The epiphany hit when we tried making vegan pizza. Disaster followed rubbery fake-cheese disaster, until finally my exasperated husband, a former chef, said "Enough!" He would keep cooking vegan food, but no more fake anything.
This was about six years ago. My earnest teen daughter had asked the family to try vegan eating. I respected her political concerns, and generally embrace any new cuisine, but vegan? No more cheese, pork or eggs? No scones or chocolate-chip cookies? Veganism looked like a harsh mistress, all daily austerity with only the vague reward that our household could somehow change the world years hence.
In other words, I wasn't on board.
We agreed to try it for two weeks. This was not going to be a cheap experiment, as I discovered while loading up on dairy and meat alternatives at the fancy grocery stores. I dutifully read the labels, expecting to discover a world of eco-friendly alternative ingredients. Nope. Our usual sour cream was made from cultured cream and skim milk, but the list of chemical-sounding additives in our fake sour cream was longer than on any food I'd ever bought. How was this a healthier way to eat?
I will say, it was appalling to discover how much of my diet was some form of bread and cheese. This included our weekly pizza night, when Eric fired up the wood oven for his Neapolitan-style specialties. None of us were willing to give up pizza night, not even the dedicated vegan, so the experiments began.
Maybe he learned it in culinary school, or maybe during decades of cooking, but Eric has a relentless fixation on perfecting a dish. He will make a recipe a dozen times before he's happy with it, and will toss a meal down the garbage disposal rather than serve substandard food. To him, the pizza with the fake cheese was definitely disposal fodder.
And that was the moment we all held hands and jumped into a temporary no-faking-it vegan diet. Eric abandoned the plastic-tasting cheese, and instead grilled some strips of eggplant, yellow squash and sliced onion. He layered those on a simple bed of tomato sauce sparked with garlic.
The pretty pinwheel of charred vegetables atop the bright tomato sauce had our mouths watering. Although Eric made several cheese-covered pies for our guests, everyone fought to get a bite of the vegan pizza. It was spectacular.
From there, we explored the world of vegetables and grains. Eric perfected faro wheat risotto with roasted wild mushrooms, root vegetable hash and vegan cinnamon rolls. I created "hippie fried rice" with kale and tofu. We experimented with umami-forward ingredients like miso and dried mushroom stock. All were delicious and healthy.
Nevertheless, after the two weeks were up, I gratefully returned to many of my bread-and-cheese staples, and Eric ordered more buffalo mozzarella cheese for pizzas. He and I went back to being omnivores, but with a healthier focus on plants and grains. Lily remains a dedicated vegan.
Now Lily lives on her own, and has become a terrific cook herself, with very few meals ending up in the garbage disposal. Eric and I both look forward to holiday visits when she offers to cook dinner. She splurges on the occasional pricey fake dairy product, but overall she's healthy and happy with vegetables and grains.
Ultimately, the vegan experiment impressed all of us, even the pork-and-egg eaters. Lily wants to grow her own herbs. Many of Eric's vegan dishes are in regular weeknight rotation. And the vegan pizza remains a beloved pizza-night staple.Back to The Vegetarian Issue