“[E]veryone knows I’m vegan now where they look at me. The transformation is complete.”
It’s not easy to make being vegan both funny and incisive, but that’s what writer Gabriella Paiella does both on Twitter and in her writing for New York magazine’s The Cut. Alicia and Gabby discuss Tevas, bad jokes about vegans, and the relationship between veganism and body image.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect the diet?”
In this first episode of season two, I talk to a writer, Gabby Paiella, who covers culture and politics for The Cut. We talked about Tevas, bad jokes about vegans, and the relationship between veganism and body image.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: OK.Thank you, Gabby, for being here.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Thanks for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So I wanted to ask, because you just wrote about your new sandals, the Tevas, that you had an obsession with them, but you know, we’re going back and forth on it. Did you think actually that they were too vegan?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I think they have fully transformed me into like an outwardly facing vegan. Like everyone knows I’m vegan now where they look at me. The transformation is complete.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Sure. So I was born in New Jersey actually. Then I spent my early childhood years in Italy, because my dad’s from there and then we spent the rest of the time in Connecticut, in central suburban Connecticut. I grew up eating a lot of everything. So my dad’s from Italy, like I mentioned, we’d have big Sunday pasta lunches and antipasto dinners every Friday, and that was like very regimented, like he’s very traditionally Italian in that way. And then my mom’s from Egypt, so we grew up eating a lot of, you know, Egyptian barbecues, you’d have kofta, and kebabs, tahini. And then, I think this is kind of common for a lot of immigrant kids, I was really obsessed with American food because it felt so foreign and so forbidden. So I love to eat like Funfetti cake, and like my grandma, my Egyptian grandma, really bought a lot of like processed, quick, fast food. So I used to love to sleep over her house and eat like Lipton’s Alfredo packets, those were like, they were so Proustian for me, like when I see them in the supermarket, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I could eat this again.” Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So when did you decide to become vegan and why?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So my origin story is actually very cursed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh really?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, it is. So, I should back up a little bit and say that when I was around 13, I was very overweight, so I went on the Atkins diet actually, and I lost a ton of weight, which is hilarious to me in retrospect, because it’s like the complete opposite of what I eat now. And then, so that was, watching my weight was the constant theme growing up. When I got to college, I put on like 20 pounds, you know, freshman year, and I came across the Skinny Bitch.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh No.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, I know, I’m so embarrassed. But at the time, I don’t consider that when I fully went vegan because I was definitely plant-based. I didn’t buy into the whole lifestyle. And for the next seven years I would say it was like on and off vegan. I really struggled with it because I was trying to get into food writing, and I was traveling a lot, and I like, I really confused eating weird meats with having an extreme personality, that was something that I was really into. Then finally, about three years ago, is when I really buckled down, and I just had this moment, I saw a sad animal video, and I was like, “I’m not going to be going between plant based and omnivore and all that. I just want to be vegan. Like this just feels like the right thing to do.” And that’s what it’s been ever since. And you know, I’m fully, like, I don’t wear any animal products, don’t use animal testing, cosmetics, eat vegan, obviously.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. So it was in, in the end it was an animal rights motivation for you?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Absolutely. Yeah. I should’ve also mentioned my mom and sister had been vegan for 10 years with an animal rights motivation, and my sister’s five years younger than me, but she’s like totally this beacon for me. I always go to her for advice. She always has great tips. I feel like she knows about everything before everyone else does, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what was it about Skinny Bitch that sort of convinced you?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I, so I wish I’d gone back and looked at it before this, but I didn’t even want to. I don’t think I have a copy. I didn’t even want to, like, try to get my hands on one, but I will say I do remember there were some animal rights things in it, like, it wasn’t completely superficial. But they really, I really remember it being like a really sort of agro book where they were like, “stop eating all this shit, it’s like, it’s processed, it’s bad for you, you’re eating dead food, you’re going to look great if you stop doing it.” And that was motivation for me, the health aspect of it, the possibility of feeling lighter and being lighter.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. So when you were trying to be a food writer, were you kind of hiding this sort of tendency or how was it manifesting?