Wednesday, July 23, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Allison Rivers Samson

One of my very favorite aspects of being involved in our community is getting to know some truly impressive people. From way back when we started Vegan Street in its first incarnation to the revitalized one we created last year, I've had the great fortune of meeting these people in person whom I had previously only admired from afar. Very rarely has the person disappointed in the flesh. Today's interview subject, the first of this series that I plan to do twice a month, is no exception.

I met Allison Rivers Samson of Allison's Gourmet earlier this month at Vegetarian Summerfest. As someone who has been active in the movement since before I first got involved in the mid-1990s, it was a pleasure to meet Allison in person. With big dimples (I think she should insure these through Lloyd's of London or something) and an elfin grin, beautiful sugar-and-cocoa hair (her version of salt-and-pepper, but also with purple frosting), bright eyes and a cheerful demeanor, Allison is a warm and vivacious ambassador for the vegan movement, which is so often unfairly characterized as being about pleasure denial. With her focus on creating voluptuous treats that are both ethically sourced and unapologetically pleasurable, Allison has proven that we can enjoy the best of both worlds without any sacrifice to our ethics or our enjoyment. It had been a real honor to get to know Allison. I am thrilled for you to get to know her, too. (Please check out her videos to see those dimples for yourself!)

Today we will be starting a contest that will run through July 30 at midnight Pacific time: please let us know your favorite comfort food you'd love to see veganized in the comments below and you could win a free download of Allison's popular e-cookbook, Comfortably Yum. If you don't win, don't despair because there is something for everyone: anyone who orders between now and July 30 at midnight Pacific time will get $3.00 off Comfortably Yum with the code VEGANSTREET.
Get in on it!

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?

ARS: Growing up, I learned less of a passion for food than a disordered way of eating and relating to food, from the various diets my mom and her parents regularly took up and discussed. While I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed food and cooking, my maternal grandparents did spend time in the kitchen, there just didn’t seem to be much joy around it. As an only child of a single mother, I was a latch-key kid and ate a lot of TV dinners. When I became old enough to cook, I made mac ’n cheese from a box, Steak-Umms, and junk I wouldn’t remotely refer to as food nowadays.

At the age of 15, I moved from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle and had a lifestyle shift as drastic as the shift in climate and I began to gain weight. Throughout my childhood, I had listened to my family of origin struggling so much with weight that I wondered if that was a predestined path that I had no power over. A short while later, a friend of mine told me about Fit for Life, which was focused on food combining. I quickly realized that it would be easier to do as a vegetarian and easily made the switch. I was 17 or 18 when I first started hearing about veganism. Then I read Diet for a New America, which really helped to put everything into place for me.

During this period, in the late 1980s, another friend I worked with liked to cook and she encouraged me to play in the kitchen. I had so little familiarity with cooking and ingredients that if I didn’t have everything a recipe called for (even rosemary!), I thought I couldn’t make it.

Sweets were always my muse, so I thought that if I could buy some vegan baked goods that tasted good, I’d be able to go vegan easily. Well, in those days, the selection was dismal so I decided to follow my muse into the kitchen and play. Over the months, I would bring in baked goods to share with my co-workers who urged me to sell them and I kind of shrugged it off. A while later, I left that job - I was selling Birkenstocks - and started working for the largest natural foods distributor on the West Coast. My position was fairly stressful and I found that my morning inspiration drew me into the kitchen and my need to decompress and nurture myself. I started to realize that there was a 9:00 - 5:00 interruption in my passion and decided to remedy that. 

In 1997, I went to a natural cooking school to refine my vegan baking skills. It wasn’t a vegan-only curriculum but they were fairly focused on offering a vegan food education at the time. My first offerings were to sell desserts to restaurants and cafés in Seattle while I was living on Vashon Island (accessible only by ferry) near the city. I soon discovered that traveling by ferry and then driving around distributing treats was eating up all my time and profits so I turned to the post office to become my delivery system and focused primarily on being a mail order business. I needed to figure out a good product line that was shippable and that was how Allison’s Cookies was born in 1997.

Meanwhile, I had people begging me – individuals I sold to and café owners – literally begging me to make brownies. Back then, the only recipes for vegan brownies relied on tofu. I don’t like adding tofu to chocolate because I feel like they contrast. Tofu has an astringent quality and draws away from the palate, whereas chocolate likes to dance with saturated fat, which is the role of cocoa butter. I remembered in cooking school that my baking teacher told me it was impossible to make a vegan brownie without tofu because you need to replace four eggs and two sticks of butter and that’s simply too much to replace. One café owner was so persistent and his standards were different than mine; he really wanted the brownies and I had no solutions yet. All I had was tofu and a personal reluctance. Surprisingly, they were better than any vegan brownie I had tasted and yet there was this little thought from which I couldn’t escape - get the tofu out of the brownies! I wanted the brownies to be made from real ingredients people could actually find in their own cupboards and for over four years I played and played and played until I finally cracked the code. It wasn’t easy but I did it. Naturally, I felt very accomplished that day and even more gratified when my brownies became award-winning.

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?

ARS: Although I grew up on processed, convenience, and frozen foods, I still had my traditions. My mom and I used to go out for breakfast a lot and my favorites were pancakes, waffles, and french toast (not all at once of course!). Today, we have a Sunday brunch tradition in our house and we often make waffles or pancakes or French toast, usually with a tofu scramble, kale, some black beans. My husband has loved playing in the kitchen with me over the years and has become an accomplished cook himself. His claim to fame is the most amazing gluten-free Belgian waffles. Yum! 

Another tradition we had in my younger years was Thanksgiving at my grandparents house with all the traditional dishes. When it comes to things, I am not a very sentimental person although when my grandmother died, she left her china and silver to me. At the time, I was too young to appreciate this gift, so my mom held onto it and when she passed away, my grandmother’s china came to me. We like to host Thanksgiving at our house and we serve it on her beautiful china, which she used daily, not just for special occasions. Even though the food is very different, I like having that crossover connection to my grandmother through her china.

