diaclaimers & such: being honest about blogger perks

I received a press release for lemons. Lemons. Maybe you’ve heard of them, but they’re fruits and they’re good for…oh, come on, they’re friggin’ lemons.

You may not know this, but bloggers are sent loads of press releases, marketing packets, and free products. Because of you, the reader. Many bloggers support themselves in part via advertising on their blogs. Sometimes it’s super obvious, like when pop-up ads block whatever you’re reading until you interact with them. But quite often, a blogger will feature or review a product that they’ve received free. They’re supposed to tell you when that happens, but they rarely do.

Another way companies get exposure is by hiring bloggers as brand ambassadors or bringing them on as recipe developers. I’ve gotten a couple of these offers, but since I’m not strictly a food blogger, I think it would be weird if I started featuring recipes based on these products. (Some of these “recipes” are pretty funny—don’t know if you’ve noticed them—but the product is sometimes used as a topping or thrown in a cookie or it serves as a layer in a parfait. Snore.)

Perhaps it’s because I spent a few years as an in-house magazine staffer and my interaction with other bloggers (in my experience with Vida Vegan I’ve seen a full spectrum of blogger behavior) that I have such a low tolerance for sneaky paid ink. I don’t care for the dishonesty, and I think it’s pretty transparent. I’ve seen feigned excitement in print that I know for damn sure wasn’t felt by the writer. Hey, ever notice a bunch of bloggers writing about the same thing at the same time? It’s not a coincidence. It was a busy mail day.

When you’ve seen posts here featuring products, I bought them and either liked them or thought they were crap. The times I was treated to free food, I’ve told you well up front and was honest about the highs and the lows. If I ZOMG-love everything and am always so excited about <insert new thing here>, why should you believe me? Oddly, PR groups don’t seem to care about that. They just want the ink. And who can blame them? It’s the cheapest, most natural-looking exposure out there. And for a small, independent company, blog features just might be the best use of a limited marketing budget.

You know, this post has sat unfinished in my draft folder for a while, because one thing has really given me pause about hitting “publish”: Most vegan bloggers are, I believe, truly passionate about what they’re presenting to you, and it does take a bit of time and money to produce a blog. We buy domains and hosting and try to have a decent camera, and we need stuff to photograph and try out so we can tell you all about it. So some of us welcome, even depend on, being compensated in some way for these costs.

This is not to blame those bloggers selling ad space or for saying “yes” when they’re offered free stuff. I just want everyone to be honest about what they’re doing, because there’s a shift in vegan (or “plant based”) business happening right now, as marketing folk realize vegans are starting to make up a nice little consumer category. Suddenly there’s a bunch of money to go around to target you, the reader, and not everyone’s getting an A+ in Ethics. So I want you to keep your eyes open, to know when you’re being sold to.

By the way, I really do like lemons. Always have.

meditator’s delight: gettin’ by in kathmandu

meditators_delightI have to share my boy Tom’s recent adventure with you. See, he just got back from five weeks in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he lived and studied at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

He credits this little sandwich, which he named “Meditator’s Delight,” with his well-being. (This and his UV water-purification pen.) The sandwich is—brace yourself—peanut butter, garlic chutney, and chili sauce on rice cakes. Sounds kinda Thai, right? Almost? He swears it’s surprisingly tasty…but I’m gonna have to just trust him on this one.

kathmandu_groceriesWhile he spent pretty much every waking and sleeping moment within the monastery grounds, he was able to walk down to the market for supplies. The catered lunches were largely Northern Indian food, with vegan options, but there was nothing for him at breakfast (again, not all Buddhists are vegan).

He’d packed a couple dozen Clif bars and Tofurky Jurky, and he picked up some vegan sausages and other treats on his previous stop in London (some jobs are just THE WORST), but he needed to supplement. Especially that immune-system wunderkind, garlic.

tight quartersSpeaking of THE WORST jobs, this space served as the classroom for the month. Every surface, nook, and cranny was just so elaborately crafted and decorated.

The downside of this setup? Look at how close those cushions are. A few hundred folks from all over the world spent their days in this space, bringing their new and exciting microbes to share with one another. Tom said not 30 seconds could go by without a sniffle or cough or some other such phlegmy noise; he called it the upper respiratory orchestra. If I were faced with this many cold-havers, I’d order me up a Meditator’s Delight too.

