Wesleyan’s Samantha Maldonado takes on traditional recipes and gives them a surprising twist, using creative alternatives from the local food co-ops to recreate tasty treats. Not only does she experiment, but she reviews her cooking techniques, adventures, and misadventures for anybody else who likes to get wild in the Kitchen.
Last week, WesStuffed members tried out and reviewed recipes from the new cookbook, Betty Goes Vegan, written by married couple Dan ’01 and Annie Shannon. The book came from a challenge the pair undertook called the Betty Crocker Project, in which they cooked their way through the Betty Crocker Cookbook but veganized the recipes. I recently got in touch with Dan ’01 and Annie Shannon, the authors of the book, to talk to them about veganism, loving food, and Dan’s time at Wesleyan. Read on to meet the Shannons:
Samantha Maldonado: How did you become vegan and get interested in the vegan lifestyle? Assuming you weren’t always vegan, how was it when you began incorporating veganism into your lives?
Dan Shannon: My first day of being vegan was actually my first day as a frosh at Wesleyan! I’d been a vegetarian for a little over a year before that, and as soon as I was on my own in terms of feeding myself, I wanted to make the switch. For me it was an ethical decision–I had learned about how animals are treated on factory farms and I just didn’t want to be a part of it.
SM: Would you consider yourselves foodies?
DS: I don’t know about all that. We really love to eat–is that enough to be a foodie? The recipes in the book are vegan versions of classic Betty Crocker-style all-American family recipes–things like Cheeseburger Pie and Taco Casserole and Pizza Burgers. I don’t know that those sorts of things count as “foodie.” Maybe more like “food enthusiast.”
SM: How does veganism play into politics generally; in terms of food security, environmental justice, even feminism?
DS: Being vegan really touches on any number of progressive issues. A plant-based diet is much more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than a meat-based diet because of all the fossil fuels, land, and water required to raise and feed animals to be slaughtered for food. It’s also more when you consider that you have to feed 13 pounds of edible grain to a cow in order to produce 1 pound of beef–grain which could be eaten by malnourished people in the very same developing countries that often export that grain to industrialized nations to feed our demand for beef.
SM: Could you elaborate on the activism you’ve participated in? I know both of you have been very involved with PETA. How did that involvement occur? Do you have any fascinating stories from campaigning?
DS: I actually started working for PETA right when I graduated from Wesleyan. I started in an entry-level position in the Campaigns department and worked my way up to become PETA’s Director of Youth Outreach and Campaigns. PETA is definitely known for using controversial tactics, and rightfully so. But sometimes you have to create a little controversy in order to get people talking about serious issues. Publishing a 30-page report on the animal welfare impacts of exempting chickens from coverage under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, while very important, just doesn’t get a ton of media coverage–which means no one ever hears about it. But you get a celebrity to pose in a suggestive ad, and people definitely start talking. We did a lot of both kinds of work at PETA. I wish I could tell you that the serious reports got more attention… but unfortunately the opposite is true.
SM: Could you describe the process of starting the blog together? How did it take off and get popular?
DS: It’s hard to say how it took off honestly. We started it right after our wedding in 2009, as a way of keeping in touch with all of the old friends who had come together for our celebration, and to show them all the awesome food we were eating (this was pre-Instragram after all). We started the Betty Crocker Project–cooking our way through the classic Betty Crocker cookbook and making vegan versions of all the recipes. I remember we got a comment on the blog one day from someone Annie didn’t recognize. She called me over and asked me, “Do you know this person?” I didn’t. It was weird! But then they started coming in almost every day–then by the dozens. We were mentioned on the New York Times food blog and I think it was pretty official after that.
SM: How did you decide to write a cookbook? What was that process like?
DS: It was sort of a natural extension of the blog project. After doing the blog for more than a year we had hundreds of recipes on the Betty Crocker theme–why not turn them into a book? We wanted to show people that you can still enjoy the same foods that you grew up eating, the same foods that your mom or dad cooked you as a kid, while living a vegan lifestyle. Basically we wanted to prove that you could make anything vegan. I think after this book it’s safe to say that we have.
SM: Beyond promoting a vegan lifestyle, what else do you do? What are your other passions?
DS: Annie and I love to travel together–we’ve been to London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Budapest, Istanbul, and a bunch of other places together. We’re actually about to leave on a trip for Lisbon in a few weeks. We love trying out different local flavors and foods when we travel–and we get back we have a whole list of local recipes we can’t wait to veganize. We’re also big nerds. We play a lot of board games and computer games together, and have an ongoing war in our household in the eternal Kirk vs. Picard debate–that’s about who’s the better Star Trek captain for the uninitiated.
SM: What are some of your favorite food blogs?
DS: Our favorite vegan food blog is called Vegan Good Things. And one of our good friends writes for The Kitchn, which is a great food blog for vegans and non-vegans alike.
SM: For Dan— comments about your time here? Anything that was particularly influential on your politics?
DS: My experience at Wesleyan definitely taught me the importance of speaking your mind about the issues you’re passionate about, which is a big part of why I went on to work at PETA and why I chose to write this book. At Wesleyan I ran a couple of different student groups, including the Wesleyan Animal Rights Network and the campus Food Not Bombs cell.
The Food Not Bombs cell is still active on campus today, and there are many more opportunities to get involved in environmental and health focused groups on campus. For a look at the Shannon’s book Betty Goes Vegan you can visit this site, or their blog.