Bowls Over Plates: A Vegan-Advice Letter Never Sent

Note: I have a good friend who recently decided to go vegan for Lent. I offered to give her advice at any point in the process but she never took me up on my offer. Nonetheless, the process sparked me to make some general notes about how to take that first step toward eliminating animals and animal products from our diets. What follows lays no claim to authority, and I’m sure there are others out there who have presented this kind of advice in far more authoritative terms. Nonetheless, here’s what I came up with: call it the vegan-advice letter never sent. I encourage readers to share this post with anyone who they think might be receptive to the message. I’m hoping to include a new recipe every week. 

Everyone interested in exploring veganism must begin at the same starting point: the threshold of your kitchen.  Indeed, everyone interested in crossing the threshold of veganism should begin by opening the doors of your pantry and fridge. Take stock of what’s inside. Remove the meat, eggs, cheese, mayonnaise, yogurt, milk, and–while not necessarily non-vegan–all heavily processed foods (crackers, sodas, juices). If you feel guilty about throwing out these items, let them run out on their own terms, gradually. But the bottom line is this: all animal products must go.

Then visit your preferred grocery store. Buy soy or almond or rice milk, as wide a variety of fruits and vegetables as you can keep fresh for a week (20 different fruits and veggies would be a good goal), five or six different varieties of beans (if you must use canned, fine; but fresh ones pack much more flavor); brown, Basmati, and sushi rice; quinoa, pearl barley, avocados, a wide range of nuts, an equally wide range of nut butters; whole wheat bread, tortillas, and pastas; bagels, an abundance of leafy greens, granola, soy yogurt and soy cream cheese (not available everywhere), lentils, and any other real, whole foods you can find that do not come from an animal. Add to your cart some basic herbs, oils, and spices such as olive and peanut oils, cilantro, basil, parsley, mint, garlic, cumin, paprika, garlic, and capers, ginger, and tarragon (and whatever else you like). Hit the frozen foods aisle and stock up on frozen fruit–great for smoothies. Then go on-line (unless you have access to really high-end grocery store) and, to jazz things up, order some hemp seeds, dulse (a kind of delicious seaweed), gomasio (a condiment made from un-hulled sesame seeds and sea salt), pink sea salt, and really high cocoa (75% or more) chocolate. Finally, get a hold of some B-12 supplements (B-12, which exists in dirt, is the only nutrient vegans cannot get from plants, because they are washed. Animal do not produce B-12; they eat it in unwashed plants.)

Once you reach the point where there are no food products in your kitchen sourced from an animal, and your fridge and pantry are loaded with plant-based foods, congratulate yourself.  You have–in making this transition–done something quietly profound: you’ve directly confronted the evils of industrial agriculture, made the most environmentally sound dietary choices possible, filled your fridge and pantry with items that are bound to improve your health and quality of life, and selected foods that dramatically minimize the suffering of individual animals who, no matter how well they are treated while alive, do not want to die to become commodities.

Keep these benefits in mind while, as an initiation to veganism, you prepare and eat these remarkable foods–foods that rarely make it to the center stage of the western diet. How you do that will ultimately be up to you, but the recipes I will be posting should provide a highly flexible guide to versatile, easy, and I hope delicious meals.  My own approach builds on what I a “bowls over plates” culinary philosophy. The idea is to root meals in traditional food approaches throughout history–most of which were plant-based, diverse, and based on whatever was stewing in a single cooking pot.  The meals I suggest thrive on diversity, richness, simplicity, a wide admixtures of flavors, and the belief that the conventional arrangement of meat-grain-mushy vegetables on a flat diner plate is a relic of corporate food propaganda. The humble bowl offers a kinder, more democratic approach to eating. The “bowl over plate” ethos is thus intended to not only provide exceptionally healthy meals, but to encourage vegans to tinker and amend recipes to suit individual preferences. For a lifetime.

Many people avoid trying this experiment because they equate veganism with sacrifice. To the contrary, there’s endless variation to be achieved in a vegan diet. People who do veganism right come out the other end amazed at how diversified their diets have become. The reason for this unexpected enrichment is quite simple: animal based products–perhaps as a result of their general heaviness–tend to stifle dietary creativity. Remove the goat cheese from your spinach salad, for example, and perhaps you’ll find it replaced with toasted pistachio nuts, persimmon seeds, and a dusting of gomasio. Take the grilled chicken breast off your plate and, with less effort and expense, you’ll find sauteed butternut squash with walnut “cream” sauce, roasted beets in a tarragon pesto, and braised mustard greens dusted with Himalayan pink salt. Skip the scrambled eggs for breakfast and you’ll have the chance to discover the wealth of flavor in a bowl of nutty-flavored amaranth grains with almond milk, cinnamon, blueberries, and a dusting of brown sugar.

Committed vegans tend to speak wistfully about their “conversion experience.” The reason for this affection is that, in removing animal products from our diet, we introduced our palates to a Pandora’s box of wonderful new foods and flavors.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to Bowls Over Plates: A Vegan-Advice Letter Never Sent

  1. It was with a big sigh of relief when I got all the animal products out of my kitchen! I hadn’t realized how guilt ridden I had been feeling about “eating animals”; when ever I would approach a package of meat I would immediately flash on the animal it came from. No more! All my food comes from plants now and it makes me very happy. My diet has become very exciting and diversified!

  2. veg-ease says:

    I am a vegetarian for religious reasons. I follow His Imperial Majesty Selassie I and he followed Yeshua who as a Nazerene never touched anything dead. I like to think that the whole world could be vegetarian/vegan.

  3. CQ says:

    James, your blog sure reaches a wide and diverse audience. Wonderful.

    How different the vegan diets of the world are.

    I survive — no, thrive — on PASTA and PEAS and POTATOES and PEANUT BUTTER, with the occasional PRUNE or PEAR thrown in. This week I branched out to PANCAKES with PECANS.

    Heck, sometimes I even imbibe foods that don’t start with “P” — like, for instance, APPLES. (But that has two Ps in the middle, I see!)

    Just joking. It’s true I do enjoy all the above, but my PALATE is much more diverse than that, probably covering every letter of the alphabet except “X” and “Z.”

    Oh, I forgot one of my faves: salted, oily PEANUTS! 🙂

  4. Tim says:

    Excellent post ! We would only add nutritional yeast to that list, as it is great at replacing cow cheese in so many dishes that typically include a cheesy flavor, and is loaded with so many important vitamins & minerals, including B12 if the right variety is chosen. A highly recommended shelf staple for every veg kitchen.

  5. Patrick Weix says:

    I remember a debate on the old Vegan Freaks board about the paradox that limiting oneself to plants has the effect of expanding one’s food selection immensely. Theoretically of course, the omnivore has more food choices, but in practice, it is the vegans that eat the variety. Certainly this was true for me.

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