This January, fresh back from Woodford Folk Festival, I was feeling idealistic and also weighed down by all the cheese and wine I’d consumed in December. I read the word “veganuary” somewhere on social media, and after a rigorous five minute deliberation, I decided I’d give vegan January a go. My arteries were jamming, and my bank account was dropping since I’d discovered the cheese aisle at Harris Farm, so, why not?
Turns out I was one of over 250,000 people worldwide who officially took the pledge, as Veganuary is an actual organisation from the UK.
To clarify, vegetarians typically abstain from all meat products, and vegans abstain from all animal products including dairy, eggs and even honey.
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On social media, I announced to everyone I was doing Veganuary and started regularly sharing photos of my lunch. Food establishments everywhere were suddenly up for scrutiny, and I quickly figured out I was going to have to learn how cook something other than haloumi and scrambled eggs.
For some background, I should share that I’ve been a vegetarian for more than half of my 31 years. I first stopped eating meat because it seemed like an artsy thing to do.
Then, the more research I did on vegetarianism, the more I saw there were other virtues to it than just being a nonconformist. Plus, I didn’t miss meat.
I still ate fish up until the age of 18, and then after a bit of pressure from my vegetarian friends, I gave that up too. Bar the occasional mouthwatering when I smell bacon, my taste buds have been fine and my body weight maintained.
During my seven years in Newcastle, I’ve loved how much the city has catered to my vegetarianism. I can’t think of a single restaurant or café where there aren’t a few vego options on the menu.
But for the 31 days of January, based on an impulsive curiosity, I bit the bean bullet; I took a ride on the tempeh train. Immediately I began to flag issues with the lifestyle.
The most challenging thing is that I’m a person who does not like over-planning, and this is particularly true for my diet. Suddenly, I had to think about everything that passed through my lips, even wine! I had to read ingredients, and I had to (rather rudely) ask people what was in food they were preparing.
With mates, more than once I tried to wing a dinner of nuts and potato chips to go with vegan champagne; I passed out early and starving.
A trip to the 7-Eleven for a quick snack took half an hour as I tried to find items that were both vegan and enjoyable.
And it seemed like every vegan grocery item that I wanted to eat cost at least $12.
Sure there was beans and rice, but just because I was vegan didn’t mean I was less of a spoiled brat. I wanted delicacies: vegan ice cream, coconut yoghurt, lightly salted cashews, vegan white chocolate and juicy olives stuffed with chilli and garlic.
Then again, there were perks.
The lolly jar at work became a no-go zone, so it didn’t even tempt me nor did their regular cake celebration occurrences.
I rediscovered nuts, and regularly snacked on wasabi peas.
I was forced to cook. I’ve cooked more in the last month than I did for all of 2018. I got pretty good at kale; I mastered the vegan version of sautéed mushrooms, and most excitingly, on the last night of January I baked delicious vegan, gluten-free almond biscuits.
Around town, vegan dining wasn’t as available as vegetarian, but I did find that everywhere I went they attempted to accommodate me.
Some places are easy, for example there’s an all vegan burger joint called Bonta Vera in Minmi of all places. Not only are they great, but they’re also dispelling myths that veganism is just wheatgrass and lettuce. Their burgers are massive, and their cauliflower wings are divine!
And then there’s one of my local favourites, Pino’s traditional (vegan) Italian in Islington. At both these places, I had no need to explain my diet, which was nice.
The Press Bookhouse in the CBD offers a range of vegetarian toasties that I’ve been eating for years.
Turns out, they’ve been using vegan cheese all along and just don’t really mention it! I hadn’t even noticed. (When you melt vegan cheese it’s less easy to tell a difference.)
I ate an enormous vegan mac and cheese cauliflower burger from Rascals that made my heart light and my body heavy.
A bubbly barista at Suspension offered me heaps of options on the menu which could be prepared vegan.
And the Autumn Tea Rooms on Darby Street served me a “Soul Bowl” brimming with quinoa, sweet potato, black beans, avocado and more.
