Memoir by Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs
By Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs
I remember her clearly that day in Yellowstone. There she sat at a small table in a wood-timber cabin built out of trunks, one on top of the other like pancakes mortared with syrup. What this bright-eyed woman said was simple, but I remember it the way some do Old Faithful. “I’ll have half a grapefruit please and a glass of soymilk.”
Her clothes had just the right mixture of elegance and utility, fitted Patagonia trousers and clean Keen boots. As I came out of the swinging kitchen doors, holding a circular tray and her glass of soymilk, the smell of buttery eggs and hot oil followed me into the sleepy, slow dining area filled with sounds of coffee tumbling into mugs.
I remember her seemingly plain choice ignited my curiosity. I fiddled with my bolo-tie and asked her thoughts on soymilk. I’d become curious about soymilk since moving into my communal cabin a month before. Our all-inclusive staff canteen had soymilk on tap and some people praised it, “We’re all a little lactose intolerant,” while others said it was bad for you. Yet working in Yellowstone meant that we didn’t have any internet access so I started asking customers who ordered it what had led to that choice. I’ll admit as well, that being especially curious didn’t hurt my tips. By this point in the summer, I’d started to expect 20% on the bill. If not, something had gone horribly wrong. Or they were European.
On that morning, my ploy to get an extra buck or two launched me into a long flirtation with veganism. And it all started with “The China Study 😊” scribbled onto a receipt.
As a teen, I remember envying cousins who stood by their morals to be vegetarian. Those who led my aunts and uncles to raise their eyebrows, like wiggling brown caterpillars, and whisper outrage about their bringing “Tofurkey!” to Thanksgiving. I remember sitting in a Chinese restaurant near Seattle with my grandpa lecturing, “but how does she get enough protein!” He was talking about my cousin, not present, as we wrapped shredded pork in pancakes and pinched thinly sliced spring onions. I nodded along, licking the sweet smooth tang of plum sauce off a finger.
I was in awe of anyone who watched a documentary and could then swear off eating animals. I wanted to be able to resist crispy, crunchy bacon if it was offered but I was scared to be hunted down for my virtue-signalling. If someone were to ask me “Why are you vegetarian?” I’d fold like fresh laundry. I read about chickens in factory farms having their beaks removed because they were packed so tight, they pecked each other too much. “Animal cruelty,” was such an easy answer. Yet scrambled eggs with feta and olives or triple chocolate brownies were too delicious.
Reading The China Study in my cabin that summer gave me another reason to consider a plant-based diet: human health. The book is outdated now, but it documented the links between chronic health problems – high blood pressure, osteoporosis, cholesterol, heart disease and cancer – and high consumption of animal products. It was all new to me.
“I don’t eat a lot of meat,” I told myself when I started the book. But then the authors, Campbell and Campbell, asked me to reflect on a typical week and I realised I often had meat two to three times a day. Sausage with eggs at breakfast; sliced turkey on a sandwich for lunch; grilled chicken with broccoli and potatoes for dinner. I didn’t identify as a meat eater and yet I lacked the imagination to eat any other way.
The book propelled me to experiment with a Vegan October when I was back at college and in the freedom of my own kitchen. I found vegan food blogs, like Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows, essential and learned new cooking techniques. I swapped butter for oil, cheese for nutritional yeast, and meat for more veggies. I quite liked no longer having to cut the fat off slimy chicken breasts. But even as I attempted to align my bread and butter with a different moral code, I felt spineless. I didn’t argue about the animal torture of factory farming or diseases of affluence linked to Western diets. I felt I could deflect debate with a magician’s sleight of hand by saying “I am only trying out being a vegan for a month.” It was a trompe l’oeil that could shift the conversation from why to how. “I could never give up cheese,” I often heard. I agreed, but consoled them, and myself, by saying, “it’s not forever.” I would be back to the savoury smells of butter and cheddar fused together with crispy sourdough in a grilled cheese sandwich. I’d be flipping and frying on my black cast iron skillet just like my mom did when I was little soon enough. Those tastes of care and cosiness, family and home would not be absent for long.