I can’t share all his stories with you—he has so many amazing tales that all I can say after each one is “Thanks for coming home!”—but here are some super fun photos of Nepalese animals:

monkey thiefIn the city, these monkeys were everywhere, and you had to be careful to avoid eye contact because they’d attack. Check out that little guy in the center of the photo, stealing the Buddha’s offering. What a noodge!

goatAnd this is the best goat ever. The monastery has loads of rescue goats (and cats and dogs and such) who roam the grounds. Tom, of course, made friends with them all. At the end of the course, he went to a big picnic where one of the performances was a play featuring a bunch of super young monks (like 5 years old!) dressed up as a brahman, a farmer, and a goat to teach people compassion and why it’s wrong to kill animals. And yes, it was apparently as adorable as it sounds, complete with kids forgetting lines and goofing off.

I seriously need to find some buried treasure so I can go on these trips with him. This year’s obligations include—ugh—Australia.

thank you for coming: the party favor

Weekend before last (busy days, guys), I co-hosted an entertaining class/gathering with my Vida Vegan partners, Janessa and Jess. (If you couldn’t attend, we will be putting together an e-book, possibly a printed zine with loads of tips and recipes.) What was one of the biggest stress points? The take-home gift. It’s what our guests would be leaving with and revisiting, reminding them of us and our evening together.

In talking with folks planning weddings and other parties, the favors kept coming up as a concern. Obviously, you want something that won’t just end up being thrown away. Ideally, you’d like it to be useful and enjoyable and somewhat unique. Yet you need to put these together without blowing the budget…even more than you already are by hosting this party in the first place.

While I love little potted succulents with place cards stuck in them and handmade pins incorporated into napkin rings for sit-down dinners, for a more casual gathering, nothing’s easier to present and grab on the way out than the jar-of-foodstuffs. Mason or jelly jars are already useful, and while they’re more expensive than most bags or boxes, they’re half your favor battle. Plus they’re very easy to doll up, by slipping fabric over the top, wrapping in a pretty ribbon, or making a custom label for them.

Then you get to fill them! Here are some easy ideas for filling (that don’t include pastel candy-coated almonds):

  • Dry cookie ingredients, poured in layers
  • Hot chocolate mix with mini marshmallows (Both Sweet & Sara and Dandies come in minis now!)
  • Custom coffee, tea, or spice blend
  • Stack of pretty cookies
  • Homemade candies, like truffles or caramels
  • Homemade flavored syrups

And here’s what we gave our guests: The hot toddy kit, with a Vanilla-Cinnamon Stash tea bag, cinnamon stick, star anise, dried orange peel, and brown sugar cubes. Just add hot water and booze and it’s the perfect wintery warm-up. We would have loved to include a little airplane bottle of whiskey with them, but these ingredients started to add up for us as it was—ain’t it always the way?

vegans & body image: katie

Welcome back to Vegans & Body Image, the biweekly series in which vegans share their stories and thoughts on body image in general, and what effect, if any, veganism has on it.

Katie Medlock is an Ohio-based vegan blogger I met at Vida Vegan Con. She works and lives for the benefit of humans and animals alike, and our world is lucky to have her.

katie_medlock_body_imageKatie, 27, female, thin side of average (yet curvilicious), 5′-7″

I’ve been vegan for over 5 years, with 2 months of pescetarianism before that. I went vegan for the animals and am quite the bleeding heart.

For the most part, veganism is more closely tied to my personal morals and ethical decision making than my body image. As I moved forward into veganism, I did notice changes in my body (less of a roller-coaster regarding my weight and bloaty-ness, for instance), yet the big changes did not occur until I shifted more toward a “clean eating” vegan diet instead of primarily convenience foods. These changes have most recently manifested in the way I feel my body function. (More energy! Less gas! Steady metabolism! Fewer food comas!)

For the past 3-4 months, I have enjoyed my return to participating in CrossFit as a form of exercise. Currently, I attend 3x/week and receive a good deal of support from my coaches when it comes to being vegan. They’re truly fabulous and check in with all of the athletes about their nutritional needs and “supportive eating” routines, and I’m no exception. It’s really wonderful feeling, as if my being vegan is not only tolerated, but encouraged. (One of my coaches even recently switched to being mostly vegan!) My decision to return to exercising and having a regular routine of fitness is mostly rooted in wanting to change my desperately lazy ways. I feel more energized and stronger day to day, and (to be honest) also am liking my journey toward a leaner, slightly more muscular physique.

When I was 19, I struggled with a restrictive eating disorder for the better part of a year before it began manifesting as binge eating and depression. Throughout my twenties I have been able to build on the strength I achieved during my initial recovery period and am able to find empowerment in many different things—not only how I perceive my body. In a way, veganism helped launch this newfound strength, in that my ethical foundations were fortified, as was my confidence in assertively living by my own moral code.

