You may not have heard of Jo Stepaniak, but if you’re vegan today she’s probably had an impact on your eating habits either through her own cookbooks or by laying the foundation that subsequent vegan cooks and authors have built upon. She is somewhat of an icon in the vegan cooking world and was one of the earliest inspirations in my own vegan kitchen. Read to the bottom of this post for a chance to WIN one of her groundbreaking cookbooks.
Allison Rivers Samson: You have written numerous successful vegan cookbooks in your life. My very first vegan cookbook was your now out of print (published in 1992) Ecological Cooking, which was well-loved, tattered and stained before I retired it. In 1997, I was ecstatic to get to meet you, as I had admired your work for several years. When did you write your first vegan cookbook and what were you doing before that?
Jo Stepaniak: It was so delightful to meet you all those years ago too, Allison! That was back in the day when your business was called, “Allison’s Cookies” and my Ask Jo! column was an award-winning standard feature in the fledgling publication VegNews. Before I started writing cookbooks, I was a community, family, and victim-offender mediator, something that I still do today in the international business arena. Ecological Cooking was my first vegan cookbook, and it was originally written around 1988 and self-published as a fundraiser for a local animal rights group. An artist friend donated the original cover design and some interior drawings, and I did all the “typesetting” and indexing on my home computer. The process was excruciating on late-’80s software. We sold several thousand copies of the book on our own, and after that I realized that we might have something more broadly marketable on our hands.In the late eighties and early nineties, “vegan” was anathema to the publishing industry, and virtually all publishers were reluctant to be associated with books that blatantly promoted the term on the cover or in the contents; it was considered lethal to sales.I was fortunate to get the book published by Book Publishing Company in 1992. Things sure have changed, haven’t they?
ARS: Yes, thankfully things have changed significantly! In 2008, your invaluable contribution to the animals was honored by your induction into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame. Although you tend to be “behind the scenes,” you are one of the primary pioneers of vegan cookbooks. Your innovation and creativity laid the foundation for today’s popularity of veganism. In fact, yours are the shoulders upon which many vegan cookbook authors and vegan food producers stand. How does it feel to know that you have been the inspiration for so much good for animals, people and planet? Did you ever imagine vegan cookbooks and convenience foods would become as ubiquitous as they are today?
JS:When I became a vegetarian (in the sixties), there was precious little material obtainable about it. Unlike today, there was no social network and few channels to connect with other vegetarians, find recipes, or just get basic information. And, of course, there were essentially no commercial vegan products available in mainstream supermarkets, or even in health food stores, which were few and far between. I didn’t even hear of tofu or soy milk until at least ten years later. For two decades my diet consisted mostly of “crunchy-granola” types of foods—similar to the “slow food” and whole foods many people are rediscovering and gravitating back to today.
It didn’t dawn on me to try to replicate vegetarian versions of meat-based foods. In fact, the first faux meat I ever saw was some kind of sausage in a can, which struck me as supremely disgusting. And in the seventies, when I saw a package of vegan bacon in the freezer at a natural food store, I actually laughed out loud, thinking who in the world would ever buy something as strange as that. In time, however, and after writing Ecological Cooking, I came to realize that part of what held a lot of people back from being vegan was their addiction to the taste and textures of animal-based foods. It was that epiphany that inspired my books that followed, particularly The Uncheese Cookbook and Vegan Vittles.Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think my innovations would play a major role in launching a crusade of commercial vegan products and a bevy of cookbooks by countless new authors following in my footsteps. I figured that my recipes would appeal to a small group of ethical people; it was inconceivable to me that this “small group” would eventually become a vast and ever-expanding global movement of people who would take many of my humble ideas to amazing new heights.
There are certainly quite a few incredible forerunners who inspired and helped to get veganism into the mainstream. I’m honored to be considered among them, though being in the limelight was never a motivation for me, and when I developed my recipes, I never thought of myself as a pioneer. The objective behind my efforts was and always has been to spread the message of compassion for all and to make vegan foods accessible, easy to prepare, and appealing to everyone.
ARS: We are all grateful for your vital contributions. Like me, you’ve had a journey with food sensitivities. You even co-wrote Food Allergy Survival Guide. When people ask me if I feel limited by my vegan diet, I always tell them, “No, I feel limited by my food sensitivities.” How have your sensitivities changed over the years and what’s your theory about why they are becoming more and more common?
