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 VegKitchen.com, MainStreetVegan.com, and in Chickpea Magazine and T.O.F.U. Magazine. Read more about Dianne on her website Veggiegirl.com.
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!
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