Naliaka

Chef. Educator. Taco Lover. 

Naliaka Wakhisi is the Brooklyn-based founder of NYC Vegans of Color. She works as a chef assistant at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and her own plant-based cuisine is available through Homemade.  When she isn't cooking, she works with youth at the nonprofit PRY SAFE, teaches entrepreneurship to middle schoolers, and runs a group fitness class at her local gym. She describes herself as a dancer, educator, chef, artist, and organizer. Naliaka sat down with me to talk cuisine, culture, and health. 

Naliaka-Wakhisi-NYC-Vegans-of-Color-Founder

Why did you start the Meetup group NYC Vegans of Color?

I think being vegan is a form of resistance: you’re making a choice, and you’re paying attention to what is in your food. I think that it’s a very positive kind of resistance that can uplift a community and get us back to eating food from the earth. I started NYC Vegans of Color, because I wanted to be around other people like me, who are vegan, and not have to deal with the cultural barriers of black people saying, “Black people don’t do that.” And I wanted to meet other people of color, like Latinos and Asian people who are going through the same thing in their lives.

Are most of the events food-centric?

They’re all different! We’ll go out to eat a lot. We’ll probably do at least one potluck a month. But we’ve done game nights. We’ve done karaoke. I do things that I would normally do by myself, but I just invite these other vegan people. We just hang out. 

Since you founded it in 2014, how have you seen the group grow?

When I started the group, I thought it was only gonna be sixteen of us, and we were just going to have to be real cool with each other. But within the first month, we had 380 members. And it kept growing: 400, 500, 600. A thousand. People who aren’t even vegan join, because we look like we’re having a good time. It’s year two, and there are 1,700 in the Meetup group now. Maybe more. I need to check. 

That’s huge!!

Yeah, I don’t even know. It’s too many people.

Naliaka-Wakhisi-Vegan-Chef

I think that it’s a very positive kind of resistance that can uplift a community and get us back to eating food from the earth. 


As a vegan chef and as the founder of NYC vegans of color, you spend a lot of time focused on vegan activities. However, when you were describing yourself earlier, “vegan” did not make your list. Do you prefer to avoid that label when in conversation with the wider community?

It’s very rare that I choose to announce that I’m vegan. I’m used to being shut down or marginalized automatically: “Oh you’re one of those.” People automatically think, “Oops, can’t do anything with her, because she’s vegan.” And I get the stigma. I used to feel that way too.

And veganism is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle change, but because I’m a new vegan, I’m still learning about all of those things. For instance, I own things that are leather--and when you say you’re vegan you do open up that larger conversation. So maybe I’m more “plant-based” than “vegan.” I just don’t want to have to explain myself all the time, and I don’t want people to feel any type of way around me.

Naliaka-Wakhisi-chopping-kale

Food culture is so steeped in tradition and in the economic realities of which foods are subsidized in this country that it can extremely be difficult to talk about nutrition with friends and family who haven’t decided to make it a priority for themselves. Do you ever engage in those conversations? 

I’m an action person, so I use social media a lot to try to show people how I live my life: I’m a regular girl, just like you; who goes to the bodega, just like you; who has high-ass rent, just like you. And I’m still able to buy vegan, organic food. I’ll post a picture of a sweet potato, quinoa, and beans. And I’ll point out that the full recipe cost me $7.00. Funds are low. I went to the store and bought sweet potatoes. I got a can of organic beans for $0.89. I got some quinoa for $4.00. And this will last three or four meals! If I had a family, I could feed the entire family. I don't shove it in people's faces. I just show people.

I got so much resistance, especially from like the black community. I think they see it as a luxury to be vegan and to eat organic. They see it as an elitist diet. I hear people say, “I don’t have time,” but nobody can look me in the face and say that they don’t have time. If you’re sitting in front of me, then you best believe I’ve canceled something just to see you. I have zero time. There is no time in my day. I have four jobs. I work seven days a week. No one can sit here and tell me, “I don’t have time to be healthy.” I don’t have time to be sick!

Why do you prioritize healthy food?

I want to have this energy and this mind when I’m older. I don’t want to be have arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. Learning about what a trap processed food is has made me start to pay attention and realize that I need to start now, because it’s my generation that’s feeling this.

In my grandparents’ generation and my mom’s generation, there wasn’t highly processed food on the scale that there is now. We are the generation that is suffering. So many of my friends--young friends--are pre-diabetic, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol...but I think it’s better to share recipes and to show people constantly so that they can have resources instead of having an argument.

