Wednesday, November 26, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Dreena Burton

I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dreena Burton of Plant-Powered Kitchen in person yet but when I do, I think I am going to wrap myself around one of her legs and not let go until she feeds me hummus. This woman is really, really into hummus and I think it may be the protein-packed secret behind her healthy glow and her productivity. In addition to her popular, frequently updated website that abounds with simple but enticing recipes as well as instructional videos, Dreena also has written some excellent and well-loved cookbooks, which focus on family-friendly, nutritious but still appealing dishes that children and busy parents alike can enjoy. A vegan for 20 years, Dreena also contributes recipes regularly to magazines and websites, such as Yoga Journal and Forks Over Knives. Her fifth cookbook, Plant-Powered Families, comes out this May and I can't wait for it.

I love Dreena's positive approach and her accessible way of helping parents become empowered role models and healthy living advocates for their children. Knowing that healthy eating habits begin in childhood and can be so challenging to change later on, I think that what Dreena is doing is actually quite revolutionary with an enormous potential for creating positive change, one household after the next. With so many challenges to good health - from the deep-fried chicken "fingers" and vegetable-bare children's menus to empty calorie snacks that kids gulp down between activities - it's very reassuring to know that Dreena is helping to create a new food climate - free of judgement and sanctimony - with easy, delicious and nutritious recipes anyone could make and enjoy. Thank you, Dreena, for changing the world.

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’ve always loved food. We didn’t grow up eating a very healthy diet, but I do remember having an appreciation for home-cooked meals. I’ve also always had quite the sweet tooth!  I wasn’t one of those kids that spent hours cooking with her mother. My love for cooking actually began once I became vegetarian, and soon after, vegan. I never enjoyed cooking animal flesh or baking with eggs - from prepping to cleaning it was unappealing. When I started cooking and baking vegan, it felt like food freedom! Which is ironic, because most people perceive plant-based foods as restrictive. For me, it sparked a new passion in food and recipe developing.

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?

I grew up in a very traditional “meat and potatoes” home. Quite a lot of processed meats too, like Vienna Sausages, bologna, Fraser Meatballs, deli meats, and fish sticks. I shudder at the thought now! My mother also cooked many meals from scratch, but fresh vegetables were not plentiful, so the veggies we did eat were canned or boiled. I do remember some of my mother’s signature dishes as favorites in my childhood, and a few I’ve adapted. More so, I think I’ve created new food traditions for our family. Our daughters always ask for Pumpkin Custards during the holidays, and often request Tamari Roasted Chickpeas, hummus, and Mac-Oh Geez!

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

One of the best meals I had was in Portland, Oregon at Natural Selection. It was during my trip to Vida Vegan Conference, and the meal was just beautiful composed. They really understood flavors and textures and every course and bite was scrumptious. I hope to visit more vegan restaurants now that our girls are growing and I can hopefully indulge in more travel!

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

Wow, that’s a big question! Perhaps my father. He passed away just after my 11th birthday, and I feel like I learned a little “alternative living” from him. He loved food, truly loved it! With six children in our family, he’d didn’t always get seconds for dinner and would satiate his remaining hunger with crackers and jam! So, I’d probably make my Umami Burgers with home fries for him, there’s no hunger after that meal! Dessert is a must, too. He loved a good cookie bar, so I’d probably lean towards my Hello Vegan Bars!

What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?
Perhaps thinking we now have to like a new food or cuisine because it’s popular in vegan cookery. For instance, foods such as seaweed, tofu, beets, eggplant, buckwheat, or specific beans like edamame or black-eyed peas. I like to say that our palates blossom when we become vegan. We become more in tune with all the nuances of flavors in foods. Sometimes this leads us to like foods we once didn’t like. Other times, it heighten a particular dislike, or we simply try a new ingredient as our choices broaden. It’s okay not to love every plant food!

What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

Ooooh, fun question! I love the Coconut Aminos line of seasonings - their teriyaki sauce, coconut vinegar, and more. Really tasty and quick to add to quinoa, salad bowls, steamed kale, etc. I also love coconut butter because it’s magical in desserts, winter squash because it is just nature’s comfort food in the fall, sweet potatoes because they are incredibly versatile from savory to sweet recipes, and macadamia nut butter - it’s very underutilized and a dessert lover’s dream.

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

Hmmm, either Lebanese (because #hummusisafoodgroup) or Mexican for its avocado love!

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

I began my journey after reading Diet For A New America. My path began for health reasons, but soon I learned about the atrocities of animal agriculture through Erik Marcus' work. By far the most influential book for me was The China Study. I read it many years back, when it was first released, and it grounded all my beliefs about eating plant-based. I began sending copies of TCS to friends and families, recommending it everywhere and anywhere.  Now there are so many game-changing books and movies, from Forks Over Knives to Vegucated to Whole.

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

Making healthy eating a priority for children and families. Our generation of parents invests so much time in sports and activities for kids, and yet many children are eating the most non-nutritive foods - even in families that can afford very good food. Diet is learned, we need to teach children early about real food.

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

...simply life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Truly Thankful...

