Columnist vs. the vegetables

05/09/2012 10:00 PM

By BILL MOTCHAN

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There’s a grungy alley on Green just south of Randolph. If the wind is right, the aroma wafting from the kitchen of Girl & The Goat is pure heaven. I avoided that spot last month. For 30 days, I lived as a vegan.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was feeling particularly puffy. During a checkup, my internist suggested a diet change after reviewing my elevated blood pressure reading. My neighbor Stella Guererro had just started the vegan challenge as a cleansing experience, so I decided to give it a shot.

Could I, a lifelong carnivore, go four weeks without meat or dairy? Would I have disturbing dreams about barbecued ribs dancing in a chorus line? What of Marshall the bartender at Jak’s Tap? Would it throw off his rhythm if I didn’t place my standard Thursday night order, the Jak’s Deluxe burger?

If I succeeded, would I turn preachy and judgmental, thus alienating my non-vegan friends? The experiment didn’t begin smoothly, based on my early journal entries, which is recommended for the novice vegan.

Day 1 — Made coffee, but forgot to replace half-and-half. Ran to Dominick’s for soy milk. It looked grey and scary, tasted vaguely like muddy water.

Day 5 — In the hallway at work, passed a co-worker gnawing on a Slim Jim. Briefly considered grabbing the half-eaten greasy beef stick from him and running away.

Midway through week one, I saw a news story about “pink slime” in ground beef. The unappetizing term refers to beef carcass trimmings, separated from fat and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, then added back into ground beef as filler.

The available research makes a good case that a plant-based diet is, in fact, healthier. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study shows it can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality rates.

Midway through the challenge, my wife sent a text message that read: “Pizza sounds good tonight.” I replied “Yes!” A few seconds later, it occurred to me that would require cheese. “I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out,” read her next text, punctuated by an annoying “LOL.”

Unfortunately, science has been unable to replicate the smell and taste of imported Parmiagiano-Reggiano. My Achilles heel, it appeared, was dairy. After the unpleasant experience with soy milk, I tried almond milk and coconut milk. When added to coffee, each made it undrinkable. Other common foods are also off-limits. Like honey. It sounds natural and healthy.

“You can’t use it,” my now-veteran-vegan friend Stella Guerrero explained. “The bee has to mess with it and spit it up in the hive. Once the bee gets involved in the process, it doesn’t count.”

The bee is an employee in a honey factory. His working conditions may be crummy, but it’s a job. This didn’t seem fair. But a vegan, I learned, must adapt and improvise.

“It really does allow you to experiment with ingredients you might not have tried out before,” Stella said. “And they are surprisingly better tasting than you might think.”

Like avocado in a dessert to achieve the creamy consistency of butter. It’s a key ingredient for the chocolate brownie at Raw, a vegan food stand in the French Market at Clinton and Randolph. Polly Gaza, owner of Raw said her business is booming.

“People are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said, offering me a sample vegan meatball that looked and tasted very much like those in any number of Taylor Street red sauce joints. “We spend a lot of time creating awareness of the nutrients and quality in vegan food that you can’t get in most restaurants.”

Many of the dishes at Raw are designed to taste and look like their non-vegan counterparts, like egg salad (a coconut/celery/onion blend) and mock salmon pate (made largely from butternut squash).

Day 13 — Donut vs. lentil, and lentil wins. Walking down Randolph in the Loop, passed by Do-Rite Donuts. Clenched fists and walked away. Got lentil soup and lentil salad.

On day 16, I again saw my internist, who noted a significant drop in my blood pressure from the earlier check-up. He asked if I had changed anything. I said I’d cut back on sodium and had been eating strictly vegan. He said those two dietary changes could make a huge difference.

About this time, I noted fellow Chicago Journal columnist Bonnie McGrath wrote about going meatless. Was I representative of a trend?

My days took on a predictable mealtime routine with oatmeal, lentil soup and hummus. I got vegan chili a few times at the Protein Bar. It’s not bad, although the vegan cheese doesn’t actually melt. Or taste like cheese. Maybe my cheese-snobbishness is the problem. Chili served correctly requires a fine aged Grafton cheddar, not extruded soy stuff. But, a vegan must be strong-willed.

Then came a big test.

Day 25 — Cubs/Cardinals game at Wrigley Field. Upon entering, I picked up the unmistakable, intoxicating smell of ballpark hotdogs. Instead, got a veggie burger, which was remarkably good and cooked to order.

May arrives and I have completed the challenge. This morning I had coffee — with cream — and a croissant. Tonight, I consumed an excellent bowl of cioppino with fresh shrimp, mussels and scallops. It was perfection, just as I remembered.

Did I learn anything from this journey? Yes, that vegans have it rough at many restaurants, where one must skip over nearly all entrees and cobble together a meal from side dishes. I have all the respect in the world for the non-meat eaters of the world. I will definitely cut back on red meat, but if the opportunity presents itself for a slow-smoked brisket or pulled pork sandwich, I will definitely indulge. You only live once.

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By Bonnie McGrath from South Loop
Posted: 05/18/2012 9:53 AM

Bill, as a forever lifestyle change, do what we here in the South Loop (and worldwide, apparently) are officially doing this month: meatless Mondays! Remember meatless Fridays? It\'s hearkening back!



By Barbara Lips from Wicker Park
Posted: 05/18/2012 9:14 AM

Bless your heart. Literally. I have been around "anarchistic" vegans, and respect their discipline. But I also would very much miss the balance of other cultural influences. Moderation is key, can't give up the ice cream!