I understand the allure of a cleanse. Especially one embarked upon at the start of new annum. “New year, new me!” you might declare in a cliché earnest Facebook status update. By existing on little else but juice or kale or juiced kale for up to a month at a time, you’re deluding yourself resetting your body, purging accumulated toxins, setting yourself on a path to a better, more energetic you. I mean, of all the life-altering promises made by sycophantic snake-oil salesmen enterprising health professionals, I figure participating in something like a 30-Day Fortified Taro Root Mash Ultimate Super Cleanse© isn’t the worst ritual to observe.
Personally, I had never done a detox diet, but I have engaged in some hocus-pocus wizardry full of vague promise. Once, when I moved into a new house, I smudged sage to rid the new place of any bad ju-ju. As I waved the smoking aromatic around in each room, I felt more balanced in a world that seems to command every single ounce of me. For the briefest moment, there was purpose, there was clarity coaxed from the chaos. There was also a lingering smell for days that reminded me of my grandmother’s cigarette case.
So when The Taco Cleanse: The Tortilla-Based Diet Proven To Change Your Life landed on my desk at the end of 2015, I was intrigued. I like tacos. I like tortillas. I like clean things. Did I mention I like tacos?
There was one catch. The tacos were . . . vegan. Now might be a good time to also mention I like meat. And cheese. And most animal by-products. Regardless, I went to my editor and pitched a month-long commitment to the diet. I spoke passionately to her about the virtues of challenging the limits of human weakness, of being healthy and eating more vegetables, of proving to friends, family, and readers that such an experience was worthwhile. She stared blankly at me, perhaps lost in a reverie filled with dancing vegan tacos. “Hmmm.” Long pause. “‘I Tried a Month-long Vegan Taco Cleanse and Survived.’” She stroked her chin. “That’s a good headline for a story. Unless, of course, you don’t survive.” A smile crept across her face. “But that would be a good headline too.”
I had the green light.
At the start of January, I found myself charging down previously unknown aisles of Central Market, lost as a goat on Astroturf, trying to find something called bulgur wheat. I gleefully threw a collection of foreign ingredients into my basket, confident that, at the very least, I would know how to properly pronounce “seitan” by the end of all of this. Who knows? I thought. Maybe I will really dig this new lifestyle. Maybe a month will turn into a lifetime of vegan tacos. Maybe this is what I’ve been looking for!
I checked out with a smug glow that could only have radiated from an Austinite with a grocery cart full of organic, vegan foodstuff. As I sauntered out to the parking lot with several paper bags full of my brand new life, I felt ready for a month of new recipes and new challenges, new ingredients and new flavors. I was ready for a month of tacos.
Except for one thing, I realized as I suddenly halted in the parking lot. I had forgotten the tortillas.
Taco diary: New diet, new me!
Like many newly converted disciples who obtain a Good Book or a Spiritual Guide, I went on a mission to spread the word. Clutching my literature, The Taco Cleanse cookbook, I went to my husband and began evangelizing.
The authors of the book, a group of “vegan taco scientists” based in Austin, made the pitch easy enough. They promised a cleanse that, instead of depriving your body, fills it with tacos. “The Taco Cleanse is cheap, easy, and delicious,” I told him, quoting directly from the book’s promotional materials. I waved the book in the air and assured him that, according to the promotional materials, his “outlook will be noticeably improved!” and “Everything tastes better folded (exactly once) into a tortilla!” He appeared unconvinced. I searched for another inspiring passage. “Just eat one or more tacos at every meal . . .” I recited. Nothing. Then, I found the resonant psalm. “. . . adding margaritas as necessary.” He began nodding his head.
“Is beer vegan?” he asked.
He was officially on board.
Taco diary: It turns out tofu really can taste just like chicken!
I once lived with a vegan for a year, so I had a pretty good sense of the food restrictions ahead. My husband, however, did not. During one of our first sojourns into vegan tacoism—the “Wake and Shake Scramble,” which replaces fluffy scrambled eggs with tofu and nutritional yeast—he reached for the cheddar cheese shreds that remained in our refrigerator. I shook my head. “Cheese isn’t vegan?” he asked, incredulous. He had no idea what he was in for.
