April 14, 2010

Can’t Spell Vegan Without Veggies

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My very cursory knowledge of biology and physiology is a frighteningly sporadic combination of ninth-grade bio, years of health education from a crew of meat-headed, deteriorating former halfbacks and highly specific descriptions of debilitating diseases from Bones. Digestion and cellular respiration are miraculous hazy processes that happen because of things that end in –lysis. But if there is one thing that I learned with absolute certainty in these years of exposure, it is the undeniable fact that vegetarianism is hard and the reason it is hard is that plants hold no candle to the protein-rich powerhouse known as the animal kingdom.

Sure, plants might have protein, but it’s low-grade protein, without the right amino acids and people who avoid meat in their diets are uniformly scraggly and bloated with kwashiorkor (or so I learned). Basically — and I knew this to be true — plants suck.

A few years ago, after encountering a number of vegetarians and vegans who were not, in fact, scraggly and sickly, I boldly decided to go ahead and move into a house full of cool hippies who only cooked vegetarian food. My family was skeptical. How, after all, could I not eat meat and hope to keep all of my teeth? Would I, the beloved son, return home over Winter Break jaundiced and rheumy?

The short answer? No.

While I, too, was a bit dubious at first and made sure to stock up on some emergency meat for the freezer, the transition into vegetarian-land was a relatively painless one. I found out that tofu is really not as scary as it seems, that lentils are delicious and that opportunities to garnish things with parmesan cheese should not be passed up.

There are a lot of reasons to be a vegetarian. Many people make the argument that animals deserve more rights than they have in our society and that it is ethically irresponsible to consume meat. Some posit that eating at low trophic levels (i.e. mostly plants) is more environmentally friendly and energy conscious. And others simply say that they feel better when meat is not a part of their diet.

Ithaca is a pretty easy place to have a vegetarian diet. Grocery stores like Wegman’s, GreenStar and Ludgate Farms work seamlessly with the Ithaca Farmers’ Market to provide an integrated, easily accessible network of vegetarian-friendly establishments. Cornell, too, tries very hard to have a good array of vegetarian dining options available on campus. The Moosewood satellite in Anabel Taylor Hall serves exclusively vegetarian and vegan foods; the food is good and the lines are tellingly long. And the stereotypical hippie culture of Ithaca makes nontraditional dietary choices completely socially acceptable. So, if you have been thinking about experimenting with vegetarianism, it’s doubtful that you will ever get a chance like the present. Give it a shot!

One of the first things any budding vegetarian should know is that vegetables are your friends. They provide a lot of really important nutrients, consistently fill you up and are often quick and easy to make. Try everything. Eat yams and kale and brussels sprouts and smile disarmingly at your friends as they furrow their brows. Try going to Taste of Thai on the Commons — most of their entrees can be easily made vegetarian and they are so decadent that you will never doubt that vegetarian foods are necessarily spartan. Most importantly, get acquainted with some new foods. Even if you decide to return to your omnivorous ways, there might be a day when you have to cook for somebody who doesn’t share your dietary choices.

A personal favorite is an ancient grain called quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa). It is native to South America, where it has been eaten for literally thousands of years and it is available in GreenStar’s amazing bulk foods section. Quinoa cooks up quickly, has a delightfully nutty flavor and is amazing when mixed with caramelized onions, corn, feta cheese and sliced grapes. Oh yeah, and it’s packed with protein — in fact, it is one of the few plants that has all of the essential amino acids. Superfood? You bet.

Take that, meatheads. RLD

Original Author: Kevin Boyd