensive — and so was I, to be honest. But I knew that I couldn’t write this article without going to Ithaca’s nationally-renowned vegetarian restaurant.
The menu was really small and featured daily specials. I ordered two small plates: tofu wings and a hummus plate. I honestly didn’t expect to be blown away, but I was. Once again, I completely forgot that what I was eating was vegan, despite my general anger toward anything meatless marketing itself as a “wing.” They were almost (not quite) better than real chicken wings. I also ordered the first dessert of my vegan experience: vegan chocolate cake. It was a little denser than regular chocolate cake, but I had been missing chocolate so much that I didn’t care.
By this point, I felt confident enough in my vegan abilities to do hungover brunch. I went to Northstar, which is one of my favorite brunch places, expecting them to have at least a few vegan options. However, their menu was pretty bare in vegan options. I had the option of a veggie burger or huevos rancheros with tofu scramble instead of eggs. I went with the latter, but almost cried watching my friends eat cheesy grits and bacon. If you can’t successfully have Sunday brunch as a vegan, then I really see no point in it.
This week was a test of will and stamina, but I survived it. I think, overall, being vegetarian is doable. I had quite a few really good tofu dishes, and continued to eat tofu after my vegan week concluded. However, foregoing cheese, milk and eggs is really awful and not something I would wish on my worst enemy.
A few places really succeeded in serving vegan food: Ciao and Moosewood were by far the best restaurants I went to. You’ll forget that you aren’t eating meat and dairy. On campus, Trillium salads were still the best, but Synapsis and Manndible had good vegan options as well.
Overall, I saw no real health benefits — or benefits of any kind, other than being able to say I could do it — of going vegan, although granted this experiment only lasted a week. While I can’t personally endorse giving up dairy, I think the moral of the story is to try something new, branch out and believe that you have the willpower (and will only cry once or twice) to give up some of the best categories of the food pyramid.