Part II: Jason Das
Jason is a co-founder of SuperVegan.com. He is responsible for most of the design and front-end code on the site, and more than a little of the content. Along with Deborah Diamant, Jason is a co-founder and co-organizer of Vegan Drinks.
Jason is also a freelance web developer and an artist in various capacities. You can keep tabs on his various rackets at Jason Das.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Harglass, we’re back! You’re listening to It’s All About Food. Ah yes, I can relax now! We’re going to be talking about fun vegan things with Jason Das who is the co-founder of Super Vegan. He is responsible for most of the design and front end code of the site supervegan.com and more than a little more of the content. Along with Deborah Deomont, Jason is a co-founder and co-organizer of Vegan Drinks. He’s a freelance web developer and artist in various capacities and you can keep tabs on his various rackets at jasondas.com. Welcome to It’s All About Food Jason.
Jason Das: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Thanks for joining me here today. So when I think about the world of vegans, superheroes do come to mind.
Jason Das: Really, which ones?
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I make them up! New ones!
Jason Das: There you go!
Caryn Hartglass: New vegan superheroes that have come to save the world!
Jason Das: Yeah! Well, I’d rather turn that on its head and have it be all the little people and not the superheroes who are doing it. If we wait for just heroes to do it, that’s not going to save the animals, what we need for everybody, the man on the street as they say that’s looking up at Superman, he’s got to be vegan.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. That reminds me of a musical that I was just participating in a reading for, a new musical called the Masked Zinfindel and the moral of the story was that this masked superhero was really just some guy.
Jason Das: There you go! Be your own hero; don’t wait for someone else to save the world.
Caryn Hartglass: Be your own hero! Right on, that’s the ongoing message. Okay, so you started this super vegan thing about six years ago?
Jason Das: That’s right, almost exactly. We launched sometime in May, I forget the exact birthday. It’s been an interesting road, we’ve gone through a lot of permutations and we’re going through more now, which I won’t talk about too much because enough of these things haven’t happened yet and I have a bad habit of making them not happen exactly as we announce. Super Vegan has been a leading online resource for vegan information and especially for New York City with our big restaurant guide and a lot of posts about local events. It’s been great and it’s been really interesting to just watch the vegan web and internet presence change over that time.
Caryn Hartglass: Well these last six years have been amazing in terms of change, which obviously you’ve kind of been keeping track of.
Jason Das: Yeah, exactly! Participants to some degree but also, you become a very concerned fly on the wall when you have your own property in the space, of course. Just seeing who else does things well, seeing other sites pop up and then disappear again. One thing I’ll say for Super Vegan is that we’re like ancient survivors at this point, which is a strange thing to say about a six year old, but that’s web for you!
Caryn Hartglass: Well in the web blog world, that’s pretty old. I’m sure it keeps you busy because here in NYC, the greatest city in the world, we have so many vegan restaurants and events.
Jason Das: We do! And also a lot of, and this has changed a lot over the last six years, is the number of non-vegan places that are catering to vegans or are using the word vegan. The word is just out there in a way that it wasn’t six years ago and definitely wasn’t ten years ago or longer ago. At some random place somewhere will be something marked “vegan.” That to me is a tremendous victory and I think that’s really wonderful. The word is out there, the concept is out there and while going to vegan restaurants and supporting vegan businesses is a wonderful thing to do, it’s also wonderful to be able to have vegan options at as many places as possible. As far as the vegan events, we’re celebrating another birthday. Actually, tomorrow, May 31st it’ll be the fourth anniversary of Vegan Drinks which is a monthly, after-work bar night that we’ve been doing in New York now for four years. We open sourced the concept and said, “Take this, run with it and do it in your city,” and now over thirty cities around the world have their own Vegan Drinks events, which is just wonderful.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. So, Vegan Drinks, what does that consist of?
Jason Das: Showing up and drinking. We’re pretty loose. It is held in a bar and you do have to be over 21. That can be the only weakness of the concept is that if you’re under 21 then you can’t participate. I don’t feel great about that, but everything else I feel great about. We really started out as coffee and there were these other events, Green Drink and Drinking Liberally were two events we were aware of where people who were concerned about certain kinds of issues could mix and mingle without there being specific programmatic content, without there being a specific activist show up, without paying any money, and in our case, without even RSVP’ing, you just show up. You can stay for fifteen minutes, you can stay for three hours, you can stay at the bar after the event is over and people sure do. We would provide an unstructured space. I think that was really important for something vegan that it wouldn’t be about food first. It’s so common for vegan social events to center around food, for plenty of good and obvious reasons, and it’s really important for us at Vegan Drinks, but it wouldn’t be about that. It would be about meeting people. You know, you go to a meet up dinner, and you all sit down around the table and you talk to the three people next to you. Nothing wrong with that but when you come to Vegan Drinks, you get a drink and you could talk to the three people next to you, but it’s just free movement so you could meet 80 people or 100 people in a night. I often have and forget their names, but that’s a different problem. Just to have this open ended event where anything can happen and everyone here is either vegan or interested in or supportive of veganism.
