This isn’t your grandma’s Betty Crocker. And it isn’t your hippie friend’s veganism. Annie and Dan Shannon’s new cookbook, Betty Goes Vegan, contains 500 “classic recipes for the modern family”—each and every one an updated, veganized version of a Betty Crocker creation.
The Shannons’ tome—hardcover, 480 pages—looks a lot like those classic cookbooks, right down to the technicolor cover and glossy photos tucked between recipe pages. But it’s not just stylistically similar; Betty Goes Vegan also channels Crocker’s penchant for dishes that combine fresh or homemade ingredients with packaged products (only this time it’s more Daiya cheese and vegan shortening than Crisco and Velveeta). Their aim is to show people that vegan food can be fun, fulfilling and familiar; that vegan cooking doesn’t require endless hours in the kitchen; and a vegan diet doesn’t mean giving up all the dishes you know and love. When Betty goes vegan, it’s not all carrot juice and mung beans, folks.
I got to talk to Annie and Dan—a husband and wife team that live in Brooklyn, NY—last week and learn more about what inspired their blog-turned-cookbook project, how they’re fighting vegan stereotypes and what people get wrong about Betty Crocker.
You mention in the Betty Goes Vegan intro that you were inspired to start the project after watching Julie and Julia?
Annie: We were watching that movie and there’s a scene in it where [Julie Powell's character] has to boil lobsters; and you can obviously tell she was conflicted about this. She has a really hard time doing it. And Dan and I both kind of had this hope that she was going to save the lobsters—but not only does she kill the lobsters, the just boils them alive. And it was set up in this way that we were supposed to celebrate that, her overcoming her fears, but … we saw that as her overcoming her conscience. And we didn’t think that’s something you should be celebrating.
So you guys launched a blog, and you settled on recreating vegan versions of Betty Crocker, instead of Julia Childs. Why Crocker? And how did you decide which of the many versions of the Betty Crocker cookbook to use as a blueprint ?
Annie: With Julia Childs there are just a lot of recipes I didn’t think people would really make, life beef-flavored jello molds and deer heart. We tried to find a book that people would actually need and use. Betty Crocker has this reputation for taking everyday ingredients and turning them into something incredible, and that’s what we wanted to do with vegan food.
Dan: But we also wanted to change people’s perception of vegan food and make people who never considered vegan food as something they would enjoy see that it could be familiar to them. You can have vegan food and have some of these really classic Americana recipes. We wanted to expose people to the idea that they don’t have to go 100% vegan; they can cook vegan one day a week or see it as something new to work into their recipe rotation.
In the intro you guys write that “contrary to some stereotypes, vegans are just as passionate about cooking and eating as any meat-eating foodie.” Where do you think that stereotype that vegans don’t like food comes from?
Dan: The misconception about vegans not enjoying food is a misconception about what vegan food is. If you think vegans just eat salad all day, yeah, but that’s not what vegan food is really about. I actually wasn’t a big food guy before I went vegan, so when I did it really expanded the kinds of foods I would eat and enjoy. All I really ate before that was McDonald’s and Kraft mac-n-cheese, so going vegan expanded my enjoyment of foods and the kinds of foods I ate.
Annie, you mention that you had ‘issues’ with Betty Crocker and what you thought she represented, but you came to peace with her. What happened?
[This seems as good a time as any to note that "Betty Crocker" is not and never has been a real woman, but rather a character created by the Washburn Crosby Company in the 1920s to offer cooking and household advice to American women.]
Annie: There’s this strange misconception that Betty Crocker was all about getting women to stay at home and make things from scratch. But Crocker is the queen of Bisquick and cake mixes! This idea that she’s really into making things from scratch couldn’t be further from the truth. There was a time when there was a Betty Crocker TV show about the importance of staying at home and enjoying homemaking, but I think that was a misguided attempt to try and get the only role women could play at the time to be more valued.
Well, speaking of packaged/prepared foods … a lot of your recipes use them. I know that mock meats and vegan cheese and things like that can be controversial among vegans and vegetarians. Do you guys ever get criticized for that?
Dan: There are plenty of recipes in the book for people who don’t want to use those products. But the thing is most of those products really aren’t that crazy, in terms of what the ingredients are and how they’re made. Certainly they’re processed, but it’s not like they’re oreos and just made out of chemicals.
We just want to show people how to use these products to their whole potential—maybe some people aren’t aware these even exist or how to use them properly. You don’t just replace the meat with a vegan meat substitute, you add some liquid smoke, you compensate for the oils; there are all these different tips and tricks that we use to recreate a dish. But you use these products as a part of a meal. It’s not like, hey, just microwave a bag of vegan chicken nuggets and eat them; you add some vegetables and whole grains and all the nutrients you need, just like if you’re not vegan you wouldn’t just eat meat for dinner.
What do you think people are most surprised to find about vegan food or vegan cooking?
Dan: I think a big part of the audience for the book we hope will be people who aren’t vegan already. I think people are surprised to see that vegan food can be the kind of stuff they’re familiar with. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I’m seeing things like chicken pot pies and burgers and chili and lasagna, I didn’t know this stuff could be vegan.’ I think that’s really surprising to people, because a lot of pople think the idea of eating vegan food means never eating anything you like ever again and just starting to eat all this crazy new stuff they’ve never heard of.
Annie: There’s this idea that if you go vegan it’s like jumping off a cliff—people talk about it like “I”m going vegan cold turkey!”—but it’s really not that much of a lifestyle change. I think there’s a lot of things people eat already that are at least vegetarian. So what we really wanted to do is show people that you’re not joining the army, you’re not jumping off a cliff. Going vegan isn’t going to be this thing that defines your life now.
I know there are a lot of recipes in the book, but do you have any favorites?
Dan: My favorite recipe in the book is the chicken pot pie; it’s just, like, my favorite thing in the world to eat. And I think it’s a great example of what we were talking about before—it does have some soy chicken in it, but really what I love about it is the hearty crust, the peas, the vegetables, the mock gravy. You can make it without the mock chicken and it would be just as good. It’s not about just stuffing your face full of mock meat all the time, even when we do use it.
Annie: There’s a pumpkin pie soufflé in there. Normally soufflés have five or six eggs in them, so figuring out this recipe was kind of a challenge, but we worked it out.