Gary Loewenthal is the mastermind behind the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale, a grassroots movement that has taken the world by storm, last year raising $40,000 for animal rights causes. By the way, did I mention that we are doing one again this year and are seeking bakers? But I digress, because this blog entry is not about the bake sale. It’s about Gary and his unbelievably creative ways that he advocates for animals. (Did you catch him on our podcast last year? The man inspires…)
When I found out about Gary’s newest project — to create a movement of people veganizing recipes in the comments section of non-vegan food sites — I nearly choked on my cruelty-free cupcake. Rather than me writing about this brilliant form of armchair activism, I asked Gary if he would be so kind as to write a guest blog post about what the project is, and how we can all get involved. Maybe he was also high on sugar at the time, but somehow, he agreed.
Veganizing Recipies on Non-Vegan Food Sites — and Commenting on Them
by Gary Loewenthal
Most nights I cook dinner, and often I search the Net for ideas on what to make. The two main types of food sites I run into and use are recipe sites and food blogs.
It occurred to me recently that if I veganized dishes on non-vegan recipe sites or food blogs, and provided feedback – especially positive feedback – on the veganized versions of the recipes, I might accomplish some mild but easy and frequent outreach:
- The audience for my comments – from what I could tell – would be overwhelmingly non-vegan, and interested in food.
- My comments could briefly describe how I veganized the dish, and probably introduce people to products such as seitan and Daiya cheese.
- Cooks usually appreciate feedback on their dishes, so they would presumably have some interest in what I said.
I started doing this about three weeks ago. Although the project is still new, it may have a lot of potential, so I wanted to: a) report on how it’s going so far; b) see if anyone else is doing this; and c) encourage others to try it. It’s simple and non-confrontational.
Here are the basic guidelines I’m following, in an effort to maximize the outreach benefit from this endeavor. I have two caveats: 1) It’s still early, so this is subject to change; and 2) your results may vary.
I decided that rather than hop from site to site, I would choose a small number of places and stick around there for a while, so I could become part of the community. The first two sites I chose were Mixing Bowl and Taste of Home. Each of these are fairly large mainstream sites – and profoundly non-vegan. Nearly every main course recipe has animal products, and most have meat. The top search term is often “chicken.” Veganism is essentially off the radar.
I’ve veganized several recipes on these two sites and given positive reviews. In fact, one of the veganized recipes – a pot pie using seitan instead of chicken – was the best pot pie I’ve ever had, hands down (click on “reviews” to see my effusive praise).
Selecting Dishes to Cook and Review
For the most part, I just browse and select dishes that sound good and look doable. But truth be told, I’ve been slightly favoring recipes where I substitute seitan for chicken. My thinking is:
- The public is sort of familiar with tofu, but not with seitan.
- Seitan is probably my favorite “meaty” food to put in recipes.
- Since seitan is such a great alternative to chicken, the number of animals potentially saved if more people use this product is huge.
On the other hand, seitan – at least the ready-made kind – is not nearly available as tofu.
Usually I look for recipes that are popular or currently generating buzz, in hope that my review will be seen by the most number of people. Although there is something to be said for being the lone reviewer of a recipe, especially if the feedback is positive, if it was my recipe, I’d certainly take notice and appreciate the comments.
For now, I’m only giving feedback if I like the dish, because that seems like it has the most outreach potential. I wouldn’t totally rule out giving negative or so-so reviews, but on a decidedly non-vegan site, would viewers tend to attribute my disappointment to the fact that I wasn’t using “real” meat, cheese, or butter?
Citing Brand Names and Specific Varieties of Vegan Products
In my reviews, I say “Daiya Cheese,” “Tofutti Cream Cheese,” “Field Roast apple-sage sausage,” and so forth, rather than “vegan cheese,” “vegan cream cheese,” and “vegan sausage.” For better or worse, I think mentioning the brand name makes the products sound more legitimate to people for whom veganism is an alien concept. Affixing the brand name may also make the products seem more appealing and be easier to remember.