Comfort food holds a special place in my heart and was the source of inspiration behind my award-winning magazine column, Veganize It!, and now, my e-book, Comfortably Yum. I see myself as a “bridger” between the omnivore world and the vegan world and my mission is to show that there is much deliciousness to be found in plants that it is so much better for all involved without any sacrifices. Comfort food is my entry point; a way to get people to try something made with very different ingredients yet very familiar without any of the downsides. Same thing with Allison’s Gourmet. In the old days, I used preface my sharing with “Here, try my vegan cookie, made without this and without that.” I’ve learned instead to offer my food and ask, “How do you like it?” Thankfully the answer is always positive, if not effusive, and then I say, “That’s so great. It’s vegan!” I feel like people have been tricked into eating garbage for so long and my intention is to “trick” them into eating something that’s healthier: good for them, the animals, and the environment.

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

ARS: Oh, wow, this is a very hard question. I have had SO many amazing meals that there is no way I could single out one of them. Food is such a huge part of my life that it is a main deciding factor in my travel plans. Whenever I go to a new town, my first “task” is to explore the vegan scene, tourist attractions and museums are nice but much less appealing. Suffice it to say I have had numerous memorable meals over the years. 

Easier, I could tell you about some of my favorite restaurants. Of course Millennium in San Francisco tops the list. Once we drove three hours into the city and back home in the same day just to have dinner there. (I apologize for the carbon emissions but the food is that good, even after all these years.) Recently, I went to Karyn’s on Green in Chicago and it was fantastic. I even went off my normal gluten-free diet to try the bread pudding and even without a speck of chocolate (my favorite!), it was so phenomenal. Sublime in Miami, Candle Café in New York, Plum Bistro in Seattle all come to mind as favorites. Crossroads and M Café, both in L.A. Gracias Madre in San Francisco… I could go on! Vedge in Philadelphia is on my must-try list as is Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s upcoming Modern Love Omaha.

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

ARS: I would love to have the experience of cooking in the kitchen with my Italian paternal grandmother, learning all about her recipes and veganizing them with her by my side. I was eight or nine when she died and I hear that she was a wonderful cook. It would be a thrill to interpret her recipes through a vegan framework. 

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

ARS: Can we have a vacation from the overuse of garlic? Not that it isn’t wonderful and should never be used, more that the over-reliance displaces an opportunity to explore other flavors. Depending only on limited flavors in general is a problem.

It’s important to take into consideration both texture and flavor; the art of building flavor is critical.

How about if we avoid relying on packaged ingredients and instead use whole foods?

Let’s stop coming from the perspective that vegan food is lacking or needs to be apologized for, making it seem like a noble but less sensual experience. Make good food, make it with love, and serve it JOYfully!

I would also recommend that home cooks prioritize cooking, be adventurous and try unusual ingredients, maybe make it a goal to play with at least one new ingredient each month.

Challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone a bit and play. 

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

I am so into all the fresh vegetables coming from my garden right now. We have this heirloom lettuce that is so beautiful, green and crisp: that was so delicious that I didn’t even need dressing. Also, the figs from our fig tree, they’re called King Desert figs and are absolutely exquisite. They are so amazing that I can’t bear to do anything with them but eat them straight. Kala namak – also known as black sulphuric salt – has been one of the my favorites for some years now. I use it in scrambles and frittatas, as well as in my tofu salad from Comfortably Yum, my frittata. I also love smoked salt.

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

No way! Why this unnatural imposition? I refuse to be restricted. ;-) Let’s negotiate instead… I could maybe do one different cuisine a month. My top three are Italian, Mexican and Japanese cuisines. I love Italian food for the sultry sauces and richness, Mexican for the fresh vegetables and chiles, and Japanese for the pure ingredients that are clean, distinct, and simple on the palate. 

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

I have had so many influences and supporters on this path that the way I see it is that wherever I am on my path, the next person I meet will propel me further and enrich my experience. I’ve had many teachers who deepen my life and. John Robbins is one. Kim Sturla of Animal Place farmed animal sanctuary, she is one of the most inspiring people I know. My daughter, Olivia, is my little guru. My husband, too, is so supportive and encouraging of me and my work. And all the animals I have had the honor of living with and meeting throughout my life have been essential teachers to me.

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

Something that I have been thinking about a lot for a while is that we can’t be vegan for just one reason and be effective as vegans. The three most common motivators to going vegan are health, the animals and the environment. I hear a lot of people focusing on one to the exclusion of the others and I think it’s a huge mistake. If we’re vegan only for our health, it’s a selfish reason and we’re missing out on a deeper experience. Also, people are more inclined to drop it whenever some new study (usually paid for by the very things they’re promoting) comes out touting eggs, dairy, fish, whatever. If someone is vegan just for the animals, not for themselves at all, my heart sinks a bit because it’s as if they don’t consider themselves worthy of consideration. People are more likely to fail at being a thriving vegan when they don’t care about their well-being. Not only do they run the risk of having poor health and then conclude that the diet doesn’t work for them - which is a crushing realization for an ethical vegan - but then they are not good ambassadors for this beautiful lifestyle. If we’re vegan just for the environment it’s just too far removed. If someone is vegan for the polar bears and that person doesn’t have a personal connection to the polar bears, the hot pepperoni pizza that’s right in front of them at the restaurant will win out. We need at least two of these reasons – our own health, compassion for animals, and concern about the planet – for veganism to root firmly within us.

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

“:...The easiest way to accomplish every one of my values in a single act.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Meeting of the Trolls...

“Good morning, everyone. Today is the - what is it? - 2031st meeting of the Alliance of the Hater Brigade. Thanks for coming, everyone. I think we’re going to start our meeting now.”

“It’s about time. This has been a total waste.”

“Actually, IronMan77, it’s right on time. Anyway, you’ll find refreshments in the back -”

“Same crap, different meeting.”


“Well, if you wanted something else, I suppose you could have brought something, Zeus’sThunderbolt. Now, according to my notes, tonight’s meeting is about "New Strategies in Trolling." Today we’re going to discuss vegans and what to do about them. So, let’s get right into it: a vegan recipe pops up in your Facebook feed -- what do you write?”

