best of 2018

Time for the novel that has become our annual best-of blog. Get yr tissues ready.

For best-of round ups from previous years, see

2017
2016
2015
2015 (more!)
2014
2013
2012

(Thanks for Ericka for taking our staff photo and setting up the selfie stand that produced all these gems at our holiday party!)

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A few highlights from me (Lagusta):

  • Um, I wrote a book. Sweet X Salty: The Art of Vegan Confections from Lagusta’s Luscious, forthcoming from Da Capo Press in Fall 2019.
  • We started ordering period supplies by the case because we employ so many bleeding humans. HIGHLIGHT!
  • Our chocolate supplier, Republica del Cacao, whisked me off to Ecuador and I spent a life-changing week learning about where these ingredients (chocolate, sugar) we interact with every day are born. (See the “Ecuador” story highlights on our Instagram for about a million stories from Ecuador)
  • My co-owner dropped out of the parts of the businesses we ran together (Commissary! plus the financial aspects of the other businesses)…and I assembled a team of crackerjack women and one man who picked me up off the floor and I got the finances under control and learned to do the things I didn’t know how to do and it’s all going great. Maresa’s still running Confectionery! with me, and she continues to be the best best friend and business partner I could have ever hoped for.
  • After three years of hard work, we launched a glorious new website.
  • We made a gigantic Tahini Meltaway for our 7thshop birthday party.
  • I got to photograph Chloe’s “heathen” tattoo next to Heathen Toffee.
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  • We made an unbelievable PB&J Meltaway that looked like a big slab of raw meat but it’s too wonky to make an everyday piece, which is a true tragedy.
  • Rachel and G taking over #rammissary (my bi-weekly ramen night, the only time I get to cook ever, sigh) when I was too busy with Christmas craziness, and knocking it out of the park was a treat to see.
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  • I continue to learn and grow by interacting with the 35 amazing humans who work at LL Industries every day. They make coming to work exciting and fun. I love watching them learn latte art and marbling chocolates, customer service and doing inventory. All I want for 2019 is more of the same.

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COMMISSARY

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MAX!

Walking towards Commissary before dawn, the ice crunching beneath my feet, I watch as a lone blue heron lands on the historic brick chimney jutting out of the roof of a neighboring building.

We enjoy observing each other momentarily, peacefully, until I punch in my code to head inside.

But unlike every other job I’ve had, heading into work feels similarly to arriving at a close friend’s home. I carry that sense of peace from the heron through the door and into the kitchen.

Work is where I get to see the people I love every day. It’s where I get to pursue something I honestly enjoy, enough where I get home at the end of the day and the first thing I do is continue preparing food. It’s where the famous Potato Stud lived with her dinosaur friend for months until she started sprouting little eyes and had to be put to rest (RIP). Creativity is honored in this space.

It’s where I feel at home with myself, a trans man, fully accepted and gendered correctly by the surrounding community. It’s a safe space for people of all walks of life, and if you don’t feel safe then there’s an open and caring conversation waiting to be had about how things could be improved.

Commissary has been more than a job for me in 2018, and the family I’ve gained just by walking through the front door is a priceless reward for coming to work every day. Together, we get things done, we grow, we succeed, we create a space people want to go. It makes every day worth it.

And yes, curious custies, everything here is vegan.

 

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HALEIGH!
I had just gotten back from spending my summer in Ireland WWOOFing. I was getting ready to start my final year of undergrad and I had burned through my money on many a nights spent at the local pub. A few days after my return, eager to replenish my rent money,  my brother’s girlfriend and I were chatting about Commissary! and she asked if I thought I would ever want to work there. I thought about it for a moment, and then responded telling her that I’m sure it would  be a cool place to work, but at the end of the day work is work.  I enjoyed the place too much, as a sanctuary for macrons and zines, to risk ruining the little haven I thought of it. Two days later, I scrolled through Instagram and saw a post about Shave Ice and Lagusta’s search for a person to work Sundays at the market. It was perfect! I could still come to Comm in my free time, but it was something I could do during the semester. Well, Shave Ice ended and I quickly picked up other shifts  within the cafe. A few months later and Commissary was never ruined for me as a patron. If anything, it is even better: I no longer have to tell the cashier my name & I even get a complimentary chocolate on occasion! I look forward to the months to come, both as an employee and custie.

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RACHEL!

2018, wow, this is the third one of these I’ve written! I can’t imagine not spending time in that little turquoise room on Church St. We’ve almost had 100% turnover since last year (so glad you’re still here, Jasper!) and somehow Commissary manages to retain the same heart.  (a la Doctor Who, changing bodies over and over again but still being the same in their core.) I’m not behind the counter so much any more, now I look at numbers on a screen more than I look at 8g (is that the right amount?) of miso soup in a bowl.  I am so grateful to Lagusta for being open to my job evolving into something new, for both of us really! And I’m grateful to still be able to put on my apron and my velvet work clogs for special food occasions (yaki udon! GRRamen!) Looking forward to 2019!

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CONFECTIONERY

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JENNA!

This is my first year working at Confectionery (well, I think prior to being officially hired I was in the shop often enough to count as an unpaid employee, and speaking of which, I’d like to apologize to whomever was working on the day that I brought my bike INSIDE the shop because I forgot my bike lock — if a customer attempted that nonsense while I was working now, I would of course smile and politely allow them to do so, but inside I would be SO MAD about having to sweep up the bike grit afterwards! BUT I DIGRESS). Aside from my first weekend on the job being Easter weekend, which was so bonkers that I think it might actually qualify as hazing, working here has been such a lovely way to spend my off days. The staff are so warm and generous, which I have learned through text and email and notes in the journal because we never actually work with one another, and I’m grateful to everyone — including the folks up in New Paltz who let me crash the chocolate shop for a training day back in April! — who has helped me ease into this role. I’ve really come to love our little shoebox and all of its weird quirks and wacky customers. Even though I’ve lived in the city for the better part of the last ten years and I was born and raised in New York State, nothing has made me feel more like a New Yorker than being a shopgirl at an artisanal vegan bakery in the East Village. I’ve gotten nearly-full punch cards for nearby coffee shops as a tip, I’ve met a million adorable dogs wearing sweaters more fashionable than anything in my own closet, I’ve perfected the art of tucking every single strand of my hair up under a baseball cap, and I’ve learned more about tempering chocolate and caramelizing sugar than I ever could have hoped for. It’s been a dream.

 

VERONICA!

Just a few short & sweet words for the year, which sped by at an electric pace. A few of my highlights include:

You, dear customers. Grateful that this (tiny) space fosters real live human connections. Each year that we’ve been open, we get busier and busier and I’m ever grateful to all of our incredibly kind, sweet, and cool customers I get to interact with on a daily basis.

The delicious return of the hazelnut sugarplum bars/bonbons – if you stopped into the shop this holiday season chances are you heard me going on and on about these gems. People, I just can’t help myself. I wait all year for these flavorbabes.

Garden mint macarons garnished with edible flowers from Maresa’s garden & LL flower tablets with edible flowers grown outside the upstate choco shop. I mean, are you kidding me? I can’t grow a damn thing but I love love love flowers. I’m awed every time this form of poetry comes back in season. A true delight.

Butter – did you know in the wintertime we often have Maresa’s big blocks of butter available? I’ve been vegan half my life but still vividly remember and miss the sweet creamy taste of the dairy version. No more. This is it! Try it! I like it slathered on good semolina bread or — what I eat often when I get home from work– melted in a saucepan with some minced garlic, hot pepper flakes and good pasta.

Rainbow cookies! No words needed.

Licorice. Dude, I’m drooling typing this. It’s nothing like the weird stuff my mother used to get from the health food store which made me think I hated licorice. Maybe if we all annoy Lagusta enough she’ll decide to make it year-round and then I can stuff it in my face whenever I want a salty sweet bite.

AMANDA!