Quinoa & Black Bean Stuffed Sweet Potato with Vegan Sour Cream | Image by Naliaka Wakhisi via Instagram

Quinoa & Black Bean Stuffed Sweet Potato with Vegan Sour Cream | Image by Naliaka Wakhisi via Instagram


No one can sit here and tell me, "I don't have time to be healthy." I don't have time to be sick!  


As an educator, you have a unique opportunity to address this with the next generation too--do you ever share recipes with your students?

I’ll do cooking days with my students, which has nothing to do with the curriculum--this is just how I want to make change in the world, because my students are coming in everyday with hot chips and a beef patty wrapped in bread. They’ll say, “You don’t get it. This is cultural.” No. I do get it, but I think it needs to change. Like chitlins--do you know what chitlins are?

Fried somethin’...

It’s the pig’s intestines. It’s literally the crap of the pig. People say, “It’s cultural!” But it’s cultural because we were slaves, and we weren’t allowed to eat the food from the land. I think if people start to understand the history behind their food, they’d realize why the culture has evolved to this. We either need to find a healthier way to eat these foods or we need to start learning about foods outside our culture. To me, it’s not insulting. It’s uplifting.  

Naliaka-Wakhisi-Blurry-Skyline

Were you a chef first or a vegan first?

I’ve been cooking since I was seven or eight--probably before that even. My mom would give me cookbooks and teach me how to make stuff. I was so picky that I always had to make my own version of what she was cooking. So I had always wanted to go to culinary school, but when I became vegan, I thought , “Oh no, now that I’m vegan, it’s going to be extra hard to go to culinary school.” But someone gave me a Bryant Terry book, and I thought, “Well, he’s vegan. And he’s black. And he’s a chef. So where did he go to culinary school?” And that's how I found the Natural Gourmet Institute.

When I realized NGI was in New York, I immediately went to an open house. I knew I couldn’t afford it, but I remembered being in that space saying these words: I said, “I have to be here. I have to be here.” I walked out, and I emailed somebody and asked if they had any type of work-study program. They didn’t. It turned out that they had just canceled one, so I went on living my life.

About a month later, though, they emailed me, saying that they were starting a new program, where I could get trained and then work for NGI as a chef assistant. They just needed 25 hours of my life a week.

I thought, “Crap, I don’t have 25 hours,” and then I turned down a high-paying, full-time teaching job because that opened up that door for me to work a NGI. My culinary skills have gone from 0 to 100 so fast. As a chef assistant, I get to do so much: I do private events. I do charity events. I do bachelorette parties. I’ve cooked for book signings. It pays very little, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. NGI is the best place on earth. It changed my life.

Naliaka-Wakhisi-Natural-Gourmet-Institute-Chef

I remembered being in that space saying these words: I said, “I have to be here. I have to be here.”


What is the origin story of your veganism?

It’s really not a huge story. My brother asked me if I wanted to do raw foods for like a month, and I told him,  “Uhhhhhhh nobody wants to do that.” But then I agreed. I guess I thought it would make me healthier. But I didn’t want to start a raw food diet and have my body still be processing dairy and meat--I wanted to get it all the way out. So I did three months vegan to prepare for this month of raw foods, and then I did a month of raw foods, and I felt great.

After those four months, it was time for me to go back to my regular diet--I had been pescatarian for 10 years. I had some salmon and rice. It hurt. I tried to eat a slice of pizza. It hurt. My body just didn’t feel good. So I remember wondering, “Why am I trying to go back to unhealthy ways? I guess I’ll just stay vegan.” And that was it.

What resources did you find helpful when you first started eating plant-based?

There’s a documentary called Vegucated, where a woman in New York teaches three people to eat vegan over six weeks. They were from different cultural backgrounds, so the things they were going through were the things I was going through. I related to it. Some documentaries really guilt you--you have to be vegan or else you’re dumb and evil. This one didn’t guilt you. It just talked about what it’s like to become vegan and be around your friends and family.

Naliaka-Wakhisi-makes-vegan-food

How has your perception of the meaning and value of food shifted?

I don’t like to create anything or share anything that doesn’t benefit the body. It’s very rare that--unless I’m really desperate or having a really broke week--I will eat something that’s not going to benefit me somehow. I used to just be interested in making food that makes people feel good. Now I’m interested in making food that makes people feel good and that is also good for their body.

What is your favorite food?

I feel like people don’t believe me when I say I eat tacos every day...but I do. It’s really hard for me not to make some kind of taco every day. I bought chili ingredients the other day, and I can’t imagine going through the week without that chili becoming a chili taco. I can tell it’s just going to come.

Naliaka-Vegan-Taco

I used to just be interested in making food that makes people feel good. Now I'm interested in making food that makes people feel good and that is also good for their body. 


What can you tell us about the taco recipe you’ve prepared for Chroma Kitchen today?

