I Eat Plants: I am not a “perfect” vegan

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Last week I wrote about my first meal at Cafe of Love. Yesterday I was a guest on The Starter Vegan podcast and stated in the interview that there is “no such thing as a perfect vegan.”  These two things come together today.

I had to make a correction to last week’s Cafe of Love review. The Wild Mushroom Burger is not vegan; it is made with egg and Parmesan cheese.  The avocado mousse on the gazpacho? Not vegan.

Where did I go wrong?  I know brioche is made with egg so I specifically asked for a vegan alternative for the bun.  But I assumed the burger was vegan.  Avocado mousse sounds oh-so-vegan that I assumed it to be so.  That’s where I went wrong. I assumed.  I broke the vegan dining-out cardinal rule and didn’t ask how the avocado mousse was made.  A friend told me to try the veggie burger at Cafe of Love; she knows I am vegan. I made an assumption that she knows what vegan means.

No more assumptions!

But, to clarify, here’s what eating vegan means for me – no animal products, at all.  That includes eggs, cheese, yogurt, milk (any dairy); I even try to avoid honey.  Some vegans believe that vegan food isn’t just about what you put in your mouth. For instance, though palm oil is vegan, the production of palm oil is displacing orangutans, which can lead to their demise. Many vegans would therefore say that palm oil is decidedly not vegan.  There are also vegans who take it beyond the plate and choose not to wear animal by-products – leather, wool, silk, etc. – and refuse to use beauty or household products that contain animal by-products or were tested on animals.

Back to my plate at Cafe of Love. Did the world come to an end when I discovered that I had eaten eggs and Parmesan cheese? No.  Did I feel disappointed in myself when I learned that the avocado mousse contained cream? Absolutely. Do I have a strategy in place for the next time? Yes. (Ask, ask, ask!) Do I think I’ll make a mistake again? Yep. I work with clients transitioning to a vegan lifestyle and I constantly remind them that no one is perfect and simply encourage them to do the best they can and learn along the way. I am proof that even after ten years vegetarian and two and a half years vegan, there are still mistakes to be made and I am learning along the way.

In the meantime, Leslie Lampert, owner of Cafe of Love, graciously agreed to talk me through her menu to determine which items are viable plant-based options for vegans. On the current summer menu these options include

  • Corn Chowder with Poblano Pesto (Yes, the pesto is vegan!)
  • Gazpacho (Hold the avocado mousse.)
  • Butter Lettuce and Raspberry Salad
  • Heirloom Beet Salad (Hold the goat cheese.)
  • Sides for the table: Sautéed Beet Greens, Ratatouille, and these incredible Truffled Chickpeas

Most salads can be made vegan by request (and be sure to inquire as to which dressings are vegan, as well).  Leslie suggested that plant-based diners ask about any of the sides dishes served with entrees on the menu because the chef is happy to accommodate special requests and make a special plate.  As we were talking through those options she described this possible plate:

A fresh baked potato topped with ratatouille and served with sautéed beet greens and white bean compote.

I told Leslie to expect me back soon, for that exact meal!  Because all you have to do is ask.

 

I Eat Plants columnist JL Fields is a certified vegan lifestyle coach and educator. She shares plant-based education, recipes and cooking techniques, as well as animal rights information and resources, on the popular blog JL goes Vegan. Her original recipes have been featured on Foodbuzz, BlogHer and Meatless Monday. She is the editor of the community blog Stop Chasing Skinny. JL is the founder and lead consultant for JL Fields Consulting and serves on the board of directors of Our Hen House. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.

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34 Comments

  1. JL–
    Thank you for educating all of us! For the past 10 years, I have been serving up honest food to the community from Cafe of Love and Ladle of Love, identifying ingredients, keying dishes to vegetarians, meat-eaters, diabetics, celiacs and dairy-sensitives–and now, vegans!. We source our ingredients as locally as possible and take special care to include menu items that consider specific dietary requirements, ensuring satisfying food for all palates and eating styles. Thank you for encouraging diners to ask the servers how dishes are prepared; our staff is uniquely trained in all aspects of hospitality and menu offerings.

  2. “There are also vegans who take it beyond the plate and choose not to wear animal by-products – leather, wool, silk, etc. – and refuse to use beauty or household products that contain animal by-products or were tested on animals.”

    You mean all vegans? Veganism is a philosophy that seeks to end the exploitation of animals, it’s about more than just diet. I don’t see how you can call yourself vegan if you’re buying yourself leather shoes and fur coats and animal tested makeup.