Although I began at confectionery mid year, it feels like ive been there longer. The lead up to this magical place was what made it so amazing. Spring of 18, I was on a splurge of volunteering for every city harvest, vegan festival I can get my hands on- between the 8,000 gems I had a pleasure serving in nyc, to the smaller scale at asbury park. One particular morning of 96 degrees weather and being the only volunteer to show up I helped many vendors set up at the asbury event- there I met Maresa! I know, so meant to be. Now that I look back, that day changed so much in my life. I reached out to her via dm when she posted that confectionery was looking for a newbie to join the team. And here I am. That tiny space has taught me so much. Like, how can I manage my space, the customers and the product with min room? Can I do it alone? Confidence, self discipline, communication, and believing in yourself is the real job at confectionery. And the sweets, my goodness. They are magical, they are the future and they are made by two amazing women with much history behind them. Plus they are free of harm. The long drives to the shop had me listening to podcast that helped my headspace. And superiority burgerrrrrrr ugh! The tiny book store around the block that I can’t help but run to on my 30 min break. The music and artist I was never exposed to on our playlist. The nightly journal I look forward to communicating with such amazing people that I unfortunately, never get to see also has some bittersweetness to it. But mostly the idea of being trusted to run their beautiful shop. The discovery of Confectionery and every ongoing delicious treat will continue to be my highlight for many times to come-

LAGUSTA’S LUSCIOUS HQ

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KARA!

the winter holidays only come once a year and I am so thankful that the shop has a need for people who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to spend time in a little brick building at the bottom of town where the bustle is always going and the air inside always smells like chocolate plus a little extra something sweet and once you leave it you still smell the chocolate on you, days later you are still rubbing chocolate out of black clothing to wear back to work…I spent most of my time doing dishes (gladly so!) and in doing so I saw the degree of production volume the shop handles so efficiently, making and packing and selling little delights to be enjoyed by people literally around the world—even though I only spent 3 hours a week in the shop I still feel like I am a part of things. there were holiday parties that felt like the family holidays we all deserve, I met good people making good things with care and precision who I am so proud to know, and I felt happy in the purest of ways for the simple fact that I was involved in even the smallest capacity for the 2018 holiday season.

ERIKA!

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“you grow through what you go through” was my mantra of 2018. inside and outside of the LL universe, i found myself expanding further and faster than i could keep up with. mental illness can be tough in that way, always feeling like you’re trying to catch up. but in our little chocolate world, there’s always a kind soul within a few steps to reassure you that you’re doing just fine.

my coworkers curate an endless stream of support, love, and so so so much knowledge. since i’ve moved into the world of recipe-making this year, i’ve had to utilize that knowledge approximately every 4 minutes to learn the ropes (and there are sooo many ropes twisted and intertwined throughout our little world: some tiny, some obscure, some hidden, some not available at the moment for your recipe that’s currently on the stove.) every LL employee possesses a vast knowledge of the tiniest details that keep us moving forward, and they’re always happy to pass it along to those still in training.

however, since we’re all forever still in training as humans on this chaotic planet, we often exchange questions beyond the scope of our work: what kind of eco-friendly cat litter do you use? what show should i watch next? if you were a donut, what kind would you be, and why? growing alongside such an amazing group of people has shaped me into an ever-changing mosaic, displaying bits of the knowledge, expertise, and love that i have been lucky enough to absorb.

you grow through what you go through, but it matters too what you grow around, and i feel infinitely lucky to have roots at LL.

KATE!

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i know enough to know that joy and pride are fleeting, shifting forces, but i have to look to those terms when i think about the year in my job and the people i work with and the things we all make together in a little new paltz sugarbox. i love the parts of the year where we can’t make things fast enough, caramels get cooked then enrobed and then bought and i never ever hear from them, and then the next day we make the same ones all over again. i love working with people who care about the things they’re making as much as they care about each other. (both: a lot.) in 2018 i learned new things and flexed some old muscles and my only hope is that i keep on doing that: building it all up, taking a step back to give it a look.

LYDIA!

As a small farmer, I so appreciate the willingness of LL’s to hire seasonal staff. It has been fun to learn the behind-the-scenes efforts of another small food business. It is great to work in a place that also cares about food, laborers, and community development through economy!

SAM!

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here at LL, I constantly get the feeling that I’m being initiated into a secret magical order.

traditionally, initiation rites were passed down in an invisible line. knowledge traveled from person to person, hands to heart. legacies built through community and sharing.

in the world of the chocolatier, I see no difference.

as goes any fool’s journey -I dove in without questions, just a feeling and a knowing that I wanted to trust it.

here, a whole new craft. no textbooks no studying.

here, sweet skills are passed on like a torch.

here, where we learn from each precious person another way to work in this weirdo world of sugar.

and yeah at first you burn yourself with 261 degree caramel, but then you get the hang of it.

It is empowering to be apart of this wizarding world, to know that my time has been alchemized into gold with the support of the LL community.

I am grateful and honored everyday by the magic revealed.

MIKE!

My home was once on the other coast yet I always managed a visit to the slice of heaven Lagusta created. Then the wind carried me East and I landed back in the area. That same wind lifted me to LL and now I am (primarily) the Shipperman. I marvel at the collective spirit of those around me, such an amazing gathering of people creating the highest grade sweets imaginable. Everyone works at such a mind-bending pace, and everything always gets done and there is always laughter and smiles and positivity.  I feel blessed to be included in this wonderful adventure of integrity and solidarity. Especially when there are scraps (Maresa, I see you too). The energy is infectious, the discourse is delightful, and the chocolates, well, you know about them already.

JENN!

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2018: Local chocolatier becomes manager, is surprisingly overwhelmed at how crazy hard it is! Learning the business side of the business has been eye-opening. I have so much respect for everyone that crosses over from maker to manager. While it’s a bit sad to lose time at Selmi, it’s worth it to be able to spend time passing on my skills I’ve learned here. It’s been a true honor mentally tracking everyone’s growth as a worker and a person since I came here in good ol’ 2016 (remember that dumpster fire of a year?). I feel like a real proud mama bird, and nothing has ever been more fulfilling. Huge thanks to Lagusta, Kate, and Alexis for believing in me and teaching me their ways. I truly love every single human at this shop so much, it makes all of the stress induced eczema well worth it. Cheers to 2019, hope it brings even more love and growth.

ERICKA!

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2018 was really wonderful and great and also the opposite in some ways. I moved to New Paltz in August with my partner and cried a lot and was stressed until I got a job at the chocolate shop and never cried again, ever.

Just kidding but like barely because at my ten shift check in when Kate and Lagusta asked me how I was feeling I was being 100% serious when I said I genuinely am not used to being treated so kindly and feeling so comfortable talking to my coworkers (read: friends). Ow it hurts. I love y’all. These businesses are actually magical little vortexes filled with the best energy. I’m not sure how so many good people ended up in one place but I’m so grateful and happy to witness it. I hope in 2019 I’ll finally be allowed to touch the caramel. Thanks for filling the second half of my 2018 with so much knowledge, fun, and obscure band names. I appreciate you all more than you know//more than I can express xo.

HOLLY!

The thing I love most about working at Lagusta’s Luscious is the community of amazing, supportive, hilarious, and compassionate individuals that work beside me. I feel so blessed to know all of them and I’d like these wonderful people to know that they have made the most incredible impact on my life. Their goodness is infinitely inspiring and empowering.

Some of my favorite moments include:

Our endless conversations about our pets and all of the ridiculous things they put us through.

Erika accidentally pouring a Cambro of whip into her shoes and being a total champ about it.

Finally acquiring ceramics from Alexis and picking her brain about everything from recipes to business management.

Ramen and city trekking with Maresa, Sam, and Kim.

Realizing that Jenn is the only person who loves Christmas music as much as me.

But really, every moment is fantastic ❤

KAREN!

