This piece is by the Travelin’ Cousins, a little blog about the travel adventures of a couple of cousins.
by Elisa Valentino
March 22, 2019
My Transition to Becoming Vegan
The journey to become a vegan was a progression of steps over several decades, so if you have considered joining the ranks of millions who now enjoy a plan- based eating lifestyle and have sworn off the use of animal-based products of any kind, do not fret if you feel it is a daunting endeavor.
In my early twenties, I made a dedicated decision to become a vegetarian, which, in all honesty, was not that difficult considering I never really enjoyed the taste of meat or fish. So, you’re probably saying, “well, I do enjoy these culinary choices.” My weakness, however, was always poultry, so I’m not completely out of touch with the average American animal meat eater!
Living the single life, my refrigerator and cupboard was not filled with the healthiest of options and in an effort to embrace healthier eating habits, I enlisted the help of numerous vegetarian cooking magazines, to enhance my knowledge and creativity to forge ahead in preparing meals and snacks with more nutritional value. Things were going well, and in fact, I was also still enjoying my usual tuna salad sandwich, roast turkey and mashed potatoes, and an array of chicken dishes in and around my veggie meals.
Then fate stepped in. More than likely as a result of my name being on “vegetarian – based” mailing lists, I began to receive unsolicited mail from various animal rights organizations.
As a passionate animal lover, I was not only heartbroken by the ongoing barrage of stories, tales and general information about the food industry, but, quite frankly, appalled at the suffering and pain that “food” animals systematically endured for the sake of human consumption. My eyes were open like never before and I was unable to think about the food on my plate or in-between bread quite the same. It was no longer an inanimate object, but something with a past that from my newly awakened perspective was just untenable of which to be a part. That first year of being a vegetarian was not terribly difficult because the thought of hurting another living creature made it difficult to crave the food I once found so palatable.
My education about factory farms, the slaughter process, and the way in which our food made it to the supermarket shelves was expanding and coupled with the compassionate aspect, I was also becoming totally turned off to the unsanitary and unhygienic manor and conditions in which our food supply was being produced.
Now, at this time, back in the 1980’s, vegetarianism was becoming a growing trend that people all over were embracing – some for compassionate reasons, others for health purposes. But, in most circles, being vegan had not as yet gained the mainstream popularity it enjoys today. Even being a vegetarian had its limits and for those like me, dining out or attending large functions, it was quite disappointing to have the best offer be a plate of several vegetables thrown on a plate.
The vegan lifestyle, takes vegetarianism to its next and logical step – the vegan refrains from eating any animal products or dairy products, as well as not using any items made from animals, in daily life, such as leather or fur.
In my heart, I wanted to live the vegan lifestyle, but, could not go “cold turkey” across all areas of my life in one fell swoop. It was a process that included numerous steps along the way.
For instance, meat, fish and poultry were the first to be eliminated and replaced by vegetable and plant-based protein substitutes to insure I was being well nourished. I also managed to make a conscious decision to purchase and wear non-leather products. Although, the options were not as abundant as they are today, and the “no animal testing” movement was in its infancy as consumer products companies were just beginning to get pressured by concerned consumers. Fur was never an issue for me because I knew intrinsically that these animals were exploited exclusively for this luxury item and so fur was not a symbol of high end fashion for me.
As an avid traveler, I always managed to find good vegetarian food and could even survive the most carnivorous restaurants, always managing to “vegetarianize” menu items with the omission of meat and poultry. I’ve also been lucky enough to encounter some wonderful chefs who would alter their dishes to accommodate my dietary requirements.
With the passage of time, and vegan dining options becoming more accessible, I began to embrace these more and more, making it an adventure, especially when traveling with my travel blogger partner and cousin, Tanya. As a thirty-year vegetarian as well, she embraced a full vegan lifestyle roughly eleven years ago. Making our way throughout the world – locally and afar, I began to thoroughly enjoy the experience of trying vegan restaurants and dessert shoppes and boy, have I indulged in some of the most delectable vegan dishes and vegan variations on many of the local culinary delicacies. From amazing vegan pirogies in Krakow, Poland to vegan ice cream in Vienna, Austria to vegan Afternoon tea service in London and vegan doughnut sundaes in Brooklyn, my palette was expanding and actually loving the lightness of these plant-based preparations.
In fact, some of the best exclusively vegan restaurants, vegan dessert destinations and vegan markets are located right here in New York City, many of which I now patronize regularly.
In spite of all this, however, one of the biggest blocks for me to go 100% vegan, quite frankly, was my difficulty in giving up dairy-based products. Dairy milk and butter have been long gone from my diet for the past 15 years, as I embraced various cow milk substitutes such as rice milk, almond milk and plant-based butter spreads. However, cheese was still my weakness in making a full transition to veganism.
