Saturday, August 8, 2009
As school approaches, I find myself asking whether or not I want to be on the meal plan. Like many universities, mine is well-reputed for providing woefully inadequate vegan options, and while last quarter, this was a total non-issue because I lived in "apartment-style" housing with a full kitchen, this quarter might be different. Presently, I'm blind-sided by the convenience factor. Ohh, how I am tempted by the non-issue food becomes when I don't have to allocate extra time to earning money for it, then buying it, preparing it, and consuming it. (If you don't know anyone in art school, it's a total time crunch!) The socially awkward part of me also wonders if a certain amount of fraternizing goes on in the dining halls - like, maybe this would be a good way to meet new people? And there's also this part of me that fantasizes about campaigning for better vegan options in the cafeteria, which then - in my wild, wild fantasies - leads to higher-quality food options overall and a tight-laced crew of openly vegan assholes. (Seriously big dreams, right? WATCH OUT, WORLD!) My scholarship would probably cover most if not all of this change so it's not about the cents of the issue - it's about the sense! But seriously? I'm not sure it does make much sense. More likely than not, I will have to supplement whatever the dining hall provides me to stay properly nourished (a reality my scholarship doesn't account for), and if the point of being on a meal plan is to save time, it's an epic fail to spend all my free time campaigning for real food options. So what's the plan B for a vegan living without a kitchen at a school that requires a meal plan?
Well, getting out of the meal plan is easy. You could try to do it the "legit" way - you know, writing the right higher-ups, making a big enough fuss, etc. etc. - but personally, I wouldn't want to chance it. Some schools are very firm that policy is policy and that you made the choice to get fed plain pasta all year! So a much better option is to say that you are a hare krishna and cannot eat in the cafeteria for religious reasons. Hare krishnas are so explicit in how they prepare their food that there's absolutely no way a school could meet those needs without interfering with your freedom of religion. If you have qualms about hiding behind a religion that's not yours to meet your dietary requirements, consider this: religion is just a socially sanctioned philosophy on life, and if you're philosophically opposed to eating animal products, there's absolutely no reason you should have to - or that you should have to eat a diet that penalizes your health because you choose not to. Living in an imperfect system forces us to make imperfect decisions, and the commitment to clean, healthy living should be a bigger priority than inconsequential appearances of "sincerity" to the university that is robbing you blind.
The more important issue is how to survive without a kitchen. PETA recently released a cookbook for college vegans, but from everything I've read, it's a sodium trap that assumes you're at college because you're affluent and therefore can subsist on vegan novelty products. Sorry, PETA, but I come from a shithole neighborhood and have dropped out of college numerous times over finances. My college education is coming from grants and scholarships, not living in serious $$$! Plus, while I'm pretty stoked on some of those faux whatnots, I think making meals that always star fake foods will rot your insides, and I don't want to be known as a junk food vegan! To counter that, I'm offering you the xveganx party approach to eating a healthy, whole foods diet from the comfort of your dorm room.*
Now, just because you lack a kitchen doesn't mean you should lack kitchen appliances. There are three must-have appliances for living without a kitchen: a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a blender.** If you're pretty immobile or lacking immediate capital, many schools have mini-fridge rental programs, but I find it's worth the investment to buy your own mini-fridge. After all, you probably have a few vegan years of college ahead of you, and what you pay to rent a fridge for just one quarter/year/whatever will usually pay for a nice used one. Finding a high-quality and affordable mini-fridge is easy; there's always a thousand littering craigslist. Scour those classifieds and garage sales, too, and be sure to check your local free-cycle. The same thing is double-y true of microwaves, although these days many dorm rooms come equipped with them. Blenders can also be found through the same means - ESPECIALLY at any ol' thriftstore - but if you want to guarantee quality, it's not absurd or absurdly expensive to get a really nice new one. Certainly, you can live without a blender, but in times of limited options, why limit your options further? It will come in handy in your post-college years, too. TRUST ME.
