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A curious would-be vegetarian takes a weeklong crash course

Thursday, July 25, 2002

By Virginia Phillips

First of an occasional series
Next: Pittsburgh edges closer to the vegetarian mainstream.

I was awed in 1968 when my friend Sheila from Grand Forks, N.D., married Mohan from New Delhi and announced they would eat no meat one day a week. It was Mohan's suggestion -- to lighten them up spiritually and physically.

Ted Crow illustration, Post-Gazette

That would be hard, I thought.

The world has changed and so have I. I find myself edging a little bit veggie. It's not a cultural oddity anymore and I like the way I feel after a meatless meal.

I still eat "normally," along with 96 percent of fellow Americans. In a recent Time/CNN poll of 10,000 adults, 4 percent of respondents consider themselves vegetarians. (More than half of the 4 percent who answered yes described themselves as "semi vegetarian.") Being "normal" means I don't really exclude anything. However I have a smidge of hero worship for people who do.

I think about my vegan friends, the strictest of vegetarians. They bend their lives to live their convictions. They avoid meat, fish, poultry and animal products -- milk, eggs, even honey. They believe living creatures are not ours to eat, any more than an animal's products are ours for the taking.

Vegans go to great lengths to avoid animal-derived additives, such as gelatin, lecithin or casein, some of the many "hidden ingredients" used to texturize processed food.

Adhering to their severely engineered diet makes them feel centered, they say, more focused, lighter, even "cleaner" than when they ate meat.

Fallen-away vegans are nostalgic about that feeling.

Food "issues" are less personal and more social today. Let's see anyone avoid tales of slaughterhouse horrors, steroids, antibiotics, genetic tinkering, overfishing, sustainable ecology, world hunger, general health. An organic vegan diet tries to address all of these.

Is the lightness vegans describe a product of an unburdened conscience, a humming body chemistry or both?

Would a week in vegan-land provide a hint of how they feel?

Peggy Shaw, Sewickley vegan instructor, counsels a gradual approach.

With that not an option, she gives me a quickie recipe using mochi, a rice-based meat substitute. She says it may help fill that big hole in the vegan diet, a lack of "gooey melting cheese."

  Veggie ventures here and about

The North American Vegetarian Society Summerfest is July 31 through Aug. 4 at the University of Pittsburgh Johns-town campus. Information: 1-518-568-7970.

Pittsburgh Vegetarian Society will sponsor a talk by Dr. Michael Greger at 7 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Nuin Center, 5655 Bryant St., Highland Park. Greger will discuss the importance of vegetarianism and vegan health and how it can be optimized through proper nutrition. Reservations are required: 412-734-5554.

Pittsburgh Vegetarian Society will co-host a picnic with Animal Advocates from 1 to 6 p.m. Aug. 18, in the Veterans Shelter in Schenley Park (beside pool). Admission is free for those who bring a vegetarian or vegan dish.

-- Virginia Phillips


I ask yoga pal Patty Kline, a long-time vegan from the West Coast, to be my Warm-Line. We plan vegan General Tso's "chicken" at her favorite Chinese bistro, the New Dumpling House in Squirrel Hill.

My safety net is the famous Moosewood recipe for Deep Chocolate Vegan Cake.

For backbone, I read "Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet," the newest book by social scientist Frances Moore Lappe, written with her daughter, Anna Lappe.

Thirty years ago, Lappe senior, in "Diet for a Small Planet," developed the groundbreaking but now widely discussed thesis that world hunger need not be if Westerners would reject corporate chemical agriculture and adopt an organic plant-based rather than meat-based diet.

The first book, updated now for younger readers, sold in the millions. It was considered a foundational guide for modern vegetarianism.

"Hope's Edge" extends the original ideas with stories told by visionaries from Bangladesh to Argentina who are pioneering organic and socially responsible ways to feed their communities.

The people tell heartening, sometimes shocking stories. The reader's bonanza is Lappe's recipes collected from her subjects and from celebrated restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Angelica Kitchen.

I copy a few.

At the East End Food Co-op, I hunt for tofu, white miso (soy products), mochi, nutritional yeast (dry yellow flakes) and umeboshi (salty-sour plum paste).

