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.