Another thing you can't neglect is a nice, all-purpose kitchen knife like a chef's knife or a santoku. Cheaping out on this one is a bad idea because what you save in money, you'll waste in agony wondering why your knife is always dull. Dull knives also increase the likelihood of cooking accidents, and which hurts more: being cut by a sharp knife or being cut by a butter knife? A good quality knife hardly needs sharpening and will follow you for years and years (and years!), making the cost-per-use quite low. Most cheap knives need constant replacing, making the long-term cost about the same but twice as frustrating. Even a half-way decent one is better than nothing. A half-way decent knife starts at about thirty or forty dollars, but sometimes you can find them hidden at clearance-home-goods stores or on sale at regular ones. Here's a helpful article to get you started on your quest. However, if you're at a complete and total loss, I'd recommend Rachael Ray's knives. Surprisingly, the Food Network's second biggest bonehead (the first being Sandra Lee, obviously) attaches her name to some really nice and affordable knives. In fact, I bought my mom some this past Christmas, and we've both been pleased.
Now that you've loaded up for your guerilla kitchen, it's time to tap into your creativity. Consider taking a step in the raw foods direction. You can experiment with an endless array of smoothies and salads, but following raw blogs and raw books (available at your local library!) will give you tons of ideas for kicking your raw lifestyle up a notch. Another thing you should do is find deliciously healthy ways to combine fresh and non-perishable foods (yogurt with trail mix, oatmeal with fresh berries, sandwiches, etc.) Most grains can be made with a microwave safe dish and some water, which is just the beginning for all sorts of pastas and salads (tabouleh, anyone?). It's also a good idea to keep a host of granola/raw/power bars on hand because they're cheap-ish when you buy them in bulk and great for a quick snack or meal on the go. Don't forget about vegan classics like pita and hummus or chips and salsa, and feel-free to supplement your diet with vegan protein shakes (my favorites are Soytein and Genisoy, especially the strawberry or chocolate flavors). It should go without saying that there's an endless array of prepared foods like boxed soup and ramen, too.
If you're looking for something a little sweet, most health food stores have individual vegan treats. If you're looking for genuinely healthy ways to satisfy your sweet tooth, make your own popsicles or indulge in some fruit leather. Fruit in general is like nature's candy bar and gets sweeter when it's dried. But of course, half the time, that totally defeats the point of a sweets craving - in which case, I've heard murmurings of microwave cake. Now, I don't know if there's a vegan version out there (I haven't bothered to look), but if there isn't, I'm planting the seed here and challenging you, dear readers, to figure it out! There's also fridge-friendly treats like jell-o and rice crispy squares. (I guess you don't even have to refrigerate those, but the one time I made them, I did because they weren't really holding together.) And when all else fails, there's always Oreos or Skittles (yep, now gelatin free!).
So remember, kids: don't let your school tell you how to live your life. Being vegan should never feel like a penalty, so seize the moment and show those blood-mouths how it's really done. Above all, stay healthy, and have fun. Vegans rule, school drools, no compromises!
* I realize that following this, I propose investing in a series of kitchen wares which CAN be a little pricey. However, I think there's a difference in suggesting long-term investments with low cost-per-uses and a lifestyle predicated on buying tons of novelty vegan crap. Because one month of novelty vegan crap will pay for all these proposed appliances, seriously.
** If you are super bold, you can also opt for a George Foreman Grill, which seems to be available at every thriftstore on the planet. I think most schools don't allow these because they worry you'll leave them plugged in while turned on and burn down the entire dorm. But if you're reading this, I know you're too smart for that - and too vivacious not to break the rules! So consider a George Foreman. It REALLY opens up your options because you can make stuff like panini and quesadillas, waffles and pancakes, or good ol' fashioned grilled veggies and hot dogs. Who doesn't love a nice panino or a fresh waffle? Anyone? Anyone?