Veggies and an interview with Urban Vegan

Well, the contest from the last post is over and we have two winners! I used a random number generator based on the number of comments to select the lucky participants. They happened to be comments numbers 15 and 26, or Jen and Happy Herbivore. I already heard back from Happy Herbivore, but I am still waiting to hear back from Jen. Please get in contact with me, ASAP so I can send your copy of PETA's Vegan College Cookbook!

I have two updates involving veggies. First, I have recently been featured as a dictator for the new Citysearch website called VeggieThing. It's basically a site to showcase vegan eats from around the country. Check me out under the dictators section.

I have another veggie update and that's the Veggie Pride Parade! I attended the first event last year in NYC and will be in attendance again this year, but this time I will be wearing the Penelo Pea Pod suit! If you're not familiar, Penelo Pea Pod is the spokesperson for VivaVegie in NYC and she will be celebrating her one year anniversary to PETA's Chris P. Carrot this year! The event should be awesome and you should definitely attend if you're in the area.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author, blogger, and freelance writer, Dynise Balcavage, otherwise known as Urban Vegan. She has written for VegNews, GRID, and has an upcoming book to be out this fall entitled, "The Urban Vegan: 250 Simple, Sumptuous Recipes, From Street Cart Favorites to Haute Cuisine ." I personally had the opportunity to test some of her fabulous recipes for her book and I will say now that this is one vegan cookbook you will not want to miss out on! On with the interview.

Urban Vegan, Dynise Balcavage

What got you into veganism?

Growing up in the a small boondockian town, I was probably the only vegetarian in my county! As a kid, I ate a lot of eggs and cheese.I later dabbled in veganism unsuccessfully in my early 20s. But everyone has their lightbulb moments. Mine for veganism was about 5 years ago when someone pointed out the obvious to me: that after animals used to produce eggs and dairy are no longer useful, they are then killed for meat or other products. I honestly didn't fully realize this until then -- that even though I was vegetarian who stood against animal suffering, I was contributing to animal suffering by leaning so heavily on eggs and dairy. After that, I also read more about factory farming and the environmental and health benefits of veganism and realized a plant-based diet was a win-win-win diet.

From a culinary standpoint, I also relished the challenge of cooking vegan. Most vegan food I had tried had honestly tasted either too stereotypically "healthy" or bland. (And to be honest, a lot of it still does. Just because something is vegan does not automatically make it suitable for human consumption.) I was determined to learn to cook vegan chow that knocked omnivores' socks off and chipped away at that reality, which has also become a stereotype.

Learning to cook and eat vegan was simply a paradigm shift. For example, most people ask me how I bake without eggs and dairy. They don't know that's one of the biggest vegan myths --that eggs and dairy aren't baking prerequisites. Try a luscious Vegan Treats cake at Govinda's and you'll see what I mean! Now, cooking vegan is second-nature to me. No more difficult than cooking non-vegan.

Your recipes seem to be based on your travel experiences, right?
Well, some of them are and some of them aren't. I do have itchy feet and live to travel. I've visited some amazing countries including India, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, China, and Peru. And experiencing other cultures inevitably means trying new foods. And once you taste something you like in another country, you inevitably want to hold onto that experience and bring it home with you. So in this respect, yes, some of my recipes do attempt to replicate some of the culinary experiences I've enjoyed while traveling.

But my recipes are also greatly influenced by my childhood -- growing up in the mountains in the Pennsylvania Coal Regions and watching my Polish babci (grandma), mom and ciocis (aunts) cook on the coal stove in our small row home. The women in my family could make a tasty meal out of practically nothing. Their resourcefulness always amazed me: it was like magic and was so creative. My mom used to occasionally cook vegan without knowing it was vegan; she was just trying to be frugal and make food that tasted good. She used to bread eggplant, pan-fry it, and "sell" it to my dad by saying it tasted like pork chops.

My recipes now are also peppered by my life in the city. My husband and I often eat out at ethnic restaurants. I buy food from street carts and produce at various markets. I live near Chinatown and could spend hours browsing in those cavernous Asian groceries. All of these factors find their way into my kitchen.

What is your favorite ethnic food?
Italian and Malaysian, but not together!

What is the most vegan-friendly place you have visited?
New York City is absolutely the most vegan-friendly place I've been to, which is probably why I am there practically every-other weekend. You can eat vegan, shop vegan (for example, you can buy a cool pair of kickers at Moo Shoes) and and even study vegan cooking at the Natural Gourmet Institute. It's such a diverse, energetic city, in terms of successfully accommodating different cultures and lifestyles, that you don't ever feel out of place or dread asking a waiter to "leave off the cheese." But Philly is pretty-darned vegan friendly, too.

When and why did you start your blog, www.urbanvegan.net?
I had been feeling alone in my beliefs but the Internet and blogosphere changed all that. It revealed the rumblings of a powerful new frame of mind and social consciousness. When I discovered all the vegan blogs, web sites and message boards, I discovered that veganism is viral...viral in a good way. Positively infectious. I started blogging in March 2006 primarily as a way to connect with other vegans. Plus, I'm a writer by trade with an undergraduate art degree, so blogging was a natural creative outlet. I blogged about life as a city vegan, my meals both at home and in restaurants and my trips. Soon, I had many followers. Now, I consider many of them friends. Many (like Ed Coffin) have even volunteered to be recipe testers for my cookbook.

What's your favorite recipe in your upcoming cookbook?