So prepare your eyes to see a fair bit of whining, just saying. Don’t worry, it’s not a feast, just a little taste and it’ll be over quickly.

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced my first major computer crisis. In retrospect, it was probably just my turn. Nothing could have prepared me for what was ahead of me, though: one moment, I was simply doing my last email check of the day before bed and the next, out of nowhere, I seem to have temporarily lost my executive cup-holding function and spilled water all over my keyboard and track pad. I did my best Janet Leigh impression and John came running in; we held the computer upside-down, powered down and unplugged it. We followed the protocol we found online of letting the computer dry over a crate with a light fan on it. We may have also chanted, lit a candle and done some positive visualizations. Somehow we slept that night and the next morning, we made an appointment with the resident geniuses at our local Apple store with my laptop all wrapped up like a baby with croup.

Despite telling our technician that we needed it backed up (something we hadn’t done – and I blame myself for this – because I thought that saving was the same thing as “backing up,” which, oops, it isn’t), and having the technician verbally confirm this several times, he failed to note that on his work order and we failed to notice that it wasn’t on there when we signed it. Again, the technician was incompetent but this was our fault for not double-checking. We signed the work order, reasonably hopeful after he said he didn’t notice any water damage at the initial check, and I busied myself for a few days with other work. When John got the call that the computer was ready for pick-up, we were thrilled: it was back a day early and no water damage had been detected. I wouldn’t need a new laptop! Oh, one small thing, though. They did what is called a “clean install.” There was no need for backup noted on the work order. My laptop was effectively wiped clean of all the work on it, all my files, all my saved messages, all programs, everything. It was all gone and my desktop was returned to me, naked as a jaybird. Or a cardinal. Or a goldfinch. Really, you could insert any naked creature here, it doesn’t have to be a bird.

I could beat myself up for not knowing enough to back up my computer but I am taking it as a learning lesson. I could rail against Apple for their incompetence, and, well, actually, I am doing that. Once I stopped imagining writing such an incendiary letter to Apple that the keyboard on my now-naked laptop would need to be replaced, though, I was able to see something else with absolute clarity: what made me feel like my insides had been removed with a pumpkin scooper was ultimately the same reason why I should be grateful. This is my life’s work and I have found it. This is everything.

I could wake up every workday with dread and resentment. I could be bored out of my damn mind. I could not feel a sense of purpose. I could actively hate my job. I know many people who clock in and dedicate their off-hours time to their pursuing what brings them a sense of meaning and purpose. I’ve been able to construct my life so I can do what I love full-time. It’s not something most people are able to do so there is that gratitude there, to have found what I love to do and to be able to dedicate my life to something that is so profoundly necessary.

There is not a day when I feel like I’m phoning it in. There is not a day that I don’t look forward to doing this work or am a loss for ideas. All that said, of course, it’s not about me. It’s about creating a world with less suffering in it, more compassion, more justice, more joy, more connection. The fact that we get to live at a time when we can choose to construct the lives that are meaningful to us is a profound, rare gift and I plan to take full advantage of the opportunity of it.

So this week’s essay is shorter as I am still making up for the week I lost. If you haven’t already, please check out my interview on the fabulous podcast, OurHen House (also, please consider donating now as donations will be matched through the new year). I also got the fantastic news that my recipe for Brussels Sprouts Sliders was featured on the New York Times section, The Well. There’s a lot to be thankful for but I need to get busy with filling my computer back up.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Julieanna Hever


I am not one of those people who think that people are only motivated to stop eating animals by ethics. I have met people again and again who got their foot in the door through taking ownership of their health and then began to make deeper connections to compassionate living. People can speak all they want about their utopian standards but for me, the proof is in the pudding: some of the most active, passionate and ethical vegans I know came in through the side door of health. The idea that we would push anyone out of “the club” because they didn’t follow the personal trajectory we’d prefer is kind of appalling to me, especially seeing as how very important community is to integrating change successfully. At the end of the day, dogma is pointless and even harmful if more potential vegans are lost in stubborn pursuit of our ideals and, ultimately, the animals pay the price for that shortsightedness. I believe that our movement is anchored in social justice and as such, our outreach on behalf of animals is ideally rooted in a foundation of ethics -- ideally is key here -- but it should never come at the expense of losing people who might otherwise become phenomenal champions for the vegan cause if we were to allow them to gain access through a side door.

This is all to say that while I wish everyone were driven by compassion and justice, at some point we need to be grateful that they are exploring or have fully embraced not eating animals for their own reasons. This is where someone like Julieanna Hever, M.S
, R.D., C.P.T. comes in. As someone whose own veganism is rooted deeply in her convictions about compassionate living, Julieanna has found a way to deftly move between worlds: her background in nutrition, health and science; her passion for animals and the earth; and her skill at conveying her message of wellness and kindness without dumbing it down and without condescension. This cannot be an easy feat and yet she pulls it off with uncommon diplomacy and grace. In short, Julieanna Hever is fabulous and you should know about her. I believe you’ll be just as impressed.

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?