I feel like because I grew up grew up in Miami, I’m really connected to Latin flavors--the spiciness and the depth of flavor is just so good to me. And then through college and after college, I worked as a server at a lot of small, family-owned Jamaican restaurants, where I was able to be in the kitchen and to learn from the chefs. That’s where I learned how to make the curry that I use in these tacos: I’ve taken my love of the Caribbean flavors that I learned to make while I working at all these restaurants and combined it with my love of Latin and Mexican food. That is how this taco was born.

Naliaka-Wakhisi-Vegan-Taco

Check out Naliaka's Caribbean Curry Taco recipe!

Max

Rhubarb. Icthyology. Ethics. 

Max Elder might tell you that he does all that’s easy about activism and academia and none of the hard stuff. However, when he isn’t being self-deprecating, he will admit that he works in philanthropy and that he studies and writes on animal ethics. He is a board member of Thinking Animals United and is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

Image by Luke Elder

Image by Luke Elder

Did you grow up in a vegetarian household or was that a Max Elder specific choice?

I did not grow up in a vegetarian or vegan household.

How did the plant-based movement come onto your radar then?

It was not until Freshman year at Kenyon Collegein an Intro to Logic class in the Philosophy department. All the students had to go through a set of logic questions in which someone made a claimgenerally somewhat of an outlandish claimand we had to evaluate the claim logically and come up with a reason for why the claim was either valid or invalid.

Of course, one of the philosophical arguments used for this exercise was about the ethics of eating meat, a classic argument for vegetarianism; I took it home, and read through it, and tried to think about why it was invalid, and just couldn’t do it.

Ascension Hall, home of the Philosophy Department at Kenyon College    Image Source: The Kenyon Thrill, Courtesy of Greenslade Special Collections and Archives

Ascension Hall, home of the Philosophy Department at Kenyon College

Image Source: The Kenyon Thrill, Courtesy of Greenslade Special Collections and Archives

I came up with all these reasons for which the argument might be invalid, but they were all faulty logicor appeals to tradition, or to religious beliefs, or to Aristotelian views of nature that seemed antiquated, these pre-Darwinian notions. So I could come up with lots of reasons why the argument might not make sense, but none of them jived with what I thought was the worldview of the 21st century.

You come to the plant-based movement from an animal rights perspective, but in your work and your writing, you focus specifically on fish. What is the origin of that particular interest and what compels you to write in this space?

It’s not a sexy origin story, unfortunately. I was studying at Oxford and a professor of mine was an editor of a journal, and he asked me to write an article for the journal. At first I didn’t think that I had anything novel to say. Period. But then later in the dining hallI had just mentioned this and just finished explaining that I didn’t think I had anything novel to say, when I got into an argument with the person sitting next to me about pescetarianism. 

She was eating fish, and she was arguing that fish don’t feel pain and making all these other claims that I thought were incorrect, rationally and scientifically etc. And she said, “Ok well, I would like to see that research. I would like read that journal paper, if it exists.” And I said, “Okay, well then I will write it.”

dead-fish.jpg

And then after starting to do research and writing that journal paper, I realized that very few people in the world were thinking about this topic in a systematic way. There were a handful of scientists at universities across the world that were actually doing research in fish pain, but [almost] no one was reading that research. The few people that were reading that research weren’t thinking about it in a holistic wayabout the implications of the scientific underpinnings to guide human behavior. It seemed like a huge gap, and then, once I started thinking deeply about it, I just fell down the rabbit hole.

Rabbit-hole-ocean-unsplash-sean-brown

Do you study fish because you feel like it’s one of the biggest problems or just because it’s one of the most explorable problems?

For both environmental reasons and for moral reasons, I am convinced that it is, in fact, one of the biggest problems. Fish have not been and are not viewed in the same way as terrestrial animals are viewed. The fact that fish haven’t been valued in the same way poses a lot of serious issues, one of which is that (unlike farm animals for consumption) we really don’t know how many fish are killed in the world annually. Although different governmental agencies track those numbers, they all have their own methodological flaws. For example, none of them accounts for bycatch.

Lots-of-fish.jpg

And for those who don’t know, can you explain what bycatch is and what the numbers look like around that?

Yeah, it’s sad. Bycatch is when you’re fishing in the wild and you catch a nontarget species. In other words, you’re fishing for bluefin tuna, or you’re fishing for shrimp, and you end up catching a whole lot of other sea life, primarily because of the method by which you are fishing.

