The Accidental Vegan

Seems I am always hungry these days.

After being a happy-go-lucky vegetarian for twenty years, on the heels of my breast cancer diagnosis and with the encouragement of several trusted sources, I’ve sworn off dairy, wheat, and sugar. And, given that my cancer is estrogen sensitive, soy may be next. (Even though soy lattés are the only thing saving my sanity at the moment, so you may have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.)

What do I eat? Mostly veggies, nuts, beans, rice, steel cut oats, and a few quixotic grains, such as quinoa.

Of course, I’m hoping to expand that list (soon). Any given day will find me wandering the aisles of my local health food store with a wild look in my eye. I skip sections I used to drool over, like the cheeses and baked goods. Instead, I hover dutifully in the produce aisle and fill my cart with purple kale, lush broccoli, and stumpy carrots. Then I take my greenery for a spin. We ride up and down every aisle hunting for something that will satisfy my gnawing hunger. Last week I discovered a bulk bin full of date bars sprinkled with coconut, and I felt like I’d won the lottery. Sure, they look like cat turds coated in litter, but I devoured them anyway. That’s how desperate I am. Besides, I’m cranky. I’ve got a caffeine headache. And I’m never in the mood to cook anymore. 

My predicament is made doubly painful by the fact that I love food. (And, by food, I mean anything that contain sugar, wheat, and dairy.) And, when I say love, I mean LOVE. Food is my hobby. I love to think about it, shop for it, and–once upon a time–cook it. For years I meticulously planned my afternoon outings according to what errand might take me within arm’s distance of a brownie or overpriced coffee drink. Mary laughs because I won’t even go on a dog walk without at least $2 in my pocket  in case I stumble across a bakery. If you’d told me six months ago that I’d soon give up every food I held dear, I would have laughed–hard. But then I got breast cancer and things changed. I changed. Funny how once you hear the doctor say, “it’s cancer,” you can’t help but stare at the food perched on the end of your fork and think “did you do this to me?”

Yes, trying to regain control of one’s life with a knife and fork is a cancer cliche. Whatever. Shortly after my diagnosis, I spoke with several breast cancer survivors. Our conversations meandered down the usual paths of diagnostics, surgeries, and treatment protocols. And, near the end of each chat, I’d ask about lifestyle changes. As in, “so, did you change your diet?” Without fail, every woman admitted that, yes, in the throes of the initial scare, she’d raced out to buy “The Juicer.” Then she’d guiltily confess that, after securing a clean bill of health from her oncologist, she ran straight back to her old ways of eating. Sayonara juicer (aka sucker). Once a symbol of health and salvation, the treasured juicer became just another discarded souvenir of her visit to Cancerland…a trip she’d rather forget. Besides, what better way to forget your troubles than with a triple fudge sundae?

Call me a control freak. Call me self-punishing. But I don’t want to forget my trip to Cancerland. How can I forget when I’m tossing back 20 milligrams of Tamoxifen every morning and wondering if the drug will make my uterus implode. Plus, HELLO, if something is going to have an impact on your body wouldn’t it be food…the stuff you’re gobbling by the pound instead of by the milligram? And so I trudge on…steering my cart through a world of temptation, listening to my stomach growl, and, eventually, heading for the cat turds.





4 Responses

  1. Suzanna Walters says:

    girl you must be grumpy! Are you on crack? (come to think of it, I don’t think crack has any sugar, wheat or dairy). Does this mean you can’t drink my mojitos? or maybe that’s all you can drink. but enough about me.

    now i’m really sympathizing with you…oy vey.

    love, love –

  2. Andrew says:


    Go to Their freeze dried veggies when sprinkled with nutritional yeast (or salt) feel like chips. The dehydrated blueberries are lovely; the pommegranite (sp) is explosive. Not cheap, but they often keep my on track with eating. Green tea (copious amounts) seems to help sometimes. Distracting myself. Good luck. Thinking of you.


  3. Bill says:

    Catherine, I loved the post, and it made me think about cooking and my relationship with food. Which of course makes me think about recipes. So I suggest this – I’ve been enjoying a version of it this week . . . Thanks to Andrew for introducing me to the preserved lemons. I used kabocha squash instead of butternut, Vietnamese oregano instead of parsley, and skipped the parsnips and the sweet potatos, and served it over quinoa . . . tasty! Time consuming – it took me almost 3 hours, but can feed about 10 people (or me 10 times).

    Chickpea and Vegetable Tagine
    This tagine recipe includes a complex blend of spices and a generous assortment of vegetables. Cut the vegetables so that each type has a consistent size. You may need to adjust the cooking times slightly, depending on the maturity of your vegetables. If you can’t find the preserved lemon we call for here, substitute a teaspoon of grated lemon zest instead.
    Heat the oil in a tagine or a flame-proof casserole over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until they soften and become light golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir occasionally as you cook the onions. The halves should fall apart into their separate layers as they cook. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the cumin, coriander, anise, cayenne, salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Cook, stirring constantly, until the spices are toasted and thoroughly coat the onions, about 1 minute.
    Add the broth, butternut squash, carrots, and chickpeas; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables are just beginning to get tender, about 15 minutes.
    Add the tomatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and bay leaf and simmer until the vegetables are nearly tender, about 30 minutes. Add the preserved lemon and simmer for 20 minutes or until all of the vegetables are tender and cooked through. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the parsley and cilantro, and serve directly from the tagine or casserole onto heated plates.

    This recipe is from The Culinary Institute of America’s Vegetables cookbook, which is available for purchase at bookstores nationwide.
    Makes 8 servings
    2 Tbsp. olive oil
    2 cups cippolini onions, peeled and halved
    2 Tbsp. minced garlic
    1 Tbsp. minced gingerroot
    1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
    1 tsp. ground coriander
    1/2 tsp. ground anise seed
    1/4 tsp. cayenne
    Salt and pepper as needed
    1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
    2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
    3 1/2 cups medium-dice butternut squash, peeled and seeded
    1 1/2 cups medium-dice carrots, peeled
    3 cups cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
    2 cups diced tomatoes in juice (no salt added)
    2 1/4 cups medium-dice sweet potatoes, peeled
    1 1/2 cups medium-dice parsnips, peeled
    1 bay leaf
    2 Tbsp. minced preserved lemon (or 2 tsp. grated lemon zest)
    2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped parsley
    2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped cilantro

  4. Claire (of Jon) says:

    HI there… seems you have had a stack of really helpful foodie tips… so natch you need more. Jon has a friend who is a complete fan of ‘Raw Food’ he exclaims on numerous occasions of course that it cures all ills but I think he does it because it satisfies something deep inside which speaks to what you hint at in your blog. Perhaps. That it gives him some control over what he eats in a way that cannot be unhealthy by any standards. I have tried some of this food and it is delicious and as far as I understand it there is no dairy and so on… but hey as I say there is plenty of food advise up here already. I cannot remember the names of the raw foodies… helpfully… but I am sure you can find it online.

    Big huge hugs