Part I – Robyn O’Brien
Robyn O’Brien is recognized by Teri Hatcher, Kourtney Kardashian, Kristen Bell and moms around the world. She has been called “food’s Erin Brockovich” by The New York Times and has been named by SHAPE Magazine as a “Women To Shape the World”, by Forbes Woman as one of “20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter,” and by The Discovery Channel as one of its 15 Top Visionaries. She is a former food industry analyst, author, mother of four and the founder of AllergyKids Foundation. Robyn graduated as the top woman in her class from business school before working as a financial analyst that covered the food industry. She is regarded as an expert on children’s health policy. She has appeared on CNN, The Dr Oz show, Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC’s Kudlow Report, Fox News and in several documentary films, including Food Patriots, Unacceptable Levels, Genetic Roulette. Robyn’s work has been recognized by individuals such as Yoko Ono, Robert Kennedy Jr., Ted Turner and Prince Charles. She is the author of The Unhealthy Truth (Random House 2010) and her work is seen in Food, Inc. filmmaker Robert Kenner’s 2012 video, Labels Matter, and in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. She is the founder of the visionary organization www.allergykidsfoundation.org which is focused on restoring the integrity of the food supply and the health of children.
Part II – Kristin Lajeunesse
From nine-to-fiver to lifestyle-designer, Kristin Lajeunesse has taken her background in marketing and applied it directly to the things she loves most: food, travel, and helping others discover ways in which they too can do what they love for a living. On February 14, 2011 Kristin launched the first and only vegan wedding resource website, Rose Pedals Vegan Weddings. While she was finding her entrepreneurial legs she honed her communications skills while working for the World Society For The Protection of Animals, and her social media consulting skills with Vegan Mainstream. Before long Kristin’s entrepreneurial and traveling spirit grew stronger, she left traditional comforts behind and in September 2011 hit the road on an epic, life-changing road trip across the country. Will Travel For Vegan Food was born and has since blossomed into a growing business venture. Kristin is currently working on a book about her road trip, and continues to stretch her entrepreneurial stride as she helps others grow their businesses through social media and online marketing guidance.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
Caryn Hartglass : Hello everybody. I am Caryn Hartglass . You are listening to It’s All About Food. We are really swinging into summer now. It’s June 25th, 2013. Beautiful outside in New York City and it’s one of my absolute favorite times. It doesn’t last very long, but the linden trees are in bloom. Can you smell them from where you are? I hope so. It is the most fabulous aroma; the most fabulous fragrance. It is very brief; it lasts about a week. I am very fortunate to have a linden tree, growing tall just outside of my terrace and I am really enjoying that this week.
As I have mentioned a few times on this show lately, it is all about breathing because next to food, which is really essential, breathing is even more essential. Why not make it delicious by breathing in such beautiful, fragrant, linden-scented air? I’m happy.
Now, I want to remind you that I am the founder of ResponsibleLivingandEating.com. Please visit. We have always got some fun things going on there making responsible living and eating fun, joyful, and delicious, etc. If you want to chat with me at any time, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay, now on to my first guest, Robyn O’Brien. She has been called the “Food’s Erin Brockovich” by The New York Times and has been named by Shape magazine as a “Woman to Shape the World”; by Forbes magazine as one of “20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter” and by The Discovery Channel as one of its “15 Top Visionaries”. She is a former food industry analyst, author, mother of four, and founder of Allergy Kids Foundation. That’s what we are going to be talking about today. A lot more about Robyn can be found at her website RobynOBrien.com and AllergyKidsFoundation.org. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Robyn.
Robyn O’Brien: Thanks so much for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: I was watching your Ted Talk on your website and you have a great story and I think the best way to share the importance of anything, really, is through individual stories. That’s what resonates most with people. I am sorry that you had to go through what you went through but, I think, it’s wonderful what you are doing with your experience.
Robyn O’Brien: Well, you know, I think for so many of us, we have a wakeup call when comes to our food supply and for some, it’s really a hard one. It can come in the form of a loved one with cancer or a child with allergies or asthma or some other condition, diabetes. But what we are realizing and what I am realizing is I am not the only one. I mean, we are really having a food awakening around the country now as we realize how illiterate we have become when it comes to how our food is produced and what goes into it. I think the more of us that really step forward and say, “Hey, I had no idea and this is what I am learning today, now, and this is how I am going to make some changes and do some things differently,” then it gives other people permission to do the same.
Caryn Hartglass: So, just in brief, so my listeners know, and maybe we will more into it in a little bit, basically, you were a mother of four, I believe, and your youngest, all of a sudden, had an allergic reaction and that started your entire new journey learning about what’s in our food, how dangerous it can be and what to do about it.
Robyn O’Brien: Absolutely. Up until that point, I had dismissed any concerns. I really wasn’t that sensitive to food allergies. I really just trusted that everything on the groceries shelves were fine and are safe. It never occurred to me that there could be a different standard.
I had covered the food industry as an analyst on a financial team and so I understood very well how the business model worked and how you can swap out real ingredients for these artificial ones to help drive profitability. But, as I really started to investigate what had happened in the food supply, especially in the United States, I realized that we were using a whole bunch of artificial ingredients and artificial growth hormones and artificial dye and all these artificial things that other countries had either banned or never allowed in the first place.
Caryn Hartglass: Did you know any of this before you started on your investigation about what was in our food?
