Wednesday, July 23, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Allison Rivers Samson

One of my very favorite aspects of being involved in our community is getting to know some truly impressive people. From way back when we started Vegan Street in its first incarnation to the revitalized one we created last year, I've had the great fortune of meeting these people in person whom I had previously only admired from afar. Very rarely has the person disappointed in the flesh. Today's interview subject, the first of this series that I plan to do twice a month, is no exception.

I met Allison Rivers Samson of Allison's Gourmet earlier this month at Vegetarian Summerfest. As someone who has been active in the movement since before I first got involved in the mid-1990s, it was a pleasure to meet Allison in person. With big dimples (I think she should insure these through Lloyd's of London or something) and an elfin grin, beautiful sugar-and-cocoa hair (her version of salt-and-pepper, but also with purple frosting), bright eyes and a cheerful demeanor, Allison is a warm and vivacious ambassador for the vegan movement, which is so often unfairly characterized as being about pleasure denial. With her focus on creating voluptuous treats that are both ethically sourced and unapologetically pleasurable, Allison has proven that we can enjoy the best of both worlds without any sacrifice to our ethics or our enjoyment. It had been a real honor to get to know Allison. I am thrilled for you to get to know her, too. (Please check out her videos to see those dimples for yourself!)

Today we will be starting a contest that will run through July 30 at midnight Pacific time: please let us know your favorite comfort food you'd love to see veganized in the comments below and you could win a free download of Allison's popular e-cookbook, Comfortably Yum. If you don't win, don't despair because there is something for everyone: anyone who orders between now and July 30 at midnight Pacific time will get $3.00 off Comfortably Yum with the code VEGANSTREET.
Get in on it!

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?

ARS: Growing up, I learned less of a passion for food than a disordered way of eating and relating to food, from the various diets my mom and her parents regularly took up and discussed. While I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed food and cooking, my maternal grandparents did spend time in the kitchen, there just didn’t seem to be much joy around it. As an only child of a single mother, I was a latch-key kid and ate a lot of TV dinners. When I became old enough to cook, I made mac ’n cheese from a box, Steak-Umms, and junk I wouldn’t remotely refer to as food nowadays.

At the age of 15, I moved from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle and had a lifestyle shift as drastic as the shift in climate and I began to gain weight. Throughout my childhood, I had listened to my family of origin struggling so much with weight that I wondered if that was a predestined path that I had no power over. A short while later, a friend of mine told me about Fit for Life, which was focused on food combining. I quickly realized that it would be easier to do as a vegetarian and easily made the switch. I was 17 or 18 when I first started hearing about veganism. Then I read Diet for a New America, which really helped to put everything into place for me.

During this period, in the late 1980s, another friend I worked with liked to cook and she encouraged me to play in the kitchen. I had so little familiarity with cooking and ingredients that if I didn’t have everything a recipe called for (even rosemary!), I thought I couldn’t make it.

Sweets were always my muse, so I thought that if I could buy some vegan baked goods that tasted good, I’d be able to go vegan easily. Well, in those days, the selection was dismal so I decided to follow my muse into the kitchen and play. Over the months, I would bring in baked goods to share with my co-workers who urged me to sell them and I kind of shrugged it off. A while later, I left that job - I was selling Birkenstocks - and started working for the largest natural foods distributor on the West Coast. My position was fairly stressful and I found that my morning inspiration drew me into the kitchen and my need to decompress and nurture myself. I started to realize that there was a 9:00 - 5:00 interruption in my passion and decided to remedy that. 

In 1997, I went to a natural cooking school to refine my vegan baking skills. It wasn’t a vegan-only curriculum but they were fairly focused on offering a vegan food education at the time. My first offerings were to sell desserts to restaurants and cafés in Seattle while I was living on Vashon Island (accessible only by ferry) near the city. I soon discovered that traveling by ferry and then driving around distributing treats was eating up all my time and profits so I turned to the post office to become my delivery system and focused primarily on being a mail order business. I needed to figure out a good product line that was shippable and that was how Allison’s Cookies was born in 1997.

