Is there a connection between spirituality and food choices? I interviewed author Victoria Moran and she had some fascinating responses. Read on to find out about her link between Christianity and veganism, how pop culture has an impact on food ethics, and what celebrity she would most like to go vegan.
Other highlights: How documentary filmmaker Michael Moore worked a modern day miracle with her publisher, why Jesus’ miracle of the fish and loaves could be renamed the miracle of tahini and loaves, and why she believes that “if Jesus was to show up today I would run into him in a vegan restaurant.”
Victoria Moran was vegan long before it was a trend. Her first book on the subject was released in 1985. Yes, 1985. She was way ahead of the curve.
What’s interesting about Moran is that she writes about both spirituality and food. Her best known book is “Creating a Charmed Life,” which also has a sequel “Living a Charmed Life.” Those very readable books have short chapters on practical spirituality to improve one’s everyday life.
But she also has a successful career writing books about food ethics, diet and veganism. Her latest book “Main Street Vegan” is her most accessible yet and is particularly aimed toward people who want to be vegan. She also hosts her own radio show “Main Street Vegan” as well as a vegan coaching program called “Main Street Vegan Academy.”
With a successful career writing about two different subjects, I wanted to discuss with Moran the connection between the two. And the role that pop culture is playing in making veganism, vegetarianism and food ethics such hot topics in the media these days.
1. Do your books on veganism have your spiritual beliefs as a foundation? How did you originally start thinking about food ethics?
Most of my books are about spirituality, and one of them, ‘Creating a Charmed Life,’ has sold more than 200,000 copies in 30 different languages around the world. It was supposed to be called ‘God on the Go.’ But the publisher opted to change the title. So there’s one essay in there – it’s a collection of 75 essays – about if you’re going to eat, eat something good. But it’s not really about health and diet at all.
You know how people take a bit from each parent? In my life, I kind of had three parents. Because I had my regular parents and then I had a nanny who was hired to take care of me when I was six months old. She was very spiritual. She was my biggest influence. Every childhood question I would ask her about ‘Why this or why that?’ I got this really spiritual answer.
I remember when I was three I killed a spider and boasted to her, ‘I killed a red spider with my bare hands.’ And she said, ‘What did he do to you?’ That was very profound to me at the time. Because just because I can doesn’t mean I should. So there was that influence.
Then on the other side my parents were both into health. My dad was a physician. And I was a fat kid. So I was always interested in nutrition and trying to cure myself and fix myself and not be fat. So I kind of had these two things going from early life and where they are today is kind of two sides of a coin.
I’m very comfortable in the spiritual realm and the world of ideas and philosophy and the big picture and what’s beyond what we see and the meaning of it all. I have a hard time with make the bed, find your keys, go to the gym. So I feel that through the kind of spiritual gift of being vegan it’s also given me a way to embrace self-care and living healthfully on the earth because all the earth stuff is tough for me.
2. Most religions and spiritual systems have non-violence as a basis for some of their beliefs. How central do you feel this idea of spiritual idea of non-violence is to food ethics and making food choices?
I think it’s absolutely essential — whether we’re taking about actual violence or killing or causing suffering to sentient beings. Or whether we’re just talking about the violence of trying to meditate and the phone rings. I know that doesn’t sound like violence. But there’s so much interruption, there’s so much noise in life today that it’s a kind of violence to one’s spiritual life. When you just take that to the nth degree of I connect with my higher power through love.
I’m very eclectic — I have a degree in comparative religion. But I self-identify as a Christian. So it’s very easy for me to say that God is love. If God is love then I must think about if I’m causing suffering to creatures that God loves. Certainly I think that any Christian would say that God created all that‘s here and that God loves everybody that’s here. Not a sparrow falls without the father knowing it.
But I actually believe something because of yoga and those kinds of philosophies that infuse my spirituality. Not intending to imply that my puny brain understands what’s really going on — but in some sense every being gives God expression and there’s God’s expression and manifestation in creatures. So it may be that if I cause pain and suffering to a chicken I’m just not causing pain and suffering to somebody that God created and that God loves, but to God himself, herself, itself.
