This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 07/02/2018.
Veganuary 2018: I lived on plants for a month in Croydon
Not everything that we write will stand the test of time. My article about World Vegan Day in Croydon two years ago didn’t. For goodness sake – it was only one day. Now that I’ve completed Veganuary – a full month of eating no animal products whatsoever: not just meat and fish but no eggs, milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, honey, or processed food containing them, including gelatine and whey – I wonder why I made such heavy weather. More than 160,000 Veganuarians just proved that it can be done.
Why do this at all? Because although it’s trending in Croydon, I think that it’s more than just a trend. There’s an ethical, health and environmental case for eating only plant-based food. I wanted to find out more about it.
I’d liked the vegan food that I’d tried and didn’t think that I’d struggle, but sometimes I did. Many who turn vegan accomplish it in step-by-step progression. Veganuary, though, means cold turkey – well, not turkey – and animal derivatives are in so many things. When little that you eat is familiar, and your life’s spent peering at the label, you can feel a bit lost. ‘Prepare yourself sensibly’ would be my top tip. I passed through three stages: ‘excited by the novelty’, ‘fed up with it and hankering for cheese’… then ‘actually, I can get with this’.
One thing’s for sure: Croydon’s vegans never had it so good. Eating out? There’s Boxpark, (Cook Daily, What The Pitta, Wine and Deli), south Croydon’s Restaurant Quarter where Bagatti’s will give diners a list of vegan choices, Smoothbean! Crushed Bean, the Oval, and the Spreadeagle. Meeting for a coffee? There are plant milks in cafes borough-wide. There was even vegan chilli on sale at Thornton Heath’s CR7 craft market. The chains have joined in too, with vegan options at All Bar One, Pizza Express, Starbucks, and more.
Supermarket shelves are also reflecting the surge in demand. In Sainsbury’s Purley Way, the problem with oat milk wasn’t finding it, but grabbing some before it was gone. On 8th January, Tesco launched its Wicked Kitchen vegan range. And it’s day in, day out, at home in the kitchen, where a change like this becomes a challenge.
I’d thought that only shouty extremists said things like “dairy is scary”
I knew that I needed help. First I looked locally, but the Croydon section of the London Vegetarian and Vegan group was far out of date. Instead, I signed up to the Veganuary Facebook page. This was very active, filling my feed with recipes and advice. Most members were friendly and while Judgy McJudgeFace hung around, she wasn’t in charge.
There was lots to discuss. Is it natural to eat just plants? Well, our closest relatives are largely herbivorous. In any case, what’s natural about a manipulated chicken laying 300 eggs in a year? (Left to herself she’d lay a fraction of that). The message of compassionate eating and living hit home. I thought that only shouty extremists said things like ‘dairy is scary’. It turns out that those people have a point.
But are vegan processed substitutes healthy? The food miles worried me – all those avocados and cashews in an English winter. ‘What should vegans feed their pets?’ is an unending argument. What if your partner won’t join in? I found myself wishing for the tone of some discussions to be calmer. Emotive language is the way to lose friends and not to influence anyone.
Best Veganuary moments
- it’s not all seitan and soya – some surprising things (treacle tarts, biscuits, sweets, pies) turn out to be animal-free. Check out Accidentally Vegan on Instagram.
- vegan chocolate brownies: there’s not much difference
- Smoothbean’s vegan menu
- oat milk: an excellent substitute for cereal and tea
- Crushed Bean’s lovely almond milk cappuccino
- Linda McCartney’s quarter pounders
- spicy bean chillis and rich lentil curries: lots of these are vegan in any case, or easy to make so
- better health (presumably) from eating more vegetables. (I boosted my vitamin B12, just in case)
Worst Veganuary moments
- the car crash that is non-dairy ‘cheese’
- soya wars. Good for you? Or bad for you? I’m still none the wiser.
- ‘lookalike’ foods: a major disappointment. Jackfruit, for example, is touted as ‘vegan pulled pork’ because it looks a bit porky when it’s cooked. That’s where the resemblance ends. Vegan food is best where it does its own thing, not where it imitates.
But for me the biggest issue was the one that no-one mentioned – the question of priorities.
Out on Purley Way, the run on plant milk highlighted the gulf between the Croydon that prospers and the one that increasingly doesn’t. Yes, vegan staples (grains, lentils, beans) are cheap. But it takes mental and practical resources – the planning, the purchasing, the prep – to consume only plants. If you’re struggling to survive or reliant on foodbanks, you won’t have either. Surely what the middle classes eat is not nearly so important as 10,000 Croydonians acknowledged as living in areas among the most deprived in Britain.
Then I wondered: why is this happening now? Could there be a link between rising inequality and the interest in more ethical food? I’ve concluded that the answer may be ‘yes’.
‘Veganism is about empathy’
Up to now, most of us didn’t seem too worried about where food comes from. But as the End Child Poverty coalition reveals that 380,000 children in our region – the well-off south east of England – now live in households lacking necessities and subject to social exclusion, vegan activists are linking animal rights to a wider compassion. Sean O’Callaghan, also known as the Fat Gay Vegan, writes in his book Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give A Sh*t about looking beyond what’s on our plates to address social justice.
Vegan chef and blogger Jenné Claiborne states that: “humans are animals… all factions of veganism should be about empathy towards every person”. Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, observes that “you can’t be vegan and not cruelty-free”. Some Veganuarians fretted over weight loss or the narcissistic fad for ‘eating clean’ (and there’s certainly a risk of appealing to those who have problems with food). But most were very clear that their goal was to bring an end to suffering.
To see ourselves as brutal is making us uneasy. That’s why their message is resonating now. For some, the new awareness of other sentient beings starts with human rights. For others, like the Fat Gay Vegan, it’s the opposite way round. Either way, it seems that everything’s connected. Veganuary’s not perfect but it asks us to listen to all of those who can’t speak for themselves.