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, I always felt vaguely embarrassed of it and I felt, had this huge fear of missing out all the time. So that’s why I was never fully, like, I can never commit to being plant-based is what I’ll call it, because it wasn’t actually vegan. Yeah. So I would like break and eat like a piece of cake or try some meat, or go to Iceland and eat weird hot dogs, and yeah, it just never stopped.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do think you could be a food writer and not eat these things?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I think things have really changed since the time I was doing that. I think now there are so many food writers in the vegan and vegetarian space, and people are just taking food like that more seriously than they were, you know, seven, eight years ago.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally, totally. So, you recently tweeted “every single joke people make about vegans on here sounds like it was from a 2003 Dane Cook Comedy Special,” which I found very specific but also super spot on. Do you have any like hypothesis about why humor about veganism is so terrible?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Well, I should also say that on my way over here, I checked my Twitter and Dane Cook saw that Tweet and responded to it with a really bad joke, so. I just think that it, a huge part of my job is writing jokes all day. I think I’m a pretty good judge of what’s funny and I also, I can take jokes about myself and about my lifestyle, but I just feel like there’s no, I don’t get the joke about the veganism. I’m like, “What is funny about it?” Like, “Oh, you care about animals, you care about the environment.” Like I don’t understand. Like there’s no joke that goes beyond that, and it doesn’t actually, yeah, they never quite make sense, and they just feel dated. They feel really dated.
ALICIA KENNEDY: They do, yeah. I’m trying to imagine a joke that really cuts to the heart of veganism and actually make someone feel like they should not be vegan or even question it. And I just can’t even fathom what that joke would be.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: It’s always like, “Uh, bacon, ever heard of it?”
ALICIA KENNEDY: But a lot of the time I’ve noticed too, there are a lot of otherwise thoughtful people who make really strange comments about veganism, and feel, feel the need to say things about dairy or say things about how veganism is inaccessible to most people. And what do you say to those people, who you probably have in your life too, like, thoughtful people who find veganism to be just too strange?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I think and rant about this all the time, so I’m very excited to talk about this. I do think there’s a big issue where, I’ve noticed this with like white, quote unquote “woke progressives,” where every other issue they’re very open-minded about, but when it comes to veganism, like this is the thing that goes too far and it’s worth making fun of. And one example of that recently where it wasn’t light-hearted mocking, it was like actual criticism. There was a thread going around by a woman who was an agricultural scientist, and the gist of it was that like veganism doesn’t work in an environmental sense because it’s Eurocentric farming. I saw a lot of people sharing it, and I was like, OK, first of all, how does this stop you from being a vegan? Or how does this stop you from eating meat?
Like you’re using it to justify your own meat, eating your own unnecessary meat eating. And also like, I don’t see, I don’t know any vegans who are going into like the Global South and trying to get everyone to be vegan. It’s not happening. And then on top of that, it didn’t even address the animal rights portion of the motivation. I think that’s a big thing is people are either are unwilling to address the fact that animal rights is some people’s motivation, and they also find it mockable. So your question was how I handle it? I try to ignore it, if it’s someone I’m really close to I’m happy to talk it out. But mostly I just stew in silence. I get really mad or subtweet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That makes sense. Yeah. I actually, I was in your mentions for that Dane Cook tweet and that was kind of a common argument, it seemed, about it that like, “Oh, veganism is for northern Europeans,” but then of course when you read about meat consumption, all the cows were from northern Europe and then brought everywhere else that they colonized. So none of it makes any sense.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Totally. And I also think that western Europeans, in general, are the people that are most defensive about their food traditions, and the biggest assholes about it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. So how do you feel about media portrayals of veganism?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So this is something I think about a lot. As a member of the media, I generally bristle when people refer to the media as one entity. But I think when it comes to veganism, it actually is. I really resent how it’s either, it’s always portrayed as either a diet, like a bad diet or a wellness craze, or just something that is harmful in some way, or something that’s silly. So I’ll give you some examples because I’m always cataloguing these. So, the example of when it’s silly, it’s always like vegan YouTuber drama, or vegans are so abusive on YouTube, vegan commentators are abusive on YouTube, which to me, that is just an issue with YouTube that has nothing to do with the person being vegan. Like YouTubers are always in beefs. They’re always bullying each other. They’re always acting, acting out that way.
