Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Disunity and Fighting Dirty...

In writing this, it didn’t take long to remember why writing longhand is such a frustrating but also uniquely rewarding experience. Once you get past the self-loathing that stems from not being able to write just one decent sentence, there is the delicious fsssst! of ripping out pages from a notebook and crumbling them up - viciously and with a hiss or growl or sometimes both - as I did recently with this, starting and stopping and tossing draft after draft into the recycling. After so many fits and starts, I realized that it was the tip-toeing around that made the thorny subject I circled around more jagged and intimidating, and the only way around it was through it, thorns and all.

So, in that spirit, it goes something like this: I’ve noticed that vegans seem to really kind of love to hate each other. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too. This animosity is nothing new but these days it’s so much more intense, perhaps accelerated by more of a multitude of approaches, definitely fanned by the limitations of social media. The question I run up against is why can’t we disagree with one another, even emphatically, and not be jerks about it. Why must it so often become personal and turn to the vituperative? For people who are so repulsed by violence that we’ve altered our lives to minimize contributing to it, we turn to personal evisceration with an astounding readiness.  

As vegans, we are promoting a crucial cause, one that is so invigorating and forward-thinking it still gives me goose bumps and one that matters so much to so many that the word “cause” is hopelessly ill-fitted for its scope; with it we have invaluable opportunities to grow and create lasting change that can ripple out to produce so much good. So often, though, instead of seeing people put courageous, hard work into effecting change, what I see is behavior that is as loud and puerile as toddlers fighting over who gets a turn on the playground swing next: I see puffed-up chests and bravado, I see posturing and platitudes, I see character assassinations and casual cruelties. I see people squandering the position we own for being on the right side of history and I see us fragmenting into tinier and tinier units until I wonder if it’s possible to subdivide into even smaller numbers. 

Division was never my thing, though, and neither is allegiance politics. So where does today’s fixation on take-no-prisoners, “with me or against me” mud-flinging in the vegan movement leave people like me? Increasingly, we are likely to go it alone.

Before I go any further, let me clarify what I am not saying: I am not asking for us all to get along. It is a waste of time to ask for unity because it’s simply not going to happen. This occurred to me the other day and while the thought initially depressed me, I have gained clarity and total acceptance about our lack of unity. The Hatfields and the McCoys and all their feuding offspring and a bunch of teenagers without texting privileges on lockdown together would have a better chance of finding peace together sooner. This is not me being pessimistic: I say this because we don’t necessarily have the same objectives, and, given that, despite having lots of common ground and significant areas of overlap, it’s understandable that we cannot find unity.

I am not even asking if we can’t all just agree to disagree. That isn’t going to happen either on a large scale because there are simply too many of us for that to happen, and, frankly, because there are some key strategic approaches that are irreconcilable to one another and deserve to be critically scrutinized. Agreeing to disagree shouldn’t be accepted by those who can’t stay silent about the disagreement. The way we change the things we don’t like is by creating new models, after all.

That being said, we need to be asking ourselves difficult questions, we need to be challenging our own comfort zones and become more creative, more effective communicators of our message. In the endless fighting, though, in the increasingly petty, internecine allegiance politics that grinds us down to dust as we try to prove who is right, I am wondering how the animals or the movement itself will see any immediate or even long-term benefits. We have a real problem with self-sabotage and dividing ourselves up into impossibly smaller and smaller factions until it’s clear that the ones benefiting are also the ones who profit from animal use.

I am reminded again of one of my first experiences with this divide-and-conquer mentality, of being a spectator at a meeting with a mediator as the once-popular vegetarian society in Chicago messily and loudly fell apart. In the middle of the room, with people shouting, threatening and pointing fingers, the poor mediator, who probably thought mediating a dispute between vegetarians would like watching a basket of kittens play with yarn, looked at the people gathered and said, truly incredulous, “This is how compassionate people act? I thought you were better than the rest of us. What hope does the rest of the world have then?” I was embarrassed, not for the disagreement but for the way that people were disagreeing.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a “can’t we all get along?” entreaty. This is a “can’t we be humane?” entreaty. The long and the short of it is this: we’re not going to have unity because the differences are too vast. While unity is not happening, though, could we fight less dirty? Can we give one another space to do our own work without making it ugly and personal? Most important, could we just focus on what we do best and do it? I think if we give up on the pursuit of unity and focus instead on personal effectiveness, the vegan movement, the animals and the planet will all be better off.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Nava Atlas

After I went vegetarian and began learning how to cook, it didn’t take long to discover that the cookbook offerings were pretty slim, leaning toward commune food of the 1970s and the Moosewood publications. In my early twenties, though, I happened upon a copy of Vegetariana by Nava Atlas while browsing in a bookstore and I was bewitched. With detailed, quirky illustrations she drew herself, interesting nuggets pulled from vegetarian history, and recipes that seemed to take a page or two from my grandmother’s own Eastern European kitchen (well, with more nutritious ingredients and no schmaltz), I felt like I was in the company of someone who understood me and my life. In my little apartment in Chicago, I tested out barley mushroom pilafs, stuffed eggplant, leek pie, and my first eggless tofu salad on my roommate, who was happy to play the role of taste-tester. While the cookbook wasn’t vegan, neither was I, and it was a big improvement from and dairy-and-eggs laden cookbooks I had been using prior. I always had the feeling that Nava Atlas was by my side as I was becoming a more confident and skilled home cook. 

Since those early days, Nava has continued cheering on countless home cooks the world over, helping us to bring more nutritious meals into our lives, and along the way, her recipes have evolved as she has to embrace a vegan sensibility. As an early adopter of the internet. Nava has been there for people on, providing recipes that we could use for every day and for holidays, emphasizing easy-to-prepare recipes with a focus on fresh produce, as well as book reviews, videos and more. With helpful content generated since 1996 and a growing list of contributors, is a great resource for newbie and longtime cook alike. I’m happy to have this rockstar participate in my Ten Questions feature and I think you’ll enjoy it as well. With the release of her new cookbook, Plant Power, this luminary shows no sign of slowing down. 

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

I grew up in a household where typical, meat-heavy Eastern European Jewish food was served. I thought it was terrible, and was a troublesome eater. From the time I was young, I disliked looking at the meat on my plate, though my mind didn’t exactly go to meat = animal. I just thought it looked gross.

To make a long story short, I announced my intention to go vegetarian when I was nearly 17. My mom was upset and told me I’d have to cook for myself, as she wasn’t about to prepare two separate meals. This was fine with me, but as this was a long time ago, food options weren’t like they are today. I shopped dusty “health food” stores for lentils and oat groats and other hippie foods, but I just loved it. I took to cooking immediately, and though my creations weren’t culinary masterworks, my family came around and soon everyone wanted what I was having.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?
See above! You must have had a very idyllic notion of my childhood when you crafted these questions, whereas I recall a lot of tears at the table, especially before I was old enough to rebel!

