Saturday, February 18, 2006

Type Cast 5

Anyone who has been to my house for dinner knows three things. One, I don’t eat critters of any kind, not even semi-sentient prawns or probably-not-sentient fish. Two, I can’t cook anything - anything at all. I have burned canned soup to a hard crust and forgotten to drain the water from macaroni and cheese before adding the orange powder. The less I cook, the longer my guests will live. And three, I know the 2-4-One Pizza delivery number by heart, and the delivery guy calls me Richard.

I’d like to claim some deep spiritual cause for my decision, taken at age 17, to stop eating the local fauna, or at least come up with a sound ecological reason – but the truth is I am pathetically vulnerable to sentimental notions about nature and animals, and meat is too difficult to cook. People die every year from undercooked chicken. People like me.

Because of the above food issues, I detest cookbooks. Cookbooks remind me of the Sears catalogue - just as the sweaters never look as good on me as they do on the glossy pages, the food depicted in cookbooks is as different from the indifferent slop I prepare as Avril Lavigne is from Rita MacNeil. Cookbooks are hateful anxiety machines designed to breed disappointment, self-loathing and a unnatural attraction to coriander.

That is, mainstream cookbooks - the kind that focus on presentation over information. At the other end of the shake and bake spectrum is Victoria chef Sarah Kramer’s simple and scrumptious La Dolce Vegan! Vegan Livin’ Made Easy - an unpretentious, straight forward cookbook that will teach you how to make tasty meals and snacks without harming a single hair on a mammal’s head, your own included.

I consider any text with the subtitle “made easy” a pointy gauntlet thrown at my slippered feet. So, I tried two recipes from the book: a salty seaweed noodle soup that tasted like a slow stroll along a seaside harbour caressed by warm breezes (consider that line my audition for a wine column), and a tangy, dairy-free “cheeze” sauce that took about 4 minutes to make and saved a bin-bound plate of pale, over-boiled broccoli. Baste me in yeast flakes, I can cook!

Kramer is not surprised by my sudden conversion.

“I’m so proud of you! I write cook books for people just like you, who think they can’t cook. Cooking is not hard, you don’t need a funny hat. I have a test for all my recipes: if my friend, who will remain nameless, my dear, wonderful friend who can’t make toast can make the recipe, then anybody can do it.”

With sales of her cookbooks topping 100,000 in Canada alone, Kramer clearly knows how to reach the animal-free audience. And we’re not the easiest crowd to charm - the no-meat community can be fiercely judgemental and militant. How does Kramer handle being a spokeswoman for our notoriously cranky clan?

“I call those negative people the Vegan Police, and they drive me crazy. I guess I am a sort of spokeswoman, but, honestly, all I get from the vegan-vegetarian world is love, love, love. Any negatives I hear just bounce right off me. I try not to get involved in any community squabbles over who’s a good vegan and who’s not, and just do my own thing. When people ask me for advice, I tell them to pay attention to their own stuff and be the best eater that they can be. Finger wagging doesn’t work.”

Still glowing from my seaweed soup triumph, I ask for a simple tip to keep me from living on take out.

“Always have the staples around. Always have a can of chick peas, a tub of tofu, some soy milk and brown rice – from those basics you can grab some veggies and build a whole meal.”

Easy for her to say. Whenever I cook with tofu the results look like, ahem, pre-digested materials. What am I doing wrong?

“Tofu is like shoes, you have to try many, many types before you find the right fit. There’s soft tofu, which is good for smoothies, desserts and dips, medium, which is good for scrambling and faux cheesecake, and then firm, which is good for grilling and stir fries.”

“The other thing you need to know is that tofu is like cake flour, it doesn’t have a lot of flavour so you have to add things to it to make it edible. Marinating helps too – otherwise it’s just a blob of nothing.”