As a recent Manhattan->Hudson Valley transplant I joined the seasonal crew at LL headquarters this fall.  Having been a devoted customer of Confectionary! for the past couple of years I thought it would be an easy job to help support a product I love so much.  Veronica’s smiling cheer and loveliness at the shop also made me think – if such a nice, warm person can thrive at a retail job (unheard of) then this place must be run right.  I’ve worked in elementary schools, on construction sites, in theaters, and in a prison.  If the principal, the foreman, the director or the wardens are nice people, it shows all the way to the very bottom of the crew.  This is what has been confirmed in my last two months of this job.  There is not a prickly person in the bunch, only the hardest working, kindest folx I have ever had the pleasure to work with, assembled and inspired, if not occasionally pushed in the right direction, by a very kind lead.  I never thought that fudge scraps would be my second favorite to ANYTHING, but my favorite thing about this job has been the people.  And the fudge scraps.  But definitely the people first… the fudge scraps are a close second.

BAKER SAM!
I’d been coveting a secret (not-so-secret, if you ask anyone who knows me) dream of working here for a long time, when I decided to just take the plunge and offer up services– and by “services” I meant “will to learn”, because I’m as inexperienced as they come, having never worked in kitchens or food service or the baking world, which is where I am now. The first highlight of my year was being warmly invited to dive right in. Mostly I work independently during late night hours, learning to ID all of the many variables, developing rhythms, pushing process times and generally trying to understand my tasks in a way that eventually becomes muscle memory. But first there were mornings training with G, which was also a highlight. G has a grace in working with dough that was a pleasure to witness and that instantly set forth a clear picture of what to aim for. G kept a warm and fast-paced work environment, always maintained a great soundtrack (thanks for helping me rediscover the beauty of Wham’s “Last Christmas”!), was never afraid to step in and show me what I was messing up, and made sure that I had a baked good in hand for my morning walk home (you have to taste your product to understand it!) Other highlights: learning that dough can heal itself in wild ways (also learning that I’m about as sappy-spiritual about baking as anyone would have guessed); discovering what 8 hours on your feet doing physical labor feels like (the first two weeks, phew! A new appreciation established for the toughness of everyone who works here); entering into the lovely and complete communication processes that keep this place operating smoothly. In this space, this place, it seems it’s second nature to be highly considerate, generous, kind. Ultimately, it boils down to why I was interested in working here in the first place: I hope that something will rub off on me, that maybe I’ll be shaped by the company I keep. In doing hard work in an environment that has integrity built into its core, maybe I’ll hammer myself into some finer metal. The other day I opened up my wallet and found an index card with some scrawl written on it, no date, but it was over a year ago for certain. “I want to be a baker / the perfect balance / scientific equation / fermentation / who can I apprentice with?” I believe in working to learn, and I’m glad to be in a community that creates that opportunity. When I first sat down with Lagusta, I told her I might surprise myself with what I DIDN’T know, and she quickly reminded me that the opposite might also be true. A place with heart for people with a lot to learn. What a dream. Maybe next year this time I’ll have baker’s muscles.

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Saying no (when you’ve decided to say yes.).

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It’s a slow time of year.

The shop is slow because the weather has been unbearable, and mail order is slow because there’s no chocolate-holiday happening right now.

It’s been wonderful.

Without the pressure of a looming holiday I have time to work on long-term projects, train new employees more thoroughly, have days off, make food that takes more than five minutes to prepare. Heaven.

Easter is gently winking at us, still a bit down the line, with the promise of busy hands making endless bunnies and peanut butter eggs and cream eggs and all that, which means bills being paid without even looking at the available balance and setting aside a little extra to pay off debt and maybe a nice treat night out in NYC, too. It’s a balanced life, in its unbalanced way, this one. Weeks of nonstop work followed by breathing. I’ve come to crave each cycle: the crush and the release.

We’re just going for it these days, saying yes to most things.

I used to think a lot about saying no.

I created this job to have a nice life, not to make a ton of money. I’m sure the former would lead somewhat to the latter, in some ways, but I don’t trust myself to find out. Better not to tempt it. I have a nice life now.

I can pay my student loans, my car’s paid off, my cats have food, so do Jacob & I, our mortgages for the house & the building the shop’s in will get paid down in time. Got a little credit card debt & some loans from some business expansion, but I’m paying it off fast.

If iI were the only person working at the shop, I’d keep things just where they’re at with the business forever. The capitalist decree to endlessly expand is sickening to me, seeing as It’s precisely what’s got our planet and so many of its inhabitants into such a pickle right now: ecosystem counting down the seconds until collapse, so many of us trapped by debt or obligation into unfulfilling jobs, leaning on developing nations to provide us with cheap commodities and services with built-in hidden costs that would break your heart fifty times over if we could see the realities of their production.

Endgame capitalism, nihilism writ large: not my thing.

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Because I started the business in order to live a good life, a life in line with these beliefs, it’s been tricky, at times, to decide when to say no to things. Making money is a game, and I can’t deny I like playing it. It’s about being smart: minimizing risk, working efficiently. Efficiency gives me deep pleasure. Finding ways to coax a profit out of a raw material that costs more than gold and takes endless hours of labor to create is a riddle I always enjoy solving. It’s hard not to jump at every opportunity we can to do so.

But, so far at least (who knows, maybe we’ll massively and spectacularly sell out tomorrow) my little anarchist ecofeminist ethics keep me in check most of the time. I’m thankful I have this little set of beliefs to fall back on, because otherwise we could have gone down all kinds of weird roads, and right now I like the road we’re on a lot.

But! Ah, there’s a but. But it’s slow. It’s March, it’s the month after our busiest month of the year, of course it’s slow. I’m fine with it, but what about the other eight people who work at Lagusta’s Luscious? They don’t have the insulating layer of February-cash to fall back on during these quiet periods. We expanded their hours a bit during Valentine’s, but not a ton, and when you’re in your twenties, as most of them are, you always always always need cash. Student loans are a killer, rents in New Paltz are ridiculous, always something. Pretty much everyone at the shop would be happy with more hours right now.

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And in the middle of all this, I went and hired two more people.

There were rumblings, yup.

They were right to rumble. It seemed unfair, because it was.

I tried to explain it: we can’t do what we did last December, which was to literally beg any friends walking by the shop to wash dishes or wrap boxes for us. Holidays will keep getting bigger whether or not we want them to (with luck), and we have to be more prepared. Pre-Valentine’s we were in this spot where literally no one could take a day off because no one could cover for them because everyone was already working every day. It was insane. So in order to be more prepared for the wild times that take over three times a year (December holidays, Valentine’s, Easter), we need to train new people now. What that means is more people working less hours—for now. And in the future: more people working more hours.

It sucks for them right now. But I don’t want to hire seasonal workers and then lay people off, that seems patently stupid for a business that needs such highly trained employees. We started the exhausting process of finding someone, and a weird thing happened: we interviewed some great candidates, and couldn’t decide between two people. So we hired both of them. And in the end everyone’s been super warm and welcoming to them and understanding of what I needed to do, which warms my heart and makes me love my team even more.

I feel so loyal to them, my little crew. I’m a loner. Solitude’s my thing. To have found people with which you can do meaningful work feels like winning some weird lottery you never wanted to enter. Strange, and really really nice.

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As I said, if it were up to me, I’d stop this ride. I’d keep doing what we’re doing, but no more. I’d say no to the huge wholesale orders that come in around the holidays when we’re already so pinched. I’d decline orders even from the celebrities! I’d go home at 7 when we close the shop every night and put up my feet and pet my cats and…well, it’s such a foreign concept to me I don’t even know what I’d do with my feet up. I’d regret it, probably, regret not playing the game a little more, seeing what I could do if I pushed myself more.

So, I’m thankful that I decided not to say no. Last fall we made a decision to expand the business a bit, and it feels good to have made the choice. One big reason I wanted to go for it, to take opportunities we’ve always seen on the horizon, was because of the people working at the shop.

