Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ten Diametrically Oppositional Arguments Against Veganism That Make My Head Explode

One of the more maddening aspects of interacting with the public about our veganism is the strange but very common phenomenon of being asked to accept two diametrically opposed ideas and beliefs as accurate or true. Contradictions obviously happen a lot in life – we all know people who loathe children but have nothing but tenderness for dogs, for example – and those seeming inconsistencies are part of what can make life an interesting and rich experience. What I am referring to here is something different, though. In the grasping-at-straws that regularly occurs when people attempt to make peace with their conflicted feelings about eating animals, they are trying to reconcile liking the way something tastes and wanting to continue the practice of eating it with not liking what it says about them to be complicit in the violence that consuming those animals necessitates. It is an understandably uncomfortable friction for many, even for those who claim otherwise. Maybe especially so for them. This is a big part of why vegans experience so much public push back, often when we are not even engaging in debate. We become the physical manifestation the inner-conflict that naturally arises out of the unresolved internal discord people feel about eating animals. In short, we are the messengers, even when we are not wearing our messenger hat. As such, we are exposed to some bizarre mental gymnastic routines that we are expected to accept, ones that assert two deeply conflicting messages, often times within moments of one another. Let’s explore some, shall we?


1. Vegans eat only salads and vegans eat only processed foods.

This set of prevailing contradictory attitudes, one insisting that vegans are neurotic kill-joys who are calorie- and/or weight-obsessed and the other maintaining that we subside on deep-fried soy pig skin analogs, could not be more oppositional yet we hear these all the time.

Real talk Some vegans emphasize whole plant foods more than others but the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle of these extremes. If you see someone posting a photo of salads or a photo of donuts, it does not mean that is all that person eats. Jeez. 


2. If we didn’t eat them, the animals would go extinct and if we didn’t eat them, the animals would take over the world.

Wait: what? I am so confused. Somehow, in one fell swoop, meat-eaters are able to save farmed animals from extinction by chowing down on them and also prevent said animals “from taking over the world,” by ordering Big Macs and chicken wings, which means that they are doing their part to ensure population balance. What a strange paradox! Singlehandedly, they fight extinction by paying others to endlessly provide a supply that replenishes diminished (*cough*dead*cough) provisions and they safeguard the planet against insurgent chickens. Thank you, eco-warrior martyrs!

Real talk If we can only deem a species’ existence justifiable when we find a use for them – and that use is something as cruel and punishing as being raised to be eaten – we need to give some serious scrutiny to our morals. If the only alternative to extinction is breeding to ensure a consumable product after a hellish existence, these animals should not be brought into the world at all. Also, I’m just guessing here but it seems to me that there would be a gradual population decrease with reduced breeding and consumption rather than an opening of the factory farm doors and releasing bloodthirsty, predator cows upon our innocent populace. 

3. Vegans are a bunch of wet blankets who take everything too seriously and vegans don’t care about important issues.

Somehow, we’re simultaneously enemies of fun with our annoying need to draw attention to the grave reality of eating animals and we’re frivolous, carefree nincompoops who don’t care about anything that really matters. That is quite the feat to be able to pull off! I’m kind of proud of us. We manage to be both Debbie Downers and Shallow Susies at once. Go us!

Real talk
You don’t like hearing about the consequences of animal ag? Well, we don’t like knowing about it but that doesn’t stop it from being reality. Sowwy. I have a solution for you if you think we’re too doom-and-gloom about everything: Stop giving us reasons to be scared and sad about the state of the world, how’s that? Stop feeding the machine that is destroying so many innocent lives and our environment. As for the second claim, the people who make it, in other words, the ones currently eating animals, they are the arbiters of what really matters. Okay. So, yeah, more nonsense. Side note: These people don’t tend to do anything for the good of the world but they are great at monitoring and scoring everyone else.)
4. Vegans are stinky hippies who live in dumpsters and vegans are raging control freaks who want to dictate your life.

Okay then!

Real talk Okay then!


5. Vegans are extreme liberals
and vegans are Nazis.

Well, that’s pretty impressive. We’re like Stretch Armstrong, I guess. I will say that at the monthly Tree-Hugging Fascists for Total Global Domination potlucks I attend, you should see the fights break out over who was responsible for adding too much garlic to the hummus. (It’s always the liberals.) We usually end up hugging and then slapping it out, then hugging, then slapping. You get it. It’s weird but it works for us.

