Interview by Kate Sinnott
So what’s the deal with those crazy vegans? Then again, why does everyone think they’re crazy? And why do we seem programmed to get all hot and bothered about people who eat differently than we do?
In search of answers, we sat down with Brooklynite, vegan, chef, author and holistic health counselor Alex Jamieson. If you’ve seen the documentary film ‘Super Size Me,’ in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock famously ate three meals a day at McDonald’s for a month, just to see what would happen, you know Alex – she and Spurlock were dating at the time the film was made, and Alex was featured as the gentle, often concerned, girlfriend and vegan chef.
We met with Alex to at Sun in Bloom, a meat-free café in Prospect Heights, to talk about the trials and rewards of being vegan in a meat-crazy town.
So Alex, Brooklyn today seems to be at the forefront of the ‘good meat’ movement. A lot of butchers and chefs are working exclusively with local, pastured meat, and as a result, eating meat seems to be ‘in.’ Has being vegetarian or vegan become uncool?
There has definitely been a big rise in interest in ‘good meat’ in Brooklyn and in many parts of the country. You can find it in a lot more stores and restaurants now than you could a few years ago.
I don’t think being vegan has become ‘uncool,’ but I do see far fewer vegetarians and a few more vegans out there these days, which probably has something to do with the rise of good meat. And there seems to be an emphasized polarization between eaters of meat or any animal product and those who don’t eat any animal products.
One thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of farm-to-table restaurants opening in Brooklyn that don’t offer any vegan options. The trend seems to be that more established places are offering greater options, but new places are not catering to vegans.
That’s not true everywhere, though. In Brooklyn a lot of the farm-to-table focus seems to be on meat, but on the West Coast, in places like L.A., San Francisco and Portland, farm-to-table restaurants tend to offer a lot more vegan dishes.
As a long-time vegan does the availability of more natural meats and dairy from more humanely-raised animals ever tempt you?
There’s definitely a difference in quality between good pastured, organic meat and industrially produced CAFO , or feedlot, meat. With good meat there’s no hormone or antibiotic residue, and you’re consuming healthier animals.
I’ve gone back and forth between these worlds, but right now in my life I’m just not interested in eating meat. But if you are interested, in terms of animal protein you’ll probably get more health benefit from organic, pastured chicken and eggs than from anything else.
There is a big difference in cost between good meat and industrially-produced meat, so a lot of Americans think it’s out of reach for them. But if people skipped the soda and snacks and focused more on fresh, homemade foods, I think more people would be able to afford good meat than they might think.
That’s something I work with my clients on all the time – they want to eat better, but don’t want to spend a lot more money. There are all kinds of ways to create savings while improving the quality of food you’re eating, and you can then use that extra money to buy the best quality meat and dairy.
How long have you been a vegan? What led you to leave all animal-based ingredients behind?
Right after I moved to New York, in my early twenties, I started to get really sick. A few months after moving here I had knee surgery, and I think it was the surgery along with the antibiotics I had to take afterwards that wrecked what was left of my immune system. I started having chronic migraine headaches. I was gaining weight, feeling depressed, and just had no energy. I’d sleep in on the weekends and still have no energy.
I thought to myself, “I’m not supposed to feel like this in my twenties! I was fine a year ago – what’s going on?”
So I went to a doctor. The first doctor wasn’t much help – he wanted to put me on a program of painkillers and Prozac. During that time I started listening to a radio show by a guy named Dr. Gary Null. He’s been considered a kind of guru for quite some time, and has been writing books about health for decades. As I listened to him I started thinking, “Maybe this has something to do with the food I’m eating.”
I called Gary Null’s office to ask for a doctor recommendation. They gave me one and I made an appointment right away. The first thing the doctor asked me about was my diet. When I told him what I was eating he said, “No wonder you’re sick.” All I was eating was fast food, pizza, lots of soda and candy…I was a total sugar addict and was eating hardly any vegetables or fruit.
So the doctor said, “Look, you have to change what you’re eating and here’s what we’re going to do: No refined foods, ever. No dairy. No sugar.” It sounded really extreme, but I felt so badly that I was willing to try it. And within weeks I was feeling better.
It was working, so I became more and more interested in what was happening. I started reading all these books that the doctor had recommended. When I was at the library looking for those books, I found this whole big section on health, food and diet. I thought, “Wow! Look at all these books! I’ve never even heard of the stuff they’re writing about. I’ve never even thought about it.” So I started reading anything and everything I could and just found this whole new world.
I had never heard of veganism before. I grew up in Oregon, and my mom had an organic gardening radio show. We had a huge garden at home so we ate really well, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, but we were never vegetarian or vegan. So I had some background with healthy food, but I had never put that into action in my own adult life. One of the books I read was about the vegan diet, and that’s when I decided to go meat-free, sugar-free and dairy-free.
So you really changed everything about how you ate in a matter of months?