We pay everyone hourly, and it just seems stupid. We’re selling a luxury product, and we talk such a big talk about paying the farmers who grow our cacao and whatnot a fair wage, and I’d like to be paying salaries to the women (and sweet Brendan!) who actually make our confections. We pay much better than most food businesses, particularly in this town, but why can’t we afford to have salaried workers, who have paid vacations and health care?

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And this is how the goalposts shift on you: you just want a business that fulfills you, and you work ten years to get it. Then you want a business that’s sustainable for the people who work with you, too. And that will be the focus of our next five or ten years: expanding the business enough to allow for salaried employees.

With this in mind, I’m in the mode of saying yes to things. It’s not hard: it’s nice to say yes. I like the big jobs, even when they’re tiring.

With all this swirling around me, I opened my email this afternoon to this:

Hi! I hope this email finds you well. I work for Free People, a women’s retailer based in Philadelphia and part of Urbn Inc. We had a lot of success selling vegan sweets on our website over the past Valentine’s day and Christmas holidays and I was looking for a way to develop a small concept for our website & a few stores for Easter. I love your chocolate bunny and would be super interested in buying them wholesale and/or private label. Hope to discuss this opportunity with you! Thanks so much, xxxx

And I just can’t say yes to this.

Free People is owned by Urban Outfitters, which is a store I don’t shop at for about a million reasons (#1 being that I am slowly converting my wardrobe to consisting solely of vintage 1940s denim coveralls, but still.).

The argument could be made that one should sell one’s ethically-produced goods in unsavory stores because people in those stores will then at least purchase one thing made in a responsible manner. This argument smacks of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which is to say: it gives me a stomachache to think about our lil floppy-eared bun-buns sitting next to, say Navajo Hipster Panties. Which is to say: a new world isn’t built of bricks made in sweatshops bought at the mall.

On the other hand: on their website and in some stores? That’s some money right there, son. Money is nice! Money advances goals! Vintage coveralls are not cheap, people!

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But still.

No way.

So I wrote this:

Dear xxx,

Thank you so much for thinking of our products. I’m honored, but we can’t bear to work with a company owned by Urban Outfitters.

All of our chocolates are organic, fair-trade, and handmade, and we pride ourselves on our high ethical standards. I don’t personally shop at any stores owned by Urban Outfitters (though I have a great Free People dress I got at a thrift store I adore, sigh), so it wouldn’t feel right to have my chocolates sold there.

I’d love more information about the conditions under which the workers making your clothes work, because the consensus on the internet seems to be that they’re pretty much your typical sweatshop-made clothes.

Even more saddening is that so many of the clothes sold at Urban Outfitters further a troubling and problematic vision: from seeming to advance eating disorders and insensitive stereotypes to cultural appropriation (“Hipster Navajo Panties” etc.) to making clothing that only fits one type of body, it’s not a chain we want to align ourselves with.

Not to mention that over and over you have been shown to copy designs from smaller independent artisans, and that your founder has  given large donations to right-wing politicians like Rick Santorum, whose politics we’re not fans of.

I’d love to work with you on a bunny project, but sadly I just don’t think I could sleep at night.

All the best,

Lagusta

Saying yes—except when we need to say no. That’s where we’re at today.

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A word about donations, on the occasion of our two-year shop anniversary

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Sometimes my Facebook feed is full of amazing events put on by nonprofits I love, and the sweets and other treats donated for those events by other companies. We get a ton of requests for donations—of chocolates, gift certificates, and money. The only thing that seriously bums me out (our second shop anniversary today has me thinking closely about this little business I’ve devoted my life to) is how little of these we’re able to contribute to.

There are two reasons for this:
1) I started this business 10 years ago with no capital, and that made me tough. I’m still in a little debt from renovating the building and opening the shop, and there are more fix-ups the 100+ year-old building needs, and we always need better equipment and printing projects, blah blah. In order to have a *sustainable* business, one that can keep growing and employing people in our community and can (eventually) give back (more) to our community and world, I need to keep a watchful eye on costs. We never waste—anything. Everyone at the shop makes fun of me because I’m meticulous about saving and reusing the pasta water from the lunches I cook. This is partially about being thrifty and partially it’s about…

2) We’re *sustainable* in another way too: our ingredients are all top of the line, without exception. When you use really expensive raw materials, and when you have environmentalist core beliefs, you can’t afford to waste anything because 1) you love the earth, who brought forth the raw materials, too much, and 2) your ingredients are so insanely pricey. With the possible exception of a goldsmith, I can’t imagine an artisan who works with more expensive ingredients than us.

So when I see these photos of dozens and dozens of beautiful desserts I know are made with insanely cheap and harmful ingredients at fundraisers, I think about how other businesses have chosen other paths, and how, on balance, I can’t say if their path is better or worse. We routinely get requests to donate hundreds of truffles to large-scale events—these events would bring us good publicity and warm our hearts. But hundreds of truffles made from fair-trade organic chocolate and almost nothing else, each one rolled and dipped and cupped and packaged by hand, would throw our entire week off.

It’s a tightrope. As time goes on, we’ll be able to walk it better. For now, we choose our donations carefully, and are so proud of each one.

On Organics

(Yes, this is a blog post that started on Facebook, discusses how I meant to make it a blog post, mentions discussions on Twitter, and then is turned back into a blog post. Oh, you, Internet, you.)

Think there’s no difference between organic and conventional produce because of That One Study?

Think again. 

I had planned on writing a blog post all about the many reasons using almost all organic ingredients is hard for us (our organic colors are so much more difficult to use than artificial ones, our powdered sugar clumps up more [sounds like not a big problem, but it REALLY IS!], it costs often twice as much, distributors [which make it easy to actually buy good stuff] are hard to come by (every day I ask Baldor, my Fancy Stuff Distributor, about a cool ingredient they’re advertising: “Do you have it organic? Do you have anything cool organic?” They have nothing cool organic, my friends, except our chocolate, which Tcho arranged for them to get, just for us.), our sugarwork is never pure white because of our comparatively unrefined sugar, etc etc forever!) but, you know, vacation stepped in and all that.

My point is: no matter what, we’re committed to organic. Even if it had absolutely no health benefits for the human beings who eat the produce (which, see below, it totes does)! Just the benefits to the farmworkers (not being exposed to zillions of chemicals) and the Earth are enough.

Organic is a very complicated issue. (If you’re interested, I’ve been hashing it out over on Twitter for the past half day) But right now, for us, buying from beyond-organic local farmers (who go above and far beyond the USDA organic model), and from faraway organic producers is our methodology.

Which, honestly, is kinda weird for chocolate.

Almost all cacao pods are unsprayed because pesticides cost money cacao farmers do not have. They also can’t generally afford to pay for organic certification. But we buy organic chocolate anyway, and to be honest, partly it’s because in the US that means something to consumers, even if it doesn’t actually mean anything at the source except that a lot of paperwork has been filled out and a lot of fees have been paid.

Sad, but true.

We believe in organic.

Even though we know it’s more complicated than that.

Happily, we believe in nuance, too.

Of ethics and capitalism. And the dreaded mixing of the two. And please tell me what you think of this email I sent to this person.

I pride myself on being an activist running a capitalist business in an activisty way.

My business is not a not-for-profit, and I promise never to come to you asking for money to help me improve or continue the business, without showing you a business plan and a repayment schedule. For-profits that ask for donations (the vegan world is chockablock with ’em) sicken me. I’ve borrowed money from every monied (and not-monied) pal  I have, and I’ve always paid it back on time—with interest. That way, my business is my own. I’ve been a part of many co-ops, and my business isn’t a co-op for a reason—I’ve got crushing student loan payments, three mortgages, and an etsy.com addiction that all mean I’ve got to make this business work or else. I just can’t afford to share profits with anyone else if this business is going to succeed. I pay my employees worse than I’d like to but better than 99% of the rest of the food world, and I give them bonuses and chocolates and help them out when I can in other ways.

