Soulful Vegan Writer Ellen Kanner

With a book titled Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for DinnerI just had to learn more about the woman behind the creative title—Ellen Kanner! And I'm so glad I did. Ellen is poetic, insightful, compassionate, and so welcoming. She is exactly the type of person who changes hearts and minds about plant-based living. Here's how she's doing it.

Allison Rivers Samson: As an award-winning author and syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald and Huffington Post, you use the power of the keyboard to advocate for animals and promote healthy eating. What unique qualities do you see writing and media exposure having for the animal protection movement?

Ellen Kanner: Great question. When people know about animal cruelty, they won’t stand for it. But most people don’t know — or don’t want to know —how prevalent it is. I am amazed and grateful for what nonprofits including PETA, the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing and Farm Sanctuary are doing to protect animals. The problem was, for a long time, they weren’t getting the traction they needed. Media attention has helped them lift the veil on rampant animal abuse. I try to keep that going by giving my articles and presentations a Trojan horse quality. Maybe I can sell you on kale because it’s nutrient-dense or chocolate because, duh, it’s vegan and delicious. But then I talk about the compassion element, too, that these are foods to enjoy that benefit you and are kind to the animals and the planet, too.  That’s what I love about being vegan: it’s the biggest, best multitasker there is.

ARS: So true! How did you land these impressive gigs at such prestigious publications?

EK: I think it has to do with that Trojan Horse. I’m an educator, content provider, nourisher, recipe developer, accessible food advocate, cook and connector and most of all soulful vegan writer. Mainstream media has been flirting with how to make meatlessness accessible to a wide audience — that’s fantastic. But they’re not sure how to do it without alienating anyone. I push for inclusiveness — I’m the vegan inviting everyone to the table. Most of my readers aren’t vegan, but I give them a safe space where they can have a better understanding of what this is about, provide small, doable steps, and give a recipe that’s seasonal and sensational, too. I want people to realize vegan doesn’t mean less, it means more — a more sustainable planet, more nourishment for you, more color on your plate, more flavor in your mouth. Just think of the food  — sumptuous chili-sparked Indian curry, Asian stir-fry with soy and ginger, rich, simple but soothing bean stews, creamy dips, crusty breads, great, grainy dishes full of fresh produce. And let’s not forget chocolate — it’s vegan. Thank you, Allison, for putting fun and lusciousness on the menu. Hey, vegans like to party, too.

ARS: Aw, thank you for the acknowledgement, Ellen. I absolutely love your writing and the way you tell a story! Your cookbook, Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner is unique in that it's a memoir as much as a cookbook. Why was it important for you to write your book this way?

EK: People have asked is Feeding the Hungry Ghost a cookbook, a memoir, a self-help or what? It’s a what. It’s all of the above and more — not just great food but all the other things we’re hungry for. Feeding the Hungry Ghost is about everything we bring to the table, who we share a meal with, who grows the food we eat, the personal and spiritual underpinnings, our associations and memories, the cultural and emotional triggers — these all flavor what we eat and how we live. To miss that is to miss the larger picture, to miss pleasure and connection, two of the biggest things we hunger for. I deliver delectable plant-based recipes that celebrate the seasons, but I also want to feed your soul. No pressure, right?

ARS: Perfect! Why do you think cooking is so important for our culture? 

EK: Oh, man I am so passionate about this. Food manufacturers want us to believe cooking is drudgery. It’s myth, a lie. They don’t want you to know what it can do for you. Cooking has benefits far beyond the next meal. As I mention in Psychology Today, it’s  good for you. Therapists have even come up with this term culinary therapy and they’re prescribing it a means to mental well-being.

That’s why I ask everyone to DIY their dinner a little more often. Stop relying on processed food and get in the kitchen. You don’t have to be a chef on “Chopped” or spend all day in the kitchen to create a meal that nourishes and pleases. Everybody probably has 10 minutes. I have lots of quick and easy recipes on Meatless Monday and a 10-minute pasta recipe in Feeding the Hungry Ghost. I created it out of desperation after a hurricane knocked out our electricity.  It’s great, quick, full of vegetables, you get multiple meals in minimal time and you’ll have made it yourself. That has real value. And it’s cheaper than therapy.

Cooking is good for all of us. Creating a healthier planet, a healthier life and healthier karma is going to take everyone. And you know, one of the best ways to bring  people together is over a meal that we can all enjoy.

See Ellen’s recipe for Spiced Lentils and Pumpkin!

ARS: Culinary therapy. What a fantastic term. You're a "cheerleader" for others looking to make healthier life choices. What do you see as a major obstacle people face when they want to change?

EK: Human nature. I’m only half-joking here. It’s easier to change who you’re sleeping with than what you’re eating. With my food counseling service, Veg Therapy, I see how challenging it is for clients who’ve eaten nothing but a SAD diet to wrap their brains around vegan. If change — whether it’s changing your diet or your life — were easy, we’d all do it. The thing is, to be human is to be complicated. I want to empower people wherever they are on their journey, whatever they’re eating. That’s why as part of my presentations and in Feeding the Hungry Ghost, I have what I call gentle nudges — little things that helps build positive connections to the food you eat, where it comes from and the people you want to share it with. It can be something as simple as growing a little of your own food — a pot of herbs, even — or trying almond milk instead of dairy milk. Every time you do this, you gain awareness and confidence and connection. These tiny actions can have a huge impact.

ARS: I think small steps are critical for some people. What was your "aha" vegan moment?

EK: Everyone has an a-ha moment, it’s different for everyone, and every reason is good. In my case, it happened twice. I became vegetarian at 13 because I love animals. Then about 15 years ago, I went vegan because I still love animals but was also seeing just how much animal agriculture is hurting our planet. Earth is only home we have. Whether the prompt to go vegan is animal advocacy, environmental protection or personal health, hold that dear, that’s your passion — that’ll keep you committed.

Ellen's Chana Masala

ARS: Yes, ANY reason is a good reason to go vegan! Although I now live in California, like you, I grew up in South Florida. Earlier in 2015, our family made the yearly trip to Miami to visit relatives. I was thrilled to see that the vegan movement is exploding in South Florida! For someone who is visiting for the first time, where are your must-dine locations? And I know there are new spots that have opened even since I was there. What are the places I have to eat on my next trip?

EK: Oh, girl, you’ve got to come back. If you’re here in November, come to Miami’s glam plant-based party, Seed Food and Wine. South Florida definitely has vegan fever — it’s so exciting, so yummy.

Best breakfast bet is Choices Cafe and Choices Kitchen. From cold-pressed juices to fluffy pancakes and a cheerful staff, it’s a great way to start the day. jugofresh has luscious juices, smoothies and acai bowls that fuel you with the pure plant energy. Green Bar and Kitchen and Temple Kitchen are go-tos for plant-based comfort, bodacious bowls and great everyday eats.

We have a new date night plant-based dining choice, Full Bloom perfect for a romantic evening. And you can get a lovingly prepared seasonal vegan meal at my house, too, sometimes picked fresh from my garden.

Basil Park, Black Brick and SushiSamba aren’t strictly vegan, but they have so many dazzling vegan options, like Black Brick’s vegan dim sum or SushiSamba’s Amazonia roll. I like to bring omnivore friends — the vegan options are so good, they end up eating half my meal.

Thank you, Ellen, for chatting with me. I'm thrilled there are people like you in the world.

GET SOME ‘ME-TIME’ IN YOUR INBOX

Find out how to make room for yourself in your own life, turn workouts into personal playdates, and make healthy eating feel indulgent.