June 30, 2011
STRANGER: Katelyn Sornik
LOCATION: Founding Farmers, 1924 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
THEME: A meal with a vegan food blogger
I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian.
A quick glance over the interviews on this site reveals the fact I eat meat at practically every meal. Oh, I have vegetarian friends, though I realize a statement like that can read as flippantly as saying, “Some of my best friends are [insert race].” But I’m not giving up white or red meat, not even if it leads to gout.
Despite my dedication to the carnivorous lifestyle, I don’t have a problem with vegetarians or vegans. Your diet is your choice. That viewpoint might put me at odds with the likes of Chef David Chang (“Vegetarians are a pain in the ass as customers”) but it means I have no problem dining with non-meat eaters.
Case in point, my dinner interview on a warm Thursday night with Katelyn Sornik, a 27-year-old vegan who blogs about her dining lifestyle.
We met at Founding Farmers, a DC restaurant that offers a wide range of meat and vegetarian dishes, while also offering a separate menu that’s strictly vegan. Given my company for the night, I resolved to myself that I’d experiment with a meat-free dinner. I was a little concerned about my plan, and thought about stashing a sneaky Filet Mignon in my jacket pocket to nibble on surreptitiously whenever Katelyn wasn’t looking. But in the end I decided to respect her lifestyle choice. Plus, I didn’t want greasy beef stains and smells emanating from my pocket for weeks to come.
Katelyn was already sitting at the table when I arrived. When I told the hostess at the restaurant I had no idea what my dining companion looked like, she got all excited thinking it was a blind date. On the steps up to the restaurant’s second floor, I explained that it wasn’t that kind of meal and suddenly Ms. Hostess seemed to lose all interest in talking to me. Oh well.
Thankfully Katelyn was friendly, smiling broadly as I sat down and got settled at the table. Within minutes I could tell that she’s quick to laugh, and a good conversational companion, asking me almost as many questions as I could throw her way.
After our affable waiter brought over the rather limited vegan menu — all of eight dishes — I tried to decide whether to go for a conventional salad or try some fake meat.
I’ve always been squishy on the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan (never said I was bright), so I asked Katelyn to explain while internally I debated my dining options.
Obviously, neither diet includes meat. But vegans also don’t eat any dairy or egg, and there’s a certain subset of vegans who also won’t use anything made using animals, such as leather or silk, with the logic being that it causes harm to animals. “I’m not there yet,” Katelyn said.
“That’s part of what I’m still learning about and struggling with a little bit. When it comes down to it, a lot of things beyond food, like clothing and stuff like that, come from animals. Some very strict vegans believe you’re either a vegan or not, you either subscribe to the full-inch motto or you’re not vegan. So that’s my learning curve right now.”
Embarking on my own learning curve, I placed my order for a purely vegan dish and then my inner lush took over and drew my eyes to the drinks menu.
Surely drinks are fine for vegans?
Katelyn said some vegans can get very particular about wine, and there’s a little bit of a dispute based on how companies filter wine and whether or not what they use to filter it comes from animals. “I haven’t really gotten that far yet, I don’t know if I ever will,” she said as she ordered a glass of Avalon Napa Valley Merlot from the extensive wine list.
Confident that having a drink wouldn’t offend the night’s vegan theme, I browsed the drinks menu and opted for one of what Founding Farmers describes as “Prohibition-era cocktails.” The place offers a wide range of drinks and beyond the 1920s-style booze there are a bunch of other cocktails on offer.
My choice was a Southside, comprised of fresh muddled lemons, mint, CapRock Organic Gin and sugar. Good stuff, a crisp and tart drink that was great for a summer night.
After our drinks arrived Katelyn asked me various questions about where I was from and what brought me to the United States. As much as I wanted to try and sound clever by quoting “Casablanca” and saying it was a combination of three things — I absconded with the church funds, I ran off with a senator’s wife and I killed a man — instead I gave her the dull real story.
Returning the favor, I asked what brought Katelyn to DC.
