Lea is a writer, an artist, a student, a wife, the mother of twin girls, and she blogs at Becoming SuperMommy. Whew! Appropriately named blog, if you ask me. I hope y'all enjoy what Lea has to share!
*****[Interviewed via e-mail September 9, 2011]
Jasmine: First off, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Please, tell me about yourself: name, age, where you're from, and how did you stumble upon Vegging for Health?
Lea: My name is Lea, I'm 27 years old, I live in the Windy City of Chicago but I think of myself as being from Pittsburgh and the upper mitten, and I stumble on Vegging for Health through 20SB.
(You can find me on 20SB.net at http://www.20sb.net/profile/JasmineYoung)
Jasmine: In your first e-mail, you mentioned you have been a vegetarian since birth. Share with our readers the story behind being raised vegetarian and how it has helped shape you as the person you are today.
Lea: Once upon a time, my parents were youthful idealists. And they were total wackos. They had both, previous to meeting each other, at one point convinced their classmates that they were actually aliens. They were a little young to be active participants in the civil rights movement, but they were die hard activists and pretty much everything but hippies before they met. They met when they were at a summer camp the year before they started high school. I've heard two versions of the story. In one version, my father is getting picked on by some other kids for being a vegetarian. In the other, he's getting picked on for being perceived as gay. In both stories, my mother- then a stranger- came to his defense. They've basically been together every since. They bonded over their shared vegetarianism, their love of Dr. Who and The Beatles, and eventually grew up, got married, and had kids. Including yours truly. Who they raised as ethical vegetarians.
It's shaped me quite a bit. It's not something that you think about when you choose the lifestyle, but kids think of alternate eating habits as weird. My sisters and I were made fun of CONSTANTLY for the foods in our lunchboxes. Instead of getting a bologna or tuna fish sandwich, we'd have something terrifyingly different, like leftover curried cauliflower. Kids could be merciless about even the slightest difference between you and them. It made me very aware from an early age what I was eating, and why. What I was eating was vegetables, dairy and grains. What they were eating was dead animals. processed until it resembled nothing so much as a plastic copy of food. I figured out before too long that their food was a lot "weirder" than mine.
That said, my mom was an AMAZING cook. She spent much of my childhood writing a (yet unfinished) cookbook, completely vegetarian, with one chapter for every cuisine on the globe. It was an ambitious project. My friends were terrified to come for dinner. They didn't know if it would be dolmades (more on those later) or gumbo, but no matter what it wasn't going to be a pepperoni pizza.
Jasmine: As someone who was raised vegetarian and a mother of twin girls, who are also being raised vegetarian, do you have any advice you'd like to share with new parents who are interested in raising their children vegetarian?
Lea: Know how to build a balanced meal. That applies to meat eaters, too, but still. My mother used to keep a sign on the kitchen cabinets for us to use when packing our own lunches. It reminded us that in every meal we needed a protein, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable, a healthy fat (dairy, in our cases), and THEN a dessert.
Some people think that they can raise a vegetarian kid eating only mac 'n cheese and crackers. That's not healthy for anyone, ESPECIALLY a small child.
But the biggest piece of advice is this, eat your vegetables. If you don't do it, if your kids don't see you eating GOOD food, and enjoying it, they're not going to be interested.
Take beets for example. For some reason, lots of people hate beets. I LOVE beets. I made a nice pot of borsht this summer, and figured I'd eat it all by myself. After all, beets are messy. But one of my daughters was desperate to get a taste of the bright pink soup mommy was eating, and now? Beets are her favorite food. Can't get enough of them. I'm very proud. :)
Jasmine: I personally grew up eating meat and learned how to prepare and cook meat for my family at a fairly early age. What is it like for you, as the wife of a meat-and-potatoes guy, learning how to cook meat?
Lea: What a great question! Well, first and foremost, I'm an artist. I love setting a table and having the food look good. Like a Norman Rockwell painting. And let's face it, a lot of the most attractive eatable centerpieces of meals are made of dead animals. They're just no vegetarian approximation of putting a whole turkey in front of a full table on Thanksgiving. Not that I don't look at a perfect Three Sisters and get giddy and excited and loosen my pants, but still. So there was that.
Secondly, I'm a neurotic egotist. I LOVE seeing that people enjoy the food I cook. My husband never asked me to make him meat, in fact, the only times he has EVER asked me to make him meat are when I've prompted him to do so. The first time, it was our last dating anniversary before our wedding, and I wanted to cook him something special and unexpected. I got the meat from a local, organic farm- that soothed my ethical queries- and I made him a giant meal. Dolmades, walnut and goat cheese stuffed mushrooms, Israeli couscous, and the main event- black current braised lamb. For myself, I made black current braised Morningstar Farms Grillers. He was elated about it. These days, when I cook meat it's a similar to-do. I cook meat when we have special guests, special occasions, or I just feel like showing him how extra wonderful I think he is- even if he is a carnivore.