That being said, I do have a special place in my heart for Jewish holiday foods, as they represent the time that my close-knit extended family would gather. So I’ve take pleasure in veganizing holiday foods such as matzo ball soup for Passover, latkes for Hanukkah, rugalach for Rosh Hashanah, etc. These and others are part of my book, Vegan Holiday Kitchen. I’m so totally not religious, but these foods create a link to those dear to me, now long gone.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

This is probably the hardest question, as I’ve had so many great vegan meals in my life! I live near NYC, and I could rattle off some great restaurant fare, but what pops into my mind is a meal my husband and I had a few months ago at the home of new friends. They aren’t at all vegan or even vegetarian, but they made a concerted effort to create a great meal on our behalf. The main dish was a sweet potato and black bean casserole, which was topped with crumbled tortilla chips and vegan sour cream.

I already don’t remember the accompaniments, but it wasn’t even the specific food — from the appetizers and margaritas to that main dish to the dessert (and it was all very good) but the effort they made to create a satisfying and balanced meal as a way to welcome us as new friends. I lavished praise on their efforts and pronounced them honorary vegans!

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and
what would you create?

That is such a great question! My mind is racing … Charlotte Brontë! Louisa May Alcott! George Harrison! Eric Clapton! Albert Einstein! Mohandas Gandhi! Margaret Mead! I just realized that the only one who’s still alive is Eric Clapton. But I bet he’d love to be reunited with George Harrison, despite the fact that they both loved and lost “Layla.” Really, I’m such a nerd. And greedy. Can’t I have them all to dinner?

I’m not sure what I’d make. I’m very improvisational when it comes to preparing meals. It depends very much on the season, my mood, and if I need to test any recipes for a book or article. I always use company as guinea pigs, and would even do so to George Harrison.

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

I’m not sure what common mistakes would be, as they’d vary from one individual to another. But common misconceptions, and ones I work hard to dispel, are that vegan meals are time-consuming, complicated, expensive, and involve obscure ingredients. I remind people: the basics for a plant-based diet are grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits and veggies galore. This isn’t just “vegan food” — it’s food!

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

By necessity, I need to be excited about whatever my hubby is bringing in from the garden. So earlier this summer it was beets. I made beet burgers for the first time, and wow, are they good. Right now it’s tomatoes. I just had a yellow tomato and Vegenaise sandwich for lunch. He also grows a lot of greens, and a few summers ago, when I had my fill of trying to be excited over the thousandth batch of chard, I got the idea to do the book Wild About Greens, which definitely helped sustain my excitement for leafy greens — AKA the healthiest foods on the planet.

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

That’s actually an easy one for me. I love Asian cuisines — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai — with all the veggies, noodles, tofu,  and savory sauces in a myriad of combinations. But you said one ethnic cuisine, and these are different from one another. So if I can’t do fusion, I’ll choose Korean. It’s relatively new for me among these various cuisines, so I’d have a lot to explore.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

Raising my kids from the start as vegetarians, and all of us going vegan around the same time, was quite significant. I especially have to commend my son Evan, who was 10 at the time. Seeing the conviction with which he took up the cause meant a lot to me. He was actually the first of the four of us to declare himself.

Shortly after we went vegan, Howard Lyman (AKA “The Mad Cowboy”) gave a talk at a local venue to introduce the film Peaceable Kingdom. And even though we were already among the converted, seeing how animals are treated on factory farms was such a freak-out.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a thoughtful look at the ethical aspects of meat consumption. I highly recommend it. As for a more recent film, I like Vegucated quite a bit. Taking a global issue and narrowing it down to the personal is often quite effective. It was interesting to see how three very different individuals handled the challenge of going vegan for several weeks.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

I’m also a visual artist and nonfiction writer in addition to writing cookbooks (most recently, Plant Power) and running VegKitchen, a huge vegan recipe and health site (online since 1996!). Wearing all my different hats, the theme running through my work, whether it’s serious or darkly humorous or even culinary is the idea of justice. Oppression and bias are rampant in the world, and applies to workers, the poor, women, the gender nonconforming, etc., etc. Oppression applies to animals bred for food as well. I would really like for meat-eaters to consider why they would be horrified to see dogs treated in the same manner as are pigs and sheep, for example. It makes no sense to me to treat certain animals as semi-human, and others as prey.

I’d also like people to be more aware of the impact of animal agriculture not only on climate, but on water, air, soil, etc. It’s very disturbing, and is a truth so inconvenient that even a lot of so-called environmentalists don’t want to deal with it.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

Veganism is compassion towards all living beings, and respect for the earth and its resources. By that definition, it’s even more delicious!

Thank you, Nava!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Twenty Signs of Progress in Twenty Years: This Evolving Vegan World...

On February 1, 2015, my husband and I will have been vegan for 20 years. As much as I know how the world has changed dramatically since we first wondered if we were going to be able to survive without cheese and ice cream, it’s difficult to convey the magnitude of it because the improvements have been so dramatic and so extensive. You know in The Wizard of Oz when things went from black-and-white to color? After her initial shock, this new world probably became normalized to her and it’s kind of like that for us longtime vegans but part of us will always feel like the displaced Dorothy, too, in stupefied awe of how far we’ve traveled

For those who have only known the experience of being vegan during a time of helpful apps, abundant options and the ability to easily connect with like-minded individuals, you may not fully understand how many strides we’ve taken. There is still a lot of work to be done. With over ten billion land animals killed each year in the United States alone, with the devastating, escalating ecological consequences of our consumption habits, resting on our laurels is not an viable option for anyone. Clearly, the animals and the planet desperately need for us to be smart, committed, creative, helpful and effective. Not to sound overly dramatic, but the future of the world hinges on our actions today.

All that being said, it’s good to also reflect on the accomplishments and maturation of our vegan world. We are not where we need to be, certainly, but given the progress of the previous 20 years, and the very dedicated, talented and engaged people who are paving the way to a more compassionate and just world, I have no doubt that the next 20 years will be even more impressive. Stay at it and have no doubt that the world is changing.

1. Milk

Twenty years ago

What passed for dairy-free milk when I first went vegan was something that was menacing (well, as menacing as the color beige gets) and basically tasted like the liquid equivalent of a chagrined expression in an asceptic carton. Because drinking liquified chagrin is not all that appealing, most of us learned to eat our cereal with apple juice or apple cider if it was fall and we were feeling a little festive. 


I could have probably made this entire list about 20 advances we have made just in the quality and the abundance of vegan food items alone, but that would be on the phoning-it-in side so I am only going to focus on dairy-free milk here. Today we not only have fantastic vegan milks but we have a wide variety of them and they can be found everywhere from mainstream grocery stores to natural foods stores to dollar stores. Today we have milks for baking, milks for cooking, milks for coffee, milks for celebrating holidays. You know what? I think it’s time to break out the italics: We have holiday milks, people. We have unsweetened, vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut milks. We have oat, rice, almond, hemp and quinoa milks. It’s enough to make plain old cow's milk look even less appetizing if that were possible. I don’t know if there is any food item that better encapsulates the progress of our movement than our dazzling lineup of milks but there are some serious contenders. Plant-based proteins, I’m looking at you. (Oh, I would also mention the strides in vegan cheese but I am still working through the sensory trauma of having tried a few of those early versions, which I’m pretty convinced were actually made out of plastic.)

