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Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Vegan Diary

I'm the first to admit that I have my fair share of food quirks. For example, I really hate sweetcorn. Why must people insist on adding these devil's testicles to everything? One finds them lurking in otherwise innocuous sandwiches, salads, stews, pies, all sorts. Finding little yellow nuggets of doom in my food really winds me up. This is, perhaps, the one subject on which my dear Julia and I do not agree. In fact, I believe my hatred of sweetcorn has caused her to question my suitability as a friend more than once.

I'd gladly elaborate further, but this isn't a blog about sweetcorn. I might write a blog about sweetcorn one day. It would be relatively niche, but would undoubtedly secure me a dedicated and fanatical following.

Anyway. As you have probably guessed from the title, this is actually a blog abut going vegan. I'd been wondering about having a crack at being a veggie for a while, but it felt too easy. I've been eating a lot less red meat lately anyway. I have, however, replaced this with potentially worrying quantities of eggs and cheese. Lotsa cheese. Mmmmmm cheese. So when another awesome friend, Alex, suggested going vegan, I figured I had a real challenge on my hands. Especially when it came to giving up Nutella. As you can see, I was cultivating my chocolate habit from an early age.

Chocolate? What chocolate?

The first important step, obviously, was to scour Google for vegan recipes. The first link I found was for the Oprah website. Oprah has a 'vegan starter kit'. This sounded promising. Oprah is a guru, right? Oprah can totally tell me how to be a vegan, yes? Actually, Oprah's vegan shopping list is a masterclass in how to pretend you're not actually vegan at all. In includes such delights as Veganaise; Meatless Meatballs; Replacement Cheese; and Ener-G Egg Replacer. I don't even want to contemplate what could be in an egg replacer.

I'm sorry to confess that I became terribly snooty about all this fakery. If I was going to be a vegan for a week, I was going to be a good, old-fashioned, mung-bean-eating, lentil-fancying, tofu-tastic PROPER VEGAN. Then my new boss asked me what I was going to do about my leather shoes. And my leather handbag. I got down of my high horse relatively swiftly at that stage. I don't have any vegan shoes. Well, not ones that are suitable for the office, anyway.

In the end, I tracked down a few relatively appealing vegan recipes and proceeded with an online shop. As it happens, I had never done an online grocery shop before, but I decided it might make for the world's most boring blog-post, so I'll spare you too many details. I will, instead, delight you with a screen shot of a small portion of my shopping list. Don't say I don't spoil you.

A few days later a mountain of shopping arrived. The lemons were significantly below my usual standard, but otherwise I was pretty impressed. As you can probably tell, however, I had rather over catered. Classic rookie error.

But, over catered or not, I was all set for a virtuous week sans animal products. Let us proceed then, without further ado, to Jojo's Vegan Diary. I'm not saying it's going to outsell Bridget Jones.  I'm not even saying it's going to prove more popular than Sadistic Sweetcorn: My Fight Against Satan's BonBons. But  I hope you enjoy it, nevertheless.

Friday, April 19th
I was planning to start my vegan diet on Monday, but Julia made something vegan from Scott Jureck's Eat and Run, and invited me round. Figured I may as well get on with it. Just before I left the house, I ate a large spoonful of Nutella. I love Nutella.

Supper was tempeh and brown rice with an almond curry sauce and stir-fried onions, carrots and pepper. Tempeh is an extra firm form of tofu. It looks like the frontal lobe Anthony Hopkins sautées in Hannibal. It was delicious.

Julia had also bought some vegan ginger snaps. They were seriously addictive. So far, I am rocking at being vegan. Turns out it's really easy when someone else does all the hard work for you.

Now you see it.

Now you don't.

Saturday, April 20th
Breakfast. Hmm. I haven't entirely thought about this. I have vegan-friendly bread, but what do I have with it? You can't have Marmite without butter underneath it. That's just a rule. Peanut butter and jam is a thing, right? Yep, turns out it's totally a thing. A VEGAN thing. It's kind of strange, but I think I like it.

I have friends coming round for supper, so I make a delicious-looking vegetarian Thai green curry. I've just stirred in some water chestnuts when an ominous thought enters my head. Doesn't Thai green curry paste contain fish? Yep. Fail. I hope my non-vegetarian guests don't mind being vegetarian for no apparent reason. I have toast with hummus, avocado and sundried tomatoes for supper. This is delicious, but I suspect not as delicious as the curry. D'oh!

