Interview with Mel McDonald of A Virtual Vegan
Tell us about your journey to becoming vegan!
I became vegan about 17 months ago. Before that I was vegetarian for about six months. I had eaten meat, eggs and dairy for my whole life until that time. I loved meat, cheese and eggs and ate a lot of them although I didn’t ever feel entirely comfortable with my choices. I was careful to buy only free-range, organic varieties as I truly believed they came from ‘happier’ animals and it helped ease my guilt.
One day about two years ago, we went for a day out at a local fair which was centred around farming. We came upon some beautiful cows in a pen and I spent some time with one of them. It was a really friendly cow and seemed to be enjoying my attention. I was scratching it behind the ears when an announcement was made about the cows being sold by the pound (live weight) for slaughter later that day. The purchaser would have their photograph taken with the animal purchased before it was sent off for processing. I was in total shock and was heartbroken that this lovely cow, and all the others would be killed later that day. The reality of what actually happens to these beautiful animals suddenly hit home extremely hard.
I told my husband there and then that I would never eat meat again and immediately became vegetarian. The ethics of egg and dairy production didn’t cross my mind at that time. Like many I was in blissful ignorance. Then one day I somehow ended up reading something about male chicks being a byproduct of the egg industry and discovered that they were often ground up alive or gassed to death.
I started researching more and more and was horrified to discover what happens to dairy cows and their calves, the effects intensive animal agriculture has on the planet and all about how leather is produced cheaply in countries like India and China in absolutely deplorable, barbaric conditions and then used to make the products we buy here. Some of the videos and documentaries I watched will haunt me forever.
I also researched the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet and the negative effects of meat and dairy on the human body. I realized that a lot of what I had been taught about nutrition was completely wrong. I grew up believing that cow’s milk was necessary to get sufficient calcium and that meat was necessary for protein and for getting enough vitamins like iron etc. Discovering that they weren’t necessary at all and that they are in fact harmful to the human body was like seeing the world in a totally different light and I decided that I would become vegan. For my health, for the animals and for the planet.
How did you end up coming from Devon in England to Victoria, and how do the vegan communities compare?
I am from Devon, England and lived there until about three and half years ago. My husband was offered the chance of a six month secondment in Victoria, Canada by his employer. We had never been to Canada before but decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss so decided to take them up on the offer.
Within twelve weeks we were here. We sold our house, our car and I gave up my job. We are usually quite cautious people who don’t take risks so it was a massive decision for us to make and the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. We came here knowing no-one but settled in very quickly and fell in love with Vancouver Island. Three and a half years later we are still here and are in the process of applying to stay here permanently.
I wasn’t vegan when we lived in England so I can’t really compare the vegan communities here and there. We have been back for vacations though and I found it a real struggle to find good vegan food. We went out to eat quite a lot and pubs and restaurants seemed to find me being vegan pretty hard to grasp! I had quite a few terrible meals and a few occasions when there was nothing for me to eat at all.
Thank goodness for store bought falafel and fruit which got carried around in my purse for those times when I didn’t get anything else. I think I am spoilt living here in Victoria as there is a pretty big vegan community and cafes and most cafes, restaurants and pubs tend to be pretty vegan friendly.
How long have you been blogging?
I started my blog the week after I became vegan so about 17 months ago. I was constantly getting asked the question “but what do you eat”??? I decided to start a blog to show people the kinds of foods I eat and to hopefully prove wrong all the negative notions there are out there about vegan food.
What are some tips to remember when photographing food?
My food photography has been a real learning curve. My early photos are quite frankly, embarrassing! Although I have improved drastically and am now pretty happy with the photographs I take, I am still constantly learning and looking to improve. Some tips I have learnt along the way are never to use the flash. It makes food look truly terrible. Natural light is always best but failing that my Lowell Ego lights are a life saver, especially in winter and fall.
Another tip that helps make life a lot easier is to set up the shot while the food is still cooking or cooling, or before you cook it. I get my backdrop and props set up, add the plate/bowl I will be using and use something random that is roughly the same size, in place of the food to set up the shot so as soon as the food is ready it can be photographed quickly, while it is still fresh looking.
For instance, if I am photographing a cupcake or muffins, I will set up the shot with some apples or oranges instead of the cupcakes or muffins. Then as soon as the real one is ready I just swap it out and take the photos.
The turning point in my photography came when I invested in a tripod and started using my camera’s manual settings. Using a tripod makes a massive difference to the clarity of your shots and using the manual settings allows you to adapt to different situations and light conditions. It makes all the difference!
What kinds of dishes do you like making when you are short on time?
I love to use my slow cooker during the week. I work until 5.30 pm every day then like to work on my blog for at least a couple of hours, so am always short on time in the evening. Having a meal waiting in the slow cooker when I get home makes life so much easier. I have a large capacity slow cooker so I make a great big batch and it lasts us a couple of nights or I can freeze some for another time. Meals like chills, soups and curries are my go tos. I get it all ready in the slow cooker pot in the evening, keep it in the fridge overnight then turn it on before I go out in the morning.
