Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Photo: Maria Villano
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Photo: Maria Villano

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an Oakland-based author, cooking teacher and activist. Originally from New Jersey, Patrick-Goudreau has made the Bay her home for the past 16 years. At age 19, she read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America and became a vegetarian. At 28, she gave up all animal products. She has written six vegan cookbooks, including The Joy of Vegan Baking. Her latest book is a new edition of the 2011 book, The 30-Day Vegan Challenge: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Healthfully and Living Compassionately. In addition to the recipes, she tackles such sticky subjects as remaining vegan in social situations and being in a relationship with a non-vegan, perfect for those who are trying it out for the first time.

Berkeleyside NOSH spoke with the author and activist recently to learn more about veganism and her new book. (Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more about East Bay vegan food news in past Berkeleyside coverage.)

Like most vegans, you weren’t raised that way. What made you decide to become one? Was it gradual?

I was a typical kid who really loved animals, and didn’t know what I was contributing to by eating them. My parents had raised me to eat dairy, meat and eggs because that’s just what we did. They also encouraged my compassion toward animals. I liken this process to being put to sleep: we’re innately compassionate when we come into this world, but we take in these messages and then go along with the status quo.

I know I wasn’t fully comfortable eating animals, but reading John Robbins’ Diet for a New America at 19 started waking me up. I hadn’t made these connections before. For example, I didn’t realize cows had to be pregnant to lactate. It’s one of the most basic biological functions, and I didn’t know that they impregnate cows just to produce milk because no one ever said that. It was like cows just come into this world ready to do that for you. So reading that book put me on the path to learn more. I watched everything I could and became an animal advocate, but still kept eating dairy and eggs. Later, I read Slaughterhouse [by Gail A. Eisnitz]. I do read happy books as well, but that one really awakened me to the fact that no matter how animals are raised or where, there’s still a violent end, and we’re bringing them into this world only to kill them.

The 30-Day Vegan Challenge

Let’s talk about the 30-day Challenge. Why did you choose 30 days?

Behaviorists and modification experts say that three weeks is really all the time you need to change a habit. I like the roundness of 30 days. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re 30 or 50, it takes the same amount of time to change a habit. Habits must be replaced with something else, and that’s what the challenge does. If meat is the habit, what’s the replacement that will still give the health and vitality? Whatever it is, it has to make you not feel like you’re flailing, deprived and missing out on something. You need to have a foundation on which to stand, so you feel confident, healthy and able to continue if you want.

There’s a perception that vegetarian food and vegan food takes more time to cook. What are some tips you can offer to save time in the kitchen?

I spend a lot of time talking about people needing to make the time to cook. We have the time, but we often don’t use the time we have to prepare food. We choose to do other things instead. Our threshold is already so low that some people think five minutes is too long. You need to change that threshold if you want to make healthful food for yourself and your family. You can accomplish so much more in 15 minutes than you can imagine.

The second thing is that people need to be honest with themselves about the time they do have. We often look at the vegetables we have to chop up and call the pizza guy instead. If you have time to wait for the pizza, or to drive to pick it up and look for a parking spot, you have the time [to cook.] You’re just not using it.

So often we open the fridge hungry. We look at carrots with their tops on and broccoli to chop, then we close the fridge and wonder why they decompose in the fridge. I recommend cleaning and chopping them in advance. Get the broccoli and cauliflower out of the bunch. If you see it ready to consume, it’s so much easier to put it into a soup or stir fry, or buy vegetables already chopped up. Marketing experts have figured out that people are willing to pay more for pre-chopped vegetables.

Those kinds of things make a huge difference in terms of getting vegetables from the fridge into your body. We make the worst decisions when we’re already hungry, because when we’re hungry and we open the fridge, we’re not going to chop those veggies. We just want to solve that problem. If you can decide what to have for dinner the night before, or that morning, you can defrost something and can chop your vegetables before you go to work. Or you can throw something into a slow cooker. Planning in advance really helps you save time.

Coconut Bacon. Photo: Marie Laforêt
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s coconut bacon. Photo: Marie Laforêt

What are some foods that are unfamiliar to most non-vegans that people should know about?

I always start by recommending to people that they try different vegetables. Even though this is California, and we have access to great produce, I encounter people who don’t even know what to do with broccoli. Certain foods are considered reserved for vegans, like tofu and tempeh, and of course they’re not. One of the biggest misconceptions about eating vegan is that your choices are limited. That’s interesting because most of us are choosing the same things over and over. Once you’re vegan, you’re so much more open and aware and adventuresome, and you’re eating a bigger variety of foods than before.

Eating tofu is not a pre-requisite to being vegan. If you don’t want to eat it, fine. But we’re looking to replace our habits, and that certain mouth-feel, or bite, from flesh is chewy, so we tend to look toward things that have the same mouth-feel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the accusation that vegans are pining for meat because they’re eating mock meat is not true. There are so many ways to get that familiar texture if you’re open and adventuresome. Whether it’s broccoli or tempeh, I just tell people to try something new.

