Q&A: Edgy Veggie Ellen Kanner on Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner

Written by Jaya Bhumitra

Book Cover

Ellen Kanner—award-winning food writer, Meatless Monday blogger for The Huffington Post, syndicated columnist Edgy Veggie, and now author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner—has invited you to share a meal. You, and the 7 billion other people on this planet (or as she calls it, her “ideal dinner party guest list”), as she wants nothing more than for “everyone to be fed, nourished, and celebrated.”

With that desire, this ardent advocate for organic, sustainable, and accessible food has penned a glorious memoir/cookbook to satiate both our souls and our appetites. Because we so often resemble the hungry ghosts of Taoist lore—eating mindlessly, wandering aimlessly, and wanting more than food itself can provide—Ellen, with warmth, humor, empathy, and insight, offers that recognizing our relationship to food (how it’s grown, a recipe’s cultural and spiritual underpinnings) gives it as much depth and flavor as fresh ingredients or lavish spices, and ultimately provides the real sustenance we’re craving: meaning, emotional fulfillment, community. According to Ellen, “Saffron, tarragon, cardamom, and cumin make food taste better. Culture, connection, and faith do the same thing for our lives.”

Through chapters defined by the seasons (The Seed, The Flowering, The Harvest, The Compost), Ellen harmoniously blends sweet stories and savory culinary adventures, while expertly addressing questions such as “What if you don’t have time to cook?” and “Isn’t healthy food expensive?” (short answers:  make it social and buy whole foods in bulk). I laughed through the pages and starred my favorite passages, including T.S. Eliot references, a vocabulary lesson on favism vs. fauvism, a bit on how growing gardens teach us patience, and a delectable description of Ellen’s childhood encounters with lychees and mangos, two favorites of my own.

Each memory or soliloquy is followed by an enticing international recipe: popular-in the-UK Seed Cake; Haitian Soupe Joumou; Veggie Paella; Down and Dirty Rice; Moroccan Carrot Salad; West Indian Mango Madness; Pumpkin, Poblano, and Spinach Tacos; Tuscan White Beans and Winter Soup; Multifaith Sweetness and Light Sugarplums. Ellen’s irreverent approach to bringing reverence into daily living—and eating—could not be more delightful or delicious. Here, she gives us more food for thought:

Ellen KannerQ: Unlike other cookbooks, this one reads like a diary or memoir, sharing intimate and often hilarious stories of your life and connecting them back to the importance of food as communal, spiritual, and healing. What inspired you to take this unique approach?

A: We could accomplish amazing things if we could come together. But these days, there’s so many daunting things that divide us—wealth, class, race, education, gender, politics.  I’m interested in what connects us. Food has always been a way of bringing us together. Now many of us collect recipes off the web and while the ease is fantastic, it keeps us apart. We forget the value of being really hands on, of filling your kitchen with the warming, welcoming smells of a home-cooked meal, of filling it with the people you love, so you can cook it and share it together.

We are better together than apart, and food is the best way to connect us.  It grows community.  There may be more sophisticated ways to get us together, to realize and celebrate our commonality, but this is what I’ve come up with. I want everyone at my table.

Q: What did you grow up eating? Why did you give up meat?

A: I grew up eating a lot of processed and fast food. I gave up meat at 13 because I love cows. I didn’t swear I’d stick by it forever; I decided to go meatless for two weeks to see how I felt. Within a couple days I felt better, more energetic and focused. At the end of two weeks, I didn’t miss meat. At all. I didn’t see a reason to go back. My love affair with fresh produce has lasted decades, and even after all this time I’m discovering new things to love about it.

Q: How did you become interested in cooking and why is it so important?

A: I was a bookish little kid who read everything. Books, but also street signs, cereal boxes, and ultimately my mother’s cookbooks, which I read like storybooks. The ingredients were the characters; the preparation was the plot. It was a total, page-turning thrill. I had to see for myself, how did this story end? I took to the kitchen to find out.

As for why cooking is important—most of us rely on processed foods. We’re trusting other people, companies, to do right by us. From our deteriorating health to food safety issues to the abominable way animals are raised, we have plenty of signs that that isn’t happening. Sourcing and cooking our food puts us in charge. We get to choose where we put our money and our mouth. It’s empowering.

Q: How can people who are sentimentally attached to traditional foods (Thanksgiving turkey, for example) grow to appreciate and celebrate with the vegan versions of those foods instead? How do we maintain that sentiment if the food is changed?

A: We knot food and feelings together all the time, never more so than at the holidays. What we want, especially at the holidays, is love, togetherness, a sense that everything’s going to be all right. The key is choosing how to best express that love. A ham or turkey isn’t going to create that. It comes from us. That’s what we bring to the table.  A meal that causes no harm only furthers that love. Instead of turkey or ham, celebrate by sharing what’s fresh and alive—the first tender berries, peas, and asparagus of spring; summer’s crazy, colorful abundance of peppers, greens, zucchini and tomatoes that are so vibrant, you can taste the joy in them. When we eat them, they connect us to the season and the earth in primal, pleasing ways.

Q: What is your favorite recipe in the book, and why?

A: Ooh, tough question. I’m obsessed with what’s fresh and in season, so my favorite recipe depends on the time of year. But I get kind of swoony and swept away by foods with deep cultural roots, like harira from Morocco and hopping john, a Southern New Year’s Day tradition. Versions in Feeding the Hungry Ghost are vegan. They lose the meat, but keep the heart. This is food that’s been bringing people to the table for generations, and I hope, always will.

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