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Nava AtlasInterview by Cathe Olson
Nava Atlas is the author of Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook, Vegan Express, The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet, and many other cookbooks designed for busy families who want healthful vegan and vegetarian food. She's written many articles for magazines such as Vegetarian Times, Veggie Life, and Cooking Light. She's the creator of the popular Web site In a Vegetarian Kitchen (www.vegkitchen.com) and the vegan blog Veggie Talk (http://blog.vegkitchen.com). She lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York with her husband and two sons.
When and why did you become a vegetarian?
I officially went vegetarian at age 17. That was a long time ago! I didn't know any other vegetarians. To out it bluntly, I became a vegetarian mainly because meat revolted me, and always had, even as a young child. I only learned about the ethical, health, and environmental factors gradually.
And now you're vegan—what prompted that switch?
That happened nearly 7 years ago. I have two sons and I think we were all, with the possible exception of my husband, thinking of making the switch from vegetarian to vegan. I decided we should go on a "field trip" to a local organic dairy farm, thinking that if we got our dairy products that way, it might make us feel better. It did the opposite. Though the cows seemed happy in their pastoral meadow, there were still those unwanted calves sitting in wooden crates waiting to become either beef steers or veal; and the matter of the cows having to be impregnated year after year. My younger son, who was 10 at the time was the first to declare himself vegan. My older son (age 12 at the time) and I did so that same week; my husband held out for eggs for a few months afterwards.
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We've been vegans ever since that time. Our cat eats Evolution Feline vegan cat food and loves it, but you can't change a cat's true nature—she's awfully good at catching mice around our old farmhouse.
Have you always been into cooking? Do you have culinary training?
When I went veg at 17, my parents weren't happy and told me I had to cook for myself. A cousin of mine bought me this hippie-dippy cookbook called The Whole Earth Cookbook , and that got me started. I made all kinds of notes in the margins and wrote in my own recipes on the blank pages in the back. So I had an instant affinity for cooking, but never any culinary training. I studied design and drawing as an undergrad and have used those skills ever since. In 2007 I got a master's degree in art to upgrade my skills. It was both really hard and completely fun!
How and why did you start writing cookbooks?
I got married just out of college and my new husband and I were both struggling artists. Once in a while we'd be able to afford going out to eat in NYC, where we lived, and we especially liked ethnic eateries. Those became my inspiration for creating inexpensive, colorful, and creative meals at home. My husband, who went vegetarian the minute we met, urged me to write down my recipes so I could make certain dishes again. After some time, I'd collected quite a few recipes, and had the idea to design and illustrate an unusual looking cookbook built around literary quotations about food. That became my first book, Vegetariana: A Rich Harvest of Wit, Lore, and Recipes. Since there weren't billions of veg cookbooks out yet, like there are today, it was considered unique and enjoyed quite a bit of success, which led me to create others.
How many cookbooks have you written? Do you have a favorite?
I've written ten; some of those have gone through several editions. Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, for example, is the 4th edition of a book previously titled Vegetarian Soups for All Seasons. Tthe fondest place in my heart is still for Vegetariana, since it was my first and a labor of love. I wouldn't have the patience (nor the eyesight!) to do all those detailed illustrations now.
Have you written any books besides cookbooks?
In the mid-90s I wrote and illustrated a parody of What to Expect When You're Expecting, titled Expect the Unexpected When You're Expecting!: A Hilarious Look at the Trials and Tribulations of Pregnancy ! It's out of print now but it was a blast to do. I also wrote and illustrated a limited edition book titled Everyday Traditions: Simple Family Rituals for Connection and Comfort. Recently, I wrote and designed a book that's kind of the opposite of Everyday Traditions. It's called Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife: All the Dishes You'll Need to Make from the Day You Say "I Do" Until Death (or Divorce) Do You Part —not a cookbook but rather a book of dark humor that looks like a 1950s cookbook. The "recipes" are about the issues and challenges in contemporary marriage and motherhood, accompanied by photos of the ghastly food of the 50s. It's a kind of turning inside out of the unrealistic expectations women take into the marital institution. It's being published by Simon and Schuster in April 2009.
I understand you are also an artist. Why kind of art do you do and where could I see it?
Some of my art is on http://navaatlas.com. I make what I call "readable objects"—text-driven artwork, as well as artist's books, which are works of art in book form and often in limited editions. I have dealers who sell them to collections of artist's books, mainly at colleges and universities. Other artist's book collections that own my work include those at the Museum of Modern Art in NY, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and the National Arts Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Most of my work deals with women's issues and gender quandaries. Some of these topics are explored in my new blog, A Long Way, Maybe—http://alongwaymaybe.blogspot.com.
What are your future plans—more cookbooks, or something else?
Definitely something else. I plan to stay involved in the vegan cause, as it's something I believe in deeply; I'm concerned about animal welfare and disturbed about the impact of animal agriculture on climate change. I like the idea of using art as a tool for social activism and for exploring difficult subjects by seducing the reader/viewer with humor and irony. I have many, many more visual books on the queue, both the limited edition kind and the published variety. Sometimes one leads to the other, as in the case of Secret Recipes. It's difficult to realize how much time and effort it takes to do a cookbook. I can do three books in the time it takes to do one cookbook, and that's exactly what I intend to do!