Despite her book’s imposing title, 32-year-old Vegan With a Vengeance: Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock author Isa Chandra Moskowitz is delightfully funny. A vegetarian since her teens, Moskowitz’s philosophy about food can be summed up by the words “cooking is fun.” Her cookbook features recipes for everything from soup to pizza to tempeh bacon to cupcakes, with little stories interspersed about her introduction to punk rock, growing up in Brooklyn, and running her cable access show Post Punk Kitchen. If your only frame of reference for vegans is the type of activist who’s decked out in an Anna Wintour mask outside the Condé Nast building or protesting against Perdue, think again. Moskowitz is likely to get chefs and non-chefs, vegans and meat-eaters alike salivating over scrumptious-sounding recipes for pumpkin waffles, potato edamame samoas, pomegranate barbeque seitan, matzoh ball soup, veggie chorizo, chocolate raspberry blackout cake, and much more. Read on and prepare to have your appetite whetted.
First of all, what led you to become a vegetarian and how old were you? When did you make the switch to veganism?
I was 15 when I went vegetarian but I had tried to a few years before that. I just loved and empathized with animals, especially my cats, and I began to realize that a cow was no less sentient than a cat. Only I doubt I knew what the word “sentient” meant. I became vegan at 16 but I think that lasted only 3 years or so. My diet was vegetarian and still primarily vegan over the years but I began to get strict about it again 2 years or so ago.
Why’d you decide to create the Post Punk Kitchen show, and how long did it take from when you had to idea to the airing of the first episode?
I think it was about a year between thinking about it and doing it. My motivation was mainly the lack of vegetarian cooking shows. The fact that I wasn’t doing much else with my life didn’t hurt.
What kind of an audience have you had? How do most of them find you?
I’m not quite sure who our audience is. I need to get my marketing department on that! The people who order dvds I assume are vegetarians and punketarians and people who just like cooking shows. Maybe perverts with food fetishes for all I know. And then there is the public access audience who I am assuming are a bunch of psychopaths.
How did Vegan With a Vengeance come about, and how long did it take to create all the recipes?
I had done an interview with the magazine Punk Planet and this literary agent just contacted me out of nowhere. He is 50 Cents’ literary agent too so I trusted him implicitly. It took about 8 months to complete the book but a lot of the recipes are ones that I’ve created over the years, it was more a matter of testing them out and writing the introductions.
How do you usually come up with a recipe, and how many attempts and how much trial and error is involved?
I am much better at being self deprecating than at pimping myself but I have to say I seem to have a natural talent for anything that involves food. I guess it’s because I get to eat it. I get inspired to create dishes in any number of ways-watching other cooking shows, eating at a restaurant, reading food history books-but usually whatever is in season will dictate what I’ll be making. Sometimes things just pop into my head, I’ll wake up and think “Horseradish and coriander!” and then there you have it.
Some of your recipes, like the biscuits, stem from making a vegan version of a non-vegan dish. Is that harder or easier than coming up with a recipe from scratch?
It depends. With baking it’s much easier to veganize a recipe. With savory foods I tend not to try to replicate a meat based food. I am not a huge fan of meat analogs, I never use those store bought burger crumble things, that feels like “semi-homemade” to me. I prefer to use fresh ingredients, vegetables and legumes, homemade seitan. I buy my tofu and tempeh because those are quite a pain to make yourself, but I cook from scratch as much as possible. What was the question again?
Do you have a special favorite recipe in the book?
My favorite soup is the carrot bisque, my favorite dessert is the raspberry blackout cake. I really love the waffles as well. The one I would urge everyone to try is the pumpkin crusted tofu because it’s fun to make and everyone should know the goodness of toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted pumpkin on a chilly autumn evening.
For those new to veganism, or cooking, or both, what first recipe would you recommend and why?
I’d recommend any of the soups because they are the easiest, fastest and they require using the least pots and pans.
I noticed that on the website and in the cookbook, it’s in many ways a communal effort, with people sharing recipes and offering suggestions. Is that feedback loop an important part of what makes PPK work?
Will I sound like a bitch if I say no? The making of the show is definitely a communal effort, our editor Niharika and producer Denise are just amazing at what they do. I think if indeed the PPK does work as a website then yes it’s definitely because we have message boards, a livejournal and feedback for each of the recipes. I love getting input from others, I love sharing advice, I love being all “mutual aid." In terms of the show though that’s when the fascism kicks in and Terry and I cook whatever we decide to.
What’s the biggest myth out there about vegan cooking and eating?
That it’s bland. I think if you are a chef who thinks that vegan cooking has less taste and flavor than other foods than that just speaks to your own inability. Vegetables can stand on their own they don’t need all your duck blood on them, thank you. Also people tend to think vegans are emaciated self sacrificing, well tell that to my big ass jew hips.
