Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ten, nine, eight...!

I think it's time to give up the ghost and admit that I'm not going to get any vegan feminist agitating done this week - at least on this little corner of the internet - as my son is home on winter break and his calendar doesn't seem to have "blocks of time for mom to write" penciled in there. I'm afraid that our packed schedule of building spaceships, imagining life on other planets, tromping through museums and squeezing our bodies onto packed L trains leaves time for little else.

I will be back with a vengeance after January 1. Until then, have a happy, safe and warm New Year, and I look forward to hatching many big plans in 2010. I look forward to conspiring together!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An alphabet for disgruntled but ever-hopeful vegan activists…

This is a cynical alphabet (with little bits of hope tossed in) because sometimes it just sucks to be a vegan in an omnivorous world. You are frequently misunderstood and are often the token herbivore in mixed company. People make a sport of trying to find your inconsistencies, and if they can’t find any, you are accused of being “too perfect” and self-righteous. You go to the company holiday party and once again, you’ve got to poke around a boiled vegetable plate and look cheerfully oblivious while the others look at you in condescending sympathy. This alphabet is for those days, when nothing seems to go right, you just got word that your all-time favorite vegan restaurant is closing, the dull-eyed guy behind the counter can’t tell you what’s in the three grain salad and Ringling Brothers is coming to town. You know, that sort of day.

Most of the time, you are cheerful and pleasant and welcome any challenges with the enthusiasm of a bounding Labrador, but there are days when you’re just not up for it and you want to barricade yourself in your home with all your awesome vegan friends who understand you, a well-stocked kitchen and a bunch of great cookbooks. It will pass. Until it passes, though, this alphabet is for you.

A is for All the times you’ve been asked if you get enough protein or if your shoes are leather or if you can “just eat around it.”

B is for Being patient despite wanting to scream sometimes.

C is for Carrots and Celery and Cabbage, the components of a nourishing soup that will provide the warmth you need after a long day of handing out Why Vegans.

D is for “Duh, no, my shoes aren’t leather.”

E is for Excellent, as in your blood pressure, at least, is excellent.

F is for Faster-than-the-speed-of-light, which is the velocity at which the best vegan comestibles disappear at the monthly potluck.

G is for Garbanzo beans because you have eaten your weight in hummus several times over.

H is for Holidays and the wool gloves your mother buys you every year that you have to exchange.

I is for Insomnia, the secret weapon of the super-productive.

J is for Jackass, something you mutter under your breath when you have just had it.

K is for Koalas, because they’re darn cute and sometimes you just need to see a picture of one chewing on a eucalyptus leaf to feel better. K is also for Kucinich for pretty much the same reasons.

L is for “La la la la! I can’t hear you!” which is what people may as well just come out and say sometimes.

M is for Meat Is Murder, the song that first lit a spark.

N is for “Nah-Nope-No,” which is what you say when asked if you ever miss cheese, eggs or meat.

O is for "Oh my god, I can’t believe I used to eat that."

P is for Pasta, the vegan’s saving grace when traveling or dining out with omnivores.

Q is for Quit, which you'll never do, despite the occasional bad day.

R is for Rejoicing, which you do at the littlest victories: When you find a new cafĂ© with vegan pancakes, when you see a car with an anti-fur bumper sticker, when you find stylish, leather-free shoes and they’re not too expensive, either.

S is for Strident, at which your natural resting pulse is set and it is also for Skimming menus, which you could win an Olympic medal at, you are so nimble.

T is for Tofu, because it is common knowledge that you have it delivered by the semi-truckload weekly.

U is for Unfortunate example, which you probably were that first year or two, let’s be honest. We all were.

V is for Vegan, what more can we say?

W is for Wanker, the British version of a Jackass.

X is for Xerox, which you blinded your corneas with when creating your first ‘zine.

Y is for Yelp, the disgruntled vegan’s playground.

Z is for ZZZZ, the sound you make while you are off dreaming of the ultimate snappy comeback to that kid or co-worker or cousin who makes stupid little comments about what you eat every damn time you see him like it’s original or something.

