By Oliver Baynham
February 2016 was a riveting month for all; we received an extra day of the year with which to ponder our academic decline before Easter hits, the excitement and tension of student elections consumed lecture halls all across the campus;, and unbeknownst to people around the country, quite a serious student dieting craze took place – The Great Vegan University Challenge.
My personal flirtation with veganism began not so long ago, upon crossing paths with a rather idiosyncratic man who enjoys wearing nail varnish and cracking jokes about horses. He himself is vegan, and he shared with me visions of opening his very own café that serves high quality, gourmet, 100 per cent plant-based cuisine – an attempt to open the eyes of meat-lovers everywhere to the cornucopia of possibilities in vegan cooking. Alongside hearing the news of a vegan junk food restaurant opening in Manchester, and Ben and Jerry’s announcing their long awaited vegan ice-cream range, this strange world had begun to catch my attention, and I was only just scratching the surface.
Now I’m not entirely sure with how many people this feeling will be mutual, but I adore cooking. Whilst a degree in Mathematics consumes my every waking moment, the kitchen is a place where I can happily let my creativity flow, and this is one of the main reasons that I signed up for the challenge – adopting an entirely vegan diet for the whole 29 days of February. It seemed like an absolute no-brainer: I get to eat healthy fruits and veggies all the time, I don’t harm any animals in the process (or contribute to the effects of the meat industry on global warming), and I get to whip up some marvellously magical meals – because when meat, fish, dairy and eggs are off the menu, cooking becomes a lot more exciting.
As someone who changed directly from a regular omnivorous diet to a strictly vegan one, one of the main things I noticed during the month was just how easy it really was. I had at first imagined that after a couple of days of restricting myself I might break down into a puddle of skin and bones with nothing in my fridge for sustenance but celery and houmous, but I was surprised by how quickly and easily the restrictions could be adapted into my every day life. Many foods that exist already such as milk, cheese, and meat, have their own vegan counterparts (although I must admit that vegan cheese has very little to offer), and aside from that, most foods I had in my cupboard were vegan anyway (pasta, rice, sweet chilli sauce, peanut butter, Marmite, and even Oreos).
The cooking was a treat in itself. Veganising the meals I already knew, such as transforming an ordinary lasagne with soya mince, smoked paprika and hearty aubergine, started to add flavour to my plate whilst adding very little to my waistline. I appreciated the challenge for helping me to cut down on my intake of bad fats and sugars, but whilst feeling better about myself for eating more healthily, in all honesty I noticed little change in my physical fitness or energy levels. However, one of the main pains of veganism – in fact, possibly the only downside I encountered – was the difficulties in eating out. Having to ask the waiter at a restaurant for an allergen menu, much to the amusement of my friends, was not so much confusing as it was embarrassing, and in many places the vegan options are limited to just a small handful of plates.
Alas, the month is now over, and despite returning to the unforgiving hands of the meat industry, I do believe that my brief adventure has taught me a lot about the way I cook, and, more importantly, to think carefully about exactly what I shovel into my body on a daily basis. Going vegan, even if for a small amount of time, was a surprisingly fun challenge; I shall definitely be repeating this come next February.