  3. Good for you. I do always ask in restaurants when I eat out. Most places I have been are really great about accomodating me. I also try to travel with my own food as often as I can. I consider myself a vegan and I take it beyond the plate where I can (my clothes, beauty products, less so with shoes). It’s just not always possible. I don’t allow the “vegan police” to judge or deter me. I am often flabergasted by the mean-spiritedness I have experienced from *some* vegans. The way to educate others and to bring them into the fold is not to punch them in the face because they don’t do things the way you’ve decided they should be done. Geez. Just what we need, another exclusive group who judges people. Anyway, I enjoy following your site/s. thanks for sharing your journey.

  4. Hi Natalie!

    Veganism is a philosophy and it’s also a word, a label. A word / label that many people use along their journey.

    I am a vegan who does not (knowingly) eat animals and does not (knowingly) use animal by-products but I know many people who identify as vegan who are not eating animals for ethical reasons and just haven’t taken their veganism to their closet or bathroom shelves … yet. I respect the process, their journey, and don’t begrudge them for taking on a label that they feel describes the ethics of how they choose to eat. If only everyone would just jump right into no use and abuse of animals, ever, for anything! But for many, it was a process to get there (me, included). I believe acknowledging the process is an invitation, encouragement, to go further.

  5. Deborah, thanks for the comment!

    By the nature of my work, my blogging, and my social and volunteer activities (almost all vegan, vegan, vegan, vegan) I am surrounded by unique individuals who live very unique lives. The commonality is compassion and the desire to do the best they can – and to be understanding and to inspire others to do the best they can. It’s a beautiful thing!

    By the way, travel with food is a great idea! Thanks for mentioning it. I’m know to pull out a bag of nuts or seeds to toss on a less than satisfactory salad at restaurants!

  6. I hate to nitpick here but several things in the column have me well, quite frankly going between rolling my eyes and being irritated. As a “vegan coach” you didn’t ask what was in your food – pretty dumb but hey, a good learning experience, I guess. As someone else pointed out, Vegan isn’t up for debate on its meaning. A vegan does not buy, use, consume or otherwise contribute to the use and exploitation to animals. Needing medicine tested on animal – understandable. Buying leather shoes – 100% avoidable. Call me advanced but I went vegan years before it was the popular catch phrase and did it all on my own and learned these things pretty damn easily.

    I am also curious what you mean by “I even try to avoid honey”. It isn’t hard to avoid. I’m not sure if the try is just in there or if it’s one of those “cheat” things for you?

  7. JL- do the wait staff of every restaurant, with the exception of specialty locales, and the industry as well a favor and encourage the vegan community to not eat out ever again until they can order off the menu as normal customers would. Secondly, encourage them to recognize how they hypocritically devalue the human labor involved with these attendant processes. How does the image of a day worker forced to move with the work, sweating in a field, pairing for a low wage strike you? Or maybe just simply consider the level of animal exploitation that your carbon footprint affords.

  8. Hi Darcy. These kinds of posts almost always cry for nitpicking, don’t they?

    Nope, I didn’t ask about the burger because, as I said, a friend, who knows I am vegan, suggested I try it. Mistake, but I won’t say dumb. I did ask about the bun because I know how brioche is made. Definitely an oversight to not ask about the avocado mousse. Dumb? I don’t think so. But an oversight. I will be able to take this unfortunate experience and share it with clients to help them on their journey, so, as a vegan coach, I think I have found something positive in the experience.

    I try to avoid honey. I don’t buy it; I don’t cook with it; I don’t buy anything prepared with it if I see it on the label (food or beauty products). But when a friend offers me a cucumber and tomato sandwich, because she wanted to provide me a vegan option a social gathering, and later tells me it was honey wheat, I don’t cry in my non-dairy milk. I’m grateful for her gesture. I try to avoid it – and it doesn’t always work.

    I am so happy to hear your vegan journey has been an easy one! I know many people who struggle and ultimately return to eating animal products because others told them they did it wrong, so I’m incredibly happy for you and your positive experience!

  9. Hi Omnivorous! I eat out at non-vegan restaurants frequently and find restaurant staff and chefs quite agreeable and helpful. In this case, I asked about one item and was told it wasn’t vegan and they offered a substitute, kudos to them! Had I asked more questions, I wouldn’t have eaten non-vegan food. Totally my fault.

