Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I love Mikael Nielsen. There, I said it. 

Through his tireless work as National Volunteer Coordinator for Mercy for Animals, Mikael is responsible for getting dedicated and talented people involved in creating rippling, real change for the animals and the planet. He is also one of the most humble and hardworking people I know, though, giving his all to getting the message out about compassionate living and doing it in the most thoughtful, effective way. I think a lot of times we are so passionate about the cause, so driven to expose people to the unnecessary horrors inflicted upon animals, that we scare people away with our desire to effect change immediately. Mikael, though, through his years of advocacy understands the importance of blending patience and understanding with his very compelling message, helping people to trust that he is not there to judge, he is there to help people along the way to creating less violence in the world. He is an empathetic listener, a skill that is sadly often under-emphasized among advocates, and creates an environment of calm but focused attention wherever he goes. In doing so, he gives people the space to be honest, work through internal conflicts, and get in touch with their own values. In short, Mikael is, in his native Danish, vidunderlige. He is wonderful.

So, yes, I am biased. Mikael is a friend. Who wouldn’t want a friend like this, though?

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? 

I went vegetarian in 1996 and then vegan a few years later. But, it was not until 2002 that I realized being vegan was not enough and that I needed to get out there and create more compassionate people. After all, each new person I got on-board spared hundreds more animals from a lifetime of suffering. It was an EarthSave Chicago Conference for Conscious Living that opened my eyes to this and soon thereafter I joined the group and started doing outreach. Since EarthSave Chicago was led by you and John Beske at the time, I guess I owe my start to you. Thanks!

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 always wish someone like myself had come to my high school back in the day and given one of MFA’s humane ed presentations, which include our four-minute edit of Farm to Fridge. Seeing and learning about how horrific the day-to-day lives of farmed animals are would probably have been enough to at least start me down the path toward a vegan lifestyle and also gotten me active much sooner. Most people just have no idea how awful the factory farming system is, so I think that is a great place to start the conversation.

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 used to be a very self-righteous vegan activist and thought I had all the answers. Sadly, early on I probably turned off more people than I ever convinced to give veganism a try. Makes me cringe when I think about it. Now, one of the first things I tell people is how far from perfect I am and that we all cause some sort of suffering in our lives. We are all on our own path and I think we should strive to do our best, wherever we are in our lives. That means meeting people where they are, whether that is cutting out chickens from their diet, doing Meatless Monday, trying to go vegetarian, or making the switch to being vegan.

Applaud them for getting to where they are and then help them take the next step, whatever that may be. Along those lines, I think it’s very important that we not only focus on the “why” when it comes to ditching animal products, but also the “how.” We need to give people the tools to live healthy and compassionate lives for the long term. That is why I love MFA’s FRESH booklets and Vegetarian Starter Guides. They do just that.

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

The greatest is, without a doubt, this awesome community of compassionate people that grows by the day. I am so honored to know all these amazing people doing fantastic things for animals all over the world. And one of the best parts of my job as national volunteer coordinator is working with our volunteers all across the United States and helping them get started or stay active. Most have full-time jobs, yet still dedicate an incredible amount of time to animal protection. Inspires me to do more myself.

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

As Gandhi said about the path that many social justice movements take, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think we are definitely in the “then they fight you” stage of things and the animal agriculture industry has been pushing back, most notably in the form of ag-gag laws that prohibit undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. But more and more, people are seeing through this tactic and asking, “What are they trying to hide?”

Fortunately, these blatantly unconstitutional laws are now being challenged in the higher courts. I think in the long run Big Ag will regret this tactic in a big way. These industries also have millions and millions of dollars to spend on marketing and we have seen a big push toward “humane” animal products (humanely raised meat, cage-free eggs, etc.). Of course, there is no such thing, so we need to be vigilant that people don’t fall into this trap and think they are supporting an industry that cares for these animals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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

Eating animal products causes unnecessary suffering. It really is that simple. And we would never do these things to an animal ourselves, so we shouldn’t be paying others to do our dirty work for us.

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 continuing evolution?

As I mentioned, John Beske and you, as well as fellow EarthSave Chicago member Bob Schwalb, had a big influence as I got started. Seeing The Witness at that same conference was also a real eye-opening experience. My future boss, Nathan Runkle, has also been a great influence, and his bringing MFA to Chicago was another huge moment. Nathan was such a hero of mine and after volunteering with MFA for over six years, that move to Chicago eventually led me to leave my corporate job and work full time at MFA.

