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Confessions of a Dirty Vegan
I never wanted a completely vegan restaurant. But one morning many years ago, I woke up and said “OK, I’m vegan now.” My then-husband responded to my pronouncement, “You couldn’t make a stop at vegetarian first?” The answer was a definitive ‘no.’ I was very clear that my time was right that second and it really was a nonnegotiable change. (Actually, one in a series of mutual nonnegotiable changes that had effectively doomed the marriage a long time previously.) What he really worried about was the fact that I wouldn’t cook for him anymore, not that I wasn’t getting enough food or balancing my diet, work and family. And he was right, I did stop cooking for him eventually (that’s a side dish of divorce) and for a while I literally stopped eating anything at all. Except hummus. I lived on hummus. And hummus made me happy in a way I had never been happy about food before. I was literally starving all the time in my own abundant restaurant kitchen and my entire existence had boiled down to one food source.
During this time my palette was completely rebooting itself and when I woke up from this phase almost every flavor was more vibrant, truly alive and real. And yet even when I was a newbie freaky vegan who had not really figured out what to eat much less how to live as a vegan; I still wanted my restaurant to serve all the dishes that I loved to cook and had previously loved to eat. Even ones that included meat. I cooked by smell, I cooked from memory and I still cooked with love. I wanted to feed the people that came to me what ever made them happy.
I never even played with the notion of making the restaurant entirely vegan and when the first article that came out about the restaurant was about how a new vegan eatery was opening in town I was horrified. That was exactly what I didn’t want. Exactly what I explained to the reporter I wasn’t going to do. Just because I was vegan didn’t mean that I was out to convert the world. I am often asked, as a chef who works in a restaurant that sources only local, antibiotic hormone and steroid free meats and chicken, wild sustainable seafood and of course seasonal and local produce why I need to be vegan when the quality of what is available to me is like having an organic farm in your pantry. Why vegan? Give me one reason why not, I answer. I am contributing to the health of my planet and allowing countless animals to live. I know that I want my body to be healthy and well and I know that I can make positive steps towards achieving that goal and making sure that my daughters have a mother maybe a little bit longer and certainly a lot happier.
The whole mission of the restaurant is about being a place where food can be part of the community and where everyone can eat happily, safely and sustainably at the same table no matter what their food choices or food restrictions. What I have discovered over the many years I have wandered this planet is that food heals. Not just our body but also our souls. If we create a safe place for people to talk and communicate over the dinner table major rifts can be healed when their stomachs are happy. And even if the major rifts don’t get healed at least everyone is fed healthily and it’s really hard to be miserable with a happy tummy. The one thing I absolutely wasn’t going to do was to take my personal journey and use it as a blueprint for the success of the restaurant or for the ideology of its choices. I wanted to support the local farmers that raised animals and even if I didn’t consume them, I had a better handle on how they were raised and the compassion of their care in life and death. Just because I can’t raise a pig and slaughter it for food doesn’t mean I don’t respect the life choices of the farmers that do and want to support the fact that their pigs are fed mash from a local brewing company and wander around doing piggy things rather than living on a feedlot. I can’t eat meat anymore but that doesn’t mean I love my carnivorous friends any less or judge them for their choices.
But then of course I am vegan and what I love to cook is vegan and what ended up happening was that so many people that came into the restaurant said to me “if you cooked for me every day I would have no trouble being vegan most of the time either.” (You can have vegan super powers by keeping your animal product consumption in single digits percentage wise even though morally a lot of vegans would quibble with that) So that first dark, cold, miserable off-season in our very seasonal resort community I huddled around my stove called ‘Hell’ with three regular customers and taught them to cook my way. We cut and chopped and braised and reduced and sautéed and smoked and dehydrated and sprouted and people began to change the way they cooked and what they ate.
And then the strangest thing happened.
People that took the class started getting really, really healthy; having more energy and better sleep and a lot more sex than they had had in years. Cholesterol points dropped in the triple digits routinely and people began reversing chronic medical conditions, losing vast quantities of weight and without the benefit of being a nutritionist or doctor or dietician I ended up helping people to change their lives by changing the way they ate. Eventually over the next three years I developed a comprehensive teaching program for people that wanted to learn how to cook plant based. I taught people how to cook with unprocessed grains and greens and to cook in a way that didn’t leave you feeling deprived or as if you were being forced to consume tasteless ‘health food.’ In conjunction with learning how to care for themselves and their family by discovering their’ inner chef’ in a technique driven building block classroom experience I also used a concept I called “Deliberate Eating” to reclaim the ritual satisfaction of dining.