She was born and raised in Queens, New York, and lived there and Manhattan before going to high school in Long Island. After high school she went to the University of Maryland, an experience she said she really liked. But a desire to attend law school after graduation took her back to New York. Unfortunately that school was not “a good fit” so she moved back down to DC.
After growing up in New York City, “I kind of needed a change,” Katelyn said. Of the nation’s capital she said, “It’s a little bit slower here and I just kind of like it, I’m more comfortable here. I feel like it’s more suitable for me personally and I have a lot of friends here,” though her family is still in New York and she travels back home fairly frequently to see them.
“So even though I went back to New York after graduation I came right back down here six months later,” Katelyn said. She’s in the process of transferring law schools at the moment and getting ready to re-apply to schools this fall.
“Sallie Mae owns me for the next 30 years”
Meantime she’s working as a paralegal. “I’m a very experienced and knowledgeable paralegal. That’s sort of the funny thing; if I finish my degree I’ll just end up going to be the same place but as a lawyer and at three times the pay.” That extra pay will be useful given the crippling costs of higher education in the States. The Sallie Mae student loans organization “owns me for the next 30 years,” Katelyn said with a laugh. She likes to crack jokes and smile, a good quality.
When she’s not working Katelyn writes for her blog New Kid On The Vegan Block, where she posts recipes, restaurant reviews and other articles about her life as a vegan.
What started the change in diet away from eating meat?
Katelyn said it began a few years ago when she got very sick and couldn’t figure out why. Eventually doctors figured out that a lot of what she had been eating was making her sick. “That kind of got rid of half my diet right off the bat,” she said, with red meat and eggs out the window. The more the old carnivore menu went out the window, the better Katelyn started to feel. Eventually she was also done with fish. She’s been a total vegan with no fish the past four months but has not eaten red meat, dairy or eggs for a couple of years.
The massive change in diet prompted a need to find new dishes to cook, and a lot of the trial-and-error of experimenting with vegan ingredients led to the blog.
Several people suggested to Katelyn that she write about her experiences as a new vegan. “I thought it might be a good idea and something I’d enjoy. Once I started it was fun, I just enjoy it. I thought it could just be a place for like recipes, food reviews, restaurant reviews, sort of anything having to do with vegan food,” she said.
For example, the day we met Katelyn had posted an article about experimenting with making a meal out of rhubarb. “Normally you eat rhubarb in a dessert because it’s so bitter so you’ve got to balance it out with equal parts sugar, but I’m not really into eating a lot of sugar, I try not to, so I made up my own recipe for a smoothie. It’s interesting. I’m going to try more recipes with it. I have about half a pound of it frozen in my fridge,” she said.
Of vegan recipes, Katelyn said it can be difficult to come up with new ideas. Nevertheless she successfully invented a banana pudding out of desperation for a chocolate dessert when she had few ingredients in her apartment, concocting a new dish from whatever she had to hand, including banana and cocoa powder.
My experimentation with vegan food was about to reach its peak at this point, as the waiter delivered my patty melt of Gardein-brand beefless burger with vegan cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and homemade agave mustard on a toasted rye roll.
Before I took a bite, Katelyn looked nervous. “I don’t want you to get a bad impression of fake meat. I don’t love Gardein, I’ve had it several times, I’m just not a fake meat person and would rather have something else entirely. I will not give that my endorsement.”
She needn’t have worried. It was pretty good. Not outstanding, but as Larry David might say pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good. The Gardein was rather inoffensive, as little taste as an overdone burger. But the texture was very meaty. What saved the dish were the other components. The cheese was tangy, the onions plentiful and perfectly cooked, and the mustard a great finish.
The meal was also surprisingly filling, though that might have something to do with the thick rye bread rather than the fake meat. Either way I wasn’t hungry for the rest of the night.
The sandwich was tasty, but I forgot after the first bite that I was eating fake meat. There was no epiphany on the wonders of Gardein, no sudden realization that I’d be fine living a life free of steak or chicken. My stubbornness will probably keep me a carnivore for life.
Katelyn had the 17-vegetable salad, which the restaurant says includes their “best varieties of savory, sweet and crunchy bites,” including cannellini beans, beets, asparagus, grapes, avocado and candied pecans tossed with the same mustard dressing as my patty melt.