One of my best friends is Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach and he has also had an incredible impact on who I am both as an activist and as a person. All around solid guy and they don’t come much better than him. Lastly, Nick Cooney’s two books, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, and Veganomics: The Surprising Science of What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom, really helped me fine-tune my activism to be as effective as possible and I can’t recommend them enough.

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

I think it’s so important to be compassionate to ourselves as well. I go to the gym almost every morning and find that incredibly useful in keeping my sanity. I also do yoga and try to meditate every day. I love kicking back with my girlfriend, making some delicious vegan food, and watching a movie. And I very much enjoy hanging with my companion dog, Oliver. He is with me almost every hour of the day and his tail is always waggin’. Our new favorite spot is the dog beach down by Lake Michigan. I think we both leave recharged after a nice walk along the lake.

Mikael's doggy and my buddy Oliver. (Photo: Mikael Nielsen)

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

I have dedicated my life to reducing the suffering of farmed animals. Since 99 percent of animals who are abused, exploited, and killed are farmed animals, and because of the degree to which they suffer, I think it is the most important social justice movement of our time.

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

… about living my morals and values.” Most people claim to love animals and care about how they are treated, but their actions just don’t match up with their beliefs. I think bridging that divide will go a long way toward a more compassionate world for all of us.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bringing in Light as We Expose the Darkness...

All of my life, I’ve had something of a conflicted relationship with fun. I like having it, that much is clear. I enjoy laughing, having a good time, and, well, pursuing the various things that cause me  to laugh and have a good time. This shouldn’t be very remarkable but still, my tendency toward seeking out fun put me at odds with the other writers and artists I hung around with in college; it was a wedge with the other feminists and the activists I was aligned with then, too. I was always few shades too cheerful for the thinkers and sensitive types. No matter how eager I was to jump on a bus to protest in Washington or confront a cat-calling sleazebag on a street corner, my drive to have fun has always been at least as strong as my robust impulse for justice and equality, which strikes some people as an odd combination, I suppose. 

The conflict comes in because as a lifelong pursuer of fun, I noticed from an early age that buoyant people have been assigned some specific cultural baggage: We’re seen as shallow. We’re seen as silly. We’re seen as lacking in substance. I think this is unfair and narrow-minded, though; shouldn’t the whole person have room for both jumping in leaf piles and also speaking out about social justice issues? (Maybe not at the same time but just because you may get leaves in your mouth.) To me, the perfect balance is a blend of both joy and depth; to cut off our supply of one is to limit our human experience.

Especially today, with our unprecedented ability to instantly share information and with so much of it understandably skewed toward the dark, grim and viscerally violent - just a casual scroll down my Facebook feed has sent me into a reflexive fetal curl lately, with all the images and stories of slaughtered, bloody, mangled and horribly abused beings - I believe that it is vital that we place more of an emphasis on boosting the joy factor and the gratitude so many of us feel for having discovered this way of living that sustains us so well. I am concerned about the level of hopelessness other vegans and those we are trying to reach might feel with this constant barrage of overwhelmingly depressing news. This suffocating milieu of hopelessness can also easily give rise to feelings of helplessness, of compassion fatigue, of despair, of disconnection. How does feeling disempowered in this way help to move people toward a transformation or sustain those of us who are already there? I’m not trying to be all Mary Poppins here, but can’t we also convey a little, you know, happiness and gratitude? Does a tendency toward seeking out fun need to mean that we have a lack of caring? Isn’t enjoyment also an important part of being a whole person?

Having had our blinders removed to what we do to animals means that we are immersed in injustice and brutality, and this is clearly a difficult pain to live with. Given what animals are put through, though, and given how very much they have to lose if people do not see the shift to veganism as enticing, alluring, and something they simply want to do, don’t we owe it to the world to offer a message that is holistic, conveying it with emotional honesty but also joy? It seems to me that living a rich, multi-dimensional life that includes a capacity for happiness is as much an asset for the beings we work on behalf of as it is for us ourselves.

We live in a dark time but also an incredibly exciting time, one where we right now have the ability to create a new consciousness of connection that is changing the world forever for the better. It is happening. An honest depiction of the brutal status quo in regards to what we do to animals is essential toward creating the shift we need but so is communicating the immense rewards of a life that is in alignment: body, mind, spirit and ethics. Instead of the bloody pictures, instead of the doomsday predictions, why not shuffle in a little inspiration, extend a hand to assist rather than bash, express a little joy for the opportunity that we get to live at a time when we can actively cultivate the lives we want, and we can help to ignite this fire of empowerment inside the people we connect with as well. We are so amazingly fortunate and we should never stop being grateful for this fact, celebrate it and take advantage of it. The consciousness of the world is shifting under us like tectonic plates and we should never forget that. 