    I should mention that I had one of the most amazing vegan meals at a non-vegan restaurant, which I wrote about on my blog last summer: http://jlgoesvegan.com/flow-restaurant-it-wasnt-lunch-it-was-an-event/ This dish wasn’t on the menu. The chef heard I was vegan, came out and asked me what kind of food I like and prepared a phenomenal meal. In the same way that Leslie has invited me back, encouraging me to ask for exactly what I want, because they love to please their customers.

    I am always happy to learn from my mistakes. It would be a shame not to!

  10. JL – I love this post. I’ve been vegan for 17 years and would bet my bottom dollar, as the saying goes, that many well-meaning friends, family and waitstaff/chefs have fed me non-vegan foods over the years. I always ask, I always explain. I think part of being compassionate is accepting that everyone – even those with the best intentions, and sometimes those who love us best – can make mistakes. But sometimes, you have to be okay with imperfections in yourself and others. For instance, once a family member went to great lengths to make a vegan brunch for myself & my husband – only later we learned that the vegan pancakes were made in real butter on her griddle. She really tried. We didn’t beat her up, we just explained that butter wasn’t vegan because to her oil and butter were the same thing (Dunno – that’s what she said!). Life went on and she learned. Of course we still love her and then- and now- appreciate the huge effort she made to cook for us. Getting angry and aggressive with servers – or anyone trying to feed you – rarely results in positive action for anyone, or forwards the vegan/vegetarian movement for the sake of animals or planet.

  11. DirtyhippieBoheminanGirl (best user name ever): Such a great point about family. Really great intentions can lead to all kinds of things, including, one day, they just might join us on the vegan side!

  12. I travel for a living and eat out about 200 days a year, lets call it 600 meals at work, plus the times I can’t get agreement when I’m at home to go to a vegan restaurant. Mistakes happen. You ask the question you KNOW the answers to but every once in a while you ask the wrong one, make an assumption, or don’t ask the right question.

    I am at a hotel right now, where one of the waitresses, (who’s sister is a vegan), told me the assistant manager told her vegans and vegetarians are the same thing. So even in the food service industry, on a management level, asking, “Is it vegan?” puts out an assumption that people know what you mean. And unfortunately, the rant and raves over who is “allowed” to call themselves vegan comes into the mix because I’ve heard more than once things like, “Oh, the last vegan said the rice cooked in chicken stock was ok,” or “I’m vegan but I eat fish once and awhile.” So even though you and I know what vegan means it seems to be a confusing world to waitstaff when the word is bandied about without a commonly understood definition.

    I have started to approach meals with a statement and then clarification. I say I am vegan and don’t eat anything made from an animal of using anything that came out of an animal. Than I go on and ask specific questions about broths and gravies, and butter, milk, dairy or cheese. I ask these things specifically because the mainstream eater/server just doesn’t remember that the vegetables are sautéed in butter. They focus on the vegetables not being from an animal and ofttimes forget about the prep method. If I’m getting rice I specifically ask the server to verify that it is made with water and not chicken stock. I have now taken to asking specifically if the oatmeal at breakfast is made with milk or if the oats are sautéed in butter. (Happened to me twice before this question became part of my litany). You can’t approach the question of food ingredients when dining out as a vegan. We KNOW what we mean. If you ask questions a la Marty then you’ll see it in their eyes … that look of “Huh! I never even thought of that … so no, you can’t eat that.” It’s culinary detective work. It’s like verbally reading labels. It’s Q & A time and if you don’t want to or like to or it annoys the other diners you’re with, (tough nuggies I say), then your only two choices are to exclusively eat at vegan restaurants where mistakes CAN’T be made or stay home.

    It brings up another interesting question among vegans. Do we patronize the restaurant that goes out of their way to accommodate us, (and I do mean out of their way), to put a vegan section on their menu, (like John’s of 12th Street), and open up the possibility of mistakes or do we shun any place that deals with animal ingredients? Remember, if you support their decision to put some resources into offering 100% plant based selections, by ordering off the vegan menu, and the interest in offering more and more vegan options grows we have a chance of attracting the interest of a non vegan ordering/discovering 100% plant based options. And that means the vegan selections will increase as restaurants see the profit. Or do we support the vegan restaurant because that’s the way we imagine the world should be?

