The re-education of a teenage vegan

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All she wanted was something to put on her resume

By Becca Tucker

When Emma Glasse, a 19-year-old environmental journalism major, came home to Warwick from college for the summer, she was looking for something to put on her resume. She phrased it a little differently, of course, when she e-mailed Sustainable Warwick. She’d like to help out, she said. Did they have an internship or anything?

What she got was more than a resume booster, and more than she bargained for. She got the attention of Michael Helme, a vegetarian of 26 years and a member of the environmental group. They met at a gathering after emailing a few times, and Michael discovered that Emma had been vegan for about a year. “I found that admirable,” Michael said. “And alarming.”

Perhaps Emma reminded Michael of himself at her age. When Michael first dabbled in vegetarianism as a teen, “I ate in the college cafeteria and occasionally cooked at home. My food selection was to eat like everyone else, but not eat any meat. This is not a recipe for being a successful vegetarian.” It wasn’t until his twenties, when Michael lived in Nepal and India for five years, and later worked in bakeries and participated in a group kitchen, that he dove into what he now thinks of as “the deep end.”

“I found myself doing all of my own cooking, day in and day out, for months on end. At age 30, I became a full-time vegetarian.” This time, the lifestyle was sustainable because Michael could cook, really cook.

His realization was simple but powerful: cooking skills are the keys to the kingdom. They give you better opportunities to eat well within a busy life. They give you more choice in where your food comes from and who you support with your food dollars. It was a lesson he was ready to pass along to the right person. The catch? That person had to be willing to go whole hog (or whole tofurkey?), cooking all their own food for a month or two. Every bite.

Enter Emma. She wasn’t exactly seeking a major life change, especially one that would have a drastic impact on her social life. While she dutifully attended a few Sustainable Warwick events, the science student in her couldn’t help but think “organic, non-GMO junk was for hippy dippy uneducated environmentalists.”

She didn’t particularly like to cook, either. Toast or a salad worked just fine for her. Every once and awhile she’d make black bean corn salsa, or a cucumber salad, but she couldn’t comprehend why anyone would make anything complicated. “Why eat later when we could eat now?” was her theory.

Like Michael, Emma had made her leap—from vegetarian to vegan—when she went off to college, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. “I ate a lot of stale, overripe, and unappealing fruits, as well as some really simple sandwiches,” she said. Subsisting on dining hall food “was a rough start for my vegan career. Forcing yourself to eat is never enjoyable.”

Still, she felt smug in her conviction that becoming a vegan had elevated her to a higher plane of consciousness. “I thought wow, I don’t eat cows or anything. I really understand what’s happening,” she said wryly. The first month was brutal, the way she missed pizza, but all in all she felt pretty good.

When Emma started showing up at Sustainable Warwick get-togethers, some of the older folks in the group seemed unsure how to interact with a teen. But Michael and his wife, Xiaotong Gong, were “incredibly warm,” Emma said. They invited her to their house to make a meal together.

“He made it all look so easy,” said Emma, from harvesting ingredients from his kitchen garden to “not being disgusting while you’re cooking.” (At that point in her culinary career, making a piece of toast left behind a trail of crumbs, open cabinet doors, and “like six dishes.”) Michael re-used water to keep his cooking footprint small. He effortlessly threw core concepts of Chinese medicine into kitchen management, and explained the importance of balanced meals and fresh foods, “which I never thought mattered,” said Emma. Together, they made sautéed carrots with toasted walnuts, a meal that looked idiot-proof.

“But knowing one learns to cook by simply cooking, I did not try to teach Emma very much,” Michael said, wisely.

After that meal, Michael laid down the gauntlet in an email to Emma:

“When it comes to sustainability, we can adopt social actions and personal actions. The social actions are things like getting involved in legislation and helping raise awareness about environmental issues. The personal actions include how we do things in our own lives, and I believe acquiring good cooking skills is one of the most important things a person could do to live more sustainably.”

“I want to get a tattoo that says: ‘When it comes to genetically-modified, plastic-wrapped, irradiated, triple-hydrogenated, vitamin-fortified, FDA-approved fecal spam, just say no!’ (But I can’t decide where to put that tattoo...).

Then he dropped the bomb. “One way to learn how to cook is the Sink or Swim in the Deep End Method, where you commit yourself to going for a month or two eating only food you have personally prepared. Pouring soy milk on cereal doesn’t count, nor does making a sandwich on bread baked by someone else. This method generates certain pressures to quickly become an efficient cook and learn how to cook a diversified diet.”