Anyone have more words to add?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bacon-loving hipsters can kiss my vegan ass!

First, a quiz.

1. Do you have a strip of bacon, another pork product, or organ meat rendered on your body in tattoo ink?

2. Do you find yourself debating which adorably anthropomorphized bacon crochet figure to buy at the local DIY craft fair? Or should you buy the bacon toddler shirt for your niece? Or, oh my god, did you see those bacon wristbands!?

3. Do you spend at least twenty percent of your time bonding and debating with your fellow bacon lovers on “foodie” message boards regarding the most obscure cuts of animal parts (extra points if they’re considered an ethnic delicacy in a faraway culture and hard-core in our own) and finding off-the-beaten-path and hard-to-pronounce restaurants in which to indulge in your consumption of the cured and salted meats?

4. Is the Small Pig Farmer a mystical being to you, in possession of an enigmatic grace, preternatural patience and a transcendental inner-peace? Does he seem to walk and talk slowly but purposefully, surrounded by an ever-present halo?

5. Finally, have you ever had a foggy but still erotic dream featuring Anthony Bourdain and Michael Pollan even if you don’t favor men in this way? Similarly, do you feel something similar to an erotic charge when you hear of a new heritage breed of pig, chicken, turkey or cow you can consume even if you don’t favor food animals in this way?

Now, give yourself one point for each time you answered in the affirmative.

One point: You are on your way but clearly must bump the effort up a notch. Have you been to a charcuterie lately? Maybe you should get a pig cut chart poster for your kitchen.

Two points: Get that shoulder tattooed with a slab of bacon already, my friend! You are rapidly ascending the ladder to becoming a meat fetishist.

Three points: No average, run-of-the-mill hipster affectations for you, dear one. When you embrace an alternative fad, you squeeze the ever-loving life out of it and pee on it to make it your own. Go, Bacon-Loving Hipster, go!

Four points: Anthony Bourdain on Tivo? Check. Fresh organ meat moldering in your fridge? Check. Recently dashed off a blistering or fawning review of the local “underground” (meaning, actually, trendy, exclusive and overpriced) meat emporium on Yelp? Check. You, daring hipster, are nearly there. You are essentially one sardonically purchased bacon-themed craft away.

Five points: Your body is a shrine to bacon, inside and out. All other Bacon-Loving Hipsters tremble in your presence. You are cured, salted and fried. My friend, you have become the living embodiment of bacon (without the suffering),

In truth, though, if you answered in the affirmative to more than one of these questions, then you may very well already be a Bacon-Loving Hipster. And if so, you can kiss my vegan ass.

Bacon-Loving Hipsters will whiningly insist that they tried to be vegetarian - oh, how they tried! - and even may have had a vegan significant other in the past but a life without strips of salted pig flesh simply wasn’t worth living. They may have even gone on what might be thought of as a considerable sabbatical from bacon (six months? A year?) but when they finally gave in and welcomed it back into their lives it was a revelation! The floodgates opened and previously scorned meat products – Veal! Sweetbreads! Beef tongue! – flooded in like so much backwash. The Bacon-Loving Hipster understands the arguments against eating animals but rejects them because, well, because bacon tastes good. No matter how many times they repeat this, it never stops being funny. To them.

Bacon-Loving Hipsters are in the greatest representation demographically as urban, heterosexual and Caucasian males and females from 25 – 37 years of age or so. Bacon-Loving Hipsters with artistic natures frequently try to finesse their pro-bacon stance as being ironic in spirit but, when pressed, they cannot articulate how this is an ironic statement. A smirking “Because bacon tastes good!” becomes their default response to everything in life, whether it’s related to bacon or not.