It turns out there are a lot of things much less obvious than cheese that aren’t vegan. A short list: kimchi (fish sauce), most refried beans at restaurants (lard), Worcestershire sauce (anchovies), orange juice (some brands are fortified with Omega-3s, which are derived from fish), white sugar (bone char), shelled peanuts (gelatin), and foods with artificial red coloring (tiny little bugs—yes, really).
Luckily, The Taco Cleanse has a solid list of recipes. An early hit in my kitchen were beer-battered portobello mushroom tacos, which didn’t seem too far off from something we might normally whip up for dinner.
Emboldened by my husband’s acceptance of the deep-fried-mushrooms filling, the next night I ventured toward riskier territory: a giant batch of “tolerant bulgur chorizo.” The dish starts with a base of bulgur—dried, cracked whole wheat—and dresses it up with a mess of spices designed to mimic the flavor and texture of its greasy muse. I was convinced that it was a solid imitation. My husband was not. “This isn’t chorizo,” he said. “Why can’t they just call it spiced bulgur?”
The question was fair. As I flipped through the recipes featured in The Taco Cleanse, there were several dishes that were familiar and yet completely foreign in concept: jackfruit brisket, barbacoa mushrooms, soy curls al pastor. This smoke-and-mirrors act was much less disconcerting to me than it was to my husband, who I suppose would have preferred less sexy but accurate descriptions, such as sautéed baked wheat gluten (otherwise known as “seitan guisada”).
But his issue with nomenclature did send me down the first of many existential taco-cleanse ponderings. What is bacon tempeh if, in veganism, bacon shouldn’t exist? Is it cruel to feed a pig a pork substitute?
Taco diary: Last night I had a dream about a flying brisket. I didn’t eat it. I should have.
The first rule of being on a vegan taco cleanse is that you must constantly talk about being on a vegan taco cleanse. It becomes necessary if you want to continue your trek toward enlightenment.
By any standards, not just Texas’s, Austin is a vegan-friendly place. There are tons of trucks, cafes, and bakeries throughout the city that make eating out on a vegan diet easy. Unfortunately, most of my friends hadn’t yet felt a higher calling to vegan anything, much less tacos, and thus I found myself at a downtown brunch spot with a strange string of words tumbling out of my mouth: “What are your vegan options?”
After thoroughly quizzing a server, I confirmed what I’d expected—the vegetarian options on the menu had animal by-products sneakily incorporated into them. An apologetic manager came over to our table and offered to ask the chef if there was anything special he could make off-menu. I could feel my cheeks burning as I labored to convince him that avocado toast with sprouted grain bread would be just fine, thanks. I didn’t have the heart to ask if he had an unbuttered tortilla.
If you’re serious about keeping a pure path to taco enlightenment—and I was (I performed a makeshift taco fold on the avocado toast) —then you need to understand that you’ll be that person. Is the rice on the menu cooked in chicken stock? It’s out. Lemon-butter vegetables? Not in my vegan taco. You’re constantly having to remind yourself and others of your diet, which is received, depending on the level of comfort in the friendship, with polite concession or groans. Mostly groans.
I felt my life revolved around the cleanse. “How are the vegan tacos?” became the new “How ‘bout this weather?” I enthusiastically shared detailed accounts of my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which usually culminated with a discussion on the merits and flexibility of tofu. Inquisitors seemed almost disappointed that I was still happily existing on bean and avocado tacos for lunch and gushing about how adequate coconut milk ice cream served in a v-shaped waffle cone was. But I felt good. I was full of (vegan) tacos and life. I could tell people were waiting for me to break, but I wasn’t quite there.
Taco diary: Forgive me, vegan tacos, for I have sinned.
I’ll attribute what I now refer to as the Great Queso Lapse of the Vegan Taco Era to two things: a horrendously bad vegan meal and what I now know to be a serious chemical addiction to cheese.