Meanwhile, I had people begging me – individuals I sold to and café owners – literally begging me to make brownies. Back then, the only recipes for vegan brownies relied on tofu. I don’t like adding tofu to chocolate because I feel like they contrast. Tofu has an astringent quality and draws away from the palate, whereas chocolate likes to dance with saturated fat, which is the role of cocoa butter. I remembered in cooking school that my baking teacher told me it was impossible to make a vegan brownie without tofu because you need to replace four eggs and two sticks of butter and that’s simply too much to replace. One café owner was so persistent and his standards were different than mine; he really wanted the brownies and I had no solutions yet. All I had was tofu and a personal reluctance. Surprisingly, they were better than any vegan brownie I had tasted and yet there was this little thought from which I couldn’t escape - get the tofu out of the brownies! I wanted the brownies to be made from real ingredients people could actually find in their own cupboards and for over four years I played and played and played until I finally cracked the code. It wasn’t easy but I did it. Naturally, I felt very accomplished that day and even more gratified when my brownies became award-winning.

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?

ARS: Although I grew up on processed, convenience, and frozen foods, I still had my traditions. My mom and I used to go out for breakfast a lot and my favorites were pancakes, waffles, and french toast (not all at once of course!). Today, we have a Sunday brunch tradition in our house and we often make waffles or pancakes or French toast, usually with a tofu scramble, kale, some black beans. My husband has loved playing in the kitchen with me over the years and has become an accomplished cook himself. His claim to fame is the most amazing gluten-free Belgian waffles. Yum! 

Another tradition we had in my younger years was Thanksgiving at my grandparents house with all the traditional dishes. When it comes to things, I am not a very sentimental person although when my grandmother died, she left her china and silver to me. At the time, I was too young to appreciate this gift, so my mom held onto it and when she passed away, my grandmother’s china came to me. We like to host Thanksgiving at our house and we serve it on her beautiful china, which she used daily, not just for special occasions. Even though the food is very different, I like having that crossover connection to my grandmother through her china.

Comfort food holds a special place in my heart and was the source of inspiration behind my award-winning magazine column, Veganize It!, and now, my e-book, Comfortably Yum. I see myself as a “bridger” between the omnivore world and the vegan world and my mission is to show that there is much deliciousness to be found in plants that it is so much better for all involved without any sacrifices. Comfort food is my entry point; a way to get people to try something made with very different ingredients yet very familiar without any of the downsides. Same thing with Allison’s Gourmet. In the old days, I used preface my sharing with “Here, try my vegan cookie, made without this and without that.” I’ve learned instead to offer my food and ask, “How do you like it?” Thankfully the answer is always positive, if not effusive, and then I say, “That’s so great. It’s vegan!” I feel like people have been tricked into eating garbage for so long and my intention is to “trick” them into eating something that’s healthier: good for them, the animals, and the environment.

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

ARS: Oh, wow, this is a very hard question. I have had SO many amazing meals that there is no way I could single out one of them. Food is such a huge part of my life that it is a main deciding factor in my travel plans. Whenever I go to a new town, my first “task” is to explore the vegan scene, tourist attractions and museums are nice but much less appealing. Suffice it to say I have had numerous memorable meals over the years. 

Easier, I could tell you about some of my favorite restaurants. Of course Millennium in San Francisco tops the list. Once we drove three hours into the city and back home in the same day just to have dinner there. (I apologize for the carbon emissions but the food is that good, even after all these years.) Recently, I went to Karyn’s on Green in Chicago and it was fantastic. I even went off my normal gluten-free diet to try the bread pudding and even without a speck of chocolate (my favorite!), it was so phenomenal. Sublime in Miami, Candle Café in New York, Plum Bistro in Seattle all come to mind as favorites. Crossroads and M Café, both in L.A. Gracias Madre in San Francisco… I could go on! Vedge in Philadelphia is on my must-try list as is Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s upcoming Modern Love Omaha.

