Wednesday, October 26, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Michelle Taylor Cehn

One of the things I love most about this feature is getting to know the people I admire a little bit better. Michelle Taylor Cehn is one of those people I have admired from afar for years and today, I feel so grateful to be able to shine a little spotlight on. Michelle is a prolific and gifted video journalist, photographer, web presence, social media maven (making videos for organizations like Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary and Mercy for Animals, to name a few), and author. (Review of The Friendly Vegan Cookbook will be coming to Vegan Street soon.) With a friendly, welcoming voice that speaks truthfully about animal cruelty, Michelle strikes an admirable balance of being understanding while never wavering from her commitment to promoting veganism. With her new The Dairy Detox program, co-founded with Allison Rivers Samson, I thought there was no better time than the present to draw some attention to this amazing mover-and-shaker. I am so honored to feature Michelle as this week's Vegan Rockstar.

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’ve been a huge animal lover forever. I went vegetarian when I was just 8 years old, when I first made the connection between the meat on my plate and my animal friends that I loved. The moment I made that connection, I pushed away my plate, turned to my mom, and said I didn’t want to eat animals anymore. She said, “Okay honey—that’s called a vegetarian.” I didn’t know anyone else who didn’t eat meat at the time, let alone that there was a word for it. I’m sure my parents thought it would be a short phase, but from that point on I got used to making my own food (lots of cereal and pasta—haha), and I never looked back. Over time I learned about factory farming and how terribly animals were treated in the meat industry, and I became an eager activist. I started animal rights groups at my high school and college where I gave speeches to my student body, hosted animal rights documentary screenings, held bake sale fundraisers, leafleted, hung animal rights posters all around campus, and more.

I was half-way through college when I picked up a copy of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer at a used book store. That book opened my eyes to the horrors of the dairy and egg industries, and I felt I had no choice but to go vegan. It was a challenge at first, and I assumed it would be a lifelong sacrifice I would make for the animals. I had no idea that becoming vegan would ultimately be the best thing for my health, that it would actually expand my palate and food options, and that it would become easy, delicious, and fun! That’s why I am now so passionate about being a resource for others who are transitioning to vegan.

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 really just needed the information. I wish someone had said to me, “Michelle, did you know that calves are torn from their mothers at birth so that we can drink the mother’s milk instead?” And so forth, with all the other facts I pieced together over time.

Documentaries and video clips always had a huge impact on me as well, so if someone had shared an undercover investigation video with me sooner, it would have moved me to act in an instant.

Finally, it would have been amazing to have role models in my life who could have led the way, so I didn’t have to navigate the path on my own.

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’ve done many different forms of activism in my day, but what I’ve found to be the most effective is leading by upbeat, positive example, and showing that being vegan is delicious, accessible, happy, and enjoyable.

I used to post graphic videos and dramatic posts on Facebook all the time, and saw very little actual change in my network of friends. But in more recent years I’ve kept my posts really positive. I focus on the benefits rather than the unhappy realities, and I have been amazed—like, really floored by all the messages I’ve received from people who I haven’t talked to in many years, who want to try vegan for one reason or another and turn to me for help. They know I’m a no-judgement zone, and a resource who will encourage them every step of the way. Friends of mine who have gone vegan since meeting me continually tell me how my non-pushy, positive and supportive attitude is what helped them give vegan a shot.

Something as simple as changing my language from: “Did you know that you kill X animals a year when you eat meat?” to “Did you know that you can save X animals a year when you choose vegan?” has helped me reach people in a more welcoming and effective way.

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

Every single vegan, vegetarian, and veg-curious person is a strength of the vegan movement. We are collectively what we each individually bring to the table, and it’s really exciting that as veganism is rising in popularity, so are our cumulative talents and strengths.

We each hold an incredible capacity to change the world, but many of us haven’t tapped into that potential yet. That’s why I’m so passionate about promoting advocacy and sharing everyday activism resources. I am a huge supporter of leafleting with Vegan Outreach, sharing online memes like those you create at Vegan Street and videos like those I create at World of Vegan, and I love new initiatives like the Vegan Chalk Challenge started by James DeAlto. These are simple actions that anyone, anywhere can do in an hour to amplify their impact on the world.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
At this point, with the internet and social media at our fingertips, anyone, anywhere, can be a voice for animals. We all have a loudspeaker in front of us. The only hindrance is our own hesitation to use it.

Make a video about why you’re vegan. Organize a vegan potluck. Plan a leafleting outing with friends. Volunteer with your favorite nonprofit. Intern at an animal sanctuary. Invite your family over for a home-cooked vegan meal. Bring vegan cupcakes to work. Wear a compassionate message on your t-shirt. There are endless opportunities to save lives—now it’s up to you—yes, you, who is reading this right now—to go do it! Take your talents and the tools available to you and put them to work for the animals who otherwise have no hope. 

