What Joining a Vegan Brunch Club (Without Being Vegan) Taught Me About Food, Fortitude, and Friendship

Photo: Getty Images/ south_agency
Ten years ago I received an email from a friend that read: “Any interest in coming to vegan philosophy brunch at my house? It’ll be fun! :)”

I was wary. Although I had been a vegetarian since my first year of college, I hadn’t gone all the way yet. I still considered dairy a close friend. As a frequent baker, I had recently gone through a choux pastry (aka cream puff) stage, piping my profiteroles and eclairs full of vanilla bean cream. I co-hosted cheese tasting gatherings with my roommate, and spent an embarrassing amount of my writer’s income on small scoops of locally-sourced artisan ice cream across the Bay Area.

The friend who wrote to me was a philosophy doctorate student at Stanford, where we had met as undergraduates several years prior. I was a writer on the university communications team, and thanks to my office being randomly located in the philosophy department, our paths crossed daily.

Motivated by our long friendship and my curiosity about the philosophy scholars who had barely made eye contact with me for the past year, I said yes to her invitation. I baked two loaves of dairy-free, vegetable oil-laden pumpkin bread from one of my favorite cooking blogs, and drove to her house in San Francisco.

The guiding principle of this new vegan brunch club was simple

Everything we ate together was 100-percent vegan…even if the participants were not.

For the first gathering, I found myself diving into not only my first egg-free omelet, but also conversations with strangers who would become some of my dearest friends. There was the boisterous, lanky, ancient philosopher and ethicist; the ringleader of these gatherings that thought anything that wasn’t plant-based was not, by definition, food. Then there were the vegans who wouldn’t eat honey because it’s harmful to bees, as well as the vegans who ate oysters because they aren’t sentient. Dairy-forward vegetarians like myself were also in the mix. This bunch also included a droll South African logic scholar who was a lifelong omnivore and his lovely, twinkly-eyed partner, both curious about trying something new, as well as an ex-vegan who had switched from carrots to cigarettes for sustenance.

I used to see lots of food articles, and still sometimes do, that frame veganism in terms of limitations or restrictions. They’d often sport titles like How to Handle a Vegan Coming to Dinner, or Help! There’s a Vegan at My Party. But my inbox—and my memories—tell a very different story. Lively logistical correspondances full of menu musings and food assignments illuminate how bountiful it can be to eat vegan with a diverse group of thoughtful people.

If you’re picturing potlucks of lumpy lentils, mysterious mock meats, and that sad dry oat cake swaddled in plastic wrap at your local coffee shop (seriously, who is making that oat cake?), think again.

What we ate far exceeded what we didn’t

Memorable dishes include spinach and eggplant lasagna layered with basil tofu ricotta. Tempeh and roasted sweet potato tacos topped with a medley of homemade salsas and guacamole. Creamy risotto with asparagus or whatever in-season vegetable (it was California after all) swirled in. And to recover from heavy meals, a few of us would do “hippie salad nights” with dishes like vinegary cabbage slaws and bowls of bulgur and garbanzo beans coated with a carrot pistachio pesto.

For the years we met regularly, I found myself stretching to new places in my cooking and in my baking; appreciating ingredients in new ways; feeling better with chronic digestive issues; and thinking more about my values and how I wanted to live them.

I started bringing in a new dessert to the office to share almost weekly, and I began cooking with less dairy in my everyday life. I made baked apples stuffed with oats and spices and raisins, chocolate chip tahini cookies, and lemon olive oil cake. The ruddy bearded environmental ethicist, who previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service, taught me how to cook with tempeh and make hearty soyrizo chili. I learned how to whisk together flax eggs and whipped coconut cream, how to replace oil with applesauce, and how to prepare quiches and pie crusts with real, cost-effective ingredients like oats.

Several months in, I hosted the group in my backyard for a Middle Eastern dinner. It turns out my family learned recipes for lentil soup, tabouleh, hummus, and falafel didn’t involve dairy to begin with—I just had to learn how to brush layer after layer of phyllo with plant butter and exchange honey for sugar to create a baklava that would make my mother proud.

When we weren’t in our kitchens, back patios, or stuffed into a graduate school efficiency apartment that involved creative uses of furniture, we’d also occasionally go on field trips and eating adventures. We ventured to Santa Cruz to inhale fries and corn dogs at a plant-based diner, to a local Chicago pizza place for deep dish where we debated if everyone really wanted that green olive and jalapeño pie, and to San Francisco to try a sustainable vegan Mexican restaurant.

While vegan food brought us together, it was the bonds we formed that kept us coming back for more

The exceptional food writer MFK Fisher once wrote, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”

And we didn’t.

We took care of each other. We learned about each other’s quirks and preferences. If we were around our recovering alcoholic buddy, there was no alcohol in sight. When one of the group became pregnant and had gestational diabetes, we threw a baby shower that accommodated her blood sugar fluctuations. We shared Friendsgiving together, some of us going home to extended family afterwards and others not being able to travel because of money or logistics or tense family politics.

It was while waiting for an almond-and-cashew milk based flan at that Mexican restaurant with the vegan crew just a month after meeting them that I got a call from an ICU across the country. My father had just had massive surgery on a tumor earlier that day, and surgeons were calling me because he had a perilous blood clot.

As his designated health care proxy, I had to make the decision about whether they should operate on it or not, even though I hadn’t seen him in four years. An Aristotle scholar and a political philosopher who specialized in children’s rights held my hand on the train ride home and cheered me up with silly internet memes. My new friends cooked gentle, non-acidic meals when I developed raging, stress-induced acid reflux months later as my father temporarily moved to California so I could take care of him while he underwent chemo.

Sitting scattered across the floor of our friends’ apartment eating endless side dishes and our vegan Turducken—a butternut squash with an eggplant inside with a zucchini inside—was like wearing a beloved old sweater. As an only child who grew up in a small family within an estranged family, I had learned to nurture alternate communities. But I had never expected so much abundance to come from a group that started with a constraint.

Over the years, the vegan group diffused as one philosophy scholar after another finished graduate school and moved away. We now live in different states, countries, and continents. Some of us (like myself, an exuberant communicator) stay in touch, and some of us don’t. Long stretches of time can pass until moments arise that bring us back together, like when the pandemic began and a group of us Zoomed together, or when one of the members passed away unexpectedly this past spring, and group threads full of memories buoyed us.

Some of the vegans are no longer vegan, some have changed how they define vegan, and some, including myself, have become more vegan with every passing year. But one thing is clear: If and when we are ever in the same place, there would be a welcome space for each of us—and any friendly newcomer who wants to join—at our plant-rich table.

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