“Oh! I know: Mmm, bacon!”

“That would look better with some meat in it.”

“Call on me! Call on me!”

“You can just shout it out, TitMouse. Remember, you’re a troll.”

“Duh, plants feel pain.”

“They do, I know. TitMouse is right. I saw this one video once that proves it.”


“F*#cking vegans and their judgments. I’d say, ‘What about the carrots and celery you eat? Why don’t you feel sorry for them, you hypocritical crybaby?’”



"Nazi terrorists!"

“I knew a vegan once who died. It’s not healthy.”

“Okay, GrumpyCat’sMeow is bringing up an excellent strategic point. If we can bring personal anecdotes into what we say, they can’t be disputed, no matter how irrelevant or fabricated. GrumpyCat, let’s role play here -”

“Heh, you said role play.”

“Who’s the doctor and who’s the nurse?”


“No, really. Let’s, you know, act this out. How can you bring your personal anecdote into, say, a vegan recipe share to defeat it right away? Let’s imagine that I’m a vegan who really annoys you and I just shared a recipe. What could you say, GrumpyCat?

“That’d be better with bacon.”

“Right, yes, but remember the anecdote thing? I really want to explore the possibilities with that.”

“Oh, yeah. You think you’re so healthy but I once worked with a vegan who died.”

“Okay, let’s flesh that out. Remember, I’m a vegan who annoys you. Tell me what happened.”

“Well, he got hit by a car.”

“And... I don't mean to reverse-troll you, but how is this related to his veganism?”

“He was going to the farmers market. I’m not actually sure that he was vegan, though. He ate vegetables. And, actually, I’m not even sure if he died because I just heard about it. Or maybe I saw it on Law & Order: SVU. I can’t really remember now that I think of it.”

“So this is the kind of stuff you might want to leave out of the story -”

“No, it was Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

“No, it was Criminal Minds. I’m sure of it.”

“Regardless, Darwin’sMonkey, the point is that if we want to successfully derail a thread, we need to move forward with confidence and avoid getting into that confusing realm where we question ourselves or others find flaws in what we wrote. This is why sticking to personal anecdotes is useful: they are impossible to prove wrong. Okay, now I’d like to discuss other strategies for sidetracking vegan content. What else have people found useful?”


“Okay, what about specifically about bacon, RAR444?”

“Just ‘bacon.’ It’s elegant, simple, to the point.”

“Yeah, the beauty is you don’t need to say anything else. Bacon is a universal language.”

“Or ‘Mmm, bacon.’ You can also just say it out of nowhere. That really pisses off the vegans. They all get, like, so pissed. It’s hilarious.” 


“Also, ‘That would taste better with bacon.’ Speaking of, there’s the whole ‘If God didn’t want us to eat animals, why would He make them out of meat?’ thing.”

“I know! No one can say a damn thing to that either because it’s so, you know, true.”

“Speaking of God, you can also bring up abortion. That either stops things in their tracks or creates completely unreadable threads that go on for hundreds and hundreds of comments and everyone ends up hating one another. Creates an awesome mess. You could do that.” 


“I personally like hitting vegans with the double-whammy of abortion and then the fact that they walk on ants or breathe in microscopic life forms.”

“Oh! I’ve got one! I’ve got a good one!”

“Go ahead, Fanny’sPack.”

“‘What about all the animals killed to grow grains? Huh?’”

“Again, not to reverse-troll, but aren’t they killed to grow the grains that are fed to animals for the most part? I’m just bringing this up because we want to have our story straight -”

“Soy! Switch right then to soy and the dangers of it.”

“Link: Mercola. Link: Natural News. Link: Weston Price Foundation.” 


“Saying, ‘What about soy?!” can net good results. Meaning I’m not sure what but it’s something to say.”

“You know, ‘Blah-blah-blah, soy, blah-blah-blah, hormones, blah-blah-blah, whatever.’”

“Two words: Man boobs.”


“I know a guy who was vegan and he had to wear a bra.”

“Whoa, is that true?”

“No, but does it matter?”


“So you’re saying to move the goal posts in your arguments? That’s a common but useful strategy.”

“Yeah, just keep putting up link after link, whether those links are relevant or not, no matter the source. It makes things look legit. Imagine that you’re some hotshot trial lawyer: What about this? And what about this? It’s very intimidating. I’m guessing. And then saying, ‘Did you even read my link?!’”

“Don’t forget that you can also move the goal posts by making it personal.”

“Please give us an example, DingleTingle.”

“Like, ‘I think it’s fine that you’re vegan but it’s the self-righteousness that I have a problem with. Every vegan I know is a smug POS.’ True story.”

“Okay, so I am thinking that now would be the perfect time to back this up with a great anecdote. Could you reinforce it with a story about a vegan you know, DingleTingle.”

“I don’t actually know any vegans. I haven’t left my parent’s basement in two years.”

“Right. We know. That’s why we’re meeting here.”

“Does it matter if you don’t know any vegans? What are you made of, bro? Why should that stop you from making up sh*t about them?”

“Or, like, you could say, ‘It’s fine for you to be vegan but don’t try to force me to go vegan.’”

“Or, ‘It’s my personal choice to eat meat.’ Saying personal choice makes it sound laywer-y or something.”

“Post a link to that sick vegan baby news story.”


“Why do you speak in the caps lock, MsOgyny? You realize how annoying that is, right?”


“I mean, you do want people to at least somewhat pay attention to what you’re saying, right?”


“I guess I’m not clear on your objective here. And what are you ‘LOL-ing’ about anyway?”


“Oh, that reminds me: Bring up Vitamin B-12. Oh, that one is a killer.”

“Canine teeth, too. Iron-clad argument there.”

“You can also play on the emotions, like, how you were raised or your background or whatever.”


“I’m going to ignore you at this point, MsOgyny. So, for example, saying that your great-grandfather owned a butcher shop or something?”


“But what does that have to do with you today? Like how can you leverage that?”

“Make it out like vegans are an affront to your ancestry.”

“Oh, so it gets into that personal realm that gets highly charged and is difficult to challenge. Great tactic.”