    Marty
    Marty’s Flying Vegan Review
    http://www.martysflyingveganreview.com
    @veganpilotmarty

  13. FriedrichKaiser on

    Don’t forget that there are things we put in our mouths and on our bodies that exploit humans. Humans are animals, ergo it’s not vegan. Free trade chocolate is the most salient example, because chocolate produced in the Ivory Coast – which accounts for a significant proportion used by larger chocolate manufacturers like Nestle and Mars and the likes – is tied to child slavery and human trafficking.

    Just because it doesn’t contain dairy, meat, eggs, honey, etc… does not mean it’s vegan.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_in_cocoa_production

  14. I’m subscribed to your site, girl! Just want to say how proud I am of you & I think it’s wonderful you took this mistake in stride & truly made it a learning lesson!

  15. I have made mistakes like that in the past. My daughter actually has made a similar mistake just recently. She works in a restaurant and always assumed (key word there) that their home fries were fried in vegetable oil. She’s vegetarian (not vegan) and has been for about 8 or 9 years, so even if they were fried in butter it would have been okay for her. After deciding to eat the restaurant’s home fries every single day for over a week her body rebelled. Why? They were fried in BACON FAT! She was sick to her stomach and horrible intestinal upsets (no need to embellish). She waited until after she was extremely ill to find out what was in her food. Her lesson was learned – Mom isn’t crazy after all for asking a million questions in a restaurant.

  16. JL- I really appreciate your writing, and your grace in responding to some of these commentators.

  17. Marty, Krista, Melissa C, and Paz – thank you for chiming in! I’m enjoying the varied aspects of this conversation!

  18. I’d like to second what Natalie said above. As much as some people like to co-opt the term for their own selfish reasons, Vegan means a commitment to not exploiting animals (humans included!). It is not a diet, or just a label, but a practiced philosophy. If you are eating a plant-based diet but still buying leather shoes/ buying animal products for others/ otherwise aiding animal exploitation, etc., you are not Vegan. I didn’t coin the term or write the definition, the Vegan Society did. Several people wrote about how there is a lot of misconception about what Vegan means out there, and one of the primary reasons for that misconception is people who co-opt the term.

    Please choose to use the term plant-based or strict vegetarian in the future, if you are referring to only the diet with no accompanying animal rights concerns.

  19. Thanks for the comment, Athonwy! I feel comfortable in how I express the range of unique experiences that people have along their vegan journey but thanks for the feedback!

  20. No one is perfect. We try our best and we are the only one that has to live with our mistakes, misjudgments, and oversights. You sharing this experience is a good reminder to us ALL that we can never be too sure and we can always do better.

    It’s so easy for people to judge and leave rude comments because omg they are so perfect. Please get off your high horse. I saw the term plant-perfect used somewhere and I was like really? Anyone that uses that kind of term to describe themselves is an egomaniac and needs to check themselves 😉

    I went to a Thai restaurant once that had the vegetarian symbol next to all their curries and the pad thai. I of course always ask about fish sauce and shrimp paste. The waitress says no, it’s vegetarian. I order it and after the first taste I could tell it was not veg. I asked the waiter to ask the chef. She runs back and says it has shrimp in the curry paste. I say to them you can’t put a vegetarian symbol next to something that has fish or shrimp in it. She says that most vegetarians don’t care about seafood. Oh brother. Eating out is hard.

  21. Jl, Thanks for your uplifting, non-judgmental attitude!

    As a 20-year-long vegan who is constantly refining my philosophy, here’s my current guide: Refrain from eating, wearing, owning or using an animal if the result causes physical or psychological harm to that animal.

    After much research about bivalves (oysters, scallops, clams, mussels) it appears that they LACK a central nervous system, i .e. brain, and would therefore be incapable of experiencing sentience and pain. I therefore, consider them as ethical to eat as plants.

    I also do not avoid honey (which is actually regurgitated bee spit, that in itself might turn some people off!) I don’t see how using honey causes bees suffering and pain.

  22. To me, veganism is not a personal purity crusade. It’s not a goal I’ve set for myself, to see if I can do it. I do benefit from being vegan, but at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about reducing the suffering of other living beings. To freak out over accidental consumption sometimes seems to make it about the self — “I failed,” “I’m not perfect” — rather than remembering the big picture. It happens to me too, and when it does, I note what I can do better next time, and I move on. To dwell on it incessantly sometimes feels narcissistic, and undermines the larger point, which is to do my best to live compassionately. So I totally hear (and echo) your philosophy here!

  23. Christy, Nerdilicious and Gena – thank you for your comments! I’m enjoying the exchange of ideas and am delighted to continue to be challenged!