Sea turtle off the coast of Brazil tangled in a gillnet    Image Source: Projeto Tamar Bazil, Image Bank

Sea turtle off the coast of Brazil tangled in a gillnet

Image Source: Projeto Tamar Bazil, Image Bank

In the United States, at least, shrimp is the most consumed seafood. And shrimp is also one of the most unsustainable types of seafoodparticularly in terms of bycatch. Shrimp are really really small, and to catch shrimp, we have to use big nets with tiny holes. Therefore we also catch everything bigger than the shrimp.

Generally for every one pound of shrimp, we catch about nine pounds of other species. Most of this bycatch is dead on arrival—it takes hours to fill these huge nets, and it’s tremendous pressure. And if the bycatch isn’t dead, it’s severely wounded. Not to mention that there are regulations around industrial fishing, so people who have permits to shrimp, cannot legally take other species. They can’t even use the bycatch. And they wouldn’t want to use it. They want to fish for shrimp. They have limited space in the boat.

Image Source: Oceana | Our Endngered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them

Image Source: Oceana | Our Endngered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them

Not to split hairsbut just because I’m curiouswhat do you consider to be the functional moral distinction among land animals, fish, bees, and bivalves? I know that you are fine with eating honey; you’re fine with eating oysters and mussels. There are some vegans who fall down hard on the other side of that line, so where did you make that distinction?

On some level there is no agreed upon definition of vegan. I have a plant-based diet for moral reasons, and those moral reasons lie in the fact that we should be reducing unnecessary animal suffering. Packed in that then is a question about which animals can suffer.

Can Oysters Suffer?

There are plenty of reasons to conclude that mammals feel pain. There’s great evidence for birds feeling pain, and I think that similar evidence indicates that fish can feel pain. But at some point a line has to be drawnfor example, I don’t think that plants feel painand so the difficult question is where that line falls. There are biologically necessary conditions:  you need to have nerves; you need to have some sort of processing system, like a brain; and thenthe trickiest necessary conditionyou need consciousness.

Actin Filaments in a Mouse Corical Neuron in Culture    Image by Howard Vindin

Actin Filaments in a Mouse Corical Neuron in Culture

Image by Howard Vindin

Nerves, and nervous systems, and even a brain are not sufficient for suffering; the necessary condition (that I think insects lack and bivalves lack) is consciousness. Semantically it becomes thorny here, because “pain and suffering” are conflated. Strictly speaking, The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as a conscious experience with two parts: a sensory element and an element of emotional feeling or suffering. The heart of this problem falls between the differences of these two elements: the sensory and the emotional. In my opinion, it’s only morally relevant when that initial sensory pain rises to the level of consciousness that causes emotional suffering. For example, when I touch a burning cast iron on my stove, my hand responds immediately by pulling back

—in the spinal cord—

Image Source: Michael Wrock, Medical Researcher | Reflexes

Image Source: Michael Wrock, Medical Researcher | Reflexes

—yeah, in the spinal cord. To anyone else looking at me in that split second, they would think that I’m suffering. But the first immediate moment of sensory response to a noxious stimulus is not morally relevant, because I haven’t consciously felt it. The morally relevant aspect of that experience is when I become conscious of that noxious stimulus and how it is hurting me, which happens almost immediately after. So quickly that it’s hard for us to notice the difference between the two. But even we, as humans, respond to noxious stimuli before they cause us to suffer emotionally. 

We call that a reflex.

Plants respond to noxious stimuli; computers can be programmed to do this; the fire alarm in my apartment responds to noxious stimuli. Insects and bivalves respond to noxious stimuli, but I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that those responses are sufficient for moral consideration. I don’t know exactly where the line is, but I have an educated guess. When there is a lack of scientific consensus, generally I think we ought to use the precautionary principle to ensure we minimize the amount of potential harm we are causing with our actions. 

Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

Many people view dietary choices as a personal matter that you should keep to yourself. Can you speak to the ways that this is a social choice and a political choice?

What’s unique about dietary decisions is that everyone makes them, and everyone makes them multiple times a day.

Unlike other decisions that might be political or environmental or religious, this is an action that we all take, and it turns out that this actionparticularly in modern timesis not considered critically. We don’t fully understand or even grapple with the inputsenergy, water, grain, even animal inputs.

Government subsidies artificially affect the supply chain and what people eat. What gets subsidized has nothing to do with what we should eat, but has everything to do with political incentives that don’t inherently have the environment, or our health, or animal welfare considerations at the forefront of those decisions. The true cost of our food is never reflected in what we pay for it, andbecause of various loopholes, lax regulations (or lack thereof), and subsidiesthis is more so the case with meat than other foods.

Image Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine | Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict: How Food Subsidies Tax Our Health

Image Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine | Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict: How Food Subsidies Tax Our Health

And then there’s this whole other political aspect. What I’m really interested in is this very fundamental, underlying notion of what it means to be a consumer, and what it means to consume flesh, and what it means to consume a body.

