“But at least try some of the ice cream?” she called after me as I stormed from the room. More a block of solid ice with artificial mango flavoring, the non-dairy “ice cream” in question neither appealed to my tastes nor pacified my temper. Back in the days before vegan products reached mainstream availability, most of the offerings on the market were lackluster, to say the least. “Cheese” that tasted like wax candles and burned instead of melted; faux meats so tough, you could easily spend an entire evening gnawing on just one morsel, like a human chew toy; leaden pastries, heavy with whole grain and insufficient leavening. There was a reason I preferred to cook for myself, rather than rely on such store-bought travesties.
After foisting some abomination of a frozen dinner on me, I was certain that my Nana couldn’t care less about my transition to veganism, and therefore didn’t care about me altogether. Sure, the vacuum-sealed and chemically engineered amalgamation of mushy vegetables and freezer-burnt pastry had no animal products to speak of, but the lack of both flavor and nutrition sent me into a tail spin. Never in my life prior had I enjoyed anything remotely resembling a pot pie, so why did this particular frozen meal jump out as the perfect choice? Clearly, she didn’t know what I liked in the first place; she didn’t know me at all.
As a teenager with angst to spare, simply pushing the plate away wasn’t nearly dramatic enough for me. “Are you punishing me for not eating butter?” I asked testily, angrily eying the lovingly prepared mashed potatoes and all the trimmings, a stark contrast to my microwave-nuked meal. It was Thanksgiving and I was the furthest thing from feeling thankful.
Sulking stormily at the end of the dinner table, eyes downcast for the remainder of the meal, I didn’t wait to see the impact of my words, but I knew in my heart that my poor Nana was crestfallen. After spending more time in the supermarket carefully deciphering labels than she would reading the Sunday paper, such harsh rejection was a slap in the face. But from my one-sided, warped perspective, it was an insult, an outrage, to even consider such a processed item as food. An offense of the highest order, I later declared that I never wanted to be subjected to such a torturous family dinner again. Hiding under the excuse of being “too busy” to break away from work for the evening or having made previous plans, it wasn’t hard to avoid scores of invitations, despite the sadness it clearly brought my parents.
“You know, it would mean a lot to Nana if…” she would begin the typical refrain. Peppered with words of endearment, her voice gentle and calm, my mom was never one to yell or get angry. She didn’t need to, having mastered the art of motherly guilt down to a science. I always ended up feeling badly, and she typically got her way in the end. That’s how I ended up back at the family dinner table within a matter of months, dreading what horrific frozen food might be on the menu this time.
In hindsight, it’s clear that the fact that she tried so hard to feed me, even when veganism was such a foreign concept to her, speaks volumes of her love. While all I could see were the unpronounceable ingredients on the boxes, what wasn’t printed there in black and white was the more important fact: That this purchase, no matter how unpalatable, showed that my Nana supported my choice.
Cringing while my Nana of four feet, ten inches approached as if she were a menacing force to be reckoned with, about to punch me in the face rather than present me with dinner, I feared the worst. Carrying out a bubbling vat of darkly colored stew, this was something clearly different here, but what? Before the question could leave my mouth, she whipped out a book without missing a beat and cracked it open to a page already bookmarked. “I wasn’t sure what to make for you, so I got a vegan cookbook that was recommended by the librarian, and she was raving about this chili recipe. I couldn’t find any of this T-V-P stuff,” she continued, pronouncing each letter separately, with a tone that questioned their meaning, ” so I just left it out.”
And that was it. The big confrontation. The terrible sentence for being such an ungrateful granddaughter: A lovingly home cooked meal, completely vegan, made with only me in mind. There was a whole room full of other people partaking, but I knew full well that this chili would have never been created if not for me. There was no sour cream, no cheese, nor any bacon waiting in the wings for the other omnivores, but a wholesome vegan meal. For one of the first times since officially abstaining from animal products did I feel like I wasn’t some freak, living on the fringes of society and largely misunderstood. I had the privilege of eating the same thing as everyone else. Ultimately, it wasn’t even about the food itself – She could have prepared a big bowlful of plain, steamed vegetables for all that it mattered – but about how important family was, and how genuinely they cared about my decision. That small but hugely meaningful gesture by my Nana was the deepest sort of compassion I could hope for.
Read more from Hannah Kaminsky, who is passionate about dessert, in her book My Sweet Vegan.