Moneypenny on Honeysuckle had heaps of menu items that can be prepared vegan (I regularly enjoy the san choy bow) and I highly recommend the vegan version of the Antojitos ensalata bowl which comes with a massive jalapeno pepper.
Screamin’ Veemis had many delicious vegan options, but I won’t bother telling you about them as they devastatingly closed last week.
Papa’s Bagel Bar has a “Making Friends with Salad” bagel that’s pretty to look at and even better to devour.
I got a massive sour apple and kiwi smoothie from Lynch’s Hub and slurped smugly as I walked along the harbour.
The new Umami bar in Newcastle West had breakfast covered with their “Chia Good Time” with raspberries in orange syrup with coconut, blueberries and spiced poach pears.
I realised how valuable clearly labelled menus must be to any diner with any kind of dietary restraints. Rustica was great at marking their options on the menu. I enjoyed their enormous Fattoush salad chocked full of falafel and flatbread.
Staff were also open to discussing vegan options. When there were minimal vegan treats at Good Brother Espresso the barista commented something along the lines of “we should look into that.”
There are undoubtedly options in Newcastle; it’s just that I would have enjoyed more options. Even as a vegetarian I still enjoy browsing vegan options and often opt for them.
Yes, in early February, and I’m not extending my strict commitment, though I’ll continue to frequent vegan-friendly establishments. When I talk to vegans about my Veganuary experiment, I do sometimes feel a pressure to stick with it, but I understand that too. The more vegans there are, the more our society changes and the more delicious options we get. The cliché is true, there’s strength and powers in numbers. And what person wouldn’t give up eating the flesh of living beings if it: was easy to do, tasted the same, didn’t affect your health and helped the environment to top it all off?!
And yet, I owe a bit of an apology to any meat eater whom I’ve ever cast a condescending glance, when they told me they could “never be a vegetarian, I just love meat too much.” “You could if you really wanted to,” I would think. And now here I am facing my own cheese and butter addiction, but I’m not ignorant to what that means.
I have to own up to exactly what I’m eating as a consumer of animal proteins; I think we all do. While I don’t feel like rehashing all the problems with dairy industry here, it is very true that by returning to vegetarianism, my choices to eat eggs and dairy are now contributing to animal suffering. I wish more eaters of animal products didn’t have such a hard time admitting this, and I wish more vegans would acknowledge that doing their diet in a healthy way is bloody hard work, particularly for people who don’t thrive in the kitchen or have personal chefs. It’s not all black and white, and some people have better cooking skills and self-control than others.
Then we can debate the environmental effects of animal agriculture until the cows come home. There’s conflicting research about the best way fight climate change, but a popular suggestion is to reduce the number of factory farms and conventional livestock production. Ideally one would either reduce their meat consumption or choose meat from a sustainable and ethically raised source.
And if you’re looking for scientific validation for your diet, there’s something for everyone. For example, there’s actually anecdotal evidence of a man who lost over 50 kilos by living on potatoes and the occasional beer for over a year. Every body is different. My December diet of wine and cheese was doing me no favours, but nor were my nights out in veganuary where I was too disorganised to eat dinner.
I was quite vocal about my vegan journey on social media, so I guess I’m asking for criticism, but it does shock me how people have an opinion about the way I should eat. I predict this article will bring about even more personal criticism, but I’m hungry for more (considered) conversations around this topic. I can already hear the vitriol I’ll get from vegans for not being tough enough and meat eaters feeling persecuted.
For every self righteous vegan screaming that meat is murder, you can find an equally militant carnivore defending their diet because bacon tastes good and humans have sharp teeth. It doesn’t have to be this way, and despite what you read on the internet, I believe most people don’t care what’s in my fridge.
The festival is finished, but I’m holding on to those peaceful vibes. As summer wraps up, I hope people of different opinions can get together and kindly discuss food ethics while enjoying one of our city’s many accommodating establishments. Considering the future of our health, animals and the planet doesn’t have to cause rage or sadness. It is not us and them. We’re all in this together.