Friday, 31 January 2014

A Veganuary in Review

The Veganuary campaign caught my eye on Twitter in the run-up to Christmas, and just happened to coincide with a period of serious umming and aahhing about the food choices I did and didn't want to make. It's been exciting to see the momentum that it's picked up over the course of January, and while I don't feel that I've been a fully on-board participant (for reasons that I'll go into shortly), it's been a fun and surprisingly challenging experience that I'm glad I took on.

Before I begin to try summarising all of the things that this vegan month has brought, some important facts need to be considered:

1) I've been meat-free since 2003.
2) I became fully vegetarian in 2005, by which I mean no gelatin, no anchovies, no oyster sauce, etc.
3) In my view there is nothing more glorious than bread lavished with a thick layer of salty butter. Nothing.
4) I've been considering and reconsidering my vegetarianism for a year or so, and in November I started eating fish again.
5) During marathon training I've tended to give up milk - at least during the week - as I find my gut is more sensitive when I'm putting myself through so much physical torture training.

Based on facts #1, #2 and #5, I thought that going vegan for a month would be a breeze. We eat pretty much no dairy in our evening meals, I tend to stick with veggies or soup for lunch, and porridge can easily be made with non-dairy milk, right? I'm sure that it was much easier for me than it would have been for many meat-eaters out there, trying out veganism for the first time, but in fact it was much more of a challenge (and at times, a headache) than I had anticipated.

I started Veganuary on 2nd January (see above about my half-hearted commitment!) after a New Year's lunch of fish and chips - my first in years and years and years, at a lovely pub in Sandsend after a day walking in torrential rain. The batter was light and beautifully crisp and the fish was gloriously chunky, but still, after a few mouthfuls I could only think 'meh', and secretly wished that I'd ordered the vegetarian chilli. By the next day - a Thursday - I was ready to go, and we'd planned a menu of our favourite dairy-free meals to see us through the following week. But all my enthusiasm came undone almost as quickly as it had started, when I tucked in to a slice of freshly-baked bread the following Sunday, smothered with peanut butter. I tried olive oil, still it wouldn't do. So I bought some vegan 'margarine' (eurgh what a disgusting word) and have died a little inside (probably literally) every time I've used it.

Did someone say portion control?
A few days later I had a latte in my favourite coffee shop. Normally I would have got a frothy latte made with organic local milk, but my vegan option was distinctly less joyful, and moreover it was made with non-organic soya milk. My point has always been that, in my opinion at least, it is the small choices we make (organic dairy, no soy wherever possible, locally-produced cheese, etc. etc.) that make the biggest impact: turning vegetarian and living off manufactured Quorn nuggests of despair and soy-based proteins is probably not the best way to make a more positive impact on the world. But there I was, drowning in dairy-free, soya-shaped options, eating crayon-coloured melted plastic on my beautiful homemade bread, and feeling very much like veganism might be the worst choice I could make.

I was feeling pretty gloomy about the whole thing, and also missing cake (I have since baked a few great vegan cookies and muffins and have inevitably eaten more cakes than I ever would have otherwise), when it hit me like I imagine silence might hit any long-suffering victim of tinnitus - I no longer had stomach ache. Months and months - years and years! - of grinding cramps in my intestines went silent one day, and honestly haven't made an appearance since. Over the course of the month I feel as if my insides have taken a new lease of life - they're dancing a glorious, pain-free dance and everything just feels easier. I also feel lighter, somehow - not in the literal sense, too much cake for that, but in a physical sense, nonetheless.

Vegan cookies - they looked better than this in real life!
Once I realised that this little experiment was having such a positive effect on my health, and consequently my mood, it suddenly became pretty easy. I stopped fretting over the margarine and instead started to enjoy trying out new recipes, as well as going back to some of my old favourites. The next test came when I ran a half marathon on 20th January. Normally I'd have eggs after a long run, but instead I stuck to lentil soup. The weird cravings hit me harder than usual, and for some reason I found myself halfway through a rather large bag of crisps (why does anyone ever eat crisps?) before I noticed that they weren't vegan. Ah well. A better post-run recovery plan should have been in place, because it turns out that my usual recovery staples of eggs, milk and chocolate biscuits can't easily be replaced with lentils.

