Small-Bite Sundays: February 18, 2018

Small-Bite Sundays -- winter

Happy Sunday, all. I know I’ve been pretty silent lately, but for once I have reasons beyond personal laziness. If you follow the (American) animal welfare world at all, you might be familiar with the massive sexual-harassment-related upheaval in the past month. Much of it has to do with my own organization. It feels disingenuous to me not to acknowledge it at all, but I also don’t feel right using a personal platform to air my own opinions when much of the turmoil is (1) still ongoing and (2) extremely sensitive.

I know, I know, that’s cryptic and unfair, but the bottom line is that I and my other social-justice-minded colleagues in the AR/AW world have been really freaking upset by what’s come out, how it happened, and what’s going on now, and it’s been hard to focus on much more than the bare minimum. So, as usual, my poor blog is the first thing to drop off.

But, here I am. Trying to get back into the swing of things and trying to remind myself that my organization is so much more than the actions of a few. Trying to remember the way our work serves the greater good. Trying to be circumspect when talking about this right now. Ahem.

There’s been all sorts of fallout from this series of events, but one unexpected piece was the way my recently reformed Facebook habits took a nosedive.  Because a national newspaper broke the story about what was happening, people were sharing info (and their own personal opinions) via social media. So I found myself scrolling through my feed, devouring all the long-winded screeds and strong opinions on both sides. Getting knee-deep into the comment threads that you should never, ever read if you value your mental health. That kind of thing. But at least that temporary dipping back into Facebook did remind me why I took a break in the first place: Because NO GOOD CAN COME OF IT. I remain committed to consuming it in healthy amounts only. :)

So! On to this weekend’s reads, and may your work life be much less turbulent than mine has been for the last month.

Small bites to read, winter edition

A moment of honesty: I spent many years of my life thinking that being colorblind was the ideal. I didn’t understand why Black History Month needed to be a thing. As an adult, I’ve chosen to educate myself on race, racism, and the ways we as a society continue to fail our brothers and sisters of color. It’s not easy to do educate yourself; it requires challenging long-held assumptions and being introspective and acknowledging the way damaging cultural portrayals of race have buried themselves deep in your subconscious. As an individual I know I can always do better, learn more, try harder, but I’m trying to make the effort.

All this is to say that I really enjoyed this piece on why the misuse of the term “racism” among kids is dangerous. Well, “enjoyed” isn’t the right word; I appreciated it. The piece also drove home to me the way we as a culture are so ill-equipped to discuss challenging, nuanced issues like this. I was reminded of a recent post in my neighborhood’s online forum, where a man posted to “warn” neighbors of a “stranger” who was walking back and forth down his street and checking her phone. She was black, which he noted. Many people responded, thanking him for the “warning” and urging him to call the police. When anyone tried to gently challenge him on exactly why he felt so threatened by someone who was literally just walking down the street and checking her phone, and whether perhaps he would have felt less concerned if she were white, others jumped in to immediately defend the guy and to say he was just being a good neighbor and to attack the commenters for immediately “crying racism.”

What’s interesting (and really telling) was that none of the commenters called the guy racist. None of them made ad hominem attacks. They were just trying to call out what might’ve been a case of unconscious bias, where he saw a black woman he didn’t know and thought she might’ve been a threat. If she were white, her presence probably wouldn’t even have registered. Yet many people (deliberately?) refused to see the nuance of the comments, and just wanted it to be a yes-racist or no-not-racist situation.

Anyway, this is all to say that we need to be having conversations about race with our kids as early as we can. No, it’s not easy, and no, I’m not a parent so maybe I have no say here, but exposing our kids to nuances in ways that they can relate to and understand seems like one of the only ways we as a society can tackle these challenging issues. (And, of course, parents of black children are already having these conversations. Parents of white kids need to do more.)

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Coincidentally, another piece about kids — this one about a teacher telling a little girl that “only girls wear lipstick.” Even those of you who might be uncomfortable with the changing nature of gender roles — and even the changing nature of gender as a concept! — can hopefully accept that prescriptive comments like that one are harmful. This piece explains why and offers solutions for parents hoping to raise inclusive, accepting children who can (gently) challenge authority figures who make these kinds of comments.

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On another topic, this achingly bittersweet piece about finding love after loss struck me for its honesty and its gentle handling of something we do really badly as a society: talking about and preparing for death. Nobody wants to have to tell a partner what he or she should do after they’ve died, but I think it would be a gift to know that someone I loved wanted me to find someone else after they were gone.

 

Small bites to watch, winter edition

The Olympics! Seriously, this is just about all we’ve watched lately. (Shout-out to NBC for streaming it.) The only downside? As a stereotypical cord-cutting #millennial, I rarely watch commercials — so having to watch the same ones over and over during the streaming Olympics is grating. But we’ve been enjoying it anyway, and I’ve loved all the skiing events in particular. As someone who has never skied, I am in awe of the things people can do while strapped to two long sticks and holding two other long sticks. (That’s the terminology, right?!)

Small bites to eat, winter edition

I love pierogies, and I want to bury my face in this pierogi casserole (not really). This is cold-weather comfort food at its finest!

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A solid — and blessedly quick — recipe for easy homemade ramen from The Vegan 8. This partially inspired me to make a big pot of ramen last night, although my off-the-cuff recipe was a little more involved and included veggies and tofu for added nutrients. (To those of you following along on my “I REFUSE TO COOK” strike, yes, I made a somewhat-involved dinner! Steven is laid up with back issues so I wanted to relieve him of his kitchen duties. It’s going OK.)

 

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What have you been reading/watching/eating?

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Ethical Product Review: Will’s Vegan Shoes Dock Boots

You can take one of two perspectives when it comes to finding vegan shoes. One, that it’s a frustrating endeavor because you have limited options — and especially limited budget options — and you will likely have to order online, with no chance to check sizing in person. Two, that it’s freeing! Rather than suffering from the paralysis of choice, with literally thousands of options at big-box shoe stores and hundreds of online shopping sites, you have a select few vegan shoe brands from which to choose. You can just put on your blinders, ignore the non-vegan options, and not have to stress out about which of 284 nearly-identical pairs of trendy black Chelsea boots is the “right” one for you.

I’ve decided, unsurprisingly, to take the latter perspective. Once I know that I want cruelty-free vegan shoes that are also made ethically, my options are, frankly, slim. Not many brands meet both those criteria, although I have seen more and more pop up over the last couple years. But one long-time purveyor of ethical vegan shoes has long been on my radar: Will’s Vegan Shoes, AKA Will’s of London. And this brand has a lot going for it.

Will's Vegan Shoes dock boots review // govegga.com

Here’s what makes Will’s Vegan Shoes great:

  • Ethics. All shoes are 100% vegan (and labeled as such!), and the company manufactures them under fair labor conditions in Portugal.
  • A commitment to the environment. Will’s just rolled out a new carbon-neutral delivery process, and they are moving towards using more eco-friendly materials in their actual shoes.
  • Free shipping. Not only do U.S. orders get free shipping from this UK-based company, but you can return or exchange your shoes FOR FREE if the sizing doesn’t work! This is a huge benefit. Shipping shoes across the pond can be expensive, often running between $15 and $20. Knowing you can exchange or return your shoes if they don’t fit is massively comforting. Plus, the shipping is fast — see below for details. (Note: Arguably, shipping shoes back and forth across the ocean is not super eco-friendly, so keep that in mind if you’re the type who likes to online shop just to “try things out” without an intent to keep the product.)
  • Stellar customer service. If you follow Will’s on Instagram or elsewhere, you’ll frequently see Will himself (yes, he’s a real person) responding directly to questions. Reviews confirm this observation: The team is truly invested in keeping customers happy and will do what it takes to get you shoes that fit and that you love.
  • The price. Although you may balk at spending ~$100 for a pair of shoes if you’re used to, say, Payless prices, ethical vegan apparel is not cheap. Yet the prices at Will’s are actually quite affordable compared to similar ethical shoe brands. And the free shipping mentioned above really helps reduce the cost.
  • The shoes themselves! Will’s has a truly impressive range of both women’s and men’s vegan shoes, a rarity in this already small world of ethical vegan shoe brands. Choose from the formal (faux-suede heels) to the casual (biker boots) to the eminently versatile (ballerina flats). I particularly love the more androgynous women’s styles, like the sleek work boots and dapper derbys.

