The Unbearable Whiteness of Lasagna

Becoming a plant-based vegan offered another connection point between Mark and his dad. We had baseball and sports (for much of our relationship), books and writing, and then, just prior to his leaving on his walk, I decided I’d see if I could go two weeks without consuming dairy or animal-based food products (namely meat). During his trip, we kept a dialogue going about plant-based eating and associated food-related topics.

This re-ordering of diet and food might seem drastic. It really wasn’t. I just stopped eating some foods–eggs, cheese, yogurt, and meat. I replaced them with mainly plants—fruits and vegetable that I already liked and was eating. A new attentiveness ensued, searching for meals and recipes that fit with that.

In August when the three of us were together in Omaha, Yelp directed us across the city to a nondescript eatery in a converted gas station. I found out later that the chef was none other than vegan cook and cookbook goddess, Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The food on the menu was amazing. “So this is veganism,” I thought at the time. Afterwards, it made sense to seek out her books.

Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook is a book written with Terry Hope Romero for people like me (and Mary); those coming to veganism who want to learn to cook vegan, and not rely on others to cook for them.  The authors bring their unique, DIY-informed approach to food, billing it as “the essential guide to mastering the art of vegan cooking.”

Vegan cooking 101

The cookbook is a good one and we both cooked from it in the early weeks and months of plant-based eating and living. Some of the recipes delivered beautifully-crafted dishes. Continuing, we had a few meals that were “meh.” Mary said she found the recipes “incomplete”—they left things up to the cook, meaning “guessing” what to do. The book is still a valuable one and we consider it a vegan-cooking resource.

We have been fans of the series of Moosewood cookbooks drawing on vegetarian recipes inspired by the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York. Mary bought her first one 20 years ago.  We’ve cooked all kinds of meals relying on this book and subsequent books that have come along, like Moosewood Restaurant Low-fat Favorites. That one has an entire section in the back that lists vegan options, breaking them into various categories such as appetizers, desserts, beans, pastas, salads, including other main dishes. Nothing earth-shattering, but all of them, solid. Both the Moosewood book, along with Veganomicon got us through October into November. I’d share some of our discoveries with Mark, eating from cans and gathering fruit and veggies when he could. I told I was going to cook for him when he got off the road. That never happened.

Just prior to Thanksgiving, Mary came across best-selling Thug Kitchen books published by Rodale Press while browsing at Print in Portland. She’d found something significant.

Thug Kitchen: eat like you give a f*ck and Thug Kitchen 101: Fast as F*ck were clearly uncommon books about cooking. They demystified the process (precisely, vegan cooking), and the entire premise of the two anonymous authors is that anyone can cook healthy, plant-based fare, and it’s “easy as fuck” to do it.

The first book offers up more than 100 recipes and the second one provides others that are perfect for throwing down in the kitchen on nights after work, when you want a meal on the table in 20 or 30 minutes without too much fuss.

Their commentary about the recipes and prep notes regularly elicit chuckles from us. It’s funny following the recipes of two obviously experienced cooks, dropping the f-bomb while writing about cooking in such an irreverent manner. It’s especially pleasing to me, someone who thinks that the entire foodie bubble in places like Portland, Maine is overly-pretentious and over-hyped. The underlying message of the authors is that food and cooking aren’t things to be feared, or beyond the realm of understanding for anyone with functional gray matter. Like this from their introduction:

Welcome to Thug Kitchen, bitches. We’re here to help. We started our website to inspire motherfuckers to eat some goddamn vegetables and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Our motto is simple: EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A FUCK

What’s whacked is this bit of backstory that I just found out about. While we were cooking meals from these books, enjoying both the flavors and new foods we were being introduced to, and eating most of our meals at home (rather than out in the limited vegan restaurants that even Portland has), we were oblivious to the dust-up that these two white people from LA (oh, no!!) had initiated by daring to use words like “thug” and “motherfucker” in close proximity to one another. This got them labeled as “racists” and accused of “cultural appropriation,” which seems quite likely to happen to anyone in these days, well-intentioned, or not.

Making vegan tofu ricotta.

I’m not a fan of is sweeping generalizations of the type that got the two cookbook writers labeled. It’s certainly true that to some people race is an incredibly difficult issue to discuss. But identity politics’ tendency to preach to the choir won’t lead to changing minds and educating people that might benefit from a broader concept of race. Also, I’d rather be doing these days, not sitting around (in restaurants) and theorizing. But, enough about that!

Lasagna has always been a favorite dish of mine. Often, when I knew Mark was coming home for a long weekend, or if I wanted to make a meal for Mary and allow her a break from weekend meal prep (in our house, Mary tends to cook more on weekends, and I’ll log my time in the kitchen during the work week), I’d bang out a pan of lasagna.

Back in our meat-eating days, this might be a sausage lasagna. Even then, I’d made tofu-based lasagna before. However, vegetarian lasagna, filled with ricotta cheese and topped with mozzarella is an entirely different product than a lasagna sans dairy.

Not to worry. The Thugs had a “Mixed Mushroom and Spinach Lasagna” on page 159 of Thug Kitchen: eat like you give a f*ck.

This one called for making a Basil Pesto, in addition to the Mushroom Spinach Filling. Oh, and there was a house marinara and Tofu Ricotta to whip up, also. This meant that I was tackling a meal that ended up totaling just over two hours to throw together. My attitude was, “who the fuck cares!” I was going to spend some post-tennis time on Saturday in the kitchen, making a pan of vegan lasagna.

This was a winner! Both of us loved the texture and the flavor.

I followed the recipe directions to the t. That’s what we both appreciate about the Thug recipes. They lead you through the details and don’t leave you stranded.

Maybe you have to be a white person (which I am and always will be) to appreciate cooking from this book. Do I have to check my white privilege now whenever I make a pan of lasagna? I hope not.

I’m just ‘gonna keep working to broaden my vegan culinary capabilities. And if you are like me (and Mary), then the Thug cookbooks and solid-as-fuck recipes will help take you there.

Mixed Mushroom and Spinach Lasagna from Thug Kitchen: eat like you give a f*ck.