Your philosophy is both that cooking can and should be fun, and that we should stop relying on store-bought meat substitutes and processed foods. Can you elaborate on that?
Cooking for me is a sensual process and an ice covered bag of vegetable crumbles just breaks the mood for me. I mean, it works in a pinch but I wouldn’t base a cookbook on it, it feels like semi-homemade cheating. I’ve just lost my taste for stunt meat in general. So I suppose you could say that my reasoning is mainly driven by my palate. Another consideration is that many of the store bought soy products are owned by fucked up corporations that dabble in genetic engineering, unsustainable agriculture, factory farming and just the general business of destroying the world we live in. That’s the hard sell.
To that end, you have recipes for things like tempeh bacon. As a non-cook, that struck me as a very advanced type of thing, because it’s so easy to buy. Is homemade tempeh bacon better than storebought and if so, why?
I use storebought tempeh bacon every now and again but I prefer the taste of homemade. It’s actually really, really easy to make.
You wrote in your blog recently about non-vegetarians cutting back on meat. I’m a former vegan, and I don’t eat meat all the time or go out of my way to do it, but I do it on occasion, and I find the conversation is often extremely polarized between certain strains of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, even though many people go back and forth between the two over their lifetimes. Can you comment on this?
Veganism isn’t a religion, not for me anyway. The primary reason I am vegan is because I don’t wish to support the mistreatment of animals in the form of factory farming. On top of that the idea of eating an animal revolts me, but I understand that some people may not feel that way. I doubt that anyone could dispute that factory farmed animals live a life of misery, but some people may agree with that yet not object to eating meat. That person may choose to cut most meat and dairy out of their diet and I think that vegetarians and vegans should support that. One might argue something like “Well is it ok to beat my wife a little?” But that’s a false argument because spousal abuse isn’t an industry. The Meat and Dairy industries are huge. If we want to make a dent in the amount of money that they are making then it is going to have to come from a larger movement of people than exclusively vegans and vegetarians. There’s the added benefit that flexitarianism, albeit an ugly word, can likely lead to veganism or vegetarianism. Sometimes I hear people say things like “I want to go vegan but I can’t give up blue cheese and buffalo wings.” So I can direct them to Kate’s Joint for their tofu wings but I can also say “So then give up everything besides those things.” It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
How does your vegan philosophy tie into environmentalism and other social movements?
On a pragmatic level it can be argued that being vegan uses less fuel and resources than an omnivore’s diet might. That organic farming supports sustainable agriculture and doesn’t destroy the soil. So it’s sort of automatic environmentalism in that respect. I’ve always felt that all struggles for justice were interconnected. It’d be hard to support any of my pansy ass liberal agenda without first examining how I myself might be contributing to oppression. That’s not to say that I’m some awesome perfectly ethical person because I’m not but I try.
Is it easier to be vegan in New York than in other cities or does it matter?
I don’t think New York is the best American city to be vegan in, from what I understand that honor would go to Portland OR, but it’s definitely easier than living in the boonies. I think if you mostly cook for yourself than it doesn’t matter so much but I do feel sorry for people who have limited options when eating out. New York is a great place for vegans because of the diversity and unlike the white man’s culture other nations tend not to have such a meat based diet and we get extraordinary vegan food from India, Ethiopia, Thailand and so on and so on. I do wish that Brooklyn had more vegetarian restaurants so if any rich vegetarians are reading this I hope that they will give me a bazillion dollars to open one.
Your Brooklyn upbringing and love for the borough is a large part of the book. Can you elaborate on what’s so special about Brooklyn?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint it but I guess it’s just home to me. I’m fourth generation Brooklyn royalty, I was born in Coney Island Hospital, Brooklyn is in my blood. I don’t quite feel like myself in other cities and I definitely relate better to the Brooklynese. Brooklyn has soul. I mean I’ve been knocked over by a triple wide baby carriage in other cities and let me tell you it’s just not the same. Take Prospect Park, you can go bird watching, go cruising for a blowjob, play cricket, paddleboat and join a drum circle all in under an hour. I ask you, where else can you do that?
What’s something about you that might surprise people?
People will probably be surprised that I get blowjobs in Prospect Park. But besides that I am pretty much an open book. Maybe that my favorite nut is a walnut because they would have pegged me as a hazelnut but nope, I’m a walnut.
Obviously your main audience will be fellow vegans, but beyond (or within) that group, who do you hope will read your book and who do you think will benefit from it? (Personally, I think it’d be cool if you sent a copy to the White House just to see the response.)