Robyn O’Brien: No, not really and I had plenty of people certainly try to tell me. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. I dismissed it as a hobby or lifestyle of the rich and famous or some kind of alternative thing, really. It really wasn’t until I dug into the business model that I really understood the financial incentives that are in place by the food industry and why they would use artificial ingredients. They are way cheaper to produce. But, then to compare that to what was happening overseas and how our very own corporations were formulating their products differently for eaters in different countries. That, to me, that double standard was really the point where I thought we have to demand the same change in the U.S.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to linger on this a little bit longer because one of my frustrations is outreach, reaching out to people and getting them the information that they need because there are so many really smart people, well educated, that don’t want to know the information or don’t know the information . I am just wonder, since you have been there and you have been through it, are there any tricks or do we just make our steps, our baby steps? Some people going to need some life altering experience that is somewhat painful in order to get there. Is there a way we can move the masses a little faster?
Robyn O’Brien: No, I think we are seeing it; we are seeing it happen. Food is such a loaded issue. It’s emotional, it’s social, it’s cultural, and it’s economic. There are so many factors that influence food. When you suggest that somebody might want to navigate the grocery store differently, that could be loaded with how their parents are going to respond, how their grandparents might have responded. So, it can trigger a lot more than just how you shop. I think one of the greatest things we are seeing today is that retailers are responding for us. They are saying, “We see there are growing concerns with these artificial ingredients in our food supply and we are starting to formulate our products differently.” So Target, Safeway, Kroger – they are all rolling out product lines that are free from these artificial ingredients. It it is not something that you can force on anyone. They have to come to it themselves. It is a very loaded topic. I think more the marketplace makes these products widely available, which is starting to happen, the easier it is going to become.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, here is another thing. I have a background in chemical engineering and one of the things that always frustrated me – and I realize it in hindsight now –is when we would do these examples in class with a return on investment and we would evaluate how good it was designing a certain business. But, we never, ever included in it the social ramifications of any business and, as a food industry analyst; I know that’s not in the equation either. Don’t we need to put that in the equation of a business? If it is really successful, that it really should have some sort of social good to it rather than social bad?
Robyn O’Brien: I think in a perfect world, if we had the chance to redefine capitalism, we would. I think when it was originally structured in what’s called the fiduciary duty of these executives of any company, not just the food company, any industry, their job is to drive shareholder return. In the food industry, the best way to do that is to lower the cost of production and to use cheaper ingredients. So, that’s their job, that’s what they are paid to do, that’s what their board of directors expects of them.
Some companies, like Annie’s, take a higher approach. They say, “Hey, we are going to be mindful of the fact that we need these consumers on this planet for a while. If we externalize all these costs, then that’s going to limit our capacity in the future.” So, you have these companies that are mindful of the future as well as focusing on the present. We are starting to see that shift. What I think legally, right now, is their obligation is to drive shareholder return and until that legally is changed, it’s what they are paid to do.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s the truth. That’s all there is to it. I am looking forward to some new economic system. Mindful capitalism. Something like that.
Now let’s talk about what you have done since the veil was lifted for you. You were sitting there with your children – how old were they at the time when this all happened?
Robyn O’Brien: Oh my goodness! They were one, three, five, and six, and today they are eight, ten, twelve, and thirteen.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Robyn O’Brien: So much has changed. We have navigated the different stages of childhood. Now ,I have a teenage girl and very mindful of the children learning to make these choices themselves so there wasn’t some restriction they placed on them. That they could learn that they matter so much and to really value and appreciate the choices that they make and how the food that they put into their bodies can affect them. Not only today but over the long term. It was a real education for our entire family. It didn’t happen overnight. You don’t potty train a kid overnight. You don’t wean them from a sippy cup overnight.
We started pretty slow. We made gradual changes so that it didn’t rock the family budget. We weren’t changing grocery stores immediately. There was none of that. As we started to introduce these changes, it was empowering and you realize we’re not going to make the perfect ‘enemy of the good’ and we are going to focus on progress not perfection. So with that, we were really able to incorporate these changes at a pace that we could digest.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, anyone can do that and all of should be doing that. But, when you are hit with a crisis, there are some things that you have to respond to immediately. Was it your one year old was allergic?
Robyn O’Brien: She was the one that had the immediate, life-threatening reaction , that races to the pediatrician on a Saturday and that was sort of the wakeup call because I didn’t even know what a food allergy was. A food allergy is when your body sees food as foreign. Then, I am thinking is there something that was foreign in the food that wasn’t there when we were kids?
As I really was studying that over the first few months of her diagnosis, I really started paying attention to the other kids. I realized that there were issues that were going on with them that were not been flagged as food related but were very much food related. So, I started looking at food allergies and thought you can have this immediate, life-threatening reaction or you can have this kind of delayed reaction that can manifest up to three days later. It was in that process that we really started to realize that food can have such an incredible impact on the health of the child.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s the really challenging thing because some foods will affect us immediately, good or bad. Some will take a few days. Some a few weeks sometimes. And some years.
I noticed you have Dr. Joe Furman on your board of advisers and he is one of my favorite, no, he is my favorite doctor, period. He wrote a book, Disease Proof Your Child. talks about what happens in the womb and very early on with children that can affect them decades later.
Robyn O’Brien: Right, and I think as a mom, that is incredibly hard to hear when you are not aware of your choices and how they can impact your kid. That was so hard for me to hear because you think, “I can’t unwind that.” But, once you learn, you can’t unlearn this. That’s when you realize there is so much that you can do today to help protect the health of your kids tomorrow.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, the great thing is the body is so forgiving. Once you take away the problems, in most cases, the body will totally heal and thrive.
