Dynise Balcavage is the blogger and cookbook author who founded The Urban Vegan, which is a collection of posts about Dynise's life in Philadelphia and travels all around the world.
Dynise has visited 30 countries and comes back with pictures of the food she ate and stories about how she procured it, whether it was easy to find or took a little more creativity.
The Urban Vegan serves as a great reminder of how much world there is to explore, and how no matter what your beliefs, you can find a way to fit in.
In fact, the Urban Vegan is even married to a non-vegan who she affectionately calls "Omniman." Dynise was interviewed by the New York Times in early 2008 about her "mixed" relationship. She acted as a great representative for the vegan community by letting the world know that it's not as hard as it might seem to be married to someone with different beliefs.
Dynise just had her first cookbook published, The Urban Vegan: 250 Simple, Sumptuous Recipes from Street Cart Favorites to Haute Cuisine.
The food on Urban Vegan's blog posts is always inventive and beautiful, so I expect the book to be a best-seller. She has pictures on her Urban Vegan blog from some of her recipe testers, so we can get a sneak into her cookbook.
1. I know you went vegan briefly in the 1980s, but the landscape for food options was much more barren back then. How long ago did you move back to the diet?
About 4 years ago, in 2004.
2. Have you noticed any changes within yourself since you went vegan?
Just before I went vegan, I had started to develop frown lines and laugh lines on my face, and had just accepted that it was a natural part of aging and the result of a stressful job in advertising. After all, I was pushing 40 at that point.
Within 6 months of going vegan, those lines diminished almost to the point of being invisible. My skin had never looked better. I see photos of myself before I went vegan and shudder. Despite the fact that I'm a few years older now, I actually look healthier and maybe even a little younger than I did pre-vegan.
I've also always had weak fingernails. Since going vegan, my nails are stronger and longer.
Going vegan is not the fountain of youth or a cure-all, but assuming you follow the 80/20 rule and eat mostly healthy, whole foods, you will almost certainly experience some physical and/or mental changes for the better.
3. You talk often of your huge cookbook collection and cute doodlings on the pages of your favorite recipes. What are the top five cookbooks that you use most often?
I use almost all of my 150+ cookbooks, even non-vegan/veg ones (I have developed an amazing ability to automatically translate from non-vegan to vegan!) The cookbooks I find myself using --and doodling in--most often as of late include:
Veganomicon by Isa Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero: Isa and Terry are tremendously talented, inventive cooks who empower their readers. They have taken vegan cuisine to a new level and have made the verb "to veganize" seem laughably obsolete, since the quality of their food simply defies any categorization. I also love how their writing is mildly cynical in its details, yet magically optimistic in its larger picture. My copy is already well-worn.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman: Very vegan-friendly and flexible. Teaches you technique, helps expand your palette and encourages creativity in the kitchen.
How to Eat by Nigella I respect how deeply Nigella considers food from all angles--the sensual, the visual, the historic, the sentimental and sometimes even the tactile. She's not afraid to experiment, which in turn, empowers you to take a few culinary leaps of faith of your own. I am in love with her homey, chatty and yet somehow dignified style of writing.
Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian: I love how expansive this book is and how much knowledge Madhur has crammed into so few pages. I find myself going back to this again and again, and learning a new trick or two, each time.
Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde Dusolier: This French girl juxtaposes the sensibilities of the traditional French kitchen with the global perspectives she acquired while living and working in San Francisco. Her recipes continually inspire me to explore and tap into my own influences. Plus, the photography is gorgeous.
4. I remember reading the NY Times article about you and your husband, and they made it seem living with an omnivore is difficult, but you and Omniman seem to have it all worked out. Do you have any tips for other "mixed" couples?
A few years ago, Dynise blogged about this very issue and gave five great tips for living with a non-vegan:
1. Understand that fundamentalism is dangerous. It's the root of so many wars. Issues are never black and white--except maybe for Vegan Treats' Oreo Cake. I would no less push my veganism on someone than I would push my religion on someone.
2. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Ever.
3. Respect each others' values. Since I don't feel comfortable handling animal products, Omniman [Dynise's cute blogger name for her husband] respects the fact that I will never cook with them. I also respect his decisions and his right to consume whatever he wants--disagree and worry about his health, though I might.
4. Be respectful. I am always touched by how Omniman is consistently open to and respectful of my values. And I respect his values and opinions. After all, I was once an omnivore myself.
5. "Be open-minded and be honest," says Omniman. "Don't be afraid to try something new just because it's vegan. At the same time, if you don't like the taste of something, you should feel free to express your preferences." This is good advice for vegans, too. Just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's automatically fit for human consumption. Some vegan food sucks. Let's work to improve it.
All these tips still stand, And yes, we do make it work. I must also point out that Omniman's cholesterol has dropped 50 points since becoming a "weekday vegan!"
5. I love to read about your fascinating world travel. What are your favorite cities/countries for vegan food?
Honestly, the very best city for vegan food, in my opinion, is NYC--just 90 minutes from Philly. You can get just about anything you want there: ethnic, upscale, cheap and cheerful, or fast food. Philly is not so bad, either!
Internationally speaking, London has the reputation of being a very meaty city. I suppose it's true, but since it has so many ethnic and vegetarian restaurants, it's also a wonderfully vegan-friendly place to vacation.
I know a lot of people have trouble visiting India because of the ghee, but wherever I went I requested that food be made with oil instead and enjoyed some of the best food ever.
I always ask.
I also enjoyed some tremendous urban vegan meals in China--steamed dumplings, braised tofu, succulent veggies.
6. Which countries/cities are the hardest to navigate for vegan options, and how did you find a way to eat?
Aruba was honestly the only place where I experienced a real problem. There were just so few options. The low point was one day when I had Sbarro breadsticks for lunch. I kept telling myself "This is only temporary, this is only temporary."
Dynise did an interview for the Philadelphia City Paper in which she discussed how she travels as a vegan. The author tells us that Dynise always brings staples like fruit, nuts, cookies, muffins, PB&J and Larabars.
The Urban Vegan recommends calling the airline to ask for an "Asian vegetarian" meal, if available. She also reminds that sometimes when you check labels, you can find great surprises, “On a recent trip to Peru, I was shocked to find tons of cookies at the airport that were actually vegan.”
Her ultimate advice for airport travel was to remember that it's only temporary, "Once you get to your destination, you can go all-out and order a four-course vegan meal. Look on HappyCow.net to find vegan restaurants at your final destination.”
7. Tell us about your Urban Vegan cookbook...
I am writing 250 Simple, Sumptuous Recipes from Street Cart Favorites to Haute Cuisine the Urban Vegan book partly because I want to show the world that eating animals is totally unnecessary, and partly to dispel the myth that all vegan food is bland.
The recipes are all inspired by my urban vegan life. Even though I was born and raised in a tiny, economically challenged coal-mining town, I’ve always been drawn to the ethnic diversity and ever-changing rhythm of cities, both at home and abroad. The differences in food, dress and cultures make me feel more connected to humanity. The hustle and bustle of urban life energizes and inspires me, and of course, inspires my cooking.
I get my recipe ideas from visiting farmers’ markets, restaurants, health food stores, food festivals and gourmet shops in my own city of Philadelphia and whenever I travel.
I’m constantly on the lookout for new, exotic products to try. In fact, when traveling, I try to bring groceries home as souvenirs. (The ones I can get through customs, anyway!)
Right now, I have a crew of wonderful, amazing testers who are using their eagle eyes and educated palettes to double-check my recipes. We also have a Flickr group, where we post new photos daily.
Thank You, Urban Vegan!!
Urban Vegan Interview date: 11/30/08