Slack vegetarian

There might be no specific name for how Wendyl Nissen is eating now but she’s certainly seeing some specific benefits.

I’m not sure what to call myself at the moment. In a world where we must label ourselves, I am tossing up between the term “slack vegetarian” and “awkward later-life vegetarian.” In reality I am probably a “flexitarian” or a “pescetarian” or “ovo-vegetarian”.

In other words, I’m eating a lot of vegetables and it’s a decision I made not because of poor and cruel treatment of animals, or the environmental impact of producing meat.

It came from something much more close to home, the duopoly of supermarkets in this country and the high prices charged for basic food products, which means they are making $1 million a day in excess profits.

I am a big believer in consumer power so my response to the supermarket duopoly was to ban supermarkets from my life. I was inspired by my friend in Sydney who has stepped away from supermarkets not so much because of the prices – we all know food is much cheaper across the Tasman – but because of the quality of food.

Instead, she takes her shopping trolley and heads to her local farmers’ market every Saturday and gets all the food she needs for the week. When I went with her recently it cost her just over $200 to feed a family of three and what she bought was the best of the best – organic, free-range meat and vegetables, which had just been harvested and therefore at their nutritious best as they’re not sitting around on supermarket shelves for weeks.

Other stuff, like milk or tinned goods, she buys at her local corner shop. They’re more expensive than at the supermarket but she considers the extra cost a donation to supporting local corner shops, which are fast disappearing in the supermarket-dominated landscape.

I came home inspired by her and so I started going to the Sunday farmers’ market in Kerikeri – an hour’s drive from where I live. Then I called in at the local grocer in Rawene, which doesn’t have a Four Square sign above its door, and asked them if they were independently owned or part of the supermarket duopoly.

The woman behind the counter was delighted to tell me that they were independent and that I was most welcome to visit often for milk and other staples. Which I have done, most weeks. But what

I wasn’t expecting was that this new way of shopping would result in my becoming a plant-based eater.

My first visit to the farmers’ market saw me buy up a lot of sourdough and rye bread plus some croissants for the freezer. Then I bought coffee beans, beetroot, half a pumpkin, beautifully purple-fleshed kūmara, silverbeet, the last tomatoes of the year, capsicums, blue cheese, yoghurt, feta and halloumi and two parsnips, just for fun.

Then I spent the next four weeks eating all that. The haul had cost me about $150 and with just me eating it (my husband remains devotedly carnivorous) I couldn’t believe how long everything took to eat.

My half a pumpkin and bunch of silverbeet went into pumpkin gnocchi with silverbeet sauce, which lasted two meals plus two for the freezer, then I made roasted pumpkin with blue cheese sauce and walnuts. That was just the first week.

The next week my husband bought a pancake maker at the opshop so that he could make a dessert for the grandchildren involving brioche filled with jam and ice cream. I used it to make corn fritters with a roasted capsicum sauce made from the capsicums I bought at the market and a tin of corn from the pantry. I roasted the parsnips and the kūmara and ate them on a bed of salad from my garden.

It came from something much more close to home, the duopoly of supermarkets in this country and the high prices charged for basic food products, which means they are making $1 million a day in excess profits.

Suddenly, without really thinking about it, I had become a vegetarian. And so, I embraced it. Fully. I have not eaten meat, poultry or fish for three months. Eggs I still love and have so many of them with my hens laying daily that it would just be rude not to eat them.

This was not my first dance with vegetarianism. In my early 20s I had a go as I was growing quite a few vegetables in the back garden of my flat. But I was not a very good vegetarian and got quite skinny and unhealthy.

My mother was delighted I stopped because as a food obsessive, the thought of me restricting my diet to plants was akin to joining a doomsday cult.

We once had lunch at the Smith & Caughey’s coffee shop, which in the early 80s was where all mothers took their working daughters for lunch.

To her delight I ate a ham sandwich – there were no vegetarian options in coffee shops in the early 80s – and for many, many years later this turned into her favourite story about “the time Wendyl tried to be a vegetarian”. She thought it was hilarious – no one else did particularly, especially me.

Later on, each one of our five children took up vegetarianism and/or veganism and each time I was as supportive as I could be, unlike my mother. My husband and I cooked special meals for them at our Sunday night family dinners to be as inclusive as possible. One night my husband and I looked at each other as we lay on the couch, exhausted. We calculated that we had cooked the equivalent of four dinners for our children in one night so as to cater for the various dietary requirements.

I do have a few favourites from that time, however, in particular the vegan beetroot chocolate cake.

Slowly each child moved on and last time I looked they were all back eating meat, but some are gluten-free – I think. That could all change tomorrow, of course.

Now it is me annoying my children about eating vegetables because as I am exploring this new way of eating, I am also learning how to cook vegetables. I need to share these recipes with my children!