Robyn O’Brien: Absolutely and the part about children is that they have a long runway. So, there is plenty of opportunity.
Caryn Hartglass: What was it one specific allergy your child had or was it more? And, has it continued? Have you removed certain foods from the diet totally?
Robyn O’Brien: You know, for her the immediate reaction that morning was to egg. Then, with one of my sons, he had a real issue with dairy and so as we started to modify, there were moments where I didn’t – I had no ideas what alternatives were to cow’s milk. That was all I had known growing up. To learn how to navigate the grocery store differently, where these products – where you can find them – it was intimidating.
Part of my work today is to help moms through that process to fell that you are not the only one, that you don’t have to be intimidated. There are so many of us now that are sharing this work.
We did, we made some pretty big changes and I think the biggest is we went to a heavy, processed, fake food diet to food that were just made from real ingredients. That shift, in and of itself, simplified so much because we were eating foods that contained ingredients that we could pronounce, that my grandmother could have recognized instead of all these artificial, reengineered new things that came straight out of a laboratory.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it’s pretty scary what’s out there, pretty scary all in the name of profit. Now, there are a lot of moms that don’t want to hear this information. So, I am not exactly sure how you go about your outreach and information. What goes on at Allergy Kids’ Foundation?
Robyn O’Brien: I was a mom and so I always lead with that. I didn’t want to hear this; I wanted to dismiss it. It was hard enough to feed four little kids and nobody wants to be told what to do and what to eat and what to feed their family. So, I come at it with that understanding of how difficult this landscape is today and how we wish that the rules and the recipe books and everything that our mothers used could still, somehow, apply to us today.
When you look at the escalating rates of allergies and autism and asthma and diabetes and pediatric cancer, the game has changed. I think I want to just honor that with complete honestly then people don’t feel like you are preaching at them, that you are not trying to force a change on them. That you are simply saying, “This is what I learned and I feel that it is a gift to have this knowledge now and I will share it like that, as if it is a gift that I want to share.” Then, people can take it if they want to.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. Take it if you want it. If not, all the best. I am thinking about your kids now and you are older and you have given them some really great tools. Has there been any pushback along the way?
Robyn O’Brien: It definitely has and there has been some sneaky stuff. One of the things that I learned from the doctors that I have worked with is that acne and different skin issues from eczema to acne can be the result of underlying food sensitivity or food allergy. In in our family, it is definitely the case with dairy. One of the boys came in with this big spot on his nose and just could not believe, “What is this mom?” I told him, “What are you eating at school?” Then out it all came. He had been getting some yogurt and some granola and which is totally, 100% fine for some kids, but for a child that has a dairy allergy, it can trigger a lot of inflammatory conditions and for my son, that’s what it does. So, I let them experiment but also let them understand the consequences. That’s what we have done every step of the way. You are free to choose what you want to choose. But, in doing that, you are also going to be dealing with the consequences of your choice. So, that’s how we have gone about teaching them.
Caryn Hartglass: I like that. It’s important to empower kids with these kinds of tools. One thing that many people don’t realize that you mention that you didn’t want to be told what eat, you don’t want to be told what to do. Americans, it’s in our DNA; we don’t want to be told what to do. We want complete freedom and what so many people don’t realize is how manipulated we are, how we are not free, how we’re brainwashed by all the media around us, by all the signs and social networking and everything around us and children especially are so manipulated to purchase things that aren’t healthy for them. It’s really a challenge to let people know that we are not telling them what to do; we are just telling you to open your eyes.
Robyn O’Brien: Yeah, I did not want to hear any of that and I think that’s where the food issue could be so much more than food is that you want to believe what you hear on TV. You want to believe that these agencies have kept it all in check. They have, from their point of view, because they’re relying on industry funded research. The federal agencies that are in charge of overseeing the safety of the products, they don’t have the budget to conduct the independent studies. So, they rely on this industry funded research.
I learned that, I thought this wasn’t the first time this has happened. This is what happened to my grandmother’s generation with the tobacco industry where you got into this period of ‘“he said, she said’ science where the industry was funding studies and where the independent studies came out sounding the alarm about saying something entirely different. I think that’s where we are with a lot of these additives and a lot of these ingredients in our food supply today.
To see other countries to exercise precaution and take the lead and say, “We don’t like we are seeing so we are going to get it out,” or “There are no long-term studies so we are not going to allow them in the first place.” To exercise that same level of precaution here in the United States, to me, this makes a lot of sense. Not only to protect the health of our kids but also to protect the health of our economy and our country.
Caryn Hartglass: One of the things that I liked in your Ted Talk is that you mentioned how important it is for each one of us to recognize that we can make significant change. Can we talk a little more about that? I know that you had……
Robyn O’Brien: I believe that to my toes. I think we are messaged along the way. We hear these messages in media, in magazines, and on TV that we need this to be better or that we need a better this or a better that. What people need to remember is that you are this very unique design with a very unique set of skills and talents and that’s what you have to lend while you are here. I think what you need to say is what are your unique skills? What are your talents? What are the things that you are passionate about? And, to combine these things together and to use that to fuel your work in this movement. Whatever it might be.
For some people, that collection of talents will lead them to start a food company. For other people, it might lead them to start a blog to take pictures and start recipes. For somebody else, they might want to start a support group with kids with autism. There are so many ways to get involved and to lend your unique talents to restoring the health to our country.