When it comes right down to it, I’m here to make money while not compromising a pretty rock-solid set of ethical standards I’ve cultivated over the years. Both of those pillars—ethics and keeping an eye on the bottom line—are absolutely crucial to the success of this little enterprise.

I try not to compromise, and I don’t pretend not to be a for-profit. I don’t want to make a ton of money, but I’d like to pay off a few bills and provide a few more good jobs and buy well-made clothes that cost a bit more (hellooooo etsy)—how cliched, to want to be doing this whole ethical American Dream thing in the political hellscape that is 2011, I know, I know.

So when I got an opportunity for a local business—a really good nonprofit!—to buy their holiday chocolates at Lagusta’s Luscious instead of a very very mainstream, very very mall-y, very very much 100% using chocolate harvested in various questionable ways, from small African boys who have been taken from their families in very very questionable ways and made to work for no money picking cacao beans to middlemen keeping mega profits from cacao harvests themselves and using them to fund violent uprisings and drug empires, I could go on and on and on about the horrible things behind mainstream, mall-y, non-organic, non-fair-trade chocolate—I was excited.

Also, the aforementioned company’s chocolates TASTE REALLY BAD. I’ve tasted all the chocolate of theirs my ethics will permit me to taste (the dark chocolates) and they are MIND-BLOWINGLY one-dimensional and waxy and processed and made of ick. AND they don’t include local ingredients, AND their stuff is made by machines and mostly likely never ever touched by human hands AND over-packaged in miles of plastic and styrofoam AND AND AND, obviously my wee little company, operating out of a 750 sq ft shop/world headquarters and run by a crazy vegan feminist anarchist obsessed with making chocolates so good you want to cry is, ah, quite a different thing entirely.

Not only was it a large order (about $1000), it was a great opportunity to steal business from The Big Bad Mainstream Chocolate Company. Win win for a small local biz, right? The order needed to go out two days after Thanksgiving. It would be great start to what was to become our most wildly busy holiday season of all time. I told my little team about the possibility, and they were psyched to go for it, even though it would mean a couple days of extra-long hours.

My contact at the non-profit was the assistant of the director, who met with me at the shop and, very politely and sweetly, told me that the deal was that if I could provide a similar amount of chocolate at a similar cost, they would be overjoyed to switch to me. They wanted to send holiday gifts to about 18 clients of theirs, and pointed to the corporate gifts section of The Big Bad Mainsteam Chocolate Company’s catalog. I studied the catalog and said we could work something out, while giving my standard speech about why our chocolates cost more. She was receptive and understanding and sweet.

Over the next dew days I spent hours working with her putting together 18 different special assortment towers that would be luxuriously decadent and made of truly ethical chocolate wrapped in ribbon made from vegetable cellulose that probably no one ever composts but me but you can if you want to!

I worked really hard on getting this account. I told all my friends that I felt like I was in Mad Men, working on reeling in a big fish. But I didn’t ply my potential with martini lunches and low-cut blouses. I told her about my company, and why I thought we could provide a superior product. Don Draper I am not.

In the end, after cutting as much of a deal as I could cut, it came down to this: the $1000-$1200 (probably more like $1200 with shipping) she was going to spend at The Big Bad Mainstream Chocolate Company would cost $1542 with Lagusta’s Luscious. That included a substantial discount as well as a lot of personalized packages and service, handwritten notes to all her clients, gift wrapping, and more. I couldn’t go any lower, or else I wouldn’t make the profit necessary to keep propane in the $4k tank, or my employees paid, or or or or or. I couldn’t go any lower.

And so I lost the account.

I told my little team, and we agreed I should fight for it. So when the sweet assistant told me they wouldn’t be going with me, I wrote this back, and I’m still not sure that to think about it.

I know all about the financial realities of running a small business, and I wish I could give you more of a discount—but what I’m most proud of about my business is that we really “walk the walk” when it comes to ethics. All our chocolate is organic and fair-trade, and we use as many local ingredients as possible in our chocolates. This ensures that many of the ethical problems with chocolate production, including the documented use of child slavery on cocoa plantations, are not present with my chocolates. I know you’re a socially-responsible business as well, and understand these complicated issues.
One idea I’d throw out there is to spend the same amount (about $1000) but simply sending less chocolate–your clients will love the rich flavor of real, intensely-flavored chocolate, and I think they will appreciate the handmade artisan nature of our products as well. If you were to get 17 Big Assortments, the total would be $870 for the chocolate and $200 for shipping, so $1070, with complimentary gift wrapping.
Thanks so much for your consideration and I look forward to working with you in the future.

Not such a bad email, right?

Except that I’ve been feeling weird for a month now that I used those same African child slaves as a way to get business.

It feels weirdly exploitative that my for-profit biz worked the ethics angle so hard in order to land a big account. Everything I said was true and I stand by everything I said…but my stomach still gets a little wiggly when I think about it.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. We didn’t get the order.

We didn’t get the order, but we did get several other corporate orders that added up to more than $1000, and it was all OK in the end. For us.

But even with my weirdness about the email, I was angry, and sad, and obviously I still am since it’s a month later and I’m writing a blog post about it. Partially I’m sad for myself, yes, but mostly because now a nice local non-profit is sending their clients chocolate packaged in outgassing plastic, made with chemicals and with cacao beans harvested in horrible ways, because they couldn’t pay $400 more dollars. I gave them the opportunity to spend the same amount of money on less chocolates, but they wanted the Big Bad Mainsteam Chocolate Company’s lavish boxes, with that wiry plasticky ribbon and the mountains of packaging.

Can I blame them? A small business in New Paltz, New York that needs to look out for the bottom line in order to survive? Is the pot calling the kettle black here?

I want to say no. I want to say that I’ve made compromises too—only our Bluestocking Bonbons boxes are made with recycled paper printed with soy inks, our regular white and brown boxes are stupid dioxin-bleached paper boxes because I don’t have the funds for custom-printed boxes right now (want to loan me $10k? I’ll pay ya back!). I make compromises all the time, even though the number one purpose of my business is not to make compromises. It’s the nature of the world. But this compromise, made by this non-profit in my little town, has been haunting me. And so has my email. It brought up something unpleasant about the ethics of running a capitalist business, about using money to make the world better.

So there we are. I’d love your thoughts on the matter, you smart customers and friends and sweethearts, you.

Oh and Noam, too, if you’re reading this, let me know your thoughts too, OK? Just how hard should I push the ethics angle when selling the chocolates? Noam? Anyone?

FAQ and some thoughts on food

I wrote this little manifesto to print out and hand out at the shop. What do you think?

Some Thoughts on Food and Some Questions You Might Have

Q: Why do you make so many weird chocolates with savory ingredients?

A: Because they taste good! And because we want to stretch the role of chocolate in your life. Originally, chocolate was a savory beverage stirred up by Azetcs 3,100 years ago. It was fragrant with chilies, spices and a rich, fermented, savory flavor. Then Europeans came along and added a ton of sugar, and chocolate’s unhealthy rap was earned. We want to restore chocolate to its role as a savory-edged treat, whose deep, lush flavors lend themselves to deep, lush ingredients like sea salt, hot chilies, fragrant coffee, bitter roasted cacao nibs, sweet caramelized onions, umami-rich shiitake mushrooms, corn, smoky paprika, and so much more.

Q: Do you have sugar-free chocolates?

A: No. 100% cacao chocolate (which is all cocoa, with no sugar added) is punishingly bitter, so we don’t use it. And the only other way to make sugar-free chocolate is to use artificial sweeteners. All of these sweeteners have, without exception, been highly refined and proven to cause terrible things like cancer, seizures, and many other health problems, so, yeah, we’re not going to use those. Our Coconut Pyramids are sweetened with maple and brown rice syrups (though they are encased in a chocolate shell that contains sugar), and our Anatomical Hearts are made from a relatively bitter (and thus unsweet) chocolate (66% cacao) and contain no added sugars, so if you’re looking to cut down on sugar, those are your best bet. We can also steer you to other lower-sugar choices.

