How has veganism changed

I know a lot of people enjoy celebrating their vegan anniversary because the milestone can be an exciting time to pat yourself on the back and take stock of how far you’ve come.

It feels good to feel good!

It can also be an opportunity to look back on how much has changed for vegan consumers in the time since you decided to be totally plant-based.

I don’t actually recall the date I went vegan, even though it did happen overnight and on a specific date in 1999 (I think!). All I know is that is was about twenty years ago.

Left: Just vegan Right: Old vegan

My home at the time was in Chiswick, London. Josh and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my sister and her partner. Yes, Josh and I had the lounge room as our bedroom.

The following extract from my book Fat Gay Vegan: Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give a Sh!t tells of my vegan awakening in this flat:

I could very well have travelled through life indefinitely thinking I was the height of compassion if it wasn’t for one pesky little invention known as the World Wide Web.
Josh and I invested in some painfully slow dial up Internet connection and it was a revelation. The Internet was the late nineties version of that chicken truck pulling up beside me in western Sydney, but this time I was being awakened to my culpability in the suffering of egg laying birds and milk producing cows. Via rudimentary chat groups and early versions of forums, I started to be exposed to people who opted out of relying on any and all animal- derived products.
I was so reliant on milk and cheese at the time I went into shut down. Wasn’t it enough to not eat the animals? Surely I was to be applauded for my commitment to animal welfare? Then I discovered that many wines
are treated with animal products like egg whites, milk protein or fish products to get rid of some of the leftover solids. This sent me into a complete tailspin. There I was thinking nobody loved animals more than I, while cows were being forcibly impregnated in order for me to guzzle their milk. Cows need to be pregnant or new mothers for their bodies to produce milk and as we know, mammals don’t get pregnant on their own. The discovery that dairy cows went through pregnancy repeatedly for my milk was confronting. Chickens, even those advertised as cage free, were wildly mistreated in shocking conditions for my occasional egg habit including my desire for albumen, or egg-white clarified red wine.
There must have been a few weeks of this information dripping through to me during which I still consumed dairy and sipped wine from the corner store. I needed to be slapped into a different state of understanding.
I needed to truly understand the role I was playing in animal exploitation.
Enter my sister, Monique.
Monique and her partner Drew were living with us in London. They were both carnivorous without waiver and it wasn’t just on one occasion I walked into the shared kitchen to discover my sister wrist deep inside a chicken carcass. The relationship I had back then with my sister was tumultuous and she would try to catch me out on any perceived flaw, real or imagined. She got a good one to ride me on with my hypocrisy surrounding animals. The day Monique sneered at me and called me a hypocrite, for saying I loved animals while refusing to give up wine from the corner shop, plays back like it was yesterday.
In a rare instance of calmness and clarity, I told my sister she was absolutely right. I could no longer drink non-vegan wine, eat dairy-containing food or buy clothing made with animal products. I went vegan that very second and have never stopped being vegan.
When people ask me for advice on how to go and stay vegan, I often retell the story of my sister pushing me into a corner. That was my defining moment and I tell people theirs will arrive. It takes knowing the facts, knowing your part and feeling it is the right thing to do in your heart. Once the pieces fall into place and you have a clear understanding of your role in reducing animal suffering, choosing vegan becomes an epiphany. It’s the right thing to do and you do it. The clarity or the logic or the unavoidability of what you have come to understand puts you on a path of lifelong compassion and it’s a fabulous feeling.

So, that is the story of how I went vegan. But what was the vegan landscape in London like twenty years ago?

I really can’t recall any vegan restaurants, although there must have been a few. We certainly didn’t have the vegan networks and online social media groups to spread news of the best places to eat. It was all very much real life experience and word of mouth.

Going out for lunch meant a packet of pita bread and a tub of hummus from the Co-op. Seriously. Co-operative Supermarkets were about the only place that clearly labeled vegan products back in 1999.

When I decided I would not drink beer or wine anymore unless I was sure it was vegan, I often just went without. If vegan alcohol searching database Barnivore existed back then, I certainly didn’t know about it. Smart phones didn’t exist and I didn’t even own a cellphone!

There was not one mainstream restaurant that had vegan options. If you wanted to eat something in a High Street eatery, you would have to ask your server to speak to the kitchen and explain what vegan meant. It just wasn’t a process that many of us wanted to go through again and again (although many did as an act of activism).

I cooked at home for every single meal.

I can honestly say I used to be a better and more enthusiastic cook back in the day. We had tofu preparation down to a fine art and I didn’t even know what seitan was or how to make it for the first few years of my vegan adventure. Jackfruit? Nope. Didn’t know about it. My meat alternative most used? Chickpeas.

For special occasions we might break out a nut roast.

My memory is a bit hazy but I recall there only being one not-very-nice soya milk in Sainsbury’s that was sweetened with apple juice.

A few years into my veganism saw things getting slightly better.

Holland & Barrett near my house was the ONLY place to get Redwood (now known as VBites) vegan turkey and beef roasts. If you wanted one for the weekend, you had to familiarise yourself with their delivery times because these products were scarce and flew off the shelves.

I would sometimes run to the store in order to get in before the other local vegans.

There was no vegan cheese to speak of or at least none worth speaking of, that’s for sure.

