Interview Dynise Balcavage

Interview: Dynise Balcavage, The Urban Vegan

Dynise Balcavage is one of the references when it comes to vegan cuisine. Living in Philadelphia, Dynise runs a blog, where one can find recipes and many other topics. Dynise Balcavage has just released a cookbook called Pies and Tarts with Heart.

When did you become a vegan and why?

D. B. I went vegan in 2006 at age 41. I had been vegetarian on and off—mostly on—since I was 14. I honestly didn’t fully realize until 2006 that even though I was vegetarian who stood against animal suffering, I was contributing to it by leaning so heavily on eggs and dairy. After that, I also read more about factory farming and the environmental and health benefits of veganism and realized a plant-based diet was a win-win-win diet and lifestyle.

From a culinary standpoint, I also loved the challenge of cooking vegan. Most vegan food I had tried had honestly tasted either too stereotypically “healthy” or bland. (And to be honest, a lot of it still does.) I was determined to learn to cook vegan food that people loved because it tasted as good as or better than any other kind of cuisine.

What’s amazing about Philadelphia?

D. B. To be honest, I’m not loving Philadelphia right now–it can be a very hostile place, plus I really dislike cold weather. One thing I love is that we have so many restaurants offer fab vegan food. Of course, there’s Vedge, one of the best plant- based restaurants in the world, loved by omnivores and vegetarians alike. We also have Blackbird Pizzeria – all vegan, tons of Chinese vegan restaurants, and countless places to buy vegan baked goods.

I am a runner so I also love the fact that Philadelphia has tons of great running paths and trails. Fairmount Park starts right in the middle of the city at the famous Art Museum and takes you down paths that would make you believe you were deep in the forest. It’s one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

You seem to love France, why is that?

D. B. Oui, j’adore la France! First I need to set the scene: I grew up in a working-class coal-mining town, in a small row home in an alley. Everything was grey. There was zero attention to aesthetics because aesthetics were a luxury that we could not afford. Most people finished high school and then got blue-collar jobs. Many folks were impoverished. Not surprisingly, alcoholism and depression were prevalent.

I took French from grade 8-grade 12 and being a word person, loved it. In grade 12, my high school French club hosted a trip to France. I could not afford the ticket so I pounded the pavement and sold raffle tickets to earn money for it. I still came up short, but my Aunt Regina, a traveler herself, generously threw in the difference and I was able to go.

I had never even been to New York City and suddenly, I found myself in Paris, the City of Light. Instead of seeing strip mines and dilapidated row homes and eating Wonder Bread for breakfast, I found myself at Place Saint-Michel, savoring a handmade croissant, surrounded by exquisite architecture dripping with centuries of history. Fashionable people sauntered by and I experienced a totally different energy – one of hope and light.

I took to speaking French like a duck to water. And I immediately bought a scarf and wrapped it around my neck like the French girls did back in the 80s. I felt different at that moment, as cliché as it may sound.

Paris – and my Aunt Regina– literally saved my life. Paris made me realize the profound impact that beauty and aesthetics can have on your consciousness and your mood. It made me understand there is another way to live. Even if you have very little, you can still live well by being creative – and you can still savor life’s small and large pleasures.

I’ve been back to France more times than I can count. I even did some cooking demonstrations at Paris Vegan Day in 2010—in very bad French!

Eat your veggies! Is there one of them that you really don’t like?

D. B. Yes. I’m not a big fan of either okra or bok choy. It’s a texture thing.

My favourite comfort food is…

D. B. Pasta! I could eat it every day.

The worst country to be a vegan?

 D. B. I can only speak about the countries I’ve visited, but I had a very hard time in Aruba.

One recipe you can make again and again without getting tired of it?

D. B. Just one? I’d have to say pasta with marinara sauce. But I have a gigantic salad just about every day, too. I never tire of it because I change it up. One day I’ll add chickpeas. Another I’ll add tempeh or dry-fried tofu. And I’ll use different dressing and vegetables. Same goes for my marinara sauce; it’s rarely exactly the same. I like variety in food.

American and French people… what makes them different?

D. B. Well, France is now just as much a melting pot as the US, so the similarities are growing because our cultures are mixing with other cultures. Generally speaking, I think that in the US, we don’t appreciate pleasure or beauty as much as the French people do. Aesthetics and appreciation of art and culture  and savoring pleasures—whether it’s a dinner with friends or a walk in the park–seems to be ingrained into the French mentality from a very young age. Sadly, there’s not much appreciation for the arts here in the US – not as much as there should be. Our focus is on work-work-work – which I think is out of balance.

If you were offered to work on a cookbook with a chef, who would that be?

D. B. I would not work with a vegan chef – that would be too predictable. I would love to work with Nigella Lawson. I have such a girl crush on her, and I also think she is one of the best food writers out there.

I met Nigella at a book signing here in Philadelphia, and she is fabulous and gracious. I even gave her a copy of my first cookbook. She understands that food is about pleasure–slowing down, really experiencing food and sharing meals with those you love. I would like to see how her hedonism would translate out to vegan recipes.

Cupcakes or muffins: which one is your favourite? Why?

D. B. Cupcakes, because they have lots of icing.

A word to describe the person who sent you this interview?

D. B. Just one? Compassionate. If I could use three, they would be compassionate, creative and beautiful.


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