For clarity (and a little PR) I often add brief descriptions or shout-outs about vegan products I’m using (e.g., “seitan is a wheat gluten-based veggie meat that has a taste and texture very similar to chicken in recipes,” or “mashed banana is great in pancakes,” or “Veganaise tastes even better than egg-based mayonnaise”).
Avoiding Pro-Animal Product Terminology
In my comments, I say “veggie meat,” not “fake meat.” Often, what we call commonly call “meat” is an amalgam of flavors anyway, far removed from – excuse the directness – a hunk of raw flesh.
Likewise, I say “animal-derived deli slices,” not “real deli slices.” Tofurky is as real as the round, thin, packaged, flavor-enhanced slices of genetically modified turkeys who lived and died in hideously unnatural circumstances.
I avoid saying “regular milk” and say “cow’s milk” instead. The choice of words can be a subtle form of outreach in itself. I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that animal products are the standard and that non-animal alternatives are a deviation. I don’t want to use carnist language, as explained by Dr. Melanie Joy in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.
Preferring Large, Active Sites
Some non-vegan recipe sites and food blogs have huge followings. In addition, subscribers can choose to receive email notifications when there are new recipes, discussion posts, reviews, and so forth, which can create sizable built-in audiences of non-vegan food fans.
I’m currently adding allrecipes.com and epicurious.com to my current home base of non-vegan food sites.
I still plan to regularly visit smaller food blogs as well, where the conversation with the recipe-maker may be more personal.
My perception so far is that this outreach will be most effective and sustainable – at least for a while – if I limit my views to food, occasional exceptions notwithstanding.
However, opportunities to sneak in some activism do arise. On one site, a regular contributor asked very politely why anyone would eat “imitation” meat if they’re opposed to meat.
She also expressed reservations about soy. This provided an opportunity to talk about the ethical reasons for opposing animal-based meat, and to link, respectively, to sites that explained (and showed) the horrors of animal agriculture and the safety of soy for most people. I was helped significantly by a vegan Facebook friend. Our two voices synergized. The conversation was cordial and productive.
For dishes where I use seitan instead of chicken, where applicable I point out that I don’t have to cook the veganized dish for as long as the original because I don’t have to worry about undercooked meat.
I have a feeling that I’ll be able to judiciously work in references to www.meatvideo.com , the horrid practices of hen hatcheries, and other unsettling but mostly hidden aspects of animal products from time to time. However, my gut tells me that if I overdo it, I’ll lose my audience and/or provoke angry reactions that will impair my gentler food outreach.
Many recipe sites have discussion groups. Mixing Bowl has one called “What did you cook today?” What could be easier? Join the group and infuse the conversation with tales of daily, real-life awesome vegan creations – or instant dinners for that matter. These discussions tend to be friendly, and vegan participation may help mainstream the concept to the other members.
I’ve also started to periodically give some love to recipes on these non-vegan sites that appear to be intentionally vegetarian (in which case I veganize it) or vegan, on the theory that non-vegans will be more likely to try a vegan recipe if it has a threshold of good reviews.
Of course, you can submit your own recipes! I don’t have the talent to make recipes from scratch, but I admire and appreciate people who do. I’d love to see vegans’ wonderful creations gracing the non-vegan recipe site landscape, and I look forward to trying those dishes and helping their visibility through rave reviews.
Strength in numbers / Invitation
If one vegan can make a difference in a non-vegan site, then two or ten should be even better. I’d like to see what happens as the frequency and percentage of friendly, informative vegan posts in non-vegan food sites increases.
If you’re interested in this simple – almost relaxing – form of food outreach, feel free to join me – or of course feel free to go at it independently if you prefer. If you want, contact me through email (gary[at]compassion4animails.org) or via Facebook. Optionally let me know the non-vegan food sites at which you’ll be hanging out, and I’ll try to join you there if you want company. If this technique starts to get popular, we could start a Facebook page so we can easily communicate with each other and see what everyone is doing.
Gary Loewenthal is the co-founder of Compassion for Animals and founder of the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sake. He and his wife live in Falls Church, Virginia with their cat Mike (who made them go vegetarian in 2002) and bunny Fiona (who made them vegan in 2004).