Caryn Hartglass: What about the drinks themselves? Because there are some drinks out there that aren’t vegan.
Jason Das: That’s for sure, yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s a detail though.
Jason Das: I’m just going to throw a quick side shout-out to the Pine Box Rock Shop which is the only vegan bar in NYC. They’re great, they actually hosted last month’s vegan drinks even there, and they’re out in Bushwick. They’ve got a lot of amazing cocktails and everything, but there you can go and just order anything because they’ve checked it out for you, even the really obvious stuff, like they make an imitation of Bailey’s Irish Cream, stuff like that. Yes, the Bloody Mary’s have Worcestershire sauce is vegan, we know, stuff that in a normal bar you would never assume. They also will check out that the wine and beer is vegan and that is something that we try to do for the bars where we have Vegan Drinks is provide a list of the kind of beer they have on tap and here are the ones that are vegan or not. Most American beers are vegan and even a lot of foreign beers available here are. Actually more of a problem are the organic ones unfortunately. Wine is a hairier thing, most bars don’t have that great a wine selection anyway. If you do drink alcohol and you care about your drinks being vegan, Barnivore.com is the ultimate resource. Barnivore is really a wonderful thing, that’s where we check it out. So we do some good deals, but it’s mostly about the people and we don’t care what you drink. People could come to vegan drinks and drink something non-vegan and we’re not policing that. Also many people come that don’t drink alcohol although it is held in an alcohol environment, there a plenty of straight-edged people, people who can show up and have a great time.
Caryn Hartglass: Is there anything special about this four year anniversary event?
Jason Das: We’re going to have some cake. I just did the biggest mistake when organizing a vegan event by saying that there will be food. We will have some birthday cake that Vérité Catering are hooking us up with. There will be a celebratory atmosphere but that’s kind of true of every vegan drink. We’re just really proud that we’ve pulled this off for this long, that it’s still going strong, that it’s not boring and people still want to come out. It’s grown as an event. We used to worry, “Oh, will we have enough people?” and now we always have plenty of people which is wonderful.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so you said that there were some things you can’t talk about but can you tell me where you’d like Super Vegan to go? Is it just going to continue to be an event spot and reviews of restaurants?
Jason Das: That’s certainly not going away. Actually, a technical problem that we’ve had, but basically we’ve had problems with user accounts and people actually hadn’t been able to leave restaurant reviews for rather too long now. So just some obvious fixing that goes along with building a secure website to go on a shaky technological foundation. It’s a legacy problem; if you were starting fresh today, you’d be starting with better tools and that’s just a problem of a lot of online applications and community tabs. The most obvious things are just fixing things like that that are broken, just bigger, better, stronger, more modern, more useful, and more information. I don’t think there’s anything that’s totally going to shock anyone. Use your imagination. It’s going to be what it should be.
Caryn Hartglass: So what’s your story? When did you start doing this vegan thing?
Jason Das: Sure, that’s a good question. I was almost vegan for many years before I became actually set on being vegan and stopped using animal products.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, almost vegan is a pretty good thing.
Jason Das: It is. I think that the only problem with almost vegans is that if you go around saying that you’re vegan and then doing things that aren’t vegan, I really do think that does mess it up for other people. Before I was 100 percent, I never claimed I was and I would encourage others to do the same. For me, someone brought brownies to work, well I’m going to eat a free brownie and that’s not a vegan thing to do. You’re lost in the airport somewhere and the only food you can get isn’t vegan and you’re willing to eat it, then great, but please don’t go around claiming you’re vegan. I didn’t and this went on for a long time and at some point I realized I know veganism is a good idea and I know I believe in it but I’m apparently not ready to commit to it. I honestly waited till the path of least resistance arrived: I was working at a vegan office and I was living with a vegan girlfriend. It was really only if I ended up in an odd situation that I wasn’t vegan in the first place. The same had happened with going vegetarian maybe eight years before that. I had been almost vegetarian for so long that it came to a point where I was just like, “Go with it, it’s not that big of a deal.” I would encourage the gradual approach for everyone. I think that if you do any major lifestyle change overnight or go cold turkey, you’re going to have a lot more trouble with it. You probably won’t feel it as equally so you’ll have an easier time turning around on it.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. I like to say that in the real world, none of us are truly vegan because there are so many animal products in so many different things that it’s just impossible to avoid being exposed to them in one way or another. You fly Jet Blue and you’re sitting on leather seats and you use plastic containers and they may have some animal derivative in them so it’s really impossible to know.
