Strict Vegan Ethics, Frosted With Hedonism
ISA CHANDRA MOSKOWITZ, a vegan chef, does not particularly like to talk about tofu. Ditto seitan, tempeh and nutritional yeast.
“I think vegan cooks need to learn to cook vegetables first,” she said last week during a cupcake-baking marathon. “Then maybe they can be allowed to move on to meat substitutes.”
Ms. Moskowitz, 34, was born in Coney Island Hospital, lives in Brooklyn, and is a typically impatient and opinionated New Yorker. She can’t stand how slowly most cooks peel garlic, makes relentless fun of Rachael Ray and rolls her eyes at the mention of California hippies.
But as a vegan and a follower of punk music since age 14, she is also part of a culinary movement that helped turn the chaotic energy of punk culture of the 1970s and 1980s into a progressive political force.
“Punk taught me to question everything,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “Of course, in my case that means questioning how to make a Hostess cupcake without eggs, butter or cream.”
The charm of Ms. Moskowitz — in person, in her cookbooks and on her public-access television cooking show, the Post-Punk Kitchen (theppk.com/shows/) — is that she makes even the deprivations of veganism and the rage of punk seem like fun. Like feminism that embraces makeup and miniskirts — the frivolous bits — Ms. Moskowitz’s veganism embraces chocolate, white flour, confectioners’ sugar, and food coloring.
Wearing a black “Made Out of Babies” T-shirt (it’s a friend’s band) above a red-and-white checked apron, she bent maternally over a batch of strawberry cupcakes. “Don’t you just want to pinch their little cupcake cheeks,” she said.
But can a cupcake be cute and punk at the same time? In the early days of punk, bands like the Sex Pistols were notorious for nihilism, anarchism and epic consumption of drugs and alcohol — none of which would seem to lead to tofu and chamomile tea. But as punk became more political (and as bands self-destructed) in the 1990s, many punks adopted a more profoundly rebellious stance: against drugs, against alcohol and against the whole habit of mindless consumption.
“It was about purifying the movement, about being poison-free,” said Ted Leo, of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, who led the band Chisel in the 1990s. He became vegetarian in 1988 and has been vegan since 1998. Many punks became vegetarian to protest corporate and government control of the food supply. Veganism takes vegetarianism farther into cruelty-free territory by avoiding anything produced by animals: milk, cheese, eggs, honey, etc.
“I would love to live in a world where I knew the eggs came from happy chickens,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “But in Brooklyn? That’s not going to happen.
“Besides, eggs are the big lie in baking. All the books say they provide structure, but that’s kind of crap.”
At 16, Ms. Moskowitz dropped out of the High School of Music and Art in New York to follow bands, live in squats in the East Village and cook for social justice.
“I learned knife skills by cooking for Food not Bombs,” she said, referring to the activist group that protests corporate and government food policy. “But I also learned to love Julia Child and Martha Stewart. Vegan food can and must be pretty,” she said, pounding a fist on the butcher-block counter.
Ms. Moskowitz’s kitchen, like punk music itself, has a strong do-it-yourself aesthetic. Her husband, a carpenter, builds more shelves when the ingredients threaten to take over, the oven needs frequent coaxing to get up to temperature, and if Fizzle the cat wants to sit on top of the refrigerator, the cupcakes must move over and make room.
“Here is the hideous curdled face of vegan baking,” Ms. Moskowitz said, gesturing to a bowl of soy milk mixed with vegetable oil and cider vinegar. Baking, she said, has long been the final frontier for vegan cooks.
Her second cookbook, “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World,” was published by Marlowe and Company last fall. Her first, “Vegan With a Vengeance” (Marlowe, 2005), has sold more than 50,000 copies.
“Omnivores” — that’s meat-and-dairy eaters — “can’t imagine baking without eggs and butter,” she said. “But we use cider vinegar instead of buttermilk for tenderizing, and really good shortening for the fat, and the rest just happens.” Nonhydrogenated shortening and margarine produced by Earthbalance and full-fat soy milk from Silk are her baking staples.
From them, instead of lumpy, penitential scones and muffins (the usual vegan baked goods) Ms. Moskowitz and her co-author Terry Hope Romero produce insanely fetching cupcakes with mousse fillings, butter cream frostings, chocolate ganache icings and sprinkles galore.
Ms. Moskowitz says that she has received passionate e-mail messages not only from vegans but also from parents of children allergic to eggs or dairy products, who are thrilled to find vegan baked goods that are not made with whole-wheat flour and egg substitutes and that actually taste good.
The next book by the two women, to be published in the fall, will be “the long-awaited vegan Joy of Cooking,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “Vegan food is everywhere.”
In the recipes below, North African spices lighten a rich vegetable stew with a peanut base; sweet butternut squash stands in perfectly for the sweet shrimp in an otherwise traditional Vietnamese spring roll.
Ms. Moskowitz and Ms. Romero both have been vegetarian since age 16, and vegan for almost that long. “It’s kind of like being gay, in that vegans tend to remember an ‘aha’ moment in adolescence or childhood,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “It happens when you realize that the lambs or chickens on your plate are the same as the ones at the petting zoo.”
It is also like being gay in that, 20 years ago, the notion of a vegetarian teenager was far more alien than it is today.
“People used to throw chicken nuggets at me in the cafeteria,” said Ms. Romero, who grew up in Plainville, Conn.
The number of adult vegetarians has remained steady at 2 to 3 percent, the Vegetarian Resource Group has found in 10 years of regular polling. But American teenagers have been taking up vegetarianism in growing numbers.
In a 2005 Harris Interactive poll for the group, 10 percent of girls ages 13 to 18 said they “never” ate meat, poultry or seafood.
In a 2006 poll of 100,000 college students by the food service giant Aramark, 30 percent of all students said that it was “very important” to them to have vegetarian food options on campus, up from 26 percent in 2004.
But punk vegans like Ms. Moskowitz and Mr. Leo acknowledge that they are still far outside the mainstream, and that the label “vegan” — unlike “vegetarian” — can still inspire a strong negative reaction.
“Any time you confront a deeply ingrained societal norm, people are going to get upset,” Mr. Leo said.
Ms. Moskowitz agreed that the vegan movement is in need of a public-relations overhaul. “I can’t say there’s no self-righteousness in the movement, and also, a lot of the food is awful.”
She said vegans should stop whining about what they can and can’t eat, and start cooking. “When someone invites you to dinner, bring something delicious, and share it,” she said.
This peaceable approach — smoothing frosting over the rough edges of rage — might be the key to Ms. Moskowitz’s appeal.
“You can’t stay angry forever,” she said. “Either as a punk or as a vegan.”