Chelta Wray spent much of her 20s taking care of everyone but herself.
The once fit career developer and case manager had stopped working out, was depressed, and at one point, carried 234 lbs. on her 5’4” frame. When a vegan friend suggested a plant-based diet might “bring life” into her body, Chelta decided to try it for one month. In a few days, she wrapped her mind around going from carnivore to vegan, ridding her kitchen of all animal-based products and donating canned goods to local food pantries.
A year later, the 30-year-old Virginia Beach resident continues to be an energized, happy, and 62 lbs. lighter vegan.
“Being vegan is on the up and up,” she said.
Indeed, it is. According to a 2017 report by the research company GlobalData, 6 percent of Americans identify as vegan, a number that reflects a 600 percent increase since 2014. Some are vegan in diet only, and others are lifestyle vegans, those who resist anything made from animals. Health and cruelty issues are prompting women like Chelta to move away from animal-originated products.
Let’s meet Chelta and two other Tidewater women who are at different stages on their vegan journeys but who are committed to what they consider a kinder way of living.
RESPECT FOR NATURE
Chelta used to eat for the sake of eating and had a real fondness for cheese. “I ate food because it was there,” she said.
Having recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with no animal products in her diet, the Norfolk native doesn’t feel deprived and has more energy than ever, hitting the gym several days a week and walking on other days. She’s also not spending as much money at the grocery store.
The transition wasn’t difficult.
During her first month, she ate only fruits and vegetables and drank a lot of water. She prayed often and was cheered on by her non-vegan parents. Before her “trial period” was up, though, Chelta traveled to New Orleans to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Surrounded by Cajun cuisine, beignets, and birthday cake, she realized she was in the middle of the ultimate test. How did she do?
“I aced it!” she said. “I didn’t realize how much willpower I had.”
She’s now brought healthy starches back into her diet, but she limits them, occasionally treating herself to the vegan mac and cheese at Norfolk’s The Conscious Planet. Beans are a daily staple for her, and one of her favorite concoctions is the lentil soup at Pasha Mezze, also in Norfolk. Add the restaurant’s “Vegan Sunrise” plate (tomatoes, olives, and eggplant), and Chelta’s tummy is happy.
She does have a hankering for dessert at times and will often satisfy it with the cheesecake at My Vegan Sweet Tooth in Virginia Beach. The first time she took a bite of it, she thought, “There’s no way this is not dairy; it’s better than The Cheesecake Factory!”
Chelta feels that eating vegan has deepened her faith and her respect for nature. She’s learned more about animal cruelty, and she questions how anything good comes from mistreating or killing animals. In fact, she has emptied her home of most animal products but holds onto her grandmother’s leather purses for sentimental reasons. One day Chelta wants to start a family, and she would love for them to live a vegan lifestyle.
Although she occasionally misses a piping hot stack of pancakes, she doesn’t plan on returning to her former way of eating. She loves her healthier and slimmer self, her renewed energy, and the many new friends she has.
“Why change it if you feel great?” Chelta said. “I’m still a baby in the process, but I don’t plan on going back.”
In 2008, Betsy DiJulio hosted a birthday dinner for some friends. When the meal was over, the longtime vegetarian got up, put her plate in the sink, and decided to forever eliminate all animal products from her diet.
The catalyst? The dining conversation included a woman who’d read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. She pointed out that the “happy” cows in dairy ads aren’t necessarily happy and the “family friendly” farms aren’t necessarily friendly. Betsy listened and thought about what was being discussed as she ate a meal that included some dairy products, finally saying, “That’s it.”
The now 56-year-old Virginia Beach artist and teacher discovered a new excitement in eating vegan. As a Mississippi high schooler, she’d given up beef and pork products to rid her diet of excess fat. When she chose to forgo all animal food products in midlife, she found her culinary curiosity and creativity renewed, pitching a story to The Virginian-Pilot, for whom she was already a contributor, about her new passion. The published article resulted in her offering newspaper-sponsored vegan cooking classes and starting a blog called “The Blooming Platter.”
One and a half years after starting her blog, she signed a contract to write a cookbook with the same title.
Betsy’s kitchen is like an art lab where she dreams up and serves original recipes for family and friends, though some dishes are not pleasing to her partner. The first time Bob ate Betsy’s pad thai—made from spiralized sweet potatoes instead of noodles—he said it tasted like kerosene and lawn clippings. Now he and their frequent guests enjoy her roasted vegetable dishes and snack mixtures, such as cashews and pumpkin seeds roasted with vegan butter and nutritional yeast. If Betsy finds herself with leftovers, she likes to pile them on a rice cake for a quick lunch at school.