2. Shoes and Fashion

Twenty years ago

You found something you thought might work and you filled out a form from a catalog, wrote a check, mailed it in, and then spiderwebs tied you to your chair as you waited and waited for the shoes you ordered to arrive and you hoped you liked them and they didn’t make your feet want to die. Beyond shoes, you could also spend hours and hours searching for a winter coat that didn’t have a fur collar, wasn’t stuffed with feathers or made with wool and by the time you found one, it was the one with orange and hot pink tiger stripes that looked like it had been projectile vomited on by a Van Halen cover band. This all meant that you had to walk around with a thin fall jacket all winter and your mother thought you were going to die of pneumonia. If this sounds like one of those near-mythic stories created to illustrate how very stoic you were as a young herbivore before you became the first vegan president, it’s because it was that clunky and anachronistic. 


It’s better, much better, okay, a lot better (and, oh yeah, this, too) though we still have a long way to go.

3. Community

Twenty years ago

It used to be that we’d be stuck with the same people who lived near us, even if we had nothing else in common. So, yeah, that guy who came for the potluck you hosted and brought a half empty bag of stale tortilla chips and an extended family of bedbugs -- he was your community. The twitchy lady with the 83 cats she kept in her one bedroom apartment -- she was your community. All the alleged “vegans” you were set up on dates with who offhandedly noted that they still ate eggs, sea life and the occasional chicken -- they were your community. 


There are vegan parenting groups, vegan bodybuilder groups, vegan entrepreneurs and more as the community expands beyond its once narrow margins. It’s my opinion that nothing can quite replace what interacting in person does for our emotional well-being so for that, there are meet-ups all over the world, but if you don’t see one where you live, consider starting your own. Virtual communities are a great complement to in-person communities.

4. Visibility

Twenty years ago
It was you, your aforementioned “community” and a few vegan cookbook authors. Not many people believed what you told them about animal agriculture and most were not likely willing to invest the time into reading a whole book to learn more. Lisa Simpson became a vegetarian in 1995 (“Well, that’s a start,” said Jesse Grass), Woody Harrelson was living in a vegan treehouse community built out of hemp on an island somewhere and you were likely in your kitchen, valiantly but futilely trying to take the quart of milk, pint of sour cream, two sticks of butter, three cups of cheese and 17 eggs out of your once-favorite Moosewood recipe.  

It was quiet out there.

Not only are vegans more visible, but also the issues we are trying to raise awareness about are becoming more and more impossible to avoid. From increased visibility where we live, like the Toronto Pig Save to films that can be shared broadly like Earthlings, exposé after exposé of the routine horrors behind all facets of animal agribusiness to the network of savvy-as-hell, smart, effective and resourceful vegans across the globe, veganism is more powerfully visible than ever and as technology improves, this visibility will only continue to grow. It is becoming very hard to be in the dark about violence against animals and with our collective talents and skills offered, very easy to offer far better alternatives. 

5. Technology: Apps

Twenty years ago

An app was shorthand for an appetizer at a restaurant, most likely hummus or olives or something like that.

Want to check to make sure if something is cruelty-free? There’s an app for that. Want to find vegan food on the road? There’s an app for that. Looking for support and recipes as you shift away from animal products and junk food? There’s a free app for that. Even I, someone with strong Luddite-like tendencies, can see how technology is making the learning curve much less steep and making it easier and more convenient to make cruelty-free choices all the time. (Vegan appetizers have improved dramatically as well. More on that later.)

6. Traveling

Twenty years ago
Oh, it was bad, my friend, bad enough to make you dread leaving the safe surroundings of your home environment. On the road, you basically had your bread, you had your peanut butter and jelly in a cooler and you had your fantasies of Indian buffets that would magically emerge from the background like a mirage when the best you could realistically hope for to break your long stretch of nothing but PB & J and road dirt was a rubbery portobello mushroom sandwich. The first year of being vegan, my husband and I took a road trip down Route 66 with our dog and pretty much could have registered on seismographs with our growling stomachs through large swaths of Oklahoma. We had a dog-eared copy of the Vegetarian Resource Group’s restaurant guide with us - this was our technology for the time and it was an improvement from what we had before, which was nothing but rumors, usually apocryphal, of the occasional oasis - but so much on our path ahead was a wasteland. Books are amazing resources but they can’t make vegan food appear out of thin air or be instantly updated. We’d look forward in ravenous anticipation to 300 miles ahead where there was a promise of a Chinese restaurant with a few meatless options - broccoli-tofu-rice-oh-my-God! - only to drive all that distance and find darkened windows and a “for rent” sign. Sigh. Time to break out the peanut butter again. 


I am no longer scared of traveling. In addition to new innovations that help us to find restaurants that can accommodate us, there are just so many more places with vegan options. Twenty years ago, I had heard of every vegetarian restaurant in North America and I may or may not have had each one mail me a copy of their menu (don’t judge, you’d have been obsessive, too) but today, there are far too many to keep track of, including ones in my very city I haven’t visited yet. Not only that, but with the availability of social media, we can get recommendations, we can meet online friends in person, we can post tantalizing photos for the rest of the world to drool over and we can help promote vegan options the globe over.

7. Recipes

Twenty years ago

Remember what I said about valiantly but futilely trying to get the veritable mountain of dairy and eggs out of our Moosewood recipes? It was no joke. There is only so much of a role that silken tofu can play in a recipe before you sort of want to cry. 


There are rows and rows and rows of vegan cookbooks at our bookstores and libraries, along with websites like VegWeb with recipes that are community-rated and improved upon in the comments. We have people teaching us how to take the eggs out of recipes, how to replace dairy, and teaching us how to cook fabulous vegan food in videos and a million great cookbooks. Just the proliferation of talented, creative and excellent vegan food bloggers has made us all step up our food game. We are no longer eating tofu (or seitan) with a side of tofu (or seitan) served on a bed of tofu (or seitan) because we have no idea what else we can eat or cook. Oh my god, life is so much better. Simply recognizing the gustatory potential of the cashew alone has unlocked so many delicious possibilities. 

8. The pronunciation of the word vegan

Twenty years ago

We heard every possible variation of the word, from veggin to vaygun and every imaginable combination of letters in between, which included sounds that technically don’t exist in English. Each time someone mispronounced it, it was like having fingernails scrape down the chalkboard of my very soul. Also, every time we had to say, “It’s actually pronounced vee-gun,” we sounded like uptight prigs and we were wasting valuable time we could otherwise be spending propagandizing at the office, protesting furriers, looking through shoe catalogs or trying to troubleshoot the eggs out of our brownies. 


By and large, people get it and there are audible instructions (including this one, my favorite, which is worthy of a B-film actor) in case they don’t. (But why have you forsaken us like this, Why???) 