Oh, and one of my guests brings cakes. Homemade, beautiful, miniature Victoria sponges. I've remembered why I wasn't planning to go vegan until Monday, now. Double d'oh! I really want one of those cakes.

Jane eats a delicious mini Victoria sponge.

Jojo does not eat a delicious mini Victoria sponge.

Sunday, April 21st
PB&J on toast for breakfast. I suspect I may end up eating a lot of peanut butter and jam. Which is probably not all that healthy.

The Nutella is giving me the eye. It keeps looking at me and whispering sweet nothings. Eat me, Jojo. Eat me with a spoooooon.

Julia, Tom and I go on a 33 mile cycle ride. Fortunately, the energy sweets I usually have turn out to be vegan. Hooray!

On the way back, we stop for ice cream. This is my first encounter with asking someone in a shop if one of their products is vegan-friendly. I feel massively conspicuous and embarrassed. But that's mostly because I'm wearing padded lycra shorts. They have vegan chocolate and raspberry sorbets, and I have half a scoop of each. RIDICULOUSLY delicious. I will totally have that again. And again.

When I get home, the Nutella looks accusatory. It can tell I've found an alternative chocolate fix.

For supper, I roast a butternut squash with fresh chili and garlic, which I eat with wholewheat pasta. I've made this meal many times, and I absolutely love it. It only requires a tiny adjustment to make it vegan. Turns out, that adjustment is the undoing of the dish. Roast butternut squash pasta is just boring without the bacon.

At the same time as roasting the squash I put together one of the vegan recipes I found online. Sweet potato, tomato, peanut and chard curry. During the initial stages, this looks extremely appealing. With every ingredient I add, however, it becomes less so. I'm sure it will taste fine. But it really looks gross.

Monday, April 22nd
First day of being a vegan at the office. PB&J on toast for breakfast.

During the morning, I eat two apples and have a Lady Grey tea, black. I feel fine.

For lunch, I go to Hummus Bros with two of my new colleagues. I have hummus with guacamole, having first checked that the pitta is vegan. I'm thinking avocados and hummus may become a theme this week.

As the day draws onwards, I find myself dreading the sweet potato curry. It really didn't look appealing. I eat some grapes. I like grapes.

Tonight is the fortnightly meeting of my writers group. I usually eat a lot of biscuits during this meeting. Instead, I eat crisps. Being vegan clearly doesn't automatically mean being healthy. However, I eat enough crisps, and get home late enough, to make eating sweet potato curry unreasonable. Reprieve. I eat two kiwis instead.

Tuesday, April 23rd
I eat some grapes for breakfast. Turns out this is not enough breakfast, and by about 10.15 I am feeling a bit weak and wobbly. But none of the cereal bars available in the office are vegan. They are all packed with butter. Delicious, delicious, buttery butter.

Then, awesomely, my new boss shows up with a tupperware of homemade granola. She made it with her daughter and they jointly decided to send me a sample. I eat it dry, straight from the tupperware. Oh my lord. This might be one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. It rescues my morning.

My granola. Mine.
For lunch I have a lentil energy pot from Pod. Let's be honest, it does not look very nice.

It's not bad though. A bit heavy, perhaps, and definitely lacking in salt, but not at all bad. I also grab some vegan ginger biscuits from the health food shop. These are a lot like eating cardboard, but they provide a much needed sugar boost in the afternoon. Am I going to brave the sweet potato curry tonight?

Turns out the sweet potato curry is absolutely fine, as long as you eat in with equal parts mango chutney and lime pickle. 

Wednesday, April 24th
When the alarm goes off this morning I am almost instantly awake. Which never happens. PB&J on toast for breakfast.

Mid-morning, I am feeling quite tired. That energy boost didn't last long. I make myself a tomato, avocado and basil salad for lunch, which I eat with oat cakes and hummus. Pretty sure I'm starting to look like a chickpea.

My ginger biscuits are also oat based. I feel a bit like a horse, munching away on my oats all day.

Even though I now know from experience that the sweet potato curry is absolutely fine, I still can't bring myself to eat any more of it. It's clearly going to sit in the fridge until I give in and throw it away. I don't feel good about this, but I just don't want it. More toast, with hummus, avocado and sundried tomatoes it is.

