My Vegan Story
How a health scare pushed me toward a plant-focused life and changed my entire perspective.
It’s an evening in late October 2018, and I’m teaching a class on making pasta by hand to ten eager hobby cooks. The participants have finished making three different types of pasta. They are relaxed and drinking a glass of wine while watching me put together the first sauce – one they will soon enjoy with their freshly-made spinach ravioli.
The sauce is a simple creation that puts finished elements together. First, a bit of garlic purée. Then, a ladle or two of fresh tomato purée and a good splash of Ligurian Vermentino. I popped in a few flakes of dried chili and allowed the sauce to thicken over relatively high heat. Next, I dropped a good pinch of sea salt into the bubbling sauce, added a touch of water and finished the sauce with pieces of roasted radicchio. I gave the sauce a quick taste...a few turns of black pepper from the mill and a small pinch of Maldon sea salt. The sauce was ready for the ravioli, which I scooped out of the pot of simmering water next to the pan. With a few flicks of the pan, I tossed the ingredients together...being completely aware of the coolness factor I was displaying at that moment.
The sauce was finished, the warm plates were laid out, and everyone seemed eager to devour this delicious-looking pasta creation...and that’s when the mood in the room shifted.
One of the students innocently asked me why wasn’t there any meat or fish in the sauce...or even a good dusting of parmesan cheese. By now, I was used to these types of questions, and I simply and quietly responded, “because I don’t eat meat.”
Another participant quickly added, “what about cheese or dairy?” I answered, “Nope, I don’t eat anything animal-based.”
“You mean, you’re vegan?”
I felt the air of curious judgment hovering, like the steam from the pasta water that continued to rise from the pot. And I knew the following question before anyone had a chance to ask. “Why?”
I gave my standard, well-rehearsed Swiss-inspired answer I’ve perfected over the years, “Because I choose to.” Most people accept that answer and move on, but occasionally a few persist and keep the line of inquiry open. These are usually the standard protein, calcium, and iron questions...or sometimes, someone chimes in with a personal story describing their failed efforts of trying to follow a vegan lifestyle – too much weight loss...feeling tired all of the time...giving up cheese was too difficult.
I wanted to change the topic and begin plating the pasta. But another participant continued to probe me about my chosen lifestyle, eager to uncover why I would make such a drastic decision. “Do you cook meat?” I admitted I did…and quickly explained that I occasionally cook meat and even use cheese and cream during courses or catered events to meet customer demand. Predictably, the next question swiftly followed, “how do you taste the food when you cook?” People are curious, and that’s perfectly ok...but I had a job to do, and I didn’t want the pasta to cool any longer. I paused...and then I gave the full explanation.
I explained, “I gave up eating animal products several years ago because I like walking. Here’s the deal...I have MS, and I’m choosing to treat this incurable and degenerative neurological condition with lifestyle improvements...and one of those changes is eliminating as much saturated fat from my diet as possible…and when I need to make something with milk or dairy, I taste it quickly, then spit it out.”
I could tell from the look on the faces of the participants that the conversation now came to an end. All the prying questions quietly ended, and the business of eating pasta and drinking wine finally got underway.
The participants spent the next hour or so devouring three plates of pasta – all vegan, drinking another glass or two of wine and laughing together. No one said another word about being vegan...or wondering what it was like to have MS...
And I was again reminded that delicious food always speaks louder than words. Labels don’t matter. Religion doesn’t matter. Politics don’t matter.
And yet, these kinds of experiences often leave me feeling conflicted inside. I felt like my over-protective father. I wanted to look everyone in their eyes and describe to them the damage their diet was doing inside them...this very minute...how close they all were to cancer, diabetes, MS, or some other destructive disease. I wanted to say it probably didn’t matter because global warming would probably destroy us all anyway...because of all those animal farms. I wanted to talk more about animals...and ask everyone why they chose to eat a pig yet lovingly cuddled their dog or cat. What was the difference?
I was irrational, and I needed to slip around the corner to calm down and take a few breaths. I needed to look at my legs and be grateful they both worked perfectly. I needed a moment of gratitude...and to feel how lucky I was to embrace a lifestyle choice I had made years earlier – a choice that kept me from becoming a burden to my wife...kept me able and interested...kept me out of a wheelchair.
I needed those minutes to finally realize that my words would not change anyone. They may eventually inspire a few, but words alone are powerless when trying to convince others to make lifestyle changes.
But food? Well now...that’s a different story.
The beginning of the year is an optimistic time of year for many. It is a time to reflect, evaluate and make resolutions to give up smoking, stop drinking – at least for a month, lose weight, volunteer more, follow a plant-based diet – at least for a month, or any other noble commitment.
For me, there was a different kind of seriousness in my new year’s vow once the calendar flipped from 2009 to 2010. Changing my lifestyle and adopting a plant-focused diet didn’t feel optimistic at first…it felt drastic and limited. It felt like I was about to lose a lot of my soul. But it still felt better than the side effects I had from the drugs I injected in me every second day…or the thought of slowly losing my physical and cognitive abilities during the next few years…and being forced to give up what I loved to do…to cook.
I’m one of the fortunate ones who responded well to a lifestyle change.
I made drastic lifestyle changes within months of getting my MS diagnosis. I switched to a plant-based diet (with the inclusion of fish during the first few years), I supplemented vitamin D, I balanced my omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids, I exercised as if my life depended on it (which it did), I learned to manage stress through meditation. These changes were not easy to make. They required a shift in my priorities and a lot of patience and perseverance. The positive impacts slowly developed…very slowly. And eventually…roughly 7 years later, my body returned to baseline levels, and I could finally declare I was symptom-free…not MS-free – that will never change.
I’m thankful I had the strength and resolve…and support…to make the kinds of positive changes in my life that I made. I am much healthier today than I was pre-MS. I’m also a better chef than I was. I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of how to cook food…and what food means to the human body. I’ve also developed a close connection to the environment and a much greater respect for all life on earth.
What’s Your Story?
Do you have a story of change you want to share? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below – however short or long you wish to make them.
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Lovely post Jack. I appreciate you sharing, as a fellow OMSer I understand completely and look forward to your recipes & podcasts. Unfortunately my mobility was affected before I started the plant based eating so probably not get better, but hopefully it will help slow progession. I'm very strict on diet, take my DMT, vit D, made drastic changes to destress, just got to start exercising. Maybe this year! All the best for 2023
I changed from meat eater to 100% whole food plant-based diet this time last year and haven’t regretted it. I wish I had known about the health benefits earlier in my life. Though it’s never too late to make a difference. My doctor was strongly advising medication for high cholesterol and I asked for time to try and make a difference by changing my diet. Well it worked. But wouldn’t it have been nice if the doctor had encouraged me and informed me about eating vegan? I did it on my own. I just wonder how much fitter better I might have been had I done this thirty or forty years ago. I’m loving your Substack, thanks for sharing.