9. Festivals

Twenty years ago

Back in the day, there were, like, three vegetarian festivals in the U.S. and those of us lucky enough to go were confronted by the sad sight of lonely-hearted herbivores reeking of patchouli and desperation on the prowl for a mate and dairy everywhere we looked. Still, this was our best option. You’d just have to bust out your best pleather shoes and make a go of it.


There are vegan proms. There are vegan beer festivals. There is a vegan health festival in the town of Marshall, TX that was written about in the New York Times. There is a festival I freaking co-founded in Chicago that is coming up October 11 and it’s fabulous and you should really be there. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah! No more dairy to have to dodge, though there might still be desperate herbivores on the prowl but that’s okay because of all the food samples.

10. More consensus on health benefits

Twenty years ago

When I first went vegetarian as a 15-year-old, people thought “going vegetarian” was just a less dramatic way to say “committing a slow suicide.” When I went vegan in the mid-1990s, people had accepted that becoming a vegetarian wasn’t necessarily a death sentence but, whoa, veganism? It was a shame that such a promising girl would have to die of an iron and protein deficiency just to prove a point. 


We now know that not only can veganism help us reduce the risk of certain cancers, reverse heart disease and diabetes, but also that plant foods are full of phytonutrients like carotenoids, lycopene, flavonoids and glucosinolates with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions that improve the quality of our lives. In other words, for the most part, the consensus is not only that veganism won’t kill anyone, but, quite likely, all those vitamins and minerals will help us enjoy a solid foundation of good health. Unless you’re talking to someone from the Weston Price Foundation, a Paleo or a follower of Dr. “ has a page dedicated to me-me-me!” Mercola, there is solid evidence of the health advantages we derive from eating plants and avoiding eating animals. (Please also check out Dr. Michael Greger’s excellent Nutrition Facts videos for lots of information.)

11. More consensus on the environmental benefits

Twenty years ago

“What is this vay-gun thing? Is that a religion where you, like, hang peace flags or something?”


Even conservative organizations will concede that our reliance on flesh and animal products is a or the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions (which leads to climate change), water pollution and scarcity, rainforest and other habitat destruction, soil erosion and the killing of our oceans to name a few, oh, minor issues. Underscored by the fact that “humane” meat will not cause any less of this and, in fact, can have more dire ecological consequences there are fewer and fewer platitudes for eco-minded animal consumers to hide behind to without exposing themselves as shallow and elitist frauds. We solidly own the environmental debate and this is no small feat given that it was barely a blip on the radar 20 years ago. Then again, it may be because we are now personally facing more consequences with extreme weather, drought and water pollution. Now it is just up to people to step up to the vegan plate. 

12. The proliferation of farmers markets and produce varieties

Twenty years ago

A farmers market was that little farm stand you went to once a year near the place where you went pumpkin picking. Kale was still a decorative leaf in planters at upscale shopping malls and near the roast beef station at buffets where you had to meet your relatives once a year and you got to eat cucumbers and spinach for $19.99. 


The farmers market model has spread far beyond a few places on the West Coast and made inroads everywhere from inner-city environments (many accepting SNAP vouchers) to cold weather climates that have indoor markets in the winter. There are farmers markets all over the world now and with them, a colorful bounty of fresh, local produce and even more opportunities to become familiar with a wide array of nutritious food. I know that access to farmers markets and spontaneous conversations over strange looking root vegetables has made me a better, more confident cook than I would be otherwise. And kale? A full-on fetish has seized the nation and shows no sign of abating. Access to fresh, seasonal and local produce has been a game-changer, helping to create a much different awareness of the variety available. Compared to how many of us grew up on iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomatoes and very little else in the realm of produce, many of us are able to take advantage of a much-improved climate. 

13. We understand how to make it more affordable (related: grocery stores are better)

Twenty years ago

Back in the day, if you needed specialty ingredients (meaning anything remotely “exotic” or “strange”), you would have to travel miles to ethnic markets, if that was even within the realm of possibilities, or order out of catalogs. This got to be expensive and it wasn’t terribly efficient. 


With the spread of knowledge about world cuisines, we now know that the world’s least affluent often eschew meat and animal products out of economic necessity. With that increased awareness, we are learning how to prepare delicious, simple, nutritious food without requiring as many specialty items. The best food in the world happens to often be vegan by default and inexpensive to prepare. Having better stocked grocery stores due to increased demand and more of a global market sensibility has helped all of us have better access, too. Further, putting on our investigation caps and looking into the frugal tricks of our grandparents also helps us to learn how to be resourceful and cut costs in the kitchen.

14. We are more savvy about our materials

Twenty years ago

Okay, they may have been made with “heart” but pretty much all of our outreach materials were either of or below the standard of the average Xeroxed ‘zine with drawings in the margins or dry factoid-laden pamphlets with less flair and pizzazz than your toaster oven’s instruction manual.  


Communication matters and we know it. With much better photography and graphic design, professional skills and people who know how to verbally communicate our often difficult message in a compelling, persuasive, smart way, our materials are now at the level where they need to be and the bar keeps raising all the time. 

15. The opportunities to learn more are unprecedented

Twenty years ago

You had a book or a VHS copy of something someone recorded off of someone else’s recording and that was what we had. Oh, and the aforementioned well-intentioned leaflets. 


The films are incredibly persuasive and with just a DVD player, a computer or a membership to a streaming media platform, people can learn more without any inconvenience. Further, with compelling stories and helpful websites and services coming out all the time, the opportunities for closing the gaps in awareness and helping to build skills is at an unprecedented high. 

16. Changing culture

Twenty years ago

We were expected to adapt to the world around us and shut our damn hippie mouths about it, too. Pass the turkey. 


From the spread of vegan Thanksgiving celebrations to disrupting the status quo in order to force a new discussion, from Tofurky becoming a household name to daily comics with a conscience, we are ambassadors, spreading the word, saying that we are here and we are not going away. In just a small example, with our local group, the Chicago Vegan Family Network, our children are being raised with a consciousness of abundance, not lack, of being empowered as change-makers where they live and go to school. We are inserting ourselves into the culture, creating powerful changes to the world around us, and our influence is only getting stronger.  

17. Which leads to a changing landscape

Twenty years ago

For the most part, things were pretty lonely. Once in a while, we’d see the word in print (usually in reference to a resident of Las Vegas, and then we’d get all excited and crushingly disappointed within seconds) and we’d know the couple of places where we could find something vegan to eat. Again, though, it was pretty underground for the most part.


Today you can get a vegan hot dog ( at a baseball stadium if you so wish. There are vegan magazines at bookstores alongside the glossy fashion and food publications. Nearly every café will have dairy alternatives and the cool ones will have vegan pastries. Many restaurants now designate animal-free items on their menus and the vegan symbol is much more common to find on products at the grocery store. The landscape is transforming in front of our eyes. 

