In the modern world of prepared foods, it must be challenging to be vegetarian. Vegan, extremely difficult.

For the past several years during my summer holidays, I have been visiting the grounds of a Buddhist monastery near my cottage as an activity. Normally, my visit centres around going about mid-day and bringing a picnic lunch to be enjoyed on the grounds, as well as walking the grounds and admiring the scenery, the various Buddhas throughout, and of course the temple.

At the gate, there is a sign with a crossed-out pictogram expressly, at least on a literal level, forbidding chicken, steak, and eggs to be brought onto the grounds. Obviously, the pictogram more widely means “no meat or animal products”. Underneath, it says “only vegetarian food”. The specific use of the word “vegetarian” confuses the matter.

As per my understanding of vegetarianism, generally eggs, milk, honey (surprise — made by bees, it’s an animal product!) and a few other animal products are acceptable; the interpretation to which I personally subscribe is “no animal flesh”. I assume, given the inclusion of the egg in the pictogram, that the policy is actually veganism, as in no animal products whatsoever. (If I am incorrect on this point, then that is only somewhat beside the point I am trying to raise here. Update 20180805: See notes at the end.)

I typically eat three meals a day of the meat and two vegetables variety, although peanut butter, pickled eggs and cheese are central to typical breakfasts. However, especially since in the past I have flirted with vegetarianism of the meatless-but-eggs-and-cheese-and-other-animal-products-are-fine variety, I don’t have a problem with the sign; I consider myself to eat a wide enough variety of foods that it isn’t an issue. Further, I do not have any food allergies or particular dietary restrictions — for instance, I do not have any dietary requirement to eat, let alone at every meal, certain foods; certainly for the purpose of this post, foods which contain animal products.

And of course, the monastery is clearly and very well within its rights to place such a condition on the guests it invites to visit its grounds: One does not need to visit the grounds if one is opposed to the condition. In any case, when I have visited, I have never had my picnic lunch bag verified at the gate. Once, I noticed a gentleman eating his lunch on the road just outside the gate; I imagine that he didn’t know in advance about the condition, and his lunch presumably contained some offending ingredient. I can only imagine that based on my personal experience, the gentleman saw the sign, and complied of his own accord without any intervention from the monks.

Nonetheless, planning my picnic lunch for these visits has proven to be quite the challenge over the years.

I bring foods which I enjoy and which I assume are vegan. I even now somewhat plan in advance for this lunch, including when I go to the grocery store on my way up to the cottage. I usually check ingredients lists. As revealed below, obviously not well enough.

And, so far, I realize after the fact every year that I have failed to bring only vegan foods.

One year, I made a peanut butter sandwich on Challah bread. That’s the braided bread often found in delicatessens and jewish bakeries. Challah bread nornally contains eggs.

Another year, as I was planning my lunch, I looked at the ingredients list of various products I wanted to bring: One cake contained eggs. Another commercial snack cake also contained eggs. Two favourite varieties of flavoured potato chips and similar snacks contained milk products (sour cream and onion, and cheese flavoured snacks). Pleased with myself, I did not bring either of the cakes nor the chips / snacks. However, I failed on the sandwich I’d brought: I made my peanut butter sandwich on the bread I make at home in a bread machine. I later remembered that the bread recipe I use contains milk.

This year, I thought I was really well prepared: My peanut butter and jam sandwich, on a very plain bread that did not contain milk nor eggs. Dried pineapple, which I had dried myself. Caramel popcorn, whose ingredients list did not contain any animal products. Juice boxes. And a few other items, which I deal with in the following paragraphs.

To my amusement, though not surprise, I learned after the fact that the roasted and salted cashews I brought may contain milk, along with peanuts and other tree nuts. This is in a grey zone, as the warning’s purpose is to inform that that the cashews were prepared in a facility which prepares other items which may contain the offending items and that cross-contamination might have occured, not to indicate that the cashews contain the offending items.

The following items were also brought, and which I later realized were not allowed under the above-mentioned presumed vegan food condition:

– a brand of salt and vinegar potato chips, whose “seasonings” contain lactose, and whose label states they contain milk, to my great surprise: I had bought the chips on the presumption that they contain potatoes, vegetable oil, salt, and vinegar;
– a variety of chocolate buttons candy, whose label states it contains milk (this should have been a no brainer, since they are in the milk-chocolate range of chocolates);
– a store brand of a swiss-type chocolate bar, whose label states it contains milk and eggs (again this should have been a no-brainer, at least for the milk);
– a chocolate-coated granola bar, which contains honey and multiple mentions of milk and milk products (once more, this should have been a no-brainer).

As such, I guess I will yet again have to plan better for my visit during my holidays next year: I will have to buy fruit cups and fresh fruits, while excluding the various above-mentioned items. These aren’t a real problem for me, but I do admit that these items are not always the first things that come to mind when I go shopping or make a last-minute grab for food for my lunches, be they regular daily lunches, or my visit to the monastery grounds.

In the past, I have subscribed to the mostly-meatless form of vegetarianism, for environmental reasons, principally in that meat consumes enormous amounts of water to produce. (As a side bar, one complaint I had was that prepared frozen pasta dishes could have been made in one extra variety: In addition to the vegetable lasagnas that are made, why not make traditional meat lasagnas exactly as usual, save that the meat hoppers are not filled during some runs?)

However, I am generally typical of North Americans in that I eat meat very regularly. Lately, for health reasons, I have been somewhat, mostly only very slightly, cutting down on my meat consumption; the environmental reasons of water requirements and carbon footprint in the form of methane production (21 times as efficient as CO2 as a greenhouse gas), have also been present in my mind.

But this little exercise makes me wonder how a vegetarian, let alone a vegan, or for that matter, someone who is lactose-intolerant, suffering from celiac disease, allergic to eggs, nuts and peanuts, or seafood, or who has some other intolerance to some food ingredient, is able to navigate commercially prepared foods, restaurants, and even dinner parties serving only foods “made from scratch” but in kitchens with the following ingredients, given the omnipresence of meats, milk, eggs, honey, other animal products, wheat, nuts, peanuts, seafood and any other “common” “basic” foods, which in and of themselves are mundane, at least to me.

Yes, I am aware of various commercial foods and food management systems, such as nut-free candies and gluten free foods, and restaurants catering to the various issues raised above. I am also aware that making foods “from scratch” present options for my picnic lunches. My point here lies in the insidious degree to which certain common ingredients are used in food products not purchased for the presence of said ingredients.

Update 20180805: I have done some cursory checking into Buddhism and vegetarianism, and according to the wikipedia page on Buddhist Vegetarianism, (here’s my archive), the traditions of the particular monastery I visit likely fall under the “no meat, eggs and dairy” category, although strict veganism does not seem to be the case.