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Oh man, I’m glad you asked this question, because I really need to work on this! It’s been on my to-do list for a decade! Truthfully, I handle every conversation and interaction differently. It all depends on the vibe I’m getting from the person I’m talking to, and I always respond genuinely with whatever comes to mind.

That said, I encourage anyone looking to refine their communication about vegan and animal rights issues to check out Bruce Friedrich and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau—they both have excellent elevator pitches and responses for every situation imaginable. In fact, I started a “VegAnswers” expert video series on World of Vegan for this very reason! I never felt like I was expressing myself as effectively as I wanted, so I began filming videos with experts who give concise, articulate answers to the most commonly asked vegan questions. You can check out Colleen’s answers to the most common vegan questions here, and the full VegAnswers series here. Many more VegAnswers videos are coming soon, so I hope you’ll subscribe!

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?

Philosopher, author, speaker, and educator Peter Singer has had a tremendous impact on my life and my advocacy. I discovered his work in college, when I picked up his book Animal Liberation, the same book that inspired me to go vegan. Through that book I learned all about the utilitarian philosophy, which became a guiding force in my life, and has made me a much more effective animal advocate.

This is my favorite article of his that I like to re-read every so often. If everyone read this article, I imagine our world would be a much kinder place.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I’ve recently made a big shift that has helped me tremendously with preventing burnout. I used to feel the need to do it all. To show up at every protest, be there for every vegan event, and volunteer whenever I was asked (and even when I wasn’t). As a very extreme introvert, this was incredibly draining for me.

I started to realize that while I personally felt guilty any time I missed a demo, or didn’t show up at an event, for animals—in most cases—it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. I realized that I could have a much bigger impact on animals by doing the forms of activism that utilize my individual strengths and that also fuel and nourish me. For me, this consists of producing vegan videos, crafting creative online resources, and working on innovative projects to inspire positive change.

It was hard to pull back from the “social activism” scene that I was once such a huge part of, and it took a lot of practice to learn how to say “no.” But here’s the thing. When you say “no” to one thing, you are saying “yes” to another! Here are just a few of the exciting projects I’ve been able to release because of this shift:

The Dairy Detox—a 12-day online video course that I created with my partner Allison Rivers Samson that teaches people how to thrive dairy-free. 
The Friendly Vegan Cookbook—a vegan recipe e-book that I crated with my friend Toni Okamoto.

Draw My Life: A Cow in Today’s Dairy Industry
—a video illustrated by vegan artist Sooyeon Jang that shows the life of a cow in today’s dairy industry without the use of graphic images that make so many turn away.

And of course, when you start to feel overwhelmed, depleted, or burned out, a visit to an animal sanctuary is one of the most nourishing things you can do for your soul. I visit farmed animal sanctuaries often, and can say that for me, there’s nothing quite as healing as rubbing noses with a cow.

If you’re struggling with burnout, I hope you’ll also check out this phenomenal article by Mark Hawthorne with tips for avoiding activist burnout.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
The dairy industry causes me the most heartbreak, not only because it’s one of the most cruel to the animals, but also because I know that there is absolutely no need for dairy—and that most people would want no part in it if they only knew everything that was involved.

I spent the past year working on a program designed to help people who think they could “never give up cheese” or “never live without milk” find dairy-freedom and love it. It’s also a great resource for vegetarians who are ready to take the next step. It’s called The 12-Day Dairy Detox, and I hope you’ll check it out and share it with friends and family who need a little support making the transition!

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

that I don’t value my life above anyone else’s.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Critical Herbivore...

Because you know when you suggest going to a vegan restaurant with your meat-eating friends, this is what they are expecting...

Monday, October 17, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie with Zsu Dever...

Zsuzsanna “Zsu” Dever is a mother, longtime vegan, popular blogger, prolific recipe developer and author published by the wonderful Vegan Heritage Press. With an inventive new cookbook out that explores many applications of that magical ingredient we once called “bean water” and poured down the drain, Aquafaba: Sweet & Savory Vegan Recipes Made Egg-Free with the Magic of Bean Water, Zsu shows again why she is vegan tour de force. With gorgeous, fun and enticing recipes and abundant photos, Zsu’s new cookbook puts the fab in aquafaba, demystifying this new egg replacement and creating a lot of lovely food in the process, including things that haven't been so easily found in the vegan world, like nougat, lemon meringue pie and challah bread, as well as a good measure of tantalizing savory recipes. (I will have a review up next week on Suffice it to say that Zsu is another example of a creative talent who is helping to shift people into the vegan world by using her passion, dedication and considerable skills. I am thrilled that we could highlight Zsu as a Vegan Foodie this week.

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?

