life without the cow
I was going to post a very funny and creative post (I flatter myself), but I had a question that keeps coming up that I felt the need to answer in blog form instead of sending ridiculously long messages to people on Facebook and cluttering up an already cluttered online life.
I was deathly allergic to milk as a kid. Like went-into-a-coma-as-a-baby-allergic. I didn’t have my first ice cream sundae until I was at least 10 years old. No cheese on pizza, no birthday cake (vegan cookbooks were not very popular in the 80s), no Baskin Robbins double fudge mint, no grated Romano on spaghetti, no glass of milk with dinner… you get the picture. Then, for some strange reason, I just grew out of it. I’ve read that since our cells renew every seven years it’s possible to lose allergies as we grow up. I think that’s just voodoo folk wisdom, but it sounds true. In any case, I went 10 years without any milk. In college, I started dating a vegan and went dairy free (eggs too) for about two years. And since he turned out to be my vegan husband, I was cooking for a 15-year-vegan for years (it was a good vintage). In the last few years, he’s starting eating some milk and eggs, but not much, so oftentimes it’s just like having a dairy-free household anyway. In total, that’s probably 15-20 years of milk free experience under my belt. So, in an anecdotal way, I consider myself an expert on the topic.
And that’s where the questions come in. I post one offhand comment about how Oreos are vegan, and I get a million and one questions about going dairy free, the benefits of raw milk vs. pasteurized, grass-fed vs. factory farmed, what it’s like to cook vegan 365 days a year and the like. I LOVE those questions and always respond with very verbose answers. And 90% of those messages are probably getting deleted… regardless, I feel like I actually do have some knowledge and some opinions on milk-free living that I would love to share. So share I will.
The first question many ask is why dairy-free is the way to go. I’m going to start off by saying that for the purposes of this blog post, dairy-free is synonymous with milk-free (cow, goat, sheep). I understand the powerful allure of eggs and egg dishes or living entirely meat/wool/leather free but that is for another time and certainly another blog altogether.
Why it’s the way to go, then? I really don’t know. I didn’t have a choice in the matter as a child, so dairy-free was just a way of life. As a young adult, I suppose I was borderline lactose-intolerant, but since I can’t come up with a good hard and fast definition for a category of illness that I know so little about, I’m not going to diagnose myself. Let’s just say that my body was not entirely happy about dairy, but was fine with a little yogurt now and then. When I had the brief vegan phase in college, I was thoroughly zealous about my feelings on factory farming, antibiotics in animal feed, some kind of 31 Flavor conspiracy, yada yada yada. I’m not making light of strongly held opinions, just saying that it’s charming when a 19 year old tries to change the world. This all changed however when I moved abroad. I realized one day that my daily tea was spiked with fish powder and my life spiraled into a haze of one swedish meatball after another and ended in some kind of octopus pancake. That was the End Of Stephanie’s Veganism. When I got married in my 20s, I just kept a vegan home for the most part because my husband was vegan. I was never a fan of cooking a hundred different meals for each member of the family and thought it really couldn’t hurt any. Then he got sucked into a shakshuka-spiral (Israeli marinara and sunny side up egg) and he decided to call it quits on the veganism. I see some benefits to our dairy free living. Mostly that I could leave food out on the counter unrefrigerated for longer… But sometimes it just felt like a massive pain in the bottom.
I do however feel that there were a few positive changes. My skin was much clearer without dairy. Some experts have said that the anti-acne diet is just a dairy-free one… and that milk and the hormones in it contribute to acne. I can personally vouch for that. I felt a little less gross? I just always thought having a glass of milk with a meal was nasty, so I never did it anyway. I found that it’s easier for me to digest food without dairy. I liked having the challenge to be a little bit more creative in the kitchen. I liked how easy it was to shop for groceries (you just get the hang of it and don’t throw a million Go-Gurts in your cart). I also learned a lot about where milk comes from and what antibiotics and hormones are in it, so I feel like I’m a much more savvy consumer about dairy now. I think the biggest benefit from going dairy-free was that I see dairy as a treat now, not as a matter of course. And I think that’s the way to think of any delicious food. Not mindlessly stuffing your face with whatever cheap calories one can find. I really pick and choose now which kinds of dairy I eat, and tend to go for tiny portions of full fat dairy that are delicious instead of huge portions of the low fat kind. Judging by the weight and size standards of my European brethren, I thought that the theory of “a little bit of the good stuff goes a long way” was a good one. I also realized that I have absolutely no valuable opinion on the raw vs. pasteurized milk debate. Just that I feel like raw milk is a little weird and gross. Again, not a valuable opinion.
The biggest reason I get asked though is because I’m naturally a slim person and some people think that’s my “secret.” I don’t really have any hard evidence about my weight fluctuations in regards to being dairy free, so it’s tough to say. I know a lot of obese vegans and some slim vegans, so it’s very difficult for me to say. But I can say that I’m of a healthy weight and have been my whole life through various dairy-free periods, so maybe that’s my trick? I don’t think dairy-free is a bad way to go when considering weight loss, however. A good friend of mine recently commented on my full fat butter and whole milk in the fridge (I was making chocolate cake) and said, “You really do eat like a skinny person. You eat whatever you want. Whatever you want. And you leave half of it, right?” Well, that is entirely correct. I like to think that at least some of that has to do with the fact that I never say no to any kind of food, and that when I eat I thoroughly enjoy all the creamy calories I consume, instead of feeling that I somehow need to drink a skim milk milkshake every day, call it a “coffee drink” and think that I’m being responsible about my food choices. I buy delicious full fat cheese, eat a little of it, and call it a day. I love full fat yogurt, but eat a few scoops with honey and I’m done.
