This is a guest post from Jesse Barnett (my youngest brother). Jesse is starting his senior year at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. He is pursuing his BFA in Ballet, and is an amazing dancer. His girlfriend, Keira Sweeney, is a recent graduate of MMC and also a dancer
Aside from being Elizabeth’s youngest brother, I am a dance student living in New York City. Being a dancer and living in NYC can often encourage contradicting behavior toward food. As a dancer it is in my best interest to treat my food as fuel. That means monitoring what I’m eating to make sure I’m giving my body everything it needs to safely get through a long day of technique classes and rehearsals. On the other hand, being a New York City resident surrounds me with some of the best and most decadent food in the world, which inevitably makes me want to eat anything and everything in my path. Walking the line between the two has never been too much of a problem for me, but about a year and a half ago I encountered a third dietary influence that would further alter my relationship with food. This began when I started dating my current girlfriend, Keira. What does Keira have to do with my diet?...
She’s a vegan.
Now I know what you’re thinking:
“But Jesse, you love animal products. How can you date someone who’s diet is the antithesis to your own!?”. Or perhaps you are simply asking yourself, “Wait. What the fuck is vegan again?” Both fair questions. Let’s start with the latter question just to cover the basics, then we can get into the nitty gritty of the former.
For those who find themselves confused between the different dietary particulars of vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians, and paloes, among many other, the basics of a vegan diet are actually very simple to understand. Vegans don’t eat any animal byproducts. Yes, that’s means any food that comes from an animal is off limits. No steak, no cheese, no cheesesteaks, and no eggs just to name a few restricted items. Of course there are some particulars that may vary from vegan to vegan depending on their interpretation of the diet, or lifestyle as some see it, but that’s the simplified version.
“So what do they eat?” Yet another fair question.
The answer: Everything else. Believe it or not, there are plenty of foods that don’t come from animals, and it is more than possible to get everything one needs from a diet consisting of these foods. It may take some research or added dietary knowledge to achieve, but being vegan hardly means that one has to sacrifice nutrition. My girlfriend, Keira, is one of those vegans. She is able to consume every protein, calorie, vitamin, mineral, carbohydrate, sugar, and fat that she needs to lead a healthy and athletic lifestyle as a dancer and fitness instructor. So while there as many nuances to a vegan diet as there are virtually any diet, the most important things to know are these: No animal anything, and it doesn’t mean you have to starve.
Now that I’ve hopefully addressed your second question, even if it was simplified, allow me to address your first. How do I manage a mixed-diet relationship? Well I would love to say that its simple, but the more I think about it the more I realize it’s not. Keira and I got really good at it. At the same time, the work it’s taken to ensure such harmony hails in comparison to what I’ve gained from it. Dating a vegan has not made me one; however, it has drastically improved my diet and general approach to food. While I have not cut anything from my diet entirely, I have limited certain foods and replaced them with a variety of alternatives that I discovered via Keira’s diet
“Wait. Don’t tell me. You replaced your dignity with kale juice?” Not quite. It’s a bit more complex than that. Besides, I prefer my kale steamed, not juiced.
For example, I have replaced some of my animal protein with plant or grain based protein. I consume virtually the same amount of protein, just from a greater variety of sources, many of which are easier for me to digest than red meat and grilled chicken. Chick peas, beans, nuts, quinoa, and edamame are some of these gentle plant proteins that have become regulars in my diet. My general food awareness has also changed since dating Keira. I can’t say this as an absolute, but it seems to me that people with specialty diets have a greater vigilance and knowledge of what is in their food. I would image this is out of necessity. Keira certainty had a greater nutritional awareness than me when we first started dating, and it was, and still is, largely because she can’t get certain essential nutrients from traditional sources (i.e. getting protein from meat or calcium from dairy products).
Making these kinds of transitions wasn’t too difficult for me, but it probably helped that I was already familiar with other special diets. I grew up around dietary restrictions (I kept kosher at home through high school as part of an observantly Jewish family, and as long as I can remember my father has kept to a low-fat, pescetarian diet due to past heart issues), and always having a diverse palate didn’t hurt either. But still, dating a vegan took some getting used to. I can vividly remember my vegan induced anxieties leading up to our first date. I knew she was a vegan, and I was afraid of asking her to dinner only to take her to a restaurant where she couldn’t eat anything. Instead, I intended to take her ice skating at the outdoor rink in Bryant Park, as a way to avoiding any culinary awkwardness. Unfortunately, the weather was shit, so it was clear that ice skating was not going to work. I quickly decided dinner was my best option, but her diet still made me nervous. I knew exactly what it meant to be vegan, but I was still scared of picking the right restaurant. So I took an unorthodox approach and was honest with her.
