There’s an urgent shift needed for our food system, and it can feel like a daunting task. But a look back at what it was like being vegan since the ’90s may shed some light.
There’s a saying I’ve long loved. It’s attributed to C.S. Lewis but its origins aren’t totally clear. It goes something like this: day by day, nothing changes, but when we look back, everything is different. I thought of this recently as I walked past a payphone.
The phone handle had been pulled off the cord, the booth covered in graffiti, trash, and, presumably, decades of grime. I wondered if it was an art project—street art like that is not uncommon in my Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
What do kids think of this relic, I thought as I stared at it a good few minutes. Why was it even still there, I wondered. Had it been forgotten? Left intentionally as a reminder of the passage of time? Certainly, just a few decades ago, there were payphones like this on every corner. Why was this one left behind?
Payphones are such apt metaphors for the strangeness brought about by the passage of time. They were once so vital to our society, and now, so completely irrelevant.
The Lewis adage is appropriate about our food system, too. Back when payphones were still a thing and Impossible Burgers quite literally impossible, I ditched animal products for good, which was a bit like using one of those giant mobile phones that were as heavy as irons and never really worked.
Unlike many vegans I’ve met over the years, I don’t have a great aha moment that turned me off from animal products. There was no PETA video or fur protest, no animal being tortured or slaughtered in front of me to seal the deal.
My story is rather mundane, truth be told.
For as long as I can remember, I was dubbed a picky eater, which I certainly was, but only when it came to certain foods most people loved. It would be years, two decades, really, before I made the connection—before I realized that I wasn’t picky at all when it came to fruits, vegetables, nuts, or beans. The things I didn’t like were typically the foods other kids ate instead of finishing their vegetables: meat, cheese, butter, and eggs.
I recall revelatory moments eating my first heirloom tomato. I couldn’t have been more than 5 at the time. I remember my impatience in waiting for the corn and beans in our garden to grow so I could eat them until my belly hurt. My first artichoke was as near a religious experience as I’d ever had, peeling those thistled leaves one at a time like a meditation. This was food, I was sure.
In my early teens, I toyed with vegetarianism—I wouldn’t hear the word vegan for several more years. By then I’d learn to eat better in a world filled mostly with foods I couldn’t stand. Peanut butter still holds a special place in my heart after sustaining me for all those years.
Despite not knowing there was a word for what I was feeling, my conscience gnawed at me. Eating animals was unethical; it was something that just felt entirely true. It was undeniable. It still is.
When I was 21, I spent six weeks backpacking through Australia. We cooked a lot from our small camp stove, freeze-dried soups and the like. But when we were in the cities between parks for a night or two, we’d find a restaurant. On one of those occasions, I was eating a piece of pizza and found myself incapable of taking another bite. I’d always struggled to like cheese, but I enjoyed pizza like anyone. Not that day though. I would eat cheese a few more times, and although my memories are a bit fuzzy now, I recall a sense of regret each time—the line separating me from animal products growing thicker and deeper with every bite.
The problem was that it was incredibly difficult to forego animal products back then. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania where meat and cheese were staples. Restaurants had yet to embrace vegetables beyond the garnish, let alone an entire meal made from them. I sustained myself on coffee, French fries, and iceberg salads as long as humanly possible, which was not very long at all. It was quite literally a choice between eating animals and starving most days.
But as I longed for those ripe, juicy tomatoes, and the garden vegetables I loved as a child, I knew there was another way. There had to be. And, so, motivated by sheer desperation, I took a job working at my local health food store in their small vegetarian café. I had some experience cooking (a story for another time), but now I was going to learn a lot more. And I did.
We made lentil loaf and tofu burgers, soups, stews, chilis; I even learned how to work a juicer and drank so much carrot juice my skin turned orange (word to the wise).
The front of the store sold all kinds of healthy foods like beans you couldn’t find at conventional supermarkets, tahini paste, miso, nutritional yeast. Back then, if you wanted tofu, you had to fish it out of a big plastic bucket filled with ice-cold water. I don’t recall where the tofu was made but it had to be within a few hours or so of my town.
Vegenaise existed back then, and yes, people still mispronounced it then, too. There were two types of vegan milk: soy and rice. Edensoy was my favorite, but I assure you, it tasted nothing like the vegan milk we have today. It was made the Japanese way, malty and brown and delicious ice cold.
Rice milk had a bitter aftertaste and was too thin for me. But when Rice Dream made frozen desserts out of it, we all flocked to the freezer first thing on payday to get the chocolate-covered treats on sticks like children chasing the ice cream truck.