The author and chef enjoys dining out on an array of ethnic foods, especially Chinese, Indian, and Thai. She also loves Mesob, an Ethiopian restaurant in Virginia Beach. In fact, her list of favorite restaurants is quite lengthy, but she particularly likes the vegan fish tacos at Pelon’s in Virginia Beach and the vegan options found at the prepared food bar at Whole Foods. Like Chelta, she drops by My Vegan Sweet Tooth for little indulgences, most often for her students. Since she no longer eats dairy products, which coat the tongue and can block taste, she now appreciates the true flavors of food.
Besides having cleaner taste buds, Betsy has also a cleaner conscience. She feels more connected to and in harmony with the natural world because of the way she eats. She refuses to look at photos and videos of abused animals but doesn’t judge others for eating animal-derived foods. In fact, most of her friends are not vegan.
Being vegan is also good for you, Besty says. Following a recent complete blood panel, her doctor declared Betsy “really” healthy. She attributes this in part to a diligent practice of reading labels, making sure there are no animal products of any kind in canned and other prepared foods and noting fat content. She says it can be challenging for vegans to be healthy because of the large amount of fat, sugar, and calories found in many plant-based food products.
Betsy uses nothing on her skin that contains animal ingredients or is tested on animals. She’s nearly cleared her home of any animal-derived goods except for a few pairs of leather shoes, purchased second-hand. Betsy’s furniture, clothing, and accessory choices are ethics-driven, and she reads labels carefully for leather, wool, and silk.
While her lifestyle is driven by her concern for the mistreatment of animals, Betsy doesn’t get into debates about the issue, particularly on social media. She simply continues to lead by example and show people a different way of life.
With a smile and a roll of the eyes, she said, “It helps make up for some of the other things I may have done.”
A BETTER HUMAN
Connie Faivre was driving to a Thanksgiving feast in 1984 when she noticed turkeys trotting around a farm. Initially, the Chesapeake resident thought nothing of it. A few hours later, her host pulled a turkey out of the oven and said, “Just think: This little fellow was running around at the farm down the road yesterday.”
Connie became a vegetarian that day. In 2012 she evolved into what she calls a “true” vegan, eschewing all animal products in her diet and her home. You’ll find no leather or any other animal product in her kitchen, closets, or elsewhere.
“Vegan is a lifestyle,” said the 63-year-old founder and former director of Tidewater Humane, Inc.
Looking back, Connie’s path to veganism and standing up against animal cruelty began in her native Indiana, long before she saw those turkeys. At age 5, she broke away from her mother to grab a whip from someone who was beating a horse. A year later, she climbed inside an animal enclosure on a relative’s farm, where her anxious family later found her, quietly cuddling with a pitbull mix named Blackie. As a high school student, she saw on television a raccoon that was caught in a trap, and she wrote a paper about it from the raccoon’s point of view.
Animal cruelty is the driver for Connie’s vegan lifestyle; the health benefits are subsidiary.
“I’ve always eaten healthy,” Connie said. “I’ve never been a big meat fan.”
Like Betsy, Connie enjoys the creative aspects of her vegan diet and finds that casseroles and soups are particularly ripe for bringing out her experimental chef. A recent dinner in the Faivre home featured cauliflower and potatoes roasted in mustard, garlic, thyme, and vegan mayonnaise and served over pearl couscous cooked in vegan bouillon. A fresh salad completed the meal.
She cooks a lot for church gatherings, too, and her “chik’n salad” always goes fast. Her chili has been a big hit, too. A fellow parishioner recently exclaimed, “This chili is so good!” but after seeing Connie’s smile, he added, ”Wait. Who brought this?” Yes, her ministry pals are indulging in and becoming educated on plant-based meals!
When she wants a break from cooking, she heads to some of her favorite restaurants that cater to vegans’ palates, such as Baladi at Hilltop in Virginia Beach and Pasha Mezze. And, like Betsy and Chelta, she gets her sweet fix at My Vegan Sweet Tooth.
Connie’s hurdles as a vegan are few. The occasional overseas flight requires her calling the airline to arrange for meals. A big challenge is going to events where food is involved because many meal planners don’t consider some guests may be vegan. She also at times misses not having to give food preparation much thought. She can once again enjoy an occasional Guinness beer, though, thanks to the brewery’s decision to omit isinglass, a substance derived from fish, from the filtration process.
For Connie, the rewards greatly outweigh her few challenges as a vegan. She feels she’s kinder to people and sees her spirituality as directly connected to her view on animals, adding that she’s not “arrogant” enough to think her life is more important than every other creature’s life.
And when people imply that she’s making animals into humans, her response is, “No. I’m just making myself a better human.”
Ready to give the vegan life a try? Here are a few tasty vegan recipes chosen by our cover story ladies!