Bacon-Loving Hipsters never met a progressive petition they wouldn’t sign unless it could result in them having access to less bacon. By and large, they are anti-war, opposed to homophobic views, profess to be of the feminist persuasion, against racism, global warming and so on. When it comes to supporting needless cruelties against animals, however, the line is drawn in the sand, and that line is made out of bacon. Bacon-Loving Hipsters will support most progressive causes, except for those that actually require them to challenge some of their most cherished and self-absorbed habits.

What Bacon-Loving Hipsters are not: They are not actually from rural areas, and though they romanticize the country life, they cannot actually thrive without the comforts of city living (good coffee, grungy-ironic redneck bars where they can drink PBR and won’t get their asses kicked by actual rednecks, used bookstores with a snotty, perpetual grad school staff) in close proximity. Bacon-Loving Hipsters may actually go to the farm where their shrouded-in-the-gauze-of-idealization farmer keeps his pigs, may actually see or participate in the slaughtering process, may wax rhapsodic on how deeply fulfilling this was and how incredibly satisfying it was to eat this clearly superior soft tissue with a religious fervor once associated with, well, religion. They will not, however, give up their urban lives so they remain here to torment us with their meat-fetishizing ways and hipster habits.

What Bacon-Loving Hipsters are: They are often the same kids who were popular in high school, suddenly punk in college and embracing appropriate “below the radar” hipster culture ever-after. They think stripping is liberating (as long as it’s women – preferably those with plentiful body-mods - shedding clothes, otherwise it’s Chippendales-y, which is tacky and gross), opposed to gentrification even though they will only live in neighborhoods where it is afoot and think that chocolate-covered bacon is God in edible form. Well, they would think this if they weren’t atheists.

Rise against! Bacon-Loving Hipsters are in opposition to everything that is good and truly rejecting the status quo. What should we do? It’s actually easier than it might seem. Here’s the strategy I recommend: Bacon-Loving Hipsters love to feel that they are part of a marginalized, truly transgressive subculture. What is the worst insult to a Bacon-Loving Hipster? To imply that his tastes are acceptable to a mainstream, white-bread populace. Puncture the hipster where it hurts thusly: when you see a Bacon-Loving Hipster – and they will all furiously deny being hipsters so don’t ever take their word for it – tell them in your best suburban-y, cheerleader voice how awesome you think bacon is, and how you can’t wait to get a pig’s anatomical chart just like they have tattooed on your ass, just after you get back from seeing that new Sandra Bullock movie but before you go to Ikea. This will undoubtedly cause the Bacon-Loving Hipster a serious bout of agonizing self-consciousness and perhaps even cause said hipster to abandon his or her bacon preoccupation and adopt something else as a new talisman of rebellion, ideally something not made of a sentient being.

This is how we do it, people. The Bacon-Loving Hipster must be stopped before yet another bacon-themed t-shirt is purchased. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, my darlings. Let’s get busy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cultivating the inner-Jew...

I have always thought that being of Jewish heritage was the first way in which I felt different from the inside out. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, a place not exactly without members of the tribe, but WASPs definitely created the dominant social order of the North Shore in the 1970s and 80s, and until Dr. Levin’s family moved in across the street when I was ten or so, we were the lone Jews on our block. We were just different and probably most of our differences had little to do with religion or even culture but I think that some did. Maybe this sense of alienation was rooted in an internalized anti-Semitism, but it has always just felt like Christians, no matter their race or nationality, simply had a different genetic code than us and that this filtered down into everything: how we looked, how we viewed the world, how we communicated, how we were. Even as a very young child, I felt like an outsider looking in, truly, like I was standing outside with my nose pressed up against the window as I observed a Protestant family in their comfortable home where nothing unhappy or worrisome ever happened. Clearly, I idealized the non-Jewish experience, reducing its vastness and variance to a singular charmed life of security and contentment. This was a child’s perspective, where almost everything is seen from a self-centered vantage point and with not much nuance. Jews did, though, just seem to have a totally different orientation and I still feel the same way.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when those terrifying words “The Holocaust” entered my awareness, but they have always chilled me to the bone. My family was not religious in the slightest but we did have a silver menorah in the living room – the kind intended for real candles that we kept until my mother got tired of the messy wax and went electric – and that menorah was the cause of a lot of anxiety in my life.