So that is a VERY cursory summary about my feelings on going dairy-free. I don’t think dairy-free is all that much cheaper, healthier for everyone, an ethical choice for everyone, or just a good idea in general. That is 100% my personal experience and I’m sticking with it.
If you find however, through allergies or just from an inclination to try something new, that you would like to try dairy-free living for a little while… I do actually have advice. Since the beginning of this post has gotten out of hand, I’ll try to keep it a little short and sweet:
* Always read ingredients – This is second nature to me after having had such serious allergies, but it’s always an education. If you are committed to going dairy-free, look for every last dairy ingredient on your food labels – casein and whey are dairy ingredients. And look at things you might not be sure are free of milk just to check it out. Like Oreos and Star Pops at Dairy Queen and Pillsbury crescent rolls. Websites are very helpful for this. You can easily type in “Is the Olive Garden salad dressing vegan?” and come up with the answer (it’s not). Remember, if it says “lactose-free” it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dairy free. Pareve IS dairy-free. Many Kosher items are dairy free to get out of the whole milky vs. meaty thing, so if you have a Kosher deli or bakery nearby or a Kosher section in your grocery store, you can often find milk-free items there.
* Try to go for naturally dairy free items – I have found so much more success with things that are naturally dairy-free (like marinara sauce) than I have with things that imitate dairy (like soy “cheez” pizza). It is so much easier to just give it up and go with dairy free living than to pretend that you are still eating it and get frustrated. I have found a handful of good dairy free cheese options (nutritional yeast and the vegan can of what I call “shaky-can Parmesan”), but they are few and far between. It’s worth trying them out of course and seeing what you like, but I just admit to myself that nothing will ever be Kraft Mac n Cheese and get it over with. If you go in expecting nothing, you will come away surprised at the options. Look for thoroughly reviewed vegan dairy items and recipes, but don’t forget the some of the easiest things in the world just happen to be dairy free naturally: like chili. Or most French fries (not Burger King’s however). Commit to eating REAL things and not imitations and your life is going to be easier. Pizza simply minus-cheese is pretty delicious. BIG CAVEAT – Tofutti products are awesome dairy replacements.
* Trust your God-fearing neighbors – This is by far the most entertaining article I’ve ever read and it talks about restaurants that I’ve frequented myself: http://www.slate.com/id/2295857/pagenum/all/
Many religious groups like Hare Krishnas and African Hebrew Israelites (see article) make delicious amazing wonderful dairy-free food that coincides with their religious values. As mentioned above, Kosher products can often be found dairy-free. And since these traditions are so old (or at least claim to be), you can trust that they have developed a cuisine that is free of rookie mistakes. You might be given a leaflet on Krishna at a temple buffet, but the delicious, inexpensive food is the pay off.
* Don’t forget to add salt and oil – Speaking of rookie mistakes, this is #1. As my old adage goes “just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy and/or delicious” applies to this one. The number one issue I’ve seen time and again (and have railed against in the past) with cooking dairy free is that many people forget that food is supposed to be delicious. And talk to your doctor about this one… if you’re lowering your cholesterol and weight by cutting out dairy, maybe you can splurge on a little olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt? It’s a question worth asking. And as someone who enjoys delicious food, I can’t overemphasize how important this is. You know what cheese adds to things like pizza and stuffed mushrooms? Fat and salt. So take the time to drizzle a little olive oil on your cheese-free pizza and sprinkle a little salt on it. The change is dramatic. And unless serious health reasons preclude it, I have never really trusted a cook who doesn’t salt and oil their food. This is particularly true with health food restaurants. When you take away dairy, you are taking away a certain amount of flavor, so it’s worth adding a little bit extra to make up for it. I don’t believe in the complete-proteins myth, but I do believe in the complete-flavor one.
* Try everything – I can’t say this enough times. TRY EVERYTHING! You will be glad you did. Some foods are just not the same without dairy. But some are really delicious. You won’t know until you try. I have really come to love almond milk much more than milk in my cereal. I’m so glad I listened to my sister in law and tried it. You only live once, right? Well, I guess you might think differently if you’re a Krishna.
That is all the very verbose advice I have for right now on living dairy-free. I hope that helps a little, or at least clues you in a little on why I think the way I think about it. Please do add your suggestions. I love new dairy-free recipes and I do like to listen to why people eat the way they do. Even if I’m probably going to be distracted by my milkshake while you’re spouting off about being vegan…
And what does this have to do with Micro Living, you may ask? Well, I guess less is sometimes more? In some ways I think milk-free eating simplifies your life and in some ways it makes it way more complex. Some people buy way more groceries as they’re trying to live dairy-free and some people buy less. Some people eat more calories and some people eat less. But it’s worth a shot. And if moo-free living DOES simplify your life, I would love to hear about your journey!
(and by the way, I’m assuming the girl in the picture is wearing vegan “leather” shoes and that bubble gum is dairy-free)