18. Better and more variety of food options when dining out

Twenty years ago

Seriously, guys, it was bad. I think I ate my weight in hummus and portobello sandwiches several times over within the first couple of years. I remember when my fellow vegans, all three of them, were losing their collective minds over the fact that Hershey’s Special Dark bar (shudder) added dairy to the recipe because that was their only chocolate. Whenever I hear people complain that (insert whiny voice), “I twied to go vegan but there’s nothing to eat” today, I have very little sympathy. I spent my honeymoon eating pretty much nothing but portobello mushrooms and I do not like them at all. 

In just my city alone, I can find vegan Thai food, Indian food, Italian food, Ethiopian food, soul food, Korean food, Japanese food and more. I can find vegan banh mi sandwiches, pizza, sushi, barbecue, pancakes, burgers, ice cream and nachos. (I won’t eat it all together, although it’s technically possible.) Yes, I live in a city with lots of options and not everyone has the same variety of options. I can see from traveling, though, that while not every community is a vegan paradise, in general, things are much easier than they were 20 years ago. And I can’t remember the last time I had to eat a portobello mushroom.

19. Technology: Podcasts

Twenty years ago

“Pod-what? It is like a sculpture of a pea pod? No, really...what is it?”


Another aspect of the general widening reach of vegan culture when we merge with new media and, frankly, a great way to feel less lonely in the world, podcasts offer us a temporary oasis of sanity and understanding in a world where we can still feel isolated and marginalized, all the strides we’ve made notwithstanding. From Big Fat Vegan Radio to Main Street Vegan, Slice Your Age to Go Vegan Radio, Food for Thought to Our Hen House to name just a relative few, we have some talented and dedicated individuals who are helping the population to learn and grow, plus making life less lonely for those of us who are already here. Podcasts are an undeniable ally in helping to usher in a new world and I have a hard time imagining how I used to do long road trips without them. (You don’t need a smart phone to listen by the way, just a computer or device.)

20. Technology: Interconnectedness

Twenty years ago

Remember that community I referred to in #3? That was our connection to our fellow vegans. 


I have friends - true, real friends - I have never met. I have deep emotional connections to people who live all over the world. There are people who, when I see their posts come up, just make me smile and

feel warm with gratitude to know that they are on the earth alongside me, separated by miles and oceans sometimes, but still, they are here. Beyond that, as a result of interconnection with other vegans, there are people who are sharing tools, knowledge, inspiration and talents, making it possible for all of us to step up our game as advocates for the animals. Even more exciting, as a result of interconnectedness, our friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances are being exposed to so many more opportunities to expand their awareness, learn new ways of living and plug into communities that support their vegan evolution. The sheer gift of this one advancement cannot be understated. We must take advantage of our human need for connection and the ways in which technology assists this every day. 

This is all to say that there has never been an easier time. No more excuses. Get out there. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Jason Wyrick

Jason Wyrick
owes his life to veganism and he is paying it back. As someone who was probably well on his way to an early death, Jason discovered veganism in 2001, which helped him lose more than 100 pounds as well as reverse his diabetes. Jason developed some impressive culinary chops along the way, learning how to cook the food he was now eating, even eventually teaching the first vegan class at the famous cooking and hospitality school Le Cordon Bleu and co-authoring a best-selling book with Dr. Neal Barnard. Today, Jason puts up instructive videos, shares recipes, offers prepared meals, organizes vegan vacations, teaches classes and much more with his Vegan Taste partner, Madelyn Pryor. As someone who came to veganism through the door of health, I think Jason is an excellent example of a person who is creating a lot of positive change in the world through his first decision to take care of himself, and with his dietary practices now also firmly rooted in ethical convictions, he is using his talents to help build a better world. After struggling with his weight and rapidly declining health as a young man, Jason is making great inroads with people who are in desperate need of dietary changes but don’t want to sacrifice enjoyment and familiar comfort foods.

With his emphasis on simply great food bursting with flavor, it is clear that Jason’s approach is a winning one. 

Jason’s most recent cookbook, “Vegan Tacos: Authentic and Inspired Recipes for Mexico’s Favorite Street Food”, is a beautiful and colorful new release from Vegan Heritage Press. Full of gorgeous photography, lots of inventive recipes and an obvious passion for the fresh, bold, earthy flavors of Mexican cuisine, I can already tell that this is going to be one of those essential cookbooks in my kitchen. For now, though, I am just really glad to have Jason Wyrick in the hot seat for my Ten Questions feature. I am impressed by his enthusiasm for great food (vegan cuisine should never be a sacrifice) and the approachable, friendly way he encourages those who are just beginning this journey.  Thank you, Jason!

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

That’s an interesting story! I always had this knack for knowing what food should taste like just by looking at a picture of it, but I barely cooked anything as a kid (unless you count using a microwave) and my parents never taught me how to cook. It wasn’t until my senior year in college at TCU when I had my first great meal. It was at an Egyptian restaurant called King Tut’s and I was instantly hooked. Being a college student, though, meant I was pretty poor. I knew if I wanted to eat like that, the only way to do it was to learn how to cook. It only took a couple weeks before I started to get pretty good at it, so cooking became a hobby for me at that point. Ironically, I went vegetarian not long after that, so most of my experience cooking has been as a vegetarian or vegan.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

Not that great, to be honest. My dad worked a lot and my mom had three boys to take care of, and she also worked, so it was either one of seven different chicken dishes or Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc. On occasion, we’d get something special like chili or biscuits and gravy or enchiladas. Those enchiladas were my absolute favorite meal. Chile sauce, corn tortillas, lots of cheese, black olives. They were way better than anything I got when we would go out for Mexican food. I still make enchiladas today as a special treat, but now they’re vegan and I make a pretty wide variety of them. Enchiladas with seared mushrooms in guajillo garlic sauce, ones with pintos borrachos with a poblano tomatillo sauce, dessert ones made with ancho-guajillo-agave sauce. Now I’m getting hungry for enchiladas.

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

Wow, that’s a hard question, but since I just mentioned enchiladas, I’ll tell you about one of the best meals I ever served. I was a guest instructor in the Le Cordon Bleu program at Scottsdale Culinary Institute and I had to create a vegan meal for the students to serve in their public restaurant. This was a huge deal because it was the first time a vegan instructor was teaching anywhere in the Le Cordon Bleu program and it was the first time a vegan instructor was teaching at SCI. I created these enchiladas that were in a fire roasted tomato-guajillo chile sauce. The filling was smoked oyster mushrooms and grilled shallots and the enchiladas were topped with pine nuts and crispy sage. The sides were beer-braised roasted garlic beans and smoked paprika rice with black sesame seeds. For dessert, I made cannoli with ancho chile flavored cream cheese, agave drizzle, toasted pine nuts, and cactus fruit. This was several years ago, well before vegan cannoli had become the rage. It was served with a nice crisp gruener veltliner to accentuate the chile flavor of the enchiladas. Just writing about that dinner makes me long to revisit that day. Suffice it to say, that dinner outsold any other dinner that restaurant had ever served.

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

So many people and different meals come to mind. There are plenty of influential people who could use a good vegan meal put in front of them to motivate them to spread a compassionate word to the masses, but when it comes down to it, I’d love to sit down with George Martin, talk gaming and writing, and share some good tequila anejo and a set of cactus tacos, Yucatecan barbacoa tacos, grilled chayote, rice and beans. Plus, how great would it be if the writer most known for brutally killing off characters went vegan and helped spread a message of kindness, health, and compassion? Pretty great, I say.

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

The biggest mistake I see people make is simply being afraid of messing up a meal. Fear really is the mind killer and once people become afraid of making their meals, it makes it that much harder to be vegan. It’s just food. If you’re not serving it professionally, don’t worry about it if it’s not perfect. It’s not worth trying to get a perfect end product if doing so is going to cause unrelenting stress. Just have fun!

From a technique standpoint, not getting the timing right on a recipe is the biggest misstep I see. Not all the ingredients have the same cook times and if you don’t pay attention to when a particular ingredient will be done, the dish usually ends up being bland and homogenous. Just be aware of which ingredients cook faster than others and try to add them to the pan accordingly. For example, it might take 8 minutes to caramelize an onion whereas garlic can be done in one to two minutes. If you add them both at the same time, you’ll end up with bitter garlic.

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment.

Chiles, but that’s not a momentary thing. That’s constant. I’m always looking for new ones to try, new ways to prepare them, and new ones to grow in my backyard. If I hear about a new Mexican ingredient, I will drive hours to hunt it down. Those may be fresh hoja santa leaves, an organic achiote paste, sour Seville oranges, a high-end mezcal, anything like that. I also just tried my hand at brewing and I currently have an Irish stout bottled and aging. It was a fascinating process and I can’t wait to try my hand at some different ales and beers.

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

Ha, that’s easy. Mexican. I mean, I love Thai, Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Italian, but Mexican beats them every time.

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

The odd thing is, I didn’t really have other vegans to influence me. I went vegan so long ago (13 years), there weren’t a lot of other vegans around to offer help. Sure, there were vegans around, but there wasn’t an availability of vegan mentors at the time. Because of that, I was left on my own to develop my own ideas about what being vegan and what vegan cuisine should be. I just assumed that making food that was vegan was not the end goal, but was rather the starting point of a meal. I thought a vegan dish should be celebrated as being great because the food was actually great. Once I started teaching classes and talking about food in that way, I was quickly put into the role of being an influencer and mentor. 

Now that I’m writing about those first few years of being vegan, I did have one book that influenced me and that was “The Monastery Cookbook”. It is long out of print, but its spiral-bound pages were where I learned how to make sauces, how to make seitan, what tempeh was, how to work with tofu, etc. It was a great primer for transitioning over to a vegan diet. Also, Alex Bury helped get my name out to the vegan community when I first started my career as a chef, for which I will be ever grateful.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

I used to be seriously overweight and diabetic in my twenties. A far cry from the high school basketball athlete I used to be. I was on my way to having a heart attack and going blind before I was 40. Going vegan not only saved my life, it vastly improved the quality of it. Now I’m 41 and in better shape than even my younger brothers. Getting there, though, was not an easy road. I resented having to give up cheese and I struggled hard with that. It wasn’t just the food, it was having to make a drastic lifestyle change.

The problem was, there were a little of people telling me I had to go from being the guy that loved having all-you-can-eat enchiladas and getting a different cheese at Whole Foods every week just to try it to the guy that was no oil, no fat, nothing processed, low-salt, etc., etc. right away. There was, and still is, a message out there (and you know the people fostering that message), that if you don’t eat that way, you’re doing something worthy of contempt. Hearing that message actually made it harder for me to stick with being vegan, let alone get to a place where I was eating a super healthy diet. I felt like a horrible person every time I looked at something that had oil, or salt, or even an avocado.

If you are on the path to going vegan or on the path to becoming a super healthy vegan, but you’re not there yet, know that I am proud of you and that you are doing the right thing. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad because you are not the pinnacle of perfection. Get there when you can and in the meantime, I’ll be cheering you along the way.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

…the art of beautiful food.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Not Being Afraid of the V-Word

Back when I first began on my path to living as a vegan nearly twenty years ago, the word seemed like it would be such a badge of honor, though an elusive one. It seemed to be crackling with intention, full of muscularity, of purpose and transformation and all I could do was hope that if I worked enough at it, one day I could count myself as one, too. To my mind, it was a designation worthy of only the most dedicated paragons of virtue. Once I started the transition, though, I realized that becoming a vegan wasn’t limited to those who were paragons of virtue. I could be one. It was within reach. I could do this vegan thing. Understanding this didn’t cause the word to lose any of its sheen to me. Veganism and the golden luminescence surrounding it felt inviolable then as it does now.

It turns out that there are people who have really different associations with the word, enough so that they will do almost anything they can to avoid using it themselves. I have been noticing a trend over the last few years of people distancing themselves from the “v-word.” I have to say that I am a bit perplexed by this response but I realize that my confusion is because a big part of me will probably always hold the word in the same sense of awe and deep respect as I felt about it originally. It will always have that place in my heart. Even all these years later, it is hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to distance themselves from a word that offers so much hope and promises so much that is revolutionary and exceptionally positive. The word clearly does not evoke the same response in many others as it does me.

I was reminded of this trend toward distancing on two recent occasions when, in my capacity with this festival and in my capacity as a content creator for this website, I received a fairly chilly reception from brand representatives who did not want their product to be associated with the word “vegan.” Both brands, however, reap the benefits of our work as enthusiastic promoters to getting the word out about their products; as vegans are rightfully seen as influencers of culture and are truly dedicated to creating a world with less violence, it’s smart that they looked to our population as key supporters of their brands. 

I do understand having a certain marketing strategy and aiming toward a market that is decidedly not vegan. I respect that a great deal and believe that this is going to create more change than just appealing to those of us who are already here. I have no issue with that. What bothers me, though, is the distancing, this treating of the word like it is full of contagious cooties. I have to admit that because of this response, little needling worms of doubt have begun to wriggle through my once-confident, no-questions-asked embracing of the word. Were my husband and I foolish to create so much under the “vegan” mantle? Did we unintentionally hinder ourselves? Most important, could we have helped more animals by being more oblique about who we are and our motivations?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. This is what I do know, though:

* I don’t believe in being closeted. 

* I believe that being forthright and meeting people where they are at do not need to cancel each other out.

* I cannot imagine forging the most significant social justice movement to date if we are afraid to convey our own message.

* I believe that being vegan means you’re on the right side of history and that being on the right side of history is something to be proud of, naturally.

* I believe that when we veil who we are, we are conveying a sense of embarrassment or discomfort with what veganism is about in subtle and overt ways.

Does this mean that I think every vegan product should be shouting it from the rooftops? No. But this does mean that I think deception and reticence around who we are has a chilling effect on our progress as a legitimate, deeply important movement whose time has come. We seem to be at a crossroads as our movement matures and grows. As this happens, we are all guessing rather blindly at how to be best received. I am saying right here, though, that I will always be an out vegan. I will never hide who I am - too late for that anyway - because I fear that it might make someone else feel uncomfortable. That is a projection and an assumption. My experience is this: Be honest about who you are, be honest in a friendly, receptive, relatable way, and people will generally accept what you are putting out into the world. If they don't, selling something else isn't going to work in the long run. Shrouding yourself or your message in deception and obliqueness understandably generates distrust; being open, honest and trusting that people can handle it generates the opposite.