Sorrow and joy are not irreconcilably at odds with one another. They are both part of the complex emotional experience. So while we educate, tap into joy a little, too. While we expose the truth, tap into gratitude as well. Allow yourself to have some fun. The animals won’t suffer any more for it, I promise; in fact, they stand to benefit a great deal if we can show the world that we are whole people. Yes to it all. It is all part of the experience.

(Speaking of all this, please join us this Saturday at Chicago VeganMania if you are able, where joy and education, fun and activism fizz together in an intoxicating, frothy cocktail.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Eriyah Flynn

One of the things that is most exciting to me about the animal advocacy movement has always been how individuals can create so much good in the world with just an attitude of motivation. Eriyah Flynn of Columbus, OH and her organization, Vegan Shift, is one such example. As a longtime vegan with many years of trying different things to get the message out, Eriyah has gotten clarity on strategic savvy and effectiveness. I think she has a lot of wisdom to share and offers a lot of pointers on not only how to become more effective conveyers of our message but also ideas on how to become more active on behalf of animals. I am grateful for Eriyah and her work with Vegan Shift. I hope you'll consider supporting her organization and getting involved, whether that's through Vegan Shift or your favorite advocacy group. 

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?

It was a series of events and influences. I have always loved animals, thankfully I was raised by a family of animal lovers who taught me to treat individuals the way I would like to be treated; unfortunately, like most people in the US, I had no idea how disconnected I was from reality. Today, I can honestly say I suffered from an arbitrary, nonsensical perspective regarding fully conscious animals/individuals and had placed them into two categories: the animals I loved and protected as pets and wildlife, and the animals I consumed as commodities to eat, wear, use in entertainment, supported experimentation on, etc. While I technically understood I was consuming animals and their products, my actual contemplation on the details of what that really meant up until 1995, was non-existent. I can remember thoughtlessly stating the weak, cultural programming mantra of “That is their purpose” which is what makes me so hopeful for empowering a rapid world vegan shift. Informed people who have the same values can adapt their behaviors based on critically important and compelling information, now faster and easier than ever (especially compared to  nearly 20 years ago when I first began to be exposed to these issues). As I became more informed of the facts surrounding the present cultural foundations, the path and behaviors to live consistently in alignment with my values for peace, liberty, justice, love, dignity, respect, empathy and compassion, and my claims to love animals, people and  the planet became self-evident: I must live vegan. 

My mom was probably my most dominant influence by providing in the foundations of love and respect towards other earthlings. Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss and superhero stories and films were probably subconsciously others, as all of those stories and films portrayed heroes and heroines as those whose ethics and actions represented love, respect, kindness and the rescue of animals in need of help, whereas the “evil villains” were those who were uncaring, abused and/or threatening to kill/or killed innocent animals. 

[Here is more on Eriyah’s evolution if you’re interested. Fascinating story!]

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? 

For me, I would hope that conversation would have happened very early in life. I wish that Ruby Roth books such as “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals”, “Vegan is Love” and “V is for Vegan” would have existed when I was a child. If I would have been told the truth then, and had been given a choice to live in alignment with my ethics, instead of being sheltered from the reality of what I was participating in, and denied even the decision (through absent vegan options on menus in school or restaurants, and cultural events anywhere), I know I would have been open to and especially if empowered, to living vegan as a toddler, since loving and connecting with other animals were my natural instincts, tendencies and behaviors. The fact that these options are not given and that the violence and reality associated with our consumption of animals is largely hidden through misinformation by official sounding organizations, euphemisms and outright lies that make the intolerable tolerable have enabled and glorified violence in a culture that claims to be an ethical, modern, civilized, and humane society. This is an epic perversion and violation of collective social values and norms that are now rapidly shifting vegan with the committed and organized vegan movement circumventing conventional programming through the use of social media and in conjunction with the cumulative, scientific proof that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the optimal diet for humans to thrive, especially considering our imbalance with nature given our unprecedented human and livestock population levels destroying and displacing critical biomes such as the Amazon.

Are most Americans aware that 90% of the Amazon rainforest is now gone, primarily for unnecessary livestock production, thus creating an extinction rate 1000 times the natural rate and contributing to 20,000 to 30,000 species extinctions annually? This figure has been quoted at roughly equaling 200 species extinctions per day by some scientists. Any intelligent and rational individual should resonate with self-preservation connected with their reliance on ecology, if nothing else. A large part of the problem is that people are ignorant to the facts, literally addicted to animal products, or have a financially vested interest, so all too often, rational and intelligent decision making can be met with the significant and catastrophic resistance as time is not on our side at the rate our population continues to grow, resources are consumed and thus causing ecocide.