“Right. And you can get really bent out of shape about it, you know. Keep embellishing things, keep taking things personally.”


“You could say that you tried to go vegan but you have some condition where you can only digest animal protein. That usually shuts them up. Or claim that you tried to go vegan and all your hair fell out. Or all the vegans you know are rail thin. Or all the vegans you know are obese. Or whatever. Just pick whatever.”

“The WiFi here sucks, by the way.”

“Or you could say that you can’t eat most vegetables. Then it becomes a life-or-death situation or discrimination.”

“Post a picture of PETA doing something wacky.”

“The ‘refreshments’ here suck, too.”

“What about oysters? Hmm?”

“Don’t be afraid to pull the Hitler card.”

“Plants feel pain!”

“Someone already said that, bro. I think it was you, in fact.”

“So? I’m saying it again. Don’t censor me.”


“Could we just Skype next time? It’s, you know, 2014.”

“It seems like things are winding down here.”


“I think we made some progress.”

“It’s all good.”

“You could also bring up amino acids or complementary proteins or something.”


“I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat lettuce.”


“Oh, that reminds me: My food poops on your food.”


“DingleTingle, I think your mom wants you.”


“You said that they’d be out by 9:00. It’s 9:18. You need to get up early to look for a job tomorrow.”


“Okay, guys. Let’s call it. Next month’s meeting is "Exploiting Sensitivities About White Male Oppression." See you then.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Orthorexia Dilemma: Is Veganism an Eating Disorder?

When I was 13, I stopped eating. I was about to start at a very competitive high school that September and I wanted to be thin and popular. It started out as just a diet but as it quickly gathered speed it became something else, something that mushroomed as it progressed until I no longer controlled it. This thing, whatever it was, soon became a despot that ruled my life.

That summer, I was in a play so I was away from my home rehearsing most of the day. It was a breeze to not eat lunch there and be able to fly under the radar. At dinner, I developed a method for cutting up food and discreetly spitting it out into the napkins I’d stacked on my lap. Breakfast was a bagel that got fed to the dog under the table. (My waist shrank in inverse proportion to poor Buffy’s.) Originally, I would allow myself exactly 50 grapes a day, then 30, and I did hundreds of sit-ups a day, so many that I developed a painful rug burn line along my spine, which was beginning to protrude more and more. Once a week, I would walk to the neighborhood drugstore and steal the diet pills that managed to make my heart race even more than the shoplifting actually did. I wore loose clothes to make it harder to detect the weight loss and I kept my calorie counter nearby at all times, not that I was eating anyway. I just wanted to know what everyone else was eating so I could judge them. I would float in the bathtub and one night, I discovered that I was starting to grow downy hair on my stomach. My period stopped. I had read about this in a brochure I picked up somewhere: My body was in starvation mode. I was a success.

My mother threatened to have me hospitalized and I relished the thought of those doctors trying to force me to eat. I would be like Regan from The Exorcist and all those doctors in their white coats would run from the room in terror. Not long after that threat, though, my grandmother came to our house and she cried when she saw me, my hollow cheeks, the dark circles under my eyes. She just turned away from me and cried in the kitchen. My grandmother was my world and I’d never seen her cry before. I couldn’t bear the guilt so I started eating again that night. I weighed 74 pounds and was getting heart palpitations at the end.

This thing that had taken me over started out like any other diet but then found itself powered by a seemingly endless fuel source of social pressure swirled inside a cocktail of control, anxiety and self-hatred. This was a maelstrom inside me and it was already there before I started what my parents referred to thereafter as my “crazy diet”. My diet plus the extenuating circumstances in my life were what it took to light the sparks that already existed into a blazing inferno that burned out of my control. It took years after this original foray into anorexia to not occasionally fall back into that pattern again.

I am writing about this because there have been some bloggers, including one who has gotten a lot of news mileage but I am not going to add to it by linking here, who have publicly given up their veganism and linked it to worsening or developing an eating disorder. Specifically, they referenced something called orthorexia, which is an excessive preoccupation with avoiding what is perceived to be unhealthy foods, and they connected it to their veganism.

Here’s the thing: I think it’s a crock. Mostly. I’ll get to that “mostly” part in a moment.

If anyone is empathetic to those struggling with eating disorders in our society, I am. I know that particular hell personally because I have walked it. I also understand the pressures to be thin, to meet society’s expectations of what “hot” means, and I can plainly see what a profoundly disturbed food culture we live in today. Shuffling popular culture’s hateful messaging to and about women with incendiary attitudes about food that border on the obsessive, many of us have the perfect storm waiting to happen. Back when I had my own involvement with an eating disorder, we lived in a different world, one where we weren’t exposed as pervasively to messages about how we are supposed to look and one where there wasn’t nearly as much of an environment of paranoia about what we eat. Today, we are supposed to be concerned about alkaline versus acid, high carb versus high protein versus high raw, blending versus freaking juicing. We should be mindful to not drink water with our meals lest we mess up our digestion (and is that water reverse-osmosis and spoken kindly to or, sigh, just filtered?), not to mix fruits and vegetables, strive to eat mono-meals in a particular order throughout the day, and on and on. (And this isn’t even delving into the hornet’s nest that is GMOs.)

I understand the stress. We live in a pretty confusing, complicated world where we are exposed to countless other opinions about what we eat that are presented not only as fact but as the magic bullet to health, beauty, slimness, agelessness and more or the cause of the very opposite. One’s emotional response to this milieu is not the fault of veganism, though. Our response is what we bring to the table, literally. Our disordered thinking may well get exacerbated by the world around us but it develops within us and is not forced onto us from outside forces. This was true all those years ago when I was adding up the calories of each individual grape I ate and it remains true today, when we are bombarded with shrill scare tactics and baseless promises. Harsh as this may sound, our response to this disordered culture is ours to own and to take responsibility for fixing within ourselves. Blaming and pointing fingers is just that: Averting responsibility and going for an easy excuse. Just as I had to look within to find causes and solutions for my anorexia, so do others. It was not something that anyone or anything else did to me. The reality of disordered eating is that it is much more complex and much more personal than that. 