Although Will’s had been on my radar for years, I never really *needed* to buy from them until last fall. At that point, my new commitment to buying ethically produced clothing meant I couldn’t settle for big-box store specials when I wanted a pair of leather-free boots, so I pointed my browser to Will’s with the intent of making my first purchase.

I’d been eyeing the super-snazzy dock boots for a while and finally pulled the trigger. Steven and I were preparing for our vegan cruise to Norway, where I knew we’d spend our shore days doing some (relatively light) hiking. I wanted to have an alternative beyond the vegan Jambu sneakers I was also bringing, and the stylish chestnut dock boots fit the bill. Here’s how my purchase turned out.

Note: I also recently purchased a (gently used) pair of Will’s sneakers on eBay (and got a great deal). They seem to be this style, but in a grey color that’s not in stock at the moment. So although my review here is primarily of the dock boots, I’ll also draw on my experiences with the sneakers for added anecdata!

Will's Vegan Shoes dock boots review // govegga.com

How do Will’s Vegan Shoes fit?

Given that Will’s is a British brand, its sizing doesn’t correspond directly to American sizes, so I had to guess and hope for the best. I usually wear a U.S. 7.5 and opted for a European 39 in the dock boots. I’ve seen a 39 equated to both a U.S. 8 and an 8.5, but it fits me perfectly, so take that as you will. This is true for both the dock boots and the sneakers.

The good news, of course, is that Will’s generous return policy takes some of the stress out of the size conversion. If your shoes don’t fit, you can exchange them at no charge.

How is Will’s Vegan Shoes quality?

Both my dock boots and sneakers seem well-made and thoughtfully designed. Neither pair is remotely flimsy or cheap; and the faux leather on the dock boots is really nice — none of that flaky stuff you find on cheap vegan shoes. I bought the sneakers (gently) used, and they really have no marks on them. I’ve now had the dock boots for about five months and they’re also in great shape, although admittedly I don’t wear them all that regularly. But they certainly didn’t sustain any damage from my Norwegian hiking endeavors!

Are Will’s Vegan Shoes comfortable?

Here’s where my answer gets a little complicated. Yes… ish. I made sure to break in the dock boots before our trip since I knew they might irritate my ankles, and that definitely helped. Neither pair is remotely uncomfortable, and I did not get blisters from them, but I do notice I’m wearing them, if that makes sense. With some shoes, they’re so comfy you feel like you’re just wearing an extension of your own feet. That’s not the case with my Will’s shoes, and I think it’s because the soles are quite flat and very inflexible; I have high arches and prefer soles with a little more shape to them. I’ll probably need to add inserts to both pairs just to make them a little comfier. I also noticed that both pairs of shoes are quite stiff — I think the high-quality materials they use are just a lot sturdier than the cheaper shoes I’m used to!

Where can I buy Will’s Vegan Shoes?

I’d start with their official site for a list of all available styles, the best prices, and that unbeatable free shipping. But I have occasionally seen them at other vegan shoe retailers, although most don’t carry every style. If you are in the UK, I believe some brick-and-mortar shops stock them as well. There are even some styles on Amazon, but I would exercise caution there — it’s unclear who’s actually selling them. Finally, check out eBay — like I mentioned, I got my sneakers there and got a great deal!

Where can I find other Will’s Vegan Shoes reviews?

Other than the short reviews on each product page on the official site, truly informative and comprehensive reviews are sparse. Mihl of Seitan is my Motor has a review of three separate styles, which I found quite helpful when considering my purchase, and The Spooky Vegan reviewed two styles here. Vegan Miam has a great review of both the desert boots and work boots, and it includes an interview with Will himself.  I also just found this “test” of the brand over at Gentleman Buddha, which includes five separate pairs.

The lack of plentiful comprehensive reviews is one reason I decided to write my own. If you’re going to invest in a quality vegan product, you should be able to read other folks’ experiences! I hope this is helpful to other potential Will’s customers. :)

Would I buy Will’s Vegan Shoes again?

Yes, definitely! The Will’s Vegan Shoes dock boots are beautiful, well-made, ethical footwear, as are the sneakers. I think I just need to figure out how to make the flat soles work for my feet! I’ve got my eye on a few other styles as well, and I’ll continue to monitor eBay for more affordable gently used pairs.

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Will's Vegan Shoes Dock Boots Review // govegga.com

Disclaimer: I was not provided with free shoes from Will’s nor compensated in any way for a review. (Although I would happily try another pair to review!) I simply bought the shoes and wanted to share my thoughts in a Will’s of London shoe review.

Small-Bite Sundays: January 21, 2018

Small-Bite Sundays -- winter

As I thought about what I wanted to include on this week’s Small-Bite Sundays installment, I knew that I was having trouble sourcing content to share, but I wasn’t sure why. Yesterday, I figured it out: It’s because I rarely use Facebook anymore. I deactivated my account late last year in an attempt to break myself of the scroll-through-my-feed-whenever-I’m-bored habit, and it worked. After about three weeks totally off the ‘book, I no longer found myself compulsively clicking Command-T to open a new tab, then typing an F and letting auto-fill do the rest. (I’d also deleted the Facebook app from my phone ages ago, which certainly helped.) So now, although I still do technically have a Facebook account, I rarely use it. I scroll through my organization’s employee page every day or so, and if someone tags me I’ll usually check it out, but I spend probably 15 minutes total on the site over the course of a week.

I’m glad I made the change. The catalyst for my original deactivation (besides just wanting to waste less time there) was a misogynist post by an acquaintance that sent me into a rage spiral. I realized that I would never change his mind just by getting into a Facebook fight, and that seeing posts like that were more harmful to my mental health than anything else. So now, rather than spending hours scrolling through hundreds of ill-informed opinions and idiotic comments and barely-read shared articles, I can pick and choose the news I want to read and not have to deal with commentary that only makes my blood boil.

But there’s a downside. The converse to not seeing all those dumb, super partisan “news” stories is that I’m also not seeing the informed, well-written think pieces that don’t get traction on major news sites. I’m not seeing what my thoughtful, plugged-in, social-justice-minded Facebook friends are sharing. And I do miss that. Instagram has become my social media break of choice these days; I’m appreciating the focus on imagery and enjoying finding new ethical brands and companies. But there’s really no good sharing component. I also use Twitter more frequently, and that medium is definitely more sharing-oriented, but I also find it a bit anxiety-inducing and cluttered.

So I think I need some kind of happy medium in my Facebooking. Maybe I just need to curate my friends list more closely, or just unfollow folks whose posts I have no interest in seeing. If you have a strategy for using Facebook in a productive and positive manner, I’d love to hear it!

Small bites to read, winter edition

A prime example of something I would’ve missed entirely had I not spent about three minutes scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday: This piece on the way “bro culture” harms the animal protection movement. It is, of course, applicable to many other movements and organizations, but as someone who has now worked in animal protection for nearly five years, it hit home. I’ve often wished I could throw out a casual “Hey, man” in the hallway, but… it would be weird. This is a well-written, straightforward, non-confrontational (sigh) explanation of why this kind of language needs to go if we want to build a truly inclusive movement.