Rice or noodle bowls are also a favourite, with plenty of either steamed or roasted vegetables, maybe some baked tofu or roasted chickpeas and a delicious but quick sauce to bring it all together. I also love my Easy Tomato Basil Soup recipe when I am really short on time. It takes literally ten minute to make and is so delicious with some crusty bread!
What are your favorite vegan or food documentaries?
I really enjoyed Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, Hungry For Change and the Forks Over Knives documentary. Cowspiracy was a real eye opener too. I am looking forward to seeing the new Eating You Alive documentary. Blackfish, although not about food, is also a must watch.
What is your food philosophy?
I love food and I love to eat! I eat a plant-based diet centred mainly around natural, whole, unprocessed foods. I have the occasional store bought treat, but mostly, if I feel like eating something like a cookie or a cake for instance, I will make it myself from scratch using healthier ingredients than the store bought versions typically use. If something has ingredients that I wouldn’t have or use in my kitchen then I don’t want to eat it. I want to celebrate what can be done with natural, unprocessed foods and educate people on how wonderful plant-based living can be.
What are your favorite vegan restaurants in Victoria?
My favourite place to eat in Victoria is the restaurant Be Love. All of the food is wheat, meat, dairy and processed sugar free. It isn’t 100% vegan but it’s nearly there. A few of their brunch items include egg which is a shame. Another great totally vegan restaurant is Green Cuisine which has an amazing lunch buffet. My absolutely favourite place to eat though is actually in Vancouver which is just a short ferry ride away and it’s called Meet on Main. They serve the most awesome food and every-time we go to Vancouver I hang out there rather a lot!
What was the last book you read?
I don’t get time to read since I started my blog. Every spare waking minute is spent either in the kitchen or at my computer. We went on a much needed vacation last month though, and I read my first book in more than eighteen months. It was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am looking forward to seeing the movie when it is released soon.
What are you up to when you are not blogging?
Working and sleeping. Ha ha! I have never been so busy so don’t have an awful lot of free time. I do make sure to get some time off occasionally though. I enjoy travelling, hiking with my husband and my dog, exploring quirky shops, watching movies, Face-timing family and friends back in England and unwinding in the kitchen with a recipe from another blogger’s blog, or from one of my many cook books. It’s lovely to not have to write everything down, or worry about how pretty it looks and to actually eat the food while it’s still hot!
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
More great recipes. I have a list as long as my arm of recipes I want to bring to the blog. I have also just started experimenting with video so hopefully there will be many more of these to come in the future too. I also have plans for an e-book but finding the time to dedicate to it is challenging at the moment so it might be a long time in production!
Do you have any tips for running a successful blog?
My biggest tip would be to only put out recipes that you are completely happy with and which have been tested thoroughly. Good content is an absolute must. Build trust with your audience. They are key to your success after all. Putting out reliable recipes is essential for this. The last thing anyone wants is to make a recipe that fails miserably.
I also make sure I reply to every single comment on my blog, on my social media and in my email. It’s getting harder and harder to do this as my blog grows, but the personal touch goes such a long way and your readers appreciate it a lot.
Practice your food photography because good photos really do make a huge difference to how well the recipe will do. Have a good support system. Have a network of other bloggers you trust and can bounce ideas off and who can help you out when you run into problems. I have lost count of the times I have needed help with things I don’t understand. Cooking and recipe creation is the easy part for me.
The technical side of running a website and all the behind the scenes things are much more challenging!
Peach Baked Oatmeal with Blueberries
- 2 tablespoons ground flax
- 6 tablespoons water
- 2.5 cups rolled oats
- 1.5 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup of milk (I used my homemade Oat Milk but any unsweetened milk will be fine).
- 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 3 peaches (sub for frozen peach slices or canned peaches if fresh are unavailable)
- 1 heaping cup of blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (slow cooker directions at end)
- Mix the ground flax and the water together in a small bowl and set aside.
- Cut each peach in half and remove the stones. Cut 2 peaches into slices as shown in my photographs and cut the third peach into small pieces.
- Add all the dry ingredients to a large bowl and mix.
- Add all the wet ingredients (including the flax mixture) to a jug or bowl and mix.
- Mix the two together.
- Add the small pieces of peach and mix again.
- Pour into an oven proof dish and smooth out the top. The dish I used was about 8 x 8 inches & 2 inches deep. Anything similar will be fine.
- Arrange your sliced peaches across the top.
- Sprinkle your blueberries over the peaches.
- Place in oven and bake uncovered for 35 – 45 minutes. I like mine a little crusty around the sides and top so leave it for the full 45 minutes but if you prefer it a little softer take it out before that.
- Allow to cool slightly before slicing so that it holds together better….If you can resist for that long!
- If cooking in a slow cooker then follow the assembly directions above and place in your slow cooker. Cook on low for about 4 hours.