Emma was skeptical. First of all, why did he already have a name for this, as if this experiment was a long time in the making and just waiting for a subject?

Second: “I don’t usually like being told what to do, like, ever.”

Third: Goodbye candy and Oreos. “That’s like the one good thing about being a vegan, you get to eat those still.”

Still, she said she’d give it a try. What choice did she have? “I went into all of this to appease a nice guy,” she admits. But she wasn’t thrilled about it.

Early on, Emma went over to Michael’s and Xiatong’s house a few times and they cooked from scratch, walking through some day-to-day dishes that would become staples for Emma. “Everything was so simple when we did it together,” she said. Maybe that’s why Michael was blithely unaware of the struggle on the other end. “Emma took to the Deep End Method like a fish takes to water,” he reported.

Emma’s take was a bit different. “I was pissed at first,” she said. She found herself complaining to friends about what she’d gotten herself into. She had a summer job; she didn’t need more to do. “I should give up already. This is exhausting,” she told herself.

The first loaves of bread she ever made, at the beginning of last summer, were a mess. They were so flat, and hardly felt like bread. There was flour all over her floor and counters. “Do you realize how much easier it is,” she asks, “to buy bread than make it?”

The most difficult part, for someone of the multi-tasking generation, was “actually dedicating my energy into what I was doing.” She’d get distracted, like when she tried to make that super basic carrot and walnut dish on her own. She cut up the carrots, diced some walnuts, began to toast them, and… “Somehow things went their own way, and I ended up with thoroughly burned walnuts over an olive oil carrot saute.”

Michael was there, though, an unobtrusive but supportive presence. “It wasn’t really, ‘Keep on truckin!’” Emma said. “He was just there. It was nice.”

The two sent emails back and forth, on topics ranging from local flour companies to improve Emma’s bread; updates on the NYC plastic bag ban process; and “suggestions on ways I could diversify what I was eating after I told Michael the heinous amount of quinoa I was consuming.” Emma, a broke college student, discovered Costco, and a nice side benefit: not eating out saved her more money than she could have imagined. She also fell in love with the farmers’ market.

Eventually, when Emma talked about this Deep End thing, she found that the complaining had turned to gloating. In addition to her own bread, she now made vegan stews, hummus, lasagna, chickpea and quinoa burgers and a killer pizza. She learned to use water sparingly, and the art of cleaning as you go. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not Mr. Clean, but I like to think I’m tolerable now,” she said. She wanted to show off. Why not? She started cooking for her parents, her roommates.

The life change was radical, and it wasn’t just the time it took to prep all that food. “Socially everything’s so connected to food, mostly to eating it,” said Emma. She found herself coming up against the same scenario time and again: “I want to catch up with a friend, but how do I do that without a plate of food in front of me? I was so accustomed to grabbing a coffee as an excuse to sit and talk in a café.” She began asking friends just to hang out and talk, and in doing so discovered that food was almost like technology in the way that it distracted you from being fully focused on the person in front of you. Walking around the village with a friend became an after-work routine, “to the point where it became almost monotonous, but it gave us more room to focus on conversation: just talk and reminisce,” said Emma. “There’s a strange sort of purity in that.”

For six months, Emma cooked one hundred percent of her own food. As the next summer rolls around, she’s still cooking about 80 percent of her meals. “I’ve come to realize through this process that local food not only reduces carbon footprint, but it creates a relationship between people, their food, and each other,” she said. “Non-GMO is still dumb, but there definitely is a noticeable difference when your produce is backyard/locally grown.”

Also, she points out, “it’s like really easy to do when you’re broke.”

Toasted walnuts with sauteed carrots: Fill the bottom of a dry frying pan with a layer of walnuts. Put the pan on the stove and turn on the heat. On my electric range, a setting of slightly under 4 will lightly toast the walnuts without burning them. (Point made to Emma: With experience, a cook learns how food will respond to heat.) While the walnuts are toasting, wash carrots and peel if necessary, then slice them a bit thicker than quarters. When the walnuts are done toasting, set them on a plate to cool, put olive oil in the frying pan, and fry the carrots until slightly tender. Salt to taste. Chop up two handfuls of walnuts, and sprinkle the chopped walnuts on the carrots. When the rest of the walnuts have cooled, store in a jar and serve with breakfast for the next few days. This recipe can also be made with toasted pecans or pumpkin seeds, and it is a great idea to have a steady supply of freshly toasted seeds and nuts on hand.

- Emma Glasse and Michael Helme contributed reporting. The pair are starting the Vegetarian Spectrum Committe: to get involved.

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