3. Where do you find inspiration for your food ethics and veganism. Is there something in Christianity that really connects with you?
I’m not a Biblical literalist. But I love to listen to the Biblical literalists, particularly the Seventh-day Adventists who talk about what the Bible has to say about what we should eat. Because whether Genesis is historical fact or this incredible metaphor for how things came into being — and sometimes I think metaphor has more truth than historical fact — there’s this idea that God said ‘behold I have given you every herb-bearing seed.’ And I’ve been told by people who know the Bible better than I do that Genesis 1:29 is one of the few places in the entire Bible in the Old Testament where God says ‘behold’ with an exclamation mark. Which means it’s important, so pay attention. So he gives the original diet for humans. And the way that it’s explained to me is that we have basic fruits and the nuts in the Garden of Eden because everything is perfect and that’s what we need.
But then after The Fall, it’s explained to me that’s when we’re given the greens because of all the health benefits. All the green leaves and the herbs. It’s like you didn’t need kale in Eden, but that you’re here where things are difficult and you’re going to get sick, you need those greens. Which I just find fascinating.
And then of course there’s The Flood and there’s no vegetation. So you have this temporary dispensation to eat meat which I believe most Christians believe was not temporary. But I believe it was temporary to eat meat until the vegetation came back. This was explained to me by wonderful people like Milton Mills who’s a medical doctor, a Seventh-day Adventist, and a Biblical scholar.
One really fun experience I had with this came with the New Testament story of the loaves and the fishes.
I run a program called Main Street Academy that trains vegan lifestyle coaches. One of our wonderful instructors is Rynn Berry who is considered a historian of the vegan and vegetarian movement. And he’s knows a lot about religion. He wrote a book called ‘Food for the Gods” about vegetarianism through the ages in various religions.
Someone asked him ‘what about the story of the loaves and the fishes?” And Rynn is very professorial, and he said ‘well when I translated the New Testament from the Greek.’ And I just had to sit for a minute and think ok, somebody in my living room just said “when I translated the New Testament from the Greek.’ He shared this information that through the New Testament that when the word for fish is used, it’s the standard Greek word for fish. But in that particular story it’s a different word. The first definition of that word is a relish, kind of like hummus or baba ghanoush or something like that. The second definition is dessert and the third definition is little fishes. And Rynn said that he believes that some translator decided it’s more of a miracle to miraculously create fishes to feed the multitudes than it is to multiply the hummus. So from then on I have thought of that as the miracle of the loaves and the tahini.
And I guess the other thing for me as a Christian is that I can see that we’re all of our time and place. And I know that Biblically we don’t know what Jesus ate. There was the one time after the resurrection that he was seen eating fish. I don’t know what that was all about. But I also know that he took a bunch of fishermen and got them out of the fishing industry into the fishers of men industry. I like that a lot.
The words of Jesus that I hang on in terms of being a vegan is ‘I have more to tell you but you cannot bear it now.’ It’s like he didn’t talk about slavery either. He didn’t talk about women’s rights. There was a lot he didn’t talk about because it wasn’t the time. This is the time. This is the time to be vegan. And I believe in all my heart that if Jesus was to show up today I would run into him in a vegan restaurant.
4. Do you think sometimes it’s easier for people of Eastern religions to get the idea of vegetarian and veganism because of beliefs such as the mind-body connection, reincarnation, and compassion connected directly to karma?
In theory they absolutely should because the idea of harmlessness is at the very core of ahisma religions. Probably the quintessential example of ahisma religion is Jainism. Their primary tenet is that everything is about karma. And they see karma with almost a mathematical precision. If you do this, you get this much good karma and if you do that, you get this much bad karma. And they believe that the best thing that a person can do in this lifetime to have a better life next time is be vegetarian — and now increasingly vegan with the younger generation becoming vegan in large numbers.
So yes, in theory someone who grows up in that culture ought to embrace veganism very easily. But interestingly, enough in practice it’s not necessarily working out that way.
