The Daily Meal’s overeager copy editor accepted the challenge to eat an entirely plant-based diet for January. He’ll be checking in weekly with an update on his suffering, er, progress, along with tips and tricks for any readers intrepid enough to try #veganuary for themselves.
The first hurdle for most New Year’s resolutions comes right away, on New Year’s Day itself. New Year’s Eve is usually such a production that we tend to think of it as the capstone of “the holidays,” but if you’ve made any sort of vow for your next trip around the sun, you’ve got some decisions to make as soon as the clock strikes midnight.
And since I’ve promised to be vegan for at least the first month of this year, I faced a surprising challenge the moment I woke up somewhat hungover in the wild new world of 2018: superstition.
I’m convinced that one reason so many resolutions began at the new year is because, for most people, the holidays are ruled by family. In many cases, this is nearly literal. If Grandma decides she’s going to cook the same dishes she cooks every year for Christmas dinner, then woe be unto the foolish whelp who dares to question her prerogatives as hostess. If Uncle Pete brings a fifth of whiskey to the family poker game each year, you should be prepared to have your chops busted mercilessly while you try to explain to him that you’ve quit drinking. It’s pretty hard to make any lifestyle changes around family.
Family. (via GIPHY)
This actually worked out perfectly for this semi-reluctant soon-to-be vegan over the past week while I visited family in Northeast Ohio. Casseroles abounded, cheese flowed like water, and I, uh… I definitely haven’t quit drinking. But I made one crucial mistake: I mentioned my upcoming veganism out loud. Which news was uniformly met with laughter, mild consternation, and the query: “What’re you gonna eat on New Year’s?”
Like many families, mine has some particular New Year’s food traditions, passed down through generations. You see, it is believed that eating certain foods can make or break my luck and prosperity for the entire year.
My parents both hail from the Midwest, where apparently cabbage or, even better, sauerkraut can pass as “greens” during the winter, and these are traditionally eaten in the belief that each leaf consumed represents the money you’ll earn in the next year. (My personal experience indicates there is actually a 1:1 correlation, as my modest pile of annual kraut has led to fairly meager earnings.) I grew up in the South, where collard greens serve the same function. (I’m not sure what everyone would have eaten had the United States not chosen green ink for its currency in 1861, but whatever.)
My parents also added black-eyed peas to our annual meal, since that’s what the Romans do in the Rome that is North Carolina. There’s a cockamamie story about black-eyed peas earning their lucky reputation by keeping starving Confederates alive during the siege of Vicksburg, but that seems like a lousy precedent for good luck — the town starved itself half to death in support of a completely hopeless and wicked goal, and everyone would have been better off if Mississippi had seen the black-eyed peas in its future and decided that defending slavery was a stupid idea. The more plausible story, since we’re dealing with plausible things here, is that someone decided each legume represents a coin coming your way. Again, I’ve noticed a direct correlation, and I believe that black-eyed peas have been solely responsible for me being able to do my laundry each year of my adult life.
One problem: All of these foods taste better cooked with fatback, bacon, or ham in their traditional preparations. I’m not sure my luck will even manifest if I eat a vegan version. (Man, missing out on all this money is gonna make it even harder to afford $9 avocado toast at By Chloe.) My vegan friends have suggested one pretty cool move to mimic some of the rich flavor, at least: black cardamom, which tastes deliciously smoky if you soak and simmer it with your beans.
But fake fatback only hints at my main problem — the most widespread traditional New Year’s food requires a bigger piece of pig. Pork is a January 1 staple all over the United States, so it’s an essential reference to both my Yankee and Tar Heel roots.
But pork doesn’t look anything like money, so what makes it so auspicious? My grandfather assures me that it’s because “pigs root forward” — I guess people used to spend a lot of time watching pigs root — and this behavior symbolizes a future-oriented outlook. Also, pigs have a reputation for being totally fat and reasonably content — so OK, sure, I guess one way to achieve happiness is to find something that looks like it’s happier than you are and then kill it.
My role model for 2018. (via GIPHY)
There’s no getting around this if I’m going to have any luck or any laundry money for 2018. So I decide to chuck a Hail Mary and aim for the most traditional, most North Carolina-est thing I can think of: I’m making vegan pulled pork barbecue, and I think I’ve got a plan.
My home state is famously devoted to barbecue, but the thing about the Eastern N.C. barbecue I grew up with is that it’s actually simple as heck. It basically tastes like pork, smoke, vinegar, and peppers, so I’ll try to cover up the lack of oink with more of the last three.
I picked up some strange dried vegan “chicken” strips at May Wah Vegetarian Market in Chinatown recently. They’re cheap, and they keep forever on the shelf, and though they taste like basically nothing, the have a semi-convincing meaty texture when rehydrated. I slice them about as thinly as possible to render a shredded pork analog. I stuff this porkpile into an old salsa jar, then add black cardamom, some granulated mushroom bouillon (another Chinatown purchase) for umami, white vinegar, a bit of vegetable oil, some mustard seeds, and a lot of crushed red pepper.
I appeal to the ghost of Dean Smith to bless this barbecue and let it marinate while I run to the grocery store for materials for the rest of my menu: black-eyed peas in the form of rice-less hoppin’ john for coins, and both cabbage slaw and collard greens for dollar bills. I don’t intend to take any chances with my finances.
Unfortunately, my local grocery store doesn’t have collards or green cabbage — so much for my dreams of prosperity. I grab some broccoli rabe because it looks and tastes a lot like another Southern staple, mustard greens, and some purple cabbage for the slaw because, uh… maybe it’ll bring some purple 500-euro notes my way this year? A boy can dream.
I cook my “pork” up in a pan and slap it on a bun with some slaw. It doesn’t taste quite like the pork barbecue of my youth — but I mean, it isn’t pork, and it is pretty tasty. My greens and hoppin’ john are similarly satisfactory, and my dinner guest is also pleased.
This might be my first #veganuary lesson: Food just tastes good, and there are lots of flavors you can access in all kinds of ways. Purists might scoff, and it has yet to be determined how this will affect my prosperity for 2018, but I’ve got the first day in the books without having eaten any critters.
And I feel pretty lucky — maybe lucky enough to get me through this month. Now it’s time to do some more careful grocery shopping.