Hi, Jesse! Thank you so much for offering your thoughts and inspiration today. To start, what does being vegan mean?
It’s really simple, and somewhat boring: to not exploit animals in any way, or at least to give it your best shot.
It’s not simply a diet, or a “food allergy” as it’s often categorized on menus and nutrition-info databases.
It’s also not easy: there are animal products in everything from tires to McDonald’s french fries. Seemingly unrelated things like commercial real-estate development can be construed as exploiting animals by depriving them of (or poisoning) part of their habitat. The needs of commerce and taxation – for a strip mall, or for strip mining, for instance – can trump their existence.
When did you become a vegan?
In 2010, when I began cooking more of my meals, I fell back on vegetarian recipes. I’d been vegetarian on and off since I was 16. But I also had a couple of vegan cookbooks, dating back to when I was experimenting with a gluten-free, casein-free diet, though still an omnivore at the time. Becoming vegan was simply a matter of combining vegetarianism with GFCF. (I would later drop the gluten-free part.)
A few months later I began to understand that it wasn’t simply about food or diet; until then I only had a vague sense that veganism was good in some larger context.
You know the DC/Baltimore area, which many people come to at some point. So, would you have any local vegan businesses to recommend?
- Fancy Radish, from the founders of my favorite restaurant, Vedge
- Glory Doughnuts & Cafe, in Frederick, MD, about an hour north of DC
- Yuan Fu, in Rockville, MD
- Great Sage, in Clarksville, MD, between DC and Baltimore
There are also lots of good vegan-friendly fast-casual places – a particular favorite these days is Rice Bar – plus a couple of very vegan-friendly, regional natural-foods supermarket chains: Mom’s Organic Market and Roots Market (the owners of the latter also own Great Sage).
Beyond food, how have you changed by adopting a vegan perspective?
I have a better sense of the autonomy and sentience of animals. My previous experience of living with a dog with a very strong, colorful personality helped cement that. I’ve progressed beyond “animals should not be food or commodities” to “animals have lives, and that should be respected.”
Jesse, could you describe how veganism and culture intertwine, from your perspective? How does veganism fit in with human social and economic striving?
Your veganism doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a whole world out there, where you should be applying that same compassion you have for animals, who exist solely to become part of someone’s meal or clothing or entertainment, to human animals, near or far, like factory or garment workers halfway around the world (or just a stone’s-throw away), working under difficult conditions for wages you likely wouldn’t wish upon yourself. Your choices, as a consumer or voter, may help reinforce or (better) tear down the bad aspects of the status quo.
There’s no need to overlay some elaborate belief system. Just apply the Golden Rule to all creatures on the planet, and to the planet itself. As one of my heroes, Wavy Gravy, puts it: We are all the same person trying to shake hands with our self.
Amazon took over CreateSpace, a platform for indy authors, and folded it into Kindle Direct Publishing. And Patreon, which sustains independent creators, relies on Amazon’s AWS platform to guard creators against fraud. There’s some weird irony here. We rely on this massive, famously exploitive company, with a CEO who has accumulated $147 billion, to carve out some measure of creative independence in our lives, maybe even escape gig work. Is the quest for living on our own terms an illusion?
This ties a little into not being able to avoid random animal products in your life; if you interface in some way with any kind of commercial entity – including many companies providing your vegan goods – you are going to find yourself at odds with what some CxO says or does, or what the company itself does. Your organic vegan milk may come from a company far more invested in factory farms than it is in some vegan niche.
My work in IT had been cloud-adjacent for the last few years, and my current job is more directly cloud-related, plus I have side projects that involve even more cloud work. I’ve made my peace with it for now, but would like to find (or even found) a right-sized cloud platform that isn’t owned by a massive, for-profit entity. What we now know as Linux has roots in earlier projects started to create a cooperative, non-commercial version of the expensive proprietary Unixes of the day. Maybe something similar will happen for cloud computing.
I try not to enrich some large corporation if there’s a good alternative. It’s also important to recognize that we’re enriching various oligarchs and modern-day robber barons (whether it’s Bezos, Zuck, Bill Gates, or some Walton or Koch family offspring) with our choices of how we spend our time and money, and they’re all quite happy to use the power that accompanies their wealth to do things that may not be in our best interests.
And maybe we should, as voters, also be more concerned about un-sexy things like antitrust law than we have been in the past.