Yum. But, seriously, more hummus?

Thursday, April 25th
Can you guess what I had for breakfast?

For lunch I also had the same as yesterday. And then some dried mango, an apple and a few ginger biscuits. I'm thinking I would have to be a lot more creative if I were to take up veganism full time.

Dad offers to take me out for supper. The funky, salady place in Crouch End is fully booked, so we wander around a bit, somewhat at a loss. We eventually settle on a Mediterranean café, where I have, erm, falafel with HUMMUS. Someone save me from hummus. I mean, I love the stuff, but there are limits. 

I'm glad there's only one day to go. I'm getting a bit tired of having to look up the ingredients on everything.

Friday, April 26th
Last day!! Skipped breakfast, had coffee instead. It felt really naughty for some reason, but was very tasty. I went out for lunch with my boss and another colleague. We went to a restaurant called Haz, where two weeks ago I ate an obscenely tasty chicken dish. This is the first time I have badly craved meat. I ate couscous with roasted vegetables, which was nice, but, you know...

Julia, Tom and I ate at a favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Khoai. I had tofu, rice noodles and salad. I had to have an alternative sauce because the proper sauce had fish in it. Notwithstanding this small alteration, this was the most delicious thing I ate all week. 

DONE! Friday supper to Friday supper. In serious celebration, I have sticky toffee pudding and custard for desert. Oh sweet, sweet buttery sponge. Oh lovely, gooey, creamy custard. HAPPY JOJO.

Celebratory sticky toffee. Bliss.
And that was that. Vegan for a week. All in all, it wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined. But it was a little bit boring. Save a few highlight flavours, I ended up eating a lot of the same things. This says more about me than it does about veganism itself, of course, but it goes to show that in order to have a varied, exciting vegan diet you have to be creative with your cooking. I'd need a lot more practice before I could come home late and whip up a vegan delight from the bits and bobs in my fridge. However, following my dramatic over catering, I do still have quite a few vegan bits and bobs in my fridge.

I had a couple of moments of craving certain things, but in general my body didn't miss animal products. I didn't feel weak or sick, I didn't get bad skin, I didn't turn into a mad, hammer-wielding psychopath. Well, actually, I did, but that's another story entirely, and probably not related to my diet.

Being a fine, upstanding English lady, well-versed in the rules of discretion and etiquette, I shall say no more about veganisim's effects on my digestion than that my digestive system knew perfectly well that there'd been a change of regime. This was acknowledged between us and we came to an understanding. Least said, soonest mended.

In terms of any lasting impact, I'm going to try and keep up with the sheer volumes of fruit I ate during the week, and I'll definitely be eating less dairy in general. And, interestingly, I still haven't had any meat. I just don't feel the need. It might take a while before I want it again. You'll be happy to hear, however, that the Nutella and I had a somewhat joyful reunion.

Chocolate? What chocolate?
Twenty-seven down, three to go...

Monday, 1 April 2013

Little Miss Muffet and the not so Incy Wincy Spider.

Nobody believes me, but when I was five years old I saw a tarantula in my bedroom. Now, I know tarantulas are not native to the wilds of North London, but I can’t be held responsible for that. It had clearly hitched a lift in a box of bananas, or escaped from some lunatic who thought it was an appropriate pet. I may have been young. It may have been dark. But I shall refute to my dying day that it was a slightly oversized house spider, and that my imagination supplied the rest. That was a tarantula, and what’s more, it had every intention of eating me alive.

Since that day, I have been what you might accurately describe as an arachnophobe. For many years I had to wear socks in bed, as failure to do so would result in guaranteed spider nightmares. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it was.

My profound fear of all things eight-legged was assuaged somewhat in my early teens, following a crisis over the watching of the film Arachnophobia. It’s quite an involved story, but it featured a real spider, a genuine panic – during which my mother and I both removed ALL our clothes at high velocity – and the eventual capture of said spider under a glass. I was the hero of the hour and from that day on found myself capable of small-scale spider rescue operations.

HOWEVER, tarantulas still hold pole position in the Cupboard of Terror I carry in my head. Those eight fat, furry legs. Those enormous mandibles. The sheer blood lust I can see in their crazed eyes. My pulse rate rises just talking about them.