For example in Buddhist teaching, the writings about vegetarianism and even not wearing leather are just eloquent. But the whole great system of Buddhism isn’t vegetarian at all. In India, I was so surprised how many people ate meat. We’re talking twenty years ago, but it was ‘if you’re rich enough, and you can have the food that you want, then fine have it. But if you’re poor and it’s not the season when things aren’t being harvested and you have a goat you can kill, then you eat the meat.’ It’s a very pragmatic sort of society which is understandable.
I believe that vegetarianism as a whole got a great boost from England taking over India. The whole idea of reverence for life and the sacredness of other beings — and the certainly suggested vegetarian tradition of Hinduism — was a great boost to getting vegetarianism and veganism more accepted around the world. But today I think that if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a humanist, you’ve got just as much in your own belief system to justify and support going vegan as you would if you had grown up in India.
5. Have you ever tried to get churches or places of worship to engage in a conversation about food ethics? What suggestions would you have for someone who attends a congregation and would like the church to discuss it?
It can be a hard sell.
My own personal experience is mostly in Unity which is a Christian denomination that is very liberal and actually founded by vegetarians. An interesting story is that the founders back in the 1800s had been influenced by Swami Vivekananda. He came to this county in the late 1800s for the World Congress of Religions in Chicago. He was the first Indian yogi to travel to America. And through his influence, they discovered vegetarianism and were devout about it and raised their kids that way. But of their three sons the one who took over was actually the one who ate meat. And so they kind of lost the vegetarian thing.
And even there, even in a denomination whose founders were vegetarian, it has over the years been a tough sell because I think the implication and the belief is that there are more important things to deal with. But there is some loosening up and coming around. I have a podcast, my Main Street Vegan weekly radio show which is on Unity online radio. And they actually invited me to do it. When they asked me to do this show, they said, ‘you can call it Main Street Vegan it’s about time we got back to our roots.’ And I know that Melanie Joy who wrote “Why We Love Dogs Eat Pigs and Wear Cows” has done a lot in the Unitarian Universalist denomination which is also very open-minded in general.
But I think in any kind of church what we’re dealing with is this idea of openness and acceptance. If we bring in something which confronts conventional sensibilities, it then becomes a personal belief. It’s a outside issue in most people’s view.
An analogy is not wearing clothing from sweatshops. Let’s say I go into my church and say all this cruelty is happening in other countries, these people are overworked and underpaid. And let’s just talk about the potential of what Christians should do in terms of shopping at Walmart and H&M. Well think of the outcry: ‘But I have to shop at Walmart because I have four kids and my husband’s out of work and we’re lucky to be able to even shop at Walmart.’ It becomes this elitist kind of thing. And I think that’s exactly what happens with vegetarianism and veganism.
So the only way I see that this works is very gently. First you’ve got to have what people want. It’s about attraction rather than promotion. If you have something that somebody wants, they’re going to ask how you got it. And I think this is absolutely the same if we are healthy. If we’re healthier than other people — and this particularly happens as you get a little bit older — when it’s the norm that everybody’s on drugs for cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes. If you’re somebody at 40, 50, 60, 70 that does not have that, then people are going to want to know about it. And that’s a great time to witness.
Another great way to carry the message is to just bring the best food possible to those church picnics and pot lucks or when you volunteer to do the snacks on Sunday morning.
You can develop a reputation of ‘Oh my gosh, those cookies,” or ‘Oh my gosh that dip.’ Then people will start to stop this whole idea of ‘I don’t like vegan food.’ They don’t know that every time they have pasta with red sauce or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that they are eating vegan food. They have the idea that it’s some sort of very strange unpronounceable nasty health food. And I think another thing is just having people over. I had this one guy over for dinner once who said ‘You really succeeded because I scoped out where the nearest McDonald’s was because I thought I’d have to go there after this, but I won’t have to.’ So there’s that kind of food ministry.
