Unprocessed: My Week of 3-Ingredient Eating

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Unprocessed: My Week of 3-Ingredient Eating

I just spent the last week eating an unprocessed vegan diet; yesterday was my final day, and the experience has left me with plenty to ruminate over (though not literally! It was a very gut-friendly week). Midway through the project the fake women’s website Reductress featured a story about a woman whose desire to experience the limits of human privation led her to give up truffle fries for a week; it’s doubtful that anyone else reading laughed as hard as me, or felt so righteously busted. I mean, it’s ridiculous, I get it. “Unprocessed vegan” just means no animal-derived foods and no foods containing more than three ingredients. Not hard, and not a big deal. Yet it did give me more food for thought than I’d anticipated.

Veganism was the easy part of this for me—I was a strict vegetarian for eight years beginning in my teens. My parents allowed it as long as I prepared my own meals, so that’s basically all I know how to cook. To make it vegan meant no half and half in my coffee, but that’s survivable. No, I was drawn to this diet for its focus on unprocessed foods. After reading about it in a magazine several years back, subsequent trips to the market all involved a few extra minutes flipping over boxes and cans to tally up exactly what was inside. Turns out, there’s a lot. Venture out of the produce department and most markets are packed with highly processed food. That’s not inherently bad—in fact, it’s what keeps all that food from spoiling and becoming inedible—but I find looking at a real hamburger and a Boca burger both to be a little frightening. One requires a cow to die, but the other seems to be the work of a mad scientist. Perhaps there’s a path better suited to my needs and preferences.

My week started badly. It helps to plan well and shop with an eye to contingency planning any time you’re starting a new diet, and I made a list with that in mind but woke up with a pinched nerve in my neck. No way could I walk home from the grocery store with my usual two bags and an overstuffed backpack, much less cook a ton of food. This was going to be a soft launch at best. I was already feeling burned, having discovered that Ak-Maks not only have several ingredients, but one of them is butter. One of my favorite foods, and the one I planned to snack on all week, suddenly booted from the menu.

The first three days involve a lot of oatmeal with apples chopped up in it, rice cakes spread with peanut butter, raisins and resentment, and random dinners, the best by far being a miso soup with spiral-cut carrots and zucchini standing in for ramen. One night I make a raw apple and broccoli salad (chop both into a bowl, dress with lemon juice and olive oil, and grate in a little ginger if you like). It’s a favorite meal and filling, but leaves me feeling wired and ungrounded. I vow to improve for the rest of the week.

And I do! What follows is a mix of classics (the Greek Lentil Soup from early editions of Laurel’s Kitchen) and brand-new dishes. I make the “aquafaba” butter recently featured in the Washington Post, a mix of oil and the glamorously-renamed liquid from canned chickpeas, which is gaining in reputation as a vegan egg substitute for baking. It’s fun and I feel a little better overall. Oh, I also cheat a bit. While I made vegan mayo from silken tofu with three ingredients, the firm tofu I sliced with tomatoes on Ryvita crackers had four, because they used two coagulants. I opened a carton of soymilk without thinking and discovered that it had four as well. That said, I also made oat milk and oat/quinoa milk (RECIPE: Soak grains overnight, whip with immersion blender, wash displaced grains off every surface in the kitchen and strain the liquid left in your container). It wasn’t bad, though pouring oat milk on oatmeal is weird, maybe the vegan answer to a bacon-wrapped hot dog. Oh, and I read the package and knew the loaf of sourdough from the Healdsburg, CA, bakery I love had four, but I bought it anyway. Two of them were salt and water, so while I acknowledge it as cheating it’s pretty hard to feel guilty. Also, the sensory appeal of something familiar that I nevertheless seldom buy was such a treat, and a nice respite from the same-y nature of my week so far.

Cheating is cheesy, though. I mean, why bother embarking on a project and then tossing the rules? Well. Part of what I was trying to suss out were my own feelings about how I eat. Turn on a computer anywhere in the world and there are legions of loudmouths telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Were they right? In some small ways, I think so. While I completely reject the aggressive scolding/victimized hand-wringing approach many vegans still in the evangelical stage go through, they score big points with me as far as the ways we deny the reality of our choices. I myself have used phrases like “ethically sourced beef,” which I don’t buy and wouldn’t eat, but come on.

There’s also money, ugh. When I first read about unprocessed vegan eating I was living a short walk from five different markets and a small but thriving farmers market, and I had a two-bedroom mobile home with a full kitchen all to myself. Were it not for a leaky roof and some rodents I could easily have become the first unprocessed vegan Doomsday prepper on record. I’ve moved twice since then and am currently renting a 9 × 12 bedroom; most of my cooking supplies were scattered to the four winds in the relocation, and I now have limited fridge and pantry space and the use of a range top and microwave. While I can walk to Safeway and Whole Foods, both are far enough away to cause blisters on my feet and of course massive trauma to my wallet. (I did go to Whole Foods recently, and approaching the entrance I passed under some speakers playing The Guess Who: “American woman, get away from me.” After trying to get a question answered with no luck and failing to find anything affordable, I took that message personally).

Instead I’m shopping at my neighborhood grocery, G & G, a locally owned store that does brisk liquor and deli business. The latter accounts for my eating more cheese and yogurt than usual; they’re regularly marked down and thus a good deal. G & G has a good bulk food section (oats, dried fruit, lentils, bulgur, spices), but they’re great about signal-boosting local farmers where produce is concerned. A recent ploughman’s lunch phase was something noteworthy thanks to the local Jonagold apples whose season was far too short. Grapes are coming in now, and of course weird and wonderful winter squash. While it’s definitely easy to be an omnivore at this market, it’s not what I’d call hard to go UV. It costs a bit more than I can comfortably sustain and would be vastly easier in a kitchen of my own, sure. I rely on prepared foods here for the same reason they’re popular anywhere, after all: because they can hang out in my backpack if there’s no room in the pantry. But it’s achievable. I’m doing it, and not suffering for the effort.