Last week a sample of Milkadamia arrived at my office in artsy packaging that bore the competing slogans "Moo is moot" and "Cuddle in a cup." It looked like the most conspicuously bespoke non-dairy option this side of liquified pearls so, yes, I had to know. The macadamia creamer sinks to the bottom of my coffee and turns it the right color. But despite its creaminess, it isn't cream or even milk. I drink and get properly wired to work, but there is no pleasure in it. And that, despite a slew of solid reasons to eat a plant-based diet, is historically where I fall down.
On a rainy day in December I went to a holiday potluck hosted by the Vegan Society of Humboldt. Crowded on hostess Yemaya Kimmel's kitchen table were five kinds of chocolate chip cookies — some firm little domes, others flat and soft, one with oatmeal, one double chocolate. I nibbled each one, noting the clever substitutions, but none lit up my brain the way butter can. My receptors seemed trained, like a junkie's, for that particular spread of milkfat on the tongue. The cashew-based cheese ball, though, was remarkably cheese-like.
Society director Sheryl Esparza (she of the cheese ball) has been vegan for nine years and was vegetarian two years before that. "I started looking at the food system and issues with meat being raised with hormones and antibiotics," she said. "You realize eating vegan is the best thing overall for the planet." She doesn't think veganism is a perfect solution but sees it as a way "to try to do the least amount of harm to animals and the planet." She's taken up the challenge of cooking her favorite dishes animal product-free with zeal, whipping up everything from non-dairy lasagna to seitan "ribs."
As we spoke, author Adrienne Veronese swept in late, delayed by lace cookies that didn't set because she'd used the wrong almond butter. She grew up on a dairy farm but came to plant-based eating to deal with autoimmune issues that have since resolved after shifting her diet, she said. In her cat-eye glasses, she leaned against the kitchen counter beside her fruit-sweetened cranberry bundt cake. Taking control of her own health, she said is "very empowering."
Kimmel, an herbalist, said she's experienced health benefits, too, but was initially motivated by empathy for animals. She laughed recalling, "When I told my 100 percent Greek father I was vegan ... there was silence on the other end of the line. Then, 'No.'" There's little point in lecturing anyone, she said, but she's always happy to answer questions to the curious.
I could parry with the usual arguments against veganism, poking at the impossibility of living without harming animals, the unhealthy processing of meat and dairy substitutes, or the relative carbon footprint of sustainably raised animal products vs. imported soy. But none of that is what keeps me from adopting a way of eating that, on the whole, would be better for our planet and, according to at least one medical professional, my health. It's pleasure.
I made a brief, fraught attempt at veganism and failed miserably. Which is to say I was miserable and failed. Those around me suffered most. While my coworkers ate pizza, I slammed the microwave door and scowled and swore at the perfectly fine soup within. I'm a fan of tofu and don't consume much meat, but it was the explicit denial that got me — to say never to the pleasures of a crisp bit of fat plucked from the edge of a roast, to dipping a finger in a mixing bowl of whipped sugar and butter. The ancient miracle that is a spoon of honey. Cheese. Freaking liverwurst haunted my dreams. Substitutes, convincing as they can be (and yes, I'm sure you can introduce me to an excellent cheese/gelato/butter/burger that looks genuinely bloody), are still substitutes, eliciting at most a raised brow. My surrender was a bacchanalia of chicken wings and ice cream cookie sandwiches.
Even if the figure of the insufferable vegan — ordering elaborate substitutions, preaching, side-eying a fellow diner's lunch, bashing other cultures — was nowhere to be found at the VSH potluck, it's everywhere in media and occasionally my inbox. A couple of clicks on YouTube will lead you to a host of such cartoonish villains (sometimes at war with one another — there is no beef like vegan beef) but really that can be said of every following from Christianity to CrossFit.
But if you are simply a smug, superior vegan, you know what? I'm gonna give it to you. You are, it turns out, better than me. You've given up a millenia-long history of culinary hedonism that I could not. Your moral compass will not allow you to draw pleasure from the flesh of slaughtered animals; repulsed as I am by videos of abattoirs, I seem able to tuck mine in my pocket at mealtime. Your calculation of the damage a hot Reuben does to our shared ecosystem alters your choices while I plow through said sandwich like a timber crew through a rainforest. Maybe it's not a sacrifice to you but it is to me, and I will, as a resident of Earth, indirectly benefit from your choices, even as I pierce the runny yolk atop my Vietnamese pork chop. So go ahead. Drag me, vegans.
What I can do, even in thrall to my animal product addiction, is feed it a little less. Nut milk in my smoothies is (precious packaging aside) fine. I'm down to further pursue my love of Asian tofu dishes, though I may never get on board with tofu cheesecake (please don't send me recipes — it's not that I haven't met the right one). And I can feed a vegan. I can, like any good host, make sure vegan dinner guests have plenty that's truly good to eat (not just one sad plate of potatoes or whatever they bring themselves) and have a list of accommodating restaurants on hand instead of awkwardly brainstorming with the whole party to deal with The Difficult Person's Demands. (A few recommendations from the potluck attendees: Sushi Spot, Wildflower, Siam Orchid, Chapala, Bencharong Thai House, Café Nooner, Tandoori Bites, Dutchy's Pizza and Living the Dream Ice Cream.) I can be a better vegan enabler.
In this spirit, I offer an easy, cheap, fast, low-effort/high-reward tofu dish I love, one that requires no substitution or faux anything. The silken tofu is made to fall apart — let it. Enjoy the creaminess against the ginger, scallions and sesame oil. Spooned over hot rice and a side of stir-fried greens, this makes a comforting main dish that's easily doubled for a crowd. And it's a genuine pleasure to eat.
Ginger Scallion Tofu
While I prefer it as is, additional sesame oil, soy sauce or chili oil on the table is not a bad idea. Serves 2-3.
2 tablespoons sesame oil (more to garnish, if desired)
1 teaspoon minced or grated fresh ginger
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped (reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish)
1 package silken tofu, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
½ tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
½ teaspoon finely sliced fresh ginger for garnish
In a medium pan, warm the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and scallions and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the salt and tofu and stir gently to combine. When the tofu is heated through, drizzle in the cornstarch and water. Stir gently and cook another 2-3 minutes until the liquid in the pan thickens.
Garnish with scallions and ginger before serving.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.