Q: OK, so what kind of sugar is in your chocolate?

A: Organic, unrefined evaporated cane juice sugar. It’s the purest form of sugar out there, and we love it.

Q: I’m severely allergic to wheat/gluten/soy/nuts. Can I eat your chocolates?

A: Unfortunately, our kitchen is (as you can see!) tiny. Therefore, we cannot guarantee any products are free of contamination, even though good manufacturing practices are always used to reduce chances of cross-contamination. Please be aware that our chocolate contains a tiny amount of soy lecithin. As well, our chickpea tempeh contains a spore that is grown on soybean hulls, so it contains a microscopic bit of soy.

Q: What are your thoughts on the role of chocolate in women’s lives specifically? Why does it break your heart to hear women opine about the fat content of chocolates?

A: As you probably know, we have a line of chocolates named for women. I (Lagusta) always figured I’d be some sort of feminist academic, so I’ve tried to find a way to link my Women’s Studies roots with my chocolatey career. Thus: Bluestocking Bonbons, a line of chocolates named for fascinating women.

My favorite people in the world are women who come into the shop and unapologetically declare their intentions to savor the bonbons all by themselves. The truth is, even though as a society we’ve made so many feminist advances, women are still under constant pressure to conform to ridiculous notions of what a healthy body looks like. Our view is: bodies are bodies, and we like them all. The variety of bodies is manifold and unquestionable, but what’s important is celebrating who we are as people.

For this reason, and with respect: it would make us so, so happy if you’d refrain from audibly agonizing about the fattening qualities of our chocolates. It contributes to a shaming atmosphere that is not part of the happy and diverse and accepting world we’re trying to build in this little blue building on this sweet little street in this lovely little town.

Q: So you’re admitting your chocolates are fattening!

A: Ah ha! Not so fast. First of all, chocolate itself is a stimulant, and thus keeps your heart rate happily pumping. Second, the primary fat in our filled chocolates (in addition to cocoa butter, which is the fat present in chocolate) is glorious organic, fair-trade coconut butter, which is comprised of medium-chain fatty acids which are readily used as energy in the body. Runners often eat coconut butter before a race, in order to ensure good healthy energy. Coconut butter is our bestie.

That said! Of course, our chocolates are a treat, and eating too many treats at once is not a way to feel your best. Just ask my #1 chocolate tester and sweetheart, Jacob, and my right-hand woman (who’s probably behind the counter right now) Maresa—sometimes I force them to taste ganache until they feel like they’re about to pop. (They have hard lives, yep.)

Q: Do you have gluten-free cupcakes or croissants?

A: I have yet to taste a gluten-free item that is worthy of the Lagusta’s Luscious name, so we do not carry gluten-free baked goods. Many of our chocolates are gluten-free by default, however!

Q: Forgive me for asking, but why are your chocolates so pricey? $2 a piece, come on!

A: Here’s the deal. What we believe in is working for a world where all are paid a fair price for fair jobs—we believe heads of corporations shouldn’t be getting paid 500 times what the people who clean their offices get paid, and we believe the workers who pick our cacao beans should get a living wage. We also believe our ingredients should be grown and manufactured with as much care for the finite resources on our planet as possible.

As anyone who’s ever renovated their house knows, doing things the right way takes a lot more money and time than seems humanly possible. But we’re committed to doing things the right way. And if it means selling less chocolate, but selling it at a price that ensures everyone who’s had a hand in making them gets their fair share, we’re OK with that.

Thanks for your understanding. We love running this shop so much, it’s a joy and a pleasure every single day, and we’re beyond overjoyed that we have amazing customers who love it too. Thanks for being here!

the white devil

So the NYT says sugar is evil.

Yeah, so did the cooking school I went to. They preached the gospel of brown rice syrup (it’s great in coco pyramids, I’ll give it that!) and made us read books with titles like The White Devil. I was young and impressionable, and I read the books and I stopped eating sugar for about six months.

And guess what?

I hated the world and everyone in it.

Then I went back to gum and candy and loved life again. These days I love my local organic maple syrup as much as the next locavore (for that matter, fruit is my best friend in the entire world), but I also love my organic, fair-trade 50-lb bags of minimally processed evaporated cane juice sugar, a few cups of which are in that pistachio praline up there.
So. I wish the Gray Lady had also published a companion piece about how ***everyone*** I’ve ever met who doesn’t eat sugar is a sad sack sourpuss who doesn’t love life.

Also, I fail to see how the article refutes the “everything in moderation” rule that all sane people already live with. (I’m a fan of the Oscar Wilde variation, myself.) I’m around sugar 18 hours a day and eat a lot more kale than sugar, because I know that large quantities of kale make me feel good, and small quantities of (very unsweet) truffles make me feel great. Reverse the proportions, and a stomach ache is the only result.

Why is it so hard for so many of us to listen to our bodies? For a lot of women, I know this has to do with feminism (and the lack thereof). We’re so inculcated to hate our bodies that sometimes our natural signals from them get lost in the mixed messages our culture is constantly pushing at us.

What a gift it is to learn to listen to what our bodies want and need. And, also, how it simplifies our lives: we already know everything the New York Times does, in our bones. We only need to listen.

Rethinking dairy from a vegan point of view

Here we go! My dairy manifesto!

This essay was written in 2007 for inclusion in this cookbook put out by the restaurant where I worked for many years, Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian restaurant, in Bridgeport. CT.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

Part One: Rethinking Dairy

Westerners have been using the milk of other animals for many years in our cuisine, but I see this as an accident of geography, not desirability – cows were here, so we used them. Now that other choices are available to us, I see no reason why we should continue to use the milk of other animals, especially when it has been widely documented that producing milk causes considerable strain on animals. Yes, high-quality dairy products – minimally pasteurized (sometimes even raw or fermented), humanely produced – are becoming more available, and many will see this as a step in the right direction. But for those of us who believe that (to paraphrase Alice Walker) animals were put here for their own reasons[1], dairy is not an option.

Throughout my nearly two decades years on the vegan path, my thinking about dairy has evolved. Like many vegans, I found dairy the hardest food to give up. I have come to believe, however, that this is mostly because we’re used to it and excellent vegan alternatives to popular dairy dishes do not widely exist. If they did, undoubtedly many more people would be amenable to eating non-dairy meals. Out of habit, we use cow’s milk, but this does not mean that it is the best choice (ample evidence shows that it is, in fact, a terrible choice[2]).

What if, for example, coconut palm trees were as plentiful in North America as cows in factory farms are? It seems to me that in that case, our cakes and cookies and all manner of foods would use coconut milk, and that would be thought of as the natural choice. Since my ethics preclude me from using cow’s milk, the versatile coconut has worked its way into my cooking more and more, and I now believe it is the ideal candidate to replace cow’s (and goat’s and sheep’s) milk altogether. This essay is the result of my studies on the topic, and before discussing the merits of the coconut, I will counter three possible negative assumptions about its use as a primary “dairy.”

The coconut is not perfect. Obviously, eating what is indigenous to a particular area is preferable not only for environmental reasons, but because it is better for the body. For most of us in the United States, coconuts are not indigenous, and cows, while not native, are at least more local. Moreover, coconut milk comes in cans, and canned food cannot be said to have the same vitality as fresh food, not to mention the waste issue.

However, even acknowledging these issues, coconut milk is a better choice than cow’s milk. Olives don’t grow in Connecticut, but we at Bloodroot rely on olive oil on a daily basis. Cow’s milk does not come from the soil and is not a truly seasonal product, thus using coconut milk in place of it does not make a negative impact in either our planetary or personal health. Yes, coconut milk comes in cans, but it is widely available organic and without any additives except a small amount of guar gum (a vegetarian emulsifier). It is heated to high temperatures as part of the canning process, but so is the vast quantity of milk on our shelves. Perhaps as the popularity of coconut milk grows, it will be available fresh in health food stores for cooking purposes.