A young mom with waist-length braids helps me find the yeast. "You knew I'd know, didn't you?" she says with a grin.

I buy raw cashews, basil, coconut milk, small eggplants, green onions, peppers, celery, black beans, potatoes, carrots and greens.

I do not buy prepared entrees -- cooking is learning. My recipes don't require soymilk. I leave fake meat forms, like seitan, to Chinese restaurants. They have uncanny skills at trompe de tofu.

I go to bed thinking, "Tomorrow I wake up vegan."

Vegan Monday

Breakfast: Sunday's dinner guests left some fruit tart with a corn-oil margarine crust. Flattening the last crumb with my fingertip, I remember something about an egg-white layer under the fruit. This is why vegans ask a lot of questions.

Lunch: Leftover vegetables from company dinner. Cuban onions, black beans, chard, yams. Delicious.

Dinner: I look up from the computer and realize there's no time to make "Hope's Edge" eggplant. I throw together the mochi cauliflower. The mochi bar resembles Bit-O-Honey candy. I madly shred 1/3 cup and mix it with tahini, water and white miso. The paste is not pretty but tastes sort of peanut-buttery. I spread it on steamed cauliflower and bake it. It is chewy and gooey. I'm hungry. I eat a lot, in panic. I drink wine and have vegetables from Sunday. My husband, Jack, has them with Sunday's leftover pork. To put an end to this meal, I gnaw a shard of bittersweet chocolate. It contains lecithin, but I don't yet know lecithin may be animal-derived.


Breakfast. Squirrel Mind. I envision a forgotten Co-op muffin in the downstairs freezer. I dig for it, read the label. Vegan. No whey (milk by product), no butter, just soymilk. It is stolid but tasty. Goes down well with good coffee.

Lunch: More of Sunday's vegetables.

Late afternoon. Hungry! Scrabble through the baking supplies. Blanched almonds. Chew, chew.

Dinner: I tackle "Hope's" spicy eggplant. It's a pain. Without garlic black bean sauce, I substitute ancient fermented black beans found in the refrigerator and fresh garlic. No garlic chili paste; I opt for sweet Thai chili paste we have.

I maniacally chew dried cranberries -- what is this chewing thing? -- while "lacquering" the tofu. This means browning slices in sesame oil. The brown rice sends up wholesome perfume. Thank God vegans don't quibble over a glass of wine. Jack's daughter drops in. We put on a venison sausage for him and her, too.

Things are looking up.

This eggplant is radical, full of lingering flavors, fragrant with fresh basil. Jack doesn't even slow down to evict the tofu.


I forget a breakfast meeting, rush there, have fruit.


In order to get a clearer sense of vegetarianism / veganism in the United States, the Vegetarian Resource Group asked this question in its 2000 National Zogby poll: "Please tell me which of the following foods, if any, you never eat: Meat, Poultry, Fish/Seafood, Dairy Products, Eggs, Honey."

Defining vegetarians as those who never eat meat, poultry, or fish, Zogby arrived at the figure 2.5 percent of the statistical population who can be considered vegetarian. About three in four people (72 percent) responded that they eat all of the foods on the list, and those who eschew meat numbered 4.5 percent. (Note that this figure includes the 2.5 already defined as vegetarian.)

-- Virginia Phillips


Lunch: PB&J on multi-grain bread.

A fit of deprivation hits about 3 p.m. This is the hour when the meat-eating me needed a little treat, too. To the Eagle for Tofutti. I used to think soymilk ice cream was chewy, caramelly. This is bliss.

Dinner: Leftovers. A tiny filet for Jack. Last of Tofutti.

Progress report: I have morphed from Squirrel to Ruminant.

Shop, chop and chew

Vegan cooking is delectable but calls for lengthy foraging and prep. Plus interminable chewing. Plant foods provide plenty of protein but are not so quickly dispatched as the tidy egg or chicken breast. The nuts, the dried fruit. My lower jaw is moving sideways like the Gateway Computer's cow.

At least she has multiple stomachs. My one is distended.

Tofu, miso, mochi, grains, nuts, brown rice. (All meat and dairy replacements taste "nutty." Recipes, if not using soy products, use nuts, tahini (sesame paste), mochi or nutty-tasting nutritional yeast. Enough to make a person feel squirrelly.)

