Martha Theus and her daughter Kamaal have written three books with all kinds of neat vegetarian info. Martha also maintains the website 21st Century Vegetarians, which has some great recipes and interviews on it. This is a long interview, packed full of information, so I've broken it into two parts.
Q When did you become a vegetarian?
A April 9, 1985. And a quick story about that. Londale and I were dating at the time. And I don’t know what happened, but... he explained his philosophy and... Our reason for vegetarianism is basic spirituality. We just don't feel like it’s necessary to take higher forms of life in order to survive. And the less we cause harm and violence to this creation the lighter our karma is and it’s easier to make spiritual progress. So that’s it in a nutshell. Londale and I met in February and we happened to be at lunch on that day (I think it was a Saturday, not sure) and we’d been talking about it for about 6 weeks and I’d been asking normal questions. I’m from Detroit and we eat meat 3 times a day. If I didn’t have meat, I didn’t eat. It was that serious. I’d had pork chops for breakfast that morning; that afternoon, I became a vegetarian. That was 24 years ago and I’ve never looked back. It was like a lightening bolt; I finally got it. I understood the philosophy on a mental level. But something on that day triggered it in me. Of course, I didn’t know what to eat, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Q Were you already spiritual before you met Londale?
A Well, I was seeking. I was raised in the church and I was always seeking to deepen my spiritual path. In 1985, I was 22 years old; I’d just moved to LA a couple years before. I was young, but I still felt like something was missing in my life; there had to be more than this. I was searching for a deeper meaning to my spiritual walk. And this is not what I expected at all. But it’s crystal clear now. It’s crystal clear that this is going to be with me for the rest of my life.
Q How does it feel? Was it hard at first?
A I would never say it was hard. It was a little bit confusing. That morning, I’d had pork chops for breakfast. By the time I got home that evening - I was still living with my mom - I was vegetarian. Now, she’s from the South. So, my mom and my sister were like “You’re what?” There may be some vegetarians in the South, but at the time we didn’t know any. So, at the beginning, I didn’t know what to eat, so I started out simple - you know, veggie burgers; it seems like everybody starts out with those. And after a few days, I started taking some of my mom’s recipes - how she cooked; a lot of the thing sin the south. At the time - there was no Whole Foods Market, if you can even imagine, no Trader Joe’s - so I just went to all these vegetarian markets I could find and then that was it. And then I just tried to figure out what I could eat and started putting things together that sort of reminded me of what my mom used to make. So yeah, it was a little confusing, but I was so committed and so clear that this was my way of life now and there was no turning back.
Q What’s the most common misunderstanding you face about being vegetarian?
A There’s two. First: “Black folks aren’t vegetarians.” Actually, that’s probably number two. #1 is “Where do you get your protein?” and then they never met a black person that didn’t eat chicken. Oh, we totally get that. “You’re vegetarian? You don’t eat chicken?” And I say, “Ah, what vegetable does chicken come from?” They’ll say “I’ve never met a black person who doesn’t eat chicken.” And I’ll tell them, “You have now.”
We are lacto-vegetarians. No meat, no chicken, nothing. Occasionally we’ll have dairy products, which is where the lacto comes in. But most cheeses are actually made with animal rennet. We do not eat those cheeses. Only cheeses that are made from non-animal rennet, called microbial rennet. For the most part, I’d say we’re 98% vegan. I use dairy 1-3 times a year. So we pretty much are vegan.
A Rennet comes from the stomach lining of calves. It’s a process that makes the cheese coagulate; I think it makes it hard in some way. But when they scrape the lining - it’s some leftover from the whole process of slaughtering the cows so they don't let anything go to waste - part of that goes into the cheese; so, by definition an animal lost its life to produce this food for us. The simple way to look at it is: an animal or an embryo - was there a loss of life to get that food to our table? If there was, we don’t eat it.
Q What about unfertilized eggs?
A We just don't eat them because that’s like splitting hairs. How do you ever know for sure? Besides the entire egg industry is so cruel, and the dairy industry is as well. Vegans call dairy ‘liquid meat’ because basically if you look at the videos online about how dairy is produced it’s just... So we look at the source of our food and eat as low on the cruelty chain as we can possibly get. You’ll find that the lower on the food chain you eat, like vegetables, the lower on the cruelty chain you are as well. So thats basically how we plan our meals.
Q What are your feelings on fake meats?
A Yeah, my philosophy on that is if it’s not an animal and it tastes good, I’ll eat it. A lot of strict vegans will say it’s not good for you, but we’ve been doing this for going on 26 years and my kids (who are both grown) were born and raised on this stuff and we are all the picture of health. I’m not saying that the other approach is too strict or too severe the beautiful thing about vegetarianism is that there’s so many paths - just pick the one that works for you. We are an African American family, both our parents are from the south, and I am used to eating a certain way. I’m not going to go from pork chops in the morning to wheat grass and carrots in the afternoon. It’s just not going to happen. So we had to find a philosophy that was spiritually in accordance with what we believed and yet satisfied my taste buds and my way of eating. I’m used to really rich flavors and thick, rich, “meaty” foods. That’s what I was raised on. So I knew that for me to be able to maintain it for a lifetime, I had to find a happy medium. And this works for us. It’s just one approach, not the only approach.