Can you talk about what you call “being the vegan in the room?”

That’s the phenomenon when you say, “I am vegan.” Speaking those words takes a bit of courage, and some have reluctance to do it, because once you say it, the results are unpredictable. It’s an incredibly powerful position to be in, and opens dialogue, but it also might make people defensive because people see it as an affront to them when they’re not [vegan.] Even though all you’ve said is “I am vegan,” people will tell you what they eat and what they don’t, and how much vegan food they do eat, or that once they were vegan but now they’re not. It’s important to claim who you are and be proud of that, because there are so many misconceptions. Sometimes there tends to be defensiveness and hostility because you’re holding up a mirror, and people may see something reflected back at them that makes them uncomfortable.

Ultimately, when someone says “I’m vegan” and people get defensive, what happens is vegans don’t want to say “I’m vegan” anymore. They don’t want to deal with the conversations, the hostility, and how they are bombarded with misconceptions. I think we’re not good at understanding where we end and another person begins, but people take it as, “You should be vegan too.” There’s a difference between saying, “I’m vegan and I love living this way” and, “You’re bad for not being like me.” That’s not what you’re saying, but sometimes people take it that way.

Cowboy Cookies. Photo: Marie Laforêt
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s vegan Cowboy Cookies, filled with chocolate chips and pretzels. Photo: Marie Laforêt

For many people, going completely vegan is unrealistic. What are some tips you can offer people who just want to cut down their meat consumption, if not give it up completely?

Everything people do to eat less meat is a step in the right direction. This was my journey too. At first, I didn’t eat land animals but ate ocean animals. It tends to be a natural progression. I support people in doing whatever they do. I want to empower you to feel confident doing whatever you can do. The book doesn’t say to go vegan forever; the whole idea is that at the end of 30 days you can do whatever you want and you’ll have a lot more tools than you had before.

A recent study was released that said that most vegetarians at some point go back to eating meat.  Have you seen this in your own life, or are vegans exempt from this?

There seems to be a difference between those doing it for ethical reasons and those doing it for health reasons, and the study touched upon this a little bit. The study indicated that when people do it for health reasons, and don’t have the support, that’s when they go back. We live in a non-vegan world and we are a minority.  Of course we live in California, and it’s getting easier [to be vegan] all over the world. However, if you feel like an alien among your friends, family and community, it’s going to be very hard. You need to find community and like-minded people. When I guide people, going over the food and nutrition is the easy part. The social aspects are what trip people up more than anything. People can learn new recipes, but we still want to see our friends and families, and we should. How do we navigate [those relationships] and hold on to our values at the same time?

In your book you discuss how to get around the challenge of cooking when one partner in a relationship wants to go vegan and her partner does not. You call it “Finding harmony in Mixed Households.” What do you recommend?

It’s not easy. I talk a lot about compromise. We’re in relationships with people we love and who love us. Communication is hugely important, especially if we become vegan after we’ve started the relationship with them. They could take it as a judgment against them and we need to be sensitive to that. We need to hear why they’re not making changes or are hostile to it and ask, “What do you need from me?”

Compromise is key. For instance, the non-vegan might need to be willing to not cook meat in the house, so the vegan doesn’t have to smell it. Or maybe they’ll have a separate fridge where they keep the dairy and eggs, so the vegan doesn’t see it every time they open the fridge. We are living in a non-vegan world, and sometimes vegans want an environment where they can seek solace from it. Those are some things couples can work out but they have to be willing to compromise and communicate.

Giambotta (Vegetable Stew). Photo: Marie Laforêt
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s giambotta, a vegetable stew. Photo: Marie Laforêt

Can you talk about the challenge of being vegan in social situations? Where do you draw the line between making your point and making others feel uncomfortable?

I draw the line in my own mind. I’m really clear with what my own intention is. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind but to be who I am, to be a voice for the animals, and to speak my truth. That doesn’t mean that in speaking my truth someone won’t be offended, but I can’t do anything about that. If I’m compassionate and kind and truthful, that’s all I can worry about. I can’t do anything about how someone interprets what I say. I teach this to people all the time. I say, “Just be honest.” If you’re being judgmental about a person and want them to change their mind, they will feel it, but if you’re authentic and doing what you’re doing, that’s fine. We have to be who we are.

How do you keep to your values while not making your non-vegan hosts crazy? It used to be that maybe one vegan was coming to dinner. Now one person is vegan, one is gluten-free, one is dairy free, one is paleo. How do you stick to your values and have compassion for your host?

Vegans and most others I interact with aren’t on these different diets. I entertain a ton, and I entertain a lot of non-vegans. I’m accommodating everyone in cooking vegan since everyone can eat it.

Read more about East Bay vegan food news in past Berkeleyside coverage.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...