Q When did you become a vegetarian?
A I became a vegetarian the week I turned thirteen, but technically I gave up poultry for the year before that. Not intentionally. I just looked back and noticed 'hey, I haven't been eating poultry for the last year.' Every meal at home I was responsible for helping with and many I was just responsible for, so it wasn't hard to be in control of what I ate. When I decided I was going to be vegetarian - when I was thirteen - I told my mother and she laughed at me and told me I wouldn't last a week. She made me go to the library and do research on it and had me go to the doctor to make sure I would get enough nutrients for the time I stayed with it.
Q Do you think she told you that so that you would stick with it.
A No. But it's one of those things... if you tell a thirteen year old they can't do something, you should expect they're going to do their best to prove you wrong.
She also told me that if I was going to do it, that I had to be responsible for telling her what I was going to need and what she needed to get for me [at the grocery store]. She wasn't going to figure it out for me.
Q When you cooked for other people after that, were you cooking meat.
A I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure that I was. Then, over time, I was finally like, 'No. I can't do this anymore.' So I stopped.
Q Why did you become a vegetarian?
A I would say that first I have to talk about how it even became something acceptable. In upstate New York, where I lived then, it was pretty much unheard of for people to be vegetarian. When I was eleven, my cousin came to visit us from Arizona and he was a vegetarian. And that was when the seed was planted, I think; the inception, you might say.
Also, I had a friend in Girl Scouts with me [from age 11-15] and she was a vegetarian and her food always looked amazing. It was more colorful than mine and it smelled better and I always wanted what was on her plate and so that was the second influence, I think.
And the third, well... In science class in 8th grade - Earth Sciences - we had someone come and speak to us - a guest speaker - who had worked in the Amazon and she talked to us about how they were cutting down the rainforests to raise cattle. And the bigger ideas were about climate change and how that was affecting global warming, but that really struck me. I mean, animal cruelty, yes, but that we were cutting down trees and hurting the environment so that we could get more meat...
A lot of people become vegetarian because they hate the taste of meat, but - you know - I liked my steak rare, I loved pork chops, I'd eaten alligator. I liked the taste of meat. I just didn't want it when I thought about what that meant.
Q Have you had meat since you became a vegetarian?
A Definitely, yes. Not intentionally.
There were a lot of traditional meals in my household that included meat. Like my mother would always put bacon in her beans and I felt like it would be inconsiderate if I didn't eat it. And she started cutting the bacon into bigger pieces so I could find them and pick them out, but after a while, I just couldn't do that anymore either.
Also, I have always been a little anemic, so my doctor told me I could either take iron supplements or eat meat. When I was younger, I thought iron supplements were nasty - they tasted awful - so for five years I would eat tuna from a can once a month [to keep my iron levels up]. Because, at that point, canned tuna didn't seem like an animal to me anymore. It was just processed stuff in a can. But then there reached a point where that wasn't cool anymore, so I stopped. I took the iron supplements for a while, but I hate taking iron supplements. Then I found out that beets could actually give me all the iron I needed. I didn't like those before, but I started learning to like them. Now I think they're great.
Q What other veggies can people eat to get iron?
A Spinach. Asparagus. Broccoli. Green vegetables in general. Not so much beans, but leafy greens. I think that's something that people don't totally know. They're always asking, "Where are you going to get your iron or your protein?" And I say, "Those things are in everything!"
Q What is the most common misunderstanding/misconception you face about being a vegetarian?
A I think it's going to vary based on the vegetarian. And that's part of the problem. There are a lot of different kinds of vegetarians and there are a lot of people who are really defensive about their meat-eating. They think I'm going to be mad at them for eating meat and I'm not. I think, maybe, they aren't totally aware of what they're putting in their bodies, but some people just don't want to know or want to think about it and I can respect that.
Also, like I said before, people wondering where I get my protein from. The amount of protein we need is actually a lot less than the average American eats.
Q Well, the amount of everything we need is less than the average American eats...
A Yeah. Oh, and something else, there's obviously other reasons to be a vegetarian than "I don't like meat." Some people are totally torn about animal cruelty and climate change. And there's also this lack of understanding about eating false meats. They say, "Why do you eat fake meat if you don't like real meat?" But, like I said before, I liked meat. Except for poultry, which I noticed I just wasn't eating. I think poultry is boring.
But veggie burgers and BOCA burgers... those didn't exist when I first became a vegetarian. Not the way they exist now. At that time, the closest you got to a veggie burger was a portobello mushroom on a bun. I remember the first time I had a BOCA burger, I had to ask the waiter if he'd brought me a hamburger. Then I asked the manager and the chef. I told them, "I'm sorry, I haven't had this before. I haven't had meat in a decade. But are you sure?"