Q It sounds like you put a lot of thought into everything you eat.
A You know, it’s funny. It’s such a way of life. It’s like you don't put that much thought into it when you take a shower in the morning or when you brush your teeth or maybe what products you use on your hair. You might have a certain type of hair so you need certain products for it. It’s basically the same thing. You’re not just going to go and get dishwashing soap and put it on your head. You care about the quality, and you care about looking a certain way. So it’s the same thing. I’m not going to put just anything in my body. So, #1 spiritually, I won’t eat certain things and #2 I do it; my family does it for health reasons. So just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily eat it. So I would say spirituality is probably 70% and then the other 30% is environmental and health reasons.
Q How do you maintain your 98% vegan diet when you’re out at restaurants?
A We don’t eat out a whole lot. Not necessarily because we don't enjoy it. But we like our food at home better. Over the last 20 years, I’ve really figured out a good system where the food’s just awesome. But when we do go out, we are so blessed to live in LA. There are vegan restaurants everywhere. Even if we do go to a non-vegan restaurant, we do ask that our dishes be prepared a certain way, but we’re not so fanatical that we’re like ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to go back and check the chef’s cooking.” If that’s the case, just don't go out. in LA, it’s just amazing.
Q Do you have any favorite vegetarian restaurants?
A Totally! Gosh, there’s a few. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Veggie Grill - there’s one in El Segundo where we live which is awesome. It’s completely vegan, the food is to die for, every time we go the line is out the door. You would not walk in and think it looks like a vegetarian restaurant.
There’s a little place called the Samosa House on Washington and Avery. It’s a completely vegetarian/vegan Indian restaurant. It’s the only Indian restaurant I’ve found where they’ll use the same flavors as a normal Indian restaurant, but they’ll put the mock meat into the dishes. Indians don’t typically do that. Like they’ll put veggie chicken into their curry. So I that’s one I like.
Then there’s the Vegan Joint in Culver City. All vegan again.
Follow Your Heart out in Canoga Park. That’s really good. LA’s just awesome for finding this kind of food - it’s everywhere. Oh! And then there’s one in Inglewood called Stuff I Eat; that’s a vegetarian spot we enjoy as well.
Q Well, I’m excited to try some of your recipes. What’s your favorite meal? I mean ambrosia, taste bug tingling awesomeness.
A There are so many... Oh gosh, you know that’s a question I have never been asked. And I don't know if I can answer it. I think one of my favorites is something that I can’t cook. Like you know how sometimes you are just obsessed with other people’s cooking. Like my family may pick a meal that I prepare. But it would probably be something that I don't get every day. Like anything I want I can pretty much make except Indian food that’s the one thing I can’t get. I’ve tried and I gave up. That’s one of my favorite cuisines that I never attempt.
Q What’s your favorite dish to prepare?
A Probably one of my favorites is a product called Gardein. It comes in different flavors and textures. You can get it different places. You can get it at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s has a version of it. Actually Ellen Degeneres has had her vegan chef on a few times and he’s done a few things with Gardein. One of my favorite recipes for it with a vegan chicken breast. The texture is unbelievable. But of course I do it southern style - every now and then - so I dip it in batter and I deep fry it. So it ends up looking like a big, fried chicken patty. A lot of people can’t even tell the difference and sometimes I’ll dip it in a sweet barbecue or a teriyaki sauce and I’ll put it in the broiler to kind of make it a little crispy and caramelized. Oh my gosh. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
You've gotta do it every now and then.
Q If you were going to recommend a recipe for new vegetarians or new vegans, what would that be?
A Something that’s super simple - and this is something that’s on my website (I’ll go ahead and mention, if someone wants to go to the website, there’s probably 8 or 10 free recipes there). The recipe is called Penne Pasta with Italian Tofurky Sausage. It’s so easy to make. Basically you can get the ingredients anywhere - TJs, Whole Foods, wherever. It’s penne pasta, and I took the Tofurky Sweet Italian Sausages. I just slice those up - they come in packages of four - saute them with some garlic and some Italian seasoning and then I add sun-dried tomato brushetta and then I just mix it in the with the pasta. It takes, at the most, twenty minutes to make. It’s really good, because I’ll put portobello mushrooms in it, fresh garlic, and all that. It’s really good and it’s so simple. Even the heartiest meat eaters love it; you have this big bowl of pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and everything and these meaty sausages that are completely vegan. So that’s a winner. Start with that.