I am not plant-based. I am not plant-strong. I am not a vegetarian. I am a vegan and I am proud of it. 

Thanks to everyone else for visiting my humble blog. Please visit my website for vegan recipes, tips, interviews, reviews, message gear and much more.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Dianne Wenz

With a background in the arts and graphic design, Dianne Wenz was drawn to the vegan lifestyle when she felt her own health transformed after she gave up meat and animal products. Today, she is a Holistic Health Counselor through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Vegan Lifestyle Coach through the Main Street Vegan Academy and Plant-Based Nutrition Specialist. Dianne coaches people from across the country to help them improve their health and well-being, and she guides people make the dietary and lifestyle changes needed to go vegan.

The ever-busy New Jersey resident hosts monthly potlucks, runs charity bake sales, and organizes guest speaker events and, as an avid cook and baker, Dianne also teaches cooking classes in her community. She is also the owner and editor-in-chief of ChicVegan (get their fabulous looking and free e-book when you a sign up for the ChicVegan newsletter), a frequently updated website dedicated to cruelty-free, uncompromising style. Dianne also writes the Meatless Monday column on the NJ dining out website Devil Gourmet. Her articles and recipes have appeared on,, and in Chickpea Magazine and T.O.F.U. Magazine. Read more about Dianne on her website

I love Dianne's positive, common sense approach to her advocacy, and her unabashed enthusiasm for making veganism accessible, fun, stylish and always enjoyable. We need more Diannes in the world, I think you'll agree.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

As a child, I never liked the idea of eating animals. I remember asking my mom why we eat cows and pigs but kept cats and dogs as pets when I was about 8, and she said something to the effect of that’s “just how it is”. There’s that stereotype of kids having to stay at the dinner table until they’ve finished all of their vegetables, but for me, I had to sit there until I finished all of my meat. I remember sitting at the table for what seemed like an eternity when I was about 9 or 10 because I wouldn’t finish a pork chop.

I went to art school after high school, and some of my fellow students were vegetarians. Until then, I don’t think I even realized “vegetarian” was an option. I stopped eating meat in 1992, and I was vegetarian for 9 years. I remember meeting a vegan in the ‘90s and thinking his diet was really extreme. Years later, I was at salad bar getting lunch, and while reaching for a hard boiled egg I suddenly realized what it really was, and I was totally disgusted. I gave up eating whole eggs right there, but I still ate products like cakes and cookies that contained eggs. In 2001 I found a book called The Perfectly Contented Meat-Eater’s Guide to Vegetarianism by Mark Warren Reinhardt on the bargain table a bookstore, and even thought I was already vegetarian, I bought it. Before reading that book, I had no idea how bad the egg and dairy industries were. That type of info was really difficult to come by back then. I went vegan over the course of a few months after reading it. Giving up cheese was really difficult for me, because I was totally addicted to it, but I was able to wean myself off of it.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I think the best advice would have been to take things slowly and do it at my own pace. Even after giving up eggs and milk I still had wool area rugs and leather shoes and I felt like a hypocrite. It’s important to know that change doesn’t happen over night. I think striving for progress, not perfection, is the key.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I think humor is a good way to convey the vegan message. There’s so much seriousness in the world of animal rights. I’ve heard so much of “I don’t want to know what happens”, or “I’d rather not know where my food comes from,” from omnivores, and it seems to me that when talk gets serious, they tune out. Bringing humor to the subject of veganism gets people to listen.

I’m also a big advocate of activism through food. I’ve been asked “what do you eat?” so many times, so I think it’s important to show that being vegan doesn’t mean depriving yourself of delicious food, and that there really is plenty to eat. When I worked in an office, I started out with cupcakes. I always baked for birthdays and holidays, and I earned the title of The Cupcake Queen. After I lured my coworkers in with sweets, I was able to get them to eat other foods that I made, because I had earned a reputation as a good cook. There were many times when I would heat up leftovers for lunch in the office kitchen, and people would come in and ask what I had because it smelled so good. They often asked for the recipe too.

I now teach cooking class in various places around town and do food demos in stores in my local community. I love seeing the look of surprise on faces when people find out the ingredients of a dish I’ve made. I made creamed kale with cashews at Williams Sonoma last year, and everyone in attendance was floored at how good it was. People even told me that they hated kale but they loved the way I cooked it. One woman who was lactose intolerant was so excited that she could eat “cream” again. I did a demo at a wine shop earlier this year where I served homemade vegan cheese, and people liked my version better than cows’ milk cheese that was being served along side it. Some registered their disappointment that it wasn’t sold in the store.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

I love seeing the camaraderie and togetherness of vegans. Social media has really helped bring us together, and I see so much support between like-minded people, especially with vegan bloggers and those of us who have vegan businesses. Social media is also a great tool for us seasoned vegans to help newbies. I love it! I joke that there are only really two degrees of separation in the vegan world, and sites like Twitter and Facebook have really helped with that.

5. What do you think are our biggest impediments to getting the word out effectively?

Right now it seems to me that there are too many factions in the vegan movement, which is causing too much infighting. There are no-oil vegans, health vegans, gluten-free vegans, soy-free vegans, raw food vegans, whole-food vegans,  ethical vegans, environmental vegans… the list goes on. Each group seems to think their way is the right way and everyone else is doing it wrong.  As wonderful as social media can be for bringing us together, it can also create great divides. Just on Facebook alone I’ve witnessed so many negative comments and food policing. If veganism is going to survive as a movement, everyone needs to learn how to get along and stop criticizing each other. I think that if new vegans experience all of this negativity and are told they’re doing it wrong by the food police, it will turn them off and they’ll run the other way. No one wants to join a movement where they’ll be judged and constantly reprimanded.

Because of all of this, I see a lot of confusion as to what veganism actually is. It’s not an elimination diet or a detox program. The definition of a vegan is “a person who does not eat any food that comes from animals.” It has nothing to do with gluten, oil, or salt. I’ve met people who think that gluten isn’t a vegan food. I don’t know about you, but I love my seitan!

6. All of us needs a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

I’m vegan first and foremost for the animals, but I’ve experienced great health benefits by removing eggs and dairy from my diet. In changing my diet, I’ve also had the pleasure of tasting many different foods and flavors that I never would have experienced as an omnivore.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your personal evolution?

It may sound kind of silly, but Michael Stipe from R.E.M. was a big influence on me when I first went vegetarian. I didn’t know very many vegetarians, but I was a huge R.E.M. fan and he was very vocal about his vegetarianism. (Sadly, he no longer is.)