When you were born in the 60s, vegetables were things your mother put on your plate after boiling the hell out of them until they no longer resembled the crisp colourful thing they were meant to be. There was no gentle sautéing or grilling and no one ate vegetables raw.

Meat, chicken and fish were always the main players of any meal and they were treated with time and devotion. Marinated, stuffed, crumbed, roasted, turned, basted, turned again. They were spoiled rotten.

So when I came to actually cook vegetables I got a bit sniffy when my recipe insisted that I gently place a whole beetroot in its own bit of paper and create a small parcel into which I had drizzled a little water. Then I had to cook that parcel for an hour and a half.

I grudgingly did that and had never tasted a beetroot quite so delicious as this one.

Encouraged, I bought two cookbooks and was given one by my son and his partner.

This was not my first dance with vegetarianism. In my early 20s I had a go as I was growing quite a few vegetables in the back garden of my flat.

I went through each one writing down the recipes I would like to cook with their corresponding page number and ended up with about 50 of them in my notebook, neatly annotated for future reference.

When I got home from the farmers’ market I would sit with my three cookbooks and work out what I could make with what I had brought home.

I supplemented my market shop by ordering canned beans and tomatoes online from Ceres Organics who have a great online shop for people like me who live in the middle of nowhere, and also free postage if you spend $100. That’s a lot of tins of chickpeas, black beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed beans, kidney beans, tomatoes, beetroot and coconut milk.

When the boxes arrived I needed to clear out a shelf in the pantry to house these new staples as my husband looked on suspiciously.

It would be fair to say that there were a few adjustments needed in the home. Instead of one or other of us cooking a meal for both of us to share, we were both in the kitchen cooking our separate meals, like miserable older-life flatmates.

We would bump into each other frequently, despair as we realised the other had grabbed the best Le Creuset pot or was using the one element you wanted to use.

In the end we staggered our cooking times and adjusted to the idea that we probably wouldn’t sit down to the same meal every night at the same time. In fact, we never would, unless he became vegetarian or I began eating meat again.

I also made the decision that if we were eating at a friend’s home or at a restaurant I wouldn’t be black and white about my plant-based diet.

I think the four words “I don’t eat that” are the rudest words in the English language. I have had them said to me when I have slaved over a beautiful meal with no warning that the person I was cooking for didn’t eat stuff.

Out the window goes that magical feeling you get when you sit with friends and share good food. Someone is in a huff as she nibbles on a salad you hastily put together from old vegetables in the fridge and the other person (me) is put out.

So, I will never say those words and will gleefully tuck into their meat, poultry or fish if it is lovingly served and shared with me.

It will also mean that I really am a slack vegetarian because I am not insisting that everyone around me caters to my particular needs.

I am also assured of eating a varied diet that way. When my children became plant-based I used to worry that they wouldn’t get enough protein for their growing bodies. Then I became obsessed with iron and B12.

If you are a very clever, knowledgeable vegan or vegetarian you can keep your body fully stocked with protein, or iron and B12. But I am following the advice of my scientist and nutritionist guru, professor Tim Spector, who eats a steak a month to top him up with these nutrients rather than submit to supplements or injections.

Just as I had settled into this new way of life and patted myself on the back for being one shopper not contributing to the $1 million-a-day profit of the supermarket duopoly, I found myself feeling different.

The anxiety I have lived with most of my life was curiously absent. I woke up one morning and couldn’t find my constant companion in the pit of my stomach.

My anxiety is not so bad that it needs medication or hinders my life in any way. But it is always there, inherited from my mother. It sits in the pit of my stomach and just makes things a little heavy.

Like volcanic lava it muddles away down there until something stressful happens when it erupts and causes violent lashes of panic attacks and causes me to need to hide, lie down, cry or all three at once.“Hey,” I said to my husband one morning over coffee. “I don’t seem to be able to feel my anxiety anymore.”

He looked at me cautiously, having not ever known me anxiety-free.

“Okay, so what does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” I said and wandered off to walk the dogs.

The next day I opened my iPad to read the British newspapers as I do every morning and saw a report of a new study which said that women who had a high plant intake were 20 per cent less likely to suffer from anxiety. Plant eating also helped with low libido, depression, sleep and hot flushes.

Normally I would flick through that thinking about all the misleading stories I have read over the years about coffee and red wine intake doing everything from killing us to keeping us alive.

But this study was produced by people who work with my guru Dr Tim. It was real science.

And I do feel less anxious for the first time in my life. I also feel that I am eating a much more diverse range of food, which has to be good for my nutrition. I can now cook plant foods really well and was rather chuffed to have a long-time vegan friend of mine around for dinner and receive very high praise for my chickpea and black eyed bean stew. It is amazing, why not try it?

Recipe can be found on the food section on our website.

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