Caryn Hartglass: I really think it is a very individual thing and it is so important to do it at the grass roots, local level where one person with another person. That’s only when change happens and it is so important that all of us reflect on that. Rather than complain – I live in a community where there is a lot of complaining going on, very impatient New Yorkers – but we all have to take that energy, that complaining energy, and think, “What can I do?” or, at least, “How can I live my life the way that I think what lives should be lived?”
Robyn O’Brien: I think, I guess that’s the inspiration and, in all honesty, that’s going to be what’s sustainable. If you are doing something that you love that leverages what you are good at, to help restore the health our families and the health of our country, to me, that is one of the most patriotic things that anyone can be doing.
Caryn Hartglass: I am reading your bio again and you have certainly gotten a lot of many famous, respectable people: Yoko Ono, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Ted Turner, Prince Charles. How do these people help move us along to a better place? We invest a lot of our energy believing in celebrities.
Robyn O’Brien: I think it is all ‘hands on deck’ and I think everyone plays an enormous role. The celebrities aren’t the ones that are prompting the guys at Target or the women at Safeway or the employees at Kroger to introduce a new product line. But, maybe they have a platform that helps educates others and that when we begin to drive that change in the grocery store, then those retailers respond to consumer demand. I always say it’s ‘all hands on deck’ and then, again, all of us have a unique skill or unique attribute that we can bring to this. In our culture, where we do follow celebrities and they have this enormous power and they have this enormous influence, they can play a really incredible role but so can the moms who you see every day on the frontline what’s happening to the health of these kids. You walk into any preschool and you can see what is happening to the health of these kids. To me, I always say, “It’s all of us; it’s ‘all hands on deck’”
Caryn Hartglass: I imagine that you are cooking a lot more since you have learned more about food?
Robyn O’Brien: Absolutely. I actually had to learn how to cook and that was a bit of a train wreck stage, in all honesty. I burned a fair share of pancakes. I burned a lot of things. We experimented with a lot of things.
Part of what I felt was this incredible insecurity; that I had to do something perfectly or not at all. As I moved through that, I thought that I don’t ever want my kids to have this hurdle where they think they can’t do this. So, that was kind of early on, I thought I am just going to have them at the kitchen counter with me and we are going to learn how to do this together. That’s what happened. Last night, one of the boys is making the guacamole. He is, “Hands off!” He is really telling everybody that “I am the chef. I am making this.” I think that part, to really arm them with the knowledge that they need, so that they can feel confident. I think so much of the food movement is exactly that. It is saying, “Hey, here I was I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know any of this. I felt ignorant and vulnerable. And, to say, that’s okay, this is all of us waking up together and provide this safe place for people to come together and begin to make these changes.
Caryn Hartglass: Number one, find your kitchen. I always like to say that, find your kitchen,. Number two, learn how to use what’s in there. Number three, get your children involved and empower them to learn while you are learning. You can’t do any better than that. I know so many parents don’t want their kids in the kitchen. They think it gets in the way and they are trying to do things efficiently and say, “No, no, no, no – I am trying to take care of this.” That’s not really a good thing. Everybody should be working together.
Robyn O’Brien: It’s not one size that fits all. For some people, you got to recognize that there are so many different challenges and there are so many different constraints facing families today. The landscape of food has changed and childhood has changed of families have changed. So, to really focus on doing what you can, where you are, and with what you have.
Caryn Hartglass: Sounds pretty good. What’s your kids’ favorite meal that you make for them? Or that you all make together?
Robyn O’Brien: We have some pretty avid grill lovers. I grew up in Texas and we tend to grill salmon with the husband from Seattle and then all kinds of asparagus. But, the biggest, most shocking ‘ah-ha’ moment as a mother who didn’t know any of this was the crazy success of kale chips. When someone first suggested that the kids will love it, I completely rolled my eyes at her and thought there was no way, there is no way. But yet, a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper on kale and roast it in the oven for 400 for 15 minutes and to have that kind of out and just totally demolished by a pack of kids. It really does speak to how you really can educate these kids and you can really influence what they chose and what they love and their taste preferences when you catch them early on.
Caryn Hartglass: There is nothing kale can’t do. It is about my favorite food. But, I have to admit I have never had kale chips. I know, I see them everywhere and I know everyone is digging them, but I just like my kale, unadulterated, raw, and in a salad, juiced, in a smoothie, steamed. But, as long as people are eating it, especially kids, that’s a good thing.
Robyn, I want to thank you in joining me on It’s All About Food and for your absolutely wonderful work.
Robyn O’Brien: Well, thank you so much and thanks for the work that you are doing, too.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay! Have a great day.
Robyn O’Brien: And you, too.
Caryn Hartglass: Visit AllergyKidsFoundation.org for more about Robyn O’Brien and her work. Now, we are going to take a little break. Then, we are really going to have a really fun time speaking to Kristin Lajeunesse, “Will Travel for Vegan Food”.