The stories where I see where it’s harmful is where people will talk about, “Oh, this a vegan couple was so neglectful to their child that the child had to be taken away into protective custody. It’s because they’re vegan.” Again, like there are so many vegan parents raising healthy vegan children. The issue here is that they are neglectful. Like this is just a case of neglect. So that is where I just feel like I wish there were stories where veganism was actually taken seriously, but on the other hand, like, you see, let’s talk about the, the story with the Orca carrying her dead calf. Do you remember that?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: People were captivated by that for days, I was like, “OK, let’s make the connection here.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: They never do for some reason. Do you remember the “Vows” column that was recently, with the conservative vegans?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: That’s a great example where it’s like, these people suck because they’re conservative, it’s not because they’re vegan.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, but you never see, you know, like a regular vegan couple get that kind of coverage. Yeah.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I will say though that there are some places where I have noticed it getting better. Do you remember the Glenn Greenwald piece in The Intercept?
ALICIA KENNEDY: He’s doing good stuff. Yeah.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah. About the FBI agents were tracking down animal activists, who took away two piglets from a factory farm, and I actually had a number of people tell me that they went either vegan or vegetarian after reading that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh wow.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Which does not happen from me ranting about veganism.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s great. Yeah, so you wrote explicitly about food in a piece for Father’s Day, about your dad and his anger about Italian food in the United States, and you mention prosciutto in Friday night meals and that sort of thing. So if, so apparently you’re vegan, your sister, your mom’s vegan, and is your dad vegan?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Plot twist. He’s mostly vegetarian now actually. So he will eat prosciutto when he goes to Italy because he considers it his heritage, his dad owned like a deli. So he’s very close to that, but even that is very rare now, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So how have your traditions at home changed?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, so actually I feel like it’s brought me a lot closer to my Egyptian heritage, which I’ve always felt closer to just because I have more family around. But, so, we’re Coptic, which is a pre-Arab ethno-religious group in Egypt, and if you think Catholics are hardcore, Copts fast for over 200 days a year.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: And I always laugh at the no meat on Fridays during Lent, because their fast is completely vegan. So as a result, a lot of Egyptian cuisine has been tailor-made to fit those restrictions. So we eat now a lot more kushari. Have you ever had that?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I actually haven’t.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: OK. Can I describe it? It is my favorite food. It’s a layer of rice and then a layer of pasta, a layer of lentils or chickpeas and then this spicy hot tomato sauce, you can put some garlic vinegar oil, and then crispy onions, and it’s like, just a total carb bomb, but it’s so good. So that’s really, really common Egyptian street food. Taameyya, which is Egyptian falafel, which is made with faba beans instead. Bemye, which is like an okra dish, tahini hummus, like all of that was just inherently vegan, so we have just been eating a lot more of that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh cool. And your dad is happy with that?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, he’s fine with it. I think for him it’s like a mortality thing. Like he, he’s getting older, so he’s watching his health more. So he’s down with it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you also wrote, I’m sorry to be going through all your pieces, but you wrote about wanting to be married to Ina Garten, “being Jeffrey,” which of course we all would like to do. In that, you know, you noted meat recipes, and I’m a food writer. Like I always have to talk about meat. Do you feel any like disconnect there when you do that or, how do you relate to meat when you have to engage with it?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So I think it was really different back when I was doing it, when I would write articles either about Ina, which is a more recent one, but also when I would write recipe posts, I would really just engage. But now I don’t think I would do it. Now, I don’t think I would write about it at all. And I actually do think of the Ina piece is one that I don’t know if I would have written in the same way, if I wrote it today. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What do you think would change?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I probably just wouldn’t mention the meat recipes. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. You mentioned this a bit earlier, but how do you see the relationship of veganism and dieting and body image, if at all, like veganism, especially among women gets construed as kind of a disorder?