It seemed to me even as a young child that with not much difficulty, the Nazis could rise to power in the United States. Why not? Was Germany that uniquely suited for Nazis to grab a foothold? Was this country that uniquely unsuited? With just a few conditions and circumstances over time, the stage could be set for such a horrifying fog to roll in. So I became fixated on our menorah and I really wished it weren’t there in plain view. In my mind’s eye, I saw Nazis in their terrifying uniforms and ramrod spines at our front door, demanding in cold, flat voices that our house be inspected. I thought that if I didn’t have much time, I would shove the menorah under the couch; if I had the benefit of a minute or two, I would hide it in a pillowcase and put it in the dryer under a mound of clothes. Once I figured out what I would do with the menorah if the Nazis came to our door, I relaxed a little. Then I could focus on how long my family of four could hide in our crawl space without detection. (Answer: I hid two boxes of Pop-Tarts, sodas and extra clothes in there.)

This awareness of our ultimate vulnerability – and everyone is vulnerable to tyranny, I know this, but to my young mind, it was just the Jews and African Americans – was probably instrumental in my identification with non-human animals. I disagree with those who say that the Holocaust is synonymous with what food animals endure not because I find it offensive but because these are unique horrors, specific to that particular and individual experience. This doesn’t stop me from seeing unavoidable parallels, though: Jews were seen as disposable; food animals are utterly disposable, deposited in our stomachs and finally excreted. Self-serving, irrational and unexamined beliefs were used to justify unconscionable cruelty against the Jews; clearly, a similar mentality is at work when humans feel that other animals are here for our use alone. For any of this to work, Jews would have to be seen as what eco-feminist author and scholar Carol J. Adams termed as an Other; animals in food production are the ultimate Other. The process through which another being is objectified, exploited, abused and killed would have to be reinforced at an institutional and cultural level, be viewed as necessary for society to function, and also be chillingly normalized. This was true of the Jews in the 1930s and 40s: it is also how the food animal industry functions and creates disconnection among those who consume the product of it. It was not a stretch at all for me to extrapolate how I felt being born of Jewish descent – and being fortunate enough due to circumstances outside of my control to be safe - and see parallels with those who happened to be born of oppressed species, who do not share my very fortunate circumstances.

So now Hanukkah is upon us and with it, the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. The word Hanukkah means “to dedicate” in Hebrew. In this case, the word is referring to the rededication of the Holy Temple after religious oppression, the unfathomable victory of the outnumbered Maccabees over the Syrian army after a three-year battle and the defilement of the holiest synagogue. Historically, Jews pride themselves on standing up to oppressors, speaking up for the underdogs and not caving to social pressures to get in line and reinforce the status quo. Veganism is perfectly consistent with this. And though the verb “to dedicate” refers to a different meaning here, I can’t help but see how appropriate this is again: vegans are dedicated to living compassionate, mindful lives despite outside pressures and our society’s emphasis on living convenient, conventional lives. This is not to say that vegans are perfect at all (I for one am deeply flawed) but that we tend to be guided by a different compass. When I became vegan, I didn’t mind feeling different from other people – this never factored in even slightly – because I had already always felt different. And this is where being Jewish and valuing a different sort of dedication helped me along the way. I think that cultivating this inner-Jew in all of us – the outsider by circumstance and choice, the person who knows her own vulnerability and deeply cherishes her freedom – has the potential to make us all more compassionate, ethically consistent and loving people.

So this year I’ll be making latkes, vegan as always, grated on my grandmother’s old-fashioned grater, and I’ll chop onions, cry little tears (involuntarily and joyously, purposefully) and I’ll heat the oil in the ancient cast iron skillet I bought for $10 at the resale shop back in college. When the oil is hot, spoonfuls of latke batter will be dropped in with a satisfying hiss and I’ll stand close by with my spatula, ready to turn, thinking to myself how much I love being different and how much I adore all my wonderfully different loved ones, those of us driven by our unique dedication. We are so incredibly fortunate to be living in a time and a place where we can safely give expression to that dedication.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone. May everyone – Jews and non-Jews, humans and non-humans – enjoy wonderful and meaningful live of our own design.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Activists of the Year acceptance speech...