Q What is your strategy for maintaining a vegetarian diet.
A I enjoy cooking. And that's, I think, the best thing a vegetarian can do - enjoy cooking.
You're never going to be totally satisfied eating out. When I go to a restaurant and I'm ordering soup, I ask what stock they use - usually waiters don't know and will have to check. And spanish rice. Neither of those are usually vegetarian in a restaurant. I'm usually overwhelmed when I go to a restaurant where I can eat everything, because I'm used to having it narrowed down for me to about three to five items.
It's funny. When I look at a menu, I look at it like a list of ingredients, not a list of items. You might look at a menu and see a steak dinner with a side of spinach, but there's no spinach anywhere else on the menu. So I'll ask for spinach. Most of the time, they'll work with you.
You can't find anything to eat a seafood restaurant or a barbecue restaurant or most cajun places. Steakhouses, on the other hand, are actually great for vegetarians as long as you don't mind sitting around a bunch of people eating huge mounds of meat. Steakhouses have awesome vegetable side dishes that most meat-eaters overlook because they're so focused on their meat. You have to make sure they aren't cooked with pork or something, but you can usually find a lot of variety.
I actually worked at a steakhouse in high school. And I got really good at recommending steaks. I would listen to other people enough that I could really discuss it without sounding canned. I knew I would make more money at a steakhouse than I would at a diner or something and that was more important at the time.
Q You didn't find selling meat went against your ideals of being a vegetarian?
A Of course I did. But I was also sixteen and I had to get out of the house. Working there made me more than I would have made babysitting. And there was a smoking section where I served businessmen while they drank and smoked - and there I was this cute little sixteen year old. I made some pretty great tips.
Q What's your favorite dish to prepare?
A That's hard. I love food. I guess, usually anything I've liked, recreated, and made better. I love making vegetarian mexican food. I use lots of fresh vegetables in mine. And I love making fresh guacamole.
Basically, I like to take a bunch of vegetables - by the way, this is not the only way to eat - and then steam them or saute or grill or fry or blanch, put them in pasta, on pizza, in a burrito... you can make them into anything. Asian, mexican, italian. I'm really good with spices. Also, you can never go wrong with garlic.
Q What is your favorite meal you've had?
A I don't think I enjoy eating as much if I haven't prepared it. And watching people eat what I've cooked. Usually, if I have something prepared for me that I really enjoy, I like to try to make it myself and make it better.
One thing. I generally don't like couscous. However, when I was at a fancy awards dinner - actually that entire meal was amazing - there was this couscous with this green sauce all wrapped in a leek. and the sauce and the flavors were amazing. I still really don't like couscous, but that was an exception. I also had mac and cheese with black truffles. I really need to start incorporating truffle oil into my cooking. That's the really nice thing about upscale dining; I love to tell them, "I'm vegetarian, I like these things, make me something fantastic." I think chefs like that because they don't like to cook the same things all the time. They like to stretch. They like to try new things.
Q What is your favorite recipe?
A My tortilla soup. The apple-beet soup I make. Perry's apple-beet salad. All of Perry's ethiopian food.
Q What's your favorite cookbook?
A I have a few that I reference. I usually read a bunch of different recipes for the same dish and then make up my own based on those. I love cookbooks with pictures, because the colors and the images inspire me to try new things. Epicurious is great. And I don't exclude recipes with meat in them because you can always substitute. A couple of the cookbooks I like are: Tamales 101, by Alice Guadalupe Tapp; and Vegetarian, by Fiona Biggs.
Q What's your favorite restaurant?
A It's hard to say I love a particular restaurant, because anything I like at one I can just learn to make at home and then I won't go back. I like to try new places.
Q Any particular genre?
A Italian and thai and indian, most often. I like to have a variety when I eat and it's easier to get that when you go out rather than when you cook at home.
Q So you love to cook. Any ingredients you love or hate?
A I don't like tofu at all. I don't eat it. It's a consistency thing. And rice. I think rice is boring, except spanish rice when I make it at home. I could eat broccoli three meals a day, though. I love mini trees. I would eat those mini green trees every day.
Q What culinary tools do you use most often?
A Wooden spoon. Flat, heat-resistant spatula. Large saute pan.
Q Do you have any advice or thoughts you'd share with someone who was considering becoming a vegetarian?
A I actually just did this. I had a friend who was looking to become a vegetarian and she didn't know where to start and she said she couldn't just do it cold turkey [laugh]. I told her: