Like any couple, Angela Pohlman and Aaron Onsrud don’t have everything in common. She loves kale, he can’t stand it. She has a Samsung Galaxy, he has an iPhone. And in what some people would think might be a deal-breaker, she’s vegan and he might fry up some bacon from time to time.
But Pohlman and Onsrud make it work. In a world where there are dozens of words to describe one’s food choices, the Madison couple is navigating one of the trickier ones out there: the mixed-diet relationship.
“If it’s something that’s at the core of someone’s being – maybe they like the Vikings – and you can’t accept that, it’s not going to work,” said Onsrud, who describes himself as an “omnivore.” “You have to accept it and that you’re not going to change them. That’s the same with any relationship.”
Any relationship can have its differences about things like religion, political affiliation or a preference for the Oxford comma. Food, however, is a big one.
“Your religious differences or your political differences, they can sort of be shoved aside and not talked about,” said Ayinde Howell, a chef and co-author of “The Lusty Vegan: A Cookbook and Relationship Manifesto for Vegans and the People Who Love Them.”
The new book, co-written by Zoe Eisenberg, sprang from a dating column Eisenberg had written for a website founded by Howell, IEatGrass.com. The authors, both single, use experiences from their own lives as well as anecdotes from other couples about dealing with what Howell calls “inter-diet dating.”
“Food comes into play socially, it comes into play three times a day every day,” he said. “It’s going to affect your relationship, and you have to deal with it.”
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 4 percent of Americans surveyed identified themselves as vegetarian, while another 2 percent identified as vegan. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, vegans either eliminate all animal products or focus solely on a plant-based diet (with some also avoiding honey). Choices are made for reasons of diet, animal rights, ethics or a concern about the food production system.
With numbers like that, though, odds are stacked when it comes time to finding a matching diet in a date or a life partner.
“I had a couple people I’d dated who were like, ‘This is weird, I don’t even know what to feed you,’ ” said Pohlman, who has been vegan for 15 years. “And a few other people just wouldn’t talk about it and steer clear of you immediately.”
Onsrud has friends who are vegan and vegetarian and had been around it before he met Pohlman three years ago. It didn’t seem like a big deal to him.
“It wasn’t an alien concept,” he said. “There was none of the ‘But you eat fish, right?’ We didn’t have to go through all the steps.”
When Nicole Steck and Ben Rasmussen met just over a year ago, they knew upfront their dietary choices were different. She’s vegan; he grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and loves his steak and cheese curds. They met online and her profile said she was a vegan but wasn’t planning to force that on anyone she dated.
“We went to Baldwin Street Grill on our first date and I ate cheese curds in front of her,” Rasmussen said.
Steck and Rasmussen have figured out that the big issue isn’t so much that he isn’t vegan, it’s that between the two of them, he’s the picky eater.
“The overlap is not very high,” he said. “I’m a 12-year-old boy when it comes to eating. I’ve never met a green thing I like.”
Still, they said, they can make it work because they’ll cook separate dishes, but together. Something like fajitas work, they say, because they can just customize their dishes. What also helps is living in Madison, with many menu options that cater to vegetarians and vegans. Also, vegan products are available at grocery stores, too.
Sue Miller of Madison has been vegetarian or vegan for the past 15 years, but describes her husband of 27 years, Ron Engelhardt, as a “militant carnivore.” But, she said, they share core values in many things beyond food and even politics.
“I know Ron respects the reasons I don’t eat meat,” she said. “He doesn’t expect to be able to change me, and I don’t expect to be able to change him.”
Joe Caughlin of Waunakee has been vegan for about a year; his wife and 4-year-old twins aren’t. His choices are based primarily on how he feels about the food production system. He’s mostly eating separate dishes from his family, he said, and wants to find more recipes that will appeal to everybody.
“I wish I had more time to make a gourmet vegan meal, but that takes time and I work,” he said.
Customizing dishes for each diet
As a vegan for 15 years, Pohlman can whip up recipes easily and is familiar with many of the quick vegan options that are out there, too. At home she has about 70 vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, and when she lived in Michigan she taught vegan cooking classes. She does a lot of vegan baking, finding success with tricks such as using 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed to 3 tablespoons water to substitute for an egg as a binding agent. Even so, sometimes it’s Onsrud who likes trying to “veganize” a dish.
“One of the challenges I had with one of the people I dated was they didn’t really eat anything besides hamburger or macaroni and cheese,” said Pohlman, the general merchandise manager for the Willy Street Co-op. “Aaron’s willing to eat anything.”
Pohlman and Onsrud have often cooked together, which is currently difficult since the birth of their son, Theodore, on Thanksgiving. Onsrud tries to be respectful, even using specific pans just for meat. They use proteins such as tofu, seitan and tempeh, as well as customizing their meals.
“We’ll make a pot of spaghetti and sauce and then we’ll each have our own meatballs,” she said. “Or we’ll have a dish where the sides are vegan or meat, like tacos.”
Steck has tried to use some of the vegan options with Rasmussen, but it hasn’t worked out so well.
“For the first three months we dated, I’d try a meat substitute but I’m at the point where I’ve pretty much given up on that,” he said. “Which just means at some point she’ll outlive me by a jillion years.”
Looking to other cuisines
It’s Americans who have the meat-heavy diet, Howell said, so other cuisines can make it easy for “mixed” couples to make restaurant choices.
“There are situations with people who do not eat meat and you find that more in ethnic restaurants, you can find it in Ethiopian food, in Asian food, in Italian or Mediterranean food as well,” Howell said.
Miller likes to make a peanut satay; she has tofu and her husband has chicken. She’ll make a spaghetti sauce and use a meat substitute, he’ll have meat. She’s adjusted a tortilla soup recipe that started out with chicken in it.
“Mexican and Thai really lend themselves to switching a recipe from a carnivore recipe to a vegan recipe,” she said. “It helps if you put a lot of spices in.”
A challenge for Steck is she didn’t cook much before she became a vegan, so trying to make adjustments in recipes can be tough.
“Over Christmas I made a really disgusting squash dish and his mom ate an entire helping,” she said. “That could not have been pleasant.”
Respecting each other’s food choices
Though finding the right food is important, so is striking the right balance in dealing with the differences in food choices.
Steck and Rasmussen joke about it, but try to make sure they don’t cross a line.
“You either have to be OK with someone having a different outlook and you have to make sure you’re not rubbing it in their face,” Rasmussen said.
Those who are vegan are often pretty passionate about their reasons for making that choice. Sometimes, though, they have to set that aside.
“I have to learn to just keep my mouth shut,” Caughlin said. “Unless they’re going to feed my kids ring bologna.”
Dealing with each other is one thing; it only gets dicier once holidays and families come into play. That’s a big part of Howell’s and Eisenberg’s book, too. That’s where seemingly simple approaches such as finding a great recipe to serve and being gracious can go a long way, they say.
“I want people to say they had a great meal and not really even think about it being vegan,” Howell said. “You can talk about idealism all you want, but you can’t eat an ideal. You want to eat good food.”