What would you say to people who are curious about becoming vegan, and has anyone become a vegan because of your influence?
No one has ever done anything because of my influence 🙂
There are many different good reasons to go vegan — for animal rights, against animal cruelty, for health reasons, etc. But there’s also the negative effect on the planet that animal agriculture has. If we’re quietly careening toward a climate emergency, maybe the positive effect of reducing global warming could be an incentive in ways that other angles and rationales have not been.
I live in the US, which has long been beset with elected officials for whom gratuitous cruelty toward marginalized groups and individuals is a core part of their branding. That’s not sustainable for a country, and, additionally, things like war, and greed, and a host of other forms of human folly endanger humanity’s long-term existence. Earth will go on just fine without human life; the reverse isn’t true. So being vegan should be – or should be thought of as – one of many things in one’s toolkit that exist as a counterweight to our various destructive tendencies.
What is an example of what you like to eat at home, how do you make it?
I used to consume a lot of protein: I had a six-day-a-week yoga practice and also did a lot of powerlifting, and I had trouble keeping my weight up. So I would eat lots of tofu, tempeh, and seitan, and gulp down protein shakes. I’ve scaled back, partly due to the pandemic, but I still don’t eat enough actual vegetables sometimes. I try to fix that by grabbing a vegetable-centric cookbook, or an omnivore one with lots of vegetable recipes.
But I have a lot of fun improvising marinades for tofu/tempeh, and also like to incorporate various leftovers into batches of seitan – say, some unused beans, or wilting kale, or almost-forgotten mushrooms sitting in the back of the fridge.
1. Soak 1 cup Textured Vegetable Protein in 1-1.5 cups broth or marinade to rehydrate the TVP. Set aside the excess liquid
2. Coarsely puree about a cup’s worth of stuff — beans, mushrooms, greens….
This week I used 1 cup of cooked black beans that were sitting in the fridge; 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast; 2 tablespoons of jerk seasoning (you could instead use salt/pepper, cumin, sage, smoked paprika, rehydrated hot peppers, etc., to taste).
3. Add enough liquid (maybe taken from the TVP soaking) to help puree all of this in a blender or food processor.
4. Combine 1 cup of Vital Wheat Gluten in a bowl with the above. Work it into a dough for a few minutes; it may take a little trial-and-error over several improvised batches to get a sense of how wet/dry/stretchy/firm the dough should feel before the next step.
5. Form into individual pieces – e.g., burgers, meatballs, cutlets – and wrap each in parchment paper, then in aluminum foil. Steam for approximately 90 minutes. Allow to cool, and put everything in the refrigerator overnight, to firm.
Then…fry up your burgers (or cutlets, or whatever), or crumble into a stir-fry or pasta sauce.
Mayo for Your Future Seitan Sandwich
- 1 box (likely 12.3 oz) silken tofu
- 1/4 cup white miso
- 1 dehydrated Chipotle or New Mexico pepper, rehydrated
- 1-2 cloves garlic
- 1-2 teaspoons dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup oil (e.g., olive, avocado, coconut, peanut… maybe in combination)
Combine the non-oil ingredients in a blender or food processor. If your blender/processor allows the dribbling-in of the oil, do that until everything is blended well, with something resembling the consistency of mayo. Some time in the fridge will likely help thicken a thin result. If you can’t incrementally add the oil, that’s fine — just add it all, and continue blending. Use as-is or as the basis for a sauce.
Thanks for sharing your recipe ideas, Jesse! It seems this creativity comes naturally to you. Do you consider everyday vegan life easy now?
Very easy for me, as a resident of an advanced industrialized country, with many options for cruelty-free food, clothes, and other products. Food-wise, it’s better now than ten years ago, when I started — more shopping options, more restaurant options. The hardest part might be for a newly-ex-omnivore to give up some favorite food(s). I’ve yet to find an adequate substitute for every situation that I might have, in the past, used cheese or eggs, though the situation is also much improved over the last decade.
Any ideas that may be helpful to others who might experience similar struggles?
One thing that worked for me, on the ex-omnivore front, was noticing that food tastes better when I’m hungry. That’s not much of a solution, I understand, but sometimes quibbles about some vegan dish not being “as good” as something you’ve given up are lost when your food is, in some way, simply good. It may take a little time, or a little work, to find or cook consistently good vegan meals.
Thank you for the gift of your thoughtful and thought-sparking writing, Jesse. Greatly appreciated.