Real talk Vegans are of all political persuasions but most of us are on the lefty side so I can kind of see how people jump to the first conclusion, but somehow, we also still manage to be Nazi fascists who are trying to ruin everything good in the world like animal torture and climate change. ‘Kay. Last year, someone yelled at me at a rodeo protest - while walking away because he was badass like that - that vegans are “like the Westboro Baptist Church” for protesting. One group is speaking up against violence and the other spews hateful, fire-and-brimstone vitriol. Yeah, six of one, half a dozen of the other. 


 6. I eat meat because I make my own decisions and eating meat was ingrained in me.

Right, sure, you’re this non-conforming, bacon-fetishizing free-thinker who behaves like 97% of the population in thinking that animals are our personal choice to consume but you also happen to be totally powerless to change your habits because of how you were raised. That makes total sense.

Real talk Which is it? I don’t see how these two common attitudes – that omnivores are boldly swimming against the current of the nanny state dictated by the all-powerful tree-hugging neo-Nazi vegan special interest lobby in exercising their “personal choice” to eat animals and are also being powerless, free agency-deficient products of their upbringing – can be reconciled. Try again, bro.  


7. Vegans are cultists and veganism is fine for other people but some of us like to fit in.

Once again, we’re chastised for being conformists – consider how very dominant the tree-hugging neo-Nazi vegan lobbying influence is in our culture where we’re so surrounded by the idea that animals are ours to use as we wish to the point that we don’t notice it – and being too individualistic by rejecting accepted cultural conventions because, yeah, that makes sense. Somehow, we are capable of both losing our ability to think for ourselves and thinking for ourselves too much. I remain confused!

Real talk Vegans do tend to go against the grain due to having their practices dictated by their conscience rather than social conventions and conveniences but, that said, it’s easier all the time to live as a vegan without too much effort or inconvenience. Whether people want to do their own thing or avoid attention is up to the individual but vegans have all different views about this. It might be tidy to put vegans in a uniform personality box but it’s not accurate.


8. Vegan parents brainwash their kids and vegan kids will be socially rejected and isolated.

Once more, are we opposed to conformity or for it? This seems to be a recurring contradictory message of meat defenders: We’re brainless conformists or we’re so absolutely fringe we live on the outskirts of society.

Real talk I grew up as an omnivore. Was I ever given a choice of whether I wanted to eat meat or not? No. Just the thought of dairy milk made me want to hurl but was I given the option of not drinking it? No. Did anyone ever explain to me honestly what I was eating? No. Was I ever lied to when I asked what if it came from an animal? Yes. That was not just in the home. This was everywhere and it happened – and is still happening with little restriction – to everyone. At school, we are bombarded with animal industry propaganda from the classrooms to the cafeteria; same thing at the doctor’s office, coming from doctors who are also steeped in the same disinformation; watching TV, listening to the radio, walking in the grocery store or driving down the street, we are inundated with product promotion to the point of it becoming white noise that worms right into our very brain matter. Contrast how my husband and I were raised with how we are raising our son: He knows what he eats – and doesn’t eat – without deception and euphemism. He knows the reality of animal agribusiness is far from Old McDonald’s Farm. He is being raised to ask questions and use critical thinking about all matters, even his veganism. He is being raised to think for himself rather than accept the status quo and to learn how corporations try to manipulate him with images and text. He’s brainwashed? I wonder what you call the kids who don’t even realize that they are eating animals then?


9. Vegans believe and push propaganda and But you need to eat meat for complete proteins; or, but a cow’s udders would explode if we didn’t drink their milk; or, but I visited a farm once and it was not like this.

This one really burns my grits. (I don’t know where I got that expression, I’m not from the South or anything but whatever, I’m going with it.) Okay, let me try to parse this: The often hidden reality of eating animals that vegans are sharing with the world – a truth that is confirmed by many investigations and organizations – is pretty much the exact opposite of what the vested interests want consumers to know and understand yet we are the ones believing and slinging propaganda? Hello, Mr. Orwell. How are you? This contrasts nicely with the propaganda we regularly are exposed to from people who are so steeped in disinformation, they don’t even realize it.

