Thursday, March 17, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Ellen Kanner

I have never met Ellen Kanner in person, but I have this feeling that if/when we do, we will talk for hours and hours. She feels like a kindred spirit. In addition to writing the popular Meatless Monday column on Huffington Post (recently featuring yours truly) and fabulous Edgy Veggie column in the Miami Herald, Ellen is the acclaimed author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner - A Satisfying Diet for Unsatisfying Times, prolific recipe developer, coach and consultant and all-around cheerleader for everything vegan, green, healthy and compassionate in the world. Please check out Ellen’s website, sign up for her newsletter and try out her recipe for below, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I am so happy that I can count someone as talented, active and positive as Ellen as one of my vegan sisters and to be able to feature her this week as our Vegan Rock Star. Go, Ellen, Go!

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 at 13 because I love cows and wanted to piss off my parents a little. That bit was easy — I never missed meat, never regretted my decision for one hot minute.  Suddenly, though, I had to think about what I ate.  This was in the dark days before internet, so like you, I had to figure things out for myself. 

There was no way I was going to live on the tired lettuce that lived (and died) in our refrigerator.  Having to think about food brought me into the kitchen and out into the garden. It also brought me uncomfortably close to the realities of our food system.  Becoming vegetarian and ultimately vegan gave me both my passion and my profession — it’s what made me a food writer, chef and vegan advocate.

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 got the standard pushback — humans are designed to eat meat, don’t you miss bacon, you won’t get enough protein, etc. I was a kid. I didn’t doubt myself but I didn’t know how to frame arguments. I was a pariah, or often felt like one. I wish I’d had a compassionate mentor who could give me the language, the information I needed. I wish someone had told me, Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe. 

By the way, I still get the protein question. Really, people?

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 cook and write to seduce.  I also like using humor. Whether it’s sharing a recipe for a show-stopping, lightening up a complex issue with some sly wit, or teaching a hands-on cooking class, I use all the tools in my vegan wheelhouse to invite everyone in.

Many of my readers and followers aren’t vegan. Jacques Pepin and Norman Van Aken, brilliant and dedicated chefs aren’t vegan, but they wrote generous blurbs for my book Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.

The mainstream is — hallelujah — increasingly interested in vegan.  I really want to connect with them. Preaching to the chorus is great for morale, but to know we’re extending the vegan message to a broader audience — that’s exciting. I’m the vegan inviting everyone to the table. Change starts with connection, with dialogue, and nothing facilitates that more than a great meal. 

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

That there’s so many ways to play. Marla, you and I have talked about how vegans come in every flavor. Some of us are organizers extraordinaire, some are social media gurus, some are passionate outspoken animal advocates. Some of us open restaurants that showcase a cuisine that’s powerfully delicious and happens to do a kindness to animals, too. Some of us harness the power of narrative or create recipes or teach. Every way is good, and it takes all of us.  Whatever your talent and your passion, hold on to it. That’s what keeps the vegan power stoked.

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

           It’s tempting to blame the beef and dairy industries. You wanna talk effective, they’ve done a good job of trying to drown out our messaging.  But that’s changing. We’ve got truth and compassion on our side. Those are a couple of handy superpowers.

Perhaps the bigger barrier is human nature.  I’m only half-joking here.  A passionate new vegan wailed to me, “But given all the cruelty, vegan is a rational choice.” Alas, we’re not always ruled by reason. Human design flaw.  

Sometimes I feel like we’re delivering the same message over and over again, and I want to say, people don’t you get it? But the shining truth hits people in different ways at different times, and we have to be ready to receive it. I try to remember it’s always going to be somebody’s ah-hah moment, someone’s first time, and like sex, you want the first time to be fabulous.

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

It’s the single greatest multitasking tool we have. Going vegan means a more sustainable planet, more nourishment for you, more color on your plate, more flavor in your mouth, more money in your wallet, more friends (two-legged and four-legged) to connect with. What’s not to love? Come to veganism because you love the rocking vegan cupcakes, stick round because you can save the world.

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?

One of my earliest influences was E. B. White’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. It’s wonderful to read at any age and has everything to do with compassion and our precious bond with animals. I also love the movie Babe for that reason. Hmmm, I seem to have a thing for pigs. We all should.

But what really inspires me is our big-hearted vegan community.  There isn’t even enough room for me to list everyone. You and John have been our guiding lights. Chefs and authors like Jill Nussinow, Fran Costigan have encouraged me. Growing Miami’s vegan community is exciting. And I am so, so grateful to the countless vegan, animal rights and environmental advocates and foot soldiers who never get their due. Like my friend Jessica, who tirelessly tables and volunteers at every health fair, every animal rights rally. I mean it’s like she’s cloned. Or my friend Pears, who organized the first-ever Dublin Vegfest last year and who, even before we met, organized a talk I did in Dublin. They’re just two of the many people who make things happen. You all keep me motivated and positive.

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

I connect with what gives me joy.  I rub a dog’s belly or harvest an heirloom tomato from my tiny vegetable garden. In the garden or in the kitchen, surrounded by fresh, local produce, fragrant green herbs and healing spices, I feel pleasure but also a sense of reverence and gratitude for the food the nourishes me and the planet that provides it. I can’t wait to prepare a meal and share it with people I love. 

I like to take a hike in the Everglades or a walk on the beach with my husband. We went this morning — the ocean was a perfect aquamarine and for the crowning glory, we saw 50 pelicans flying in formation. That image stayed with me all day and had me grinning like an idiot. 

All these things remind me how precious our planet is, how lucky we are to live here. It’s a nice place, Planet Earth. Thank God, we haven’t screwed it all up yet. It’s our honor and responsibility to protect and preserve it.

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

At a time when we’ve become such a divisive global community, one of the things I love best about food is that it’s a connector. However different or divided we are, we all need to eat.

So I’d ask everyone to DIY their dinner a little more often. Stop relying on processed food and get in the kitchen. Cooking is a basic life skill. It also has benefits far beyond the next meal. As I mention in Psychology Today  — it’s good for you. We forget the value of being really hands on, of filling your kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables and the people you love, so you can cook and share it together. We all deserve food that’s made with compassion, that’s safe, affordable and accessible to everyone. We are better together than apart, and food is the best way of bringing us together.  

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is…”  a win-win-win. It’s a luscious, joyful thing you do for yourself that also benefits the planet and every living thing on it. 

Vegan Irish Soda Bread (From
1-1/4 cups spelt flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/4 cup wheat germ
4 tablespoons vegan margarine like Earth Balance, softened
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
6 dried figs, chopped (or 1/2 cup raisins)
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/4 cup almond milk

Preheat oven to 425.

In a large bowl, combine spelt flour, oatmeal, wheat germ and baking soda. Work in vegan margarine until mixture forms crumbs. Mix in cinnamon and sugar and almond milk. When you have a nice, thick batter, stir in chopped figs or raisins.

Pour into a lightly oiled pie or loaf pan.

Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool before slicing, or bread may be crumbly. Even crumbly, it’s good.

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