The blogger who built up a large fan base and went on to denounce veganism as triggering orthorexia within her said that now she is seeking “balance” rather than restriction. Those of us who have been vegan for a while understand that veganism really has very little to do with restriction: We no longer perceive animal flesh and products as food. Accusing vegans of stringency for excluding these things from our diet is like accusing someone who doesn’t eat cardboard and clay of restriction. We know that within the parameters of what we consider food, it is easy to find both balance and abundance. If you come to veganism with a framework of disordered thinking about food or it comes to the surface while vegan, that is what you have brought with you.

This is where that “mostly” part comes in, though, in reference to blaming veganism for disordered thinking about food. While I think a great deal of the high profile decamping is a crock and an attempt to widen a fan base, I can also see how current trends in how some people frame veganism can be like kindling to an obsessive personality. This trend within veganism to employ tactics that manipulate anxieties around fat, nuts, fruits, grains and who knows what else can aggravate someone who is already on overload and we, as a movement that is rooted in nonviolence, justice and kindness, should play no part in this. It is unprincipled and antithetical to our movement as well as an injustice to those, human and otherwise, who would benefit from an adoption of a vegan framework, which is, well, pretty much everyone. 

It is what we bring to veganism that determines our mentality about it, but we don’t help the cause by cultivating a culture of anxiety and phobic thinking around what should be a source of joy, abundance and empowerment. We should be a voice of balance, reason and equanimity in this very disturbed food environment that preys upon body image angst. Veganism isn’t a dietary fad and we shouldn’t resort to either trumped up promises or the pedaling of fear in our outreach because that is what we will convey to the public. To me, veganism is a pathway to living in alignment with my deepest core values and a way to actively cultivate the world I want to live in, not an instrument used to drumbeat more shaming, more anxiety and more misogyny into the world. If people feel healthier as vegans, fabulous! Please understand that I am not one who really cares how someone gets their foot in the door. I am not one who says that vegans are only allowed in the club if they are here for ethical reasons because, frankly, I don’t think the animals would give a damn why someone is not eating them and their babies. That is not what this is about: This is about being mindful of our messaging.

Does veganism cause eating disorders? Emphatically, no. Do we need to remove our participation in the disturbed, manipulative culture surrounding food and shame today? Just as emphatically, yes.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Top 20 Reasons Why a Vegan May Make the Best Roommate You’ll Ever Have...

1. We won’t be dating anyone who will ask to store a deer carcass in our freezer. 

2. We’ll never ask you to clean up your mess so we can host a snooty wine-and-cheese party. (Our vegan book club, though, yes, please straighten up for that.)

3. We don’t overstay our welcome in the bathroom. We’re in and we’re out. Can you say the same?

4. We keep Jehovah's Witnesses away by insisting that if they want us to read their materials, they will have to agree to read ours.

5. We use cruelty-free cleaning products, so at least you won’t be exposed to carcinogens that way.

6. As we experiment with making our own cashew cheese, you will get to sample the results. (This could be a downside as well.)

7. As a captive audience, you’ll be the first to hear your vegan roommate test out his or her persuasive arguments and/or standup comedy routine. This may be a little like #6, though.

8. You can use “your vegan roommate” as an excuse for why your old friend who is now a competitive hotdog eater can’t stay with you while he’s in town.

9. If our almond milk ever goes bad, it’s not going to require a HazMat team to identify and remove.

10. If you are dating someone who eats meat, there is a reduced likelihood of one of us trying to seduce this individual. He or she is all yours, roomie.

11. Having a vegan roommate means that you’ll have backstage pass to otherwise mysterious treasures like nutritional yeast + popcorn and coconut milk whipped cream, which means that you have access to the oddly addictive gustatory pleasures that fly under the radar of so many omnivorous commoners.

12. You can make jokes about your hippie vegan roommate to fit in better with the bro culture at work.

13. You don’t have to worry about us stealing from your Slim Jim stash. Really.

14. Our likelihood of ruining your weekend by lying around groaning on the couch because of salmonella poisoning is pretty slim.

15. We will pay our rent and bills on time because otherwise we might end up needing to move back in with our parents and have to deal with their kitchens and bizarre rules again and that is the secret panic nips at our heels, makes us wake up in a cold sweat and motivates us to be responsible. So now you know.

16. As vegans, we are survivalists by nature having dealt with inhospitable environments before and many of us are MacGyvers of the kitchen who can create fully respectable meals out of what anyone else would consider incompatible pantry items, an onion and a few stalks of celery. Also, because of our survivalist nature, we tend to horde condiments, grains, beans, vinegars and bulk spices so, as the roommate of a vegan, you should be set with a good stockpile of food for a while after the zombies invade. You won’t want to be around when the nutritional yeast runs out, though, but the world will end then anyway. (Actually, maybe someone should go stock up now.)

17. We just might just have a kick-ass blender. Keep your yucky dairy and egg crud out of it, though.

18. You will probably learn to love dark chocolate - real chocolate - if you don’t already.

19. You won’t have to deal with the freaky folks in the raw goat's milk collective hanging out at your place all the time.

20. Your roommate may be gone for weeks at a time whenever Morrissey tours.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It's Time to Kick Regret's Ass

I've been thinking about my mom a lot, which is nothing new, I think about her often, but lately I’ve found myself returning to these little quotidian moments between us, the ones that just feel shot through with significance. My mother moved in with us after she had developed early-onset Alzheimer's and a debilitating condition related to Parkinson’s; she lived with us for nearly three years. One evening, as we often did, the two of us were sitting on her bed, looking through her photo albums. These pictures provided an essential gateway to the very few topics that we could still both understand and talk about together. As we were looking through some photos, I offhandedly commented on one picture of her as a teenager in a dress, telling her how pretty she looked. She deflected. “Oh, I was never pretty.”