It might seem that nominating the coconut for the title of Best Dairy Replacement is futile, as that crown has already been awarded: most vegans use soy milk in all ways that dairy milk is usually used. However, at Bloodroot we have found soymilk to have a beany and rather overly plastic flavor that we do not enjoy, and the comparatively long list of ingredients in soymilk does not compare favorably with coconut milk’s three ingredients (two if you do not count water). As well, it seems that, in a desire for oversimplification that the (increasingly corporatized) natural foods industry has fallen prey to, the fact that soy has health benefits has been overused as a marketing tool and most health-conscious people eat far too much soy, especially processed, lifeless soy products.

Finally, one more potential flaw of the coconut should be discussed: it tastes like coconut. While most of the time this is a positive aspect, as the flavor of coconut is divine, when it is used in all the same ways cow’s milk is used there is a danger of “over-coconutization.” Again, perspective is essential: most milk drinkers might not be able to pick out the flavor of milk in a dish, but this is because of its ubiquity and not because milk itself lacks flavor.  To some, cow’s milk vanilla ice cream tastes like vanilla; to most long-time vegans it would taste like cow’s milk. That said, I do not make vegan vanilla ice cream using coconut milk, because I have to acknowledge that it would be coconut-vanilla ice cream.

However, the flavor of coconut does back down when paired with strong flavors. My chocolate truffles use coconut milk instead of cream, and the chocolate is so intense that the coconut is not noticeable. At Bloodroot we make chocolate, coffee, and many other ice cream flavors using coconut milk as a base, and the coconut is not the primary flavor. To our palates, coconut has a cleaner flavor than soy or rice milk, and a more rich texture than nut milks.

The fat content of the coconut is a primary reason it is an ideal vegan product. I have found that most less-than-delicious vegan desserts are so because of a lack of fat, which contributes a mouth feel that cannot be replicated. Balanced vegan diets do not usually need to be concerned with fat, and the fats found in coconut are not unhealthy (this aspect is discussed below). Compared with soy, rice, or nut milks, coconut milk has more fat and is therefore much more tasty and makes desserts (as well as savories – see the recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff, for example) more satisfying. In ice creams as well as many other dishes, it also contributes a vastly improved texture. Fat (along with sugar and alcohol) prevents ice cream from freezing too hard, so coconut milk-based ice creams have a texture much more like that of similar dishes made with dairy cream.

It is at this point that a rather parenthetical discussion of “real” vs. “vegan” foods becomes relevant.

Sometimes well-meaning tasters of my vegan chocolate truffles proclaim them “just as good as ‘real’ truffles.” I always want to ask them: are they invisible? Cow’s milk is popular, but it has not staked a claim on reality to such an extent that any other milk must be deemed an impostor. Soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and all manner of nut and seed milks have been used in many cultures for hundreds of years, and it reveals a Western bias to reduce them to the category of imitations. Let’s stop comparing vegan dishes with “real” versions, and start comparing them to “cow’s milk” versions (and then let’s stop the comparisons all together).

Another coconut product is perhaps even more exciting for vegans is coconut oil (also called coconut butter).

Many people have a negative impression of coconut oil because it is a saturated fat (it is solid at room temperature).   However, it does not pose a problem for those who do not consume an excess of fat and/or cholesterol since more than half of it is composed of medium-chain fatty acids, which are used as energy and not stored as fat.  Coconut oil does not contain toxic trans-fatty acids found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been found to contribute to heart disease.  Therefore, remarkably, this most luscious and luxuriously fatty food is not used as fat in the body but works as instantly available energy.

In addition, unlike most vegetable fats which are unsaturated and prone to  destabilizing reactions with oxygen, coconut oil is highly stable and has a high smoke point. This is important because in order to get the nice caramelized brown color that makes vegetarian food so much more satisfying, oil must be heated very hot. When oil is heated, it can burn and become carcinogenic. Because coconut oil has a high smoke point, it is less likely to burn and thus much healthier than less saturated fats for searing, sautéing, and pan- and deep-frying. That this saturated fat is our best choice for frying seems to run counter to the general wisdom that unsaturated oils such as olive oil are always best for our health.  It is important to keep in mind that the health benefits of unsaturated fats are only valid when those oils are stable, and for high heat frying, coconut oil provides a healthy alternative.

In addition to not being harmful, coconut oil has an important positive effect on the vegetarian body: it is one of the only vegetarian sources of lauric acid, which enhances brain function and the immune system and has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties and is therefore beneficial for those with compromised immune systems.[3]

If you have the resources and want to use the very best coconut oil available, buy organic Omega Nutrition brand. It is, to my knowledge available via mail order and is sold in some health food stores. It is packaged in dark plastic containers (like flax seed oil), which helps prevent it from becoming rancid, and is available at omeganutrition.com and 1-800-661-FLAX (3529). Do not buy the raw “virgin” type, as it is undeodorized and tastes too coconutty and raw for cooking.

Now that you’ve bought your oil, a primer on the best way to use it is in order. For vegans looking for a butter substitute, coconut oil is perfect in all applications (except possibly for spreading on toast and the like), and its fatty richness excels in baked goods. When replacing coconut oil for butter, shortening, or lard in recipes, the amount can be reduced by 25 percent (which is good news considering how expensive coconut oil is) because it is almost pure fat, in comparison butter and others, which contain significant percentages of moisture and/or milk solids.

Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, in cooler climates it can be melted prior to measuring, which makes it a little easier to work with. Otherwise, it can be measured, packed down, in dry (flat-topped) measuring cups. If there are a lot of air pockets in the cup the measurement could be off by a significant amount, so either pack it well or add grapeseed or another neutral oil to fill up the cracks (even better, use recipes that call for weights!). Store coconut oil at room temperature.

Part Two: Resistance is Fertile

The “coconut dairy” is an idea borne from the need for a new way of thinking about vegan food. Once we move beyond worrying about replicating animal products and using any means possible (chemical-laced margarines, etc) to get there, we can begin to explore the creative possibilities of vegan cuisine. This process – the creativity that results from immersion in an “alternative” culture like this – is typified by the phrase “resistance is fertile.”

A recent novel we have been enjoying at Bloodroot is Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation. Some of the characters in the book use “resistance is fertile” as a slogan. This sums up my own explorations in cooking from a political standpoint. I became vegan because I felt that if I could live without causing others to suffer, I had the moral duty to do so. For several years I was proud to be living my political beliefs on a daily basis in this way, but I was deeply unhappy with the food I was eating. I believed that making the choice to stop eating animals was enough – eating French fries at every meal and iceberg lettuce salads and “healthy candy bars” didn’t matter, as long as they were vegan.

Slowly (thanks in large part to the women of Bloodroot) I came to have a more nuanced view of the politics of food. I saw that most food, even most food in health food stores, travels many hundreds of miles and is distributed by large agri-business corporations who often have political views I do not share (discrimination against lesbians and gay men, pro-globalization politics, exploitative marketing practices in “developing countries,” etc). I came to develop what Mary Daly calls a “biophilic” point of view, from “biophilia,” meaning “love of life.” Whereas I originally became vegan out of opposition to one practice (keeping and killing animals), I began to cultivate a philosophy of food with a wider progressive agenda. I saw that we could have a huge positive environmental impact by supporting local farmers, eating seasonally, and gardening. And of course, local, seasonal food tastes much better. Today I feel that the quality of my food – the way it is grown, the way the workers who pick and process it are treated, the distance it travels, even down to the packaging it is shipped in – is just as important as whether or not it is vegan. When vegetarians and vegans limit our politics to the realm of animal rights, we are doing ourselves a disservice. If Bloodroot has taught us anything in its almost three decades of existence, it is that feminism, progressive politics, animal rights, and environmentalism work best when they work together.