One of the best, most influential books that I’ve ever read is a book called The Sexual Politics of Meat by a woman named Carol Adams. The subtitle is: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.

Bloomsbury Revelations 25th Anniversary Edition, published October 2015    Image Source: caroljadams.com

Bloomsbury Revelations 25th Anniversary Edition, published October 2015

Image Source: caroljadams.com

Adams parallels the ways meat consumption is advertised and has historically been sold as a hyper masculine endeavor and howperhaps controversiallywomen’s bodies have been consumed by men, as pieces of meat, in the same way that animal bodies have been consumed.

There is a history of sexist and, tangentially, homophobic oppression in the act of meat consumption. This happens in various linguistic ways and social ways, but most persuasively perhaps are the ways that it manifests in advertising, and historically meat producers have advertised their meat in pretty egregious ways.

So anyway, there is a very interesting and not often discussed sexual politics that is involved, and it is real. If you were to categorize the average vegetarian or vegan like you would categorize the average democrat or republican in terms of identity politics, they are overwhelmingly LGBTQ compared to the population. They are also overwhelmingly female. And that can’t just be a coincidence; there is a reason for it, and there are many theories behind that. One of the more convincing ones is that there is this entrenched, socially constructed view that men are strong, and strong men kill things and eat them.

As someone who doesn’t prescribe to that heteronormative view of the world, it’s easier for me with my perspective and sexual orientation to not fall prey to those sorts of advertising ploys or social pressures. But it is, nevertheless, ubiquitous in advertising and in society in general. So the decision not to eat meat is political on many levels, both on a metathe ways in which food systems are designedbut also as a very micro individual level of identity politics. Having a plant-based diet is a daily political decision by some to fight against what people see as a deeply entrenched, heteronormative, and oppressive view of the world.

What is the best thing that New York has to offer a plant-based eater?

New York has lots of wonderful things to offer plant-based people. One is obviously plant-based restaurants, and there are plenty of them. Two is lots of people who have plant-based diets. Overwhelming, vegans live in urban areas, but there are lots of vegans in New York in particular.

Three is a lot of very interesting plant-based organizations and academic programs: NYU’s Animal Studies Initiative is terrific. They do a lot of work around food systems and veganism. New Harvest is an incredible non profit accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, e.g. trying to develop a post-animal bio-economy. To sum it up: very cool nonprofits, very cool academic institutions, very cool people, very cool restaurants, all of which are very conducive to living a plant-based life.

Vegan chef Jay Astafa rocking the catering scene    Image Source: jayastafa.com

Vegan chef Jay Astafa rocking the catering scene

Image Source: jayastafa.com

Who are the most exciting, and influential vegan chefs on your radar.

Oh no...I really don’t know enough. I went to an event with Jay Astafa catering, and it was delicious. But I don’t know enough vegan chefs to answer that in any authoritative way.

When you go to the farmers’ market, what do you return home with on a perfect day?

On the best day: beets, mushrooms, and rhubarb. And we always get shallots at the farmers’ market. They have delicious shallots.

Sundry mushrooms from Madura Farms at the McCarren Park Greenmarket    Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

Sundry mushrooms from Madura Farms at the McCarren Park Greenmarket

Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

I know you scored some rhubarb at the farmers’ market this weekend. What did you make with it this go-around?

We made a vegan almond rhubarb cake, and we have rhubarb to spare! Which might become cocktails. Two weeks ago we made these rhubarb cocktails that involved muddled rhubarb. And we also cooked down the rhubarb to make the syrup for the cocktail.  

Mad Lovely Rhubarb from Red Jacket Orchards at the McCarren Park Greenmarket    Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

Mad Lovely Rhubarb from Red Jacket Orchards at the McCarren Park Greenmarket

Image by Mary Allen, Chroma Kitchen

What food brings you the most joy?

I love avocado. Avocado for breakfast. Avocado for lunch. Avocado for dinner. Avocado by itself. Avocado on things. Avocado in things.

Things in avocado…

I think I eat too much avocado.

Easy Avocado Boats by the Minimalist Baker (click for recipe)    Image Source: Minimalist Baker | Easy Avocado Boats

Easy Avocado Boats by the Minimalist Baker (click for recipe)

Image Source: Minimalist Baker | Easy Avocado Boats

But this is the season for it! Ok, last query: What is the biggest potential disruptor of the American food system, and what do you think is the ethical food movement’s most promising tool for change at this point?

Those are big questions...so I think technology by far has the biggest potential to be a disruptor, and there are plenty of technologies that are already being used or will be used to do really crazy things. There are all sorts of innovations in urban farming and vertical farming. And then of course, I think that culture technologies have true potential.