I remember one chocolate company made a vegan candy bar with green tea and cocoa butter instead of chocolate—like white chocolate, I suppose. It had crisped rice in it, and I don’t know if it’s me romanticizing the memory or not, but I swear it was the best treat I’d ever had.
The other options were typically made from carob, and I’m still a fan even though today we now have delicious vegan chocolate bars from Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Nestlé or truffles and treats like the folks at Lagusta’s Luscious make. If someone had told me back then that in just a few decades the best chocolates in the world would be completely dairy-free and delivered right to my door, I’d have thought they’d lost their mind.
Back then we had vegan cheese options if you can call whatever those things were then cheese. They were waxy, oily slices and wedges, or weirder yet, dairy-free cheese that also had casein in it. I’m not sure I’ll ever figure that one out, but several brands did it.
One thing I did know for sure was that I didn’t like any of it. I came to good terms with being cheeseless. Nutritional yeast can do some pretty heavy lifting and is still my preferred mac and cheese sauce (use a bit of the warm pasta water, paprika, a dash of dijon or olive oil, and enjoy).
We had some vegan meat options then, too. Boca burgers were all the rage; they sizzled and smelled like fast food burgers as we cooked them on the café grill. They were too realistic for me then, but by today’s standards, they’d never rival Beyond or Impossible Burgers. Today if I want something “meaty” I usually opt for seitan, just as I did back then.
The future of food
Lately, I’ve been thinking about those early vegan foods a lot. I enjoy the modern vegan versions of all of these, particularly oat milk in my coffee and my monthly vegan chocolate subscription. There were many experiences that shaped how I eat today, which is mostly whole foods-based and macrobiotic with a very Mediterranean influence. Give me fresh salads, veggies, beans, olives, and nuts over KFC vegan nuggets any day.
Even though I have no interest in trying them myself, I love watching many of my contemporaries run to their local McDonald’s, Burger King, or KFC to try the new vegan options after decades of waiting. I remember the thrill my veggie friends and I would get going to McDonald’s and ordering the burger minus the patty—it makes me laugh just thinking about that soggy bun filled with pickles as something satisfying. What I would have given back then for a McPlant.
But here we are, watching the slow hands of time as progress is indeed being made. KFC has vegan nuggets, McDonald’s has the McPlant burger; there are vegan pizza options at major chains, and so many sweets, treats, and dairy-free drinks at coffee shops, that it’s now impossible to try them all.
That’s not even including all of the progress being made in the cultivated meat sector, the precision fermentation, the biomass fermentation, and the techniques we still haven’t developed yet that are sure to gobsmack us with their human ingenuity.
When I first went vegan, the best “meat” option we really had was to crumble up tofu and pour in spice packets from a company called Fantastic Foods. I wasn’t sure if they were still in business. They are, barely. Fantastic’s website shows most of its spice mixes discontinued, including the tofu scramble mix that was one of the first I tried. It’s a sign of progress, of course, that instead of powdery packets dumped onto tofu, people are opting for any of the myriad options across their refrigerators, freezers, delivery apps, and more.
We have to ask ourselves: in 20 years from now, will we be nostalgic for Beyond Burgers? What comes next in our race to clean up our food system? Because that’s what this is about, right?
Early food system innovations—Tang, Spam, and all the rest of it—were positioned as conveniences for the busy homemaker in the 1950s. But more than anything, they were profit-driven new revenue streams for the corporations who fed us. And that’s not to say profits don’t belong in our food system, they do, certainly. But these days, the corporations have some problems to fix that go beyond just freeing up a few hours for tired housewives.
That’s what scientists are telling us. It’s not about teenage ethics (although let’s be real, everything kind of is). Curbing meat and dairy is a matter of life and death, both for our own health and the planet. We’ve already come so far. We’ve already seen more innovation than a hungry young teenage vegan could ever have imagined. And I think the best is yet to come. No, I know it is.
It doesn’t feel inaccurate to suggest that factory farmings will soon be just like that relic payphone—a moment out of time lost in modernity.
I’m old enough to remember using payphones. They were staples in my youth: check-ins with friends late to meet at our scheduled rendezvous point, or quick calls home asking if I could stay out just a little longer. Nowadays it’s absurd to think about using one for any reason other than nostalgia or emergency. The computer in my pocket is better in nearly every single way.
And just like that payphone stopped me in my tracks on the street, I’m certain those factory farms will soon go the way of the street phone—awkward and out of place, surpassed by technology that’s better in ways we can’t even imagine. It’s a bit more complicated to remove a system that’s built for 55 billion animals than a phone booth, but like with anything, I’ve no doubt we’ll find a way.