| I always say that my mom won't do anything sustainable food-wise until it's on Oprah. (When I told her I was going to hear Michael Pollan speak she replied, "Why do I know that name? I must have seen him on Oprah...") And recently Oprah had a show about going vegan, in which she made her whole staff go vegan. I did not see the show - as I do not have a TV - but I heard a lot about it. But let me first reflect a little bit more on my mom.
I went vegetarian in 2005 and vegan (for a year) in 2006. The first Thanksgiving I came home for, my mom was extremely worried about how in the world she would feed a vegetarian. How could a person possibly get enough protein without eating meat? It must require some sort of, you know, weird food. Tofu perhaps. Another complication was her tendency to put canned chicken broth into a number of otherwise vegetarian recipes. Vegetable soup made with chicken broth? Yeah, that's vegetarian.
I was pretty happy with the typical holiday spread at our house. I could still eat the cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and brussel sprouts. That's a wonderful dinner! With pumpkin pie for dessert! But mom was still worried. It couldn't be enough. It didn't include any "protein." I ended up satisfying her by making a tofu, shiitake mushroom, and sugarsnap pea stirfry, which I guess qualified as weird enough to provide a vegetarian source of protein. It was a very strange addition to our otherwise all-American fare.
Several months later, shortly after I went vegan, my parents visited me in Wisconsin. I had not yet told them I was vegan and I did not plan to either. Being vegetarian is weird. Being vegan is just beyond weird. I might as well tell them I was taking up a new career as a faith healer or getting into crystals or Scientology or something. As we drove around town, Mom asked me if it was hard being vegetarian. "Nope," I replied. I don't remember the specifics of the conversation, other than that she thought it must be very difficult, especially eating out in restaurants.
A few hours later, I took them to one of my favorite restaurants, The Great Dane, a microbrewery that has an eclectic menu ranging from pub fare to a very delicious West African peanut and squash stew that I usually order. Mom, without even thinking about it, ordered a portobello burger. I got a pizza margherita without cheese, telling them that I didn't want to eat high fat cheese because I was watching my weight. (Depriving yourself of pleasure because you hate your body is acceptable in my family. Much more normal than being vegan.) As my mom and I both ate our totally vegetarian meals, I reflected on our previous conversation about how hard it must be to find vegetarian food in a restaurant.
My point is that even though I find eating a vegetarian diet (full of whole foods, and without any processed fake meats) incredibly easy, there's a demographic out there that thinks going veg must involve all kinds of dietary gymnastics if it is going to work. I don't think my mom represents Oprah's entire audience, but whoever put together Oprah's vegan show definitely thought crappy fake meat products were a must.
Here's my advice to anyone thinking about reducing the meat or animal products in their diets: Start with the vegetarian foods you already eat and like. Rather than trolling the grocery store for fake everything, how about a nice burrito? Or a stir fry? A salad? Vegetable soup? A normal dinner at our house is brown rice, beans, and stir fried greens. It's delicious, healthy, and filling. We eat pizza and burritos at least once a week each. If you want to be vegan and not just vegetarian, I say make your pizza sans cheese instead of going for the fake cheese. It will taste different from what you know as pizza, but it will still taste good.
The Oprah vegans-need-fake-meat mentality must be rather widespread. After all, there's a market for all of these fake meat, egg, and dairy products. And if you like them, well, who am I to tell you not to eat them? But they are by no means a necessity for a meat-free diet.
Case in point, I recently ran into Kim O'Donnel, author of The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour. I told her that I hadn't checked out the cookbook because I wasn't a meat lover. She immediately set me straight. The cookbook was full of delicious, hearty meat-free recipes for real food. No fake meat crap. It was for people like my mom - and Oprah - who could happily order a meat-free meal in a restaurant but still thought going veg involved a drastic change in their diet and, probably, Tofurkey. I'd love to see Oprah do another show on going veg and have Kim O'Donnel on as her guest.