Southern-fried meat eater finds her heart with a plant-based diet
Raised in the deep South by a long line of traditional Southern cooks and literally weaned on bacon, I wasn’t exactly predisposed to “go vegan.” During the earliest years, my parents were impoverished graduate students, but still very committed meat eaters -- when they couldn’t afford bulk chicken legs or pork chops or ground chuck, Mom got us through by adding sliced hot dogs and Spam to our macaroni and canned tomato casserole dinners. Back then we only saw beef once a year, when my grandmother would come to visit and take us out to the local steakhouse. I recently came across a letter she wrote to her sister on one such trip, where she described how I stuffed myself with a huge grilled sirloin, and promptly threw it all up when we got home. I have no recollection of that night and it clearly had no negative impact on my relationship with beef as I went on to enjoy 50+ years of happy consumption (and I still love the memory of the taste of a perfectly-grilled steak).
Life revolved around food and meat
By my early teens we had more disposable income at hand, and with Mom and Dad working full-time, I was doing most of the cooking for our family. I cannot recall even one meal where meat or seafood wasn’t the main star. And of course, if the sides weren’t drenched in butter or bacon grease (we kept a strainer jug on the counter just for the drippings), they most definitely were seasoned with “pot likker” -- I was already an accomplished stock maker, using just about any animal part you could imagine. My brothers learned to shoot and I dutifully added squirrel to the Brunswick Stew and our fried dinner lineup. Gravy was always white, and always started with the crunchy greasy leftovers of whatever meat we’d cooked up the night before. And mostly every week, we’d enjoy the classic American steak dinner: ribeyes grilled in the backyard, baked potatoes loaded with butter, cheese, sour cream and bacon; asparagus with Hollandaise sauce; and sometimes, cheesecake for dessert.
A trip to Paris
Fast forward to college, where I was fortunate to spend a year living in Paris with my parents during one of Dad’s research sabbaticals. Mom and I gave ourselves permission to eat each and every thing we encountered for ten months. We promised ourselves we’d diet the last two months of the year in order to lose the inevitable extra weight we’d pack on. Mom, many years ahead of her time in the mid ‘70’s, had somehow heard of Dr. Atkins. Thus it was I first encountered the concept of low carb, high protein (read: animal products) eating. And so after ten months laden with foie gras, European cheeses, pastries, butter, heavy cream, Bernaise, and animal offal and meat prepared in ways I'd never even heard of, for two straight months we consumed nothing but beef skirt steak flash sauteed in French butter mixed with scrambled eggs. The effect was immediate and profound -- we both lost all of the extra weight and felt fantastic. And for me, a near-lifelong pattern of low carb/high meat eating was born.
I loved almost every animal product and I thought they loved me. Maybe more significantly, I loved food and I couldn’t imagine any that didn’t include, if not a hunk of meat, at least multiple layers flavored by animal products of some kind. Thankfully (and somewhat stunningly), I never developed hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer. I always received a clean bill of health at my annual checkups. I remained athletically active into my late 50’s, running half marathons, working out regularly, and easily keeping my weight in check.
Roll forward to post menopause, and the picture was markedly different. I found it much harder to keep weight off, especially after a double hip replacement, the inevitable end game from thousands of hours of running combined with older-age-onset osteoarthritis. I was still eating all my favorite animal products, still preparing every meal from scratch as I had for years, but I was also slowly becoming more attuned to how diet impacts my health. I watched the occasional documentary (Forks Over Knives stands out) and, for the first time in my life, I started reading “healthy diet” material that talked increasingly about the benefits of a plant-based diet. And of course, never far away was that small voice in the back of my head stating the obvious: “Our planet cannot viably sustain an animal-centric food supply for the billions of people on Earth. And it’s unspeakably cruel.” Yet, despite all of this, I could not wrap my mind around 1) learning to cook an entirely different way than I ever had before, and 2) producing anything that could rival the taste of my animal-laden recipes.
Which brings us to November 2019, when I woke up one morning to find that overnight I had lost about 15% acuity in the center part of my vision in one eye. Diagnosed with an “unknown origin or cause” macular degenerative disease in both eyes -- for which two specialists assured me there is no cure or reversal procedure, and which eventually will lead to total loss of my central vision -- I turned to the internet for any help or guidance I could discover. I quickly found multiple research papers tying a high protein [red/processed meat] diet to macular degeneration. And urgent recommendations to immediately switch to a plant-based diet. My mind knew I’d reached the point where action was required, but my heart was still lagging behind.
The Universe shifts in mysterious ways
Serendipitously, just a few weeks later, my partner and I had a lifelong-vegan friend over to visit. She’d insisted on cooking for us, and she brought all her own ingredients to prepare one of her “standard” meals. When her husband, whom we had not seen in a number of months, arrived for dinner, we were stunned by his appearance. He looked healthier than we’d ever seen him. Our friends recounted how just four months earlier he had switched to “her way of eating,” cutting out all animal products. He’d lost weight, he no longer snored and he’d overcome chronic issues with kidney stones and gout. As we shared her shockingly delicious plant-based dinner, my mind was hard at work. My partner snores. Her husband felt better than he had in years. Her dinner was amazing. My partner and I both wanted to lose weight. And, oh yeah, likely because of all the years of dedicated meat consumption, I was slowly going blind. Thankfully, this time my heart was listening.
A new kind of cook - never going back
I had reached the tipping point. I dramatically declared, “OK! I can do this!” My friend enthusiastically promised to help me with recipes, newsletters, how-to’s and moral support. I poured over everything she emailed and texted, I read dozens of recipes and watched innumerable YouTube videos on preparing vegan dishes. I made a very long grocery list. Two days later, I cleared our house of every animal product and went shopping. And no animal product has passed my lips since. I’ve learned to apply my meat-based methods of layering flavors into dishes with spices and homemade vegetable stocks (yes, I am still a stock fiend) and other healthy alternatives. I’ve perfected preparing tofu (gasp!) in numerous forms that taste even better than meat. My partner and I look forward to our main meal all day long -- “What should we have tonight? Indian? Thai? American Southwest? Tex-Mex?” The possibilities are, just as with an animal-based diet, endless. And I don’t miss meat. At all.
Curry Pumpkin Coconut Soup