Unprocessed: My Week of 3-Ingredient Eating

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I just spent the last week eating an unprocessed vegan diet; yesterday was my final day, and the experience has left me with plenty to ruminate over (though not literally! It was a very gut-friendly week). Midway through the project the fake women’s website Reductress featured a story about a woman whose desire to experience the limits of human privation led her to give up truffle fries for a week; it’s doubtful that anyone else reading laughed as hard as me, or felt so righteously busted. I mean, it’s ridiculous, I get it. “Unprocessed vegan” just means no animal-derived foods and no foods containing more than three ingredients. Not hard, and not a big deal. Yet it did give me more food for thought than I’d anticipated.

Veganism was the easy part of this for me—I was a strict vegetarian for eight years beginning in my teens. My parents allowed it as long as I prepared my own meals, so that’s basically all I know how to cook. To make it vegan meant no half and half in my coffee, but that’s survivable. No, I was drawn to this diet for its focus on unprocessed foods. After reading about it in a magazine several years back, subsequent trips to the market all involved a few extra minutes flipping over boxes and cans to tally up exactly what was inside. Turns out, there’s a lot. Venture out of the produce department and most markets are packed with highly processed food. That’s not inherently bad—in fact, it’s what keeps all that food from spoiling and becoming inedible—but I find looking at a real hamburger and a Boca burger both to be a little frightening. One requires a cow to die, but the other seems to be the work of a mad scientist. Perhaps there’s a path better suited to my needs and preferences.

My week started badly. It helps to plan well and shop with an eye to contingency planning any time you’re starting a new diet, and I made a list with that in mind but woke up with a pinched nerve in my neck. No way could I walk home from the grocery store with my usual two bags and an overstuffed backpack, much less cook a ton of food. This was going to be a soft launch at best. I was already feeling burned, having discovered that Ak-Maks not only have several ingredients, but one of them is butter. One of my favorite foods, and the one I planned to snack on all week, suddenly booted from the menu.

The first three days involve a lot of oatmeal with apples chopped up in it, rice cakes spread with peanut butter, raisins and resentment, and random dinners, the best by far being a miso soup with spiral-cut carrots and zucchini standing in for ramen. One night I make a raw apple and broccoli salad (chop both into a bowl, dress with lemon juice and olive oil, and grate in a little ginger if you like). It’s a favorite meal and filling, but leaves me feeling wired and ungrounded. I vow to improve for the rest of the week.

And I do! What follows is a mix of classics (the Greek Lentil Soup from early editions of Laurel’s Kitchen) and brand-new dishes. I make the “aquafaba” butter recently featured in the Washington Post, a mix of oil and the glamorously-renamed liquid from canned chickpeas, which is gaining in reputation as a vegan egg substitute for baking. It’s fun and I feel a little better overall. Oh, I also cheat a bit. While I made vegan mayo from silken tofu with three ingredients, the firm tofu I sliced with tomatoes on Ryvita crackers had four, because they used two coagulants. I opened a carton of soymilk without thinking and discovered that it had four as well. That said, I also made oat milk and oat/quinoa milk (RECIPE: Soak grains overnight, whip with immersion blender, wash displaced grains off every surface in the kitchen and strain the liquid left in your container). It wasn’t bad, though pouring oat milk on oatmeal is weird, maybe the vegan answer to a bacon-wrapped hot dog. Oh, and I read the package and knew the loaf of sourdough from the Healdsburg, CA, bakery I love had four, but I bought it anyway. Two of them were salt and water, so while I acknowledge it as cheating it’s pretty hard to feel guilty. Also, the sensory appeal of something familiar that I nevertheless seldom buy was such a treat, and a nice respite from the same-y nature of my week so far.

Cheating is cheesy, though. I mean, why bother embarking on a project and then tossing the rules? Well. Part of what I was trying to suss out were my own feelings about how I eat. Turn on a computer anywhere in the world and there are legions of loudmouths telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Were they right? In some small ways, I think so. While I completely reject the aggressive scolding/victimized hand-wringing approach many vegans still in the evangelical stage go through, they score big points with me as far as the ways we deny the reality of our choices. I myself have used phrases like “ethically sourced beef,” which I don’t buy and wouldn’t eat, but come on.