So now I am balanced between two lifestyles, unsure about which way to go next. Overall health is a big question, but to me the ethical side of what I eat is equally as big, and in my opinion veganism doesn't cut the mustard. Again, small choices over big sweeping commitments. I honestly don't know what I'll do next, but I'm pretty sure it won't involve fish - it turns out that it wasn't really for me, as delicious as Elly's spiced mackerel recipe was. I'm also sure that it won't involve soya milk or vegan 'butter' (pah!), but it probably will involve more avocados, nuts, nut butters and tahini. Just as my palate has transformed over the past 10 years to the point where fish and chips taste a bit 'samey', so too has it changed over the past month to find serious satisfaction in a handful of nuts, a 'creamy' tahini sauce, or a drizzle of maple syrup.

Essentially, though, I think it's too easy to get bogged down in the shoulds and the shouldn'ts. While it's all too typical of our gloriously privileged society to think that we somehow have the right to have milk on our cereal and meat on our dinner plate every day, consideration of these issues is the first and most important step: once we start thinking, we're already acting. Vegetarianism, veganism, raw food, whatever - at the end of the day they're all sweeping commitments to habits that aren't ever going to be 100% ethically sound. Maybe the most important thing any individual can do in this respect is to consider their options alongside their choices, and to do whatever feels the most right, both personally and generally. That way we're more likely to make choices that stick for the longterm, and even when these choices change as we change (as has happened to me), to keep thinking and keep choosing what works best on both levels at any one point.

I definitely recommend testing out veganism, as it turns out that cutting out dairy can leave you feeling 100% better, and that's always worth a shot. Other than that, though, there are some seriously delicious vegan recipes out there that are worth trying out - my top 5 are linked below!

Oh She Glows' Roasted butternut squash pasta sauce

Oh She Glows' Roasted Buddha bowl

Oh She Glows' Creamy avocado pasta sauce

Oh She Glows' Creamy cauliflower 'Alfredo' 

Veggie Runners' best ever roasted squash


Monday, 6 January 2014

Twelve Awesome Memories from 2013

I was reluctant to do any sort of '2013 summary' this year, for a number of reasons. Mainly because it really has been an incredible year, and I wanted to avoid any gloaty account of the past 12 months as, let's face it, that's how these things can appear, especially after a relatively long silence here on my blog. But I've been doing lots of reflecting, as is typical in this part of the new year, and also looking over a few photos, of which there are relatively few. Some of the best moments of 2013 couldn't have been photographed even if I'd thought to take my camera along with me, and over time I know the memories will fade, leaving only massive moments and filtering all the tiny details. Words are swimming around in my head, and I want to capture the words to match the memories, before they disappear beyond concrete recollection.

It goes without saying that 2013 wasn't all good - I broke my toe on my wedding day, for a start, and even before then there was a sickly marathon and a few wedding-induced 'fiascos' that I'd rather leave aside. I don't need to write about the toe, and I certainly don't need to post any photos of it (though I do have some!), so let's focus on the positives, eh?

So, here are my twelve* awesome bits from 2013, in chronological order:

1. Falling over in the mud on the Cartmel Lakeland Trail
Mud is probably one of my favourite things ever, and a muddy trail race is, in my opinion, probably the only decent thing to do with  a freezing but bright Saturday morning. Cartmel was a Christmas present from my Dad - he'd signed me up for the faster race, and I was soon left behind by all the other wiry fell-runners. At first I was annoyed at myself for being too slow, but then I turned a corner and Morcambe Bay and an expanse of water stretching out to Scotland appeared before me, and I was on top of the world. I wasn't concentrating and I fell - whoooosh - through the mud, which provided a soft landing and covered me right down my right side. The fall forced me to chill out and enjoy the rest of the race, which was just amazing, and I would happily have done it all again once I got to the finish.

2. Coffee in the snow
We spent Easter weekend in Stockholm, just before I moved out there for a month to run an experiment. Scandinavia was still thick with snow, and we enjoyed an absolutely glorious few days wandering around the city and taking in its art galleries, cinnamon buns and waterside footpaths. We stopped off at the lovely Rosendals Trädgård for a coffee after a long morning walk through the city, and as the indoor seating was all taken, we decided to sit outside. The terrace was still covered in snow, but still we sat with a good few other hardy Swedes and watched the world go by with a cup of delicious Swedish coffee.

