Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Jo Stepaniak for her dedicated efforts in bringing the vegan message of "harmony, justice and compassion for all living beings" to people around the world through her books, lectures, magazine and newspaper articles, and her Grass Roots Veganism web site.
In recent years Joanne has become a prominent spokesperson for veganism through books like The Vegan Sourcebook and Being Vegan. Not only has she spelled out the ethical reasons for following a vegan path, she has also made the process easier by writing a series of cookbooks that help people embrace a plant-based, earth-friendly diet.
Vegetarians in Paradise is grateful to Joanne for taking time in her busy schedule to tell us about herself.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Jo Stepaniak (JS).
VIP: Have you always followed the vegan path or were you vegetarian before becoming vegan?
JS: I became a vegetarian nearly forty years ago as a young girl. At that time there was very little information on vegetarianism available, and I did not know any other vegetarians. For me, it was a matter of the heart -- I just knew inside that eating animals was unethical and unnecessary. The term "vegan" was unheard of then; in fact, I'm not even sure where I first learned about vegetarianism or even heard the word. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania surrounded by hunters and dairy farmers. It was hardly the seat of progressive thinking, and my choice was considered quite strange.
VIP: What events or situations motivated you to become vegan?
JS: Before I was even aware of the word "vegan" I had thought about eliminating eggs and dairy products from my already vegetarian diet. It's been such a long time ago, though, that I don't really recall my specific reasons. It was something I had been contemplating in the back of my mind when my husband Michael and I married about twenty-three years ago. I was the only vegetarian Michael had ever met. He had chosen to become a vegetarian a few months before our wedding, and it was a significant step for him. I thought that asking him to cut out eggs and dairy products would have been too much to request on top of that. Still, a couple years later, we decided to take the vegan plunge together. There was no specific incident or epiphany that inspired us. We were motivated by a combination of factors, but underlying everything was simply our basic compassion for animals and the belief that eating or using them for any purpose was inherently wrong.
VIP: What person has had the greatest influence on you in shaping your life?
JS: Like most people, my life has been a work in progress. Although my core values remain consistent, my views and perspectives are always evolving based on the experiences I have, the challenges I face, and the various people with whom I come in contact. There is no single person who has influenced the course of my life. I believe that we each are responsible for shaping our own lives and that the best way to do that is to learn how to listen to and follow our heart.VIP: We've noticed that your recipes contain very few packaged items and that you're a "from scratch" cook. What is it about cooking that brings you joy and fulfillment?
JS: I have always had a curiosity about food and how to transform it into a culinary delight. I find it fascinating to dissect recipes and determine how to develop flavors and textures using basic natural ingredients. Eating highly processed and chemical-laden foods has never interested me. I was one of those "weird" children who thoroughly enjoyed vegetables (including spinach and Brussels sprouts!) and was eager to try any food that was considered healthful. Because I never was a chips-and-soda person, my cooking style and recipes reflect this. When it comes to food, happiness for me is a huge plate of fresh, tender, vibrantly colored vegetables served with an elegant vegan sauce.
VIP: Fewer and fewer people are cooking today. How do you encourage them to come back to the kitchen?
JS: It is tough to get excited about cooking after a busy day -- whether it's spent on a job outside the home, taking care of children, running errands, or managing a household. With the convenience and accessibility of prepared foods, our culture has become virtually reliant on someone else doing the cooking. Still, there is nothing quite as tasty and satisfying as a meal that is made at home. I try to encourage people to return to the kitchen by enticing them with simple recipes that require minimal preparation and cooking time. For instance, my book The Saucy Vegetarian is a compendium of no-cook sauces and dressings as well as a complete guide to creating uncomplicated, healthful vegan meals in a flash. The book inspires creativity in daring cooks and also offers the comfort of step-by-step instructions for those who prefer the security of tried-and-true recipes. In other of my cookbooks, such as Vegan Deli and Vegan Vittles, I provide recipes that bring back heartwarming memories of familiar foods or ethnic specialties that are rare to find duplicated in prepared commercial products. When people are presented with scrumptious homemade options that are quick and easy to make and are much less expensive than store-bought meals, the kitchen wins out almost every time (or at least several nights a week).