Transcribed by Janet Silverstein, July 4, 2013
TRANSCRIPTION PART II:
OK, here we are. We’re back. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food here on June 25th, 2013. Lovely, lovely, lovely summer day here in New York City. I can’t believe how fabulous it is with that fragrant linden tree all in the air. OK, I know I said it before but I’m really excited about it. I have with me in the studio Kristin Lajeunesse and from 9-to-5er to lifestyle designer, she has taken her background in marketing and applied it directly to the things she loves most: food, travel, and helping others to discover ways in which they too can do what they love for a living. Back on February 14th, 2011 she launched the first and only vegan wedding resource website: Rose Petals Vegan Weddings. While she was finding her entrepreneurial legs, she honed her communication skills while working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and her social media consulting skills with Vegan Mainstream. Before long, Kristin’s entrepreneurial and travel spirit grew stronger and she left her financial comforts behind and in September 2011 hit the road with the epic, life-changing road trip across the country where “Will Travel for Vegan Food” was born and has since blossomed into a growing business venture. She is currently working on a book about her road trip and continues to stretch her entrepreneurial stride as she helps other grow their businesses through social media and online marketing and guidance. It’s all good and It’s All About Food.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you for joining me, Kristin.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I’m just going to sit back and relax and talk about my favorite subject—vegan food—and learn a little bit about your travels. OK, so you’ve been all around the country.
Kristin Lajeunesse: I have. I’m just wrapping up now here in New York City. I’ve spent the last 18 months driving around the country and managed to get to 48 states and have, at this point, eaten at nearly every vegan restaurant in the country. I have about 30 left to go in New York City.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well, there’s plenty here. Wow. You say “nearly.” Which ones did you miss?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Which restaurants? Well, I have a list of them. I don’t know them all off the top of my head. I’ve already hit the popular major ones here so I’m slowly working my way through the ones that are kind of on the outskirts and further away in Brooklyn or farther.
Caryn Hartglass: When you hit each restaurant, did you let them know what you were doing?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Not all of them. When I first started my road trip, I was more diligent about contacting the restaurants ahead of time just to give them a heads-up and share with them my story. But as I continued on, it just became a lot of work. The writing, the driving, the eating and so I decided to just kind of continue on. And most of the time when I’m there, nobody knows who I am or what I’m doing until after the fact. When I write about having been there I’ll usually send them a link to what I’ve written about my experience there.
Caryn Hartglass: I was talking with a few notable vegans the other day and we were commenting about how many people and many vegans blog about restaurants or review restaurants—and they’re always good. Are your reviews or are your discussions about the restaurants always good because I’m glad they’re all out there, every one of them, but some are way better than others and some need to try harder.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well, to be honest, going into my little adventure I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t speak negatively about any places. If I did go to a place and I really didn’t like it, I would not write about it. However, if you follow my blog posts about the restaurants, you’ll notice a pattern where…now I’m kind of outing myself…you’ll notice a pattern where if I really loved a place, I would be very long-winded about it and if I wasn’t thrilled, you would just get pictures. So that’s kind of how I navigated that because ultimately my goal was just to create free marketing for these restaurants. It was to help them out and not to necessarily bash them.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s so vegan. I’m listening to you talk and I’m thinking it’s because we don’t want to hurt anybody. It’s all part of the whole vegan psyche. Now, OK, there are some angry vegans out there that will do some hurtful things. For the most part, I think we all really are so excited to see any restaurant out there that’s vegan, especially some of us older folks who didn’t see too many 20 or 30 years ago, and now here in New York it’s vegan paradise, the best city in the world and the best city for vegan food, I think. What do you think? Do you have a favorite?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I have to be honest. I fell in love with Portland, Oregon while I was there. Even though they might not have the same number of vegan restaurants that we have here in New York City, the quality of the food there is absolutely outstanding and there’s such a variety. So it definitely kind of stole my heart for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: They have more restaurants that are vegan-friendly than 100% vegan. Right? They’ve really got that whole sustainable, local-grown thing going on there.
Kristin Lajeunesse: I would say that they have a lot of vegan-friendly restaurants. My trip focused on primarily 100% vegan only so I think, if I recall correctly, Portland had maybe 15 or so completely vegan restaurants. So that’s pretty substantial still.
Caryn Hartglass: And in New York City, how many do we have?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I’m pretty sure you have around 120.
Caryn Hartglass: Woah! 100% vegan?
Kristin Lajeunesse: But we’re including food trucks, juice bars, bakeries, all of it. Anything. I remember when I was initially doing research, I realized that the entire state of California has the same number of vegan restaurants as the City of New York.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m not surprised to hear that because I spent a lot of time in California. I lived there for nine years and I then commuted from New York to California for six years. It’s a long story. So I’ve done a lot of eating there. I go back very frequently and it’s hard to find a lot of vegetarian restaurants and vegan restaurants. And it’s also hard to find juice bars. I don’t know what it is but they’re just not hip to juicing like we are here in New York City.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well I found that as a trend actually on the East Coast entirely. There are more juice bars top to bottom here than there are on the West Coast at all. There are some hot spots on the West Coast that had juice bars.
Caryn Hartglass: Any idea why that is?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I’m not sure. Also interesting: Florida has a higher number of raw food restaurants than almost any other state that I visited so I’m not sure if that’s because they all run around in bikinis all the time or what’s going on but definitely very raw conscious there.
Caryn Hartglass: I think that the weather has a lot to do with it. The weather and the humidity really.
