Vegans Aren’t Misanthropes
Isa Chandra Moskowitz dispels the myths
Isa Chandra Moskowitz has done for vegan cuisine what Deborah Madison and Edward Espé Brown did for vegetarian food with The Greens Cookbook in 1979: plucked it from the margins and made it delicious, accessible, and appealing to a wide audience. Yes, even to meat-eaters. The Brooklyn-based Moskowitz talked to CHOW about her third and latest vegan cookbook, Veganomicon, written with her friend and frequent collaborator, Terry Romero. (Moskowitz and Romero also produced a cable-access cooking show called Post Punk Kitchen, which featured indie bands rocking out between dishes.) We got to ask her some voyeuristic questions about her diet. Bottom line: If you’re thinking of going vegan only for health reasons, don’t.
Was it hard to give up meat, dairy, and eggs?
The meat part wasn’t. It was the little bits of dairy. I would eat a bunch of Snickers and feel bad. I went vegan twice. The first time, I was 16. Then I stopped being vegan because I felt like, “I want to be ‘normal.’” But it didn’t feel good to be normal. Somebody said once: “If your friend leaves the room, you’d never take a dollar from their pocket.” That’s the way you feel if you take dairy and cheese from an animal you care about. I became vegan again when I was in my mid-20s.
Do you worry about ruining other people’s fun if you’re all out eating and you can’t eat most of the stuff?
I don’t concern myself with that. So what if I’m eating a salad? I don’t think I’m ruining their fun. Sometimes you spend the whole meal having people apologize to you. They say, “I’m sorry, I’m going to order a hamburger. Is that OK with you?” It makes me think that maybe they want to stop eating meat, and that’s why they’re saying it.
Do you tell them that you think it’s cruel to eat meat?
I won’t usually say anything while someone’s eating. But when people start asking me, then I’ll say something. Usually, people ask why I gave up meat, and I’ll tell them: the needless slaughter and killing of animals. I’ll talk about the environmental reasons for giving up meat—methane and greenhouse gases and things like that. And I’ll usually have them try to make the connection that pigs are as loving and as smart as dogs.
What are some stereotypes that get perpetuated about vegans?
All vegans are misanthropes. Vegans don’t care about people. That’s not true. I think if you did a poll, you would find they do activism for human rights as well as animal rights. There’s the “emaciated vegan with an eating disorder” stereotype, which I’m not. And: All vegans are rich, upper middle class, and white. All of those things are perpetuated, I think, just to undermine the basic premise of veganism.
What did you eat growing up?
Hamburger Helper, frozen food, microwave food. I did have an interest in cooking, but it wasn’t accessible to me.
How did you become a vegan chef?
Ever since I went vegan, even in my interim of not being vegan, food was a way for me to build community. In the ’90s I was a waitress and went into the back of the kitchen and learned stuff, and I also worked for a while cooking in a café in Baltimore. I got my hands on every grain, every bean, and just kept cooking things. I read a lot of classic books: Joy of Cooking, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I went to the library and looked through books on every single “ethnic” cuisine. I went to farmers’ markets and got acquainted with every vegetable.
I would go to restaurants and think: “I want to make this at home.” And I had a knack for doing this. Now if you want to know how to make pad thai, you could go to the Internet. But back then, you’d be like, “What the heck is in this?”
The dishes I made from Veganomicon seemed both simpler and more flavorful than vegan food I’ve made from other cookbooks or have eaten at restaurants. How would you describe your cooking versus that of other vegan chefs?
There are two extremes in vegan cooking. One is everything [incorporates] prepackaged, high-sodium fake meats. The other is everything is kinda highfalutin, using weird ingredients most people don’t have around, like a particular kind of sherry vinegar. Or they’re really complicated restaurant recipes, like in The Millennium Cookbook. I would say that our recipes are for the home cook, are really homemade, not semi-homemade, and it’s not food that started its life in a jar of chemicals. And it’s made with stuff you can find at most supermarkets.
What big things have you learned about vegan cooking while writing your three cookbooks?
You don’t need eggs. Before I wrote Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, I was always trying to work on egg replacers, and a lot of the time you don’t need them. The gluten from the flour works fine to hold things together.
Your recipes coax really intense flavor out of vegetables. What are some of the techniques you use to do this?
A lot of times vegans think they need to use 3 teaspoons of thyme and 4 tablespoons of cumin, and they way overflavor things. [Romero and I] are both into cooking vegetables so their flavor comes out. Roasting them goes a long way, as does grilling in a cast iron grill pan if you can’t use an outdoor grill. People worry because it gets really smoky, but that’s OK. Things like asparagus, zucchini, and eggplant are great grilled.
If somebody wants to go vegan, what would be your advice?
All the nutritional information is available online, like at the Vegetarian Resource Group. Or read the book Becoming Vegan. But I think the biggest thing is to read up on animal agriculture. If you become vegan for health reasons, it might not really stick. The only way it’ll stick is if you’re doing it for your own ethical reasons. Eventually your taste buds do catch up with your ethics. I didn’t think that I could live without blue cheese, and I’m doing fine. You don’t have to be perfect at first, but do what you can.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on opening a restaurant [in New York], which I hope to do by [this] summer. I’m doing a brunch book, and a cookie book. I try to donate my services to whatever I can, like Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. I did a big Thanksgiving for them for 300 people.
What’s the restaurant going to be like?
I have no idea—I’m not gonna jinx myself. I want it to be vegan, local cuisine that’s not incredibly expensive. I think a lot of people think vegan means it’s going to be $26 entrées or a Boca Burger, and I don’t want to do either of those. I want to do vegan home cooking. That’s pretty much it.
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe
Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.