Awakening The Vegan Within

When I encourage others to adopt a whole foods plant-based diet, my job is infinitely easier when they are receptive and eager to learn, with a high “teachability-index”, that combination of willingness to learn and willingness to accept change.

Although Jim Dunlop is still in progress toward a 1oo% plant-based diet, I’m happy to play some small part in his journey, and I’m honored to run Jim’s personal story here:

Waking up every morning shivering in my cold, uninsulated house, it’s almost comforting to think back and recollect the summer that just passed when it all began. The sweltering heat in Yamanashi, Japan felt especially brutal with everyone taking special measures to conserve energy after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that took out one of Japan’s nuclear power stations, thus causing shortages on much of the main island of Honshu.

I’ve never been anything but a carnivore. Really. Growing up with traditional Czech parents transplanted to southern Alberta, Canada (where beef producers are about as proud as Texans), I don’t think I ever had a single meal that didn’t somehow involve meat, or dairy for that matter. In fact, if you try Googling: “Czech +vegetarian” your computer will start audibly laughing at you.  So after I moved out on my own, went to college, got married, and eventually moved to Japan — another land of meat-a-plenty, I never even thought about it. I simply just kept cooking and eating what I’ve been used to my whole life.

Imagine my bewilderment then, waking up one day late July, having lost any and all desire to eat meat. It’s almost as if my body just told my brain, “Brain, you know what? We’ve had enough. How about something different for a change? We demand new dishes!” It’s like there was an “Occupy Wall Street” protest going on inside me, with only the 1% screaming from the depths of my subconscious:

“Don’t listen to these jokers! You need meat to survive and be healthy! EAT MEAT!!!!!!!” Quite honestly, I really can’t explain what or why — my best guess is that day after day of hot weather just made me lose my appetite for meat products… But strangely enough, not just beef, but chicken, pork, and fish too.  I didn’t know — would I feel differently tomorrow? Next week? How about when the weather cools off? Will I regain my appetite for meat? Worse yet — will my body be craving it at that point, driving me to a massive, weekend-long meat-binge bender? I shudder at the thought. Being driven to the hospital by ambulance, drooling gravy, in some kind of depraved meat-induced coma…

“Yes, doctor. We found found him like this when we got there. Half-naked, but covered in pork chops, sitting in a puddle of chicken grease and babbling incoherently. He was trying to mainline was looked like “au-jus” into a vein in his arm before we could finally tear the needle away from him.”

So what was I to do? Quite truly and honestly, I had never really cooked vegetarian or vegan before so I didn’t even know where to begin. I started by searching the web for some good vegetarian recipes… Which went well for a while until I slowly started realizing that half the recipes weren’t in English.

“What the hell is seitan? Umm… crumble up some tempeh??? Really? Tempeh?” I’ve lived a pretty adventuresome and fruitful existence thus far into my mid-30s, even managing to get a master’s degree in college. But in spite of it all, I was completely buffaloed when I saw words like “quinoa” and “TVP.”  It sounded like some kind of disease rather than a food.

“Yes, doctor. The tests show he has advanced signs of TVP in the quinoa region. We recommend surgery as soon as possible.” Well, luckily I was able to overcome this hurdle through the help of a few good, newly-found vegetarian and vegan friends. In fact, that’s about when I ran into the Vegan Diet Guy ‘s blog. I quickly realized that the owner, William, lived in Tokyo.

“Sweet!” I said to myself. “Maybe this guy can help me find some of these el-bizarro ingredients here in Japan.”  That’s another thing about scouring the Internet for veggie recipes. Everyone assumes you hail from the west, where any decently-stocked supermarket will provide just about any ingredient you need.  Not so in Japan, where straying outside the narrow dietary scope of Mr. John Q. Citizen means ordering by mail from exotic locations or visiting speciality shops in hidden, dark, Tokyo alleyways. I was not disappointed. William was very helpful and responded to me with a pile of great suggestions — everything from where to contract this crazy TVP-disease of the quinoa, to information regarding the health of keeping a vegan lifestyle, to a meetup group of people who met every month for a vegan all-you-can-eat-feast… “But don’t worry,” he assured me. “You may be surprised to know that most members of Tokyo Vegan meet-up group are not-vegans, or even vegetarians! Omnivores needn’t be intimidated to attend.” That was actually great news… As I was starting to think that I might show up and be the only guy that said: “Actually… I’ve been eating meat non-stop until last week.”  Awkward.

The next, probably one of the most significant events in my exploration of this brand new, vegan or vegetarian world was having coffee with a good friend sometime in late August.

“Yeah… Just completely lost my taste for cooking or eating meat one day. It was that sudden.” Now, my friend is not exactly a typical exemplar of anything… He’s led an equally interesting existence thus far, having suffered extreme allergies to MOST foods growing up. He tells me that when he was young and was brought in to do tests to see what he was allergic to, there was really NOTHING that his body DIDN’T react to in some way. The way the doctor put it, was that he was more or less reactive to just about everything… And that the strategy was to remove the foods to which he was MOST reactive, worrying about the less reactive ones in the longer term. But when I told my friend about my experience thus far, he didn’t seem to be surprised in the least. I continued,

“Actually, I find it kind of liberating. It has really expanded my horizons and repertoire of dishes that I can cook. Now, instead of saying: ‘okay — we’re having chicken tonight. How am I going to prepare it and what kind of side dishes should I make?’ I can say: ‘What do I FEEL like eating tonight?’ without worrying about whether it has meat in it or not.” My friend looked surprised. He said,

“Really? I can’t imagine that. I’ve always eaten in a way that doesn’t make the meat the central part of the meal, with everything else a side dish. Sometimes my meals have meat and other times they don’t. But I don’t make any special attempt to force meat into any particular dish.” This was my moment of enlightenment. Here was my epiphany — the “aha!” lightbulb, if you will. That was my problem all along! My entire life, for every single meal, I would follow the same set of steps and pattern. First, I’d begin with a meat, be it chicken, or beef, or pork, or fish. Step two, I’d figure out how to prepare the meat: bake, fry, steam, broil, BBQ. And lastly, I’d figure out accompanying side dishes, and the ingredients needed to achieve it… Result? Not even being able to imagine a meatless dish! My “step 1” was so limited, how could there possibly be a step 2 or a step 3 that didn’t involve meat?

To be continued…