Sweet Utopia Blog

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My Speech from the (first) 2009 VegFest NYC October 26, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — sharonsweets @ 4:26 pm

Hi, everyone, how are you on this gorgeous day? I’m Sharon Valencik. I’m honored to be invited to this great event where we can network with other vegans and vegetarians, and get new ideas to fuel our fire for helping animals and the earth.

I became a vegetarian on my own when I was 12. The concept of eating an animal was just so disgusting to me. I’d been talking about “the poor cow” since I was 5, but you know, kids keep eating what their parents give them, though I was lucky to be raised on a mostly Mediterranean diet. I became a strong activist as I grew up, and influenced as many people as I could. I just couldn’t imagine living any other way but compassionately, once I learned the truth about the animal industries.

I have a new book called Sweet Utopia. It’s a collection of vegan desserts that I’ve been working on over the last 5 years. I started making my own vegan desserts because dessert is so important to me and great vegan desserts were hard to come by – yummy, rich, decadent desserts that didn’t taste like carob-coated cardboard. I wanted to have equivalents of everything nonvegan, including the amazing family recipes I was raised with, to have a collection for myself and my sons who are 5 and 2, and to help others learn how to make vegan dessert.

So I created my own techniques. Sometimes it was like a chemistry lab in my kitchen as I experimented, but usually, it was very simple and didn’t involve a ton of bizarre and off-putting ingredients. I’m realistic and I know that if I didn’t want to bother with a recipe because it’s super-complex or involved ingredients I’d never bother to locate, then no one else would.

I tell people who have never heard of baking vegan that it’s very simple. The main ingredient that you need is a good vegan butter, such as Earth Balance, which you can get at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and health food stores or even some supermarkets. Also you need nondairy milk, silken tofu and tofu cream cheese to help make things creamy, like puddings and cheesecakes.

One of my favorite things to do is to make vegan cheesecakes for people who have never had them. They go nuts!! They are so creamy and delicious! It’s so worth it just to see their expression. And they always come back for more. I really enjoyed dreaming up so many cheesecakes to put in Sweet Utopia.

Once I had my book ready, I realized it wasn’t easy getting a vegan dessert book published! No one thought enough people would buy a book of vegan desserts. Just a few years later, I think they will see that the audience is so much more receptive to such a book. Don’t forget that allergies to dairy are running wild and people are watching their cholesterol. Most importantly, people are beginning to hear the word “vegan” a lot more.

I wrote my book with the hope of spreading the word that you don’t need eggs and dairy to create amazing desserts. And that the ingredients and methods are basic and simple. The demand for animal products will drop once more people find all these great recipes and learn that they can eat meals and desserts without animal products, and more animal lives will be spared.

Eventually people will move toward veganism. It will take a while though, because society doesn’t change overnight. Remember this when you are getting frustrated at humankind! Remember that change is happening, little by little. Some people can do it overnight, but most don’t do it that way.

Teaching people about vegan baking is so much fun to me, but it is all with a bigger picture in mind. I believe that by letting nonvegans taste delicious food that happens to be vegan, we can spread the word and the cause in a way that is not threatening at all. Making people WANT to eat something because it is delicious and that’s it. Another way to make animal products obsolete, little by little.

We all want the planet to move toward a plant-based diet. We all want animal suffering to end. And we have different approaches. And we’re making progress. It’s not going to happen in a day a week a month or a year or two, so don’t feel discouraged. It IS happening, so be patient.

I have so many stories of friends whom I’d educated, not pushing or insisting. Years later I’d find out that they became either vegetarian or vegan because of this positive influence and that it stuck because they did it on THEIR timeline.

Look at your supermarket now and compare it to just a few years ago. There are TONS of vegan options now, meat and cheese substitutes, countless types of soymilk, nondairy ice cream etcetera. When I dropped milk 2 decades ago, there was only one type of soymilk and it was gross!! Now, the flavors of the dairy and meat alternatives are so wonderful, that it’s hard to miss eating the animal products.

Let’s make sure that we don’t alienate people, but attract them and make them WANT to eat fewer animal products, to pique their curiosity, so they try new things, so that they want to eat more and more vegan food. Knowledge is power, and if we can spread the word in a constructive way, we can go far.

Don’t you all have that meat-eating friend or family member that you slipped some veggie meat to without their knowing? I have done that, and they were blown away! They never would have guessed.

Some changes are even happening at higher levels. For example, the USDA is rolling vegetarianism and veganism into their food pyramid and nutritional literature. There is a new recognition at the federal level that the way we eat is changing, which is huge.

Related is the national PCRM movement to provide vegan school lunch options. Now is the perfect time for this to happen. It will take work on many levels, but eventually we will succeed. As a mom who has a child in a public school, I know that we have to demand alternatives in our schools. There are a lot of barriers. My state doesn’t even recognize non-animal sources of protein. We have to keep at it, to keep pushing. Because for each of us who work at this, there are countless other families who will benefit from it. And millions of animal lives will eventually be spared. And our unhealthy population that is basing their diet on animal products can only get healthier with the changes we’re pushing for.

It’s actually a great time for our kids in schools to be vegan. My kindergarten son hasn’t experienced any stigma with not eating the food the other kids do, or the pizza or cupcakes at parties. Sorry to say it, but we can take advantage of how widespread allergies are. My son’s elementary school doesn’t let anyone send in cupcakes anymore. At the other schools he went to and at birthday parties, I always send in vegan cupcakes and vegan pizza and soymilk and tofurkey and vegan cheese sandwiches. He never feels left out. Of course it takes more of an effort on my part, but that’s ok. And when he’s a little older, he’ll be educating his peers about why he doesn’t eat meat, dairy or eggs, or candies with gelatin.

Raising the next generation of advocates is extremely important work. We’re educating everyone: from doctors who are worried about our kids’ protein, milk and calcium intake, to teachers, who usually don’t know what a vegan diet is, and most importantly, to our own little ones, who have to become their own advocates. They need to know which foods are OK and which have animal products. And they need to learn how to explain this to their peers and to their teachers.

Turning this back to the animal rights movement and what we can each do, I think of it this way. Why don’t we each focus our activism on 3 levels. For example, here are three of mine. I like to go to protests, like fur protests, because it hits the sellers of cruel products, at the same time as making shoppers aware that this is not OK, and educating them in the process. My second level is writing to congresspeople, because legislation is absolutely key to protecting animals, and our elected reps need to know what legislation we want them to create or support. And my third level of focus for me is creating and educating people about vegan food.

If everyone could focus on three levels of things to do that fit them best, we could educate and change status quo, with each person utilizing their strengths best in a way that does not overwhelm them, causing early burnout. Some other ideas besides my levels of activism I just described are: working on fundraising, direct work with shelters or farm rescue, educating communities in various ways, there are sooooo many areas that need your help.

I am sure Farm Sanctuary and PCRM and countless other organizations have many, many things you can do, drawing on your personal strengths! We are really in need of people to be there, willing to offer their services. Whether it’s the critical work of standing in the cold with a sign on the highway outside a furrier, or out working with animals, or legal or political activities, there is just so much work to be done, so get out there!! Spread the word!!!


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