“It’s good,” Katelyn said between bites. “There’s asparagus, some sort of roast nuts, grapes, raisins, avocado, beets. It’s very crisp, very refreshing and very light, I like it.”
So, salad all the way and no fake meat patty melt for Katelyn. My poor manners meant I didn’t even offer her a bite of my sandwich. Whoops! But does she miss real meat?
“I’m actually surprised that I don’t miss it at all,” she said. But one downside that she’s blogged about is the difficulty finding vegan food options either late at night or when traveling. “That’s something I struggle with. I have a lot of granola bars, a lot of almonds, apples, stuff that will keep, I normally have a full-on stash of food in my bag, I have a very big bag. Friends will hit me up for stuff.”
Though Katelyn’s friends are happy to purloin some of her snacks, I wondered whether her diet made it difficult to find restaurants they could agree on. Some of DC’s restaurants have very limited vegetarian options and even fewer choices for vegans.
“I don’t want my friends to feel like they are hindered by my diet so I’ll definitely make do with whatever I can. I’ve eaten a lot of salad in my life. But I like it, it’s fine, so it’s not a bad thing.” Katelyn said she’s developed an expertise in picking out menu items she can eat, and she’s not afraid to quiz the waiters on the ingredients in various dishes.
Part of the reason Katelyn is fine with eating at restaurants that aren’t exclusively vegan is the chance to expose meat-eaters like myself to an alternative diet — the same reason she’s also happy to answer coworkers’ questions about the self-prepared lunches she makes every day.
“The more questions that they ask I feel like they’re learning more and then maybe they’ll just be a bit more intrigued and go meatless one day.”
But she’s not on a one-woman crusade to convert carnivores to her way of eating. Rather, “I would ultimately like people to eat a much healthier diet than they currently are.” For Katelyn it’s become a habit and she’ll extensively read the ingredients on anything she buys. “I think people could stand to pay a little more attention to what they’re eating than they do,” she said.
“Veganism is my choice but it’s not for everyone. It would be great if people tried it. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would become a vegan I would have laughed and been like you’re crazy, no way, I love cheese and meat too much,” Katelyn said with another laugh.
The blog allows Katelyn to pitch the life of a vegan without using it as a soapbox to criticize other people’s diets. “I do actually say explicitly on the blog that it’s about vegan food and not necessarily about the larger cause of veganism. I want to be clear about that.”
So she uses the recipes and food reviews to promote the benefits of going vegan.
“I want to get people to think of what they’re eating”
With no writing experience outside of the high school newspaper and some assigned papers in college, Katelyn hadn’t done any public writing before the blog. It was a learning experience and in the beginning she was nervous about what people would think of her writing. But she said she’s had a good response from many people. “They think it’s really creative which is a huge compliment and they just find it entertaining too which is sort of my goal, it’s really just to get people to think of what they’re eating,” she said.
Her blog features plenty of pictures accompanying the text. Articles such as the rhubarb smoothie recipe can take her about an hour to write, whereas a more complicated recipe may take another hour. Food reviews can take longer. For example, if she’s reviewing five different granola bars that could take several days, because she doesn’t eat five granola bars in a day. I once ate five burgers in one day but that’s a story for another time.
Katelyn first started the blog on Blogspot and then moved over to WordPress. She uses Twitter to get the word out about new articles, and that site also puts her in touch with companies producing vegan food or books that she otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to communicate with.
The blog is still in its early days, she said. “I try not to promote it too much, maybe I could be better about it. But I think I’ve got to refine the writing and the posting a little bit more before that,” Katelyn said. “Right now my main goal is to continue to post three times a week and to have a few more original recipes.”
Using Twitter frequently? Posting at least three times a week? She already has me beat with my site.
Katelyn is charming company, and her blog is well worth a read. She’s excellent at pitching a vegan lifestyle as a healthy alternative to a meat-eating diet, and her friendly nature makes it impossible to hear what she’s saying as an attempt to change other people. She’s a vegan because it works for her, and not just for health reasons. But she makes a good case for living that way.
I’m still not a vegan or a vegetarian.