Then there are the beans and greens. I'm a tiny bit crampy, like Lewis and Clark when they pigged out on wild greens after a long winter.

Mentor Patty says you have to pace these things, soy products especially.


This will be worth it. I'll be losing weight.

The scale says I've gained 4 pounds. Patteeee?

Coffee for breakfast.

Lunch: Cafe Zinho in Shadyside. I don't deserve this but it is heaven. Gingery pea soup, hummus, roasted vegetables on crostini. Becky Pais, co-owner with her husband, Toni, of Zinho and Baum Vivant, sees to fabulous vegan desserts. She is a pastry chef and former vegan.

Dinner: This coconut curry vegetable thing is a project, but it turns out wonderfully. Thanks again, "Hope's Edge." Jack has grilled salmon and loves the curry.


My digestive system soldiers on.

A Banksville Road billboard for a two-topping, $8.99 pizza fills my windshield. It's food porn and gets me right here.


My after-yoga thing is coffee and a muffin at Panera's. Anything vegan? The server thinks not. The manager finds THE BOOK. We check a bagel. It's OK. No additives. I take honey. A real vegan wouldn't.

My friend Marlene Parrish reminds me Jack and I are invited to dinner Sunday. I remind her of my regimen. She says, "Oh, sh--."

I know she'll come through. I offer vegan appetizers. She says falsely, "Oh, good."


Marlene toils on a vegetable stock from a vegan cookbook. She calls. She hates it. I'm glad Mount Washington stands between us. Her second try, with leeks, mushrooms and good things in proportion, rates her approval. It will be the foundation for our vegetable paella. The others will have chicken, too. Apple pie with Tofutti for dessert.

We begin with martinis and my appetizers.

"What is this?" she says, taking more. It's cashew basil pesto.

"I'd serve this to anyone," she says.

It rocks, if I do say so. So does Marlene's vegan dinner for me. A spectacular finale.

Also, thank you, my vegan and one-time vegan advisers.

You were all correct:

I missed dairy most. Eggs, meat and fish, relished by others in easy range of my own fork, caused no envy, for a week, anyway.

A "gradual approach" and "pacing" would have eased the system strains.

An (immoderate) vegan diet is "no way to lose weight" -- Patty Kline, Becky Pais, Jennifer Frye of Jen's Juice Joint in Shadyside. (A couple of the pounds did disappear, attributable to water retention from so many carbs and soy sauce.)

The experiment "developed my palate and made me a label-reader," as it had former vegan Katie Werner, manager of Maggie's Mercantile, an acclaimed vegan restaurant near Donegal, Westmoreland County.

Long-range, adding a little fish or chicken might work better, as it has for former vegans Pais and Shaw.

"Listen to your body," Pais says.

I'm in the loop and high on what I learned. Blissed out, if no lighter.

Vegan food can be a celebration.

P.S. Try that General Tso's vegan "chicken" at the New Dumpling House. It's better than chicken.

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator based in Mt. Lebanon.

Babette's "Legendairyless" Pesto

From Babette's in East Hampton, N.Y., comes this all-conquering combo of cashews and basil, with nutritional yeast subbing for cheese. Spoon it on baguette toasts, grilled vegetables or summer tomatoes. Freeze leftovers and stir into soup. Nobody tastes the yeast.

  • 1/2 pound raw cashew pieces

  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast, see note
  • 1 bunch fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 tablespoon chopped raw garlic (4 to 5 cloves)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons lemon juice

Place cashews on a baking sheet and roast about 4 to 6 minutes at 350 degrees or until light golden brown. Place cashews in a food processor and chop for about 15 seconds. Add yeast and pulse another 30 seconds. Remove ground cashews and place in a mixing bowl.

Add basil leaves by handfuls to the food processor and pulse briefly for each handful. Add garlic and salt, then drizzle in the olive oil, stirring with a rubber spatula. Add lemon juice, pulsing until just blended. Season to taste, pulsing to mix. Add basil mixture to ground cashews, whisking well. Makes 2 cups.

Note: Nutritional yeast is available at most health food stores.

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