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 actually believe that using ALL of the tools listed above can be the most effective in a given circumstance. People are so different: one method will not fit for all applications. It is crucial to know your audience. Going to the fairgrounds in protest with angry chants paired with slaughter images condemning 4-H clubs/livestock producers is not likely to yield as much support or consideration as going to the fairgrounds providing a delicious vegan junk food booth, vegan health food options, and some veganic agriculture demos and information.  (People who are concerned with their health/or have health conditions still like to take their children/grandchildren- who may also have health conditions they must be mindful of- to the fair). Humor is one of the best ways to reach people on the planet, especially when telling provocative truth. Bizarro comics are brilliant. Patience, understanding, compassion, love, with passionate, straight-forward, consistently firm, empowering messaging, are critical pieces of overcoming a lifetime of deceptive programming. The choice of language one uses is SO important in these interactions. Avoid making “you” statements: instead say “our, we, us” as in, the collective society. Telling your personal story, how you arrived at the decision to be vegan, can often be so powerful to compelling others. Never tell someone they are “wrong”. Speak in terms of consistency of behaviors of ethics and characteristics we value. Use questions to help draw out their barriers. “What is stopping you from being vegan?” Frame your discussions of living vegan as one of a consistent, compassionate, peace movement with abundant, delicious, nutritious, healthy, sustainable, love inspired options, and avoid anything that says we are the culture of “No, this, no that, restrict this, restrict, that, limited this etc. “You don’t have to give up meat, dairy and eggs!- you can have them all, only they are made from plants!”  “Yes! We can have cheesecake and  ice cream, made from delicious creamy plants like cashews, almonds, coconut, etc.!”  Empowering the transition peacefully is our best chance for rapid world vegan shift.   

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

It’s ever increasing diversity of demographics, and the adoption of direct, honest, unequivocal, ethically delivered vegan messaging. Here is one of the best memes I’ve seen for really helping people build the bridges to vegan shift empowerment:

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

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder induced Angry Misanthropic Vegan Activism. Raging vegans that scream at others and post a never-ending stream of graphic violence only find themselves preaching to the choir that can stand them. Those who are doing that need to be taken in and loved, and mentored into channeling that completely justifiable rage and anger into something that can build bridges to society connecting others in empowerment for a rapid vegan shift. Lessons in inspiration of galvanizing and organizing people in social justice movements can be modeled after the Quakers, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

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

I say it with a shirt - affectionately referred to as “The VEGAN BEACON”: I wear the Nonviolence United VEGAN shirt like a uniform almost everywhere I go (especially if I know there is going to be a crowd, the grocery store, a concert, a festival, a movie theater) because it is black with white lettering, people with normal vision can see its fantastic message from up to a city block away: Compassion, Nonviolence: For the People. For the Planet. For the Animals. Who doesn’t resonate with that? I have yet to meet anyone who said anything negative about the shirt’s message.

That shirt has a number of responses from people: the vegans automatically connect (often with hugs and elation or simple commiseration); the pre-vegans begin to ask questions; the potential re-vegans make confessions for their departure which are often really a subconscious invitation to encourage and empower them to try again. (Seasoned experience has taught me that the worst response to someone who makes such a confession is to assault them with vitriolic contempt and judgment for the betrayal of the innocent, as instinctive as it is to rage against them, trust me on this: Offering an empowering hand takes genuine patience, wisdom and maturity. Vegans are teachers, and as such, we must provide an ethos that promotes the sense of safety and mindset required for learning: treat others with respect, even though we know that they are not respecting those who are literally dying as a result of their decisions.) So instead of castigating the fallen, make a friendly offer to help them to try again.  I carry copies of Vegan Shift’s 300 Vegans Vegan Resources Guides and A Life Connected brochures. Only people who are really adversarial (vested financial interest, strong addiction or a burning case of cognitive dissonance) ever respond negatively to the NU VEGAN shirt, a warm and friendly smile, congenial or compelling, passionately delivered responses and empowering resources. Even the most negative people can be turned around with the right approach. People love and are inspired by passion, conviction and consistency with one’s ethics, not by preaching and condemnation. 

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 continuing evolution? 