And finally, the third thing that I would suggest would be if you are in a kind of congregation where social issues are brought up and if there is a forum for it, this is certainly an issue. And there’s no better time than now. Every day in the news there is something. There was a beautiful thoughtful piece about animal rights and that it’s time has finally come in the “New York Daily News.” We’re not talking some lofty intellectual liberal paper; the New York Daily News is a tabloid. But there was a beautiful editorial by a guy who says I love to eat meat but look, the writing is on the wall. This is the way things are going. And I think that because that’s happening out in the culture at large, the churches can’t stay closed to it.
6. You mentioned the perception of elitism, but do you see any other stumbling blocks to get churches interested in vegetarianism and veganism? Do people have to look at passages about animal sacrifices and the phrase dominion over the earth?
I spoke in upstate New York a couple of months ago and my husband came along for the ride. But he’s heard me speak a million times. So he went to a local Irish pub to watch the game and have a veggie burger. But everybody wanted to talk to him when they found out his wife was giving a talk on veganism. A woman asked him ‘If we’re supposed to be vegan why doesn’t the Bible say so?’ And my husband said ‘We can kind of prove anything by the Bible, didn’t people used to justify slavery because of the Bible? And she said ‘Yeah, I guess that’s true.’
And I think that’s really it. As a vegan I’m going to pull out all the Bible passages that I pulled out a few minutes ago to support my veganism. If I were a meat eater and I didn’t want to look at changing that I would say ‘Yeah, but after the flood we were told we could eat meat and besides that Jesus ate meat, and Jesus hung out with fishermen, and Jesus didn’t say anything about why we shouldn’t do this.’ And so you can say in the New Testament the Old was washed away. And that’s certainly true for those of us who welcome gay people into our Christian fold. But those people who don’t are going back to Leviticus and saying that it’s an abomination. So I think there’s so much Biblical picking and choosing that we have to be able to go beyond that.
One of the great allies I believe is health. I know there are people researching and studies and people are arguing about what really is the most health promoting diet for humans. But there’s the work that Dr. Ornish has done on heart disease which is the number one killer of humans in all of the developed world.
Why are we putting saturated fat and animal protein into these bodies that arguably were designed for something else — which is both Biblical and biological. You can do comparative anatomy with the great apes. Or you can look at the original diet in Genesis. But either way we’re supposed to be eating plants. So I think there’s a great case to be made for — if not complete veganism — certainly a large plant-based diet with a minimum of animal and processed foods as a way to honor this temple created in the image and likeness of God.
I think that in a lot of churches the stereotype of vegans and vegetarians as being kind of leftover from the 1960s and hippies and Vietnam protest era still persists. And this is just something that we really have to work to overcome. This is why I wrote Main Street Vegan and called it Main Street Vegan. Because as long as we have this idea that veganism is for Berkeley and Boston and the East Village we’re not going to grow to the degree that we need to make the changes that we aspire to in terms of compassion and planetary integrity. So when I wrote Main Street Vegan I really wanted to reach out to everybody including conservative Christian people who vote Republican. That was my intention. Evidently my editor sensed my intention because after they bought the book they came back and said ‘We love the book but we hate Main Street Vegan, you’ll have to change the title.’
I happened to believe that miracles still happen. And I had a miracle happen when I was walking up Broadway and I saw Michael Moore who liked one of my earlier books. So I just handed my card to this woman who was there with him when he was signing autographs. And ten seconds later, I hear someone following me up the street saying ‘Victoria!’ and it’s Michael Moore wanting to talk to me about food because he was looking at food and ways to change his diet.
So we started hanging out and talking about food, I happened to mention that the publisher changed my title. And he said ‘Main Street Vegan, that’s a perfect title because people think Hippie Street Vegan or Whole Foods Street Vegan. And I said ‘Yeah, but the publisher says she hates that it sounds like the Tea Party.’ And he said ‘Let me talk to them.’ And it was actually a three-way call with Michael Moore, myself, and the editor that got me that title. And I think it’s so funny that this person who is seen by some people to be to the left of Chairman Mao got me my title that I was trying to bring more to the Right.
