Back in the dark ages when I was a college senior (by which I mean one year ago), I lived with my two best friends in an on-campus townhouse. It was pretty much the most ideal arrangement imaginable; we basically had our own apartment/house without all that pesky business of upkeep and monthly bills. My favorite aspect of the whole situation was that we had our own kitchen. After living in the dorms for three years – and therefore eating at the dining hall for three years – the fact that we could store our food without worrying about freshmen stealing it and then cook whatever we wanted seemed to open up new vistas of culinary freedom and possibility. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, this was a turning point in my path to becoming vegan.
When I began college, I’d been vegetarian for about half a year, and I appreciated the dining hall’s constant availability of decent vegetarian food. I had choices for every meal, usually, and for the most part it was pretty decent, as far as cafeteria fare goes. My friends were accepting of my lifestyle and dietary choices – after all, I did attend the most awesome college on the planet – but even so, I occasionally felt the need to assure them that vegetarian was as far as I’d go. “No way I could go vegan,” I’d say, “I love cheese!”
Wince all you want at that; I’m just being honest here. At that point in my life, I hadn’t really been exposed to much vegan fare. Eighty percent of the vegetarian foods in the cafeteria were decidedly non-vegan, so I still held a bit of that pesky belief that vegans really must not eat much at all. Sure, the salad bar had lots of tasty options, and there was always a crockpot of rice available, and pasta with tomato sauce is always solid… but what about breakfast?! All those pancakes and baked goods were out, and most of the Malt-O-Meal brand cereals probably contained dairy, and I’d never be able to use that fun waffle maker with the batter in a bottle! Being vegan and eating well in the dining hall just didn’t seem possible.
In retrospect, I bet I could’ve been creative enough to come up with some fun dishes of my own with the basic ingredients that were available. In fact, I unknowingly did – I used to mix rice with sundried tomato pesto and various beans occasionally, and hummus and veggie sandwiches were always a solid lunchtime option. But it wasn’t until I had my own kitchen, did all my own grocery shopping, and discovered the vegan blogworld that I suddenly realized that being vegan didn’t mean limiting one’s options and condemning oneself to a life of bland, boring foodstuffs. Suddenly I realized that it was quite the opposite, in fact.
One meal in particular helped spur this epiphany. My housemates and I alternated making weekly dinners, so that at least one night a week we’d sit down at the table together for an extra-special meal. I began cooking vegan meals for my friends, not advertising the fact but just experimenting and enjoying the way my meals were appreciated by omnivores despite their lack of animal products. Ironically, though, the meal in question wasn’t cooked by me. It was made by my wonderful friend from Texas, my friend from the land of beef brisket and chicken fried steak. Although my housemates generally didn’t make vegan meals for their house dinners – I was still occasionally eating dairy and eggs then, although I never cooked them for myself – my Texan amiga labored to make Isa’s Ancho Lentil Soup with Grilled Pineapple for us one cold winter night. I say “labored” because it was truly not an easy process for her; there was a mishap with a blender’s not-so-tightly-screwed-on bottom, and she had to make sure the soup was sufficiently spicy without overwhelming the delicate taste buds of our Wisconsinite housemate… that sort of thing. But she conquered adversity and served up a beautiful soup, complete with delicious pineapple rings topping the bowls.
As we sat in the living/dining room and slowly sipped our soup, my friend told us that she’d first tried the soup when she spent winter break on campus, working at the library. She had to stay in another house over the break, and thus met a real live vegan (!) who made this soup for a house dinner one night. My friend enjoyed it enough that she sought out the recipe once classes resumed and it was her turn to make dinner for us. Everyone enjoyed it, although my poor Wisconsinite thought it was slightly too spicy, despite all efforts to keep it tame. If any mention was made of the fact that it was a vegan soup from a vegan website, I don’t recall it. Mostly we just enjoyed our food.
I do recall, however, my friend coming into my room a couple of days before she was scheduled to make the dinner and saying that she needed to find a vegan soup recipe. I Googled it for her, and when it popped up on the PPK, I felt a strange blush growing on my face. It was an odd feeling, like my little secret had been found out. The PPK and all those vegan sites were mine! Nobody knew I was seriously considering veganism, and the fact that my Texan friend was sharing a chair with me and perusing PPK recipes seemed surreal and strange. But after we’d all shared that meal and enjoyed it, things suddenly seemed less strange and much clearer to me. Vegan food was delicious. Omnivores could eat it, enjoy it, and not have to think about the fact that it was vegan. Going vegan might not be so difficult, after all.
Although it took me a while after eating that meal to make the “official” switch, I still think of that Ancho Lentil Soup with fondness. It represents some sort of a turning point in my thoughts about becoming vegan, and it tastes damn good. So I made it for dinner tonight, to share with my wonderfully vegan-friendly family, and to warm me up on a chilly autumn evening.
As ever, the soup didn’t disappoint on any count. I didn’t photograph it as I was too hungry to get the camera, but maybe I’ll add a photo tomorrow – there’s about one serving left, and you can bet I’m going to thoroughly enjoy it for lunch tomorrow.
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