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Switching topics entirely, check out this article about airplane toilets! No, really! As a somewhat-closeted aviation geek and a similarly closeted fan of poo talk, I enjoyed this light read. I was especially surprised to learn that the modern airplane vacuum toilet has only been in use since 1982!

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If you haven’t read Geraldine’s gut-punchingly good account of making the pizza cinnamon rolls from Mario Batali’s misguided “apology” letter, do so now. Then read her follow-up, detailing how her Twitter account was hacked after the original post went viral. Then silently scream about how horrible internet men are. Then give a  virtual nod to all your internet sisters in solidarity. Then maybe make some better cinnamon rolls and eat them with one big middle finger pointed at Mario Batali and his ilk.

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This Serious Eats piece on the alchemy of novelty potato chip flavors made me smile. Although I can’t say I’m particularly tempted to try, say, taco-flavored chips, I enjoyed the underlying theme: that sometimes perfection (i.e., the exact replica of a taco’s flavor) isn’t as satisfying as a simulacrum. The latter is emotionally and sensorily evocative in the way an exact replica never can be.

Small bites to watch, winter edition

Do you follow Goats of Anarchy on Instagram? If not, give the page a look. GOA is a sanctuary for special-needs goats, and it is exactly as cute as it sounds. This throwback video of Poppy and Frankie boppin’ around on the couch made me melt.

Small bites to eat, winter edition

A veganized version of this creamy mapletini has been my go-to cocktail of choice over the past few weeks. You could easily sub in a thinned-out homemade cashew cream for the half-and-half, but I used Ripple’s unsweetened plant milk with great success. Steven (who knows me far too well) gave me a bottle of this amaaazing bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup for Christmas, so I’ve enjoyed letting it shine in a cocktail. If you are similarly maple-inclined, you too will revel in the possibility of literally drinking maple syrup.

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Joey’s vegan oatcakes look mighty simple and mighty versatile. I try to incorporate zero-waste habits when possible, so I appreciate recipes that negate the purchase of plastic-wrapped snacks. Plus, that photo at the top of the post makes me salivate every time I see it.

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Thanks for reading, and send your Facebook strategies my way!

Note: This post contains an affiliate links. If you purchase something through my link, it costs nothing extra for you, but I get a few pennies to help cover hosting costs.

Vegan in Rotterdam

Poor Rotterdam. It never had a fighting chance to win my affections. I arrived on a chilly, rainy afternoon after spending a few (relatively) warm, sunny days in Amsterdam. With my hood up against the wind and the occasional raindrop, I began the half-hour walk from the (admittedly striking) train station to my AirBnB with a minor sense of unease, and it only grew the further I walked. It wasn’t that the city seemed unsafe — more that it was slightly unwelcoming. I saw almost no one on my half-hour walk, a striking change after busy Amsterdam. The streets were unsettlingly quiet. The city gave off a distinctly barren vibe. The modern, clean lines of Rotterdam’s buildings were a jarring change from Amsterdam’s old-world charm, and they didn’t do much for me on that grey day.

Rotterdam central station

Shout out to Mr. Yawning Scooterist! (The blue skies appeared the morning I left… of course.)

I wish I could say my impression improved as the day went on, that I found a bit of charm in a seemingly charmless city. It didn’t happen, though. Perhaps the weather was to blame, but I found myself listless and anxious to leave. I gave the city a fighting chance, or as fighting a chance as I could in just under 24 hours. I had a good wander and I saw a few of the top sights, but I just didn’t connect with it.

Which is not to say the city has nothing to recommend it. The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen was an absolute highlight, with a surprisingly diverse collection. Although I got in for free thanks to my Museum Pass, I’d have happily paid the price of admission (€17,50 for adults as of January 2018). An eclectic yet engaging mix of Old Masters, Impressionists, Expressionists, Surrealists (and undoubtedly many more -ists) makes up the main collection, so you’re not sure what to expect in the next room. It’s also quite an educational spot; I didn’t know much about the De Stijl movement before spending time here, but the curators have done an excellent job of tracking the movement and I spent good long time reading through the signage. (Which, as a side note, is why I adore solo museum-ing. Free reign to… read!)

The museum also houses a fantastic display of “household objects that chart the history of design over eight centuries.” As I wandered through the basement rooms, I kept expecting the collection to come to an end — and then I’d turn the corner and find yet another room of, say, mid-mod chairs or pipes (including a charming one that’s shaped like a dog).

The museum was blissfully quiet and uncrowded, a welcome change from the tourist-filled museums of Amsterdam. I was impressed and gratified I’d made the walk, and spent a few happy hours exploring.

Vegan cake in RotterdamAfter all that intense arting, I needed sustenance — in the form of cake. I headed to Heavenly Cupcakes, grateful for a chance to sit indoors and sip a hot beverage after a chilly walk. I ordered a slice of vanilla cake with raspberries and buttercream; it was perfectly serviceable, if a bit dense in texture. My perfect afternoon pick-me-up would’ve included a side of espresso, but alas: The espresso machine was being serviced at the very moment I stopped by. A pot of hot tea made a suitable replacement, and I enjoyed a leisurely snack in the otherwise empty cafe before heading back into the chill.

Suitably sugared up, I walked to the can’t-miss destination you’ll find on all city guides to Rotterdam: the Markthal (Market Hall). 

A vast indoor market characterized by its striking curved and reflective exterior, a dizzying indoor mural, and dozens of stalls, the Markthal is as good a place as any to spend a few hours in Rotterdam. Although it previously housed a vegan-friendly eatery, on my visit the Markthal was sadly devoid of much vegan fare, as far as I could tell. Still, there were plenty of bulk shops and a few bars, so you can always buy looseleaf tea and/or get a beer! Neither of which I did, but — you could.

The area around the Markthal also features the stunning elevated yellow cube houses that sometimes crop up on Pinterest and make you do a double-take. They’re even more impressive in person than in photos, and I wandered in the little cube-y “neighborhood” for a good while, wondering whether I should’ve shelled out for an AirBnB room in one of them. But I hadn’t, so eventually I returned to my regular ol’ AirBnB to charge my phone and fret over what to do next. I decided to keep it simple and go for dinner. Burgertrut was just a mile away, so I hoofed it to this indie eatery for a — you guessed it — burger.

The place was packed when I arrived, with patrons who skewed heavily towards the hipster more than the hippie. (I didn’t realize overalls are now “on trend” until I saw a band of teens rocking them!) Luckily, the relaxed atmosphere meant I could grab an open seat on a couch and order from there, rather than waiting for a table to open up. I was seated right next to a visiting artist who was working on some kind of wall mural. Burgertrut is just one piece of a larger organization that includes a public studio and a communal art space. We chatted briefly while I waited for my food, and then I adopted an awkward silence and pulled out a book to read. As one does.

While Burgertrut is not a fully veg establishment, it does have a fair few thoughtfully crafted vegan options alongside its organic meaty burgers. I opted for the curry burger with a side of fries and vegan mayo and found it all perfectly tasty (especially with a beer). Wholly sated, I decided to call it a night and headed back to my AirBnB.

The next morning, I hoofed it to Rotterdam Centraal where I grabbed breakfast: an Alpro vanilla yogurt and a cup of fruit. This ersatz parfait was a surprisingly filling breakfast, and I thanked the vegan gods that Europe sees fit to sell vegan yogurt in its train stations. And then I was off. Bruges was my next stop, and as I’ve shared, it blew me away.

So, Rotterdam. I left feeling perfectly happy to put it in my rear-view mirror, but also with a tiny crumb of regret. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to be like so many other European cities I love; by its very nature, it’s a different beast. Rotterdam sustained heavy bombing during World War II, and rather than try to recreate its older architecture, the city was designed anew in a much more modern style. And while I did enjoy and appreciate elements of that style — the Markthal and the cube houses, to name a few — perhaps I needed to clear my mental slate and judge the city on its own merits, not in Amsterdam’s glow.