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah. As someone who’s dealt with my own eating shit in my life, I actually get really resentful about that because I feel like if anything, veganism has normalized the way I eat, not that there is any normal. I don’t want to place that blanket definition, but it has made me feel a lot more comfortable with food. I get a lot of joy out of food, discovering it. It’s not so fraught with anxiety, and that could just be me reaching a different point in my life, but I really do think a lot of it comes with just being able to discover all these different foods and enjoy them, and feel like I’m nourishing my body and also doing something good for the world. I also don’t like it when people say that people who are vegan are hiding an eating disorder, or sometimes bloggers will say that they were vegan, but then they realized that was making their eating disorder worse or it, quote, “gave them an eating disorder,” and I just don’t believe in that. Like you came into it with your own disordered eating, as someone who specifically sought out the Skinny Bitch cookbook because I wanted to lose weight. I know that, I am speaking from personal experience. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. And do you cook a lot at home mostly or do you go out a lot?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I cook a lot at home and I go out more than I would like to, I mean about as much as I would like to. I spend more money than I should. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What are you usually making at home?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So every Sunday, I’m very stereotypical, but I usually make like a big pasta dish with whatever vegetables are in season or I have in the fridge and some beans, and I’ll usually eat that for lunch a few days a week, that for dinner Sunday night. Make a lot of, I feel like I make combinations of the same things over and over again, which sounds boring, but it isn’t, it’s always like a grain and a bean and a green. I don’t bake, I wish I baked more, but I’m just not very good at it. So mostly a lot of pasta dishes, a lot of a tofu-focused stir-fries, tempeh-focused stir-fries, a lot of sandwiches, I really just love making like a big sandwich for dinner.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. That sounds like a good dinner.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Coming home after a long day, then the train ride takes twice as long as it should.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Where do you like to go out to eat in the city?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I love Superiority Burger. That’s my number one place, for sure. I feel like Brooks is so curious about food and so innovative and every time I go, like there’s a new side dish that I’m surprised by. I really love Double Zero pizza. Have you been there?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, I’ve been there only when it opened, and I think I need to go back.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, it’s definitely a special occasion place, it’s a little pricey. And then he also opened two restaurants on either side of them, which I haven’t been to yet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: There’s this sushi one, right? I have not been there.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: And then a Mexican plant-based one, as well.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, alright. Yeah, there’s that big trend of just white guys and Mexican restaurants right now, but yeah, yeah.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So that’s good. We go to Peace Food pretty often, which is like kind of an old-school place, but I love their chickpea fries…
ALICIA KENNEDY: Exactly.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: …and their chicken tenders. That’s like my junk food. My partner, who is not a vegan, is obsessed with them.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh really?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What about it does he like?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: He’s just always saying how uncanny it is and just how great it is. Like, “See?” “Yes, yes.” Actually speaking of uncanny, we go to Orchard Grocer pretty frequently, their ruben is absolutely insane. You really can’t tell the difference or maybe I just haven’t had beef in so long, but they, I love their, they make like imitation bacon, egg and cheese that I get a lot. And I liked that they’re palm oil-free. What else? I love going to Souen for macro plates, it’s pretty close to my office.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh cool, cool, yeah, that’s very old school, typically.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: And also, if I could chat about something outside of the city, in southern Connecticut, there’s a place called It’s Only Natural, which is totally worth it if you’re in the area or if you want to drive. It’s just this old school, vegan cafe that’s been there for like 20, 30 years. But their food is really good. It’s not just old school, like macro stuff. It’s really hearty and comforting.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Have you been to Blood Root?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I haven’t.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s fun.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Is it really crunchy?