Jason Das: It is, it’s impossible. You can do whatever diligence you can. It’s when you know you’re getting something vegan or something that’s a consumer thing, beginning and end, that’s all veganism is. And if you’re knowingly purchasing something that contains animal products, especially for a non-essential need, by that I mean not an essential medication or something, then just don’t use the word, find another word. What I think is really important is not that people are considered vegan, to say “I’m vegan,” and I’m working through this myself because old habits die hard, but a product is vegan, an item can be vegan, a restaurant can say that they’re vegan because they don’t use animal products in their kitchen or business. That to me makes a lot more sense than a person claiming to be vegan and then we can go and poke these holds. To say, “I only eat a vegan diet, I only buy vegan food, I only buy vegan clothes,” and that’s pretty different from saying, “I’m not going to ask that policeman for help because he’s wearing leather shoes,” or “I’m going to stop paying taxes because the government spends money on non-vegan things.” We’re all going to have degrees of what matters to us. For instance, I have trouble going to a movie, even if I’ve heard good things, but if I know that an animal is killed on-screen, which unfortunately happens in good movies. On the flip side, I’ve seen plenty of movies where everyone is eating meat and there’s a catering truck. It’s just about my comfort level with things, it’s not about saving lives.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t like watching a lot of movies where there’s just a lot of reckless violence just for gratuitous violence.
Jason Das: Oh, I mean genuine, the animal is killed on screen, I don’t mean simulated. Unfortunately, there are definitely movies out there where that is the case, like the movie Old Boys out there, I really want to see it but they eat a live octopus, what am I going to do? I haven’t seen it, even though I think I’d love everything else about the movie. Whereas I’m pretty sure I’ve watched plenty of movies where people eat an octopus, but it’s already dead. What do we do with this? Does it matter? Well, it’s kind of a distraction. What really matters is effecting larger change to especially, of course, industrial animal agriculture.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I want to know something. You mentioned vegan clothes; where does a hip guy get good clothing that’s vegan?
Jason Das: Well, the hard part is shoes. In this day and age, you can get a non-wool suit, no problem. Well, I’d say belts and shoes, in fact. I think that if you go with all fabric, that’s not an appropriate look and the fake leathers just are not up there in terms of quality in most cases. I also have really problem feet. Basically, I have two pairs of nice shoes, shiny black ones and some suede-ish ones, both Novacas brand. Neither of them are comfortable, but when I’ve got the wedding or the funeral or the right kind of work event where you just need to do it, I’m happy to wear them and because I wear them infrequently, they’ll last a long time. I think that it’s tough. It’s like the mock meats argument; are you going to feel left out if you can’t have something that looks like a hotdog at the barbeque? A lot of us would, we enjoy everything about that except for the animal products involved. You want shoes modeled on leather shoes, but especially for men’s wear, there’s just such a tiny selection. If you’ve got problem feet like I do, then that knocks out about 80 percent of what’s left because they won’t work with my feet problem. That’s something where I welcome more and more vegan options. It’ll come.
Caryn Hartglass: It’ll come. It’s just going to take time. There’s certainly a lot for women but the men thing just hasn’t come up to speed.
Jason Das: Exactly, and the other thing I want to say about clothes in general, and this has just been limited to the leather analog, is that the environmental and labor costs is where so much of our clothing comes from, it’s just atrocious. This is not a vegan issue in that there are animal products directly, but really buying new clothing at the rate that most people do in New York, in the US, in most of the first world, it’s terrible. We don’t use these things till they’re used up; it’s like food waste, but even worse. So really buying used clothing if you can, wearing what you have, not buying something unless you think you’ll get a lot of use out of it, and buying well made things and can be made from sustainably grown plants. On the opposite exchange, PVC is vegan but it’s the worst thing you can do for the planet otherwise. So this is suede clothing, it’s an area where you look at the sweatshop labor, including a lot of fancy clothes, certainly all the cheap ones, but a lot of fancy ones too are coming from a horrible place and that often ties into the same reasons we’re vegan so clothes are tough.