But to get back to your specific question, I think there has to be a dialogue about what dominion means. I had dominion over my children, but does that mean I’m supposed to chop them up and saute them? I don’t think so.
There’s an idea of everything filtering down and the care that God has for all of creation. And we’ve been given so much as humans like these big brains. Can we take that and reflect that God-like caring for others? I think the Christian church has traditionally and continues to be really good in trying to extend that to the poor and the disenfranchised in the human species. But can we do that beautiful act that Albert Schweitzer talks about — extending our circle of compassion to all that have life.
I think another thing is that as humans, we try to do the bare minimum. I think that’s just the way most people are. It’s like you’re taking a course, and this is what you need to do to get an A. But if you really want to get more out of this course, you can do this extra credit project. The percentage of students who are going to do this extra credit project if it’s not going to improve their grade is less than five percent because we just don’t want to go the extra mile.
We’ve been told as Christians that we are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and love our neighbor, our human neighbor as ourselves. And I think most of just say ‘That’s hard enough, don’t bring in a bunch of cows and fish and pigs for heaven’s sake!’
But I think for that extra credit, for that extra infusion of spirituality in our lives for that connection with God, if we’re told to pray without ceasing, how can you pray over a meal of factory farmed chicken? If you really think about it, you cannot say grace over that meal.
These are the kinds of topics that need to come up in the proper context without judgment because very few of us were raised vegan. We were all eating animal foods for much of our lives. We must have that understanding that not everybody watches “Earthlings” and changes overnight. But maybe it’s good to have a movie night at your church. Probably not ‘Earthlings,’ but maybe something like “Vegucated” to bring about a discussion.
7. You mentioned some of the stereotypes of vegetarians and vegans. How do you see the representation in pop culture of vegetarians and vegans? Do think it’s improved? Do you think it has some influence?
I see it improving a lot. I think we had to go through the time when the kooky character was vegetarian because prior to that there were no vegetarians.
I have an African-American friend who is probably in her 60′s and she told me that when she was a little girl being raised by her grandmother, whenever a black person was on the TV, her grandmother would stand at the door and yell for all the kids to watch. Because there were so few black people. Now chances are that black person was the maid. But still this woman wanted these children to see someone who looked like them on TV. And I think it’s the same with vegetarians. We started out as the oddball character. But now I think it’s changing a lot.
And I think part of it is the celebrities who have embraced it. And I go back and forth on the celebrity thing. Because sometimes I think the celebrities pick this up just for weight loss or whatever and then they let it go. There have been a couple of occasions where a celebrity has tried and untried it and went on at length about how it was not a good idea. But generally speaking, I think that it’s now seen as a choice of somebody who is interested in their own health and beauty and also someone who is disciplined.
I do think that we’ve grown past a lot of the stereotypes. Bill Clinton doing this has been very helpful. And someone like Steve Wynn the Las Vegas mogul — who may or may not be sticking with it. There’s been some confusion about that. But regardless of what he’s doing at this point, all those vegan dishes are still on those menus in hotels in Las Vegas. And when you have vegan options in those hotels, that goes far to erase those stereotypes.
And what’s really funny is this whole hippie stereotype. Now I was really young during that hippie time. But I was alive and I was observing things. Hippies were not vegetarians. Hippies ate chipped beef and gravy and hot dogs and burgers. As long as it was cheap hippies ate it. And they ate granola and they ate brown rice. But they weren’t vegetarian. I think about the people who catered the Woodstock concert. They came from a commune called The Hog Farm. Somehow it’s like so many stereotypes — not based in actual truth.
Because of the celebrities and the Hollywood influence with veganism — and a lot of the great liberal thinkers whether they’re theologians or people in the culture — we’re doing such a great job with it. But the person I want to see go vegan is Rush Limbaugh. Because I believe he has quite a bit of plaque in his arteries. So it would be nice for him. Plus he has a reach that a lot of vegans don’t have.