Cultured technologies involve growing animal (and non-animal) cells in a culture rather than in an animals. The golden snitch of these technologies is the cell-line that can be grown indefinitely. We’re not there yet, but the idea is that you could grow eggs without chickens. You could grow burgers without cows or fish sticks without fish. That, I think, will certainly be part of the future of food if not the future of food and will certainly change the game when it comes to animals used for consumption.

The first meatball made from cultured beef by Memphis Meats, co-founded by Uma Valeti, MD & William Clem, Ph.D    Image Source: Memphis Meats

The first meatball made from cultured beef by Memphis Meats, co-founded by Uma Valeti, MD & William Clem, Ph.D

Image Source: Memphis Meats

One of the most promising tools for change of the ethical food movement is actually virtual reality. A great animal rights organization called Animal Equality has filmed slaughter houses and built virtual worlds that you can explore with a virtual reality headset. This has a lot of potential, because it has historically been very difficult for the public to understand what's going on inside of slaughterhouses due to Ag-Gag laws and other restrictionsnot to mention the fact that most slaughterhouses are in the middle of nowhere. Studies have shown that the most effective way to convince people to become vegetarian or vegan is to show them how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. This is why Michael Pollan has famously saidand I paraphrase“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarian.” I would argue that we would all be vegan, but Michael Pollan is a wuss. 

Image Source: Huffington Post | iAnimal: Virtual Immersion Into the Reality of Factory Farming

Image Source: Huffington Post | iAnimal: Virtual Immersion Into the Reality of Factory Farming

Virtual reality headsets have been called, “the ultimate empathy machines.” Animal Equality has had some success travelling around college campuses with these. They’re basically letting people enter slaughterhouses and letting people see how animals are killed. All that to say, I think virtual reality is going to connect people to the sources of their food in a way that people have never been connected before.

In some regard, this will revolutionize the dining experience: there will be cool new restaurants that are all about virtual or augmented reality. On the other hand, when it comes to animals production and the ethical food movement, I think it’s going to give a lot of those slaughterhouses glass walls.

 

Henry

Broadway Actor. Cereal Lover.

Henry Gottfried is a Harlem-based actor originally from Nashville, TN. He currently works on the Tony Award nominated musical Waitress and is a Scorpio-Libra cusp. Henry sat down with Chroma Kitchen to talk plants, cereals, and nutrition on a Broadway actor's schedule. 

Is it fair to say that you are vegetable-curious though you are not vegan? I've been vegetarian in chapters. I've been pescetarian in chapters. At this time in my life, I’m eating everything; no foods are categorically uninvited, but I’m definitely more than vegetable-curious. I’m vegetable enthusiastic.

When did you first start to pay attention to nutrition? Early ninth grade, I remember giving no consideration to what I was putting in my mouth whatsoever. This was the era of us eating cookie dough straight out of the tube, studying for exams. And then spring of ninth grade—which was around the same time that I came out too—I just became kind of self-conscious and body conscious (as two separate things—but at the same time). And so very suddenly, I became aware of what was on my plate. 

How has your conception of what healthy food is changed since ninth grade? Specific to ninth grade, but not for very long after that, I was just kind of preoccupied with portion control, “dieting,” in the most general sense of less intake. These days I have absolutely no concern about the amount of food that I put in my body. If anything, I feel like I could always do with more good food in my body.

Have your tastes grown since then? Both luckily and due to certain parenting, I’ve always had a very open mind...a very open palate. I was never a picky eater. I’m really open to eating anything and everything. And I always really liked veggies. We always had good vegetables in the fridge and in what my mom served. Vegetables were always a big piece of it.

Are there any foods that you wish you didn't love (but that you do love)? It’s not really a food, but—protein bars. I have a sense that I could do better for myself. But the combination of being always hungry and really lazy means that protein bars are always an easy solution. So I end up eating more protein bars than I need to. There are other ways to get good, filling, sustaining snack food, but I’m lazy.  

Backstage on the national tour of Pippin

Before Waitress, you worked on the national tour of Pippin for eight months. Did that mean you were operating without a kitchen all that time? In brief, it was basically a new city every week, a new hotel room every week. We always had a hotel mini fridge (with the exception of one horrible city). Everything else was completely unreliable. 

Did you end up eating out all the time or just eating ingredients from the grocery store? The latter. I’ve never been so consistent about what I ate than I was in those days: You go to the grocery store, and you know what you can fit in a hotel mini fridge, and you know what foods you will go through in a week. Fruits and veggies in the fridge, a lot of hummuscheese not so muchbut nuts and peanut butter, cereals...

