When I first started editing vegan cookbooks, I felt like a total poser. For one thing, I wasn't vegan, but I also hadn't ever made almond milk from scratch and had never bought nutritional yeast. I still haven't ever done either of those things. But I learned a lot from my time as a vegan-cookbook editor.
Growing up, my grandmother's Italian cooking was a highlight of every visit to her house and a large influence on me. There was her ravioli, manicotti, braciole, sausages, and meatballs. I loved her peanut-butter bars, pepper cookies, and blueberry cake in all their Crisco and margarine glory. I now try to recreate her recipes, but it's more than just recreating the tastes and flavors of her home cooked meals. There was always a feeling associated with her cooking — of comfort and love.
Could there be love without the comfort of cheese and meat? At first I was intimidated by the ingredients present in vegan cooking: tofu, chia seeds, seitan, liquid aminos. But I soon learned that vegan cooking is so much more.
As I edited more vegan cookbooks, I saw how each author infused their family traditions, global flavors, and even comfort foods into their recipes. A fluffy pancake recipe. A warming leek soup. Decadent chocolate cake. "Cheezy" nachos. The recipes were all created lovingly, to nourish and benefit readers and loved ones alike — minus the meat and dairy.
Many of the authors I worked with had come to a vegan lifestyle because of their health. Either they were feeling lousy and not energetic or they were experiencing more serious digestive issues or allergies. Cutting out meat and dairy helped them physically and mentally. Personally, I was drawn to eating vegan to lose weight and reduce bloating and gassiness (embarrassing, but true).
There's also the environmental aspect. To learn more about food production, I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, The Third Plate by Dan Barber, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I watched Food Inc., Vegucated, and Forks Over Knives. I was learning about the scary reality of how we raise livestock, grow mass quantities of corn and other crops, and transport food across the country and world. The book Unprocessed by Megan Kimble convinced me to ditch packaged foods. And my other research ensured that when I eat chicken or eggs, I always buy free-range and organic.
But red meat is more complicated. When the only organic, grass-fed beef available at the grocery store is from Australia, are you essentially losing all benefit to the environment because it had to be packaged and shipped across the world?
I tried to be more conscious about every food decision I made. Packaged veggie burgers are alright, but I preferred to eat more filling and vibrant meals made with whole ingredients. So I tried new things. I skinned and roasted sunchokes. I chopped fennel bulbs and saved the fronds. I roasted spaghetti squash. It seemed to me that the success of a dish packed with veggies was all about how carefully you had prepared it. I ventured to the farmer's market, recognizing vegetables that were formerly foreign to me. I felt good about buying local and sustainable produce. I took more trips to the grocery store to prevent food waste and made more of an effort to use what I had on hand.
I also got myself a spiralizer and made vegetable noodles of every variety. That was life-changing. Zoodles (zucchini noodles) when sautéed in a pan with a little olive oil and tossed with salt and red pepper flakes is a favorite dish of mine. Does it bring about the same feelings of eating my grandmother's pasta? Zoodles with red sauce is almost as good as the real thing, but fewer calories. And I never feel overly full when I eat them.
I discovered Ali Maffucci's blog and book Inspiralized and saw that I wasn't alone in the quest to recreate Italian favorites with fewer calories and animal products. There are many more options beyond using a spiralizer for zucchini. Butternut squash and sweet potato are also perfect for making into noodle form.
As I learned about veganism, I was eating more vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains. I snacked on Medjool dates and roasted chickpeas. I ate less meat and dairy partly because of all I was learning about food production and partly because I liked the way I felt. When I thought about going vegan before, I wondered what I would eat besides bread and tofu. Now, my arsenal was filled with dishes made with whole foods that just happened to be meat- and dairy-free. I was drinking the Kool-Aid.
I'm still not vegan or even vegetarian. I like cooking to nourish my fiancé, to comfort myself, and to bring back a time and place I loved. The greatest thing I learned from being a vegan cookbook editor is not to take myself so seriously. So I haven't used liquid smoke before. Instead, I embrace home-cooked meals where the salad overpowers the meat.
What you choose to eat is a deeply personal thing. It was important for me to learn more about the food I eat. I try to consider what I put in my body more carefully. And I want to expand my food horizons to include fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes that I've never tried or haven't prepared before. I'm still flirting with veganism, and I don't hate it.