Real talk: Who are the real followers and deceivers in this equation? The two-to-three percent of people who are bringing the concealed, unpopular information to the surface or the vast majority who are still in the industry’s clutches? I wonder. Actually, no I don’t.

10. Vegans are a bunch of mushy sentimentalists and I eat meat because my papa was a butcher and this is my way of respecting his memory.

The irony of this one never fails to rankle me. On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that vegans are a bunch of wildly idealistic bunny-huggers and on the other hand, wah, you have to uphold your family tradition of chowing on animals? Because that’s rational. Who is the sentimentalist here?

Real talk
Question: who are the ones reading stories to their kids about happy animals on idyllic farms? Who are the ones who “have to” eat animals because their ancestors did? Who are the ones who cry at Babe but still eat meat? Who are the ones who make their grandmother’s brisket recipe when they’re feeling nostalgic? Who are the ones who love some animals and eat other ones? Answer: Not the vegans. Sentimentalize that.

What diametrically oppositional arguments against veganism make your head explode?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie with Jeff Stanford

I am really happy today to feature Jeff Stanford, who, along with his wife, Joan, founded the Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino, CA, the only vegan resort in the U.S. Inside the Stanford Inn is their restaurant, The Ravens, which has been creating local, whole and sustainable food grown right on their own organic biodynamic gardens at the inn since the mid-1990s. Jeff and Joan recently published their first cookbook, Dining at The Ravens: Over 150 Nourishing Vegan Recipes from the Stanford Inn by the Sea, a beautiful cookbook full of gorgeously plated, colorful and creative recipes. As a pioneer in plant-based cooking and his ethics rooted in compassionate, sustainable living, I am thrilled that Jeff Stanford is today’s Vegan Foodie.

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 was inspired by two people - my mother and my father-in-law.

My mother enjoyed cooking. When I was young, I watched and my mother cooked. I never really cooked with her and didn’t watch particularly when I could go out and play, however, there must have been many hours - and I remember her joy as she talked about what she was doing. When I was on my own, living with Joan, I cooked.  Cooking was a break in research and writing when I was in graduate school. I would call my mother and she would explain how to do something. She also made a file box of all the recipes she knew that I liked.

My mom’s enthusiasm came from her mom. During the Depression, when my mom was very young, her parents converted a well-known older house in Westport, Connecticut into an inn. Apparently my grandmother cooked for guests (who I imagine were primarily business associates of my grandfather visiting from NYC). The stories I remember from that period regard wine, which they hid in the house to serve to guests at dinner. It was during Prohibition. Often the wine was not stable, continuing to ferment in the bottle. Corks would spontaneously blow out and the wine would pour out. One night, my mom and grandmother told my brothers, sister, and me about a time they were sitting in the living room with guests when they heard “gunshots,” followed almost immediately by “blood” dripping through the ceiling.  Of course it was the wine.

My mom helped my grandmother in any way she could in the kitchen. After she was married, my mom emulated her mom bringing passion and enthusiasm into her kitchen. My sister, brothers, and I were bathed in her enthusiasm. She became well known for her cuisine and for entertaining in our home. I learned about this reputation after she died and people wrote to us regarding their experiences with her.

I learned enthusiasm for food from my father-in-law. When Joan and I joined her mom and dad at Lake Winnipeg on weekends, he enthusiastically cooked breakfast and made each a special event. I often cooked at night and he always relished the dishes. We were neither vegan nor vegetarian and I was known for making barbeque, seared roast leg of lamb, and other dishes that he loved.

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?

We ate well in the manner of mid-twentieth century values, and accordingly a bit light on vegetables.

I did have favorite dishes. First was and is salad. I have always enjoyed cold, crisp fresh vegetables with little or no dressing. Second was a chocolate mint cake, which I have not tried to convert to vegan. Third, lemon bars, also Joan’s favorite, which we continue to make a vegan version of. Finally steak, meatloaf, lasagna, and French-fried potatoes.

I have not tried to replicate most of the dishes, which were meat. I am far more interested in experimenting and growing as a cook. The past is past and holds no nostalgia.

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

The new menu that we haven’t introduced yet. We are in testing now and our preliminary recipes, which are written in our offices by the kitchen director and me, are working beautifully. It is fusion—taking past entrees from the restaurant such as barbecued pulled trumpet royale mushrooms—and creating a Southwestern/Mexican twist.