VIP: With your many endeavors, you must have to juggle between cooking, writing, lecturing, cooking classes, and answering Ask Joanne! emails. Can you give us a picture of a typical week's schedule?
JS: Most days I am planted firmly in front of the computer for several hours writing, answering Ask Joanne! questions, or hosting my discussion board, which is often a flurry of activity. I don't do as much recipe development as I used to because I am concentrating more on writing about ethical and philosophical issues. As a result, I rarely do public cooking demonstrations any more, although I do occasionally offer private instruction. Instead, my focus is on lectures and workshops that emphasize matters related to compassion and peace rather than specifically on food. In addition, I am a community mediator and spend a fair amount of time working and training in areas related to alternative dispute resolution. I also write a monthly Ask Joanne! column for VegNews newspaper and am the media coordinator for The North American Vegetarian Society. The only thing that is typical regarding my schedule is that I wake up early and go to bed early. For the most part, every week is unique.
VIP: When did you begin your career as a writer? What motivated that step?
JS: I have been a writer nearly all of my life. I began serious writing in the third grade, and although I wasn't very good at it, I knew I had stumbled upon my passion. I completed an entire book of poetry that year and have continued writing ever since. I won several poetry awards when I was much younger and had the honor of being published in a few literary journals. Today the emotion that charged my poetry fuels my prose.
VIP: What made you decide to establish an Internet presence? How did you go about setting up your web site?
JS: I never consciously set about establishing an Internet presence; it just sort of happened. I am very much a Luddite at heart. If quality manual typewriters were readily available, that's probably what I'd still be using! Luckily, Jeff and Sabrina Nelson of VegSource were kind enough to offer me a home and pull me out of the Dark Ages. Through their generosity, the Grassroots Veganism site was born. It was our intent from the start to create a site that would present the foundations of vegan philosophy while providing practical advice and guidance for incorporating that philosophy into daily life. This soon grew into the Ask Joanne! column, a forum where people of any age, background, or locale can send in questions regarding compassionate vegan living and receive a personalized reply.
VIP: How many people do you estimate reach you through your web site? How many questions do you receive and answer each week?
We reach approximately 60,000 people each week through the Grassroots Veganism web site and discussion boards. The number of queries I receive via the Ask Joanne! forum fluctuates from week to week, but on the average I spend about thirty hours every week answering questions. Some people are just seeking a quick referral while other inquiries require several hours of thought, research, and writing time. For a number of people, I am their only source for vegan information and support, and quite a few have stayed in contact over the years to update me about their progress and maintain our relationship. I literally have heard from thousands of vegans from every corner of the planet. It is quite encouraging and gratifying to know that even people in the most remote locations have heard about veganism and are interested in exploring and practicing it. My book Being Vegan: Living with Conscience, Conviction, and Compassion grew out of the abundance of inquiries I have received. The fact that people from extremely disparate cultures and parts of the world frequently express the same concerns and share similar hopes and dreams has been a constant source of amazement.
VIP: Many of our readers ask how best to communicate with hard core carnivores who say they just aren't satisfied unless they've eaten a meal that includes meat. How do you handle this question?
JS: Most people who say they couldn't be satisfied if they didn't eat meat have never actually eaten a vegan meal. In fact, most omnivores are not familiar with the vast range of exciting foods that vegans eat on a regular basis. They are unaware that contrary to being restrictive, plant-based eating opens the door to a world of interesting, exotic, and scrumptious foods. Without a sincere interest in investigating vegan dishes, however, omnivores will never know how delicious and filling they can be. But there is no way to instill the desire to know more about vegan cuisine in people who rally their defenses whenever the subject of a meatless meal comes up. Personally, I find it draining and futile to try to persuade omnivores that my food is tasty and hearty when they have already convinced themselves that it is not. I prefer to spend my energy educating those who truly are open to learning and understanding.
VIP: We notice you have a master's degree in education. Did you ever teach? If so, what subjects and at what level?