Pooping dog statue, RotterdamAnd if I’m honest, there were a few moments that made me think Rotterdam had hidden depths I left unplumbed. I saw a few pairs of honest-to-goodness punks, for example, that made my counterculture heart sing a bit. These were not the try-hard young hipsters of Amsterdam but grizzled old-school punks, and a quick Google search does indeed indicate that Rotterdam is home to a legitimate punk scene. I’ve also heard that Rotterdam is tops if you enjoy clubbing and “nightlife,” but as I spend 99% of my nights on the couch knitting, reading, or re-watching The Office, this fact holds no appeal for me. (Another high point? Finding this statue of Fikkie the dog… and his poo. Yes, I consider this a high point. No, I am not ashamed.)

My one actual Rotterdam regret is not taking an afternoon trip to see the Kinderdijk waterfalls (see here and here). It had been on my tentative to-do list, but the timing just didn’t work out — you have to take a water bus over to them, and the schedule didn’t make sense given my limited time in the city. They look really lovely, though, and they remain on my bucket list.

All in all, with six months of retrospection behind me, I’m glad I visited Rotterdam. The cube houses had been on my to-see list for years, and my sense of the Netherlands as a whole country was deepened by my visit. Will I return? I could be convinced. It’s easily accessible by train, so a half-day visit could happen at some point — and definitely with a visit to Kinderdijk built in. Maybe I’ll even shell out for a cube house for a night.

Other vegan options in Rotterdam

My pre-visit list of Rotterdam vegan restaurants wasn’t huge since I knew I’d only be spending a single night there. Here are a few places I didn’t get to try.

  • Gare du Nord: Vegan bistro in a train car! Lots of organic,and local options. Reservations recommended.
  • Happy Kitchen: Eco-friendly eatery and small grocery store featuring vegan foods that skew towards the organic, raw, and whole-foods-based.
  • Tribestlife Raw Food Kitchen: Cafe with a bevy of raw, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan menu items. Choose among small bites, heartier dishes, sweet treats, and plenty of hot and cold drinks.

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Vegan in Rotterdam, Holland // govegga.com24 hours in Rotterdam // vegan Rotterdam eats // govegga.com

Small-Bite Sundays: January 7, 2018

Small-Bite Sundays -- winter

Hello, friends! I’m dusting off the Small-Bite Sundays series after letting it fall by the wayside during Vegan MoFo and the holiday madness. I’ve also given it a mini makeover, with more winter-appropriate images. Winter weekends are particularly appropriate for snuggling and reading, watching, and eating, aren’t they?

Neil nose

How has your 2018 been thus far? Frankly, ours has been a little rough. My Grammy was hospitalized for a few days; luckily they think it was just an extreme bout of vertigo and she’s been discharged. But it’s difficult being hundreds of miles from family when these kinds of things happen. Closer to home, we lost a member of our extended canine family — Neil, who was essentially our nephew-dog. Our friends Beth and Derek raised him after his mom was hit by a car, so he was quite literally their baby. Neil was a near-daily part of my own life for about three years when Beth worked with me; we both brought our dogs into the office and had all sorts of routines for them, mostly treat-based. Puppy Playtime was a crucial part of every day, and in later years we would throw handfuls of Cheerios on the ground and stand back as Moria and Neil snuffled them all up like tiny vacuum cleaners. Neil had an outsized personality for such a little guy, and there’s a rat terrier-dachshund-shaped hole in all our hearts right about now. I haven’t done him justice with this brief mention, but his story isn’t mine to tell, and quite frankly I’m still in shock that I’ll never get another extremely thorough — and extremely wet — hand-cleaning from this loud, opinionated, ridiculous, and loving doggo’s long Doxie tongue.

So, 2018. Time to pick up, y’hear? No more of this. Only smooth sailing ahead.

On that forward-looking note, I’ve been musing about the future of the blog. As you’ll read in this post, I have still not recovered my cooking mojo. While I have prepared sweets and savories for various holiday gatherings, the nightly meal is still exclusively Steven’s to prepare, and he’s been shouldering the task with admirable fortitude. (He’s even continuing to do most of the cleaning, which is an unexpected and lovely bonus.) The other night, however, I decided I wanted some nacho sauce to accompany a bag of tortilla chips we’d brought home from a gathering. I pulled up a recipe for that ubiquitous vegan cheesy sauce, the kind based on boiled potatoes, carrots, and cashews. I didn’t follow it to the letter, not bothering with measurements or anything finicky or fussy. And yet this relatively simple preparation left me irritated and quite glad I’m no longer the one in charge of our meals. I guess I’m not ready for a return to the kitchen just yet.

So, in the months to come, I’ll be sharing fewer original recipes and more general lifestyle-related content. Frankly, that’s where the blog has been headed for a while. There are thousands of fantastic recipe developers out there, and I will gladly leave the original recipe creation to them. It’s never been my passion, especially in the past few years. These days, I get more excited about finding amazing vegan food while traveling, about helping others discover that a vegan lifestyle doesn’t have to be a challenge, and about sharing tips for making that lifestyle as fulfilling and fun as it can be. I hope you’ll still read along as I make this shift, and I welcome ideas for topics you’d like to see covered.

And now, on to this week’s small bites.

Small bites to read, winter edition

Jenny Marie’s tips for easy, sustainable, and inclusive veganism had me nodding my head nonstop as I read. This is an all-around inspiring read for new vegans and old-timers alike. She’s pegged it to Veganuary, which isn’t as much of a trend here in the States as it is in the UK, but it’s also more broadly applicable for the new year. I think it’s beneficial to sit back every so often and evaluate whether you’re aligning your animal ethics with the larger social justice movement, and Jenny’s post is a great reminder to do just that. The piece also includes plenty of practical knowledge, including tips on dining in public, transitioning to cruelty-free and vegan household products, and more.

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This is an older read, and probably most relevant for those of us in the U.S., but I wanted to share it because it articulated something that had been bothering me. In essence, this piece reminds us to be careful and considered in our language — especially when we use the term “pedophile” to describe a man who had a known history of pursuing younger (much younger) women. He’s pretty darn disgusting, but not a pedophile, and calling him one is simplistic and problematic. (Folks outside the States, this is related to Roy Moore, a nasty senate candidate in Alabama who was widely predicted to win despite a consistent stream of allegations that he pursued and may have molested girls/women as young as 14. He lost in an upset, but no thanks to white voters. 63% of white women voters preferred this pathetic creep, whereas 98% of black women voters threw their support behind Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate. There is a freaking LOT to unpack in this senate race, but I’m digressing.)

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I quite enjoyed Gigi Griffis’ summary of how she and her partner chose their travel destinations for 2017 and how those places did or didn’t live up to expectations. Gigi is a travel-independent writer and blogger who brings her dog Luna (!) everywhere, and her slow-travel lifestyle is quite appealing. (How could you NOT want to spend a month in the Slovenian Alps?!) I probably read more travel blogs than food blogs these days, and Gigi’s down-to-earth approach always appeals. I appreciated this behind-the-scenes look at her past year.

Small bites to watch, winter edition

As usual, this is the shortest of my small bites sections! Steven and I just started the third season of Broadchurch. We loved the first season, would rather forget the second, and so far are enjoying the third. This one seems a return to the mood and style of the first season, and I’m down for the slow-burn pacing and clever way the original characters are finding their way into this new storyline. Crossing my fingers the rest of this season is as strong as the first couple episodes! (And yes, I know it aired last spring; we’re behind the times.)