Specifically, the vegan path began with Moby, The Animal’s Agenda, books like “Mad Cowboy” and “Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating”, “The Food Revolution" and the groups like PETA which showed me the graphics of “Meat Your Meat” and volunteering locally for Mercy For Animals which connected me to an actual vegan support community. Later, I resonated with Harold Brown, Gary Francione’s abolitionist approach, and others like Tom Regan, Gary Yourofsky, Steve Best and began studying social justice movement strategies recommended by Harold Brown with books such as Bill Moyer's “Doing Democracy”.

Matt Bear’s Nonviolence United materials have been so effective they are what I have predominantly chosen for the 300 Vegans campaign/project as standard messaging (Vegan Shift is a hub organization for promoting the excellent, consistent vegan messaging resources already available across the movement, not reinventing the wheel).

Ultimately, over the now 20+ years of development through military service (Decorated, Honorably Discharged USAF Desert Storm Era Veteran) and a leadership career in both public and private sectors, extensive reading, formal education, volunteering with different organizations (including and beyond the animal rights movement) and rigorous debate in life experience, I've taken the best of both what I resonate with and have learned from all of these exposures to develop what has become Vegan Shift

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

Recognizing that is where one is “in a state of burn-out” is really important. Being part of this movement can be so gratifying and yet so challenging on so many levels. Sometimes you need to check out and take a break from activism to be most effective at it. Take a break from Facebook, take a weekend to go connect with nature and breath in the fresh air and peace away from the sensory overload that is modern society today. Try kayaking, swimming, yoga or meditation. Connecting with other vegans in safe havens, where you can go to blow your gasket of disillusioned pain and frustration of being vegan in a pre-vegan world is so important. I can’t stress enough that you refrain from showing your darkest side to your general network, there is a difference between sharing the occasional glimpse and perpetual rage. That is a state that WILL make you sick, so allow yourself to feel it, but do not dwell there long. There are secret groups for raging which is a good place to blow that steam off, just remember, nothing is truly secret on the internet. Having a strong network of vegan support is necessary for one’s mental health. There is always professional counsel, a mentor or family member you trust. I would seek out vegans who understand what you are experiencing. Seek out mentorship from those you see achieving or have attained the level of health and state management you respect and desire. (I’ve written a note on this and within this note’s comments Matt Bear added a note, that has some really great specific coping mechanisms.) 

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

The NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge. We want a better world: we start by walking the walk, then talking the talk, and finally empowering others to do what they can to create that peaceful world we wish to see. It starts by stimulating the mind to think, to imagine the possibilities, to see the invisible, feel the intangible and to move in the direction of our shared values to achieve the impossible. The NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge project was created to do just that. It engages people to participate in the process of peaceful innovations instead of clinging to comfortable, common rhetoric that has not yielded the actions, behaviors or policies consistent with the values we claim to stand for in society. It is here that we begin to build the world we would really see. It takes effort and someone has got to do it.

We can build bridges to our community by inviting people or policy makers to take the NASA Million Dollar Family Challenge when they ask thoughtful, genuine questions, or especially, when they make thoughtless, arcane, barbaric, or otherwise oppressive automated responses, or have been making violently, insane policy decisions (usually some sort of call for "population control", to common culture behaviors/challenges). The objective of this challenge is ideally to cause people to shift from automated, cultural programming, to actually using some innovative thinking strategies, to connect with those who are motivated by self-interest for the best nonviolent solutions, and for those who actually care about the oppressed and often violated earthlings of the world we share. (Marketing survey statistics have shown that only 20% of people are idealists who are inclined towards altruism, the other 80% are gradually less motivated across the spectrum by ethics and more motivated by WIFM- what's in it for me? Five percent of the population are sociopathic and will never care about anyone human or nonhuman- their opinion will not matter.)

What does this mean? Simply ask people to imagine 3 things:
1) They work for NASA (Houston-we have a problem that our most brilliant minds must urgently solve)
2) There is a million dollar pay off for the best vegan idea (nonviolent, socially just that is symbiotic to all earthlings)
3) The animals and nature are their human family members (that they actually care about, not entitled to oppress, dominate and destroy)

It is this collaboration of solutions that will be the foundation of Vegan Shift’s Phase 2 plan for shifting every aspect of violence out of our federal, state and local policies: The National Vegan Policy Implementation Act. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” Hillel

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

The single most important and far- reaching action I can take to live consistently in alignment with the values, ethics, feelings and characteristics that all conscious earthlings crave: peace, liberty, justice, nonviolence, dignity, respect, love, empathy and compassion.

Thank you, Eriyah!

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.