Being raised in an Italian family, I was the oddball who did not eat the many culinary delicacies that included an array of meat and fish, however, I was right there alongside everyone when it came to the delicious Italian cheeses and cheese-based dishes that were part of my culture and with which I was unable to let go for so long. How could I possibly give up eggplant parmesan or lasagna filled with melted fresh mozzarella, or ricotta-filled ravioli, and further, a nice hunk of salty provolone enjoyed with a crunchy piece of semolina bread and Italian olives?
Unable to think out of the box and investigate plant-based possibilities, dairy was still a staple in my diet. Now, being fair, back in the late 1900’s, veganism was not as popular and as a result, the enormous creativity in replicating many animal-based foods to which our palette had grown accustomed by using plant-based ingredients had not exploded to the mainstream as it has within the last decade.
Then, this past year two things occurred which enabled me to announce I was finally going dairy free and getting me over a huge hurdle that prevented my full commitment to becoming vegan.
The first, was that my fourteen year old daughter decided to give up dairy. She made this decision based on her research that doing so might result in clearer skin. So, this young girl of mine, determined to insure a blemish-free complexion, gave up dairy just like that. Disciplined to eliminate it completely, she double checks everything she consumes to identify if there is even a trace of milk product(s) in her food, regardless of the source, be it store-bought items or at restaurants. In support of my daughter’s new dietary restriction, I became more discerning about the groceries I was purchasing and the dishes I was preparing at home. As a result, I was slowly eliminating dairy as well, by default.
The second thing that convinced me that a dairy-free diet would not mean the end of “cheese-based” favorites that I loved, was my first encounter with AMAZINGLY prepared nut-based cheese. Having tried non-dairy cheese in the past, it left a bit to be desired for my tastebuds. But, then, during my recent visit to a monthly vegan market in Brooklyn, I met a mainstream chef, turn vegan, who had prepared the most incredible baked pasta with “almond” ricotta. Hmmm – sounds weird? Well, all I can say is that this nut-based twist on one of my favorite cheeses was absolutely delicious and satisfying. Additionally, it was so light and didn’t leave me feeling weighed down the way cow milk ricotta tends to do.
Subsequently, I experimented at home, making my own nut-based soft cheeses for traditional Italian dishes and the results were great! I even served a baked pasta with almond ricotta at a family gathering this past holiday season to the enjoyment of my guests!
With my world opening up to dairy alternatives, it became more obvious the difference in how I felt physically after consuming something containing or made from dairy products. More and more, my body was having an increasingly more difficult time tolerating and digesting it.. As part of my desire and personal intentions to be more healthy and compassionate, it seemed that the universe and my body were beginning to conspire to help me do just that!
So, I’m happy to report that I have successfully transitioned to a dairy-free diet!! Last month, I changed all of my beloved hot chocolate drinks and exclusively order and use coconut milk – now readily available at large coffee chains, including Starbucks! Let me tell you how DELISH they are!! (If you follow my blog, you know that I do not drink coffee, and instead indulge in this chocolate delight, making it that much important to have a tasty dairy-free alternative).
As of this writing, I’m proud to say that I am 99% vegan. I have not as yet completely cut out every single item that may have been produced using traces of milk products or butter – such as coffee shop or deli muffins or cookies, but I’m moving closer and closer to eliminating these foods as well.
Like all things in life that we want to fully commit to, it requires a step by step move forward, until we are 100% at our desired goal. So, wish me luck and send me positive vibes to get there!! Incidentally, my 14-year old, dairy-free daughter was just awarded the Walt Whitman Poetry award for her poem, “Dear Meat Eaters,” which I have shared below.
Dear Meat Eaters
Dear Meat Eaters,
Imagine a world where animals were friends and not food
Where the cows weren’t kept in small boxes to be milked
Where bacon wasn’t cherished
Where that burger you ate didn’t require a slaughter
Where that pig got to watch its baby grow up
Where that chicken got to run forever in a boundless green field
Where that baby lamb could agitate a crowd with its symphonious baa
Where slaughterhouses became humane zoos
Where humans understood that animals have feelings too
Where we learned to love all life
How the world would change if we ate veggie burgers or bright red apples instead
Or if we played with these new mammalian friends of ours
Or if we ate a meal with no death on our plate
Or if we focused on fruits and vegetables as our main sources of food
Or if vegans were praised instead of mocked
Or if we had the same respect for a pig as we do for a dog
Or if we showed all life love and affection
Lives should be valued no matter the kind
Animals should be loved not eaten
One day this ideal world will become a reality
Your Local Vegan
Elisa is co-founder of Travelin’ Cousins travel blog, A native New Yorker, Fordham graduate, and world traveler, she is passionate about The Bronx as a travel destination for locals and tourists.
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