Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. She is also Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blogger and the syndicated columnist Edgy Veggie, is published in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Vegetarian Times, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Culinate as well as in other online and print publications. She’s an ardent advocate for sustainable, accessible food, serving on the board of the Miami boards of Slow Food and Common Threads. Ellen believes in close community, strong coffee, organic food and red lipstick.
Ellen Kanner: I went vegetarian at 13 because I love cows (and wanted to piss off my parents a little). That bit was easy, I never missed meat. Suddenly, though, I had to think about what I ate. That may be what led me to become a food writer.
I learned a lot about the food system. The more I learned, the more I realized I couldn’t eat dairy or eggs, and more, I couldn’t advocate my readers doing it, either.
I’m not big on drastic changes — they tend not to stick. I dialed down dairy and eggs gradually, but I didn’t miss yogurt or any of the foods I feared I would. And I felt better knowing I wasn’t contributing to the problem. I’m a real believer in ahimsa, the Hindu practice that’s a cornerstone of veganism. We often translate it as nonviolence, but it’s really more about honoring the sacred in all of us.
Change is challenging. I say it’s easier to change who you’re sleeping with than what you’re eating. But the great part about being human is we’re good at adapting.
CV: When people learn that you are vegan, what is the #1 question they ask and what is your response?
EK: People say, Isn’t being vegan limiting? I say it mean less, it means more — more color on your plate, more flavor in your mouth, more nourishment in your body, more positive karma for your spirit. And coffee, Champagne and dark chocolate are vegan. I say it as a kind of a joke, but when people realize being plant-based doesn’t limit options or pleasure, they’re more receptive to trying it.
EK: I get to cover great topics for Meatless Monday and as the Edgy Veggie, but the posts and columns are very focused — this chef, that nutritional focus, this seasonal vegetable, that farmer. Food is all these things at once and also part of a much bigger picture. To me, food connects us on a primal level. However different we are, we all need to eat.
CV: Who is the Hungry Ghost?
EK: I learned about the Hungry Ghost when I lived in Tokyo. It comes from Tao concept of humans so desperate and clutchy, they’re hungry even beyond the grave. So they hang around and haunt us. They’re appeased by food offerings and prayer. This applies to the living, too. Give us attention and good food and it quiets our crazy I-want-I-want-I-want hunger. The thing is, we’re hungry, not just for food, but for spiritual connection, for love, for a healthier life, a healthier planet, for the bigger picture. Feeding the Hungry Ghost aims to give everyone what we’re hungry for by way of terrific recipes but also with gentle nudges that enhance our connection to the earth, to each other and to our ourselves.
EK: Cooking is a basic life skill — and it’s a skill many of us never learned. Most of my friends don’t cook. Instead, they rely on processed and prepared food. Like most Americans, they’re trusting food manufacturers to do right by us. Everything, from our declining health to alarming environmental impacts shows this isn’t happening. And the idea that cooking is drudgery is a lie propagated by the companies who want to sell us more of the same.
Sourcing and cooking our food puts us in charge. We get to choose where we put our money and where we put our mouth. Maybe you’re okay with not cooking for yourself, but for kids be unable to recognize a fresh vegetable is not okay.
I’ve seen how simple cooking can transform. With Common Threads and other organizations, I get hands-on with kids in the kitchen — sharp knives and hot stoves — and when they participate in food preparation, they’re excited, they’ll eat foods they never thought they’d try. And they like it. Can I tell you what a thrill it is to see children gobble their greens? When we connect with what we eat, when we can nourish ourselves body and soul, it empowers us to make smarter, more compassionate choices. And it’s delicious.
EK: This is such a wonderful question — we knot food and feelings together all the time, never more so than at the holidays. What we want, especially at the holidays, is love, celebration, togetherness, a sense that everything’s going to be all right. The key is choosing how to best express it A ham or turkey isn’t going to create that. It comes from us. That’s what we bring to the table. A meal that causes no harm only furthers that love. Instead of ham, celebrate by sharing what’s fresh and alive. The vegetables and fruits of the season are so vibrant, you can taste the joy in them, and they connect us to the season and the earth in primal, pleasing ways.
CV: You write the Meatless Monday column for the Huffington Post. What inspires you to write a new article each week?
EK: I’d been writing Meatless Monday posts for a few months when my editor said, wow, I knew you could write a few posts about going meatless, but didn’t know how long you could keep it going. Well, I’ve been keeping it going for five years now. The thing I love about food is that it’s subversive. It allows me to talk about everything — the environment, ethics, politics, education, health, celebrity chefs and unsung farmers. The reasons to go meatless are endless, but the thing is, everyone has their own a-ha moment, their awakening, their first time. And as with sex, I want their first time to be wonderful.
EK: When I started with Meatless Monday, someone — usually the same person — would post a reader comment every week — “I ate bacon today.” “I had a hamburger and it was great.” Over time, even the writer of these remarks realized it wasn’t cute, it was stupid, and whoever it was stopped (thank you, by the way).
I think everyone’s more receptive to the idea of a plant-based diet — this is amazing. When I started writing about this, I was a pariah. Now vegan’s cool. I think we’re starting to see the consequences of our actions and our eating extend far beyond the dinner plate. Let’s hear it for progress.
CV: What is your favorite vegan indulgence?
EK: Nut and seed butters, any kind, every kind.
EK: Um, winning the Pulitzer? Through my books and posts, I want to keep exploring how food connects us to the planet and to each other. Through my recipes and dinners, I want to keep gathering people at my table for a seasonal plant-based meals. Pretty wild is the idea of living on a sustainable planet. My husband and I live in Miami, ground zero for climate change. I’d like us to stay above sea level. I can’t make it happen alone. That’s going to take all of us coming together. And one of the best ways to bring people together, you know, is over a shared meal.