Undeterred, I pulled out another photo and showed it to her. She had her dark hair in a beehive, refined features, porcelain skin, a confident lift to her chin. "Look at this picture. How can you say that you weren’t beautiful?" She looked at the photo and then turned to the mirror on her dresser with tears in her eyes. She said was silent for a moment, then quietly said, "Why didn't I ever know it?" My mother said it to me as well as to herself, her voice cracking. As I did so often those days, I found myself crying in the bathroom. This was a woman who was adored by her friends, who was funny, loving, unique and, yes, beautiful. Still, she couldn’t find a way to believe in herself enough to put herself out there and pursue more of what she wanted out of life - to even know what she wanted out of life - so her last years were steeped in regret. 

Regret has got to be one of the most painful of our emotions. It just chips away at us from the inside like a chisel we’ve swallowed. Chip, crack, crunch. In that moment between us, it wasn’t so much about sadness over lost beauty because, let's face it, beauty is a shallow and ultimately slippery accolade to try to hang onto in life. The deeper sentiment here - of not appreciating herself, of not enjoying what she had when she had it - was of waste and regret, and that was what struck both of us so painfully in that moment.

Of course, this is something that so many will understand. How often and how many of us have pressed pause on what we want to do with our lives because we think we’re not thin enough-smart enough-attractive enough-accomplished enough to put ourselves out there? How many of us have given up on our dreams altogether because we feel we’re not young enough, we’ve got a saggy neck, too many freckles, a less than model-perfect nose? When I think about how much could have been contributed to society in the arts, in medicine, in science, in social justice, in progress, but never even had a chance to see the light of day because those who had the talent were afraid to be seen or heard, it fills me with a profound sadness. How many people have remained unfulfilled on the sidelines and how much have we, as a society, missed out on? How many trailblazers, humanitarians, cures, advancements, innovations, works of art that could have lifted us all up but never materialized? It cannot be measured. This absence, the erasure of what could have been, is so deeply tragic. 

In the case of women, for every Nightingale, Curie, Mead, Piaf and Angelou, imagine the countless others who have never been able to explore their interests and talents, much less pursue them. Finally, we are living at a time in history when many who would have otherwise been prevented from chasing their passions can be seen and heard. Those who would never have had the option of a life outside of the home now, on the surface at least, have access to that. What are the messages women hear now, though, with strangers commenting on us online? “You’re fat.” “You’re old.” “You’re a bitch.” “You’re a slut.” Or how about all of them swirled together in a cocktail of misogyny? 

As the remarkable social work professor and researcher Brené Brown unambiguously notes in this interview, (it’s fairly long but highly, highly recommended, however, if you want to skip forward, the relevant section starts at 57:45), after reading the comments following her viral TED talk on vulnerability - there’s an irony for you - she would have gotten out of her career altogether had there not been a groundswell of momentum pushing her and her work forward. This is a woman who has gone on to write a book that became a best-seller and has had a positive influence on so many lives: not only would she have missed out on pursuing her passions, which is tragic enough, but all those who have been inspired by her work and her encouragement to put themselves out there would have missed out as well. And so would the world have missed out with the withdrawal of their gifts and inspiration.

Imagine the number of people who simply do not have the support and momentum Brené Brown did propelling them. This is more than 99% of us. People trying to make it in the arts, in the sciences, in the fields we are passionate about. When we are vilified, when we are demeaned and personally attacked, we are told, essentially, “Who are you to believe that you deserve to be seen and heard?” Even the most confident and accomplished people would avoid making themselves vulnerable to such ugly and painfully personal attacks magnified as they are today in the public domain. 

There are huge cultures that keep women out of the public arena because they are steeped in patriarchy. Just as some of us now finally have the privilege of access and opportunity, we are being pushed out the door again through a pervasive, mean-spirited culture of anonymous hit-and-run personal attacks. So this whole essay exists to make just one point: Regret is a million times worse than being embarrassed in public. Regret is a million times worse than holding yourself back. Regret is a million times worse than not putting your work out in the world to be attacked and criticized. Regret is a million times worse than not knowing what could have been. Having sat with my mother toward the end of her life and having access to her thoughts, it’s quite possible that I think there is no human emotion more painful and futile than regret. 

Whether we believe we're beautiful or unattractive, that we've got lots of opportunities or our best years are in the past, it's up to us. In other words, if you have a pimple or two, show up and be awesome with your pimple or two. If you don't have flat abs, you are still allowed to live your life fully. If you have some grey hairs, weird eyebrows, a scar on your mouth: this is still it. Time isn't going to stop and wait for everything to line up perfectly so you can pursue the life you want. There is no magic wand, either, to make the vitriolic critics disappear so you’re going to have to be stronger, bigger and bolder than they are - which you are - simply evidenced by the fact that you are sticking your neck out and they are the bitter ones spewing invective. You will still be hurt because you are not a machine, you have feelings, but, speaking from personal experience, over time it starts to hurt less and less and you start to really understand how to differentiate the opinions that count and the ones that simply don’t matter.

Don't find yourself grieving one day that you didn't know you were gorgeous, hilarious, amazing and now you realize that you wasted all that time. Now is the only time we’ve been promised, this one life and this one moment. Do it for every girl whose been told she’s a slut for daring to upload a video of herself singing. Do it for your best friend who chucked her dream of being a public speaker because someone made a snide remark about her lisp. Do it for someone who never believed she was beautiful enough, smart enough, enough enough to live the life she wants now. Do it for all those who never had the opportunity but burned with desire. Do it for yourself.

Find a way to live without regrets.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Open Letter to My Son at Twelve...

Dear Justice,

I can’t believe you’re twelve now. Twelve. On each of your birthdays, there is a new age to accept, and I always find it hard but twelve is one year from being a teenager, from angst, from being mortified by any association with me. I realize that I’m on borrowed time here so I’d better say this to you now while you’ll still sort of listen to me. 

I wrote the letter below this one to you when you were just a baby. Once the first contractions hit, you and I had a pretty rough time of it and I was fairly wrecked for a while afterward, dealing with hormones that were plummeting and surging and zipping around every which way, plus the searing pain with each breath and the milk that took its time coming in. Oh, and beginning motherhood after a three-day-long emotional roller coaster of sleep deprivation. Fun times. You were here, though, so I had to get it together. 