There’s also money, ugh. When I first read about unprocessed vegan eating I was living a short walk from five different markets and a small but thriving farmers market, and I had a two-bedroom mobile home with a full kitchen all to myself. Were it not for a leaky roof and some rodents I could easily have become the first unprocessed vegan Doomsday prepper on record. I’ve moved twice since then and am currently renting a 9 × 12 bedroom; most of my cooking supplies were scattered to the four winds in the relocation, and I now have limited fridge and pantry space and the use of a range top and microwave. While I can walk to Safeway and Whole Foods, both are far enough away to cause blisters on my feet and of course massive trauma to my wallet. (I did go to Whole Foods recently, and approaching the entrance I passed under some speakers playing The Guess Who: “American woman, get away from me.” After trying to get a question answered with no luck and failing to find anything affordable, I took that message personally).

Instead I’m shopping at my neighborhood grocery, G & G, a locally owned store that does brisk liquor and deli business. The latter accounts for my eating more cheese and yogurt than usual; they’re regularly marked down and thus a good deal. G & G has a good bulk food section (oats, dried fruit, lentils, bulgur, spices), but they’re great about signal-boosting local farmers where produce is concerned. A recent ploughman’s lunch phase was something noteworthy thanks to the local Jonagold apples whose season was far too short. Grapes are coming in now, and of course weird and wonderful winter squash. While it’s definitely easy to be an omnivore at this market, it’s not what I’d call hard to go UV. It costs a bit more than I can comfortably sustain and would be vastly easier in a kitchen of my own, sure. I rely on prepared foods here for the same reason they’re popular anywhere, after all: because they can hang out in my backpack if there’s no room in the pantry. But it’s achievable. I’m doing it, and not suffering for the effort.

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Veganbaking.net CC BY-SA

G & G carries a nice selection of Amy’s frozen dinners; they’re a national brand with local origins, in the news since opening a flagship vegetarian fast food restaurant. I think they’re great but can’t afford their stuff unless it’s something being discontinued. However, I am troubled by other products on the market whose green packaging and clean ingredients can be traced to parent companies at the heart of “big agriculture.” It’s a neat way for them to collect from well-intended consumers who may be unwittingly funding activities they’d never intentionally support, eating a tofu dog with one hand while bitch-slapping a cow with the other. Part of the draw of unprocessed foods, which of course each come with a complex history as well, is a move away from products whose shiny exteriors may hide a grim reality. I’m ashamed enough of my obvious hypocrisies to not wish to add hidden, ironic ones to the list.

This morning I went shopping as myself again, once an ornate coach and now a pumpkin stuffed with cream cheese. While I’m still looking for a permanent place to call home, and a kitchen that’s a little more mine, this way of eating is too hard to practice faithfully. I bought a bean cake—a specialty of the in-house Chinese bakery and occasional weekend treat—without asking whether it uses an egg wash as I’ve long suspected. But I paid the extra for soy creamer, then made a cup of coffee and remembered why I never buy the stuff—it’s a chemical slurry loaded with sugar. Not cruel to animals, but neither is it very kind to me. Black coffee is something I’ll need to reconsider, and I’m willing to do that. I don’t buy any cheese or yogurt, but do get a slice of combination pizza bread from the deli—they’re sold out of veggie slices and don’t carry a vegan option. It’s complicated.

I’m pleased that the week didn’t freak my stomach out, and that many of the best things I made were leftovers or invented through repurposing of ingredients. The “stumps” of my spiralized squash and carrots became a dead-simple curry with red lentils and bulgur. After using a scant amount of aquafaba in vegan butter, I made “chickpea of the sea,” a mock tuna salad with celery, onion, nori shreds and olives. It made a great, energizing breakfast on Ryvita crackers, which have only two ingredients! In your face! Or mine, anyway. I talked about what I was doing with someone who asked suspiciously, “Don’t you feel better when you eat meat?” Never have and likely never will. It’s the last thing I think of when I’m shopping, and if I buy some it’s to bring the week in under budget. It’s nice to have picked up some ideas this week that will help keep those purchases to an even lower minimum.

Did I experience the limits of human endurance this week? Far from it. I ate well and was generally pleased with it all. And while it’s probably the worst nightmare of both sides in any debate about food, I feel comfortable not taking a side beyond “do what’s right for you and be polite about it.” Our eating habits are cultural, spiritual, ethical and above all paradoxical. Is meat murder? I think so, yes, yet I still eat it. You don’t get a reduced sentence for being just a little bit murdery, and I’m clearly in no position to judge anyone else’s choices, but I wish that was our collective default position, not judging. Who will join me in the middle? Bring enough truffle fries to share with the group.

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer and Pop-Tart aficionado who is nevertheless trying to clean up her diet. She is looking for a permanent home and pining for her old Black and Decker toaster oven, with which she had a “Shining”-like relationship.

Photo by Eric Mueller CC BY-SA