That’s very sweet of you to say so! My family has been in the restaurant business for over 500 years. Although I grew up in a restaurant-setting myself, I was determined not to follow down that path. My dad was a chef and my mom worked front of house, so I had great foodie influences. They cooked homey, delicious foods that people came from all over to enjoy. Sadly, none was vegetarian let alone vegan, but the pride and ownership of cooking delicious food was installed in me early on. When we went vegan about 16 years ago, I realized that we couldn’t stay that way unless either my husband or I learned to cook vegan – and cook it well. It just so happened that I was the logical volunteer.

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?

My book is full of childhood Hungarian favorites. At home we cooked more plant-based, because most cultures historically have (except the US and even they habituated toward heavily meat-based eating only in the last 80 or so years), so those meals I share in my books, but the ones that were meat-centered I have given the vegan makeover. Those include stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, and my very favorite, Brasoi – fried potatoes and meat in a heavy garlic sauce. My children enjoy Hungarian favorites to this day and have learned to make them themselves.

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

Wow. That is tough! We’ve traveled all over the US because my husband is a computer consultant, so we have had our fair share of amazing food. I love spicy food so I’ll go with Pad Prik King, but I have to say that I cannot so easily discriminate and say it is the best meal I’ve ever had. The world is full of amazing vegan dishes; one has to only look. Pad Prik King is a pretty simple Thai dish made with plenty of red curry paste and kaffir lime leaves. It has vegetables such as green beans and red bell peppers and tofu, although the whole thing can be made with just vegetables. The vegetables are sautéed in the curry paste and it is seasoned with tamari and lime leaves. Of course, it had to appear in one of my books!

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 would make it for my mom and I would make her stuffed cabbage. She always loved stuffed cabbage and even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she never stopped eating animals. We had just become vegan and my vegan “skills” were non-existent. If I could make her a favorite meal that was animal-free, perhaps she would see that vegan foods are delicious and healthy and, just maybe, she would forgo all the suffering she continued to contribute to even in her last days. In turn, she might have been able to stay with us a little bit longer.

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

I think becoming vegan is a journey, one that goes through many transitions. Unless people adopt veganism for health reasons and start out as either raw or whole food, plant-based, there is a learning curve. As far as I’m concerned it is equally challenging to jump straight into WFPB or raw, but then at least the person knows what to expect in terms of flavor. By a journey, I mean that the taste buds go through transition. People who become vegan for ethical, environmental or moral reasons (or believe that veganism is itself healthy just by virtue of avoiding animal products), typically start with plant-based meats such as Gardein or Beyond Meat, but then they don’t take the time to season their vegetables and grains. Season your food because once you go vegan you are automatically cutting out processed meats and cheeses, which are full of sodium. If you go to the extent of not seasoning your food thinking you need to cut salt out of your diet as well, you are basically shocking your taste buds into bland-ville. Food just won’t taste like anything and you will blame the vegan food instead of blaming your lack of seasoning. Once your taste buds have adjusted to the reduced sodium from the cutting of processed meats and cheeses then you can further lower your sodium in your cooking, but don’t do it prematurely.

Secondly, learn to properly cook with tofu and learn to make a great seitan.

Thirdly, learn to cook vegetables. Roast it, braise it, sauté it, steam it, etc. Just learn to cook with it because there are thousands of different kinds of vegetables. Sample them all.

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

Aquafaba for one and yogurt for another. I love making homemade yogurt and using it in all kinds of recipes, from cheese to dressing to cakes and bread.

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

Hungarian (of course!), Ethiopian, Mexican and Korean. At the moment. Oops, is that four?

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

My biggest inspiration has always been and always will be the animals. To that end, Robin Robertson, Bryanna Clark Grogan, Tamasin Noyes, PETA, PCRM, Peter Singer and Erik Marcus have all paved the way.

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

Boy, I don’t know how to pick just one. If I did it would have to be veganism itself. Whether people become vegan for their health, for the animals or the planet, it just makes the most sense for all involved. We should have a vegan world because that is the surest way to become in touch with other beings who are invisible if we continue to consume them. Once that connection is made, it is easier to make other connections regarding our abuse of animals for other reasons. At least that is my hope. Sadly, many people who become plant-based for one reason or another, either fall back to eating animals or never make that connection.

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

To me, veganism is the ultimate way to live your life, to benefit you and all those around you. We have just a few degrees of separation from any other being on this earth and veganism is the only way to live that respects all those who we touch, whether directly or indirectly. Veganism has to be the future or, as a society, we are doomed to be without one. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

This is all I've got...

So I didn't want a week to pass without an update but I really don't have time for anything more than this pathetic excuse for a post. I have been slammed with Chicago VeganMania (it was a great success, by the way, and, whew!, it is off my plate again!) and then, I had to hit the ground running right away for some pieces that I'm writing for my favorite little glossy. Oh, and maintain Vegan Street and keep my humble home from collapsing in on itself. This has all added up to an overtaxed, maxed out mama. I will be back with regular content starting next week. In the meantime, how about looking at some happy pictures and getting a good smile?