VegFest Colorado, which runs this weekend, July 6 and 7, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, always brings in awesome speakers who inspire new ways of looking at food. This year's lineup includes cookbook author/activist John Schlimm, creator of The Tipsy Vegan and Grilling Vegan Style, who'll release two more books this year: The Cheesy Vegan, another cookbook, and Stand Up!, a kids' book about activism. In advance of VegFest, we caught up with Schlimm to talk about how he embraced a plant-based lifestyle, his cooking philosophy and more.
Westword: So tell us first of all what brought you to a life of vegan eating -- were you raised that way?
John Schlimm: I certainly was not raised vegan or vegetarian. I live in Western Pennsylvania, so we are very much encompassed in the hunting and meat-eating culture. I never even heard the word vegan or vegetarian growing up. When I was little, my dad -- who is a former butcher -- ran a meat-processing business. I come out of a background that is very much grounded in the meat-eating culture. The kids here, when I was little -- and it's still the case today -- we'd get off school the first day of hunting season. I would go shopping with my mom while my classmates went hunting.
What did inspire you to stop eating meat?
That's such a fascinating question, and I'm going to spend a good bit of my keynote talking about that, but all vegans and vegetarians are asked, "When did you decide to stop eating meat?" And it turns out to become such a fascinating question because we can pinpoint the obvious moment when we made that decision to stop consuming animal products. But the more you quiet yourself and think about it, that moment started much earlier. It really started when I was working in my dad's meat-processing business. In the past several years, ten years or so, those words "vegan" and "vegetarian" started cropping up, and as a cookbook author, I wrote several cookbooks that were not vegan because neither was I, then they started being put in front of me and I started doing research and understanding them better.
The ultimate moment for me came down to reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. It's beautifully written, he's a novelist and you can certainly see that come through in that book. It came down to one word on one page in that one book. On page 266 he's talking about Thanksgiving turkeys, it's a metaphor for all the animals on factory farms, and he said, "These poor creatures go through their entire lives unloved." It hit me like a ton of bricks. I circled it and highlighted it, and it became like a rallying cry. It was that one word that landed me on Ellen; it was that one word you will find in the dedication of my cookbooks.
And now you write vegan cookbooks. How did you decide on grilling as the topic for your latest book, and how would you describe your cookbooks?
There had never been a vegan grilling cookbook written before, which I found really surprising. Of course, now after mine came out, there are a few others coming out, and that's fine; it's good to be the first one who broke through that barrier. And I knew from the very beginning once my personal life transitioned that I really had no choice but to transition my public life and career. I wasn't going to write a regular cookbook ever again. For me, it's all about smashing through these ridiculous and silly stereotypes that plant-based eating is mysterious and uses all these weird ingredients that can only be found in a weird health-food store on Mars. I was determined to show that that is really not the case. The Tipsy Vegan came first, and with grilling, it was really about claiming our place at the grill. I like to think of them as parties in a book, and I like to think of them as parties to which everyone is invited. It's all very normal food when you look at the recipes and ingredients. You're rarely going to find anything that you don't know what it is, because I wanted it to be small-town friendly. I wanted people to be able to get all the ingredients they need.
And your next book, The Cheesy Vegan, is tackling cheese -- which a lot of people have trouble giving up.
It's so interesting because I'm like, what is this hold that cheese has over us as a society? Before I transitioned, I ate a lot of cheese and a lot of chicken. I was able to give up both pretty much without looking back, and I had no cravings for them or anything else. Particularly the cheese thing: It's almost like there's a cheese obsession. And what I'm going to show is that you can still have your cheese, it just won't have animal products with it. We've seen people exploring vegan cheese; some have turned it into a high art form, not always the best-tasting and often complicated. I thought, I'm going to bring the vegan cheese back to Main Street.
Was it tough making the career transition from "cookbook author" to "vegan cookbook author?"