This is what “resistance is fertile” means to me. The Bloodroot atmosphere is fertile – women are teaching other women how to spin and knit, the air is laced with onions and garlic frying, books are being bought and discussed, the garden is teeming with gorgeous green little treasures. It is a site of resistance to the culture of violence and mediocrity that is the mainstream world. The more deeply I incorporate this culture of resistance into my life and work, the more fertile my life becomes – opportunities open up, creativity flourishes, hope is rekindled. In order to create the world we want to live in, we have to be able to imagine it.  Resistance is fertile.


[1] “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

[2] See, for example, The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, or Diet for a New America, by John Robbins. When one also notes that 70 percent of African-Americans, 95 percent of Native Americans, 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 90 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant (source: John Robbins), the USDA recommendation that all children drink milk every day seems not only unhealthy, but also culturally insensitive.

[3] Coconut oil is a good choice for frying, but expensive. The other oil we tend to use for frying and browning foods is grapeseed oil. It is not unrefined, but has a very high smoke point (485°F), is not genetically modified and is high in vitamin E. Make sure the grapeseed oil you are using is a by-product of the wine industry, otherwise it could be heavily sprayed with pesticides. Chemically treated grapeseed oil is dangerous because chemical toxins are concentrated in a plant’s fatty acids and a plant’s fatty acids are concentrated in its seeds.

why I don’t buy vegetarian cookbooks; a vegetarian cookbook I’m madly in love with.

I haven’t eaten an animal product in 17 years, but I try to keep my distance from the vegan world.

It’s mostly a bunch of well-meaning, cute, tattooed people preaching to the choir and cheering each other on. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not exactly my scene. I’m not into clubs—I pretty much adhere to Groucho Marx’s view of them—and I prefer to market my business more toward those who eat animals, so they can be persuaded to stop or reduce their consumption not by ethical arguments or sad photos but by the sheer delight of how superior vegan food can be.

When I was in college and cooking school, I kept my distance from the vegan world because its food was so dreadful as well, but, happily, veganism has become much tastier in the last decade or so.

Most of the sad sprout-sandwich restaurants have shuttered, and in their place are vibrant, glorious places cooking up an amazing, and amazingly diverse, variety of food. My favorite restaurant in the universe, Kajitsu, is a completely vegan Japanese shojin ryori (traditional, centuries-old Buddhist temple cuisine, always vegan because of the Buddhist belief in the sanctity of all life) restaurant—the adorable chef, Masato Nishihara, (who I’ve made my BFF by plying him with chocolate boxes every time I visit) serves breathtakingly beautiful multi-course meals, each one a miniature masterpiece on a plate and on the tongue. There are gems like this all over the country, and the world. (Mostly in New York City though, which is why I’m always so happy to live so close by.)

Likewise, the vegan cookbook world has improved tremendously in the past few years. Gone are the bland, 2-color paperback cookbooks with lentil loaves and endless stir-fries (We’ve finally mostly thrown the Moosewood books under the bus, thank heavens.), and in their place is a whole new crop of colorful, mainstream-friendly cookable cookbooks by a new crop of chefs and authors. My favorites are the ones I worked on, of course, the Best of Bloodroot cookbooks, and the lovely Isa Moskowitz’s ever-growing empire of friendly books, whose rise marked a sea change in the vegan cookbook world—she made vegan food look better than its meaty counterparts. Which it is, of course.

However.

To my taste, the veganverse is still way too jammed with vegan versions of crap supermarket birthday cakes overflowing with sickening margarine, artificial colors, and so much sugar even a chocolatier like me can only handle one bite; baby cookbooks with overly simplistic knock-offs of “real” classic dishes (french onion soup without beef broth and miles of cheese cannot be veganized by substituting store-bought vegetable broth and a nutritional yeast-sprinkled crouton); and way more style than substance. Many lovely and well-meaning bloggers who have endless glorious camera techniques up their sleeves but almost no kitchen experience (more savoir-faire than savoir and saveur) are writing fluffy little books with precious little real information.

Wanting, as I do, the entire world to become vegan, this doesn’t really bother me.

I mean, it bothers me in the sense that I am personally only interested in quality work, but how many mediocre non-vegan cookbooks are out there? In a vegan world, we have to prepare ourselves for lots of vegan crap.

Worse, to me, 99% of vegan cookbooks (a number I just made up, but if it’s not accurate it’s only because the actual number is around 99.5%) are written by white people, and contain recipes for food that has traditionally been eaten by white people. I’m just not all that interested in what white people have to say, particularly when it’s about white people’s food. I am a white person, and this is why I know that white people, by and large, eat really boring and stupid food.

All these factors are why I rarely buy vegan cookbooks. I’m a cookbook fiend, but unless I can learn from a cookbook, I don’t want it. When I buy cookbooks, I buy what is usually (and extremely insultingly) called “ethnic” cookbooks—books by people of color from all around the world. My absolute favorite genre of cookbooks, one that doesn’t exactly exist, is books that describe what poor people around the world have eaten for centuries. Poor people have typically eaten little meat, so that’s a bonus, and I like food borne out of ingenuity.

I lugged a giant coffee-table cookbook with me on vacation, and I’m happy I did—I knew from the minute I heard about it that I wanted to savor it slowly, which can only happen on vacation. My sous chef Stephanie (of the amazing Halloween costume, yes) went to dinner at Kajitsu one night and came back with a flier about an event they were having to promote a book called Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, by Elizabeth Andoh, whose reports from Japan in Gourmet I’d enjoyed over the years.

Um.

THERE WAS AN ENTIRE BOOK ABOUT THE VEGAN FOOD OF JAPAN THAT I HAD MISSED HEARING ABOUT? Me, who is so obsessed with Asian food that my friend Than calls me Lagusta Ye? Me, whose name on Facebook is “Lagusta Umami”? Would it have recipes for nama-fu (a seitan-like protein made with rice flour), for tofu made from sesame (goma-dofu), for sweet red bean desserts, for exquisite soba noodle dishes and the clear soups that I am so obsessed with at Kajitsu? Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes. The next time I was in the city (to go to Kajitsu, coincidentally [not exactly coincidentally, since going to Kajitsu is pretty much the only reason I go to the city these days), I made a beeline for St. Mark’s Bookshop and picked it up. At home, I put it in my suitcase. After a few days spent with it here in Hawaii, I can confirm that it’s every bit as good as I had hoped it would be. What a treat.

It makes me wonder though—why didn’t I hear about this book before? As much as I try to stay my distance, I have a pretty accurate pulse on the digital vegan world, though Facebook and magazines and blogs I quickly skim for trends and news. I hadn’t come across one mention of the book in my daily travels through the digital veganverse, and that right there exemplifies the problem with the state of veganism in 2011.

It’s OK though. I’m a secret elitist (well, as much of an elitist as an anarchist can be), not in that I want to sit around eating gold leaf-covered truffles all day, but in that a fundamental belief of mine is that most good stuff never gets the press it deserves…and the mainstream world is so horrifyingly uninterested in good stuff that this is probably as it should be. It’s up to us, the elites (thanks, Sarah Palin, I’ll wear it proudly) in an intellectual (not class or financial) way, to find our own treasures, those the mainstream (even the vegan mainstream) has ignored.

Kansha means “appreciation.” I’m wildly appreciative and thankful this wonderful book has entered my library, and I can’t wait for its techniques and recipes to enter more of my everyday cooking style.

 

 

previousnesses: the best of the past.

Heya pals!

Here are a few links to recipes, food essays, rants, ideas, and inspiration from my old meal delivery site, as well as my personal blog. Enjoy!

Great essays, food talk, and pretty photos:

And a few recipes:

And finally, really pretty photos of cupcakes.