Bad-ass acrobats in rehearsal for Pippin

Talk to me about cereal.  As you know, I have a long romance with breakfast cereals. For years running now, my go-to has been Kashi Go-Lean. Period.

For a while, it was Kashi Go-Lean Crunch, which is also very satisfying. But Kashi Go-Lean has more of a punishing, rabbit-food, cardboard kind of vibe to it, which I really really like. It’s lightly sweet, and it’s filling. Ugh, I love Kashi Go-Lean. 

The punishing, rabbit-food, cardboard vibe of Kashi Go-Lean
Henry Gottfried Broadway Debut

What are your thoughts on midnight snacks? Wow, you know, it’s very apt that you should be asking that right now. On the Broadway show schedule, it can be hard to eat a full dinner before the show, so you’re gonna eat a dinner part two (or dinner in the first place) after the show. I never used to care much about when I ate.

And then recently my voice teacher told me that he thinks I suffer from some light acid re-flux—it takes a while for my voice to get going during the day. In the mornings I have less range, and my voice just gives me a harder time. It’s pretty standard; most people suffer from some amount of acid re-flux, but high high highest on the list of behaviors to avoid is eating before bed. So I’m not anti-midnight snack, but it has become a "no" for the sake of vocal health. 

Henry Gottfried Mary Allen Waitress

I know that you are an expert cranberry sauce confectioner. Can you talk more about that family Thanksgiving tradition? Confectioner meaning that I am an expert at making it? I am so flattered. It is the easiest thing to make. You just boil the cranberries, and sugar, and water together. As far as I see it, the longer you boil it the thicker it’s going to be and the better consistency. Cranberry sauce is very important in my house: my dad has a...you could call it an obsession with the Ocean Spray canned stuff. It is an absolute non negotiable.

So we always have the Ocean Spray, and for many years now we would also have the cranberry sauce that we would make—strained through an old school food mill so that it has got the nice smooth consistency. And then we would do a whole berry cranberry sauce, or a cranberry relish, or a raw one with horseradish. You can’t have too many cranberry sauces. And let me also say that I have enjoyed a few post-Thanksgiving meals of just cranberry sauce with a spoon.

What is the most important object in your kitchen? I would say a rubber spatula is the end-all-be-all kitchen tool. And we loved a rubber spatula in our house growing up. My mom has a collection, all different shapes and sizes: the kind that has a scoopy spoon, the kind that’s just flat for like scraping down a bowl, the little ones for getting inside a jar. So my mom has supplied me with a few of those. I feel like no matter what I end up cooking, I end up using a rubber spatula.

What do you miss most about childhood in your mom's kitchen as well as your mom's cooking? I miss cooking with my mom, and I always want to do it when I’m home. She seems to me to be this infinite wealth of practical cooking knowledge. She has an amazing cookbook library, and she knows some stuff. But it’s less about crazy techniques and more just that she has practical answers for pretty much every kitchen quandary.

It’s a totally relaxed oral tradition. Cooking with her seems like something from a bygone era. It’s not fussy. It’s always tasty, and it’s just a little bit low stakes. I love learning from her in the kitchen, because it feels like such a fundamental way for a parent and child to connect.

Are there any maxims or phrases that you live by (food related or otherwise)? This comes from my mother, which is fitting: "You're only young once, but you can be immature forever."

Nani

PhD Candidate + Lover of Bean Salad

Nani-Durnan-Rutgers-Grad-Student

Who are you? I am Nani. Age: 25. Profession: graduate student and teaching assistant of writing composition at Rutgers University. I was born in Hawaii, grew up in Connecticut and then in Nashville. I went to college in Maine, lived in France for a while, and now I live in New Jersey. 

What’s your favorite green and what’s your favorite grain? My favorite green is arugula. And my favorite grain is the humble oat, of which I am a proponent. Lately I have found it really useful to put steel cut oats in savory dishes. For example a soup. Or a coconut curry with veggieskinda like rice, but more texture. 

Why did you start eating vegetarian? It’s a very millennial story. I saw a bunch of documentaries and read a bunch of different articles and just realized it’s probably terriblenot just for the environment, but also for peopleto be eating meat. I decided with Basyl, my boyfriend, that we would be weekday vegans over the summer and see what happened. But no, I couldn't quite do without cheese at this point in my life, although I am a nutritional yeast enthusiast. I eat vegan very frequently, but I’m in a flexible phase. I identify as veg-curious.

Nani-Durnan-Basyl-Stuyvesant

What are the three most important staple items on your grocery list? I travel a lot, so shelf-life is important to me. I love canned beans. They’re good for everything, you just have to give them a rinse and then they can be a bean salad, which is my particular specialty. 