Small bites to eat, winter edition

Last night a fair few of my local friends got together for a belated friend gift exchange, which we morphed into a bit of an Irish funeral for Neil. Our friend Rachel made the hot caramelized onion-bacon dip that’s become a staple at all our gatherings, so I wanted to contribute something a little healthier. I brought along this buffalo chickpea dip and it was a smash hit. It’s a lighter take on a super rich and super creamy version another friend brought to our holiday party; this one relies on an ingenious hummus base and incorporates vegan mozz to temper the buffalo kick. I negated the healthiness somewhat by adding about 1/4 cup Earth Balance — I wanted to elevate it from a hot hummus dip into something a bit creamier. I might tinker with this recipe further and share my own version down the line, because it was a winner.

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Minimalist Baker's ramenWe had Minimalist Baker’s ramen for dinner this past Friday, and holy smokes. I was blown away. The flavors are incredible! Steven rocked this recipe, using Better Than Bouillon’s No-Beef bouillon as the broth base and layering it with lots of umami flavors. Topped with miso-glazed baby carrots, baby bok choy, and tofu, this ramen currently sits atop my Best Eats of 2018 list… a list I literally just invented and that, let’s be honest, is quite short at this point. But that’s not to diminish the deliciousness of this recipe, because it is delicious! Make it!

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Another Steven production, this artichoke and red bean étouffée from Meet the Shannons hit the spot during a painfully cold week. Super flavorful and packed full of veggies, this recipe also yielded quite a lot. More leftovers for me!

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Phew. That’s about it for now. I’ll be back later this week with a long-overdue roundup of my brief sojourn in Rotterdam last year. Happy second week of 2018, y’all.

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A Very Isa Thanksgiving

Happy Tuesday, friends! Before we get too deep into the holiday season, I thought I’d share a quick recap of my very tasty — and shockingly stress-free — Thanksgiving. But first, a few housekeeping notes:

  • A sincere thank you to everyone who commented on my post about losing my cooking mojo. It seemed to resonate with quite a few of you! I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but I did feel relieved to realize that I’m not the only one who gets worn down with meal prep. On my end, Steven is still going strong with the cooking (and cleaning). A few recent highlights included a creamy tomato-basil bisque with GARLIC BREAD GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES! on the side; tacos with TVP chorizo, spicy black beans, cheese sauce, avocado, and a tangy slaw; and a super comforting samosa soup. I even roused myself to make a mid-afternoon snack on Sunday: poutine! Featuring store-bought waffle fries, Steven’s homemade cheese sauce, and a quick brown gravy I whipped up. I’ve never had poutine — vegan or otherwise — and I suspect a cheese sauce isn’t the best choice, but it was still a decadent delight.
  • Second, a gentle reminder to check out my Q&A with Nancy Lawson, aka the Humane Gardener. The book giveaway closes at the end of this week and is open to everyone!

https://vegga.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/img_2888.jpgNow, Thanksgiving! Spoiler: We rocked it! Steven’s mom and stepdad came for dinner, and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy our animal-free spread. In the name of simplicity, I had the genuinely good idea to cook all our sides from a single source: Isa’s fabulous The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook: Entertaining for Absolutely Every Occasion cookbook. I don’t own it, but I do own a library card! Here’s what we made — and how it all turned out.

  • Creamy whipped potatoes, p. 341. This recipe employs an immersion blender to whip up cashew cream with tender russet potatoes for an ultra-rich and creamy side. They were quite tasty, but Steven (who handled this recipe) said that the immersion blender wasn’t quite up to the task. I didn’t notice too many lumps, but the taters also weren’t particularly creamy.
  • Green bean casserole, p. 346. This classic dish was actually never a staple in my family’s Thanksgiving spread, but Steven’s a fan, so we decided to include it. YUM. Mushroom-y, creamy, bean-y goodness, all topped with Trader Joe’s fried onions. Perfection!
  • Caramelized onion and cauliflower casserole, p. 330. Oh dear. This did not turn out. I know my proportions weren’t quite right (my tofu block was a few ounces larger than called for, and I didn’t have quite enough cauli for the topping), but I don’t think that’s entirely to blame. We just didn’t care for the texture of the casserole base, which was kind of mousse-y and unexpected. The flavors were also a bit off, a little too acidic and just generally not enjoyable. Alas!
  • Orange-scented cranberry sauce, p. 344. You cannot go wrong with homemade cranberry sauce. If you’re still eating the jellied stuff from the can, I encourage you to try making it yourself! It’s a no-fail process and the results are so tasty. Isa’s recipe was, of course, delicious. Tangy and zippy and the perfect topping for a plate piled high with savory goodness.

Vegan Thanksgiving plate

We also cooked up a Trader Joe’s vegan roast as the main and found it quite tasty. This roast is, somewhat bizarrely, breaded! I was dubious, but it actually worked quite well. This roast was tasty, juicy, and affordable! We also picked up some store-bought stuffing mix; I think it was Pepperidge Farm. Call me uncultured, but I don’t want fancy homemade stuffing on Thanksgiving: I want the kind that comes in a bag and is salty and savory and comforting. Same goes with the rolls: We got Wegmans-brand crescent rolls and have #noregrets.

On the homemade front, I stirred up a big ol’ batch of gravy using a C’est La Vegan recipe that doesn’t appear to be online anymore. (I was working from a printed recipe my mama keeps on hand — she sent me a photo of it.) I added lots of poultry spice and a (not so) secret ingredient for umami deliciousness: Gravy Master! My mom has an ancient bottle of this delightfully retro browning sauce that comes out every Thanksgiving, and to me, gravy just isn’t the same without it. It’s accidentally vegan, so I picked up a little bottle of my own this year.

Vegan Thanksgiving appetizersFor dessert, our guests brought two vegan pies (apple and pumpkin) from Roots, our favorite local/ independent grocer, and I made a cranberry-orange loaf that isn’t worth mentioning — it was too sweet, and the orange was barely detectable. Oh well! Our guests also brought appetizers: samosas, crackers, rolled-up Tofurky slices, and a wheel of Miyoko’s cheese. Perfect for snacking while I wrapped up all the cooking.

In terms of said cooking, everything went eerily smoothly. No burnt roast, no lumpy gravy, no messes. I credit my obsessive levels of preparation: Steven and I chopped, diced, and prepared nearly all our ingredients the night before; I even blended up all the creamy elements for the various dishes (the cashew cream for the potatoes; the creamy sauce for the green bean casserole). That meant all I really had to do was bring it all together on Thanksgiving day. We ate almost exactly at 3:00 pm as planned, everything was hot, and I felt bizarrely relaxed sitting down to dinner. I’m not complaining!

I also had a brilliant idea for holiday breakfast: a massive, protein-rich smoothie that you can drink throughout your entire food prep process! It’s a quick, healthy meal that will keep you full until it’s time to overdose on savory sides. (Although I made a peanut butter-banana-chocolate-oat smoothie, so the “healthy” descriptor is arguable.)

So, all in all, a very successful Thanksgiving with LOTS of leftovers for Steven and me… and a reminder that even omnivores can enjoy a meat-free Thanksgiving. No turkeys need be harmed in the making of your belly-filling dinner!

Q&A with The Humane Gardener — and a Book Giveaway

The plant charmed me the first time I saw it. With its lanky stalk and cloud-like clusters of white flowers, it reminded me of a slightly more unruly version of Queen Anne’s Lace. From a distance, the plant seemed to have a few large flower heads; up close, those flower heads resolved themselves into hundreds of tiny white blooms. Looking even closer, each little flower sported a few tendrils of white, snaking up toward the sky. Bees, wasps, butterflies, and all sorts of wingéd friends crowded in for a snack, like thirsty office workers bellying up to the bar at happy hour.

I wanted to identify the plant so I could add it to my yard. After coming up with a few possible options, I posted a photo on Instagram and tagged my go-to plant expert. “Is this boneset?” I asked.

Nancy Lawson, aka the Humane Gardener, responded quickly to my query. “That’s boneset!” she said. “The best plant ever!”