I suspect you can guess what’s coming next. Knowing how much courage it would take for me to touch a tarantula, I wanted desperately to include it in my year of challenges. It was up there with posing naked, in terms of things I knew would have a profound and powerful effect on how I viewed myself, my resolve, and my ability to conquer fears.

However, touching a tarantula was a lot easier said than done. London’s Zoo’s ‘Friendly Spider Programme’ seemed promising, but it transpired that it was focused on common house and garden spiders, plus it cost quite a lot of money. (Incidentally, the first time I tried to write ‘transpired’ I accidentally wrote ‘transpider.’) I signed up to a tarantula forum and asked if anyone could help me out. Because, obviously, I didn’t just need the spider. I needed a serious spider expert who would help me, show me what to do, and make sure that both the tarantula and I were safe. The reaction from tarantula owners worldwide was surprisingly violent. Tarantulas were showpieces, and shouldn’t be handled. It was suggested that I should “think of something creative to do, instead of molesting innocent animals.” I’m not going to lie, comments like this made me angry. Surely it’s a good thing if people who are terrified of spiders can educate themselves and learn not to be so afraid? Plus, who said anything about ‘molesting?’ I just wanted to see if I could touch one, very gently, and very momentarily. I didn’t want to have dinner and a movie with the damned thing. But no one was willing to help me, and I came very close to giving up the whole idea. It made me nauseous just contemplating it anyway.

Then, the other day, I want to the garden centre down the road from mum’s, to buy her a mother’s day plant. And what did they have in the pet section? Two Rose Tarantulas. Right there, a pane of glass away. My heart rate soared as I stared at them. They were totally still, but as I watched a small cricket walk nonchalantly past one of them, unaware of the mortal danger it was in, I genuinely believed that I might be sick. I held my breath, waiting for a pounce that never came, the hairs on the back of my neck standing alarmingly to attention. The spider was clearly not hungry at that precise moment, but I had really worked myself up. There was no way in hell I was touching one of those things. They radiated malevolence. 

Then I made a crucial error. After presenting her with a very large Marguerite, I TOLD MY MUM ABOUT THE TARANTULAS. What was I thinking?? This is the woman who, during that viewing of Arachnophobia, sent me out of the room over every set of adverts to test my nerve. This is the woman who flatly refused to believe that there had been a killer tarantula in my bedroom. THIS IS A WOMAN OF NO MERCY. The next day we got back in the car and drove to the garden centre.

Why am I here? How can this be happening?
Sweet, glorious relief. The man attending the pet section of the garden centre explained that he had no experience with spiders. He was more of a puppy man. People who come to purchase tarantulas generally know what they’re doing, and don’t require the assistance of staff to pick them up. The manager, Jana, might be able to help, but she wasn’t working over the weekend. Reprieve. Two days later, mum called up the shop and asked to talk to Jana.

Jana said that though she herself did not handle the spiders, she would be happy to open up the terrarium for me and see if I could put my hand inside. Great. We fixed a time and date a couple of days later, when she predicted the shop would be quiet. I was in for it now.

I spent the next two days trying to normalise the idea by watching YouTube videos under the search heading: ‘how to handle a tarantula.’  Thankfully, these proved significantly more helpful that the forum. Although all tarantula owners and lovers clearly acknowledge that one should avoid over-handling Ts, many of them had also taken it upon themselves to explain how this could be done safely and with absolute respect for the animal. Because of course, if you own one, it will sometimes be necessary to move it from one place to another. And, clearly, a lot of T owners take great pleasure in interacting with their spiders. Weirdos. (Just kidding. Not kidding.)

I found helpful tips in a lot of videos, but this was perhaps the most useful of all, because the guy made it seem so simple and straightforward.

This was less helpful, because of the sheer size of the beast, and the terrible speed at which it moves.

And this one made me pretty embarrassed, because this little girl is EIGHT YEARS OLD and playing with a tarantula like it was a fluffy little kitten.

Mum's notice board. Note three challenges, three days in a row!

So, I endured an hour and a half of spider handling videos, and by the end was almost as drenched in sweat as I am halfway through a Bikram yoga class. But hey-ho, I had normalised as much as I possibly could. I confess that I had serious doubts about my ability to touch a tarantula, but I had a lot more knowledge about how to do it so that it was safe for the animal. Despite my fear, I had no desire to cause any harm.