I was really afraid. Terrified. I knew what an incredible gift we had that so many would have loved - a healthy pregnancy; a healthy baby; myself, well, I would recover - and for that I was grateful but as soon as the little endorphin boost dissipated, I was so scared. I’d never been a very anxious person before but apparently another addition came into my life along with you and it was a kind of primal fear I’d never known before. Once I determined that reinstalling you back inside me for a few more weeks until I got it together couldn’t happen, I had to face the inevitable. I had made a mistake.

In the weeks after your birth, I realized that it was the height of arrogance to actually think that Dad and I could pull off this whole being trusted to raise a child thing. We could take care of our dogs, even the one who was more than a little cuckoo. We could create websites and t-shirts and non-profits -- we could even manage monthly potlucks that brought in early edition vegans of every volatile variety as well as the random senior citizens who just wandered in looking for a free meal -- but raise a baby? Just who did we think we were?

What if you came out of the womb screaming for puréed liver? What if you were born with a bacon tattoo? What if your first sentence was, “Um, what about my canine teeth?” Honestly, this is every vegan parent’s worst fear, after the universal stuff that every parent fears has receded or been faced. What if you naturally just did not jibe with us at all? What if what we thought were big, guileless, innocent eyes were actually full of a deep-seated resentment of us and all that we stood for?

It turns out that as a parent, I hit my bottom pretty early. This is not to imply that every parenting moment since has been gold star-worthy but things have improved considerably from those early days of me thinking of you as a (fabulously adorable) ticking time bomb of discontent just waiting to wail for organ meats and Cheese Doodles. It turns out, you were pretty easy, Justice. From your earliest days, you would protect ants from stomping feet and name the slugs near our kale plants. When you were two, you burst out in tears when I read you The Lorax for the first time. This wasn’t forced into you. This was you, beautiful, unguardedly kind you, shining through from the beginning. People like to claim that vegan kids are indoctrinated. It’s actually kind of funny in an ironic way, implying that the kids who do know what they are eating are indoctrinated. In any case, you always intuitively embraced kindness and, well, justice. Your name was more fitting than we could have realized. There was no struggle there: this was you.

Since your earliest days, I have watched you evolve into the most amazing child, boy, person. You are as transfixed by an anthill as you are the solar system, as excited to give a gift as you are to receive it. The world is a much better place with you in it, and I cannot wait to see all the glorious, unique, fascinating contributions you will continue to give us.

It turns out that I had nothing to fear. You were always naturally Justice. 



November 8, 2002

My dearest Justice,

If there was ever a moment when I knew that our lives had changed completely, it was the other day when the three of us were in the bulk section of the grocery store. I was filling a bag with some couscous, and, in our family's little division of labor, your father was putting the code on the twisty-tie for the cashier to ring up. When he reached for the bag, something in his hand caught my eye. Around one of his fingers was your pacifier, worn like you two had just gotten engaged. In a way, you had. I looked at you, six-weeks-old and sleeping snugly in the carrier strapped around your dad's chest, one arm casually draped across him, and I just thought, Wow. Our lives are forever changed.

I know this sounds silly. There have been so many more obvious clues than that that our lives have been slightly altered. Not sleeping more than three hours at a stretch could have been an indicator. The frequent visits to your changing table. The sound of wailing being so omnipresent, I swear sometimes I hear phantom cries even when your father has taken you along on the evening dog walk. All these things may have shouted at me that I have a newborn in the home, but, frankly, I think before the pacifier incident, I was a little too sleep-deprived for it to sink in.

In that seemingly routine moment in the grocery store, though, it was as if the fog around me abruptly lifted and I woke from a dream to find myself as The Mama, improbable as that may seem, that long-haired man as The Daddy and you as Our Baby. Before then, it was as though I was watching some other exhausted, confused couple fumble their way through caring for a newborn, peeking through my fingers as I snickered and winced on the sidelines. At that moment, I finally realized that I'd been snickering and wincing at myself.

Through a joyous, healthy pregnancy and a delivery that was, lamentably, miles away from the alternative-birthing-suite-with-a-midwife-and-classical-music-playing-as-you-effortlessly-descended-into-the-world-an-hour-or-two-after-contractions-began, you have asserted yourself time and again as a passionate, determined young being with your own way of doing things.

In my womb, you entertained us with your calisthenics every morning, flipping joyous cartwheels as you and I enjoyed blueberry smoothies. In the delivery room, you came out punching and kicking 52 hours after contractions began, daring anyone to tell you to settle down. I held off committing to your name until we met, but as I looked at you hot from my womb, red-faced and hollering with your hands balled into tight, tiny fists of righteous indignation, I thought, Well, this is definitely a Justice.

I hope you are not going to think your name is stupid. Will you beg us to change it to Tyler or Jake or Bubba? Will you be creative? Analytical? Sensitive? Brash? A little bit of everything? Will you resent your dad and me for raising you in the city? Will you be enthralled by all the energy, noise and motion?

Maybe you'll forsake your genetic predisposition and be the kind of child who loves to be organized and tidy and balances checkbooks for fun. Maybe you'll sleep in a tent in the living room during the winter, drawing maps and creating an elaborate kingdom in your mind. Maybe you'll fall in love with a girl or a boy one day and know in your heart that no one has ever loved this ardently (but, my child, I must quietly point out that we have...)

The kind of person you are to become is being formed as I write this, as you sleep like an angel straight from Raphael's sketchbook, as you nurse at my breast, as you discover your toes. I enjoy watching you unfold, my baby, with all your quirks and predilections, understanding that you have your own purpose here on earth, just as we all do. I just have one little favor to ask of you. Not too big, I hope.

Promise me you won't ever eat animals. Okay?

I don't mean to be making demands on you so soon, and lord knows I'd rather you decide on your own with all your good sense and natural compassion that eating an animal's carcass is barbaric. And that consuming their secretions and ovum is thievery. And that wearing their skins is unseemly. And paying to watch them perform in aquariums, rodeos, circuses and whatnot is idiocy. If you come to me one day and tell me all this on your own, I promise you a vanilla and chocolate sundae as big as your head, with extra syrup. Dark chocolate, of course. Is it a deal?