I always like when moms send me emails. I mean the kinds of moms who are always carrying hankies and that tell their children to take their elbows off the table. Those are the best emails because they are so polite and really appreciative for the recipes. If I get an email like that I immediately sit up straight and stop twirling my hair and cursing.
There’s a sense that vegan cooking, especially for you, is as much about community and friends as it is about food. For people cooking just for themselves, do these recipes work as well, or are they better eaten and cooked for a group?
All food is better when cooked for a group or just for someone you love. Holy shit I sound like America’s sweetheart, don’t I? But I didn’t write the recipes with a huge group in mind, most things serve 4-6 or just 2 if your portions are anything like mine.
There’s also a sense that food has a larger purpose, from your early punk inspiration for becoming a vegetarian to the political aspects of veganism. Do you feel that food does more than just feed us, and if so, can you elaborate on that?
Food is everything. It’s how language and cultures evolve. (I hope no linguists or anthropologists take me to task on that one). Food makes or breaks us. Food is politics and with everything we eat we are making a political decision. Most chefs, like Julia Child in particular, will argue that we shouldn’t politicize food that we should enjoy it-that food is about pleasure and I agree. But just because you refuse to acknowledge the world around you it doesn’t mean you aren’t part of it. I think we Americans tend to take what we are fed (no pun intended)–the consumerism, the television, the media. We have this attitude of entitlement that is just selfishness and we call it “freedom." We are taught to believe that our dairy cows are living on a happy little farm being milked by a blond maiden who has a crush on the stable boy. We are taught that Columbus discovered America and then sent some Pilgrims over and the Indians were like “yay!” We are just fed bullshit from day one and then we are forced into adulthood with these false foundations. So I guess what I am saying is the ignorance should not be a prerequisite for pleasure. Changing my diet was a nice start in breaking down the bullshit for me. In fact, thinking about what we eat may be the first step in any sort of revolution.
You talk about your roots in punk rock music and activism in the book, and you have a musical guest on each show as well. Can you tell me more about the connection for you between punk and veganism?
The punk that I grew up with was all about activism and nonconformity. Unless you were conforming to activism then it was fine.
What's your beef, so to speak, with Rachel Ray and the Food Network? Why should people watch your show rather than hers?
I have no beef with Ray Ro. I l.e.v.o.o. her. But my tits are bigger than hers so I think my show is better.
When you’re not cooking, what do you like to do for fun?
I like to play board games and go bird watching. So really I am more of a 65 year old than a 32 year old. I listen to NPR and pet my cats. I don’t go to shows too often but once in awhile I can be dragged out. I saw Jello Biafra play with the Melvins the other day and it really inspired me because he was punking the fuck out and he must be 50 or so. I felt really awful about myself because I was merely bouncing on my heels and that was tiring me out meanwhile he was jumping and miming (what was with punk and miming in the 80s?) and all over the place.
I also practice guitar and play with my band “In Case of Time Travel." And that is play in the singular since we’ve only had one practice. But it was a very glorious and groundbreaking practice so I think it is worth noting.
What’s your most recent recipe or concoction? How often do you create new dishes?
I’m all about the butternut squash right now. I’m like a solo Iron Chef most of the time, I use a secret ingredient for a week and I work it like crazy. This week I made a butternut squash risotto, butternut squash gnocchi and I’m working on a butternut squash pesto with pecans–it’s coming along. I don’t create new dishes all that often, it’s usually at the changing of the seasons I get all sorts of inspiration and then take a break for awhile.
For those of us who are utterly lazy, or when we’re out and haven’t had time to cook, do you have any local restaurant recommendations?
I think most vegetarians will be familiar with my laundry list of restaurants. Madras for their dosas and idli, Kate’s Joint for their tofu wings, Candle Café for their seitan and salads, Meskeret Ethiopian. My favorite Brooklyn top secret place is The Islands on Washington right off Eastern Parkway. The best veggie curry and stewed peas I’ve ever had. I like the seitan (inexplicably called “tofu spices”) at Rice on 7th avenue in Park Slope. For plain old healthy and yummy veggie food I like Organic Grill. Viva Pizza on 2nd avenue had vegan lemon lime cake the other day so that was awesome. I like the brunch at Counter but for 18 bucks their entrees need some work. Their desserts are pretty awesome though.
What are you working on next?
I’m hoping to work with my PPK co-host Terry to create a vegan joy of cooking, the working title is “The Orgasmic Ecstasy of Vegan Cooking Oh My God This Is So Fucking Good What The Hell Is Wrong With You People?” I think the boys up in Deliverables are going to make us shorten it though. Other than that we plan on really spitting out some episodes of PPK in the next few months. I’m ashamed to say it’s been almost a year since we filmed our last episode because we’ve been busy (read: lazy). I’d also like to open a restaurant, we’ll see how that goes.