On Friday, John and I were deeply honored to receive Mercy For Animal's activists of the year award. To receive such an honor from an organization I so very much respect was both humbling and incredibly uplifting. To be able to share this night (and honor) with so many compassionate, beautiful people...well, words fail. It was one of those nights that I'll never forget and I was just floating on the love and good vibes all night. Here was the speech I gave (John was generous enough to let me commandeer the microphone) and, as usual, there's so much more to say than time ever allows. I am so grateful to my community of humane, principled and passionate people. There is so much work to be done and I am honored to be doing it shoulder-to-shoulder with such shining examples of humanity.

When I was a young child, as is probably the case I’m sure with so many people in the room, I couldn’t stop asking my parents for a dog. I think that was my first sentence and it soon became one big run-on sentence from about the age of three on: “Can I have a dog, can I have a dog, can I have a dog…?” I was always very clear that I didn’t want a baby brother or sister: I wanted a dog. As I grew up, first there was Duffy, the beagle, then Buffy, the cocker spaniel: I was really in my “-uffy” stage. I loved my dogs and as I grew up, and, unaware even as it was happening, I was morphing into an herbivore. My sophomore year of high school, I was signing up for a school ski trip and out of nowhere, I checked a box on the form requesting vegetarian meals. I had never thought of it before: I just saw that word with the box next to it and I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s what I want to be. Of course!” I checked the box and I never looked back.

Not surprisingly, this was around the same time I opted out of dissection in my high school biology class. I had no great epiphany: it was just that at fifteen, I started to realize that animals weren’t ours to use as we saw fit.

Maybe it was because I was raised with an awareness of the Holocaust, knowing that so many of my extended family was wiped out in Europe simply because of crazy beliefs, and just as the genocide against the Jewish people made no sense to me, the same was true of misogyny and discrimination against people of color. That same seed of disconnection also germinates our belief that because we can do something, that gives us the right to do it. It only makes sense in an integrated worldview that non-human animals are part of the circle of compassion, and that this is a social justice movement as worthy as any other and perhaps more so because of the numbers and the profound degree of suffering. Using our voices to stand up for animals is deeply worthy of our time and dedication.

John and I are always trying to create something where we see a need. And with creating Chicago VeganMania, we were responding to our city’s need to have its own, unique vegan culture celebration. Our vision was always that we would be defined from within, by the abundant creativity, compassion and progressive, independent spirit woven throughout the Chicago vegan community. Too often, the vegan world is defined and thus viewed by what we don’t do. It’s important that people understand these things, of course, but framing it as such defines veganism by a “lack,” by our opposition to the status quo. We need to own our message and that’s what Chicago Vegan Mania was about. Our dream was always to celebrate and showcase this wonderful community as we are to the rest of Chicago and it was deeply gratifying for all of us to see that vision manifest: not only were there long lines out the door that whole chilly day in October, but people were smiling, they were talking and listening, they were engaged. Our local vegan community put on a great show, truly reflecting the diversity and vitality within. What a trickle-down effect an event like this can have on people’s perceptions.

We want to thank the whole Chicago VeganMania team who made this fanciful dream a reality: Chris Capozziello, Karen Maylone, Jessica Harding, Josh Alper, Meagen and Lauren Hugel, Marci Rubin, Mikael Nielsen, Leanne Hilgart, Paz St. John and Blythe Lopez. It was a pleasure to work with such ego-less, talented and dedicated people. And thank you to all the incredible volunteers who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the day a success. And thank you to everyone who promoted this event, who trusted us when we told them that we had this crazy idea for something we wanted to call Chicago VeganMania and who believed us when we said that it was going to have a huge draw. Thank you to my dear friends in the Chicago Vegan Family Network for raising the next generation of compassionate children. Thanks to my son Justice, for letting us schlep him to meeting after meeting. Last, thank you to everyone in this room tonight, to the tremendous Mercy for Animals, for helping to create the sort of world we want to live in, one filled with courage and kindness and critical thinking and integrity and passion.