Kristin Lajeunesse: No one wants to eat a bunch of cooked food all the time.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. When it’s hot and it’s humid, raw food it great. OK, let’s talk about raw food since we’re there. Were there a lot of raw food restaurants out there that you’ve been to?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Not a lot. I would say maybe 15-20% of the total restaurants I’ve been to were raw. Of course I was also being a little selective because I found it conflicting personally to go to them if they had honey or beeswax or something because I personally don’t consume that and it’s kind of a trend in the raw food community is including honey. I would make exceptions sometimes and go and just visit if it was the only place on my list in that area and other times I would just skip them if there were other options around because I didn’t necessarily want to perpetuate the honey thing because I’m not onboard with that.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s interesting, these little quirky stereotypes that come about but yeah, I definitely notice that. I was on an all-raw diet for about two years in 2004 until late 2005 and I’m not on the pulse of raw food anymore but when I was it was really intense lifestyle and focus for me. And being with the raw community, which is an interesting community…
Kristin Lajeunesse: If we can say that about vegans and any kind of very specific community, right?
Caryn Hartglass: The raw community was more so. Just more so. But they do tend to like honey. Let’s just talk about honey for a minute here. I’m really, as I was mentioning before we started, I’m really into the big picture. What I want to see, my intention is to rid the world of factory farming. That’s my number one thing. Let’s get the horrible confinement and mistreatment of animals for products out of the equation. Let’s just get rid of it. Then we can focus on a lot of other things and have discussions about organic and “humane” farming and raising chickens in your backyard and all kinds of other things. These are all not as significant to me as this big, horrific factory farming thing that’s going on. Then there’s honey. It’s not up there but I don’t eat honey either so I know where you’re coming from. But we do have a bee situation and I think a lot of that is related to toxic chemicals that are used where bees are around more than anything else. And we know that bees can thrive if they’re treated nicely and some people feel they’re doing a great thing by growing bees and why not just take a little honey. It’s not for me and I don’t think it’s for you but it’s not as big as the factory farming thing for me to talk about.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yeah, I agree. I think that the factory farming is definitely a priority because it is such a massive scale. I have watched some documentaries on bee farming and such and it only reinforced my desire to not support that industry.
Caryn Hartglass: Share that with us. Why don’t you think we should be supporting that industry?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well I’m trying to recall the name of the documentary that I was watching specific to this but it just talked a lot about breeding honeybees and then the shipping of them around the world so that they can help populate crops and everything—spread the pollen. It just was the treatment of them in that capacity that was really hard to see. They were artificially inseminating the queen bee to get a certain type. A woman sitting there in a lab with a little syringe into…
Caryn Hartglass: Raping.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yeah, exactly. I had no idea that that even existed. It didn’t even cross my mind and I was already not consuming honey or bee pollen or anything and then I saw that and I thought that this is just as bad. We just don’t think about it because they are these little tiny insects and we assume that they don’t feel in the capacity that we can see (like) in the emotion in cows’ and pigs’ faces and such.
Caryn Hartglass: Who thinks of these things?
Kristin Lajeunesse: You got me. People with money. I guess that’s it.
Caryn Hartglass: So what kind of car were you riding around in in your “Will Travel for Vegan Food?”
Kristin Lajeunesse: I had a lovely green sports van. A Chevy sports van. I called her “Gerty.” She was actually named by a friend of a friend at our little going away party. She was an old lady so we decided to call her Gerty. And my friend…
Caryn Hartglass: When you said “green” you meant the color green?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yes, the color green. Not green as in inexperienced.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, or as in environmentally superior or something.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Oh that’s true. I did spend some time looking for a vehicle that I could try to make more green but my search quickly ended when I realized that I just needed to go. I was using it almost to stall the process of just getting going.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to stop there for a minute. That’s such a good point. A lot of people complain about what they want and how they can’t get it. Sometimes you just have to go and do it.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Start before you’re ready.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, just go. OK.
Kristin Lajeunesse: As I was getting ready to go, a friend of mine—and my father actually helped—they pulled all the seats out of the van and build a bed in the back on plywood. We put a piece of foam mattress in there and a chest for clothes. We included some blackout curtains so at night we could just close it up and you couldn’t see in or out. It became my little sanctuary. It was really nice in there.
Caryn Hartglass: Now what about the people that cared about you thinking that this project that you had traveling alone and traveling for vegan food?
Kristin Lajeunesse: My parents were, I think, a little bit torn in the beginning because they are also vegans so they support the vegan message and what I was doing. They’re actually the reason that I am vegan so I was resonating listening to Robin talk about raising her kids. But they were also a little concerned, I think, about my safety: a young woman traveling around mostly by herself and sleeping in a vehicle at night in gas stations and Walmart parking lots and side streets. It can sound a little scary and, of course, I even was a little nervous getting into it. But the idea of it and the notion of just kind of what I could do to help spread the word about veganism and also just live a really interesting passion that I didn’t think would be doable. And just to make that happen meant that I just couldn’t stop. I needed to do this. I needed to do this. So I think my resolve to do it really helped them understand that I was going to do it no matter what.
Caryn Hartglass: So you were raised from birth as a vegan?
Kristin Lajeunesse: No. When I was 16 years old my parents sat me down and said that they wanted to become vegetarian together as a family. This was after my brother, who’s five years older than me, had become vegetarian. They were actually worried about his health at first but they did all this research and tried to kind of prove to him why it was bad for him…
Caryn Hartglass: But they couldn’t.