“Rookie mistake, bro. Honesty on a first date is dangerous. Honesty before the date even starts is almost fatal!” Don’t worry, I played this one perfectly.
I confessed my anxieties about taking her out to eat, so I asked her to tell me a list of places that were vegan-friendly, and from there we chose a spot. We ended up going to a popular Mexican place, where if I remember correctly she ate part of a churro because I was too stupid to realize how un-vegan it was before I ordered it for us to share, and she was too polite to say anything about it. Fortunately, chips, quac, and tequila are a safe choice regardless of dietary needs.
Since our first date, we’ve had plenty of practice eating out together, and it has become a virtually stress-free activity. Of course, it helps living in NYC, where virtually every diet can be catered to. However, it still took some thinking, compromise, and effort on our part to make eating out as fun and stress-free as it is meant to be. Firstly, Keira acknowledged early on in the relationship that she would never care what I ordered at a restaurant. I know that wherever we go, if I see a meat and dairy filled entrée that is truly calling to me on the menu, I am well within my rights to get it. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Keira to encourage these orders. In addition to not caring what I eat, she knows that I don’t buy meat to cook at home in my apartment (due to money and convenience), so she sympathizes and supports my occasional urge to dive into a plate of chicken or steak. That being said, more often than not I order vegan friendly dishes when we are out together. It’s not out of guilt or shame or even respect for her diet, it’s simply for the sake of the experience.
“I’m confused, so why not always get what you want when you’re out? Grow some balls, and stop caving!” Calm down, and stop interrupting. I’m getting there.
As far as I am concerned, the whole point of going out to eat is twofold: theoretically the food is better than you would cook for yourself, and it’s more fun than eating at home. The first part is fairly easy to achieve. There is a surplus of excellent food throughout NYC. The second part, however, can be a little tricky. Having fun at a restaurant as a couple requires having a shared experience, and the best way to do that is sharing food. If Keira and I go out to a restaurant and I get a bacon cheeseburger, she has no choice but to watch me blissfully devour my meal with no opportunity to share in the culinary nirvana I’m experiencing. However, no matter what she orders and how amazing it is, I will always be able to try some and share in her experience. Frankly, I can see how that might seem a little unfair from Keira’s perspective. By ordering vegan dishes, Keira and I can share the food, talk about the food, and enjoy our equal and shared experience.
“Congratulations. You sacrifice your own experience for the sake of Keira’s.” (said with mild sarcasm) “What a fucking hero!” (drastically escalated sarcasm) Ok now you’re just being rude. Besides, that’s not the point.
The point is I’m not actually sacrificing anything to achieve this shared experience with food. If anything it’s a win for both of us. Keira gets the enjoyment of sharing food and not having to feel different, and I get an excuse to try foods and flavors that I normally wouldn’t (FYI cashew cheese is pretty great). And again, if I want to treat myself to a good BBQ joint, I will do so with Keira’s support and attendance. Granted I’ll usually thank her with one of her favorite vegan desserts afterwards, so I like to think I’m not making her suffer. Fortunately, even my occasional urge to consume meat doesn’t keep us from choosing restaurants that fit both our cravings. Over the course of our relationship, we have learned what cuisines best support both her vegan diet and my unpredictable palate. Indian is always a solid choice, and we also frequent Mediterranean and Mexican restaurants due to their brilliant and extensive use of the chick pea and avocado respectively. Asian cuisines tend to be the most reliable, but our favorite cuisine from that region of the world is definitely Thai. Just about every dish gives us the option to choose between different meats as well as tofu, vegetables, and occasionally another meat substitute (the vegetarian duck at some Thai restaurants has been blowing our minds recently). This gives both of us equal opportunity to enjoy the pineapple fried rice or Pad Thai, further adding to the enjoyment of a shared experience. And ultimately that’s what it takes to find enjoyment in a mixed-diet relationship: creating an environment where both people have equal opportunity to enjoy the same foods together.
P.S. The real reason we love Thai food so much: two words… Peanut… Sauce.
Walking enthusiast, and kitchen experimenter currently living out my dream in Mexico City, Mexico.
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