Like for many others, it all started for me by reading John Robbins’ Diet For A New America many years ago, as a teenager. Once I learned about the hideous, atrocious, harmful ways animals ended up on a plate, I was devastated, shocked, and frustrated. I did not want to contribute to that industry anymore. But I was sucked into the fear of nutrient deficiency, of lacking options to eat, of my family and friends isolating me, and of going against the societal norms. It took me years of investigating and then, ultimately, going through graduate school in nutrition and a dietetic internship to come to the place I am at now...where I feel confident and secure in the fact that not only do we not need animal products to survive, but that we quite possibly do better without them. Everything evolved to make perfect sense in that eating vegan is the only way to stop suffering of animals as well as stop the destruction of the environment and just so happens to be the healthiest way to eat, too. I do not believe in coincidence and am passionate that it is a win-win situation for all when we eat the way my heart and soul knew was right since first being awakened to the information decades ago.

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 was honored and eager when I was asked to write my first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. I felt like that was my chance to write the book I wish I had when I originally wanted to go vegan and didn’t know where to start. I have found that offering information (when requested) and role modeling are the most powerful tools for supporting others. However, an incredibly crucial lesson I have learned over the past few years is that saying less is more. When I started out and was exceedingly loud about veganism, I shut out a bunch of family and friends and seemed to have had the opposite effect I was hoping for. I wanted to veganize the world and had no problem talking about it at any opportunity. I still want to veganize the world, but have found that the less I say, the more people are interested. Apparently, the inspiration is in the subtlety and people really are curious. But if someone feels attacked, they naturally pop into a defensive mode. If you avoid that by not being confrontational or judgmental and meeting them where they are at, they are more likely to proceed further. Personally, if I were pre-vegan again, I can’t imagine myself being anything other than ravenous for facts and tips.

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

This depends on the audience and the medium. When I am speaking, I can’t help but get impassioned and sometimes even emotional. Even when I am speaking to physicians and other healthcare practitioners, I can’t help but reveal my true feelings on the subject. But, I also tell jokes and try to make it fun. I always infuse as many facts and science to back up everything as well as tips and ideas on how to realize this way of eating. On social media, I play more with humor and sarcasm, using images and memes (particularly my absolute favorite, brilliant Vegan Street Memes, which I and my audience eat up), and a ton of documentation of facts, facts, and more facts.

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

The passion of vegans is the biggest strength. The growing momentum is without doubt due to the persistent and consistent efforts of groups like PCRM, Mercy for Animals, PETA, Vegan Street, the growing base of vegan chefs and cookbook authors, healthcare practitioners writing books and speaking, and others who are lending their voices, skills, and talents to the media and other audiences. It’s exciting to witness. Another extremely critical element in the success of the vegan movement is the growing body of science in the literature confirming how a plant-based diet is the healthiest.

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

I see many vegans get frustrated and angry at the lack of respect in the overall community and media. (And, believe me, I know there really is a lack of respect.) But that comes from fear. People are scared to death that they have been doing it all wrong. That they may have to face major changes. And that is because there is perhaps nothing more personal than food. When we use judgment and come from a place of anger, it is ineffective and turns people away. If there were fewer vegan police, more people would be open to trying to move in this direction without fear of having to be perfect. I have worked for years on being able to meet people where they are at and acknowledge all of their strides, regardless of how small they may seem. I prefer billions of people eat fewer animals overall and focus on that angle instead of trying to make a few completely vegan. Truthfully, it makes it easier for me knowing that once someone starts the journey and witnesses the deeply transformative effects and starts having revelations on how their forks affect the world around them, they continue down the path anyway.

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

This, of course, depends on who I am speaking to, but when someone asks me, my deepest, most sincere pitch is: “I am vegan because I do not want to contribute to the suffering of animals, the degradation of the planet, and because eating plants is the healthiest way to live.”

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?

John Robbins started my journey and he is amazing. I have also found great wisdom and authentic, life-changing mentorship from Brenda Davis, Dr. Melanie Joy, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Other people who have supported and inspired me include vegan dietitians GinnyMessina, Jack Norris, Reed Mangels, and Vesanto Melina. I love and deeply admire Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Mercy forAnimals as powerful world-changing organizations. And I give huge props to the genius culinary artists Dreena Burton, Chad Sarno, Robin Robertson, Tal Ronnen, Chloe Coscarelli, Chef AJ, and Miyoko Schinner, who consistently show how delicious veganism is. Veganism is exploding and I absolutely love all the gorgeous voices that are emerging. I am inspired by people like Gene Baur for starting Farm Sanctuary and Dr. RichardOppenlander for defining the environmental impact of animal consumption. Fearlessness is powerful and it is changing the world.

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

When I feel the impact of negative energies build up, I go to my friends that have been doing this for years and decades. Or I go to resources. I read information or watch documentaries and remind myself why this is the reason I am here and it rekindles my flame. So far, it has been easy because I am clear on all the work I have yet to do. I love and am beyond grateful to have a voice in helping others and, hopefully, in continuing to inspire people to recognize this necessary evolution towards eating plants.

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

That we cannot only survive without animals, but, likely, we can thrive and do better without them. Because the implications of not eating animals are so vast and so hugely imminent.

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

To me, being vegan is everything. Being vegan means compassion, wisdom, and interconnectedness.