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.
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.
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.