The next item on my staples list is herbs. Super easy to grow (although I don’t because I kill everything I touch; my mother would be ashamed). Everything that you put herbs on is fancy automaticallyeven if that thing is just rice or that thing is just a salad dressing. So it makes me feel rich.

Herbs-make-nani-feel-rich

And the last thing I like is yogurt, which I know isn’t vegan, but it can be! Friends, I have sampled the vegan yogurts, and I’m here to tell you...well, that nothing is like the real thing unfortunately. But coconut yogurt is good. Almond milk yogurt tastes like boogers though, so don’t ever buy that.

What was growing up in your mom's kitchen like? I never really knew where my mom got her food philosophy from, because she grew up in the Berkshires, eating Wonder Bread. But I just discovered that my mom worked for the Cambridge CSA, when she and my dad were living in Boston in the 80s. She would take home whatever was in season and find a way to cook it! She says she cooked her way through the (vegetarian) Moosewood Cookbook in her 20s and has most of the recipes committed to memory. Mom has an amazing green thumb. So when I was a kid, we had giant patch—it was literally a farm—in the backyard in Connecticut. 

It was probably ten feet by ten feet, and we grew all of the vegetables. I would grow carrots for the summer, and Julia, my sister, would grow the parsley and the basil, which I was always jealous of, because you don’t have to do sh*% to grow herbs. It’s so easy. It’s not easy to grow the other stuff. 

Do you cook from recipes or do you wing it with whatever you have on hand? I firmly believe that you don’t need a recipe for most cooking. You do need a recipe for all baking. (I bake for my students sometimes, especially when they’re about to get bad grades.) 

I know when to follow a recipe, and I know when to diverge from a recipe according to what’s on hand. More often than not in my daily life, I just improvise. I start off with an ingredient that I like, and then I give it the things I want to eat on it. 

Do you and Basyl cook together? We do. We love to cook together. Although maybe one of my culinary goals this coming year is to be less obsessive and insistent in the kitchen. I do like things chopped in a certain way, and I think that chopping sizes affect how things taste...so I can be a little bossy...which can make things less fun. So even though I said that I’m super cool and easy and I love to improvise in the kitchen, things need to be chopped properly.

Nani-watermelon

What’s your favorite family recipe? It’s my grandmother’s recipe on my dad’s side, and it’s called Oatmeal Bread. It’s very New Englandy: it’s a molassesy, oatmealy bread, and it’s the world’s best vehicle for butter. But you can’t put anything on it other than a light spread, because the journey is the reward. If you could veganize that recipe…

Are there any foods that you wish that you loved but that you just can’t get behind? Yes. When I was a young child, my picky thing was that I didn’t like red food. (I didn’t like tomatoes. I used to not even eat red apples.) And I got over everything, but I can’t get over berries. I never have liked them, and I continue to not like them. I especially don’t like raspberries and strawberries. It has never been a problem though, because other people always eat them for me.

When did you first start thinking about nutrition? It was in high school. It’s actually kind of a weird way I came into it, because my mom was also a super hippie yogi. (Yogini, I should say, which is the feminine...does that sound more feminine to you?) She gave me this book on macrobiotics that she had just read. I think it was called like The Hip Chick's Guide toit was something super Barnes & Noble gimmicky, but I read it, and it was so interesting! I had always cared about what was healthy, because it tasted better. But it was the first time I ever thought about food having a connection to your mood. Macrobiotics is all about finding a balance in what you eat, so that your mood doesn’t get out of whack.

And it keeps coming up in different ways. A couple of years ago, I was learning about the Ayurvedic Doshas, where everyone has one of three Doshas: you’re Kapha, Pitta, or Vata.  What you eat has an effect on that personality type. You could get yourself out of balance if you’re Pitta (which is the fire signyou’re very ambitious), and you’re always eating super spicy, irritating foods. Instead, you need to eat foods that that are cooling—e.g. bitter, sweet, astringent.

Nani-Durnan-Vata

What’s your Ayurvedic Dosha and what do you need to eat? I am Pitta-Vata. So sometimes, head up in the clouds (Vata’s the wind sign). I have really dry skin, which is a Vata sign, but my skin tends to be red, which is a Pitta sign. And Pitta is fiery, very ambitious, very organized, and you get angry...which...you know I have a temper. I think I’m more Pitta than I am Vata. What it means is that I need to eat foods that are a little more basic...And to a certain extent all of this is BS, but these are just metaphors with which to think about why it matters that you eat what you eat.

Are there words you live by (or eat by)? The axiom, maxim, truism I live by is..."an apple a day." I do eat literally one apple per day.