Kristin Lajeunesse: They found the opposite. Yeah, exactly. So I was a little kind of “I’ll go with the flow.” I’m very close with my parents so I trusted their decision. So we went through a few years of awful veggie burgers and a lot of experimental cooking. I give it to my parents. They really did all the prep work in the kitchen and everything. I just kind of ate whatever came out regardless if it was good or not. I probably complained a few times. Then I went off to college and I remained vegetarian and I never actually did any research on it myself. Just from that point forward I was vegetarian. But my parents got really involved in the veg community in upstate New York near Albany. Just from meeting other vegans and going to events and festivals and expos, they decided to become vegan. So every time I would come home on break from college, there would be some weird milk in the fridge and then the ice cream was gone. Not the ice cream! I was pretty resistant to veganism. I didn’t see the relation or anything. Vegetarians and vegans—it felt like two separate worlds. Then for me what it was, probably two years after my parents had become vegan I was out of college and living on my own and I went to an event in Syracuse, New York, where I was living at the time and I listened to a registered dietician by the name of George Eismen.
Caryn Hartglass: Sure, he’s great.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yup. (He) talk(ed) about why dairy isn’t necessary and it was kind of in that moment that I finally heard what was being said and stopped judging everyone around me and it just clicked. After that, of course, the transition was easy because my parents had already been vegan for a few years.
Caryn Hartglass: What is it about humans and the way we don’t want to hear things?
Kristin Lajeunesse: So resistant.
Caryn Hartglass: So resistant. Sometimes we have to hear something over and over and over and over and over and over and overand then finally, “What was that you said?”
Kristin Lajeunesse: Right. Or we wait until it directly impacts us like Robin was saying earlier too.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. I don’t get it but OK, I accept.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well, and that’s why we’re here too, right, to help promote that message.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Anybody who wants to know more, you can ask me. Send an e-mail to email@example.com. You know I love talking about this and writing about it. Speaking of that, do you have a Web site? I know you have a blog. Where can we find you?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I do. Either go to willtravelforveganfood.com or wtf—which of course stands for “will travel for”—wtfveganfood.com.
Caryn Hartglass: OK. Because I didn’t put that in your bio but I’m going to have to update that and link to you. OK, so what was…let’s start with the worst thing you had. You don’t have to say where you had it unless you want to or you could give us an idea of the region maybe but what was the worst thing you had on this traveling expedition?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well there was this…I don’t know that it necessarily was the worst in terms of flavor, although it didn’t really have much flavor…but the most interesting meal I think I had was at a restaurant in California. It was a vegan shark fin soup. I ordered it purely out of curiosity. I’ve never had traditional shark fin soup so I had nothing to compare it to but I just didn’t even know that a faux version of this existed so I gave it a try. It was really kind of just bland. There was nothing to it.
Caryn Hartglass: Rubbery bland.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yeah. Nothing to it.
Caryn Hartglass: There are a number of vegan fish analogs out there and some are better than others. I find the faux shrimp in some places, when you just taste it plain it has maybe a suggestion, but when you play with it and fry it and season it, I’ve served it. I’ve purchased it from a restaurant and served it to people that were not vegan and they were going nuts over it. OK. So you’re kind of being…what’s the word I’m looking for here? You’re treading gently here. Now did you have any other focus? Because I know I’m always looking for healthy. I know there’s a lot of vegan junk out there and occasionally I will indulge but it’s rare. It’s becoming rarer and rarer actually but I like the healthy food. I’m not into the fried food. I know there was—and I don’t even know if it’s still here—there was a restaurant in Brooklyn I think it was that served a lot of fried food.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Foodswings?
Caryn Hartglass: Foodswings.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yup, they’re still there.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember when I first ate there I was very excited that they existed and I didn’t want to have anything on the menu.
Kristin Lajeunesse: People go nuts for that place. That’s for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, they like that fried stuff. I think what we learn from that is #1: people don’t know what’s in their food and they don’t care. And you can use plant-based alternatives for chicken and beef and things and as long as you fry it up and season it and add a lot of oil and salt, it’s going to taste just as good and maybe better.
Kristin Lajeunesse: That’s what the traditional version is too. It’s just taking something that you otherwise probably wouldn’t find tasteful and making it easy to eat.
Caryn Hartglass: Alright. What about…OK, we’ll leave the worst thing behind. What were some of the best things that you had?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Oh, OK. So, the best ice cream that I had. I’m big into sweets or at least I was. My sweet tooth seems to be on the decline since I’ve been eating so much of it on the road. The best ice cream that I had was actually at a raw restaurant called Café 118 in Winter Park, Florida. There’s another restaurant with the same name in the LA area but this is a different one in Florida. Completely raw ice cream and it was the creamiest, best mint chocolate chip ice cream I’ve ever had in my life with a beautiful cashew cream sauce on top and chocolate drizzle. It was delicious.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. Do you know what the base of the ice cream was?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I think it was cashew.
Caryn Hartglass: Cashews are pretty incredible what they can do. That’s like vegan crack, cashews. And all you have to do is soak cashews, blend them up in a blender, and pour them on anything.
Kristin Lajeunesse: I think one of the best overall meals that I had was actually not too far from here. It was at a place called Veg in Philadelphia.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve heard such good things about it and I have yet to go there.
Kristin Lajeunesse: You have to go. It’s so delicious.
Caryn Hartglass: OK, I’m going tomorrow.
Kristin Lajeunesse: It’s really good.
Caryn Hartglass: What did you have there?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I don’t remember. It was over a year ago. I don’t even remember the names of the dishes because they were so unique. It’s kind of an upscale place and they really play with the whole fruits and veggies. They don’t do a lot with faux meat stuff, which is another part of the reason that I love it so much. I remember there was this great appetizer with some kind of shredded mushroom thing. The dessert there was really good. It was a blood orange-strawberry cheesecake, I think. It was incredible. Incredible. They’re very talented there.
