You can’t talk about vegan cookbooks without Isa Chandra Moskowitz coming up. She’s written over a dozen of them, and in the process has grown as a one-woman brand while still remaining true to the community-driven, DIY ethos that fueled her late, great website Post Punk Kitchen.
From the earliest days of her site, Isa came across as a hip older cousin, showing you the ropes of utterly doable vegan cooking with wit and style. Though her deep commitment to ethical veganism has driven her career, Isa’s forward-facing persona has never taken recipes so seriously that they shouldn’t be fun. Cooking is not a matter of life and death, but of possibility and creativity, a mindset very evident in “Fake Meat,” Isa’s forthcoming cookbook.
“Fake Meat” is just what it sounds like: recipes for homemade versions of fake meat—beef, chicken, pork, seafood, the whole gamut. Isa runs meaty food through the prism of vegan cooking, and the result is a spectrum of recipes ranging from beginner level to next level.
Aside from fake meat, whimsy is the common thread. Parsnip Lobster Rolls use roasted parsnips in a simple mayonnaise dressing dusted with paprika to mimic the New England roadside favorite. The result, ready in 30 minutes, mirrors the tender texture of lobster and its delicately sweet flavor, all while using ingredients you can nab at almost any store. On the other end of the spectrum is Madame Beefington, an elaborate, multi-component take on the classic Beef Wellington.
From a lookie-loo standpoint of a reader browsing cookbooks merely for pleasure, “Fake Meat” offers plenty of thrills just on the merit of discovering how to pull off Mademe Beefington-level feats; though I’ll likely never make it in my own kitchen, it’s nice knowing how to if I did get the inkling. The diversity of ingredients is a boon, too. Isa relies on many tricks to mimic meat, so those who eschew gluten or soy will still find many doable recipes.
Isa and I spoke on the phone during a stolen moment she had in her day at the Brooklyn outpost of her restaurant, Modern Love. Though “Fake Meat” is for home cooks, many of the recipes are simplified versions of items born in that kitchen, plus Modern Love’s Omaha, Nebraska location.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you’re not writing a fake meat cookbook, do you make fake meat at home?
Yeah, I always have. That’s why I wrote the cookbook. I’ve been doing it since I’ve been vegan, so for over 30 years. I’ve always loved recreating meat. A lot of my recipes in general end up being “meaty.”
Why do you think that is?
For me, that’s what I grew up with. When I went vegetarian, it wasn’t like “I’m vegetarian because I don’t like meat.” It was for the animals. So I was like, “I really like spareribs. How do I recreate this?” I don’t think it’s anything deeper than that.
There are so many plant-based meats on the market now compared to even five years ago. Why make fake meat yourself?
For taste, and for the joy of it. I think cooking is fun. I’m not going to convince anybody who hates cooking to do that, but if you like cooking and you like eating, that’s why. I think the question is, “why would you cook?” Because really all it is is just cooking.
How is “Fake Meat” organized?
Some of the recipes are more run-of-the-mill, like a lentil meat. I compartmentalize the recipes to be stuff that’s weeknight-friendly and stuff that’s a showstopper centerpiece. I think there’s something satisfying if you’re going to make, say, Madame Beefington, a centerpiece that’s going to be unforgettable and beautiful. Obviously, that’s really different from making [vegan] spaghetti and meatballs. Which are also in the book.
You can’t get Madame Beefington at the store.
Sometimes you just want dinner on the table and you really want it to be good, and it’s satisfying for that reason. But I feel weird about putting a lot of effort into something like breading and frying fried chicken using packaged chicken that has that packaged chicken flavor. I’m not against those things, I use them all the time, but I don’t think I’d put extra effort into a recipe if I’m starting with a product that came from a store.
Can we talk about puns? You’ve always used puns as titles for your recipes and books. And this book in particular has both literary and visual puns. Puns were once a fixture of vegan recipes.
Have they fallen out of favor? I think people have just run out of puns. Like “Oh god, what am I going to call this beef? Be’f?” It’s about keeping the puns fresh and appetizing. For my boeuf Bourguignon, I called it Jacque’s Boeuf Bourguignon, because it’s made with jackfruit. So the pun is more about French cooking.
Early on, did you have an aha moment with fake meat?
A friend of mine who’s vegan had some seitan in his pocket from this vegan restaurant in Chinatown. We were on the bus, and I wasn’t vegan or vegetarian yet. I was making fun of him for whatever, how you do when you’re 15, and he was like “try this” as he literally pulled out seitan in a plastic bag from his pocket. I tried it, since if someone pulls out food from their pocket in a plastic bag you’re going to try it. And I really liked it. I thought, “I could eat this.” I’ve called it the pocket seitan ever since.
From there, I tried a bunch of fake meats. I didn’t think anything of it. Some of the things now people say about fake meat—”Why do you eat it if you’re vegan?” You eat what tastes good and doesn’t contain animals. End of story. And that was my mentality from the beginning. I wasn’t like “I’m going to go vegan and eat vegetables.” Vegetables were the last frontier for me. I was immediately drawn to tofu dogs and unturkey.
Your books are so fun to read—you write in such an approachable way, and I feel like I get a bit of a sense of who you are, as if we’ve hung out.
My tone comes from coming of age at the height of zines: you wrote personally, a little stream of consciousness, a little conversationally. That’s how the community I grew up in communicated. I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to me. Not that many people from that Gen X, DIY community ended up writing cookbooks. But if they had, I bet they’d sound a lot like me.
Has what it means to be vegan—outside of not eating animals, or course—changed since you started writing cookbooks?
I had never encountered a "health vegan" when I went vegan. Everyone who was vegan was vegan for the animals, as far as I knew. Maybe there was a health movement and I didn’t know because that’s not part of the community I was in. Besides that, I don’t know that it’s changed that much. There was no internet when I went vegan, so now there’s a lot more information available. There’s a lot more people going vegan and also more people stopping being vegan. So there’s a lot more ex-vegans now.
I wish everyone could just eat the way they eat and be cool with it.
I don’t. [Assumes a dreamy tone.] I wish everyone were vegan.