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

That’s a tough one. What immediately came to mind reading the question is not to prepare a meal for someone but with someone. This issues from our experience: Joan and I have had wonderful times working together cooking for just our family, extended family (reunions) and friends. (And we believe the Ravens thrives because there’s no one chef—the kitchen is co-creative!)

There’s one person who passed on when he was twenty. I would enjoy cooking with him any dish that he would enjoy, like he did Pete’s coffee and whole food burritos.

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

Good question: simple answer—overthinking it. Particularly mistaking potatoes, including white potatoes, as evil. They are whole foods that created huge population expansions because they improved physical wellbeing and raised fertility rates, noticeable in those places where they were introduced.

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

Whole plants. Making whole food substitution in our dishes—e.g., creating a hemp ricotta rather than a tofu ricotta. I’d like to do more with radishes (kidding).  

7. What are your top three cuisines from around the world?

Mediterranean, Mexican, Thai.

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

None of the above. I began the path with the recognition that I could not kill the chicken I smelled cooking in our kitchen. In that thought was an allied thought, “Who killed it?” And I realized that by eating it, I was asking another to kill for me, which I would not do for myself or my family. I quit eating meat. I became vegan when I read the practices of a dairy that the United States Humane Society declared to be the most humane. It wasn’t.

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

With regard to food - whole foods. We evolved on whole foods as well as our biomes—the bacteria, fungi and perhaps even some viruses that make up more of us (at the individual cellular level) than us.

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

Mindfulness. A basic aspect of mindfulness—paying attention to every aspect of what is prepared to eat and what I’m eating, from selecting ingredients, preparing them, apportioning them, and serving them.

It is a great beginning to a practice of meditation as I understand it. Attending to the task at hand, understanding where the components come from, their relationship to the planet, to me, to health, mental as well as physical.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Vegan Food Owes You Nothing

“Truth is what’s left when you’ve run out of excuses.” - Marty Rubin

The vegan food world has made astounding progress in the past 15 years, with the last five or so especially impressive from an array of angles, especially quality, variety and distribution. Every single day when I open my Google alerts, I find news of even more advances on the vegan food front and it is showing no signs of stopping. Nondairy milks were the first commercial products I can remember that achieved wide mainstream popularity as perfectly suitable replacements for their animal-based counterparts, but not long after, plant proteins began to compete for valuable shelf space, then vegan cheese companies began stepping up their game a few years ago and now we have at least a few options for eggs that have never passed through a hen’s cloaca. Not to mention mayos, marshmallows, sour creams, yogurts, milk chocolate, creamy dressings and even a bee-free honey that are produced without animal products and suffering. These items were just pie-in-the-sky wishes not too long ago and now, thanks to everyone from brilliant food scientists to ethical entrepreneurs, they are rippling out to markets in the U.S, and slowly gaining traction around the world. 

While quality can still always be improved, it often seems like every new product in each category is an upgrade, or at least a new interpretation, on what already was on the market. There is still a lot of room for growth with regard to improving access to a wider variety of retail outlets and lowering price points as much as is possible in our hopelessly rigged food system, but, little by little, as moneyed would-be backers recognize the potential for making big financial gains by investing in these start-ups and real economies of scale begin to kick in, impediments to broader distribution and access will crumble. It’s a matter of time and we’re already beginning to see it.

We can see a similar dynamic at work with dining out options: Whereas 20 years ago, vegan options were few and far between, today we have sophisticated “vegetable-forward” establishments like Vedge, see-and-be-seen hotspots like Crossroads, and regular ol’ chain restaurants with vegan offerings on their menus, illustrating that it doesn’t make much business sense to ignore our consumer base and also that our palates have evolved far beyond being content with a lackluster frozen veggie burger as our only option. In addition to the expanding vegan influence, interest from omnivores who are dabbling has helped to raise the bar with regard to quality, variety and distribution as well. This growing market is just at its infancy and will eventually result in fewer animals being born into unimaginable misery.