But it's not just me learning to cook those dishes. I had to start from scratch. Having never eaten meat before, I had no idea WHAT to do. I didn't know what raw meat looked like in a pan, how to tell if something was done, and I had a whole host of paranoia about parasites and bacteria. I got an amazing book- "What's a Cook to Do?" It has photographs of things like steaks at different stages of done-ness, with a guide for what they're supposed to feel like when you poke them. It told me what temperature different meats need to be cooked to. It also told me that lamb is best served very rare, which is why I chose it for my first try. I figured if it was supposed to be rare, I'd be less likely to screw it up. Which still holds true. The first time I made a steak, it was stone cold in the middle. Not even close to cooked. When you under cook a vegetable, it's just a little crunchier. Totally the opposite kind of cooking ethos.
Jasmine: In your opinion, do you think it would be easy for anyone to adopt the vegetarian life-style? And do you have any advice for new vegetarians?
Lea: I think that any change is hard, and diet changes are particularly hard because they're also habits. But I do think that, with the right attitude, it can be virtually painless. For example, people say things all the time like, "I could never be a vegetarian, I love bacon so much!" Well, why not try cutting out all the meat EXCEPT for bacon? Less meat is still better for you than more, and there's no reason you can't slowly shift instead of going cold turkey.
People don't quit smoking cold turkey. They wean. So you can cut out red meat, and then poultry, and then fish. And if you feel like you want to keep going, you can cut dairy and eggs from there. No need to stress yourself out- nobody is timing you in any sort of vegetarian race.
Jasmine: Growing up vegetarian, did you have an absolute favorite dish you loved to eat/cook?
Lea: Oh yeah. Baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, french fries, basically anything you could do to a potato was my favorite thing in the world. I was sort of a picky eater, but if we went to an Indian or Ethiopian restaurant and my mom pointed out that something had a potato in it, I was cool. The first few big meals I ever cooked myself were overstuffed and completely loaded baked potatoes (covered in broccoli, mushrooms berkely, cheese, sour cream, fake bacon, caramelized onions, chives, and butter) and then a vegetarian Shephard's Pie. Shephard's Pie is... you know... covered in mashed potatoes.
Jasmine: Are the rest of the members of your immediate family vegetarian as well? How far into your family tree does vegetarianism extend?
Lea: It's a very extended, but semi-random thing. Two of my father's brothers are also vegetarians. I don't think their kids are, though. My older sister started eating meat in her late teens, although among family she seems a little ashamed of it. My adopted sister is a carnivore, and she came that way, but my younger biological sister and I are still meat-free. My husband, much as he loves meat, can go for weeks without me cooking any up, living off of my excellent (and most importantly- well balanced!) home cooked meals. I think that for a time, my mother's sister was a vegetarian as well. Both branches of my family have always prided themselves in their ethical behavior, and we have a proud history of social progressiveness. Which includes vegetarianism. My husband's family? Die hard carnivores. Each and every one.
Jasmine: Do you find yourself surrounded by fellow vegetarians more so than meat-eaters?
Lea: I have at some times in my life. I used to go to vegan potlucks every month with my group of friends, but you know how it is in your early 20s- people come and go. They move for school, or for jobs, or for marriage. Of the vegan potluck crew I hung out with the third Thursday of every month, only two of us still live in Chicago. The others are spread from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon and everywhere in between. A lot of my friends are relapsed vegetarians, which means that they eat meat now, but they still really appreciate being offered a meal that's meat free.
Jasmine: If you're bringing a dish to a family gathering or a friends' party, what is the "go-to dish" you would prepare?
Lea: I have two that I pick from, depending on the kind of party. If it's a Super Bowl party or something like that, I make my world famous seven layer bean dip. Seriously, that thing in awesome. But if it's something where people want to actually appreciate food instead of shovel it in as absent mindedly as possible, I make dolmades.
Jasmine: Some people tend to think that being vegetarian means eating a salad for every meal. What would you like to tell those people?
Lea: Does being a carnivore mean that you eat a cow for every meal?
Seriously, though. My biggest problem with that concept is that most American meat eaters tend to think of a "salad" as iceberg lettuce with a few mealy tomato wedges, smothered in Ranch dressing. And that's not a salad, that's a creative way to humiliate a head of iceberg lettuce. A salad has actual nutritional content. A salad has flavor. And most importantly, a salad does NOT have Ranch dressing.
When my husband and I started dating, that was his idea of a salad. The first time I put a *real* salad in front of him, he looked at it like it was squid that had just come back to life. Now? "Ooh! Can we put almonds in the salad? Think we could grill up this pepper and put it in there? Are you going to make fresh dressing? Can we put cilantro in it? Yay! Avocados!"
He gets really excited about a good salad. Which is as it should be. A salad is the best way to showcase the world's most delicious vegetables. And more than that, too. I like to add proteins to my salads, like fava beans or fake chicken. Or crispy tofu.
Jasmine: Do you have any recipes you'd like to share with our readers?
Lea: I think I accidentally just did! But yes, I'd like to share my dolmades recipe with everyone. Dolmades are stuffed grape leaves. And they're amazing. Traditionally, they have lamb in them, and for some reason most people tend to make them sort of salty and otherwise flavorless. I have never figured out how they do that. The truth is that they're super easy, they just take a while to sit down and roll them all up.
...I made them for my husband on our first date. :)
I hope y'all have enjoyed Lea's interview as much as I do. Her recipe for Dolmades will be up tomorrow morning! So be sure to come back to Vegging for Health!
Here's a sneak peek at what tomorrow's recipe will feature!