The appointed day arrived, and off we went, back to the garden centre. We found Jana tidying shelves. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “You’re here about the tarantula?” And as she said it, I kid you not, she gave a visible shudder. It was perfectly clear that she had been thinking about us over the last two days, and had been hoping against hope that we wouldn’t turn up. “I fill their water with a large bottle” she said, “and I tip the crickets in. But I’ve never touched them. I don’t know if I could.” Which is, I confess, not exactly what I wanted to hear. Normalisation went out the window, heart rate went through the roof, mum laughed.

I was escorted backstage, to where the tarantula enclosures could be accessed. First problem: All the videos I had seen showed the spider being gently scooped up from above. But this terrarium opened from the side, so that I would be on the same level as the spider, not above it. This meant, of course, that if it decided to make a run for me, I might not be able to escape in time. Add a few notches to that pulse.

Tarantula touching kit. Glove and straw
Jana removed the glass panels at the back of the enclosure. Spiders have tiny hairs on the abdomen, which they shed as a defence mechanism. These tiny hairs embed themselves in the skin and cause irritation. If they are inadvertently transferred to the eyes, they can do serious damage. So, since this spider was completely unused to being handled, I was advised to wear a surgical glove to protect my skin. This I did most willingly, as I’m sure you can imagine.

I had brought along a straw, since my YouTube teachers had explained that it is wise to very gently alert the spider to your presence before endeavouring to touch it. That way, if it is hungry or in a bad mood, it will bite the straw. I can assure you that if that spider had bitten my straw there was no way I was putting my fingers anywhere near it. Alas, the spider did not bite the straw. In fact, it stayed eerily still. I was quite sure it was plotting homicide. I tapped it again, very gently, and it bolted alarmingly towards me. I jumped about a foot in the air, and several feet backwards. So did Jana. The next time I put the straw in the terrarium, it was shaking like Shakira. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I said. “Just take your time,” said Jana. “Do everything very slowly and gently. The spider doesn’t want to hurt you. Just let her know you’re there.”

Jana was fantastic. Despite the fact that she was clearly a little afraid herself, she talked me calmly and encouragingly through the next 20-30 minutes (I confess, time lost all meaning.) Slowly, slowly, I introduced my hand and forearm into the spider’s space. Several times it bolted for one corner or another, clearly just as frightened of me as I was of it, but eventually it seemed to relax. I breathed deeply, and employed a little self-hypnosis, gradually feeling my heart rate reduce. It wasn’t normal, but it was under control. As the spider relaxed, so did I. Sort of. A little bit. Gently, gently, I laid my palm flat in front of the tarantula. (Since there is photo evidence of this I may as well confess that I had applied a rather heftier glove over the surgical one, and that Jana had very kindly tucked in my sleeve.)

Softly, I touched its back legs with the straw. It made a sudden movement, but I left my hand where it was. Progress. Emboldened, I touched it again, at the same time gently sliding my hand forward. Suddenly, I wanted very, very badly, for the tarantula to walk onto my hand. “Come one little one,” I willed it. “Come on.” And, one leg at a time, the spider came. 

A face of absolute concentration and significant fear. And that's just the T.

It walked slowly forward, and when it was fully on my palm, I lifted it a few centimetres into the air. I brought my other hand close, and allowed it to walk tentatively from right to left. My heart was racing again, but this time it wasn’t just in fear. I was exhilarated too. 

And you know what? I LIKED that bloody spider. I didn’t want to kiss it or take it home, you understand, but I felt so grateful to it, for allowing me this enormous privilege. I drew it carefully out of the glass enclosure for the benefit of a photograph, and then let it gently return home. I was on top of the world.

The T looks kinda small here, but that's just a trick of the camera. I'm telling you, it was GINORMOUS.
Jana gave me a huge hug. In the end, perhaps the fact that she was a little afraid herself made me stronger. Or perhaps it was mum’s silent encouragement as she waited patiently with the camera, willing me onwards. Or, most likely, it was a combination of these things, along with a hefty pinch of sheer grit, and the knowledge that I would regret it forever if I chickened out.

I feel fantastic. OK, I didn’t manage to touch the tarantula with my bare hand. I think it would take a LOT more exposure – and a very confident expert - for me to go that far. But I know that I conquered a few demons today, and that I felt true admiration for a creature that had, up until that moment, inspired in me nothing but terror. Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding challenges to date.

Kiss the spider!

Twenty-six  down, four to go…