John Schlimm of VegFest Colorado on becoming vegan, grilling tofu and more (recipe included!)
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.
Amy Beadle Roth John Schlimm's Italian herb burgers (recipe below)
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.