Thank you.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Fifth Taste (or Confessions of a Savory Lady)...

I think that I’m not unique in the fact that I have had some mighty food obsessions in my lifetime. I don’t mean the sort of psychologically damaging ones – though I think I’ve had my share of those, too – but rather the kind where you can’t stop thinking about how much you love a certain food, about tweaking it with ingredients or preparation or simply obsessing over when you’ll eat it next. Even though it could only loosely be characterized as food, it is clear that I had an intense Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tart obsession when that was my breakfast nearly every day of fifth grade. (Warning: many of my food obsessions of my youth were non-vegan and questionable in quality.) Every morning, I dropped my Pop-Tart in the toaster, grabbed a plate and, after the bell dinged - the sound of angels trumpeting! - I would dreamily bite into it, reassured each time by its predictability and the way, after a bite or two, the toasted top split like the earth’s crust over the weirdly perfect filling. Occasionally I would have a dalliance within the Kellogg’s family of products with Brown Sugar Cinnamon or even Frosted Raspberry, but they were just brief flings. That year of fifth grade, my heart belonged to the Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tart. Another year, probably sixth or seventh grade, my breakfast every morning was untoasted bread spread thick with peanut butter. An open-faced affair, the peanut butter and bread had the illusion of being healthier than it really was, considering that it was made with Jiff and squishy white bread.

I had probably set the wheels in motion for my food obsessions as a small child with my daily Cream of Wheat (a pat of butter melted into it and swirled around in a big circle like a moat) and then there was my five-year-old lunchtime obsession: what my brother and I called “o-soup” for the can of round noodles bobbing in the salty, yellow broth like mini-life preserves. Various obsessions also included my mother’s blueberry pancakes made from Jiffy muffin mix with the wholly man-made “blueberries” and, mmm, lard-y goodness; bowls of vanilla ice cream mixed vigorously but patiently with a spoon until it was that perfect milky-creamy texture; my grandmother’s latkes with the crispy exterior protecting the meltingly soft interior. There was the granola bar every day freshman year of high school for lunch and the daily egg salad sandwiches (I gag to think about it now) my senior year. Oh, let’s not even talk about the summer of the Fudgsicle. Years after my Pop-Tart obsession, when I had my first apartment as a junior in college and viewed that area near the living room (the room with the oven and refrigerator in it) with suspicion, I discovered that stuffing from a box was not only fool-proof to make but something I could happily eat nearly every night. I would buy multiple boxes week, causing me to be labeled The Stuffing Girl by the cheerful cashier at Kroger’s, and causing my roommate, who already considered some of my habits to be rather odd, to raise an eyebrow of judgment at me every evening. No matter: I had my fix.

This all leads me to my most recent obsession, Brussels sprouts. And umami. Umami has been identified as the fifth taste (along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter) and was discovered by the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he extracted glutamate, an amino acid, from the sea vegetable kombu in order to understand its compelling flavor better. It turned out that many foods with that specific savory flavor (also considered yeasty, salty and broth-y) share that same amino acid and umami quality. Umami adds a subtle savory complexity to a dish and works more at rounding out flavors than standing out on its own but it is an important factor in creating a satisfying dish and meal.

The problem with umami is that it’s most often found in meat, seafood and cheese. It is also found in plant foods, most specifically mushrooms, seaweed and tomatoes, but it is most strongly associated with the savory and salty flavors found in animal products. With my current food obsession, which I’ll get to any minute now, I promise, I realized that it is the umami that has caused me to make this specific dish three times in the last week, and has me anxiously awaiting the next time. Though my early food obsessions revolved around sweet foods, these days I am decidedly a savory lady. Believe me, I will not be turning down a vegan brownie any time soon, but, really, when it all comes down to it, I have been in hot pursuit of umami most of my adult life, chasing after that elusive fifth taste in most of my kitchen experiments and grown up food obsessions.