Honestly, it was a very seamless transition because, again, when you look at my vegan cookbooks, there's nothing weird about these recipes or the ingredients. It just so happens, there's no meat, there's no dairy. Working on the recipes, you don't even think about those things because we're dealing with everyday, delicious, fresh ingredients you can find in any grocery store. There was no problem making that transition from one to the other. Not all the people on my team are vegan or vegetarian, which is perfectly fine, but what's been fascinating to watch amongst them and my family and friends is -- I'm not one of these preachy types. That drives me insane when people do that. Leading kind of by example a little bit and watching me go about my daily life and how I eat and live, suddenly they're starting to experiment with meatless products. A few weeks ago, my dad came to me, the former butcher, he came in and he said, could I have one of those veggie burgers that you're always eating? It was the last thing in the world that I expected. And he loved it, he absolutely loved it. He said, "I just don't like the taste of meat anymore." He's by no means vegan or vegetarian. And I said, "Dad, the meat you grew up with and grew up on isn't the same meat you're getting today." It's been fascinating to watch those little changes in people around me.
What would you say to people who want to try eating more vegetables -- or going vegan -- but are hesitant to take the plunge for whatever reason?
I think that the simplest answer is, just give it a try. Give it a try at one meal, one day, and you'll see it's not as mysterious or as strange as you may have thought it was. It's sort of hard to answer that question because as you look across the range of those of us who are out there on the VegFest circuit and are writing the books, you do see a range of personalities and different types of cookbooks. I can really only speak for mine, and I work really hard to make sure mine are all-inclusive, everyone is welcome and everyone is going to enjoy these recipes. You won't even realize you're eating something that's vegan. Don't be put off by the word, it can be scary to people. On my watch, it's going to be fun and delicious and you'll enjoy it.
And you get to grill, which is always fun.
It's not just the same vegetables everyone's used to throwing on the grill. I throw watermelon on the grill, popcorn, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, strawberries and coconut. This isn't your run-of-the-mill, you're-going-to-be-left-with-the-same-old veggies. The tofu, tempeh and seitan area, one of my favorite things to do is a DIY kabob. I have a whole chapter of marinades, and a whole chapter of vegetables and fruits. The kids especially go crazy over it. Anything we can do to get kids eating healthier, to enjoy eating.
Or adults putting alcohol into their food!
That was my sneaky little way to realize that vegan eating can be a lot of fun. I added rum to the hummus, vodka to the salsa, tequila to the guacamole, and that come from being a member of a beer family from way back.
And keep reading for one of Schlimm's recipes...
Italian Herb Burgers on Focaccia
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans 1 to 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats, as needed 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour 1⁄4 cup vegan egg substitute 1⁄2 cup roughly chopped white mushrooms 1⁄2 cup roughly chopped red onion 1 carrot, shredded 1⁄2 cup roughly chopped red bell pepper 4 cloves garlic, peeled and pressed 4 fresh basil leaves, chopped roughly 1 teaspoon dried oregano 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves 1⁄4 cup well-chopped sun-dried tomatoes 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 tablespoon soy sauce Vegan focaccia bread, for serving
Note: If you can't find focaccia, grill up some vegan whole wheat pita bread instead and proceed.
Life doesn't get much sweeter than a grill surrounded by good friends and laughter, and topped with these Italian-inspired focaccia burgers. Here, fresh mushrooms, red onion, bell pepper, garlic, basil, oregano, parsley, sundried tomatoes, and other ingredients belt out an opera of flavors we can all sink our teeth into.
In a food processor, combine all the ingredients, except the focaccia. Pulse until just coarsely chopped, adding more oatmeal as needed (start with 1 cup), until the mixture holds together when you make a patty.
Chill the mixture for an hour. Shape into patties about 1⁄2 inch thick and about 4 inches in diameter. Chill the patties on a plastic wrap-covered platter for at least 3 hours.
Heat a broiler and a grill to medium-high. Broil the patties about 5 inches from the heat source for 4 to 6 minutes, or until lightly browned (watch them closely, as times may vary), checking to make sure the ingredients are holding together well. Broiling first will help to prevent them from falling apart on the grill.
Using a grilling screen if desired, transfer the patties to the heated grill and grill for 2 to 3 minutes, turning once.
Serve at once, with the focaccia bread.
YIELD: Varies, but enough for 3 to 4 people
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From the book Grilling Vegan Style by John Schlimm. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.