Pearl crescents on boneset. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

Pearl crescents on boneset. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

That enthusiasm for what’s commonly considered a weed typifies Nancy’s approach to the world outside our doors. She’s an advocate for all that’s green and good, and for the creatures small and large with whom we share the globe. In her work as the Humane Gardener, Nancy advocates for a return to plants that support our native wildlife and for a gentler, more tolerant approach to living with those animals. She blogs at humanegardener.com and recently published her first book. The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife introduces key concepts for making your backyard a haven for wildlife, and its gentle, welcoming tone makes the subject approachable and inviting. (Read on for a chance to win the book!)

I had the pleasure of working with Nancy for a few years, and today I edit her Humane Backyard column for All Animals magazine. I invited her to answer some questions about her work to share with Go Vegga readers, to introduce everyone to the concepts she espouses, and to give some helpful, actionable tips for making your own green space — whether it’s a big backyard, a tiny apartment balcony, or even a shared communal green space — more hospitable and welcoming to wildlife. I hope you’ll find it as inspiring a concept as I do. (And I hope you’ll enjoy her photos as much as I do!)

Pickerel frog. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

Pickerel frog. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

First, what does being a humane gardener mean to you? And what are the benefits of gardening this way?

A humane gardener is someone who is compassionate toward all creatures, someone who appreciates the milkweed beetles as much as she appreciates the monarch butterflies who also visit the milkweed — who understands that rabbits and groundhogs and deer all need to eat plants just as much as we do. A humane gardener knows that the outdoor spaces we care for, whether it’s two acres in size or a postage stamp yard or even a balcony, are not really “ours” to cultivate in whatever way we deem pleasing to us. The earth and the sky belong to all species trying to make a life here, and our actions need to reflect that.

Milkweed beetles mating on milkweed while a voyeur looks on. Photo by Will Heinz.

We are so heavily marketed to by lawn care, pesticide, and nuisance wildlife control industries that we often think there is a right and a wrong way to garden. We buy into the notion that the plants that help wildlife most are “weeds,” that animal nibbling of plants is “damage,” and that some of the most life-giving habitat elements — dead wood, leftover stalks, fallen leaves — are “messy.”

It’s usually the animals themselves who break through this negativity. It often takes only one discovery — that the holes in the rosebush leaves are the handiwork of a mother leafcutter bee lining her nest with leaf pieces, for example, or that the dead tree slated for removal has become the perfect nesting spot for bluebirds — to change a gardener’s whole perspective. Watching a rabbit chow down on a dandelion becomes a revelatory experience. I actually get chills, and my spirit lifts, when I walk among the plants around our home and see all the creatures large and small who are eating, nesting, and sheltering there. What could be more joyful than knowing how much difference we can make for so many lives even in a small space?

A rabbit takes care of the weeding. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

How has your personal journey as a humane gardener evolved? What led you here, and was there a single moment when you started thinking about gardening and land usage differently?

I’ve never been a fan of lawns. I grew up in Bowie, Md., a community built in the 1960s by the Levitts, famous for pioneering cookie-cutter homes in communities known as Levittowns in New York and New Jersey, and for implementing strict lawn requirements that associated masculinity and the paternal-family-man ideal with manicured turfgrass. My father resisted all of that and planted flower gardens in the front and back yard when I was a kid, and those were the places I would gravitate to. I watched ants under the trees and played with my dolls on the pine needles and made little bouquets of spring flowers in Fleischmann margarine tubs for my teachers. Wherever there were plants, there was life and beauty and great joy. It was apparent to me even back then that life did not thrive in a frequently mowed, heavily fertilized space treated with pesticides.

Mama Goose and her baby. Photo by Jennifer Howard.

But what really opened my eyes to the tragic consequences of conventional landscaping was a conversation with wildlife biologist John Hadidian in the late 1990s. He and I were both working for The Humane Society of the United States at the time, and he was leading an effort to help people resolve conflicts with geese humanely. Unfortunately the standard answer to perceived goose “overpopulation” was to cull them by rounding them up and mass gassing them; that practice continues today in communities that decide they can no longer tolerate their presence.

From John I learned that geese are attracted to mowed-down landscapes directly adjacent to water — a common landscaping aesthetic in the U.S. These environments provide visibility and easy access to the water, where geese can quickly escape from predators, especially during nesting season. Efforts to revegetate such areas with native plantings had already proven successful, creating natural buffers that made geese just uncomfortable enough to avoid nesting there.

Well, this was a revelation to me! I was just becoming interested in native plants at the time, but I hadn’t yet made specific connections between plants and their effects on wildlife. I began to refer to the idea as “humane landscaping,” and I put it into practice in my own yard, but it took 12 years for me to begin really writing about it and exploring it as a career.

 

Nancy’s husband Will found this young Eastern box turtle in their lawn. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

What are some common actions or behaviors that are actually harmful to animals and/or the environment? There are so many things we don’t even think to question, like using netting to protect vegetable gardens!

Rescuing a snake trapped in netting. Photo courtesy John Griffin.

Oh, there are just so many. Yes, using netting is a perfect example because it seems so innocuous, yet it can so easily strangle animals, especially birds and snakes. Another action people mistakenly think is humane is relocation of squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and other mammals. There are so many detrimental effects of relocation. First, you could be separating a mother from her young without even knowing it. Also, the stress of transport to another territory could be overwhelming for the animal. But just as importantly, even if that animal is not being separated from her young, and even if she survives the journey, what then? What is she supposed to do in a new territory she’s never seen before? She no longer has a cognitive map of where her food sources are, where she can escape for cover, and where the threats and competitors are. Imagine if someone forced us into a car and drove us to a foreign land with no money, no map, no knowledge of the local customs and people. We would be very vulnerable, and that’s often what happens to relocated animals; they are easy prey.

Of course, it goes without saying that pesticides of any kind — insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, can be very damaging, both in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t. Mowing kills countless animals — from the turtles and toads to the butterfly caterpillars. When we first moved to our home, we accidentally ran over a turtle with a mower. It was awful. And turtles can live for many decades, yet they reproduce very slowly, so the untimely demise of just a few can lead to local population extinction. To help these animals and many others, we have to reduce our lawns. Keeping a play area for kids or dogs or a hammock is fine. But do we really need the 42 million acres and counting that we have in the U.S.? Most of it is not even used by anybody! What a travesty.

Green metallic bee on coral honeysuckle. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

What does the ideal humane backyard (or apartment balcony, or communal strip of land, or whatever!) look like to you? What have you done in your own yard to make it welcoming to wildlife?

Beautiful broomsedge. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

I’ll start with the second question because I think it leads naturally into the first. The best way to describe our evolution is to say what we haven’t done. We stopped mowing more than half of the backyard. In place of lawn, there are now broomsedge and purpletop grasses, both native plants. (And I almost bought these plants once at a nursery before coming home to realize how many hundreds of them were starting to volunteer on their own!). Goldenrods and boneset and native sunflowers are also coming up in this area; some of these plants were likely seeded by birds in their droppings, while others were likely already dormant in the seedbank. They just needed a chance to sprout without constantly being mowed down.

In the other half of the yard, we’ve added as many native plants as time and money allow. I’ve grown a lot of these plants from seed — it’s very easy to do! — and I’ve also bought many of them at native plant sales and nurseries over the years. What you’ll usually find with natives is that — since they are accustomed the soil and have longstanding relationships with animals who eat and spread them — you might start with one or two plants but eventually have lots of offspring to transplant and share with friends. I’ve heard people call this “planting it forward,” and I just love that!

In the front of the house, we’ve also planted and nurtured as many natives as possible. My neighbors have become very interested in the plants because they are seeing just how insanely attractive they are to an amazing variety of butterflies, bees, wasps, and so many others. Really, animals help sell these plants if we let them. People understand that our pollinators are in crisis.

