Kate Fowler has been vegan for twenty years. She revisits her early plant-based days and talks about how veganism is finally starting to be taken seriously
There was a time when finding a pack of bourbon biscuits in your local shop cheered you up no end. Those were the days when your sandwiches contained Sosmix – a germolene-pink, fat-based putty – and where the only vegan ‘cheese’ available was a substance whose texture and taste conspired to deter you from eating anything again, ever. As for wine, there was only one marketed as vegan: Disos. My dad, who courageously supported me in drinking this rough liquid that seared your throat and dissolved your stomach lining, called it Diesel. It’s not available anymore, except as a chemical weapon of warfare.
Back then, the vegans I knew were either punks or hippies, that is they were either vegan as part of a bigger political disregard for authority and oppression, or it was part of a peaceable expression towards all life. I felt I straddled both camps to some extent, but we didn’t know of any vegan bank clerks or teachers. Veganism wasn’t for ‘normal’ people, presumably because ‘normal’ people needed to eat and, unless you cooked for yourself, there really wasn’t all that much out there. Vegans were therefore forced into the kitchen but the cookbooks produced to help us delivered worthy, wholemeal dinners where flavour seemed as unwelcome as animal suffering. I was lucky in that my mum taught both my brother and me to cook when we were young, and she had always cooked delicious, healthy meals, later adapting these to meat-free versions as we both stopped eating animals. With her recipes and inspiration, I was able to feed myself pretty well as a vegan but not everyone was so lucky and I noted how many friends ‘just dropped by’ around dinner time. We did try to eat out now and then but it’s hard to get thrilled about a jacket potato (‘no butter please’) and half an iceberg lettuce leaf. Some days you got lucky and there were beans.
Since that time, there have been many wonderful and welcome landmarks. We were thrilled when the Co-op – no doubt the most progressive supermarket at the time – started labelling which foods and drinks were vegan, a move that heralded the end of Disos-related cell death in my body. For a while, it was genuinely exciting. There were naan breads!
Other supermarkets started to produce a list of the vegan products they sold and would send you a print-out through the post if you requested it. I waited anxiously for mine to arrive, only to find that most of the list consisted of vegetables, rice and bottled water.
But then there was the miracle of Linda McCartney. When it became clear which of her products were suitable for vegans, we threw ourselves into the world of pastry and for a long time, all the friends who turned up around dinner time now clutched a box of pies as a gift. They felt like golden times. But then, oh the horror, in the late 1990s, there was a media-fanned scandal in which it was revealed that some of the soya used in the Linda McCartney range was genetically modified, despite the company doing its best to source and use only non-GM. The recipes were changed as a result and the pies were no longer vegan. Dark times. For a while, we trawled health food stores, buying up the old batches and storing them away until the dark clouds again lifted. Friends fell out over who spotted the box first; a black market in pies emerged.
Of course, vegan foods come and go. There was a brief time when Swedish Glace produced an incredible range of ice creams, including pear and mocha, but these are now gone and, while privately I continue to mourn their loss, I am reminded daily of the vast improvements in vegan provision over the last 20 years. And Linda McCartney pies are back.
Mainstream companies are starting to label their products, too. I see that Hovis breads contain the ‘suitable for vegans’ label, for example, as do some of the Oxford Landing wines. In my local healthfood shop, Frys and VBites have changed the landscape. A schnitzel? A pasty?! Don’t mind if I do. Trips to larger healthfood shops blow my mind and my budget.
From ice cream to sour cream and squirty cream, and from cream cheese to melting cheese to cheesecakes, the world has become a better place. My local supermarket – and several other chains, too – now label foods for vegans. When I want cheese at midnight, I have a choice of four in my local store. And while I’m there, I can pick up croissants, pain au chocolat, cookies, little pots of banoffee pie puddings and a host of other luxuries that I could never have dreamed of 20 years ago, not least in a small town like mine.
Eating out is a wholly different experience, too. Two years ago I set up a social veggie and vegan group in this little town in the hope that there might be a handful of us who could eat out and encourage better meal provisions locally. Now, there are about 25 of us who meet regularly and, not only have many of the local pubs and restaurants embraced the vegan challenge and created beautiful dishes for us, they have often kept those options on their regular menus. A bistro in the neighbouring village now hosts a monthly and highly-successful vegan feast evening with eleven courses and wine to match.
Being vegan is the only part of my life where I have been ahead of the fashion curve. Where once being vegan was ‘extreme’ or ‘weird’ or just plain ridiculous, now – finally! – it’s taken seriously. When singers like Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé declare themselves animal-free the world takes notice. When boxers like David Haye do, all manner of negative stereotypes are destroyed. Being vegan is no longer the sole domain of the punks and the hippies. I even heard there was a vegan bank clerk …