I love it that Matthew Scully who was a speechwriter in the second Bush White House wrote a beautiful book called “Dominion” about what that Biblical precept really means. He’s a vegan and a conservative. We need more of that. And so I just think we need to go out there feeling good and looking good so that everybody of every religion and political point of view wants a part of it.
8. Why do you think celebrities have so much influence? Do people tend to look at the rich and famous for examples about how to live?
We talked a lot about religion. And now we’re talking about celebrity, and that’s also religion.
In more primitive cultures, everything was about the gods. As time passed, people in power saw they could have more power if they could draw on this godlike status. So we had the divinity of the emperor. Now we don’t have the emperor. In this country we don’t even have a royal family. What do we have? We have celebrity.
So when Jay-Z and Beyonce go vegan for even 22 days, it’s all over the internet and E! News Daily and all those shows because these godlike creatures dwelling among us are doing something new. So it’s a big deal.
It’s just like in a book. I’m an author, and I’ve written 11 books. So I know a lot about publishing. When I see so and so gave a blurb to a book, I know that either that author is a friend of that person or that author’s editor is a friend of that person. Somebody knew somebody, and they got them that quote. But people who don’t know about publishing see it as here’s someone I’ve heard of because they were in a movie, or its a best-selling author or a news person I know of — then they just assume it’s going to be a good book.
And the same thing is happening with veganism. They might first say ‘Veganism is stupid, extreme, I don’t want to do that, but wow, Natalie Portman does, Jay-Z and Beyonce are doing it, Leonardo DiCaprio does it, Woody Harrelson does it. Well maybe I’m not ready for it, but it sure is cool.’ It’s just a complete shift because those people are our royalty.
9. What pop culture has impacted you the most? And what pop culture do you think has reached others about vegetarianism and veganism?
When I was on tour with ‘Main Street Vegan,’ I noticed that the people who came to get the book signed and who shared with me what had caused them to go vegetarian or vegan that one of the biggest ones was “Skinny Bitch.” It was a phenomenon with lots of four letter words that took particularly young women and just made mass conversions to veganism. The other one that I heard a lot of people talk about was “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary primarily about the health aspects of going vegan.
Now for me because I went vegetarian so long ago when I was 19, my biggest influence was the American Vegan Society that even a lot of vegans these days don’t think exists. A lot of people think it all started with PETA, and I love PETA, but the American Vegan Society was founded in 1960. And I always say that 1960 was the first season of “Mad Men.” This was when that advertising office was a bunch of men and the females were secretaries who had to accept sexual innuendos. It was another world when the American Vegan Society was founded. That for me was the biggest influence way back when.
More recently something that I see that has just been delightful are movies like “Babe.” where they don’t shove it down your throat at all, but it still makes you think about animals. “Diet For a New America” in the 1990′s was just huge. In the 1980′s, “Fit for Life” was not strictly vegetarian. But it strongly implied vegetarian, with lots of fruits and vegetables. That book was just a phenomenon. It sold over 40 million copies around the world. For two years fruit and vegetable intake in the United States was up by 10 percent. And it was attributed to that book.
10. What trend do you see going on now?
I’m very excited about what’s going on in the non-food aspects of veganism. I’m seeing a lot out with cosmetics and fashion. Just last night I saw one of those infomercial-like commercials for some product that I’m not sure I would even trust. But it said ‘not tested on animals.’ That would never have happened even five years ago. To me that is really exciting.
We’ve got Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart and her vegan coat company Vaute Couture that did the very first all cruelty- free fashion show last year for New York City’s Fashion Week. Not only her coats and her clothing but every shoe, every drop of makeup on the models, the hair products, everything was cruelty free. And some of the models carried little dogs from the humane society looking for homes. And some of them were in fact adopted. This was picked up by CNN.com and it went viral. I just find this thrilling.
I remember to get cruelty free makeup you either had to order Beauty Without Cruelty from England and have it shipped across an ocean. Or we did really weird things like try to mix food coloring and Crisco to make blush. It was not pretty. It’s a new world and it’s exciting. I could never have envisioned that we would be where we are in the culture.