An early memory involves me going along to the vegan festival in Red Lion Square. It was like another planet and it felt as though every single vegan in London was there. It was at one of these early events where I first tasted seitan. I was so confused!

Vegetarian Shoes was the only place to get kinder footwear and the styles were quite limited. It wouldn’t be unusual to show up to a vegan event and half the attendees were wearing the same boot style!

When it came to personal care products, Co-operative Supermarkets were the first ports of call due to their anti-testing stance and clear labelling.

I do remember it being tough to be vegan twenty years ago, but it was also a time of simple and clear choices. We were inventive, resourceful, and made do with what we had because we believed in reducing the demand for animal-derived food and products. Just the basics.

Even though I have dedicated my life ever since then to championing the vegan message, I would never have thought today’s vegan-friendly landscape was possible in my lifetime.

The excruciatingly-slow progress we made over those two decades has been completely swamped in just two years or so. Vegan stuff is absolutely everywhere in comparison to when I first made the switch. Heck, I even work on vegan cruises!

I hoped to see this sort of availability, but never believed I’d live to see it.

Honestly.

I’d love to hear your memories of what it was like when you took the vegan leap.

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Written by fatgayvegan

4 Comments
  1. I was born in 1962 (yes I’m old) and started my vegetarian journey when I was 7. I didn’t even know what a vegetarian was, I just stopped eating because a boy at my school told me that we ate animals! I loved animals and couldn’t even work out what on my plate used to be alive so didn’t eat anything. My school called a meeting, my mum attended. Everyone talked about me but my mum talked to me, asked me why I wasn’t eating, I told her and she explained what a vegetarian was and asked if I wanted to be one. I said yes, and started eating again. My mum ordered me the Vegetarian Society magazine and one day when I was 11 I looked at the back page that featured a picture of a cow and explained why we should be vegan. I took my glass of milk and my chocolate digestive out to the kitchen to my mum and said “I want to be a vegan” – she just rolled her eyes and said “I knew this was coming”. This was 1973 and the only vegan things were powdered packets of sosmix and burgermix that we had to got to Leyton, East London to a little health food shop to get. Other than that my mum used to batch cook lentils and make pies, pizzas and stews with them. I really could not have done this without my mum’s help. To see such a vast array of vegan products in supermarkets and restaurants today is wonderful and so many of my friends and family have now turned vegan, even my husband of 30 years has become vegetarian. Things can only get better!

  2. What a great mom you have, Lesley! Having family and/or friend support is SO helpful.

  3. I was vegetarian on and off since age 12.

    In my mid-twenties, I tried to be a “strict” vegetarian and only ate vegetarian cheese (anything that didn’t have animal rennet) and had all these other rules like “it’s fine if the animal didn’t die to produce it”. But it was hard to find which cheeses had animal rennet. And how I viewed animals was changing too; I no longer saw them as products and realised that turning their bodies into commodities was horrible.

    One day I realised it would just be less effort to be vegan because there were no complex rules. I’ve had some people say that it must be hard to be vegan but honestly it’s been the easiest thing. It’s also getting easier as more companies become aware of vegans as a growth market (although I feel icky about places like McDonald’s, Greggs and KFC getting in on it and I’m not interested in giving them money).

  4. Ah, I didn’t realise you turned vegan around the same time as me! New Year’s resolution in 1999. You’re right, there wasn’t a lot. We had a Vegan and Vegetarian Society at college and went out to quite a few restaurants, but I think only one of them was fully vegan–the Chinese restaurant in Knightsbridge, in Egerton Gardens Mews (it became an omnivorous Thai place, but they kept the old vegan menu for a while and you could ask for the old dishes–that’s probably no longer the case). There was a very short-lived vegan Caribbean place in Clarence Road.

    Some were near-vegan, e.g. Pumpkins, which was where Pogo’s was and Black Cat is now (Pumpkins was ‘vegan with vegetarian options’), or the predecessor of Archway Loving Hut, run by the same people as now, I think, called ‘Peking Palace’ then if memory doesn’t fail me. Most were vegetarian; there were now long-gone places like Heather’s in Deptford and vegetarian Indians in Camden, Covent Garden, and Stroud Green Road (Jai Krishna, still there), and of course places like Govinda’s or Indian Veg,

    Alex Bourke’s ‘Vegetarian London’ guides were always useful.

    One thing that was a thing at the time was squat cafés, which were mostly vegan; large communal squats opened their doors and sometimes the food was surprisingly good. Bonnington Café had ever-changing cooks and some of them were vegan.

    That was all long before restaurants like Country Life or the Chinese buffet places that had about fifteen (?) branches for a while, but which have now almost all closed.

    One of the first things I did when I turned vegan was to learn how to cook. I always shopped at local shops and they always had houmous and other vegan Mediterranean foods, and my local health food shop, Food for All, has always been vegetarian and seems to have become a little more vegan in the last few years. In my area, there’s also long been Mother Earth and other vegan/vegetarian shops, e.g. East of Eden in Lower Clapton Road.

    I actually mostly have really good memories of that time, but there was probably the excitement of discovery and the fact that I knew lots of other vegans, which made everything easier. Still, we’ve come a long way!

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