This was no ordinary cooking class. Organized by a nonprofit organization, my friend, Mary, (a thyroid cancer survivor) learned of this series and invited me to join her. The room was crowded—each class attracted 35-40 people and many had stories of battling cancer or other serious illnesses.
We sat in the front row so we had a wonderful vantage point. The chef-instructors put together a 3-course meal in front of an audience with only minor help from their assistants. They talked and talked, instructing and entertaining us while they worked. One instructor from Texas was memorable with her slow drawl. When asked how she made food choices when eating out, she told us, "I make sure I have a grain, a green, and a bean." I have not forgotten this little rhyme.
We watched films and listened to people speak before the cooking demonstrations. Although we hadn't known this when we signed up, the organizers of this cooking series had a definite goal. Cancer prevention and survival after a cancer diagnosis were their objectives for the participants. How could anyone argue with that? The message was clear: eating a diet high in plant foods, low in fat, and free from animal products will mean you have a much lower risk of developing cancer. Simply put, they were advocating a vegan diet.
These classes were held in winter, making it sometimes hard to find a parking space because of all the snow piled up by the curbs. Despite the weather, Mary and I attended every class, not really knowing at the start what we were getting ourselves into. At the first class, they asked us to refrain from eating animal products for the coming week and then report back to the class. Some time was taken at the beginning of each class to go around the room and see how everyone was doing--similar, perhaps, to the style of an AA meeting. Whereas most of the participants reported success in totally eliminating animal products from their diet, I recounted how I had reduced my consumption significantly and 80% of my meals had been vegan. I was rewarded with a frown from the project head. "Try harder next week" he said and quickly moved on to the next person. The next week I was embarrassed to report that again I hadn't followed a diet that was 100% free of animal protein. I earned another disappointing look from the facilitator. The final week, when it came my turn to speak, I smartened up. I focused on my rediscovery of a great vegan source of protein, tempeh (a fermented soybean product from Indonesia). They had not included it in any of the recipe demonstrations so I felt I had a good suggestion for the group. At the same time, I also saved myself from reporting on my failure that week to completely stick to the vegan diet.
Don't get me wrong: I was enthusiastic about this way of eating. As I tried to eat mainly a vegan diet, I felt better and I believe that giving up dairy products actually improved my quality of sleep. I just didn't know if I wanted to or could go with this diet 100% of the time.
Mary and I had mixed reactions to the samples of the dishes which were distributed at the end of each class. Some tasted wonderful, others less so, and a few like the wheat protein, seitan, were not very palatable. The selections included fruit smoothies, salads, a variety of cooked grains, vegetables and beans and, most notably, an amazingly delicious chocolate tofu pudding.
A year later, I still follow this diet and many days I eat only vegan dishes. Sometimes I include some eggs or dairy products in my meals. I use a lot of milk alternatives (almond, soy, rice, or hemp milk) on my morning cereal. I actually like the taste of soy yogurt and now shop frequently at farmer's markets around the city for local produce.
Eating out and choosing only vegan dishes can be difficult and limiting but it has become second nature to me now and I feel healthier. I wonder if the project head would consider me one of the program's success stories.