Caryn Hartglass: Make your own!
Jason Das: Yeah, but even then, where’s your thread coming from? Where’s your fabric coming from? This is where the only true vegans are if you’re living in a hermetically field cage somewhere.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we have to believe that it has to get better.
Jason Das: We do, and I think what it really comes down to is that there are these big obvious things we can work on and chasing the minutia and marginalia is a losing game for everyone.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about your artwork for a moment.
Jason Das: Sure.
Caryn Hartglass: So, you can go to jasondas.com and see a lot of the things you are working on and you are very talented.
Jason Das: Thank you, but you know, it’s all practice, practice, practice like anything.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, practice, practice, practice, yes. One of the things I wanted to ask you is when you’re working in, and I’m not really sure what all the medias are that you’re working in here, but I know that some of the art materials aren’t vegan so what do you do there?
Jason Das: Yeah, I’m glad you asked about that. This is another area where there’s just not a lot of material. Something I would love to do is to have an equivalent of Barnivore, but for vegan art supplies instead of alcoholic drinks. There’s not an easy or obvious resource, it’s not something that the art supply community as a whole cares very much about.
Caryn Hartglass: Nope
Jason Das: And it’s also that you maybe don’t know what’s really in something. We have ingredient labels for food, and for paint actually they kind of do, but we don’t know how paper is made. A lot of watercolor paper is scythed with gelatin, but I discovered recently that in fact it’s often synthetic gelatin and stuff like that and you don’t know what it even it means. The most obvious little hang is okay, yes, stay away from buying feathers for your art and stay away from buying leather. People do these things and okay, those are easy. Brushes are a tough one where generally what are considered the best paintbrushes, or any kind of brushes are made of animal hair and that goes from the coarse ones with the hog bristles to the very fine ones with sable. If you wouldn’t wear a fur coat, why would you use a fur brush? I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t use either. The good part is that I don’t know what I’m missing out on. It’s not like I used sable brushes for used and then tried to switch to synthetic. By the time I was invested enough in my art and had enough money to have my pick of brushes, there was only one synthetic one. The good thing is I think that synthetic brushes are getting better, I don’t know if it’s driven by the ethical dimensions.
Caryn Hartglass: No, it’s just probably cheap.
Jason Das: Yeah, exactly, cost and it’s reliability too. That’s the thing with natural products, you can’t necessarily guarantee the consistency; it’s the same with industrially produced food, vegan or otherwise, it’s if they can get that consistency and there are manufacturers like that. Most glue, well not most glue, but many types of glue are not vegan and this is something with stringed instruments. I play guitar and cello and I can avoid the ones with mother-of-pearl inlays I guess.
Caryn Hartglass: The drums have skin on them.
Jason Das: Yeah, drum skins are a big one. Strings are almost always synthetic at this point.
Caryn Hartglass: The violin bow.
Jason Das: Violin, yes, hair! Exactly! Oh, I wish I could remember their name; I might try to google it right now. That was a big one. Sorry, I’m literally googling it now because I want to give them a shout-out now. Basically there’s a company, down in Kentucky or something, who make these very non-traditional, but to me excellent bows. I can’t find it but I know that PETA gave them an award a few years ago. They didn’t come at it from a vegan perspective. I think they had a plastic factory or something. They realized they could make these quality bows and people would like them. Of course they’re happy about the vegan market, but that’s not why they went into it.
Caryn Hartglass: It just makes you think about how we’re surrounded by so many different products and we really are privileged to have access to so many different things, but then we need to pay attention and know where these things come from and think about what they’re made of and just everything
Jason Das: Yeah, I think that’s it. Even if you’re not, for whatever reason, interested in being vegan or ready to be vegan, pay attention to where your consumables come from and that’s not something that comes natural to a lot of people. And that’s the with labor conditions, with the environmental footprint of what you’re buying, and thinking about the wider picture. Some people will say, “Oh, this is a handmade shirt and I got it on Etsy,” and I’m like, “Where did the fabric come from? Where did the thread come from?” and they’re not ready to think about that.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we’ve come to the end of our show Jason! Thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food and thank you for all you’re doing with Super Vegan, have a great Vegan Drinks event, and have a great day!
Transcribed by Flannery Cash, 3/14/2013