Yes – and I also realized all of a sudden that I didn’t know how to cook! I started to get really interested in that. I was like, “How am I going to eat?” So I found a culinary school here in the city, called Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts. They offered a curriculum that skewed vegetarian and vegan, and they focused on macrobiotics. As soon as I discovered the program I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I want to do.”
So I quit my law firm office job and did the program. It was full-time for six months, followed by four months studying abroad at a macrobiotic vegan restaurant in Milan.
When I came back I got a job at a restaurant in Manhattan as a pastry chef. It was one of the first restaurants in the city that did all local sourcing, and I did private cooking, for people who were sick or had food allergies.
When did the whole Super Size Me project come together?
Morgan Spurlock, the filmmaker, was my boyfriend at the time. I had enrolled in a program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to become a health counselor. See, when I was doing private cooking, I was working for a lot of clients who had been diagnosed with cancer. They’d essentially call me at the 11th hour. I’d be in their homes, getting to know them, cooking for them, and it was really heartbreaking, because I’d fall in love with these clients and then they’d pass away. I went to IIN because I wanted to find a way to help people before it got to that point.
While I was enrolled there, we had the idea for Super Size Me – to look at how someone’s health would be impacted if they ate only fast food for thirty days. We started filming while I was in school. It came out just as I was getting started in my health counseling practice, and then the movie got into the Sundance Film Festival and took off. Morgan and I spent the net year and a half travelling around the world – we went to twenty four countries.
Was the success of the film a surprise?
Absolutely. I had no clue that it would become such a big hit. I liked documentaries, but I had no idea anyone was actually going to watch this one! If I had I wouldn’t have talked about our sex life on camera. I remember being in the theater when it premiered in San Francisco, sitting next to my grandmother, and here I come on the big screen talking about our sex life!
So did your experience of making the film with Morgan inspire you to write your first book?
The movie was really all about Morgan eating nothing but fast food for thirty days, and looking at how it impacted his health. I took what I had learned in my health counselor studies at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and put together an eight week detox plan to get him back to his pre-movie weight.
So the first book, ‘The Great American Detox Diet’ came from that. A year or so later, the people from the ‘Dummies’ series emailed to say they were taking submissions for this title ‘Living Vegan for Dummies.’ I thought, “Why not?” – so I submitted something and was chosen for the job. And then a lot of stuff happened. My marriage was falling apart, I had a baby, I was writing a book – life was kind of insane for a while! Ha ha ha.
It seems like a lot of people are uncomprehending of veganism. And maybe even scared by it – there’s an assumption that vegans are pretty militant. Do you think that’s true or a false stereotype?
It’s true. I have some friends and other people I know in the vegan community who are pretty militant. Some can be off-putting, so it doesn’t surprise me that there is that association. I have a hard time calling myself a vegan sometimes. It’s funny – there have been times in the last couple of years where I’ve had an egg here or there because I’ve felt like my body needed it, and with the way some vegans are it’s like I’m risking my life saying that! But I still hold the basic ideals of veganism close to my heart.
I don’t want animals being subjected to terrible conditions. I don’t want animals being killed for my food. There would be a lot of environmental benefits if we all ate less, or no, meat. But all human beings are different. Not everyone can be or wants to be a vegan. I respect that and I have a really hard time when other vegans are outrageously, militantly…religious about it. I try to be a gentle voice of reason with this stuff, but it can be hard – some in the vegan community are very black-and-white.
But I do know that a lot of the people that I’ve helped transition to a vegan lifestyle, for health or other reasons, have seen some really wonderful, staggering results. It’s not right for everybody, but it really works as a way to heal. And I think that’s amazing – that you can heal yourself with food, pretty cheaply – and you can feel better than you’ll ever feel by treating yourself with pharmaceuticals. I want to keep making people aware of that.
If I can just get people to eat more greens, I’m happy, you know? Ha ha.
For most non-vegans, it’s hard to imagine how you actually do it. Do you ever find it hard to be vegan?
No, I don’t. New York City really is one of the easiest places to practice a vegan lifestyle. What I do find interesting is that there’s so much combativeness over the topic. There’s often a really charged dialogue surrounding it. I think people associate their own morality with their eating choices, so when someone chooses to eat differently than you it can instinctively feel like a moral affront. I don’t let that get to me; I really don’t get offended these days. I believe that eating lower on the food chain is the most healthy way to live, and for me, right now, it provides the most fulfilling lifestyle.
I often wonder whether we can really rely on this industrialized food system to keep feeding us. I don’t think it’s sustainable. It’s really heartening to see all these rooftop farms popping up, all these CSAs, and people gardening in their backyards. People are getting interested in this stuff because real food is fun, but they’re also learning what I like to call ‘skilled resilience.’ They’re learning skills that will help them. One of the most basic things you can learn is how to cook for yourself, or how to grow your own food. That’s just basic to human life!
Alex offers a variety of health counseling and coaching services (for both vegans and non-vegans) through her company Delicious Vitality. She’s also the author of ‘The Great American Detox Diet,’ ‘Vegan Cooking For Dummies,’ and ‘Living Vegan For Dummies.’