Me: I don’t eat Eggs, Dairy, Beef, Lamb, Chicken, Pork, Fish or any food with animal products in it.
Them: Oh….So you’re a Vegan?!
My relationship with Veganism is a strange and tense one. I did not become a Vegan by choice, nor do I profess to be a perfect one. My relationship with food in general is a complex one and one that I wont be fully getting into with this article. I am a Vegan. A Vegan by circumstance and force. Here’s how.
Growing up I was a fussy eater. I would go through cycles with food. I hated eggs. Didn’t like the look. Didn’t like the taste. I’d flip between refusing to eat the yoke and refusing to eat the white, my mother cutting away which ever I was refusing at the time leaving me with either a fried yoke or fried white. When I left home at 18, I stopped actively eating eggs. If I could request a version of something with no eggs I did.
Milk, was a next battle. It had always left me with an unsettled stomach. At a young age I recognised that I didn’t like the taste of milk. My frequent and firm refusal to drink it during refreshments time in Reception, resulted in the school calling my parents in for a discussion. This was the remnants of the free school milk era that Margaret Thatcher had tried to end in order to cut spending so that they were able to honour the tax pledges they had made during the 1970 election. The free school milk had been around since the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act, but the combination of the taste and the upset it gave my stomach, I was never a fan.
By the time I reached university I was consuming alternatives to animal dairy products. I relied heavily on substitutes such as the Soy and Almond milk by ALPRO. This meant that I was now not eating eggs and the only dairy product that I was eating was Cheese, because, well Cheese!
So thats a fairly easy thing to recite when eating out. No eggs. No dairy, but I don’t mind cheese.
So how did everything else fall out of my diet?
I have touched on my very West Indian upbringing in previous articles. So to see where it all began to go wrong with meat, I need to take another trip back into my childhood.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the UK witness an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or as it became more commonly known, Mad Cows Disease. Over four million cows were destroyed in an effort to contain the outbreak, and 177 people died after contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) through eating infected beef. The outbreak of this disease and its ability to pass from infected meat and onto humans meant that it quickly disappeared from my childhood home. To be honest, while I can think back and remember the mass panic, I have no recollection of actively missing the presence of beef in my diet. In the mid 2000s I started university and like with most students, all semblance of a balanced diet went out the window. I am the first to admit that I survived on fast food, take out and junk food. I developed an unhealthy addiction to cheese burgers, McDonald’s ones if we are being honest here. Over time I began to find that eating them was making me ill. I was physically struggling to digest them and would often end up vomiting out of control requiring trips to A&E and medical intervention. It wasn’t just beef burgers that was doing this, I couldn’t eat mince in spaghetti bolognese, or have a steak and chips either. It was on my third or fourth trip to A&E when a consultant who had already treated me a couple times said “We have told you that you are allergic to beef. You have an intolerance to an enzyme in it. Stop eating it or we will stop treating you!” And so I stopped eating beef.
If you’re paying attention to the list we have now dropped Eggs, Dairy (still clasping cheese), and no beef because i’m allergic to it. Still a fairly simple list to recite when dining out. For a few years things were great. My digestive issues were no longer ruining my life thanks to the adjustments that I had made. Then one day lamb decided to ask ‘Hey, What about me?. I had only managed to cut beef out of my diet by heavily substituting it with the meats we get from sheep. I used minced lamb in bolognese sauce, in my homemade curry patties and I used lamb chunks in my stir fry. Not to mention the occasional lamb shank or lamp chops for a Sunday roast.
Lamb began to give me the same issues that beef had been giving me and a discussion with my Dr drew the conclusion that all red meat was a no no for me, due to certain enzymes found in it.
So now its, no eggs, no dairy (cheese is ok), and no red meat. Still simple enough, although choose foods when eating out was starting to get a little more complex for me.
I know you’re looking at the dietary progression and wondering how I jumped from No red meat to no meat. The reason is very simple. I was out eating on a business lunch and had specifically checked with the restaurant to make sure there was no red meat in the food that I had ordered. It was a pan-asian restaurant but our waitress was adamant that the items I ordered were fine. At face value none of the items had red meat. By the time I returned to the office my stomach was doing somersaults. I was frantically thinking through everything that I had consumed that day, wondering if at some point I had decided to relax on my rules and eat something any way. I hadn’t. A quick phone call to the restaurant and a lot of insistence on my part led to the confession that a meat stock had been in one of the items that I had ordered and eaten. I left the office early that day, no longer able to function and adamant that my journey with all meat had ended.
So now we had, no eggs, no dairy (cheese is ok), and no meat all all. I admit that this black out on all meat was a struggle for me mentally. Whilst I didn’t eat much pork due to a large portion of my family being Seventh Day Adventists, I lived for chicken wings. If I wasn’t eating cheeseburgers in uni, you would often catch me with a serving of hot wings from KFC or Sams. I can happily admit I was addicted to them. It was my go to order whenever I had to eat anywhere and they were on the menu. As an adult I would often stop off in the chicken shop near to my London flat on the way home and grab a portion fo wings and chips. Boss man was generous and with me being such a loyal customer her would always gift me with extra free wings. I can still hear how hard he laughed when I went into his shop and he automatically began to prepare my wings only for me to tell him I’d given up meat and could I just get a large chips with hot sauce instead. He gave me the chips for free and told me he was wishing me luck because I looked like I needed it.
With all of the above now cut out of my diet, I was left with fish. I love fish. Growing up in a West Indian household it was always present. I can recall my dad stating it “wasn’t a proper” meal if it didn’t include fish. I love Tuna steak, and smoked salmon, steamed fish and fish and Chips. There were very few fishes that I didn’t like to eat, even though I never liked nor ate seafood (my older sister told me as a child that prawns scream in your mouth as you eat them).
The Caribbean is the cause of fish falling from my diet. My annual trips home for easter to visit my parents, saw me spoilt with getting to eat the fish the same day it had been caught. I never got to eat the fish that fresh in England and my taste buds mounted a revolt over it. I decided I wouldn’t eat fish unless I was in the Caribbean, but once a year is not enough and I lost the taste and desire for it.
So thats no eggs, no dairy (cheese is ok), and no meat and no fish. I was a vegetarian. Years of chipping away at my diet had left me with that reality. I was convinced that I couldn’t give up cheese, and even though it affected my digestive system as much as its cousin milk did, I just really liked the taste. The discovery of Vegan cheeses such as Violife, allowed me to finally give up cheese. I was super delighted to see that brands such as Pizza Hut and Papa Johns offered Vegan Pizza options. I didn’t feel I was missing out by dropping cheese any more.
But Vegans don’t have the best reputations and I resented that my diet choices left me as part of that designation. They are judge, holier than thou, militant for their cause and have garnered many negative stereotypes as a result.
Knowing all that, please act normal when I say I don’t eat Eggs, Dairy, Beef, Lamb, Chicken, Pork, Fish or any food with animal products in it. I’ll call myself a VEGAN but only by force.