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, god. Yeah. But I mean in a good way because it’s in a feminist way so it’s like nice. And there’s like a sign on the wall that’s, “In consideration for our customers of size, please do not like belabor anything about like calorie counts or anything.” I don’t know. It’s like it’s crunchy in like the best possible way. So how do you navigate like your vegan, omnivore relationship, how does that work?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So Christian, who’s my partner, he is from the Midwest originally, so I think he has some different food traditions that he is really hanging onto, but we don’t have meat in the house, and I’d say he actually eats vegan like 80 or 90 percent of the time. It was not like that when we first met. I also wasn’t vegan when we first met, but now, you know, like he drinks almond milk too. We eat vegan most of the time. We go to vegan restaurants a lot. He’s also just really easily pleased with all foods, and I’m the one who always knows exactly what I want to eat at any given time, and it has to be perfect. So, and he’s just happy to go along and try new things.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Yeah. Have you converted to oat milk yet?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I’m not a fan of oat milk.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Me either.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: We went to Berlin last summer, and oat milk was all the rage there, and I was like, “urgh.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Apparently they’re running out of it in Brooklyn.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I saw that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I don’t really like the color, strange. The consistency is a little weird, but I was reading a really cool recipe by Stella Parks today where she usually uses like an oat slurry as an egg white replacement, or is it an egg replacement? So I don’t know. Oats are cool, but I don’t, I don’t get the obsession with it.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, I imagine it’s like the closest you can get through breast milk, which I haven’t had since I was a baby, but that is what I imagined.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s what my friend said. She’s like, it looks like breast milk. So you’re not the only one who said that.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: So not the only one, great. What’s your favorite nut based?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’m a cashew person if not A. I mean I use full-fat coconut in most things, but like, everyday use, I’ve just converted to cashew, but I don’t really put it in milk. I mean in coffee. So for me, it’s like just a baking thing really. So I have a different relationship to milk generally. Yeah. So you’re also, like, in addition to making lots of jokes, you’re like very vocal about your politics. So do you see your veganism and your political beliefs intersecting at all? Is that part of one whole for you?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean when it comes to factory farms for instance, let’s just use that as an example. I think it’s as much an animal rights issue as it as a labor issue. Looking who’s working in the slaughterhouses and the farms and the processing plants. It’s all undocumented workers. It’s like virtually no rights. They can’t unionize, they get maimed, they get injured all the time. I mean at chicken processing plants you have people wearing diapers because they don’t want to take the time to take a bathroom break. Like it is very much a labor issue. It’s very much a justice issue. A food justice issue for me as well.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And does it relate maybe economically, do you see anything there where veganism plays a part?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I’m trying to think of, it’s difficult because I think veganism is really perceived as this middle class, upper-middle-class way of eating. So I would like it to intersect more of course, and, I would love, you know, certain foods to be more available and cheaper and more accessible. That is not necessarily a problem with veganism. I think that’s more of a problem with our meat lobby and our dairy lobby and the FDA and all that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally, totally. So do you consider cooking and eating to be a political act?
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: I think it can be. I don’t know if the kind of cooking I’m doing is necessarily political. I do think that being vegan is political for me. Absolutely. You know, some of my favorite literature about veganism is inherently very political, Sexual Politics of Meat, you know, all of that stuff. Yeah. So I do think it is. I think that, you know, an argument that comes up, again and again, is like there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, which I fully believe, but I also don’t want it to be a thing where it’s used as an excuse to excuse behavior that I wouldn’t otherwise engage in. So like, yes, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but choosing not to eat something that’s been tortured and killed is also a choice I can make.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right. Thank you, Gabby.
GABRIELLA PAIELLA: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
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