You see, despite the poopy diapers and unexpected hair tugs and occasional all-nighters, you are a perfect being born into an imperfect world. I look at you with your huge, glistening eyes and the soft cheeks designed to be nuzzled, and I can't help but see an angel who has decided to touch down for a while and check things out. And the things you'll see, I'm afraid, may disappoint you. I feel like a jerk telling you this, admitting to you with your absolute purity how flawed your fellow race of humans is, especially after how hard you struggled to be here, but it's true. We are flawed. Please forgive us.

We do things sometimes knowing full well that they will hurt another. We pollute and desecrate the only real home we have. We waste our time and money on things that only serve to make us sedated, angry or depressed, and then we do it some more. We do these things despite "knowing better." Yes, me too. We all started out like you, though, full of innocence and curiosity and guilelessness, but somehow, we let the world steal it from us, sometimes while our backs were turned, sometimes with our full encouragement.

In my mind, the act of eating another animal's body - though it is usually an unconscious event, at least at first - is the first time we give tacit approval of this mugging of our better selves. As we grow older, and cynicism settles into our bodies, we accept this cheapening of ourselves with little more than a shrug. I'm asking you, Justice, to not accept this at all, least of all with a shrug.

If I could protect you from all the wounds big and small that we inflict and we receive, I would. But would I be denying you the wisdom that comes from a few scrapes and bruises? Am I standing in your way if I try to protect you from making mistakes? If I don't, am I being a uncaring, negligent mother? Am I creating an irresponsible being? I'm not going to pretend that I have the answers, so we're going to have to navigate our way together.

One thing I do know, though, is that you're a precious, pristine spirit and if you can preserve some of that essence throughout your life, the earth will heave a sigh of relief.

Please, Justice. Hold on fiercely to your beautiful, proud and compassionate self. Please don't eat meat.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Yes, All Farmed Animals

For the past few weeks, awareness about the mind-numbing pervasiveness of harassment, misogyny and violence females face has been heightened in the wake of the horrific May 23 murders in Santa Barbara committed by Elliot Rodger, a young man who blamed his actions on what he considered years of unjust rejection by women. Angry at the women he thought were his birthright, envious of the men he believed unfairly received sexual gratification, he went on a terrifying, bloody spree that quickly claimed six lives in addition to his own.

In the aftermath of the violence, some very important, very painful personal stories have emerged from the shadows and come to the forefront. The meteoric rise of the hashtag #YesAllWomen on social media came in response to the #NotAllMen hashtag, which was revived after the murders, apparently by some of the same men’s rights proponents with whom Rodger was ideologically aligned. Like most defensive reactions, the NotAllMen response, intentionally or unintentionally, nearly derailed the opportunity for honest communication, almost diverting it away from the vast diversity of women who were talking about the chillingly ordinary belittlement, misogyny and violence they have experienced simply for being female. Not all men are rapists, not all men are violent, not all men are murderers. Of course. Yet all girls and all women have experienced incidents of injustice, discrimination, harassment, threats and violence simply because they are female. Shouldn’t women be allowed to bear witness to their own experiences without needing to tend to someone else’s thin skin by specifying the obvious: not all men? YesAllWomen is a bracing and vital declaration about the sheer ubiquity of sexism, both mundane and extreme, that females across the globe face. It is so pervasive, it is just life. By removing the veil of ignorance and blinders, we have an opportunity to learn, change and evolve beyond our limited worldview.

What I am about to say is not intended to detract from or minimize the #YesAllWomen movement, which I fully support and think is both very valid and long overdue. As a vegan and a feminist, my intention is to describe how the same icy, indifferent and belittling voice of privileged power is also woven through the heightened defensiveness we hear when the subjugation of other animals, especially the animals people eat, is pointed out.  

Like everyday misogyny but far more entrenched and extreme, our tyranny over other animals most often hides in plain sight. When speaking about the culture of violence perpetrated against other animals, we often hear a defensive chorus of the same rhetorical nature: Not all animals. Not all meat-eaters. Not all farmers. Not all farms. Yet all animals are considered property, and all farmed animals are exploited and slaughtered because we believe that we have more of a right to their products and their flesh than they have a right to their own lives. On the continuum of care, a tiny percentage of animals are allowed the semblance of a decent life, but this is far outweighed by the sheer number who are not and, ultimately, they are all considered ours to do what we please with in the end. We make the decisions if they should reproduce or not, if they should live and when they should die. From the tiny fraction of animals that slick marketing campaigns would have us believe are coddled on idyllic farms until they happen to naturally die of old age to the billions upon billions who suffer through lives of unimaginable brutality, all farmed animals are brought into existence and taken from it based on our desires.

In other words, #YesAllFarmedAnimals. As with the #YesAllWomen response to a culture of pervasive misogyny, if we stop protecting our fragile egos, we will see what is hidden in plain sight: an unjust, unchallenged and often unspoken supremacy bias of anthropocentrism that impairs our awareness regarding all other species. Specifically regarding the animals people eat, please consider that while there are rare exceptions in terms of overall quality of life:

* All are treated as property whether we see it directly or not. 

* All are born and killed for our purposes whether we see it directly or not. 

* Simply because we have the prerogative of not seeing or noticing, it does not mean that violence has not occurred, even under our very noses. 

* The attitude of human exceptionalism pervades and threatens to derail honest dialogue and growth. 

Can we be honest enough to acknowledge this? Can we be humble enough to admit that at this time in history, when it is easier than ever to live without exploiting and killing other sentient beings, that it is immoral to kill them?

The #NotAllMen reaction serves as a reminder that there is not much that upsets people in a position of status more than not having everything centered around and catered to them and their desires. In the reaction to what is plainly obvious about the practice of eating other animals, we see a similar defensiveness, born of the same kind of entitlement and privilege, even more starkly. 

Trying to redirect candid discourse about the experience of misogyny is dismissive, reactive, reductive and self-centered. Steering honest conversations about our treatment of animals back to one’s own hurt pride or ego is similarly dismissive, reactive, reductive and self-centered. They are harmed and killed for us and it is needless. 

Yes, all farmed animals.