The hardest part was friends not knowing how to be inclusive. At the time my two flatmates and I hosted weekly dinner parties. Our little kitchen was like a fully-booked inn. In the autumn and winter our window perpetually steamed up from people crammed in and a constantly rumbling kettle. Scents of fresh baking often lingered in the room, a sweet residue from plain scones or banana bread. Yet most friends seemed pleasantly surprised that my baking-turned-vegan was still moist and delicious.
One mate bashfully complimented my skills saying, “I was surprised, I’m not usually into that stuff, you know vegan, but I’d have more of that.” One tablespoon ground flax seed with three tablespoons water, whisked, and rested for five minutes is mwah – chef’s kiss sound. For as long as I can remember I have been a cookie dough addict. We had it regularly in the freezer and I would sneak down our creaky stairs on kitten-paws in the evenings to pinch a handful. My Tollhouse recipe turned out perfect with flax eggs and shortening substitutions. Even better, the veganised version removes any salmonella-vomit-worries.
I suppose, others were willing to make an effort because I cooked for them so much, but even a vegetarian friend had exclaimed, “What can I cook you now?” And my flatmate still complained after my month-long experiment was up, “I’m glad you’re done with this, it’s been a pain.” I hadn’t suspected because she’d been exceedingly supportive, cooking many dishes, like her signature coq au vin as both chicken and veggie versions.
At the end of my vegan-month, I celebrated with a wine and cheese night. But the goat-cheese slathered crackers weren’t what I remembered. Like returning to your favourite childhood waterpark as an adult and discovering the slides are small and the pool stained. I discovered taste buds change. Whatever you eat you get used to, you reinforce cravings, and forget old alliances.
“Are you vegan?” a student asked me.
I was a Sustainability Lecturer at the University of St Andrews and this question made my cheeks hot like an iron. She did not ask in an accusatory way, it was as if she was asking a question of a celebrity, it had come out of a place of genuine curiosity. She talked on about how Cowspiracy, a documentary directed by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, had led her to veganism. I remember hearing very little besides that because my brain had gone into a panic, looking so sharply inward that all noise faded. Who was I to be lecturing on sustainable living when those I spoke to were making this commitment and I wasn’t?
By this point I was well aware of another reason for why someone might choose a plant-based diet: climate change and environmental impact. Agriculture takes up half of the habitable land on our planet. It takes around 100 times as much land to produce a kilocalorie of beef or lamb compared to protein from peas or tofu. It’s like the Simpsons’ Juice Loosener that takes a bag of oranges to produce only a drop of citrus liquid. The expansion of land for agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss and about 80% of all agricultural land globally is used for meat and dairy production.
I’ve heard more times than I can count how “soy production is worse for the environment” but more than three-quarters of soy is used as feed for livestock. And this is a pattern repeated over and over from Brazil to Britain. So it’s not only eating less animal products, certain products have bigger impact. For example, according to Our World in Data, “cutting out beef and dairy (by substituting chicken, eggs, fish or plant-based food) has a much larger impact than eliminating chicken or fish.”
It was seven years after my vegan-month experiment. I generally ate vegetarian when I cooked for myself or ordered out, but I couldn’t claim the title Vegan. I love vegetables in all my meals. For this reason, dinner for breakfast is one of my absolute favourites. Leftovers like spaghetti, curry, tom-yum soup, that’s the dream when I sit down with my morning cuppa. To me, the best restaurants are those with excellent salads: crisp lettuce fresh like a summer breeze, topped with roasted seeds and herbs that provide a bright surprise like the first snowdrops in spring. And yet when I visited family in the US, I couldn’t keep my fork out of my sister-in-law’s Thai Beef salad. Or grandma’s peanut butter brownies with chocolate chips. Or my neighbour’s cheese log. The last was like a second mother to me and she made the most delicious white mound from whipping butter with cream cheese and garlic, then layering it together with provolone, pesto, sundried tomatoes, and pistachios all encased in an outer shell of provolone ovals. It tasted like winter break and happiness and a care-free childhood.
I’m not sure if I begged off in response to her question about my status as a vegan with some mumble that I was vegetarian most of the time. Or perhaps I said that I only had animal-products on holidays or maybe I even went into a long defence that I insisted my new boyfriend do half of the cooking, and he insisted that he would cook meat.