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

ARS: I would love to have the experience of cooking in the kitchen with my Italian paternal grandmother, learning all about her recipes and veganizing them with her by my side. I was eight or nine when she died and I hear that she was a wonderful cook. It would be a thrill to interpret her recipes through a vegan framework. 

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

ARS: Can we have a vacation from the overuse of garlic? Not that it isn’t wonderful and should never be used, more that the over-reliance displaces an opportunity to explore other flavors. Depending only on limited flavors in general is a problem.

It’s important to take into consideration both texture and flavor; the art of building flavor is critical.

How about if we avoid relying on packaged ingredients and instead use whole foods?

Let’s stop coming from the perspective that vegan food is lacking or needs to be apologized for, making it seem like a noble but less sensual experience. Make good food, make it with love, and serve it JOYfully!

I would also recommend that home cooks prioritize cooking, be adventurous and try unusual ingredients, maybe make it a goal to play with at least one new ingredient each month.

Challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone a bit and play. 

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

I am so into all the fresh vegetables coming from my garden right now. We have this heirloom lettuce that is so beautiful, green and crisp: that was so delicious that I didn’t even need dressing. Also, the figs from our fig tree, they’re called King Desert figs and are absolutely exquisite. They are so amazing that I can’t bear to do anything with them but eat them straight. Kala namak – also known as black sulphuric salt – has been one of the my favorites for some years now. I use it in scrambles and frittatas, as well as in my tofu salad from Comfortably Yum, my frittata. I also love smoked salt.

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

No way! Why this unnatural imposition? I refuse to be restricted. ;-) Let’s negotiate instead… I could maybe do one different cuisine a month. My top three are Italian, Mexican and Japanese cuisines. I love Italian food for the sultry sauces and richness, Mexican for the fresh vegetables and chiles, and Japanese for the pure ingredients that are clean, distinct, and simple on the palate. 

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

I have had so many influences and supporters on this path that the way I see it is that wherever I am on my path, the next person I meet will propel me further and enrich my experience. I’ve had many teachers who have deepened my life; John Robbins is one. Kim Sturla of Animal Place farmed animal sanctuary, she is one of the most inspiring people I know. My daughter, Olivia, is my little guru. My husband, too, is so supportive and encouraging of me and my work. And all the animals I have had the honor of living with and meeting throughout my life have been essential teachers to me.

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

Something that I have been thinking about a lot for a while is that we can’t be vegan for just one reason and be effective as vegans. The three most common motivators to going vegan are health, the animals and the environment. I hear a lot of people focusing on one to the exclusion of the others and I think it’s a huge mistake. If we’re vegan only for our health, it’s a selfish reason and we’re missing out on a deeper experience. Also, people are more inclined to drop it whenever some new study (usually paid for by the very things they’re promoting) comes out touting eggs, dairy, fish, whatever. If someone is vegan just for the animals, not for themselves at all, my heart sinks a bit because it’s as if they don’t consider themselves worthy of consideration. People are more likely to fail at being a thriving vegan when they don’t care about their well-being. Not only do they run the risk of having poor health and then conclude that the diet doesn’t work for them - which is a crushing realization for an ethical vegan - but then they are not good ambassadors for this beautiful lifestyle. If we’re vegan just for the environment it’s just too far removed. If someone is vegan for the polar bears and that person doesn’t have a personal connection to the polar bears, the hot pepperoni pizza that’s right in front of them at the restaurant will win out. We need at least two of these reasons – our own health, compassion for animals, and concern about the planet – for veganism to root firmly within us.

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

“:...The easiest way to accomplish every one of my values in a single act.”


  1. Such a fantastic interview!

    For me, I would love a vegan, gluten-free and hopefully, organic hot dog (bun and all).

  2. nice, love it! mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, and it's definitely already been veganized, thankfully! lol

  3. I have yet to find a pecan pie recipe that I'm happy with, and that's comfort food for me!

  4. When I was little, one of my favorite comfort foods (makes me cringe now, but alas) was toasted bread with soft boiled egg and salt, all smooshed together in a bowl. I'd love to know how to replicate the taste without cruelty being involved.


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