After mastering a series of successful vegan taco dishes—including tofu migas that even my husband swore tasted like the real thing—I decided to delve into one of the trickier recipes in The Taco Cleanse: tequila sausage. I chose it because a) it seemed like a good excuse to buy tequila and b) I needed some kitchen catharsis. There are few things more rewarding to me than spending hours laboring over a meal, flying on intuition and luck in hopes that all of that work will not only feed but soothe the body. In my meatier days, I had more culinary successes than failures, so I confidently invited a friend over. I secretly also wanted to prove just how enlightened we were, what with our new Vegan Taco Lyfe.
So there I was, crushing fennel, mashing refried beans (sans lard), and mincing enough garlic to ward off the entire cast of True Blood. I combined these ingredients—along with spices, gluten binders, and tequila—into a dough-like mixture that I packed into slivers of foil and rolled into Tootsie Roll-shaped vessels. Thirty minutes over the steamer, an hour in the refrigerator. This, it would seem, is how the vegan sausage is made.
My husband assured our dinner guest the dish would be edible. Good even. “These vegan recipes have been really good,” he said. “Surprisingly good,” he added in a tone that was apparent he was trying equally hard to convince himself of this fact.
With a flourish that would make a Food Network producer proud, I unfurled the cylinders. A grayish substance rolled out. I noted the concerned looks and declared the off-putting hue would be eradicated by a quick sauté in olive oil. It wasn’t. My imperfect links charred in uneven patches, releasing none of the juices that non-bean sausages might exude. Still, I was hopeful. I’m not a food stylist. And this was about to be rolled into a tortilla, anyway.
I made three plates and brought them to the table. And there we all sat, measuring each other, sizing up who would dig in first. I cast my eyes down. My friend smoothed the napkin in her lap a few times. Finally, my husband grabbed the taco, took an enthusiastic bite and began to chew. Perhaps a little longer and slower than usual. He went in for a second taste, but not with any sort of voracious ferocity. He looked more like a man on a mission than a man with the munchies.
“It’s, uh, interesting,” he offered. I took a bite. It tasted what I imagine bean bread would taste like. Which is not a thing because it’s not supposed to be. It was a mushy mish-mash of ingredients that might have been good if I hadn’t tried to turn them into a “sausage.” The spices did little to liven up the taste, and the tequila pop was nowhere to be found. A swig straight from the bottle would have been a welcome digestif.
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, I thought. We are always our own worst critics. But my friend wordlessly confirmed what I had suspected. She stifled a giggle, her Snapchat app open, featuring a photo of the sad little links and a beaming poop emoji layered atop it. We trashed the sausages, heaped our plates with rice, and drank the tequila.
I was disheartened. And a little tipsy. The tequila-and-rice dinner left me hungry—and lowered my inhibitions. There was nothing to snack on at the house aside from baked acorn squash, which sits at the very bottom of the drunk-food totem pole. I considered going to bed to escape my munchies when suddenly, like an out-of-body experience, I found my feet carrying me toward the light, a sort of mecca from my college years that always lifted my spirits, my ultimate safe space: Taco Cabana.
Next thing I knew, I was sitting with every single type of salsa from the bar and a giant order of queso. Chips, at this point, were just vessels for the cheese, and halfway through the bowl of molten, creamy queso, I ditched the totopos altogether. My friends, I am not proud to say this, but . . . I started drinking the queso straight from the bowl. I ran my fingers through the warm liquid gold and smacked the dregs from my fingers. This, I thought, this is truly nirvana. My husband looked on, completely horrified.
Taco diary: I ate another frickin’ vegan taco today.
A few days after the Queso Incident, I went to a coffee shop (Americanos are vegan, stop judging me!). I began talking to the barista, and, as rule one of the Taco Cleanse dictates, I brought up the Taco Cleanse. The barista relayed an interesting anecdote to me. He was once a heroin addict, and when he started to kick his drug habit, he cut a lot of things out of his life. Feeling optimistic about his progress, he decided to add dairy to the list. This triggered cravings for drugs (he didn’t give in, he says). Cheese, it turns out, contains casein, a milk protein that accounts for the bulk of the solid matter of most cheese products. Casein has an opioid effect, meaning that if you eat it enough, you can actually develop a chemical dependency on the stuff. I was addicted to cheese. This was not hyperbole.