As Americans we consume most of our meals by food that has been either handed to us through a car window, alone standing in front of the microwave or in our cubicle spilling ketchup and crumbs between spreadsheets. Food becomes merely a vehicle for existence and not a primary sensual and spiritual pleasure. Our health suffers, our soul suffers and let’s face it our ass suffers. We clamp on to each new foodie trend in dieting; high protein, low carbohydrate, low fat, plant based, carnivore, caveman…with the ferocious passion of zealots and yet we do not think about food as a long term relationship but more as an illicit affair. Most diets work short term: calories in, calories out, it’s a simple mathematical equation. What diets are not taking into account is that far too many people are having a furtive relationship with food rather than taking it out of the closet and putting it front and center in to the evening dress, the family, the marriage and on top of the dining room table.
In examining our relationship with food one of the most important things to ask ourselves is why we eat the WAY we do in addition to WHAT we do. Part of the process of remaking our relationship with food is to redefine the way we view the actual event and eliminate that which does not nourish our soul as well as our body. Your body wants to be well. Each day that you give your body clean nourishing soul sustaining food it is repairing and regenerating positive growth and healthy energy. Clearly the most important thing you can do for yourself is give permission for this healing and growth to occur. The process of deliberate eating is channeling and directing this positive energy to its greatest possible benefit. You must give yourself permission to enjoy the process of eating and caring for yourself rather than to feel guilty about the size of your ass (or thighs or stomach or hips) and make the inevitable decision that deprivation is the answer. It’s a completely novel concept for those of us that grew up believing that a perfect bikini size meant the perfect life.
As a mom I have raised my children to make their own choices based on their own personal path. What works for me personally may not be what is best for my daughters or my friends. I figure that getting to my own place of peace is hard enough without trying to drag people along kicking and screaming behind me. Who am I to tell you what to eat and how to live? I can barely manage my own life with all the flotsam and jetsam, much less yours, but what I can do is care for you when you are with me, teach you how to cook in a whole new way and make sure you feed yourself in a way that is healthy and abundant and doesn’t leave you feeling deprived or unhappy. I can teach you the things that I do and show you what works for me. The decision after that is entirely yours. At this point dozens and dozens of people have reclaimed their lives and their health after taking my wellness immersion class. I met my now-husband when he signed up for my class two years ago. He was 100 lbs overweight with multiple health related problems. He is now a 50 year old vegan hottie head turner. He may have had ulterior motives to jump on the vegan bandwagon but hell, who doesn’t?
My path is not yours or your best friend’s or your spouses or your niece that went vegan and then developed some horrible disease or deficiency because she really doesn’t like vegetables. My uniquely circuitous journey that brought me here was based largely in being told what to do and who to be. I am only beginning to learn to wear my own clothes rather than the costume that was handed to me at birth and as I discover my own identity I am discovering that I love being vegan and love to teach people how to cook the way I do. To me it is not about sacrifice but about making a deliberate choice every day to live a certain way. And for me personally that choice is about treating myself and the world around me more gently.
I am no longer a newbie freaky vegan or even relentlessly 100 percent vegan anymore. I call myself a “dirty vegan” who will sometimes have a bite of a beautiful Chappelle from a local dairy or an egg from our local chicken man. I try not to kill things but sometimes I think it is hypocritical considering that the restaurant does have meat and seafood options and so I am not a zealot (because I find zealotry in all forms tiresome) and so I wake up each day making that plant based decision anew. I am 100 percent sure that everything tastes better with bacon but for right now I am okay with forgoing that option to live in a way that makes less of a negative impact on the piggy population. What I am completely sure of is that I was meant to teach people how to cook and what to eat. I am completely sure that every meatless meal matters both to the health of the planet and your heart. I read this story once about an eighty year woman who looked back at a lifetime of Sunday dinners with chickens in the pot and thought that was an awful lot of chickens. At the end of my life a lot of little chickens will be running around because I taught people how to make a chicken-less Matzoh Ball Soup, a chicken-less Philly Cheese steak and a Palm Beach Chicken-less Curry Salad.
I like chickens. And that is one thing I know for sure.