With all that said, I have to ask a rhetorical question: Does having an increasing abundance of vegan products mean that everyone is going to like everything that they try? Of course not. I’m vegan and there are many things I avoid like the plague. (Hemp tofu, I’m looking at you.) (I’m just kidding. I’m not looking at you. Please don’t hurt me.) Does the increased availability of vegan food mean that some people won’t like any of it because it’s just not “the real thing” or “it’s weird”? Yes, sometimes. Habit and confirmation bias reinforce one another as powerful yet often unexamined internal influences. After many years of hearing meat-eaters complain about vegan food not meeting the high standards of those who, you know, eat flesh, lactation and ovum on the regular, though, I just have one thing to say: Vegan food owes you nothing. This article recently stuck in my craw and it kept aggravating me the more I thought about it because of this single sentence, expressing an arrogant and entitled attitude that I find to be a frequent undercurrent in so many criticisms of vegan food: But while chewing on a slice of pepper jack at Vromage, and noticing how the red pepper separates from the cheese-like base in a way that Trader Joe’s version never would, one phrase stuck in my mind: ‘Nice place to visit, but wouldn’t want to live here.’”

Deep breath. (In with love…out with anger…in with love…out with anger.)

I should say first that I appreciate people who are moving beyond their comfort zone and heading in the direction of consuming fewer animals. Dietary change is harder for some than others and small changes are better than none. Some people are really, really hung up on verisimilitude for some reason and others find it unnerving. I get that we all have our own preferences. However, if you understand the ethics of veganism but still cling to meat, eggs or cheese with the excuse that animal-free versions aren’t to your liking, I’m going to level with you: You are going to have to figure out another excuse because I am not buying this one. You don’t remain complicit in carnage until the conditions are right and comfortable to you to stop. You stop when you understand your role in what’s happening and decide that this is not acceptable to you. Otherwise, you are just making excuses.

If you don’t like the plant proteins, fine, don’t eat them. If you think that veggie burgers are too mushy, try a different brand or experiment at home. If you didn’t like a certain restaurant, maybe try another one. If you think the cheeses are terrifying, I don’t know what to say other than you should have tried them (them meaning the one brand we had) 15 years ago. Some will be enjoyed more than others. Just like all foods. That is the way it goes. Blaming your consumption habits on the fact that you have anxiety about or an aversion to vegan foods is a load of nonsense, though. If you eat flesh, eggs and dairy and your inclination is to blame vegan food for not being good enough to make you stop, I think you need a reality check.

I was vegan before there were popular nondairy cheeses and just on the cusp of decent milks on the market. It would be years before there were decent cheeses. I’m not saying this to imply that by going vegan when I did, I think I withstood some major sacrifice – I do not believe that, nor did I at the time – but to illustrate that it is eminently doable to live as a vegan without eating cheese, burgers or corned beef like your grandmother made. While my first year was one of some screw-ups, never once did I think that my burgeoning awareness would have to be put on pause until the vegan food world improved. Over time, I simply got over my taste for cheese. I learned how to cook. I discovered what I liked best. I stopped being passive and I took ownership of my experience as an empowered vegan.

Continuing to participate in exploitative practices because you prefer this option over withdrawing from it is like saying that abusers should be allowed to continue to harm until they are offered an alternative that they enjoy equally. It is simply amoral and the animals of the world – those currently in captivity and those who haven’t been born into it yet – do not deserve to have their outcomes held hostage to anyone’s capricious taste preferences. Should our decisions to support or not support cruel industries and violent acts really be contingent upon our shifting tastes? What if you really like the way that a violent, non-consensual act makes you feel? What if not being able to indulge in it at your whim makes you feel stifled? Is maintaining your practice of violence justifiable then? Of course not. This is a deeply entitled and abusive way of thinking, nestled in the very core of a mentality that allows cycles of tyranny to continue and to ripple out.

 Just as society does not owe sadists a suitable replacement for murder before they can be expected to not perpetuate their horrendous acts of violence, it is the same for consumers of the end product of suffering and cruelty. The kind choices do not adjust to your demands – you adjust to the kind choices available. People who support the industries and practices that harm others should be expected to stop because that is the moral and evolved imperative and also stop expecting vegans to cater to their preferences like they’re bratty toddlers who must have every demand met or they will have a tantrum.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that we should do everything in our power to ensure that food is as high quality as possible. But if you are wavering on going vegan because, wah, you don’t like dairy-free cheese as much as you do the stuff that is made from the product of forcibly impregnated mother cows, though, I have to say three words: get over it. You are supposed to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Vegan food owes you nothing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Jasmin Singer...