Caryn Hartglass: You don’t know until you try it. You don’t know how good this food can be. I did the wrong thing by only eating breakfast today. OK. Alright, so you’ve traveled around. You’ve written a whole bunch. Now you’re putting it in a book I understand? Something like that?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yeah. Well I had gotten a call from a new publishing company. They’re actually called Vegan Publishers. They asked me if I was considering writing about my journey and I said I was considering it but I had no timeline. They offered to work with me on it so a few weeks into talking with them we signed a deal and I officially am working on a book, which is terrifying because I never thought of myself as an author or a writer even though I have a blog. But I think the scarier thing about it is I’m not going to be repurposing the blog content. It’s all going to be about the personal journey. Of course there will be lots of mentions about the food and slyly throwing veganism in there because I would like it to be for a wide-range audience. But I found that it’s really hard to put words to how much this experience changed my life.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well, that’s the challenge of writing. I know that personally. You’re searching and you really need to go deep sometimes to find out what it is that really happened—what really happened and how were you moved and then how do you put it on the page and then how do you make it sound interesting. All tough things and a lot of people do it and a lot of people aren’t very good at it. I wish you all the best.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Thanks for that pick-me-up at the end there. That’s great.
Caryn Hartglass: I think you’re someone who decides what it is that needs to be done. You have good intentions and you go for it so I think you’re going to do fine.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Thank you. Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: As long as you have great vegan food to fuel you along the way, how can you go wrong? This is, I think, for the most part a supportive community. People want to see vegan success everywhere.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Well that’s one of the biggest takeaways I had from the road actually was that I learned that most people truly are good people. The community and the network that developed around what “Will Travel for Vegan Food” is today is really just a representation of how kind and generous people were. By the time I got to the West Coast, because I initially started over here on the East Coast, by the time I got to the West Coast, I was hardly sleeping in my van. I had couches and spare bedrooms and free meals. I lived entirely off of donations while on the road and, again, just that alone speaks volumes to how kind people are, even people who…I met and had dinner and shared meals with people who aren’t vegan at all. They heard about the journey and they were just so interested and kind of captivated by this crazy thing that someone was doing. So, yeah, very cool stuff.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. I want to think that most of us are good no matter what it is we eat. I want to believe that. I want to believe that there’s good in all of us, although sometimes it’s challenging to believe that. But I want to. I really believe that. I think we’re all kind of moldable. That’s the human spirit actually and the more we open ourselves up to learn about things, the more putty-like and flexible we are. And we can become better.
Kristin Lajeunesse: Yes. We just have to be ready for it in that moment, which speaks to what we were talking about earlier with resistance early on and not wanting to be told what to do. But I think it’s almost specific to food too. I feel like there’s a very unique relationship that we have with food. It’s very community-oriented so taking that away from people can be scary. Even though I think we’re all inherently good and we want to do well for ourselves and the people around us and the environment, sometimes it can be hard when we’re told that what we’ve been doing is wrong.
Caryn Hartglass: Alright. So now we just have like three minutes left. What are your favorite foods, other than ice cream?
Kristin Lajeunesse: Right. Definitely sweets. I’m a sucker for anything from Vegan Treats. They are so good.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh yeah, fabulous. We’ve been there.
Kristin Lajeunesse: I’m also like you. I’m a big fan of kale. I will eat it in any form. Actually just the other day, when you were talking about kale chips earlier, I just enjoyed some very good kale chips from MOB in Brooklyn, a really good vegan restaurant out there. I think kale is my favorite food. Actually I’m intending to be mostly raw once I finish eating my way through New York City because, honestly, the fake meat stuff that I had on the road and the sweets, it really did a number on my body.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s interesting. I know I’ve been vegan for a long time, over 25 years. My tastes have definitely changed, as my knowledge has changed, as the food has changed. There was a period when I was crazy for meat analogs. I just loved them. I know there are some people, vegans, who will raise an eyebrow and say, “Why is it you are eating meat analogs? Why do you like the taste of meat?” I never thought of it as meat. I never thought of it as the taste of meat. There’s just a nice chew and it had that salty, fatty, whatever flavor and it was fun. That’s all. But I’m over it now. I prefer whole, minimally processed foods at this point. Occasionally I’ll like a piece of cake but I never like it when it’s too sweet, although Vegan Treats…
Kristin Lajeunesse: They’ll getcha.
Caryn Hartglass: They are pretty amazing. Sometimes when I indulge because I’m at a place that I’ve heard a lot about and I want to try everything, there’s that need afterwards to cleanse and the body’s just screaming, “Kale me! Just give me kale!” I have to say, I’m feeling a little selfish. I just had this little fear. I don’t know why I did but I thought if I keep pushing kale, are we going to run out of kale? Is there not going to be enough kale to go around for everybody?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I don’t think we have to worry about that anytime soon.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I think so. But we need to start growing more kale because people should be eating a lot of it. OK. We have like less than a minute but…favorite kale recipe? Kale chips?
Kristin Lajeunesse: I actually really like it kind of just rubbed with salt and then put some fresh lemon juice on it and straight up like that like a kale salad.
Caryn Hartglass: Kale salad, love it. I’m going to get me some right now. Well, Kristin, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food. All the best with “Will Travel for Vegan Food.” And that’s wtfveganfood.com. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you so much for joining me. I hope you’ve had a delicious hour with me. I know I have. Keep it delicious. Have a delicious week. Bye bye.
Transcribed by Jennie Steinhagen, 7/10/2103