To boil down the most important elements of overall “health,” as I see it: providing my body the nutrition, rest, and movement it needs to function at its best, as well as attending to emotional and social needs.

At times, I feel the need to embody perfect health to fight the stereotype of a pale, meek vegan. Not only are there pressures to be nutritionally healthy, but to also break down the stereotypes that vegans can’t successfully live active lives without passing out or having their protein levels bottom out. Living as an unintended example of the picture of health is a difficult task, as I am often the only vegan that people around me know! I try not to succumb to such pressures and remind myself to live my life for me. Two years ago I was actually diagnosed with hyperlipidemia (total cholesterol = 279!!) and, after attempting to lower my levels naturally, am now taking a prescription drug to counteract my bad genetics. Ain’t nobody perfect!

I like to advocate for people to make the best food decisions they can—FIRSTLY, for the world and living creatures with whom we share this planet, and secondly, for one’s own personal health concerns and goals.

Thank you, Katie!

 Read others in the series, and please share your story. Find more info here or email me at VegtasticVoyage@gmail.com.

thanksgiving is the best flavor: veganized downtown cookie co’s stuffing cookies

Thanksgiving really is the best flavor. I can’t think of anything so purely comforting than the smell and taste of sage, rosemary, onion, cranberry, and bread, bread, bread. Not even chocolate. (Chocolate, you know I love you, but it’s…a different kind of love.) Chances are, I’m associating this flavor with the family get-togethers of my childhood, four-day weekends, and confabbing with my brother on the toughest task of the year: The Christmas Wishlist.

Since I was on my own this Thanksgiving (Tom’s still in Nepal, and I do not fly for holidays), I was under zero pressure to put together any sort of respectable feast. So I made these cookies instead.

The headline on The Huffington Post’s article was “Thanksgiving Stuffing Cookies Are About to Blow Your Mind.” Normally, I read this type of hype as more like, “We tried these and they were pretty OK, but we really want you to click on this link.” But come on, “Thanksgiving Stuffing Cookies,” that’s like a hypnobeam, MDMA, and a siren song all ganging up on me. I didn’t stand a chance.

New York’s Downtown Cookie Co offered up their recipe exclusively to HuffPo, and was (duh) very not vegan. But it was very easy to veganize (and cut down on the sugar a wee bit and up the cinnamon, because cinnamon). And these cookies were amazing from start to finish: The uncooked dough was delicious, the smell coming from the oven as they baked was a sweet, herby hug, and the finished product was subtle yet full-bodied. There’s definitely a savory lean to them, but the brown sugar–heavy cookie base really does make them accessible.

I’ve only made the one batch, and I think the only thing I would do differently next time would be to watch my cooking time more closely. The recipe said 10 minutes, but I let them go until they browned up a bit, so they were a little crispy the next day—not a problem for me in the least, but I’d just like to experiment a bit. I was confident enough in them that I brought some to Janessa, who was volunteering at the Tofurky Trot with me, and she gushed a bit more than her normally gushy baseline, so I’ll take that as a good sign. And I might mix things up by pulsing the stuffing in a food processor to break it down a little, for more uniform cookies…because the ones in my photo (again, while delicious and delightful) looked nothing like the ones in the HuffPo photo.

So here’s my veganized version of the Downtown Cookie Co’s stuffing cookie. Note: I made the full amount and came up with 2½ dozen 2.5-ish-inch cookies. This is a lot of cookie dough; I used my biggest mixing bowl and had a hard time mixing at the end without flinging bits over the side.

  • 1 c original Earth Balance (I use the tub, because I have no other use for the way-greasy sticks.)
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • ¼ c white sugar
  • 6 T water, plus 2 T ground flaxseed, whisked together and set aside for a few minutes to get all goopy
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 1¾  c AP flour
  • ¼ t baking powder
  • ¼ t salt
  • ½ t cinnamon
  • 2½ c dry Arrowhead Mills savory stuffing mix, with any giant bread chunks removed (I got mine at Food Fight! but I’ve seen it at Whole Foods.)
  • 1 c dried sweetened cranberries

Normal cookie instructions apply. Get the flax mixture started in its own little bowl so it has time to come together. Mix your dry ingredients and set aside. Cream the EB and sugars, then beat in the flax and vanilla. Mix in the dry ingredients until it all comes together uniformly. The stuffing mix will be a combination of small bread chunks and crumbs, with just a few too-big chunks. While you’re mixing, if some of them just seem ridiculous or not wanting to play with the rest of the dough, I highly recommend you pluck them out and eat them immediately.

Drop 2-tablespoonish dollops of dough on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and smoosh them a bit to round them out. Bake in a 350° for around 10 minutes.