It's so hard to pick just one out of 250. My favorite foods tend to change with my mood and the seasons. But a few favorites from the book include Panko-Crusted Tofu with Raspberry-Tamarind Glaze, Pasta Carbonara, Vidalia Onion Tart with Pear-Pepper Chutney and Tira Mi Su. My vegan Tira Mi Su can kick the butt of most of the non-vegan versions I've tasted. I wish I could have a Tira Mi Su throwdown with Bobby Flay.

What inspired you to write the book?
I had published many of my original recipes on my blog and had gotten great feedback from readers, as well of from friends and family who had sampled my food. Then I thought long and hard about how city life had influenced my cooking and realized it was more than a realization, it was a cookbook concept! Although I had already written 10 kids' books, I always wanted to write a cookbook. I thought to myself, "Hey! I can do this." I put together a proposal, and the rest is history. In the end, several publishers were interested in the book, which is titled "The Urban Vegan: 250 Simple, Sumptuous Recipes from Street Cart Favorites to Haute Cuisine."

In writing the cookbook, I wanted to help dispel the myths about vegan food--that it all tastes like wallpaper paste. I wanted to make vegan cuisine more accessible, not only to vegans and vegetarians, but also to veg-wannabees, the veg-curious and "foodies." I wanted to inspire people not to fear vegan cooking but instead to embrace it and to learn to improvise. In addition, I wanted to dignify vegan food and help establish it as a cuisine in its own right that could give someone immense sensual pleasure. (I like to think of myself as the Nigella Lawson of vegan cuisine!) One of my pet peeves is that many vegan foods have invariably cute names like "not dogs," while others have names that semantically position vegan foods as inferior versions of meaty dishes, like "BBQ Seitan WIngs." Why not just call them BBQ Seitan Chunks or Tenders? Why do they need to be called "wings" when they have absolutely nothing to do with wings? I'm not politically correct, but I do think this nomenclature instills a pre-conceived notion of inferiority about and fear of vegan foods. You would not expect an apple to taste like a mushroom, so why do people expect seitan to taste like chicken? It's not chicken. It's seitan. So let's just slow down and appreciate its inherent seitan-ness! Hopefully the cookbook will help chip away at all that.

What is your opinion on the future of veganism?
As I said earlier, I do believe veganism and vegetarianism are viral in a good, "tipping point" sort of way. The media is finally covering the miseries of factory farming and the environmental and health hazards of a meat-based diet, at least moreso than before, so there's more public awareness about the myriad of benefits of a plant-based diet.

And it helps that more famous cooks and celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon. For example, Mark Bittman veg-ized his popular cookbook "How to Cook Everything" and created a vegetarian version, aptly named "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." There's now a weekly column in the New York Times food section called "The Occasional Vegetarian," and I see articles on vegans and vegetarians appearing much more frequently in general. I was at a doctor's appointment this morning and "The View" was on in the waiting room. Barbara Walters said that she loves animals and is leaning toward vegetarianism. Natalie Portman is vegan and who doesn't want to look like her?

The Austin Firehouse Hunks (my name for them, not theirs!) --all vegans--were recently interviewed on CBS. They said that they think within 5 years, eating meat will have the same stigma as smoking. I think that's a bit optimistic. Americans will have a hard time giving up meat, because it is so ingrained in our culture. People have been brainwashed by powerful dairy and meat lobbies and food conglomerates to think that a meal just isn't a meal without meat and dairy. Most Americans assume, for example, that the only way they can get calcium is through dairy, when in fact, countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis like the US, England and Sweden, drink the most milk. China and Japan, on the other hand, have low rates of osteoporosis even though people consume very low amounts of dairy and protein. [Reference: Nutrition Action Healthletter, June, 1993] Why are people not aware of this? The answer is pretty obvious. The industries have a lot to lose in terms of revenue, and their ad revenues largely control the messages. But change creates opportunity. There's also money to be made by shifting to a vegan/veg diet. Once corporations become aware of this profitability, that's when we'll see the real shift.

The fact is that The American Dietetic Association, the world's biggest nutritional professional organization, reviewed all existing scientific studies about vegetarian diets. They found that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and obesity than people who eat meat. They even wrote guidelines on vegetarian and vegan diets, stating they are are suitable appropriate for all stages, including infancy and pregnancy, and that in fact they have "health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." But this never seems to make it to the mainstream media. Probably because major networks are afraid of losing the ad revenues of the major food conglomerates, all of which are intertwined with the meat and dairy industries.

There's definitely progress. But it's slow. Veganism and vegetarianism are paradigm shifts and in fact, shifts of consciousness. That does not happen overnight. But of course, I wish it would.

Since we both live in Philadelphia, what's your favorite veg-friendly restaurant here?
Haute cuisine: Horizons
Low cuisine: Govinda's

Do you have any suggestions for those aspiring vegans out there?
Approach new foods with a zen mind, beginner's mind. Remember: We are all born only with an affinity for sugar and we have to learn to appreciate all other tastes including bitter foods like coffee and olives. Don't expect vegan foods to taste like meat or dairy. They are not; they are their own entities. If you can appreciate inherent differences in people, you can learn to do the same with foods.

Go at your own pace. Some people can go vegan "cold turkey," while others have to transition. Try things out and see how they feel, and don't beat yourself up. Congratulate yourself for each small step you take. Those baby steps lead to big steps toward improving your health, the environment, and of course, animal welfare.

That's it for this post. I have some new recipes I have been harboring from you guys so be sure and subscribe below to get them as soon as I put them up. Also, if you missed my interview on Vegan Radio, please check it out!

Subscribe to Eating Consciously by Email

I'm on Facebook too!


  1. Great interview, I've been enjoying Dynise's blog for a long time now and am really looking forward to her book!

  2. yeah, it's going to be great :)



Propaganda propelled by a gay vegan.