In the course of an hour, Chris McClay convinced me that I just may be able to live without cheese. Shocking, I know. It was her vegan chipotle nachos, made with lentils and nut-based "cheese" sauce (see sidebar for the recipe), that sparked my conviction.
McClay, 38, is the proprietor of Portland's new Modern Vegan Cooking School and the Maine representative for the Wellness Forum, a national for-profit dietary-education organization. She's been eating a plant-based diet since 1992, when a college course piqued her interest in vegetarianism and then full-on veganism. She hasn't eaten any animal-derived products since then — really. No meat, no cheese, no dairy products. And, perhaps most remarkably, no cravings.
"It's my choice," she says in her Westbrook kitchen on a recent afternoon. She wakes up every day and thinks, "I can eat whatever I want today." It just so happens that what she wants are vegan foods.
While the philosophy of veganism — avoiding the consumption of animal products — has been around for centuries, the term itself was coined in 1944 and the American Vegan Society was founded in 1960. Interest in the United States has gained steadily since then; surveys report that between 0.5 and 3 percent of Americans now identify as vegan (including Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson).
Proponents claim that eating a plant-based diet improves overall health and well-being, resilience to disease, skin problems, and energy levels. It also decreases a person's carbon footprint, given that the industrial livestock sector releases significant pollution and greenhouse gas emissions into our water and atmosphere.
"I can't think of a worse way to use resources that produce worse worldly outcomes," McClay says. "It's very political for me." She also cites weight-loss benefits and disease-prevention as personal motivators.
Plus, going vegan can reduce your grocery bill, especially if you start to buy ingredients from the bulk aisle.
HEALTHY STRATEGIES Chris McClay suggests sautéeing with water and switching out cheese for non-dairy alternatives.
Two years ago — right around the time Clinton announced he'd gone vegan — McClay decided it was time to put herself out there as a resource to her community. She'd reaped internal benefits of veganism for two decades; now she wanted to spread the word. She began offering personal chef services and private cooking lessons, and got positive responses to both. And so this month, she's launching a series of public cooking classes to further widen her reach. On the docket in February: courses covering winter soups, cooking for weight-loss, greens, and dinner-party fare.
Her teaching strategy is simple: Focus on creating an entire meal, rather than "meat with a side of vegetables." Incorporate complex carbohydrates, grains, and legumes. When people dive into a plant-based diet thinking they can survive on salads alone, McClay cringes.
"They're bloated, they're starving, they're bored," she says.
With a Modern Vegan education, there are no restrictions, no portion control. McClay likes to teach her students that they can eat as much as they want — as long as they're eating the right stuff.
"You're feeding yourself foods that nourish every cell in your body," she says.