JS: I believe food sensitivities are becoming more prevalent because our environment is becoming increasingly toxic and our lives are becoming increasingly more stressful and less connected to the natural world (which we are destroying at an unprecedented pace), and both of these factors undoubtedly affect the health of our immune systems. On top of that, our food supply is more tainted, less diversified, and more modified, engineered, and processed than ever before in human history. Our bodies have not evolved to assimilate such unnaturally processed foods, and we simply aren’t capable of handling the onslaught of toxins they contain.There’s a point at which our bodies have no choice but to rebel and go on the defensive, and that resistance can be expressed in a variety of ways, including food sensitivities. We’re also becoming more and more reliant on a short list of foods, wheat and soy among them. Almost every processed food on the market, vegan or not, contains these two items in one form or another. Overexposure to certain foods, usually those that are high in protein (such as gluten and soy), invariably can result in an allergy or intolerance. I’ve had an on-again, off-again battle with gluten. But unless a person is motivated to eradicate all forms of gluten, large and small, from their diet, gluten is bound to slip in somewhere, simply because it is unbelievably pervasive in our food supply. Adult-onset celiac disease and intolerance have become so prevalent that they are considered among the most under-diagnosed conditions of this century and have recently received a lot of press coverage. As a result, manufacturers are creating and producing gluten-free products at an accelerating rate. The downside is that most of these products are devoid of nutritive value and are frequently higher in calories than their gluten-containing counterparts. Some people mistakenly believe that adopting a gluten-free diet will help them lose weight, but often the opposite happens. It’s all the more reason to eat seasonal produce and keep foods in rotation, so we don’t over consume any single one. If someone needs to go gluten-free or avoid certain foods because of sensitivities, the best tactic is a vegan diet based on whole, minimally processed plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and gluten-free whole grains and pseudo grains (like quinoa). That’s my personal approach, and in many ways it’s really a throwback to the early days, before processed foods were so widespread.
ARS: Your approach is similar to mine. People are more deficient in vegetables than anything else.Your creativity with food is beyond imaginative. Both my recipes for Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Tuna(less) Salad (written for my award-winning VegNews column, “Veganize It!”) were inspired by the foundation you laid. What is your creative process like?
JS:Wow, that’s a really good question, as it’s not something I’ve consciously thought about. My kitchen is at times a mini laboratory, as I love experimenting with ingredients and seasonings to obtain certain textures and flavors. At the same time, I don’t like to spend hours slaving over a hot stove. I prefer foods that are “clean,” simple, straightforward, and very easy to prepare. That’s really my modus operandi both in my home and in my recipe books. If a recipe isn’t quick and easy, you won’t find it in my books. That said, I also like dishes that have rich, complex flavors, and that’s what I try to attain with minimal ingredients and effort. I’ve been cooking and adapting recipes since I was a little girl. Because there weren’t any vegetarian cookbooks available when I was growing up, I’d take my mother’s conventional cookbooks and modify the recipes to eliminate the offending ingredients. Doing that is just second nature to me now; it’s not something I even have to think about. I tend to have a sixth sense about what will work well together and what won’t, and by keeping recipes simple, I don’t have to worry about too many flavors clashing.
ARS: Some new (and even long-time) vegans gravitate toward vegan junk food, rather than whole-foods vegetable-based meals. What recommendations would you give to help overcome that struggle?
JS: Eventually, at least for most people, a diet centered on junk food catches up with them, and their health suffers as a result. When I was in my twenties, like most people that age, I thought I was invincible. And the truth is that our bodies really are much more resilient and capable of handling our poor treatment of them when we’re young. Unfortunately, the consequences of that behavior may not show up until twenty or thirty years later, and then it’s often too late to reverse the damage. I view unhealthful eating the same way I view smoking; it’s a really bad and harmful habit that will in all probability ultimately be lethal. But junk-food eaters, like smokers, need to have self-motivation to alter their ways, and no amount of guilt, lecturing, or strong-arming is going to convince them to make a lasting change. There’s no question that we inherently crave certain tastes (particularly fat, salt, and sugar), and manufacturers know how to manipulate their products to appeal to us and get us hooked. This is explained well in Breaking the Food Seduction (by Neal Barnard, with menus and recipes by me) and in The Pleasure Trap (by Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer). Junk foods are undeniably habit-forming—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially—no less so than addictive drugs and alcohol. Granted, they don’t affect and impair our lives in exactly the same ways, but they do destroy us on a broader scale. Often the most useful motivator springs from vanity rather than a concern about health. Being overweight or obese or having similar conditions that affect appearance can be a strong incentive to lose bad habits. The secret, though, is for people to catch themselves before the road back becomes too long and arduous. Sadly, vegans are no less susceptible to the machinations of commercial marketing than anyone else, and as more manufacturers catch wind of us as a new potential market, we become even more vulnerable.
