I wanted to live. But clumps were stockpiling in my blood and getting ready to stop my heart like a head-on collision. The email from Dr. Antons said: “You have no alternatives left except a drastic change in your lifestyle. I recommend that you become vegan.”
Become that weirdass shit, a vegan? I’d have to turn my back on my French roast chicken rubbed with cayenne and salt and stuffed with fresh thyme. And no more crunching into squares of Tillamook extra-sharp cheddar on Wheat Thins. Goodbye to my childhood soul food: graham crackers dipped in milk.
I couldn’t do it.
But I had to. Fortunately, I had my friend, Marge, owner of a business dedicated to helping people learn how to eat plants. She gave me a hug and bought me a cookbook called, “Vegan Baking.” I tried out the cornbread. It tasted suspiciously good.
As the months passed, even though I was no longer eating animals, I didn’t think much about them. Then, cats started wanting to curl up in my lap. Dogs began pushing their head under my hand for a scratch. My husband suggested that maybe I didn’t smell like a predator anymore.
But after I’d been vegan for a couple of years, things started falling apart. Back in my meaty days, I loved being in the kitchen, loved the sizzle of bacon and the smell of prime rib roasting in the oven. Even though now my meals were healthy and plant-powered, I found myself thinking: “I’ve slurried up a clutch of veggies and grains and spices, but it’s not that different from the last slurry of veggies, grains and spices.” Sometimes I felt like I was eating compost.
On a trip to Portland, my husband and I heard about a vegan restaurant called Blossoming Lotus. I felt wary. It sounded like a place where your cupcake has wheatgrass in it. But we went.
Because we got there during Happy Hour, we made a dinner out of the small plates: Thai BBQ soy curl wraps with sweet ginger dressing, polenta artichoke fritters to dip into lemon ranch sauce, creamy pesto and white bean dip with blue corn tortilla chips and basil oil with scallions, plus roasted beet and curried cashew salad.
My husband and I looked at each other over our forks and I said it out loud: “Who knew that vegan food could taste like this?” At that moment, I saw the path forward.
We bought Blossoming Lotus’s cookbook, “Vegan Fusion,” which led us to other cookbooks from restaurants with inspired vegan chefs, like Veganopolis, and Candle 79. And I have new friends in the kitchen: Mirin, a sweet Japanese cooking wine that chefs sprinkle in to add the secret “wow” factor to a dish. Pimienton, a smoked paprika well-known to Mexican cooks. Amchur and sumac from the Middle East. Plus I discovered Indian curries, Moroccan tagines, Spanish tapas. And I’m circling back to some much-loved cookbooks like Alice Waters’s “In the Green Kitchen” because now I know how to veganize beauties like saffron rice and Irish soda bread.
After I was converted by Blossoming Lotus, I noticed one day that whenever meat doesn’t shoulder its way into a meal, I’m more aware of all the other flavors. Six or eight tastes may jostle each other, meld with each other. It fascinates me to watch which ones can be friends, which fight. Some, like lemon zest, are your high school class president: it can get along with just about anybody. Grate it into hot oatmeal with pears, scrape it over your couscous salad, brighten an eggplant casserole with it just before serving. Other flavors like cloves are your persnickety Aunt Prudence who loves you but turns up her nose at the rest of the world.
And being vegan is not just about avoiding unhappy heart events. Even more, it’s about pleasure. Soon the boundaries start to blur. You lean your hips against the sink as you press a dripping peach into your mouth. You gather armloads of fresh basil for your pesto, but get waylaid by the scent and sluice off your clothes onto the kitchen floor, rubbing basil all over your body.
But I’m getting distracted.
Not everything I’ve cooked has turned out well. I’m trying to forget, for example, spending three hours stuffing pasilla peppers. They were so drab they made turnips seem like a hot date. But then, just often enough, along comes grilled portobellos and red onions marinated in a fresh oregano and chive sauce, or oven-roasted French fries with garlic ketchup, or beet Reuben spilling its homemade thousand-island dressing over the sides of a hot sesame bun.
And all the time, those inspired vegan chefs in Hawaii, in Portland, New York, San Francisco are my silent partners, putting edible plants together in ways no one has tried before. It’s something to live by and I’m hungry for more.