“I didn’t want to defend it, I didn’t want to walk into that conversation, so I asked why they were so interested in what I was eating,” my fiancé told me over our dinner of Mac and Greens.
Our lime green mixing bowl lounged by the sink with the residue of oil, vinegar, soy sauce and maple syrup that marinated the shitake mushrooms, broccoli, and onions that then baked in the oven. It turns out that veggies are even more delicious when treated with the same honour and attention given to meat preparation: roasting or searing first before simmering or stewing. This was one of our favourite new meals. During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic we cooked every one of the hundred and forty recipes in Henry Firth and Ian Theasby’s Bosh: all plants cookbook. Every time I see that Halloween black and orange cover I’m at the top of a rollercoaster and filled with giddy anticipation. The charred, umami smells of my fiancé’s Mac and Greens masterpiece makes me feel loved and looked-out for like when someone kisses your scraped knee when you’re wee.
It had taken me another three years from my moment of embarrassment as a non-vegan Sustainability Lecturer to fully commit to being vegan. I pin it to when my fiancé and I were snuggled up on a couch watching Game Changers, a Netflix documentary targeted at athletes and, let’s be honest, men. At least I have never wondered about how eating plants affects my sperm count. It highlights world-leading athletes that prove plant-based diets are better for fitness and health. Protein and red meat are so tightly-tied to images of six-packs it shocked me to learn that some of the strongest athletes known in history like the beef-cake, bare-chested Roman Gladiators – at least if your image comes from the movie 300 – were actually vegan! My fiancé was tipped over the edge by this documentary, in my recollection, and he agreed to cook vegan food for our shared meals, leaving me with no more big barriers to going all in on being vegan.
He does most of our grocery shopping and took on the additional task of closely checking labels and hunting down the less obvious products like vegan wine. Despite the old joke, “How do you know if someone is vegan? Because they tell you,” it was other people that brought attention to him ordering vegan options at restaurants. He’s a gentle 6’2’’ giant and typically tries to deflect attention from himself and hearing how someone I loved responded to queries about their vegan choices helped me face my fear. “People asked about it in the guise of concern,” he said. “Like ‘surely, you’re not getting enough protein,’ but when I turned it back on them asking ‘Why do you care so much about what someone else eats?’ it moved the conversation away from me.”
I realised it doesn’t have to be scary to open myself up to a bigger conversation about what people like to eat. What I choose to eat isn’t an attack on what someone else puts on their plate. And someone asking about my diet doesn’t mean I need to get out spears and snares to defend what’s on my fork.
Now about 95% of my diet, by number of meals, even less by calories, is from plants. If we eat three meals a day for thirty days, that’s about five meals a month that might have some animal product: cheese in a friend’s cooking, egg-whites in the yummier Quorn products, gelato on a rare boiling summer day, battered shrimp at our favourite place to celebrate anniversaries.
For most of my vegan flirtation, and honestly still at times, I would have felt shame for my slips, my inconsistencies, the times that I don’t manage to be a 100% vegan. And yet perfectionism, and the guilt and anxiety co-morbid with this thought pattern, is something I’ve been intentionally rooting out of my life like a gardener after dandelions. Perfectionism stops me from trying, and failing, and that’s how we learn and grow. I’ve had some people tell me I can’t claim to be vegan when I accept a splash of cow-milk. I can let them be wrong about me. I’ve accepted, even celebrated imperfectionism, in my writing, my home decor, my body. I’ll embrace it here to. I’ll get curious about the causes for my lapses, curious about our agricultural system and its use or abuse of animals.
Curiosity started me on this path when I asked a bright-eyed woman why she drank soymilk and staying open to talking about vegan motivations will keep me experimenting and expanding and excited.
I’m an imperfect vegan now. My taste buds change with intentionality.
- Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs refuses to sit and watch while people who deeply care about the environment get stuck doing the little things that don’t really matter. Her desire for answers on how to live sustainably led her from the Evergreen State on the west coast of the USA to study Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews on the east coast of the UK. Her stories are based on a decade of researching sustainable consumption.
Copyright©2022 by Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs. All Rights Reserved.