Jasmin Singer
, today’s Vegan Rock Star, is one of my favorite all-around vegan rock stars, a powerhouse who has been promoting cruelty-free living from the multi-media non-profit hub she has created with her wife, the talented Mariann Sullivan, since 2010. Our Hen House creates TV/videos, an active online magazine, and, most famously, an engaging, frequently scatological, always thought-provoking weekly podcast (I was even interviewed!), now available in three forms. Even as someone who has a vegan family and lots of friends of the same persuasion, it can feel like an isolating and maddeningly frustrating, sad experience to live as a vegan in a world that is so oriented to think of animals as ours to consume as we wish, to be aware of something that is so blatantly unjust but to see that most of the world not aware and, in fact, often downright hostile to those who pull back the curtain for others to see what is going on. Using their talents and skills to create grassroots, independent media with their own stamp, Jasmin and Mariann of Our Hen House help to make us less lonely but also offer a clear, confident, unapologetic vegan perspective, dialogue and analysis of the ever-shifting landscape and culture around the decision to not consume animals.

Jasmin is venturing from her nest at Our Hen House with a new memoir that was just published by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, called Always Too Much and Never Enough. After a lifetime of harrowing bullying centered around her weight, Jasmin found herself in a new, unfamiliar body when she lost 100 pounds through a combination of juicing, cleaning up her diet and adopting mindful eating practices. In the process of losing the weight, she gained an uncommon insight into how society treats those who do and do not conform to physical ideals and she also learned why she turned to food to numb out and bury feelings. This memoir also offers an important lens into our junk food culture, one that those with food addictions are almost defenseless against. (Review coming Monday but suffice it to say, I cannot recommend it enough.) I am thrilled to feature the divine Jasmin Singer as our Vegan Rock Star this week. She has the heart of a tireless social justice activist and we – vegans, the animals, pre-vegans – are so very fortunate to have her voice, her drive and her talents helping to build a more compassionate and just world.  

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?

I went vegetarian when I was a young college student and desperately seeking an identity. I figured calling myself vegetarian was a natural extension of wearing all black, smoking clove cigarettes, and majoring in theater. I also began to think meat was “icky,” and boy was I on to something. But I never gave any thought to the dairy and egg industries, until I was 24 (12 years ago). My good friend Marisa Miller Wolfson (filmmaker behind Vegucated), a new vegan herself, invited me to a screening of a documentary about factory farming, which, of course, changed everything. I was still a little hesitant to go vegan, mainly because I was addicted to a low-cal froyo, but Marisa boldly introduced me to a group of her friends as “a new vegan,” and I thought, well shit. Shortly thereafter, Marisa and her former boss trucked me down to PETA to volunteer for a week, and that obviously sealed the deal. I became a full-time animal rights activist at pretty much the same moment that I became a vegan. It wasn’t enough for me to go vegan; I wanted the whole world to go vegan. (I still do, obviously.)

To answer your question about looking at things in retrospect, when I think back to when I was a kid, even though I don’t see little guideposts to my impending veganism, I do see guideposts to social justice -- and animal rights is a clear manifestation of that. At my Bat Mitzvah, I was allowed to do a speech about anything, and I chose to do it about Ryan White, who had recently died of AIDS. I stood at the Bimah and spoke about the importance of education about HIV and AIDS. (Less than nine years later, my first job out of college was with an AIDS-awareness theater company.) As a young child, I also remember standing up for whomever was being bullied on the playground, feeling that it was so completely unfair and unjust. Ironically, I was usually the one being bullied, and so speaking up for the underdog became an important tenet in my career and worldview.

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?

Like so many people, I just didn’t know what was really going on. I think that the answer to your question is probably, or at least hopefully, that the thing that would have clinched it sooner would have been if I had been exposed to the horrors of animal agriculture earlier. I was completely ignorant to the suffering of animals. It was ultimately films that reached me, and having an immediate community of animal rights advocates and vegans around me that made the early days a lot easier. Like everyone else, I wish the light had been turned on for me earlier, but I’m grateful that it was turned on. Being an animal rights activist speaks to my personal authenticity, and to my truth. And my veganism is the very best part of me.

