I’ve eaten a lot of truly exceptional vegan meals in my life. But I have absolutely no trouble recalling the single best meal I ever had (truly the single best one!). Prepared in an ancient restaurant in a little town on the island of Sicily, it was a big bowl of chickpeas that had simmered on an open hearth in a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, herbs and olive oil. The beans were served along with an impossibly delicious home baked bread, the world’s freshest salad, and a tumbler of Chianti.
The food was great, but admittedly lots of things about that meal made it special. I was with my husband and my father-in-law. We had brought my father-in-law to visit the city of Messina, where his own father had been born. It had long been our dream to take him there, and the trip meant a great deal to all of us. The setting was delightful—an old, dark and rustic restaurant steps away from the Mediterranean Sea. And okay, it’s possible probable that I had more than one glass of Chianti.
But you could strip away those embellishments, and it wouldn’t change the fact that the food was spectacular. It’s not like I didn’t already know that vegan food was delicious, but Italy opened my eyes to the true glories of plant foods—and to how the most basic peasant food in the world manages to be the healthiest and the most appealing at the same time. It’s the kind of food that can truly convince people that healthful eating is not dreary; it’s incredibly fabulous.
It’s certainly not the way I always eat. The bulk of my diet tends to be a little bit mundane—lots of beans and rice and steamed veggies, often perked up with condiments from a bottle or a homemade sauce. If I have time, I might cook a little bit fancier on the weekends, sometimes trying out recipes that are more involved.
All of these approaches remind me that vegan cuisine has come a long way. It’s easy when you want it to be, fancy and gourmet when you want it to be, and earthy, traditional and authentic when you want it to be.
But, while my traditional Sicilian meal was from one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, it wouldn’t meet the rigid rules of “whole foods plant-based” eating that so many vegans insist upon. It included white flour, olive oil, and wine.
Admittedly, white flour and refined grains are not usually on my menus at home. But, I have them occasionally, often choosing to have regular pasta rather than whole wheat, for example. They are not poison and there is no reason to forbid them. Olive oil and a handful of other healthy fats do play a regular, albeit small role in my meals. I have yet to see any reason why I shouldn’t use them.
Some products—the ones that are processed beyond anything that resembles “food”—are definitely bad for us. But those are way different from gently processed foods that have long been a part of cultural diets. Foods like tofu, pasta, and olive oil. There is no reason to think that including these foods in your diet is going to raise your risk for chronic disease.
Nor is there anything to be gained from the idea that gluten-free, oil-free or soy-free is somehow better than plain old vegan. Instead there is a lot to be lost when a vegan eating pattern gets turned into a rigid menu with all kinds of rules that have nothing to do with health or with a compassionate diet.
Our job as animal advocates is to help people find that sweet spot where their diet is healthful and at the same time, practical and enjoyable (two of the driving forces behind food choices.) Promoting very low-fat eating or no-oil or raw-foods-only or grain-free misses this by a mile. It doesn’t make diets any healthier but it does make them more forbidding. No sweet spot there.
Here is the thing about veganism: It really is a way to have it all. A big heart for animals, a small carbon footprint, a healthy body, and incredibly fabulous food. We should advocate for the kind of vegan diets that celebrate and endorse all of those benefits.