Dynise Balcavage is a vegan cook who lives in Philadelphia, PA, author of two successful cookbooks, and the founder of the blog Urban Vegan. She has had recipes published in VegNews, Vegetarian Times, The Today Show blog, Philadelphia Daily News, and Végéteriens, (France’s first vegetarian magazine.)
Balcavage is currently in the process of working on a third cookbook, Pies and Tarts with Heart, scheduled to come out in 2013. Recently, she was kind enough to take some out of her busy day to answer a few questions for Global Looking Glass.
What inspired you to start your blog, Urban Vegan?
I had been vegetarian since age 14, circa 1977, but I’d started the original blog in 2006 after I went vegan. Plant-based diets were nowhere near as popular or accepted as they are today, and at that time, I felt very alone in my beliefs. Plus, at the time, I was married to an omnivore. By blogging, I was able to connect with a bunch of like-minded people. Over the years, I’ve become great friends with a handful of these original vegan bloggers.
What made you call it Urban Vegan?
I call my blog Urban Vegan because I publish plant-based recipes, and my content centers on my urban life, both here in Philadelphia and in cities I visit.
What is the philosophy behind the blog?
My guiding principle is simple – “good food is good food.” But the philosophy behind it is a bit more complex. Many non-vegans don’t realize that so many foods they eat regularly are inherently vegan. For example, I’m currently working on my third cookbook, Pies and Tarts with Heart, [and have found that] many pies, including most crusted fruit pies, are vegan to begin with.
Still, omnivores often have a dramatic, knee-jerk reaction when they hear something is “vegan,” a word I’m beginning to dislike. It usually involves a frown and a “No, thank you,” and is sometimes accompanied with gagging noises.
We live in a meat-centric country, and I think the insidious, looming messages of the meat and dairy lobbies condition these pat responses. It’s always been my nature to question authority and it’s the same with people in my circles. So, and I know this sounds silly,but it took me a long time to realize and accept that the majority of people do not question authority. They obey. Most people don’t take the extra step to research what they are putting into their bodies or how animals are treated – or mistreated – in the process. Heck, most people don’t even read food labels or know what a phytonutrient is. I feel that, even though my blog is not animal-rights focused – others do that so much better than I could – I realize that I am “representing” both the cuisine and the lifestyle.
So back to my philosophy…Vegan food is presumed guilty, and has to be proven innocent. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. Since it’s judged so harshly, plant-based food needs to be held to a much higher flavor standard.
You’ve traveled to more than 30 countries. How have your travels influenced your cooking?
Travelers tend to be curious people. I am most comfortable, ironically, when I am tiptoeing out of my comfort zone, and that includes cooking. As far as flavors go, I have my stalwart favorites, but I also love the wonder of discovering an exotic ingredient
and taste, a new way of serving a food, [or] a different culinary style. It is humbling to see how people throughout the world have interpreted various ingredients into radically different foods. It’s a constant education and evolution.
What are some of the cultural differences you have noticed in vegan cooking during your travels?
Demand creates supply, so the differences I’ve seen mostly concern acceptance of veganism and vegetarianism. I‘ve enjoyed great vegan food just about everywhere. But piggybacking on my earlier point, it’s interesting to observe how vegetarians in the West are considered “fringe,” “crunched-out” or “hippies.” Contrast that with China and Taiwan. They actually nationally advocated for citizens to go meatless one day a week. Vegetarianism is considered normal in India, and when I traveled there, it was so nice to be in a place for once where I was “normal.” Even the United Nations advocates a vegan diet.
What are some of your favorite foods that you discovered during your travels that you had never been exposed to before?
I had fun tasting my first mangosteen in India. It looked like garlic, but was an explosion of juicy sweetness on my palate. I love the “suco” bars on every corner in Brazil, where they make smoothies with exotic fruits indigenous to Brazil. I’ve been to Brazil three times and I still haven’t tried all the fruits, but some of the more exotic ones I sampled included caju (cashew) acerola, which sort of tastes like cherry, jabuticaba, which is similar to grape, and of course, acai, which is now popular — but expensive –in the U.S. And I loved sipping yerba mate from a gourd in Uruguay and Argentina. I think I liked the gourd more than the tea, though.
What is the most vegan friendly country you have traveled to?
The US and the UK. It was also easy to be vegan in most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries – Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Morocco. And of course, it was a snap in China.
What advice would you give someone who has never traveled out of the country before when it comes to finding vegan food?
Do your research before leaving. Read up in guidebooks and visit Happy Cow to find vegan restaurant and market options. Learn how to say basic phrases, like “I do not eat meat, milk or eggs,” in the native language. And pack along some vegan non-perishable goodies for emergencies. I did a blog post with more specific tips.
What is your go-to comfort food?
Pasta! I love pasta – the regular, semolina, gluten-loaded kind, cooked al dente. I like it most any way – with marinara sauce, with garlic and olive oil, or with veggies.
How have you evolved as a vegan cook over the years?
The more you do something, the better you get. When I first started cooking vegan, I spent a lot of time and energy learning techniques and getting familiar with what worked and what didn’t. I made a lot of mistakes.
You can break the rules, but you have to know the rules first, right? Now, these techniques are second nature to me, so I spend more time “breaking the rules” and experimenting with flavors. Playing with my food, literally. At my core, I still have the same food aesthetic, though: I like simple food with powerful flavors. I’m just getting better at delivering.
What is your take on the new push to become vegan? Do you see it being confused with being a new “it” diet versus a lifestyle choice?
I think the public sees it as a diet. But people go vegan – either full-on or in part – for different reasons. [President] Bill Clinton did it for health reasons, but Moby is all about the ethics of the diet and lifestyle. I think that no vegan PR is bad PR.
On second thought, actually, some vegan PR is bad PR, and sadly, that usually comes from vegans who judge each other mercilessly. I used to call these people the “Vegan Police.” Now, I call them the “Vegan Taliban.”
For example, a talented blogger friend of mine recently announced she is no longer 100% vegan, but is now more like 90% vegan, and she will continue to create fabulous plant-based recipes. Most people admired her honesty and supported her decision, and many vegans who were disappointed at least said their pieces respectfully. But one vegan actually threatened her with death – not a very vegan thing to do.
I think doing what you can, even if that’s a Meatless Monday, is better than doing nothing. Most of us were not born vegan or vegetarian and had to come to our own realizations at our own paces. I abhor judgmental vegans. As long as they act like this, the “crazy, angry vegan” stereotype will continue to be perpetuated. It hurts more than it helps, but they don’t see it that way.
Can you tell me a little about the cookbook you are currently writing?
Yes, I’m super-excited about it! It’s called Pies and Tarts with Heart: Expert Pie-Building Techniques for 60+ Sweet and Savory Vegan Pies. I’m having so much fun writing it and creating the recipes; some are traditional, and others are more inventive. It’s going to be loaded with gorgeous colorful photos, taken by my boyfriend, Paul Runyon – a first for me because my first two cookbooks didn’t include photos (publisher’s decision, not mine).
Right now, I am finalizing and re-testing recipes and we’re shooting pie photos weekly. My refrigerator is always jam-packed with pie “models!” Luckily, some of my (omnivorous) neighbors have volunteered as taste testers and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.