The book I mentioned earlier by Mark Warren Reinhardt was key in my transition to veganism, but I think just about any book that talked about the egg and dairy industries would have convinced me to make the switch at the time. There were very little books on either veganism or vegetarianism in the 90s and early 2000s. After I went vegan I bought Living Among Meat Eaters by Carol J. Adams, The Vegan Sourcebook by Joanne Stepaniak, and The Vegetarian Handbook by Gary Null, and they were all a big help with knowing what to eat, where to find products and how to handle the non-veg world. I’ve been subscribing to Vegetarian Times for over 20 years now, and it really helped me learn to cook in the early days of my vegetarianism. My first cookbooks were The Now and Zen Epicure by Miyoko Schinner and The Vegetarian Five-Ingredient Gourmet by Nava Atlas, and they both helped me to get creative in the kitchen and try new dishes.

Back in the early 2000s, I went to a few events in New York City held by Caryn Hartglass and EarthSave, and I got to hear some great speakers, such as Dr. Furhman, Wayne Pacelle, and Rynn Berry before anyone really knew who they were. They were so influential and inspiring. Veganism was so new to me, and I didn’t know very many other vegans at the time. It was so helpful to be surround by so many like-minded people.

Now there are so many great books, films, and vegan visionaries – it’s so difficult to narrow down a list. I love Victoria Moran and Main Street Vegan, Kathy Stevens and Catskills Animal Sanctuary, Gene Baur and Farm Sanctuary. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a great book, and the new film Speciesism is really wonderful. There are tons and tons of wonderful blogs and websites – I could list them all but it would take days!

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Yes, sometimes I even get sick of the word “vegan”. I find that spending time with animals helps. I love visiting animal sanctuaries, like Catskills Animal Sanctuary and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, which aren’t that far away. Attending vegan events helps too. I recently attended The Seed in New York City, and it was so wonderful to be in a room full of so much energy! There were tons of great vegan companies, and a lot of inspiring vegan speakers. Those events always help renew my inspiration. I host vegan potlucks and other events through a MeetUp group I run. Relaxing and enjoying great food with fellow vegans always helps too.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Other than trying to get the world to go vegan, I’m really passionate about cats. I’m most definitely a crazy cat lady. I want everyone to spay and neuter their pets and adopt a bunch of cats. I wish all of the cats of the world could have such loving homes as mine do.  

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

… about compassion and respect for all living beings.

Thanks for all you do, Dianne!

Thanks to everyone else for visiting my humble blog. Please visit my website for vegan recipes, tips, interviews, reviews, message gear and much more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sadness and the Power of Knowing...

It’s interesting to me that even after being vegan for nearly twenty years, a simple question can still create such an unintentionally fervent storm within: What is the hardest part about being vegan? I think the people asking this would expect vegans to say that it’s most difficult to eat out, that family meals are problematic, that Thanksgiving is a pain, and it’s true, sometimes different situations can present challenges but they are usually more of an annoyance than a true impediment.

I was reminded of this recently when we posted this same question on the Vegan Street Facebook page and of the hundreds of responses we received, again and again we heard that the hardest part of being vegan is knowing what is inflicted upon animals - by the year, by the day, by the minute, in real time as we sit at our computers or brush our teeth - and needing to continue carrying on with our lives despite knowing this. There is an emotional bluntness that can be hard to mute when we’re asked this question, yet we’ve learned that the truth is too real for most people to hear about so we dance around a candid depiction of our experience. We water it down with a message that is more palatable. We change the subject because speaking about this honestly to anyone who is not vegan will likely not be understood. We keep our composure when we feel like crying. (Or we try to do that, at least in public.) We move on. Despite this, for many of us, the hardest part of being vegan is in the knowing.

It’s knowing what we know and realizing that we have to carry on with our own lives even as these other innocent lives are filled with completely needless torment and suffering. It’s knowing that gentle calves are torn from their mothers and when this happens, more than 100,000 times each day, their mothers often bellow and mourn in ways we can’t even imagine, and the cycle continues until they no longer produce enough milk and it’s time for them to become cheap meat. It’s talking about this to someone who is eating a salad sprinkled with cheese, being able to see the destroyed mothers and babies in the cheese that is not visible to most others, and remain composed.

It’s knowing that newly hatched male layer chicks are destroyed because they are worthless to the industry. It’s knowing that their mothers continue their cycle of laying egg after egg until they are depleted and then they must also become cheap meat. It’s knowing the fate of their female chicks and seeing billboards for .99 breakfast biscuits on our way to work, advertised on the subway, on the fast food bags blowing out of the garbage cans as we walk past.

It’s the beaks, tails, horns, testicles and whatever else that’s inefficient cut off and tossed out without anesthesia or follow-up care; it’s the ear tags, notches, tattoos and branding. It’s the castration and it’s the rape, day in and day out. It’s the numbing ubiquity of their commodification. It’s the sheer, paralyzing immensity of the violence and the deeply embedded habits that make people blind to it.  

Knowing all this is how an innocent question becomes an unavoidably prickly one.

Still, we live our lives because there is no pressing pause on the world as it is, on things as they are, so we continue on as best we can, knowing what we know, seeing what we’ve seen, trying to change hearts and minds as we go. It’s painful and most of the time, even though I have dedicated my life to spreading the message of veganism, I shut the ugliness out of my mind because I don’t know how I could live effectively if I didn’t. There is no un-knowing it, though. It’s always there, just below the surface, at the ready. It can spring out like a jack-in-the-box when we hear someone make a bacon joke, if anyone boasts about their cage-free eggs, when our mother-in-law asks if she can take her grandson to McDonald’s but also when someone asks us for vegan recipes, for alternatives to zoos, if we can give them information about the dairy industry. No matter the context, this knowing is there, it is part of us.

The bright side to knowing is the empowerment that comes from also knowing that we are not contributing to the violence and offering the example of another way of living. When people are on the precipice of going vegan, I think often they fear what they think their lives may look like, living in a world that is so profoundly enmeshed in exploitation, of feeling the vulnerability that comes with being different. This fear of vulnerability can cause people on the edge to back up and close off. What they are not seeing, though, is that despite the pain that comes from knowing, there is a tremendous opportunity to transcend business as usual, and in this transcending, they will reap countless rewards. It is scary to expose ourselves to knowing, though, and it’s also scary be on the verge of breaking with the status quo. This is why I feel that knowing what we know is at once our greatest vulnerability and, ironically perhaps, also our greatest strength. As with so much in life, there is a price to pay with moving outside of one’s comfort zone, with knowing, with being vulnerable. When the alternative is sealing off our hearts, living in denial, and limiting our growth to make others comfortable, it is a price well worth paying and I am grateful to be able to pay it every day.

While I write this, cows are forcibly impregnated. Chickens are stressed as they are put through forced molting. Babies are pulled from their mothers. Aquatic life suffocates in massive nets that dredge the ocean. Animals are trucked to slaughterhouses. Bolts are shot into brains. Throats are slit. This is happening at this moment and there is no getting around that. The best we can do is help people awaken to it and empower them to take positive actions. Yes, it is lousy to know. The alternative, though? It is immeasurably worse. 

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