Green tiger beetle on leaves. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

We never remove leaves from the property, instead using them to create new garden areas. A nice layer of leaves will kill grass and enrich the soil and the plants as they break down. We also create brush piles out of twigs, fallen branches, sticks, and we line beds with branches and logs. This creates habitats for salamanders, beetles, and wood-nesting bees (30 percent of our 4,000 native bee species nest in cavities) — and then the birds come to forage on all these little creatures.

So really, the ideal humane garden is the thoughtful one — the one that takes into account what’s already there for wildlife, nurtures that, and then modifies in ways that will enhance that space for our fellow creatures. There isn’t really any one recipe for a given space, and I think that’s what people get hung up on — they worry about whether they’re doing the right thing, but if you take a little time to watch the animals and plants, they will help guide you.

Masked bees mating on shrubby St. Johns Wort. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

When I think about this movement towards humane gardening, it seems to me that it’s above anything else a mindset change — it’s altering how we view and understand different elements of nature, and then further altering our behavior to do what’s best for those elements. (I’m thinking of the “A Harvest for All” chapter of your book in particular, and especially about the poor maligned rabbits!) What mindset changes do you think are crucial?

You are exactly right — it’s all about questioning our long-held, culturally ingrained assumptions and learning to view the world from the perspective of other species, both plant and animal. One of the most unfortunate phrases I hear from people is “I have a brown thumb.” There is this notion out there that plants need constant coddling and inputs to survive, when the truth is that plants were far better off on this planet without our help! They managed just fine without us for about 700 million years. We are a blip in evolutionary history, yet we’ve managed in a very short time to obliterate many species across the planet.

We need plants to survive, but often what they need most of all from us at this point is for us to just leave them alone. One mistake made by many people trying to care for a plot of land is to assume that the things they didn’t plant are “weeds” — that whatever wasn’t purchased or designed by humans is somehow of less value. In reality, the opposite is often true. Whereas our big-box centers and mainstream nurseries are experts in selling invasive plants that crowd out wildlife habitat and sometimes even directly harm animals through toxic berries and leaves they can’t digest, nature excels at providing everything our local flora and fauna need — if only we would let her.

Groundhog eating lawn forbs. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

The dominant societal attitude toward plants has a direct impact on animals. That is one thing I really want my animal-loving friends to know. If you care about rabbits, leave clover and dandelions and other forbs in your yard for them to eat; grow hedgerows where they can take shelter. If you care about groundhogs, leave your fleabane and sassafras volunteers and other herbaceous and woody plants that will get them through hot summers and long winters. If you care about bees, nurture native plants that feed the specialists — the native bees who’ve evolved to gather pollen only from violets or spring beauties or asters or goldenrods or common evening primroses.

Don’t buy into the idea that there are “too many” deer or too many of any type of animal; who are we — the species that has taken over the Earth and holds her fate in our hands—to declare that? Deer were nearly shot out of existence, as were geese, and then bred and released back into the wild in many regions in an attempt to restock them for hunters. Humans have subjected many different kinds of animals — turkeys, mountain lions, wolves — to cycles of decimation and reclamation. Then we get angry with them when they do happen to start to thrive again, instead of looking inwardly and challenging ourselves to ask: What mistakes have we made in the past, and what can we do now to avoid further harm? In the case of deer, for example, our mowed-down landscapes create inviting habitat for them because they like open land near woods’ edges. There are so many things we can do to change this, starting with planting more plants and nurturing the ones we already have.

Great spangled fritillary and pearl crescent on Joe Pye weed. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

For folks who are reading about this concept for the first time, it might seem overwhelming. What are some simple yet effective first steps people can take to start turning their outdoor space into a more humane area?

Cardinal munching a caterpillar. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

Start by looking at what you already have, and don’t assume that everything good and helpful to wildlife has to have our imprimatur on it. Many people first learn the connection between native plants and wildlife through this essential statistic quantified by entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy: 96 percent of North America’s terrestrial bird species feed their young spiders and insects — mostly caterpillars, and often thousands of them just to raise one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. Those caterpillars rely heavily on native plants; 90 percent of plant-eating insects can eat only plants of certain lineages that they co-evolved with. So if we don’t have native plants, we’ve broken the food supply chain for baby birds.

That resonates with people, and when they start to understand the connections, they want to replace all their plants right away. This is not a reaction I want to discourage, necessarily, because a garden filled with native plants is the ideal. However, it’s not exactly doable for most people in the short term, both for time and financial reasons. But I also worry about this from the animals’ perspectives. For example, we have a forsythia bush that’s been here since we moved in. It was once the only bush in our expansive backyard. Animals need shrubs for cover and nesting, not just for food. Cardinals, catbirds, rabbits, finches, and many others use that large bush. Of course, since it’s not a native plant, the forsythia likely doesn’t provide the same level of floral and foliage resources to bees and caterpillars that native plants would. But instead of ripping it out and leaving one less space for birds to nest in, we started adding native bayberry and spicebush near it — so that eventually we will have a native hedge that can expand. At some point I will then be more comfortable with reducing the forsythia presence.

Forsythia and bayberry in the backyard. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

I’ve begun to think of this concept as the Three Rs, something I borrowed from the animal protection field — which of course uses the Three Rs as a way to advocate for reduced consumption of animal products and reduced use of animals in research. My husband and I apply it to the outdoors in this way:

  1. Reduce invasives and lawn areas through gradual removal.
  2. Refine plant choices by buying only native plants, which have been proven to be more helpful to wildlife they co-evolved with.
  3. Replace nonnative plants with native plants whenever possible.

So it’s not hard to start. I like the advice of Ken Parker, a horticulturist I interviewed in my book: Start with a dozen native wildflower species — four for each season of bloom. Add a few native grasses, a couple shrub species, and a couple of nut-bearing trees. But if that’s too much, start with three native wildflowers and one shrub. You don’t have to go crazy. Just do what you can, and it will be more than the animals had before.

Do you have any favorite animals or insects, ones always put a smile on your face when you see them hanging out in “your” space? Any plants that you particularly love?

Sleeping bee on mountain mint. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

It seems almost impossible to choose! I can’t help but love the little guys I affectionately refer to as the bachelor bees or the sleeping bees. Every evening and morning in the summer through early fall, male bumblebees find a flower to sleep under. Usually they hang upside down, and often they choose flowers with umbrella shapes that will protect them from rain. Male bumblebees aren’t really allowed back in the nest once they leave; they pollinate flowers and, if they’re lucky, get to procreate, but they otherwise aren’t helping the colony the way the females are. Sometimes they hang out in clusters to sleep. I think of them as little ancient Romans; they sleep all night under a beautiful flower, wake up when it’s warm enough, and climb onto a nearby flower to start drinking all over again!

We have had some rare sightings, including a scarlet tanager who showed up in the staghorn sumacs just beyond our patio for about half an hour one night this summer. That was a real treat, and I didn’t realize just how difficult it is even for experienced birders to see the species. To me it validated how inviting our place has become.

Seeing a groundhog or a fox, hearing a coyote in the middle of the night, coming upon a fresh molehill in my walks around the land—all of these things are magical experiences for me, too. I tend to gravitate toward the misunderstood animals and plants. The plants that give me real joy are the ones that grow in the cracks of the driveway or pioneer a disturbed spot in the meadow. Often they are the ones most helpful to wildlife, too; boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) sprouted here on its own and has spread to many spots, drawing more and more bees, wasps, butterflies, bee flies, and others with each passing year. Other plants that warm my heart are blue mistflower, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, jewelweed — all the species that aren’t really “weeds” at all to our wildlife. They are self-seeders, self-starters, lifesavers, and survivors.

Newly hatched male monarch drying his wings. Photo by Nancy Lawson.