Thinking about this dish and the sense of genuine umami pleasure it evokes deep inside me has made me wonder if perhaps some of the people who say they “couldn’t” be vegan because they were unsatisfied or missed meat/cheese/fill-in-the-blank too much were really craving more umami in their lives. For most of us who make the commitment to living as vegans, knowing what we know is enough. There are those, though, for whom the transition to be very difficult. It was easy for me, but maybe part of that was that I enjoy cooking and have been unconsciously creating more umami in my life since I first started improvising in the kitchen. Perhaps when people tell us that they made a genuine effort to be vegan but “lacked the willpower “ (something I hear a lot) or “missed cheese too much,” (something I hear even more) we need to help them figure out ways to bring more umami savoriness into their lives. I really don’t think mock-meats are the answer, and I especially don’t think faux cheeses are either, though they can be great transitional items for people, and any time people are consuming fewer animal products, it’s beneficial. I will recommend umami-rich plant sources next time this topic comes up.

Some plant foods that contain the savory umami flavor and enhance it are the following: miso, nutritional yeast, tamari or soy sauce, mushrooms (especially shiitake), tomatoes, sea vegetables (such as kombu), seaweeds, olives, soybeans, vegan Worcestershire sauce, Vegemite and Korean black bean sauce and liquid smoke. These are almost all complements to a dish rather than the main components so many are good to add to foods to heighten the umami effect. For example, using black bean sauce and tamari in a vegetarian stir-fry would help to create a meal that satisfies umami cravings, as does adding just a touch of liquid smoke in homemade hummus – the effect is so utterly delicious to us savory seekers, it’s hard to believe it’s such a simple little addition.

This all leads me to Brussels Sprouts Sliders. I originally saw the idea for it in a Mark (The Minimalist) Bittman New York Times column with quick food ideas for Thanksgiving. He listed 101 such ideas and this was the only one that grabbed me, but it really grabbed me and made me hop on my bicycle and pedal to the grocery store as soon as I could to get what I needed. I’ve adapted it slightly and excluded the meat.

Brussels Sprouts Sliders

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

About twenty large Brussels sprouts, rinsed, trimmed and halved 3 garlic cloves, minced 1 – 2 Tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper to taste

In a baking pan lined with parchment paper, toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast for about 12 minutes, then stir and roast about seven minutes more. The Brussels sprouts should be soft but not mushy.

Meanwhile, caramelize yourself some onions…

2 sweet or yellow onions, cut into thin half-moons
3 Tablespoons olive oil


Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, heat for a minute, then add the onions and a sprinkling of salt. Stir frequently, making sure to stir from the bottom of the pan up, to dislodge any sticking onions. They will begin to yellow and shrink in volume, as they darken from yellow to more of a caramel color, lower the heat. Keep cooking until they are at the desired state. This usually takes about twenty minutes and they should be very brown – though not burnt – and sweet when you’re finished cooking them.

Whole grain mustard

Let the onions and the Brussels sprouts cool. When easy to handle, take one half of a Brussels sprout “bun,” smear it with a little mustard, and add a small heap of caramelized onions. Put another Brussels sprout half on top and secure it all with a toothpick. Keep going until all Brussels sprouts are gone. Keep warm in an oven at 250 degrees until serving.

Note: the original recipe suggested bacon or ham in addition to the onions and mustard, which is easy to replicate as a vegan. Smoky tempeh or vegan deli slices would work well, though I like the Brussels sprouts as I described and don’t feel that they are missing anything.

Enjoy yourself on your quest for umami! Please remember that I am a home cook, not a food scientist or a trained chef so this is largely just intuitive. Experiment in the kitchen to find what works for you in satisfying your food obsessions.