Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Not Being Afraid of the V-Word

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

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

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

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

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

* I don’t believe in being closeted. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Dianne Wenz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… about compassion and respect for all living beings.

Thanks for all you do, Dianne!

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sadness and the Power of Knowing...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for visiting my humble blog. Please visit my website for vegan recipes, tips, interviews, reviews, message gear and much more.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Robin Robertson

A recipe-creating machine come to life, Robin Robertson might very well be one of the vegan movement’s most important players. As someone who has created a profusion of cookbooks over years that span the range from easy, one-pot recipes to elegant, festive party food, slow-cooker meals  to, well, the vegan kitchen bible, Robin brings a true passion to cuisines from around the globe, as well as an endless curiosity, ample respect and a ton of knowledge. Each time I get another one of Robin’s cookbooks to review - and it seems like every other week or so - I am floored by the breadth and the depth of her knowledge as it’s hard to have so much knowledge while avoiding dilettantism. Not only is her culinary knowledge rich and impressive, but she brings to the table recipes that are uncomplicated but rich in flavor, accessible but always interesting. In short, I am an unapologetic fangirl.

With a professional background as a chef, caterer and restaurant industry consultant, today Robin keeps producing cookbooks, writes for other publications and, with the Vegan Heritage Press she runs with her husband, is helping to nurture emerging vegan cookbook authors. Living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband and impossibly photogenic kitties, Robin Robertson is the gift that keeps on giving. With another cookbook coming out very soon and who knows how many more to come, Robin is a tireless asset to our community. I’m grateful to have been able to take a little of her time for the following Ten Questions Q&A.

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?

My mother was a great cook – she never measured anything, and her dishes always turned out perfectly.  She would let me help in the kitchen when I was a child, so my love of cooking started quite early. 

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?

Our family meals consisted of mostly Italian food, combined with typical American, and a little Hungarian. My mom always included lots of vegetables in our diet – even as a child I loved Italian-style escarole and white beans with garlic.  I now make all those meals and recreate traditions from my childhood using vegan ingredients, including my favorite – Italian Easter Pie (a special savory pie traditionally made with sausage, cheese, and eggs).

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

I like to think I haven’t experienced it yet – that always gives me something to look forward to!  So far, though, I think I can narrow it down to a few stand-outs: my first meal at Millennium many years ago, because it was my first vegan “fine dining” experience, and I thought this is how all restaurants should be!  Another great food experience were the “accidentally vegan” meals I enjoyed in Tuscany, most notably the grilled polenta sticks with sautéed fresh porcini mushrooms at a little café in Lucca.  Unbelievable.  I also recall the amazing multi-course Thai meal at Arun’s in Chicago several years ago was also stellar.  That’s where I first tasted those little leaf-wrapped appetizers called  miang kham (filled with morsels of coconut, shallot, chili, lime, and  ginger) – a flavor explosion in one bite.  Also, every time I dine at Plant in Asheville, NC I’m inclined to say it’s the best vegan meal I ever had!

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

I’d love to cook a special meal for my mother. She passed away just as I was going vegan, so I never got a chance to cook vegan for her (and she never got to see any of my cookbooks).  I’d probably make some traditional family foods that I’ve veganized, such as ravioli and brasciole.  Maybe I’d make her favorite apple pie for dessert. 

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


Over the years, I’ve found that many people tend to UNDER-salt the food they cook. Often, all it takes for a dish to go from bland to “wow” is a little more salt!

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

Fresh locally grown seasonal produce always captures my attention.  Last week, I had the BEST blueberry pie because it was made with hand-picked local berries, and the most unbelievably good potato salad made with potatoes that we dug ourselves that morning and lightly dressed with Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo – my new favorite vegan mayo. 

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

Since I love Thai and Italian food equally, I’d have to create a hybrid cuisine that would allow me to enjoy foods from each of those cuisines every other day.

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

The individuals and organizations dedicated to animal rights and welfare have had the most influence on me personally.  I could never do what they do, but I find inspiration in their selfless dedication to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. 

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

Animal welfare. There are so many ways in which animals suffer at the hands of humans, so it’s important that we do everything possible to tip the balance in favor of the animals.  I’m passionate about helping animals any way I can – the reason I write cookbooks is for the animals – the more people I can help go vegan, that less animals that will be eaten for food.  But we can all do more to help all kinds of animals, even in small ways, from alerting authorities when a dog is left in a hot car, to boycotting products that test on animals, to donating time or money to animal sanctuaries and shelters.  Even something as simple as taking a shelter dog for a walk, or playing with shelter cats for an hour can brighten their lives – and yours too.

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

I’ll finish that sentence three – no, make it four -- times:
“To me, veganism is…Love."
“To me, veganism is…Compassion.”
“To me, veganism is…Life.”
“To me, veganism is…Delicious.”

Thank you for all you do, Robin!