ARS: That’s so true; I was talking recently with a friend of mine about how much easier it was for people to be thin on a vegan diet before there were so many vegan convenience foods on the market. Now, we need to stay aware just like everyone else. Veganism is more than just a diet, it’s a lifestyle and you were the first to write about the thought-altering notion of modifying our language of violence toward animals in your book Vegan Vittles which was a tribute to your animal friends at Farm Sanctuary. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is looking to extend a compassionate approach to all aspects of his or her life, beyond the plate?
JS: Thank you so much for acknowledging that, Allison. Indeed, in Vegan Vittles (and in my books The Vegan Sourcebook and Being Vegan) I attempted to draw attention to various aspects of compassion beyond what we consume. In Vegan Vittles, my goal was to not only nourish readers through food but to feed their spirits by encouraging them to think “outside the plate,” especially with regard to language. In that book, I shed light on common sayings that allude to or directly mention animal violence and how these phrases have become an accepted and integral part of our culture, and I also provide kinder alternatives we can use to replace them. There are countless ways we can be compassionate outside of our dietary choices. In fact, if a vegan is chronically rude, thoughtless, inconsiderate, selfish, angry, arrogant, or self-righteous, I would hesitate to call them “compassionate,” regardless of how they eat. Compassion really has less to do with food and more to do with how we communicate, how we treat others, and what we think. If we have hateful, vengeful, rage-filled thoughts, we will conjure up feelings of hate, revenge, and rage, and our words and actions will reflect those harmful feelings. While simple acts of everyday kindness, respect, and consideration—holding the door open for the person behind us, being patient in line or in traffic, following through on our promises, being on time, modulating our voices, saying “please” and “thank you,” acknowledging others, and being gracious—don’t require us to be or do anything special except engender gentleness and gratitude. If all of us did just that, we’d advance a culture of kindness a whole lot faster than standing on our individual pulpits preaching about compassion. That’s because we’d be living and breathing our talk, not just talking about it.
ARS: What a beautifully holistic perspective, Jo. Any tips for people dealing with ridicule or criticism over their diet/lifestyle choice?
JS: Here are three tips that are helpful whenever we feel attacked or disparaged over our vegan practices: 1. Know your reasons for being vegan. If they are rooted in your heart rather than your head, you will always feel confident about your choices. 2. Make sure you are grounded in a sincere commitment to living a fully compassionate life. If you are, you’ll be able to hear the fear, concern, or lack of awareness behind the criticism, and you’ll know how to respond appropriately, with respect, generosity, and dignity. 3. Evaluate the basis of the criticism. Sometimes others are put off by what they sense as an air of vegan superiority (even though their fears are often baseless and are merely projections of their own misconceptions). Determine whether something you said or did motivated the attack. If so, apologize quickly and sincerely. If not, inquire about the reasons behind the person’s comments, and then listen to their answer dispassionately, respectfully, and with heartfelt curiosity. Everyone appreciates being heard and feeling understood.When we stop to honestly listen to another’s views and give them a chance to share their perspectives, we have an opportunity to learn something new and valuable. In the process, our hearts soften, and other person’s mind opens to new possibilities.
ARS: I can see how you are an excellent mediator! Do you have a favorite Allison’s Gourmet product?
JS: Of course! Doesn’t everyone? Mine is Chocolate Almond Toffee. If that’s not nirvana, I don’t know what is!
Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Jo. And now for the Cookbook Giveaway! For a chance to win your choice of either Vegan Vittles or The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, tell us which title you’d most like to win, and why. You must be a resident of the US or Canada to win. We’ll pick a winner on Thursday, March 15th. Good luck! This Giveaway is now closed. See tomorrow’s Friday with Friends post for another Vegan Cookbook Contest.