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Seitan is My Lover

Vegan experimentation while unemployed, an L.A. story.

My perhaps unrealized calling as a gourmet vegan chef hinges almost directly on the fact that Hollywood is flakey, and even the blood in its veins runs thin under the weight of self-absorption.


I had just alighted in Los Angeles from Chicago, and before I could even move into my first official Hollywood bungalow, it was glaringly apparent that the job I thought I had was going to have a minor reliability issue. Namely, I was just never going to get called in for work. (Never mind the fact that this was a job promised me by a member of my family.) You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the gullible--er, girl. Out of the girl.


It is not easy to find a job in this town. Though you may try really hard. Thou art the place of perpetual potential, O ye City of Angels, but thou is lacking in thy follow through. Also, homesickness=depression. Thus lay I, becoming that scene in “Reality Bytes” where Winona Ryder sprawls catatonic on the couch chain smoking and calling a psychic hotline, minus the psychic hotline. It was just me and my best friend, Netflix.


One of the things I like to do when I’m sad, like many, many people, is turn to food. How I love you, food, you are so nonjudgmental. And nothing says “No one will ever love you like I love you” like chocolate. Because chocolate is like a possessive boyfriend. So I was looking online for a good cookie recipe, one that was perhaps lower in the calorie region. Being of the healthy persuasion, I opted to seek out an all natural sugar substitute. I know you can sub fruit for sugar but I wasn’t sure what fruit and how and when. “Ah-HA,” I thought, “if anyone would know, it would be the vegans! The vegans are a healthy people!” Besides, while I always felt veganism was sort of elitist, I have long been intrigued by it, being vegetarian and nigh-vegan. And lately it had begun to feel hypocritical to not eat chicken, yet still eat eggs. How does one justify that? Hell, if I’m too good for meat, I might as well be too good for dairy.


I was going vegan, and I was doing it my way. Oh, no, I wasn’t about to settle for that flowery earth goddessy approach, as exemplified in one cookbook I’d acquired who-knows-where, complete with line drawings of women with flowing locks carrying corn and beets.


The internet truly has everything. I found my culinary gateway, and it was underscored by The Cure.


What would you get if you crossed Souixsie Souix with flaxseed and Matzah? The Post Punk Kitchen, a delightful vegan cooking show (www.theppk.com). And also, my co-pilot into veganism. The show is broadcast on a Manhattan public access channel from the Brooklyn kitchen of Isa Moskowitz and Terry Romero, who plan to take over the world. One vegan cupcake at a time.


I find The PPK to be inspiring. Its mission is almost noble. “The Post Punk Kitchen is about happiness and fluffy white bunnies and running through the daisy fields barefoot, throwing tofu at passers-by and sprinkling all the earth’s creatures with magical nutritional yeast.” Really, they want to contribute to a happier, healthier, more peaceful society. And I can get behind that.


Suddenly, I had a purpose. I’ve heard that when you’re stuck the best thing you can do is to do something completely different. Einstein said he didn’t come up with the theory of relativity by dwelling on it--it came to him when he was occupied with something else. Apparently, I was on the path to enlightenment.


Giddy and vegan, I accepted my first baking mission: chocolate chip cookies. Did you know you could sub soy yogurt, flax meal or bananas for eggs?[1] True. I subbed soy yogurt for my eggs and used wheat flour rather than bleached flour, and to go the extra good mile, I used pureed prunes instead of sugar[2]. I felt like the Leonardo da Vinci of baking (who, incidentally, was a vegetarian.) At the last moment I realized my chocolate chips were indeed, not vegan, and it was too late to go to the store and get carob, rendering my recipe nigh vegan. But I wasn’t going to tell anyone, until, apparently, I wrote this article. The cookies came out crumbly and very flat, but good. If you didn’t think about them as being chocolate chip cookies and just some new fangled vegan dessert, yes, totally good. Yummy, even. It helped deceive the chocolate chip wannabe-ness to smoosh the batter all together in one thin cake, kind of like a brownie, in my casserole dish. Because I do not have a cookie sheet anymore. Having chucked it when I moved. I do however, have one oblong casserole dish, black with white snowflakes, that my mother bought at a church rummage sale and mailed to me from Ohio.


This is how desert can turn into obsession.  I couldn’t just stop at the cookies. Pumpkin waffles. Hemp brownies. Cinnamon spice pancakes. Pots de crème (with soy crème). Veritable works of art emerged from my oven. Even more boring dishes like homemade chili with tempe[3] and seitan[4] with broccoli. I’d shop at Whole Foods and Nature Mart and Trader Joe’s all the time, maniacally scooping wheat gluten and vegan margarine into my arm basket. I’d peruse labels looking for the offending terms “milk” and “eggs.” There are eggs in nearly every item of food we consume in this country, it’s true. I dare you to read the ingredients labels. I’d run up to my boyfriend with my bi or tri weekly baked good and breathlessly say, “Here try this it’s made with carrot love.”


