Editor's note: Information about the restaurants mentioned in this article appears at the bottom.
Many of us have at least one vegetarian friend or, perhaps, had one vegetarian friend. Vegetarians tend to move in one of two directions: back to their omnivorous ways and carnivorous tendencies, or toward veganism, adopting a strict plant-based diet. Veganism requires an individual to give up animal by-products including milk, cheese, eggs, whey (a derivative of milk), and gelatin (crushed bones found in Jello), as well as meat and fish.
But how do you willingly abandon meat and dairy in a world where people are overtly enthusiastic about replacing two slices of bread with chicken filets and indulging in a KFC Double Down? Most importantly, how do you adopt a vegan diet in Belleville, where Washington Avenue boasts every fast-food chain restaurant you can imagine, and most privately owned restaurants serve specific cultural foods traditionally known for containing animal products?
Most people think that becoming vegan is "too hard," or "impossible." A line I hear commonly: "I could see myself becoming vegetarian, but never vegan." Think of it this way: a meat-centric diet is like driving an SUV, a vegetarian diet is like driving a mid-sized car, and a vegan diet is like riding a bike. Not only is being a vegan healthy for you, but it benefits not only your immediate community by increasing support for local businesses, and also the rest of the planet by reducing carbon emissions and eliminating animal suffering.
If adopting a strict vegan diet seems completely impossible, then it might be best to try monitoring and minimizing your consumption of animal products, which will still have a positive impact that will be felt locally and globally. There are many global resources and books such as Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, that can illuminate the benefits of conscious consumption.
Let's start at the most basic point – how to be vegan and enjoy yourself in social situations involving food right here in town. After eight years of vegetarianism, the last four of which I have been vegan, I have learned how to find vegan food at all hours of the day, in the least likely places. It's easy to be vegan if you're staying in – you can whip up varieties of cous cous and beans, spaghetti with marinara sauce, tofu vegetable stir fry, even a simple PB&J. But the real complications always happen when you're out with family and friends. So I have prepared a few scenarios and ways that you can be vegan at the most inopportune and challenging times.
The Pizza Party
Pizza is about 66% vegan. All you have to do is remove the cheese and you can enjoy pizza parties celebrating athletic victories and successful work-weeks. Algieri's located on Union Ave. offers a Veggie Pizza, which means you only have to say, "No cheese please," and you should have a vegetable- and sauce-laden pizza at your fingertips. Other options include broccoli rabe, as well as tomatoes, fresh basil, and garlic. By eliminating cheese and replacing it with vegetables, you replace saturated fats with carbohydrates, and the fiber and vitamins of vegetables, promoting healthy digestion. If you can't handle the thought of pizza sans cheese, Algieri's has a vegetable wrap with eggplant, lettuce, tomato, and roasted red peppers. There is a fee for adding cheese, so you'll not only feel healthier, but save a few dollars by eliminating it entirely. Beware of breaded eggplant, though, as it often contains eggs and milk. Instead, request that the eggplant be grilled, in order to avoid disappointment.
The Midnight Snack
It's 1:30 A.M. and your friends want a late-night snack. The fluorescent glow of Washington Avenue beckons. You find yourself at Taco Bell staring a menu primarily populated by ground-beef and cheese. What do you do? Order a crunch wrap: "No cheese, no sour cream, no beef, substitute beans, and add guacamole." This applies to standard burritos as well. By eliminating the dairy, you'll avoid a late-night upset stomach, and by adding beans and guacamole, you'll increase the plant-based proteins and omega-3 fatty acids, which promote muscle and brain development, respectively. I would not recommend depending on crunch wraps for a continual source of vegan nourishment, but on the rare occasion that you find yourself hungry in the middle of the night downtown, you'll still have options.
The First Date
Dietary restrictions truly define a person, and when you're vegan, you are often met with a lot of Why's and Why Not's? When you're meeting someone for the first time, it can be troublesome to decide on where to eat or what to do. Topaz Thai, located on Washington Ave., simplifies the decision-making when you're looking for a restaurant to sit down in and enjoy. Topaz Thai offers curries, noodles, and fried rice, with the option of substituting vegetables or tofu for beef, pork, or shrimp. Often, Thai noodles contain eggs, but they can be easily be removed from the dish on request. Soy protein found in tofu is a nutritional alternative to animal protein found in meat because soy is lower in cholesterol and fat, as well as free of hormones and the burden of animal slaughter. Tofu also tends to absorb Thai spices and marinades, resulting in a delicious little sponge of flavor.
The Snowy Day Delivery
Two feet of snow on the ground and no desire to leave the house when hunger pangs strike? If you're not getting a pizza delivery, and you're craving Chinese take-out, China Star, located on Franklin Ave., can provide you with meat-free alternatives delivered to your door. Steamed vegetable dumplings make a filling appetizer. Steamed tofu (also called "bean curd") can be ordered steamed with mixed vegetables and brown rice, or it can be made as "General Tso's Tofu." Although the latter is not as healthy as the steamed and vegetable options, if you're vegan and nostalgic for your meat-eating days, tofu smothered in General Tso's sauce might do the trick. Sticking to brown rice instead of white rice is a wise choice too, increasing your dietary fiber intake. It's also easier for your body to digest.
The Bagel Breakfast
Sleepovers and staff meetings often involve bagels as the primary source of quick nourishment.
Sunrise Hot Bagels, located on Joralemon Street, has a variety of toasty bagels that are vegan, as long as you avoid the egg bagels. Peanut butter, which contains more protein than butter or cream cheese, is a dense source of energy and is a satisfying spread. Fruit salads also add a bit of hydration and sweetness to the morning to complement the density of bagels and peanut butter.
The Summertime Snack
Although summer is far away, the daytime heat often leads to desire for ice cream cones and cups of frozen yogurt. A cold alternative is Italian ice at Rita's, located on Belleville Ave. Although sweet and refreshing, it lacks the cream, dairy, and heaviness of milk-filled treats.
Fruits and Vegetables
As a vegan, a large portion of your life is dedicated to the active consumption of fruits and vegetables, unprocessed and found in the natural world. The Garden Farmers Market, located on Franklin Ave., can provide you with fresh produce year-round, so you can whip up hummus from fresh garbanzo beans, garlic, onion, and jalapeno peppers; guacamole, from ripe avocados and tomatoes; or a fruit mix of grapes, melon, strawberries and blueberries.
Although consisting of a diet largely of fruits and vegetables, veganism is not synonymous with bland or boring; in fact, it can increase your appreciation for all of the food that you consume. Giving up dairy, meat, and eggs, as well as other animal by-products, requires willpower, dedication, patience, and a desire to understand your food. I was once an avid meat-eater and ice-cream-lover, but by closely monitoring my diet to incorporate beans, fruits and vegetables, tofu, whole grain breads and pastas, and supplements such as B12 and vitamin D, I have been able to eat anywhere and with anyone.
With a vision of Washington Avenue and its chain restaurants looming, I thought it might be difficult to be vegan in a town without a Whole Foods Market or abundance of vegetarian restaurants; however, I've found that from fast-food to farmer's market, there are a multitude of healthy options available to Belleville residents looking to embrace a vegan diet.