  24. The concept of the “perfect” vegan is one that find I funny like the concept of the “perfect” human. What’s perfect to me isn’t perfect to my neighbor..or even my husband. The same with the word “normal.”

    We all make mistakes. We all have slips. I think what’s key to life, whether you’re vegan or eat meat, is that you are always learning. For instance, I learned that I need to ask the right questions when I go out to eat at non-vegan restaurants. When I ask a waiter if an item is vegan and he says “yes,” does that “yes” mean it is vegan before being fried in the same vat as their chicken or is it truly vegan? If I slip again, I’ll learn something from that too. Learning is constant.

    I wonder if some vegans feel pressure from meat-eaters, based on their assumptions of what being vegan means. For the omnivores I know, they associate the word “vegan” with being a militant, paint-throwing, flour-bombing loon who looks like a crazy cat lady and only eats tasteless cardboard for meals to be the bastion of perfection in health and wellness. When I explain that being vegan is about compassion for all life, and not exploiting animals, which is MY choice, I get blank stares before the cringing response of “I couldn’t do that. I love my bacon” is spouted. (I’ve rolled eyes so many times, you’d think they’d be moving like wheels on a bus). It’s funny when I’m seen with a Jokerz bar and get asked “Are you allowed to have that?”

    I think there’s a great opportunity to change people’s POVs on not eating meat and being compassionate towards animals, people and the world. I like sharing recipes, restaurants and stories with friends and family. By changing their views, it may take some pressure off of us vegans to be something other than we are. We don’t have to be perfect. We take a stance on protecting animals, and make personal choices in what and how we eat. Sure, we want to share it with others. We’re human and we care!

  25. I’m laughing Carmella – mostly because of this: “….looks like a crazy cat lady ” Guilty! But I have never flour-bombed anyone! :) Thanks for jumping into the conversation!

  26. Great post, and a great reminder that even best efforts sometimes fall short. I went to a riverfront restaurant with family recently while on holiday – docked the boat and went into a beer-on-tap, casual burger joint. I thought there would be nothing but maybe fries for me. But there on the menu, it said, “Ask about our veggie tacos.” Hallelujah! I asked. Made with chopped original vegan Boca Burger. Can you leave off the cheese and sour cream, add more salsa and lettuce, and give me a side of guacamole? Sure! Yay! I’m feeling very smart. I bite into the taco and there is cheese IN THE TORTILLA SHELL. Sigh. My family were so pleased that I had found something yummy to eat. The restaurant were pleased to please me. I was eating for myself that day, yes – but I was also a vegan ambassador. When the waitress came over to see how everything was, I asked if the cheese is something that can be left out of the tortilla. She said they are made with the cheese in them, right on premises Ah. So I said it was all delicious, that I would love to be able to get a fully vegan meal there another time, without the cheese in the tortillas (Oh… cheese is a problem? Well, yes, as a vegan I don’t normally eat cheese…), and I thanked her profusely for her efforts to accommodate me. So my vegan meal wasn’t 100% vegan that day. I wanted to walk the line between educating the restaurant (it’s not vegan if there is cheese in it) and praising them for the efforts they have made and the good food they served. I wanted the waitress to leave saying, “Vegans are nice people.” How do you think I did, JL?

  27. Whoa, Colette, that’s a tough one! I didn’t discover the burger and avocado mousse were not vegan until being told so a week later. In the moment, I really don’t know. I think you handled the situation diplomatically, kindly, compassionately and you made sure to educate her, which can only help future vegan’s dining experiences there. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  28. Your honesty is refreshing, May I suggest next time performing self-flagellation using iron chains. Perhaps an official penitents points system, something similar to weight watchers points system, should be implemented for all vegans. lol just kidding

  29. You are so down to earth! I love how you encourage everyone to do there best and take their time so they are able to sustain it long term.
    I went vegan at the start of the year. I still use the makeup and clothes that I had bought prior to being vegan but feel guilty.
    I read another article on your website about your car having leather seats and it totally makes sense that it doesn’t make me any less vegan.
    I sometimes have dreams where I’ve accidently eaten meat or an animal product and just from that dream , the guilt stays with me all day!
    Genas comment was great. It shouldn’t be about how perfect I am, it’s about helping and support the animals.

  30. Lisa, thank you for jumping in! Yep, on my blog I was trying to explain that sometimes our ethics and our current circumstances don’t match up. I got my car, with leather seats, before going vegan. My next car won’t have leather seats but I am no less vegan right now.

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