Possibly I’d inhaled too much spelt flour, but this vegan baking thing was a bit thrilling. Suddenly, I felt like I had purpose. I felt inspired and creative. I felt like I could fix any problem with food. A bad day? Here, have a chai latte cupcake. Fired? You won’t go hungry, I’ve made mango tofu! War? Not after al-Qaeda tries a chocolate oatmeal macaroon!


Soon, it wasn’t just The PPK I was picking through daily. It was also Little Vegan Monsters (www.littleveganmonsters.com) and Vegan Lunchbox (www.vegan lunchbox.blogspot.com) and Herbivore Clothing (www.herbivoreclothing.com)--a site that doesn’t even have recipes, just vegan inspired clothing--and it was thoughts of a happier, healthier me, a me with a vegan cooking show, perhaps on YouTube, and with lots of meat-free loyal fans. Like LonelyGirl15 meets Julia Child.


And that’s how the idea for the cookbook started. First it was a casual suggestion by a friend, “Hey, why don’t you write a cookbook?” Then it was hours fantasizing about layout and the dedication. Because I can’t just simply cook a meal, I have to figure out how this can be a career move.


Writing a cookbook spawns all sorts of questions. Firstly, where does one get the recipes? Do you have to make them all up? Can you simply modify a normal recipe with vegan ingredients and call it lunch? What about changing a few key elements--does this constitute it as “your own?”


“No,” is the consensus I’ve gathered from online research. No you may not change one or two ingredients in a recipe and pawn it off as your own. (If anyone is an authority on the subject, please let me know, especially if it’s to the contrary.) Also, get this kids--it takes about three years to make the average cookbook. That’s the time it takes to try out your recipes, get them all typed up in a technical cooking manner--measurements, preparation (ie chopping, slicing, dicing, broiling, boiling, sifting, crumbling) and correct timing--also organization, and getting professional quality color photographs. Additionally, because the cookbook market is fairly saturated, it’s a good idea to have a gimmick or niche. What will make Joe Smith buy your vegetarian cookbook instead of the vegetarian cookbook beside it? Will it be the spinach and mushroom quiche on the cover? Let’s hope not, because there will be may, many quiche covered cookbooks clamoring for attention. You better have some fancy shmancy innovation under your poofy hemp chef hat.


Three years. Three years. My get-rich-quick scheme had a three year plan.


So for now, the “cookbook” lays germinating in a corner of my mind, assuming the Winona Ryder position. A possible “someday” option. “Someday” when I don’t need it to be a money-making vehicle for me right now. Have I forsaken my vegan ways due to financial disappointment? No! Well, yes, there was some forsaking, but no, not because of financial reasons. More than anything, it was the sushi that did it. Quite frankly, I don’t like veggie sushi. There’s nothing in the world more boring to me than taking a couple slivers of cucumber and wrapping them with rice and seaweed. No, no, I need some spicy tuna or tempura shrimp in there, please.


And also, without eggs, vegan cupcakes come out a lot like muffins, which is fine when you want a muffin, but not fine when you want a cupcake. Also, Ben & Jerry’s--decidedly not vegan.


I still make vegan recipes. I still bake vegan goodies. I enjoy it. I find it to be therapeutic. The recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent an entire day cooking and baking with family and friends, and I loved it. It’s zen.


Besides, it tides over the artist in me when I’m stuck; the medium of food allows me to create edible art as often as I want. At first it’s like a paint by number, following the instructions to the teaspoon--and the more I practice, the more I can experiment and make my own masterpieces. So--perhaps a job it is not. At this moment. For now, I dabble.


And for now, I remain incorrigibly nigh-vegan.

[1]1/4 cup soy yogurt = 1 egg. 1 Tablespoon flax seeds plus 3 Tablespoons water replaces one egg. Finely grind 1 tablespoon whole flaxseeds in a blender or coffee grinder, or use 2 1/2 tablespoons pre-ground flaxseeds. Transfer to a bowl and beat in 3 tablespoons of water using a whisk or fork until it’s about the consistency of an egg. 1/2 banana = 1 egg. Blend or mash until smooth.

[2]Substitute pureed pitted prunes for sugar—for one cup of prune puree, simply blend 1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) of pitted prunes and 6 tablespoons of water.

[3]Soy bean cake.

[4] Wheat glutton .

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