Armed with that knowledge and three weeks worth of deprivation from some of my favorite foods, my resentment of vegan tacos festered. My taco book, which I once flipped open with gusto, was now crusted with tofu juice stains. The descriptive, cheery recipe titles—“high-vibration kale chips,” “radiant rajas”—felt like a taunting marketing ploy (what’s so redemptive about beans, anyway?). I was cracking.
Every day that my husband asked me how many days we had left, I felt the weight of what I had done. I had plunged us into a meatless, dairyless taco universe in which the best escape was little shredded bits of soy cheese.
As a sort of self-flagellating punishment for what I wrought on my household, I read MFK Fisher’s beautifully penned recipes from The Art of Eating, which were peppered with anecdotes that perfectly capture the rapturous role of food in our lives—roasted meats that give us strength, soups that nourish us, pastries that tickle our olfactory senses and taste buds. And cheese, oh, cheese, cut into little wedges of delight that remind us in our darkest moments that the world isn’t so bad. The earth has shown us her bounty, giving us limitless culinary combinations to create and enjoy. And all we had were vegan tacos.
The Last Supper
Taco diary: Well, vegan migas it is.
On my last day of the cleanse, a friend texted me to inquire about my dinner plans. She wanted to try out a new Italian spot. An entrancing vision popped into my head. Meat, cheese, and pasta piled mountainously high on a plate. Even more cheese dusted—like a delicate first snow—atop its carbo-loaded peak. But none of those things were vegan. Or tacos. Or vegan tacos, and I told her as much. “Ugh, you’re still doing that?” she replied. Yes, I was. For one more day.
While my husband excitedly plotted exactly what he would eat on his first day off of the vegan taco wagon—it involved an unholy amount of red meat—I was much more cautious in my approach. It was hard to fathom the idea of looking at a menu or down the stocked aisle of a grocery store and knowing I could eat anything I chose. I would soon be faced again with boundless choices, a luxury that seemed at once overwhelming and too good to be true.
For the better part of thirty days, I ate an avocado, bean, and rice (made without chicken stock, of course) taco for lunch with some chips and salsa. I didn’t have to agonize over the distinctly first-world problem of variety, because that was the only feasible dining-out option I had in the vicinity of my office. And so I ate that familiar fare on my last day, mechanically, but with a strange fondness. The simplicity was a comfort I was sad to lose.
There was one big, final culinary decision to make: what would our last vegan taco be? I knew better than to embark on something too ambitious for risk of putting a mushy, tasteless cap on the adventure. And so we settled in for our last supper, breaking tortillas stuffed with the early favorite “mighty migas,” the significance of which I would love to attribute to the cleanse coming full-circle, but was really only chosen because it was one of the few recipes that we could both agree we weren’t sick of. Even on that last day, we still insisted that the vegan substitute could fool us in a restaurant.
As we ate, I asked my husband if he felt any different, hoping that he would be able to provide some evidence of physical or spiritual healing through our thirty animal by-product-free days. He only reported that he had gained weight after gorging on chips and salsa between meals.
I felt deflated. There we sat, at the last supper, concluding that when it came to vegan taco cleanses and their life-changing benefits, we were doubting Thomases.
A few weeks later, after some reflection (and ample amounts of queso), I finally realized what I thought of our strange experiment. I didn’t hate vegan tacos. And I didn’t hate the book even a little bit. (In fact, it should be noted that The Taco Cleanse is completely tongue-in-cheek. It’s more of a critique on detox and fad diets that are based on pseudoscience. I really came to appreciate the social commentary the book’s authors were making. And I came to love some of their recipes: the vegan migas and beer-battered portobello mushrooms, along with a few other taco fillings, still regularly grace my kitchen table.) I concluded something quite simple and not at all profound: cleanses are like religion and politics—we choose whatever flavor suits us best. Being a taco-phile, a taco cleanse is fine by me.
As for the vegan part of the it? For some, being vegan is a way of life, whether it is inspired by convictions about animal rights or the way that a completely plant-based diet makes them feel. Some people swear that making the switch has changed their lives for the better. But it didn’t do much for me. After a month of vegan tacos, I didn’t feel much of anything—except tired of vegan tacos.