When Nelly and I were first talking about what we wanted XOC-Ha to be part of the discussion was about whether we would even tell people that our entire menu was plant based.
You see, we'd had this bakery not far from our place in Brooklyn that never did. We walked past it a jillion times, dismissing the delicacies therein as pretty, but not what we'd want to eat. It was only when they put up a lunch menu which was all vegan that we asked.
"Everything here is vegan," said the counter clerk, "We just didn't want to either cater ONLY to a certain customer base or, worse, alienate customers who don't trust vegan food. We wanted the products to stand on their own and for people to come because we make good food."
We both admired that approach.
It was me that said, "No," in the end.
We cater primarily to cave divers. And while most of the people who come to stay/dive with us consider Nelly's cooking just as valuable as my mentorship or whatever (as evidenced by the fact that only one of the three weeks Nelly is away this summer has been taken, despite the discount)...
... Cave divers.
Cave divers, not as a rule, but certainly predictably, tend to be the sorts of folks who say things like, "I just don't feel full unless I've had some meat." Which opens up a plethora of punchlines; not the least of which is, "talk to me again after you've eaten about 50 pounds of steamed broccoli.
A slim minority of our guests - as most people show up informed about the menu - get annoyed with the lack of "normal" choices on our menu. A very spare few won't even try the food; fear about turning vegan or something I suppose if vegan food should cross one's lips?
And I worried, during those first conversations, that there would be at least a few people who would be genuinely pissed the fuck off if they found out they'd been eating vegan food for days. Like we'd played some dirty trick on them for no other reason than our own amusement.
The vast majority of our guests, of course, fucking LOVE Nelly's food. For someone who could barely boil water safely when we first met, Nelly's abilities in the kitchen have continued to flourish and grow and create some of the most wonderful meals around.
Which is sorta weird. Because, 15-20 years ago you would be totally justified, if someone asked you whether you'd like the vegan option, to just punch them in their dumb goddamn face.
Vegan food did, legit, suck. For a long time.
It doesn't anymore. At some point, about 15-20 years ago there must have been a meeting where a bunch of food-scientists got together and someone proposed, "Hey! What if we make vegan food that doesn't suck?!?"
(At which point I always imagine everyone else in the room starting throwing things at them and yelling, "Doesn't suck!?!?! Then how would anyone know that it's vegan?!?!?!?!")
This is why it still cracks me up that, within the vegan community, such as it is, there is still some effort to "out-vegan" one another.
"I only eat Beyond Burgers, because they're actually made of whole foods."
"I only eat Black Bean Burgers, because I don't even like fake meat."
"I don't eat anything that is even remotely burger shaped, because I don't want to set an example that it's OK to do so."
"I don't eat sandwiches, they look too much like they might contain meat and I can't bear that anyone would ever see me like that!"
"I only eat raw food, because cooking kills the nutrients."
"I only eat raw zucchini, from its natural zucchini shape, because I don't want to offend the noble zucchini."
"You picked that zucchini, though, didn't you? I only eat things that fall naturally from a tree, because I can hear the plants screaming."
"I'm a level six vegan, I don't eat anything that casts a shadow."
And so on.
A bunch of prostelytizing fucknuggets each caught up in a pointless competition of one-upmanship. All trying to avoid admitting something no vegan will ever admit to publicly:
Yes. There are non-vegan things we miss.
I've only got a very spare handful. Baccala salad. Walking into any pizza place for a slice. A good, rolled omelette (And I make a damned good rolled omelette). Wandering into any food stall and saying, simply, "I'll have whatever's your favorite thing to make." There was this spicy chicken sandwich on the menu at Wendy's that I liked. Maybe another 1/2 dozen or so things. Certainly not enough to fall back into non-plant-based life again.
Especially when there are so very many good products on the market that make it so easy to eat the way I prefer to eat now.
The reasons I eat the way I do are long to list. All the reasons. All the reasons you've heard vegans use... those are the reasons why I'm vegan. One reason sometimes given that I wouldn't use, "I just thought eating meat was gross."
I mean... yeah, it is gross. It's the carcass of an animal. That's super-gross and weird. Though some of those carcasses were, I admit, quite pleasing to the senses. Which is why it's nice that there are so many products that can keep a menu diverse and interesting without winding up as a level six vegan.
I do worry about the folks who, after a week of Nelly meals, say, "I'm going to stay vegan when I go home!"
I always tell them to pump the breaks a little. When you're into a groove, eating this way (again, especially now) is super easy. But getting started can be rough if you don't have a personal chef. To be able to indentify, at a glance, whether there are any animal products in this or that nutritional label... it's a superpower that takes a little honing.
For my part: the eventual conversion to strict veganism has been a decades-long process. Not something I'd encourage trying to perfect overnight. Because you will probably fail. And then say, "Oh fuck it," and give up.
There's also the minefield of products. Some are amazing. Some are complete shite. Some have a good flavor, but their texture is akin to the contents of the diaper of a 1-year old who has gotten into some expired Indian food. Some have an amazing texture, but have all the flavor of a jar of unflavored packing peanuts. Gotta hunt around a little; which takes time.
Just do a little better. That's as good an improvement as is practical to move past the things you might miss. Especially the tough ones like cheese (which has actual opioids in it - yes... you're addicted to cheese).
Conversely, there are some foods I actively don't miss. Definitely don't miss pretending I like them because, for some reason, you're supposed to even though they're fucking vile.
Shellfish. What the fuck with shellfish? What possible reason other than abject desperation would any person anywhere say, "I just found this giant, horrific bug monster crawling out of the ocean... I'm going to eat it!" And don't even get me started about the first booger-picker's excitement levels on learning there was snot inside an oyster shell.
But I get in moods, as do we all. And when I saw a vegan shrimp by a Dutch company called ZeaStar I couldn't help myself. Bought a 4 kilo bag (the only size available). Have had them with pasta and made something of a lobster roll with them today. And I like it way, way better than I ever liked actual shrimp. Which are gross little bottom feeders that taste like expired iodine and are harvested by slave labor (I'm not making that last part up... look it up... and enjoy your shrimp cocktail).
One other thing on the relatively short list of things I do miss which are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate with vegan products... proper sashimi.
But, as it turns out... ZeaStar may have me covered there, too. Looking forward to cracking
that pack open and making some spicy tuna rolls.
Which I'll eat alone.
Because Nelly has always hated fish. Real or mock.
In the end: whatever.
You want to be a "better vegan" than me because you only eat a single grilled zucchini sandwich a day, on gluten free bread with an aioli you made at home out of a blend of miso and soft tofu... the whole effect being something akin to being hit in the mouth with a patchouli-filled hacky-sack? Fine, do that. I'm probably only going to take a single bite and then set it down making an excuse like, "I just ate a wheelbarrow full of quinoa on my way here and am just SOOOOOOOOOOO full," while I plan which vegan tacos to stop for on the way home.
You want to eat only barbecue and tomohawk steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Fine, do that. I will not take even a single bite because your roasted zombie-flesh dinner seems gross and weird to me. But beyond thinking, "I wish people wouldn't harm animals and the environment" I am going to move on from thinking about you or your dinner pretty quickly.
You want to come to XOC-Ha and eat what Nelly feeds you? You won't be disappointed. No, not even if you're the sort of person who "needs meat to feel full."
Because Nelly is Egyptian. And if a Mediterranean can't fill a guest to levels of belt-loosening discomfort, given whatever contents happen to be in the kitchen right now, even during unannounced visits, the unequivocal law is seppuku with a butter spreader.