I’m so grateful to Nancy for answering my questions with such thoughtfulness and candor.  Trust me when I say that this open-minded, gentle tone is exactly the same approach she takes in her book — which is partially why I’m giving away a copy!

The Humane GardenerTo enter, follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter giveaway below. And why not purchase an extra copy, for yourself or for someone else? The Humane Gardener would make a perfect holiday gift for someone who might want to invite more wildlife into their yard!

While Nancy’s book does focus on plants and wildlife common to the U.S., her principles are universally applicable. If you live in the U.K. or Europe, Nancy recommends A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm, A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, and Moles (The British Natural History Collection).

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This giveaway is open from Wednesday, November 29th through Sunday, December 10th, to entrants from any country.

Please read the Rafflecopter instructions carefully. You must leave a comment on this blog post to enter, and then you can earn extra entries in a few other ways.

>>>Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway!<<<

The giveaway is closed! Stacey W. of the USA is the winner. Stacey, I’ll be emailing you shortly! Thanks to everyone who entered.

Editor’s note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing items through my links costs nothing extra to you, but it does help me cover hosting costs.

On Not Cooking

Hello, hello! As usual, I’ve been relatively quiet post-MoFo. And not just for all the usual burnout reasons. There’s another one: I simply haven’t been cooking! If you read between the lines of my MoFo posts, you’ll find a formerly exuberant home cook who was becoming extremely tired of cooking. Or, more accurately, tired of planning and preparing meals.

Steven and I have had a long-standing arrangement wherein I do the cooking and he does the clean-up. Mostly for dinner, but also the occasional weekend breakfast. Leftovers often serve as lunches for us both. And we both thought it was an equitable arrangement.

Until I realized it wasn’t.

One day toward the end of October, I was at work. As the afternoon passed, I began to think — and stress — about what to make for dinner. I was already pretty worn out from MoFo cooking, so I decided to use a big bowl of leftover beans and rice and recycle it into bean burgers.

Then I got home and discovered that Steven had eaten the leftovers for lunch.

I overreacted. I was unduly upset, and it took me a while to figure out why: I was so, so worn out with the anxiety of planning meals, of managing — in my head — the pantry, of making sure we had ingredients, of thinking ahead, of spending all this time in the goddamn kitchen not for the love of cooking, but just to get something on the table. I realized that all the emotional and mental energy I was putting into cooking — not to mention the time — was not equal to the simple task of cleaning up, post-dinner. Steven could plug in his earbuds and mindlessly wash dishes. No stress.

I should mention here that I don’t at all “blame” Steven for this. There’s no blame to be had. He never set unfair expectations about what we’d eat for dinner and was happy with semi-frequent “fend for ourselves” nights. We both thought it was a good and fair arrangement. But after six years, it wasn’t. And the instant I realized what was bothering me, the instant I articulated it, Steven volunteered to cook all our dinners — and the occasional weekend breakfast — for the indefinite future. And this marvelous human has also been doing 85% of the post-dinner cleanup, too.

It has been wonderful.

Wonderful for both of us, I think. Because I created this role for myself as THE cook, Steven has never really had the chance to develop his own culinary skills. In the past, when he tried, I was a bit… overbearing. The kitchen was *my* domain, and I knew best. So I would hover, giving him “tips” and “pointers” and generally being a pain.

But now I stay the hell out of the kitchen while he’s cooking, only offering advice if asked. I banish myself to the living room and take the time to work on freelance assignments or to simply read. And then I get served up a nice hot meal, which I did not have to think about or plan for or prepare. It’s glorious!

I feel very lucky to have such a kind partner. I know this is a silly, self-induced “problem” to have, but it was causing me legitimate stress. I hope that by stepping out of the kitchen for a while, it’ll rekindle my enjoyment of cooking. I think it will. We’re going to share the cooking for a low-key Thanksgiving we’re hosting for Steven’s mom and step-dad, and I’m actually looking forward to it. That’s a good sign.

So! Where does this leave us? Well, I realize that I should have peppered this post with pictures of Steven-prepared meals, but I shamefully haven’t photographed a single one. I’ve just enjoyed them. But I do have some great content planned for y’all, including a really lovely interview with an author and a giveaway of her book. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I’ll be over here eating food I did not cook. ;)

Halloween Snackin’ | VeganMoFo 2017 Day Thirty-One

VeganMoFo 2017

Week Four: Entertaining
Halloween – Try not to scare us too much with your spookiest dish.

Hallelujah, it’s Halloween! Or, more accurately: Hallelujah, it’s the last day of VeganMoFo — a fact for which I’m embarrassingly thankful. Man, this has been a tough month. While I wouldn’t say I’ve been phoning it in, per se, I definitely haven’t given 100% this year. Seven new recipes, a few half-recipes/half-templates, and a bunch of round-up posts would be quite (!) productive for a normal month, but are maybe a little lackluster for VeganMoFo. Next year, I think I’ll come up with my own theme. It’ll give me more time to prepare and free me from the prompts that didn’t inspire me. Hindsight!

Anyway, on to Halloween. I didn’t dress up this year, for a variety of reasons, but I did get to enjoy a whole lot of treats at work. An enterprising new employee arranged a staff party, complete with be-costumed dogs and a vegan potluck! (Perks of working for an animal welfare organization.) I wanted to snap a few photos of the spread, but the room was dim (you know, to enhance the the spookiness) so here’s a photo of my plate instead.

Plate o' Halloween snacksThat vegan buffalo chicken dip on the right might be a bit visually unappealing, but it was insanely good! Rich, creamy, and a total indulgence, but yummy with celery dippers. I also loved the mini Almond Joy bites on the top left. And I wish I’d gotten a photo of that orange cake — one of our talented coworkers made a vanilla cake decorated with orange frosting and black piped spiders and spiderwebs. She also made a chocolate cake frosted to look like a gravestone.

What did I contribute to this massive table of vegan treats? Absolutely nothing. Frankly, my reserves for non-essential cooking are at an all-time low. (And actually, Steven has taken over the essential cooking to give me a break.) Plus, we were downtown last night at a panel discussion on the changing face of American journalism, and we didn’t get back till nearly 10pm. No time to whip up anything! I usually always contribute to potlucks and other group meals, so I didn’t feel bad not doing so this time. Instead, I just enjoyed the food.

And with that, I bid adieu to VeganMoFo 2017. Time to hand out vegan lollipops to the trick-or-treaters!

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Holiday Plans | VeganMoFo 2017 Day Thirty

VeganMoFo 2017

Week Four: Entertaining
Practice-run a dish for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or another upcoming holiday.

Dudes, I cannot even think about the holidays right now! But I have to. Steven and I are hosting a (very low-key) Thanksgiving this year for his mom and step-dad, so we’ll have to come up with a Thanksgiving dinner menu. It’s not the first time we’ve hosted — back in 2011, back when we were in Wisconsin, we hosted Thanksgiving for my immediate family and his mom, all of whom flew in to join us. I’m a little shocked we did that, now that I think back on it — we’d only been dating for nine months, yet we tackled a holiday dinner together. And it was 100% vegan! And we didn’t strangle one another!

If I learned anything from that experience, it was to keep things simple. I made three main dishes (including my first-ever Tofurky), and it was overkill! This year, I think we’ll offer one main dish and a whole bunch of sides. I might tackle some kind of turkey Wellington… or maybe we’ll just stick with one of the commercially available ones. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy are a given for the sides, and I’ll probably do some roasted garlicky Brussels sprouts. Maybe I’ll add something new, like this cauliflower gratin or even this roasted kabocha squash. For dessert? My sweet potato pie, for sure, and whatever else catches my eye.

Boring? Maybe. Also classic and no-fail. No need to bring added stress onto a laidback Thanksgiving, right?

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