Being of Jamaican descent, there's a certain level of comfort that I have when I go there to visit. In so many ways it feels more like home than my New York home. For one, I find the weather, the fresh air and the general atmosphere to be quite grounding, a refreshing contrast to the anxiety-provoking hustle and bustle of NYC. There's also a lot of comfort in being surrounded by people who look like me, who remind me of family, whose roots can be traced back to the same ancestry.
For a foodie like myself, however, the most comforting and exciting part of going to Jamaica is being able to eat the foods that I grew up on, especially those that I don't get to eat too often. For this particular vacation, my husband and I decided to stay at a resort, simply to be able to have that experience together at least once. We did worry about the food options that would be available, and had even decided that if it came down to it, we'd be willing to try a raw diet for the week.
Looking back, more raw foods probably would've been a great idea. Here's what happened. When we arrived at the buffet for our first meal, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were plenty of familiar Jamaican foods that we knew to be normally vegan, like callaloo, spinach, rice & peas, breadfruit, plantain and cabbage. Nothing was labeled as vegan but we felt comfortable taking the risk eating familiar vegetables and other normally meat- & dairy-free foods, especially after being assured by a couple of the chefs that there were plenty of vegan options and that we wouldn't have to worry.
The first day, I felt fine. The food was great, and we were happy to not have to worry about finding food to eat. We would be alright as long as we stuck to familiar and obviously vegan foods. Or so we thought. At sometime around 4 am after the second day, I awoke to a violent pain in my stomach. For the next couple hours I was glued to the toilet in agony, wondering what in the hell could've caused this pain. Because I believed that I'd only eaten vegan foods, I chalked it up to the fact that I was eating more fried food than usual (I ate SO MUCH fried plantain), and within a few hours I was back to normal.
Fast forward to dinner the next night, when the head chef came to talk to us about vegan options. Mind you, this was after I had already finished eating. I listened to this chef exclaim proudly that, for the sake of flavor, almost every single thing at the buffet that night had been cooked in butter, including all the vegetables. He offered to cook us up a separate vegan meal, but of course it was already too late. Before I even got up to leave, my stomach was already doing flip-flops. I knew it'd be another early morning on the toilet.
I was quite upset. I went back to our hotel room to cry for a bit and gather myself, because I couldn't believe what I'd heard. I was under the impression that I'd been eating vegetables that were vegan when really they had been cooked in butter. I was terribly confused because, even though I did feel sick earlier in the morning, I had eaten plenty of meals that didn't make me feel sick at all. I'm both lactose intolerant and allergic to whey, so even if I wasn't vegan, I can't eat dairy without feeling ill. Why did I feel alright after some meals and sick after others?
The next morning, we went looking for the chef, only to find that there was a different chef during the daytime shift. After talking with him, we made the realization that while one head chef was cooking all of his vegetables in butter, the other was cooking all of his in vegetable oil. It also seemed that some of the other cooks weren't too clear on what being vegan truly meant, and weren't aware enough to inform us that butter had been used in some of the vegetable dishes. So while the steamed & sauteed vegetables that I had for breakfast and lunch were vegan, the ones I had for dinner were not.
I felt annoyed and angry. Mainly because I got way more familiar with that hotel room toilet than I intended to during my vacation, but also because it was a massive oversight on the part of the second head chef. It wasn't simply the fact that I was eating non-vegan food, but I was eating food that my body could not tolerate. It's one thing not to label foods as vegan, it's another not to label them as possible allergenic, especially when the normal preparation is dairy-free. I was also particularly frustrated at the outdated culinary tradition of dousing vegetables in butter simply for the sake of imparting "flavor". Oil is an option if health is of no concern, and even without oil, there are seasonings for that.
Luckily, my body had become quite resilient since going vegan so I only felt ill for a fraction of the time that I was there. Several months ago, my meetings with the toilet would've been a day-long endeavor. Though I spent my vacation way more bloated and nauseous than I wanted to be, I was still able to have a great time.
Looking back, there were many lessons to be learned during this experience. For one, I'm no longer going to be afraid of being *that* vegan. I was so concerned about not being a bother that I didn't ask enough questions and I didn't advocate for myself when I should have. I also assumed that the dishes coming out of the kitchen were prepared using a standard recipe, so if it was vegan once then it would be vegan again. I definitely didn't expect the preparation to vary so drastically between chefs. Never again will I be making any assumptions.
Ultimately I've come to learn that being vegan means that I may have to teach others about the dietary nuances of veganism. Some of the cooks were clearly unaware of what it meant to be vegan, and didn't realize that butter would be an issue. While veganism is becoming more and more popular, there's still a long way to go, and there's a lot of educating that needs to be done. The day will come when foods will be more carefully and consciously prepared and more clearly labeled. Until then, my husband and I will be opting to stay at places where we can cook the food ourselves... butter-free.
Call me Niv.