I used to be a vegan. It only lasted about six months, since it didn’t arise from any passionate conviction that eating animal products is wrong or that the environment is better served by all of us giving them up. (I know too much about farming to believe either of these popular-among-the-meat-free tropes.) I stopped mainly because I found I felt better when I incorporated small amounts of sustainably raised meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products into my mainly plant-based diet. But also because what felt to me like the self-righteousness of many vegans made it a club I did not want to belong to.
I believe everyone has the right to follow their own ethics when it comes to choosing their own food. I also believe that at that point you need to shut the fuck up about it. You have that right, but you do not have the right to tell everyone else what they choose is wrong.
So, yeah, as a food writer I had a little bit of anti-vegan bias going for a while. I groaned when Mark Bittman sang the virtues of veganism. Sometimes I took potshots in print. One of the things I most enjoyed deriding was the syndrome where people would self-righteously forswear animal foods like milk, cheese, and bacon, and then promptly replace them with alterna-milks, samizdat-only-so-not “cheese,” and Fakin’ Bacon™. These vegan replacements, marketed as wholesome and responsible, are on par with the worst commercial crap foods out there. They are highly processed, industrial ingredient-laden products that barely deserve the label “food.” If you’re giving up animal products, I used to rant, then for God’s sake give them up and eat authentically from cuisines, like oh, all the Asian ones, that don’t use them—instead of trying to replace them with shitty fake ingredients in the cuisines that do.
But then. I was recently diagnosed with second-stage Lyme disease and now find myself something of an accidental vegan. In the earnest attempt to entirely eradicate this evil, ridiculously tenacious bacteria from my body, I am undergoing an intense treatment protocol that includes giving up—temporarily, but relatively long term—gluten and casein (a protein in milk). The lyme specialist treating me says he sees many if not most advanced Lyme patients developing sensitivities/allergies to these two foods, which makes sense given that second-stage Lyme acts in some ways as an autoimmune disorder. Thus he advises avoiding them until the Lyme is eradicated. I really, really want to get better, so I am doing as the man says.
Calling all vegans: This is me saying, “I’m sorry.”
I get it now. Yes, yes, I took my own advice as above. We are eating a great deal of Thai and Indian dishes in our house these days. But two months into accidental veganhood I am longing terribly for my old food ways. Making a complete and utter change in your eating habits at any time is hard, but when you are profoundly ill, it’s devastating. I so get it now why the fake animal foods: I long for the comfort of my comfort foods. Giving up gluten was not a big deal, since we had done that for several years when my younger son had gluten sensitivity. Dairy, though: That is a big part of my family’s diet. We buy many of our dairy products directly from local pasture farmers and sitting on the sidelines while everyone else around me is drinking Bellvale Farm’s marvelous Jersey cow milk is just painful. I miss cheese like a phantom limb. But the loss of my morning yogurt smoothie, a longstanding and much-enjoyed daily ritual, was the worst blow.
The problem is that so many replacement dairy foods taste like ass. I’m sorry, but it’s true. All the various grocery-store almond soy rice milks, besides containing all kinds of thickeners, stabilizers, and other industrial items, are just inherently nasty substances. Unless you get the kind loaded with more sugar than a Coke, which turns out to be the kind that the people who say “Oh but I LOVE almond milk!” all seem to drink. Still, in between bouts of near-bedridden Lyme exhaustion, I had this mania to find good casein-free “yogurt.” I was determined that this disease which had taken so much—my energy, my ability to climb stairs, the right half of my smile—would not also take my damn morning smoothie.
So I played around with the various fake yogurts and found that cultured unsweetened coconut milk is the least evil-tasting variety out there. (It still tastes like angry soap, but it turns out you get used to that.) And it replicates animal-milk yogurt in a way that is important to me, meaning that it’s simply the base milk plus cultures, minus all the fun extras like gellan gum (keeps the almond soy rice suspended in the water, since these things do not naturally form “milk” on their own) and tricalcium phosphate (which smooths and thickens low-fat liquids, as well as providing calcium).
My main problem then became that coconut yogurt, like so many other food products marketed as gluten- and casein-free, is ridiculously expensive. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to make at home, given some high-quality commercial coconut milk and some yogurt starter culture. The recipe is here.
I still have at least another six weeks to go on high-dose antibiotics and a no wheat/no dairy diet, but I finally feel like I have a gripe, food-wise. Now I just need to make damned sure to avoid the lone star tick, which has recently been found to carry a disease that can cause an allergy to red meat.
Lo-Fi Cultured Coconut Milk
1 can coconut cream or coconut milk (not the kind in the box—that’s watered down and won’t make thick “yogurt”)
1 capsule probiotic powder (or ½ teaspoon yogurt starter culture)
1 big glass jar with a lid, washed well in very hot water
Open the can of coconut cream/milk without shaking first, and use the thick stuff on the top of the can. (Save those thin, watery remains for something else, like drinking on their own—it’s coconut water!). Pour into the big glass jar.
Open up the capsule of probiotics and sprinkle over the coconut milk. Stir or shake to mix. Put lid on.
Now the waiting: The live active cultures need some time and warmth to do their thing. I put the jar in my oven with just the light on, which gets the interior up to about 110 degrees, a good culturing temp (certainly check this out for your own oven before you try this). An old-school oven with a pilot light, a crock pot with a “warm” setting (as opposed to “low”—which is too hot), or even an insulated cooler with a heating pad turned to low will also do the trick. Let sit overnight or for up to 24 hours. The longer it sits, the thicker it sets.