JS: Throughout my early career I worked with a diverse range of age groups, from infants through elders, in a variety of capacities. I have taught mostly in private settings, working with multiply physically- and mentally-challenged children, adolescents, and adults. I have foster-parented profoundly disabled youth, directed recreational and camping programs for disabled teens and pre-teens, taught at an alternative pre-school for developmentally delayed infants and children, managed a resource classroom for mentally-challenged deaf students in a children's rehabilitation facility, family counseling for elders, did advocacy work for sexual minorities, and most recently operated a private counseling service for more than twelve years.
VIP: What other degrees and certificates do you hold?
JS: I have a bachelors degree in sociology and anthropology and have done additional graduate work in education and counseling. I also have been trained in alternative dispute resolution, mediation, and mediation coaching.
VIP: Do you have any animal companions?
JS: Yes, we share our home and lives with two rambunctious felines -- Kalonji and Madhi.
VIP: What leisure activities do you enjoy?
JS: In addition to writing, cooking, and recipe development, I enjoy reading, artwork, yoga, meditation, and hiking with my husband. Getting a regular dose of nature is vital to my well-being.
VIP: How do you think the recent events surrounding Mad Cow Disease and Hoof and Mouth Disease will influence vegetarianism?
VIP: I think these tragedies may possibility influence a few more people to try vegetarian meals -- if not regularly, then on occasion -- but it also might just sway the public to eat more birds, fish, and other animals not directly affected by these diseases. If the masses are moved to eat meatless meals because of Mad Cow Disease and Hoof and Mouth Disease, they will be doing so out of fear, not choice. We simply will have a large number of reluctant vegetarians, anxiously tapping their toes until the time comes when they again can eat meat. Fear incites anger and hysteria; it has never inspired a revolution of consciousness or a transformation of core values. I believe if we truly want to move others toward lasting, positive change, we need to focus on an ethic of inclusion and compassion and be living examples of the world we want to see.
VIP: What do you predict for the future of veganism? Where do you see yourself in the vegan world five to ten years from now?
I find it disheartening that vegan values have been compromised of late and that many vegans and even some esteemed vegan "leaders" have focused strictly on food issues and veered away from veganism's founding ethic of "reverence for life." So many newcomers and young people harbor anger -- anger about the maltreatment of animals in our culture, anger toward nonvegans, and even anger toward other vegans who have perspectives that counter theirs -- and this misrepresents and distorts basic vegan principles. Until we can come together in harmony about fundamental concerns and approaches, we will not make progress in initiating change. As a social movement, we will be fractured and stymied. Furthermore, if groups and individuals persist in a battle of egos, we will continue to alienate the media, nonvegans, and each other.
In recent years, I have witnessed some very embarrassing behavior among vegans and animal rights activists -- actions that were motivated by all the wrong reasons -- simply because some people felt that the ends justify the means. Sadly, if we cannot be kind and respectful to ALL life -- human beings included, and especially those human beings with whom we disagree -- our movement cannot honestly call itself one of "compassion." A movement that engenders such apparent hypocrisy can have no chance of survival.
It is my hope, of course, that there will be a turnabout in our priorities and we will realize that without compassion at the helm we are doomed. If this does not ensue, I envision myself and many others continuing to practice our veganism individually but separating from the current movement out of frustration, disillusionment, and deep disappointment. On the other hand, if this shift in perspectives does occur, I feel the future of veganism will be very bright.
VIP: What other information about your work and life would you like to share with our readers?
JS: I believe so strongly that compassion is the solution to all the concerns that inform and inspire veganism that I wrote about this subject in my new book Compassionate Living for Healing, Wholeness & Harmony. This book addresses the nature of compassion and how we each can fully activate it in our lives. It also provides simple, practical techniques that we can put into practice right away to generate more harmony and happiness for ourselves and those around us. I believe the prescriptions in this book hold the key to creating the peaceful world we all envision and in which we all play a vital role in bringing forth. If there is one thought that I could share with readers, it would be to encourage them to embrace the philosophy expounded in Compassionate Living for Healing and to be kind to all, always.
Grassroots Veganism can be found at http://www.vegsource.com/jo. Reviews of Being Vegan and Vegan Deli: Wholesom Ethnic Fast Food can be accessed at http://www.vegparadise.com/vegreading.html along with a list of Jo's cookbooks.