Things at Oxford are starting to heat up. My [redacted] day streak of going to pubs has ended. I have numerous papers I should be doing, in addition to the already insurmountable amount of reading. My rowing team even had a work-out that involved sweating and physical exertion (this is new). And I’m spending my time … cooking?
Getting my daily calorie quota in Oxford has, so far, been a bit frustrating. Most graduate students eat in our dining hall, which is heavily subsidized and has the added benefit of a Latin grace. Unfortunately, the vegan offerings there are even paltrier than those in Wilcox—before it was renovated. When I go to formal hall—which requires buying a ticket in the college “buttery” a few days in advance, as well as registering my dietary preference—the chef does always have a vegan meal prepared. Unfortunately, this usually consists of a pile of roast vegetables, with a side of steamed vegetables.
My impression is that Great Britain is very vegetarian friendly (they did invent the term!), but it seems to be extremely unfriendly to vegans. Practically every restaurant here labels which items on their menu are vegetarian, but typically, none of them are vegan. The British have a major love affair with dairy, and even the people in Oxford’s vegetarian society seem to find my veganism a bit quirky. There are, of course, plenty of Indian Restaurants, but eating out in Oxford only really seems affordable if you assume that dollars are equal to pounds, which they aren’t.
After much exploration, I’ve found a few big supermarkets in town, as well as some small health food stores, but most of them lack items that I can find most anywhere in the states (how did the Brits ever conquer the world without tempeh, seitan, and vital wheat gluten?). It doesn’t help, of course, that many things have different names here: a courgette looks the same as a zucchini… but is it really? And if they don’t have anything labeled whole wheat flour, should I just assume wholemeal flour is the same thing?
All this leads me back to cooking. I spent an absurd amount of time this weekend making homemade seitan, samosas, curried tofu, and jambalaya. It’s such a sea change from just three years ago, before I turned vegan, when I had to call Tolan one night to ask him what spices to put on the straight black beans I had “prepared” for dinner. Now, cooking is a bit of a hobby, which is amusing because I am, in fact, an awful cook. It might be a result of intrinsic personality traits. As Josephine and Carol—my vegan cooking buddies from Princeton—could affirm, I have a bit of a cavalier mentality in my culinary efforts. I generally assume that if I don’t have an ingredient in my pantry, that’s because it’s not at all important. This, of course, assumes that I’ve read the entire recipe to its conclusion, which I don’t often do. This leads to some absurd situations, like me furiously mashing tofu with a fork because I neglected to note that a food processor is required to puree things.
I’m convinced that I love cooking because it’s the exact opposite of everything else I do in life. For a start, cooking is tangible. I can spend an entire day reading and writing for school, but ultimately all I have to show for it is, hypothetically, some knowledge in my brain and, concretely, a few words typed into my computer. Even activism is, in a similar sense, unsatisfying, because it rests on actualizing ephemeral and transitory changes in opinion. Cooking, by contrast, is so satisfying; I can take a set of ingredients and, in an hour, turn them into something totally different, disastrous as my final products tend to be. It is, all in all, a nice contrast the utter lack of accomplishment that characterizes anything related to international development. (It may even be more fun than doing laundry, though there is also something immensely satisfying about turning dirty wadded-up clothes into clean, folded ones.)
And, in a sense, cooking is nice precisely because I am so bad at it. Part of why I used to love playing bass was that I was horrible at it and felt no compunction to get any better (the past tense should not indicate that I’ve become a talented bassist, merely that I couldn’t bring my instrument to England). I’m perpetually in a milieu of relentless self-achievers, and sometimes I need to bash out a few chords to remind myself of the joy of embracing flaws and imperfections. As my fellow graduate students start talking about honors and distinctions, I am more and more grateful for the opportunity to come home, ignore half of the words in my cookbook, create some disastrously spicy concoction and, of course, feed it to my unsuspecting Eastern European flatmate.