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

There is no answer to this. Different strokes for different folks, which is why we need a multipronged approach to change-making and to advocacy. Leaflets have an impact on some people, humane ed for others, film for others, the arts for others, and on and on and on. But I will say this: In my experience working in the animal rights world for 12 years, and interviewing thousands of activists for Our Hen House, the thing that is crucial for the advocate is authenticity. If a particular type of advocacy doesn’t jive for you, don’t do it -- move on to a different means of activism. We need to speak our own truths. Fortunately, since there are countless ways to convey the truth about animals and what’s happening to them, we should each be able to find ones that feel right, and authentic, for us, as the communicator.

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

I think the biggest strength of the “vegan movement” is that I have no idea what you mean when you say “vegan movement.” It’s not like we get a club card and join up. Vegans are everywhere, in every community, leading by example. So, the biggest strength is that really a lot of people who are vegan and are committed to justice have never heard of anyone you have interviewed for your “vegan rock star” column! They are just living their truths, and bringing their buddies with them along the way. The effect that each of us is having is the same though: we are working to change the world for animals.

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

Too much focusing on criticizing each other, instead of focusing on exposing animal abusers. There may be moments when that’s appropriate -- if we truly think that harm is being done. But when that takes over and, instead of shining a spotlight on animal liberation we concentrate our energy on how to effectively say “gotcha!” to a fellow animal activist who might employ a different strategy than we do, we are going backwards. We won’t always agree with one another, but the truth is, we have no idea how to do this -- none of us do. And we’re in a catastrophe, so I think the best thing to do is to get over ourselves long enough to actually fight for animal liberation.

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

That depends on which elevator I’m in, in what building, what time of day, who is next to me, and how my stomach feels that day. I don’t have one pitch, but I do have the knowledge that perhaps the other person in the elevator (who I never forget could also probably teach me a thing or two about something horrid that I’m still unenlightened about) still doesn’t know about the atrocity of animal suffering. My literary agent, Steve Troha of Folio Literary Management, gave me excellent advice when I was starting to write my book, Always Too Much and Never Enough. He said that whenever I felt I was even coming near proselytizing, to get off my soapbox and instead tell a story about myself, and how I connected the dots and went vegan. So rather than “pitch” someone, I try to tell the other person about my own experience. Now that we know what’s going on with animals, and now that we understand that we don’t need to consume or exploit them in order to live or thrive, there are so many reasons to go vegan, or to go more vegan to start. And, hopefully, I’ll have cupcakes with me on that elevator, because -- as my wife likes to say -- the single most effective way to change the world for animals is through delicious vegan food.

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?

I’m lucky enough to share my life with Mariann Sullivan, a brilliant animal law professor and longtime activist, and my wife. The thing that really brought us together is our shared worldview, and then Our Hen House -- which we co-founded and co-host. Every single day, I realize how lucky I am to have such direct access to her incredible brain, and her ability to parse out bullshit from reality. Her biting and refreshing commentary is my very favorite part of the weekly Our Hen House podcast.

Other than that, my favorite influencers are the folks who are never, ever recognized for the work they do in their communities in any kind of public way. My heroes are the ones on the frontlines, who are bringing animal rights advocacy into their worlds and communities, their classrooms and PTA meetings, their lesson plans and soup kitchens, their other social justice circles and the courtrooms.

I also really love the feature film Bold Native, which I think everyone should see. I’m a big fan of fiction as a means to creating change. The first time I saw that movie, I was so moved that I sat there and wept.

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

I tap-dance, I go running, and I see Broadway shows. I also have some very important friends who provide a safe space for me, and I for them, and we just goof around and have fun. I love having fun. I should do more of it.

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

There are so many injustices that I’m finding it hard to answer this question, but I think that I’m most disturbed (and motivated) by the horrific treatment of birds in animal agriculture, since they make up the vast, vast majority of farmed animals bred and killed for their meat and byproducts. And they are excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act, which is just as unconscionable as it is to call them stupid, or to consume their tattered little bodies. Chickens are my very favorite animals. They can be brave and adorable, and I find their familial structures to be inspiring and admirable. If people learned about the exploitation of one type of animal, I’d say it should be birds. And if you want to get more specific, go with chickens. More specific still, the egg industry is horrid.

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

…to make the decision to actually give a fuck. But it’s only the beginning.