I often remark that I could give up red meat without batting an eye, but I’d be heartbroken if I had to stop eating pork. Poultry and fish find their way onto my plate far more frequently than pig and cow, but I occasionally (and usually inadvertently) have meat-free days; I’m always struck by how good I feel when I make veggies my mealtime centerpiece. For reasons pertaining to both my health and conscience, I would like to start bringing more meatless meals to my table.
To that end, today’s post is an interview with my friend Alison, a writer, yogi, and food-lover. For the duration of four months of intensive yoga training, Alison embraced vegetarianism, and she’s graciously agreed to discuss her experience of living meat-free. Welcome, Alison!
While in yoga training, you spent four months as a vegetarian. Were dairy and eggs permitted, or did you go vegan?
I ate both dairy and eggs—a LOT of eggs, actually while I was a vegetarian. It was not required by our yoga training to be a vegetarian, but it was recommended and meat was not allowed in the studio, so I decided to go for a full-time vegetarian diet, but I wasn’t ready for veganism.
Was your foray into meat-free living a radical departure from your normal diet, or more of a minor adjustment?
Well, initially I thought it was just going to be a minor adjustment, but that just shows how little I was paying attention to what I was eating! Suddenly, I found myself at a loss as to what to eat besides pasta… that’s when I discovered vegetables. You might wonder how I’ve lived 30 years and am only now discovering vegetables—but I was sadly a “hater.” I associated vegetables with over-steamed broccoli and tasteless salads. But I couldn’t just eat cheese pizza for 4 months—I mean, this yoga thing is about health right? So, I decided to put vegetables front and center on my plate and see what happened.
It turns out I am truly passionate about a few veggies—like kale, collard greens and swiss chard. They have a kind of richness about them that really satisfied me when I was craving meat. I also fell deeply in love with artichokes, ripe avocados and beefsteak tomotoes. I have to limit the avocados, though…they are like the butter of vegetables!
Were there specific cookbooks and/or recipes that you’ve found yourself using again and again?
Yes! Kale chips are a regular in our house—basically roasted kale with olive oil and salt. I can’t remember where that recipe came from, but it’s so simple, I make them every week. Also, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian was a lifesaver. My husband, Randy, really got on board with the veggie thing and he loved cooking out of this book. He made homemade veggie burgers from Bittman, and some really great stir-fries. It turns out the key with stir-fries is to cook the ingredients separately! Who knew?!
Did you eat any prepared meatless products, i.e. veggie burgers, “soysage,” etc.? If so, what were your favorites? Your least favorites?
Randy and I really got hooked on Morningstar Farms Breakfast Links. I almost like them more than regular breakfast sausage—they are so flavorful and you don’t have any of that gristly “what-is-that-weird-texture-oh-my-god-I don’t want to know” bites, like with pork sausage. We ate a lot of tofu, which is fine, but I’m not exactly ecstatic about it. We tried our hand at Seitan, but never got the hang of it. There really is an art to meat-alternative products, and I guess my heart just wasn’t in learning it.
How has your stint as a vegetarian informed and/or affected your current eating habits?
It’s certainly made me more interested in vegetables and recipes that feature them. After yoga school though, I started eating meat again and I feel good about that. The first “yama” or “restraint” in the eight limbs of the yogic path is “Ahimsa,” which means non-harming. Ahimsa is the principle that most people point to in yoga to explain their vegetarianism/veganism, and it’s a wonderful way to practice that principle. But there are other ways to practice ahimsa—and one of them is towards your body if it’s not reacting well to vegetarianism.
I try to only eat meat when I know where it has come from and how it has been treated—and I eat less red meat, though I have such a taste for it. Yoga is about accepting where you are in the present moment, and at this moment, this girl still loves a rare steak. Maybe at some other point in my life, I will transcend my attachement to roast chicken with lemon and shallots, or confit of duck (this seems doubtful) or maybe I will simply grow beyond the need to follow my attachments. I hope so—after all, yoga is about going beyond desire into Samadhi (basically union with divine consciousness).
Learning about my eating habits and paying attention to what I eat and why is an important step on my journey—and I believe, like so much of life, what we learn from experience is different for everyone. So, even if being a vegetarian is not a path you want to take, I would say that you can still practice being enlightened about food just by being fully present with what you eat. In any event, those four months as a vegetarian made me more joyful about eating all sorts of simple, natural foods, and that must be a step in the right direction.