3. My first participant
I hope I'll never forget the nervous excitement rattling through me as I waited at the top of the steps at Stockholm University for my first parent-infant participants to arrive. I'd tested and tested the experiment, but still there was no way of knowing whether it would even work. For the first time I felt like a real scientist, and it was certainly a turning point in my outlook on what I do. Working with actual infants is such an eye-opener, and it provided such a brilliant perspective on 'the bigger picture', and really helped to make real of what I'm doing.

4. Getting home
The stillness in our house when I opened the door for the first time in over a month was just magical. Putting my feet back into my slippers, running around the house to look in every room, making myself a cup of tea and sitting on the sofa. I want to go away again and again just so I can feel that sense of warmth again and again when I walk through my own front door.

5. A PB at Keswick
Keswick half marathon took place only a couple of days after I got back from Stockholm (I actually planned my trip around it, but don't tell my supervisor), and after a month of marathon training in hilly Danderyd I was on top form. I remember so clearly my amazement on turning out of Grange along the Borrowdale road to realise that I was going to get a PB, and I still had time to stop for an energy gel. I never in a million years thought I'd do so well on such a difficult course, and I'm pretty sure I won't manage it again!

6. Terrace dining in the Languedoc

The best meal of my life, on a terrace in France. Most of it was designed specially for me from the rather meat-based menu, and in typical French style it was sublime. From the gazpacho amuse bouche to the bittersweet raspberry and chocolate tart (normally I'd steer well clear of a chocolate-based desert and head right for the STP!), to the beautiful cheese platter served stylishly on a piece of slate. The only downside was that we were cycling home, so we couldn't drink. Tant pis.

After months of planning, the inaugural Postgraduate and Academic Researchers in Linguistics at York (or PARLAY) conference turned out to be a smashing success. I was floating on adrenaline all day, and my head was pretty much taken over by the countless things that one has to think about during such an event, but at one point I looked out over the crowded room of delegates, all eating cakes and 'networking' just as we had promised in the proposal, and thought "we've done it". And it was wonderful.

8. Our first married breakfast
I can't pick one moment from the wedding day itself, but in all honesty, if I could do any part of it again I'd have my first breakfast with my new husband in the hotel the next morning again and again and again. We sat there for ages, feasting our way through the buffet and going through the minute details of the previous day as if it were a secret between us that no one else could share. I guess it was (and still is). We had the whole day ahead of us, where we would laze around in a swimming pool and spend the evening in our favourite pub with my family, and then of course the honeymoon beyond that. Sitting there at the little round table by the window we had everything that there was for us to have at that moment, and the best bit was that we knew it.

9. Climbing Blencathra
I squished my poor foot into my walking boots and didn't think for a second that I'd be able to get as far as the top of Blencathra, a mountain I've been eyeing up for years. We climbed and scrambled and pulled ourselves up the rock face, and I thought we might die, and we were sweaty and out of breath. The sun was shining, the views were stunning, and there was pretty much no one on the mountain but us and a few retirees enjoying the quieter season in the Lakeland calendar. What a perfect end to our honeymoon, finished off with veggie chilli at the Lakeland Pedlar in Keswick.

10. The National playing Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks at Manchester Apollo
We had our first dance to The National, and when they played 'our song' I was quite sure that would be my highlight. But then they finished with an acapella rendition of this song and I was moved to tears, my lungs suddenly purged of oxygen. Incredible.

11. Presenting at UCL
I gave my final eye-tracking presentation at a postgraduate conference at UCL in November. I knew my subject inside-out, I was reeling off a large and disgusting Starbucks, and the audience was friendly and optimally inquisitive about my work. It was such a high note on which to finish the eye-tracking project - I even got a few jokes in there and people actually laughed. That sense that the audience is on your side doesn't come about that often (I've found, anyway!), but when it does it's worth all of the awkward presentations and strange questions and flushing-red moments.

12. Running through York on the Yorkshire Marathon

The crowds were wonderful throughout this race, but I will never forget the runners singing along to a busker on Piccadilly as we headed out on the first few miles of the marathon. It was Don't Look Back in Anger, which wasn't at all fitting for the occasion, but still everyone crooned along together as we ran past. And then we got to run past the minster, which was phenomenal. I was blown away by it, and I still maintain that it was worth the £45 entry fee for those first four miles alone.

So. Much. Fun.

*I'm superstitious beyond all reason so let's stick to twelve.