On the road to a major life change, there are always obstacles. And for Sarah Swingle, the biggest hurdle standing in her way was made of cheese.
“Cheese was my main food group,” recalls Sarah Swingle, a 29-year old graduate student who took two years to purge all animal products from her diet, a process she completed in 2009.
In her pre-vegan days, Swingle blitzed her pasta with parmesan, and listed cheese pizza, grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese as her very favorite foods. “I absolutely had it in mind to go vegan, but cheese kept me from doing it,” she says.
Swingle habitually catches up on podcasts while working out with muted exercise videos, and she remembers listening to a particular anti-cheese screed that ended up strengthening her neck muscles.
As “Life After Cheese” played, she vigorously shook her head.
“I was saying 'no, no, no',” says Swingle, who back then snacked on spoonfuls of cream cheese straight from the tub. “But now when I think of the reasons why I don't eat cheese, that's motivation enough.”
There wasn't a last cheese supper for Swingle. In accordance with her views on animal rights, she gradually ate less and less meat, eggs, honey and dairy, until her “cheese” consumption was restricted to slices of soy protein, vegetable oil and nutritional yeast (it tastes better than it sounds.) But the pace of the transition didn't prevent Swingle's co-workers from expressing shock at her choices.
“When I came back from lunch, my co-workers would be like 'how was your celery?' ” says Swingle, who worked for the Charleston Jewish Federation before enrolling in Humane Society University's online master's degree program in animal policy and advocacy. “I realized they had no clue what vegans can eat.”
In response to their befuddlement, Swingle employed a social media cliche: She started posting pictures of her lunches to a Facebook album. Friends were fascinated by the plates, which looked far more filling and delicious than they'd imagined, and urged her to build a blog around her photo project.
In 2012, she launched What I Vegan, which has become a rallying point and source of support for local vegans.
“I think Charleston is definitely very vegan-friendly,” Swingle says. “The South kind of has a bad reputation, but almost every restaurant has something vegan.”
Still, she adds, “I was looking for a community.”
The notion of abstaining from animal flesh wasn't completely foreign to Swingle's family: Her mother, a nursing school adviser at East Tennessee State University, swore off meat a decade ago. Vegetarianism is often an outgrowth of spiritual, ethical or health concerns, but Swingle says her mother made the decision on a visceral level. “(Meat) kind of grossed her out,” Swingle says.
So Swingle knew her way around a veggie patty when she enrolled at the University of Alabama, but she still made frequent trips to Chick-fil-A. As she recounts it, she didn't yet understand how factory farms treated the animals they processed.
“I knew cows died, but I didn't know the technicalities of everything, or how out of line it was with my values,” she said.
A longtime cat owner and professed animal lover, Swingle first encountered the phrase “factory farm” online: While trying to donate money she'd received for her 24th birthday to the Humane Society, she discovered a video about agricultural practices that the organization had posted to its website. She was horrified by the abuses it reported.
“The goal for me is to reduce animal suffering,” says Swingle, who hopes to eventually work for a national or international animal welfare group. “Animals shouldn't be treated as poorly as they are.”
After Swingle became a full-fledged vegan, which, as Swingle defines the term, also keeps her from wearing wool and taking horse-drawn carriage rides, her younger sisters followed suit.
Swingle says her grandmother, who lives in Asheville, was initially nervous about assembling a Thanksgiving dinner for three 20-something vegans: “My poor grandmother went out and ordered different sides,” including portabella mushrooms from a natural foods grocery store.
Now Swingle's husband is vegan too. “He used to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch and steak for dinner,” she says. “He's come a long way.”
Even Swingle's father has started observing “meatless Mondays.”
According to Swingle, her relatives shifted their diets without any prodding. Contrary to popular belief, Swingle says, vegans aren't militant proselytizers.
“I kind of had that impression, too,” she says. “I was thinking of vegans as loud, in-your-face activists, and I think I got that impression from one vegan I knew at college. Like any stereotype, there's a little truth in there, but not every vegan is like that.”
Having given up her cheese crutch, Swingle says her meals are far more nutritious: She's traded grilled cheese for a daily green vegetable shake.
Recent meals pictured on her blog include a falafel salad, black bean burrito with tomato-cucumber pico de gallo, wild mushroom ratatouille with basil pesto and smoked tomato polenta.
Swingle also runs guest posts from fellow vegans who've successfully dined at upscale Charleston restaurants that pride themselves on their fish and charcuterie, such as FIG and Cypress.
When eating out, Swingle often calls restaurants in advance to make sure their kitchens can accommodate a vegan.
She recently contacted Blossom, which offered her a range of dishes, including a wood-fired pizza without cheese. But the former pizza fiend politely declined: She ordered the tomato salad and Brussels sprouts instead.
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified Sarah Swingle's blog.