“[W]e don’t want to be like the Soylenters of veganism and be like, “Just eat whatever you can, as long as it’s not animals.” Like, no, food needs to be meaningful and culturally relevant.”
Alicia talks to food writer and nutrition educator Leah Kirts about her upbringing in rural Indiana, her time in the NYU food studies master’s program, and teaching kids about veganism.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
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 a diet?”
In this episode I talk to Leah Kirts, a writer, nutrition educator and co-producer of Heritage Radio Network’s Food Without Borders. Her work focuses on the intersection of queerness and veganism. I first came to know Leah as a fellow Instagram vegan and, at one time, the only other vegan food writer I could find. Her writing has a deeply considered humanity, whether she’s covering the queer food pop-up Babetown, or old-school Williamsburg hardware store Crest. She’s masterful at getting you on her side before you even know it’s happened. We discussed her youth in rural Indiana, time at NYU’s food studies master’s program, and how the animal rights movement might better open itself up to other social justice movements.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Usually I have in my notes now to greet people and like, but I know you. I don’t need to be reminded to say, “Hello, Leah. How’s it going? Thank you so much for being here.”
LEAH KIRTS: You’re just like, “OK, tell me everything. Here are my questions. Boom, boom, boom.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, but can you, can you tell us a bit about where and how you grew up and what you ate?
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah. So I am from Indiana, a tiny cornfield in the Midwest. And yeah, I definitely grew up eating the standard meat and potatoes diet, like, you know, but the one, I guess, difference maybe from the norm is that my family are all, kind of, farmers and hunters and so I certainly ate, like, animal products from, you know, the grocery store, but the majority of it actually was from, you know, a farm or that was like hunted in the wild. So I was very removed from, like, the meat industry anyway.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Did you ever go hunting with anyone?
LEAH KIRTS: No, definitely not. I went fishing. That was, kind of like, the fun kid, you know, kid-friendly, bizarre kid-friendly sport. Yes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Did you have a feeling that that was the wrong thing to do when you were a kid? Did it occur to you?
LEAH KIRTS: I totally did not. I had apparently had a very, you know, complicated a sense of empathy as far as animals went. Like, I always had pets and I loved them, but you know, I think because it was associated with like bonding and family time, like, my grandfather would take us fishing. So it was this, like, fun activity to do something different and it, and it was just so normalized. It never occurred to me that, like, poking a hook through a worm was not great. Then, like, sinking that hook into a fish was also not great.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, when did the first, when did you first consider the ethics of eating meat?
LEAH KIRTS: So it was actually during this time when I was already, kind of like, changing politically after this, whatever, midlife crisis. So a friend of mine gave me, or recommended this book to me called Dominion, by Matthew Scully, which was, I think, written in 2002 and it was kind of one of the first big, not undercover investigations, but he was allowed to go to a slaughterhouse and he was allowed to go to these factory farms. And so it, kind of, went through every animal industry, including safari hunting, which I had no idea, and I had no idea any of this existed. I just thought, like, very naively, that all the meat came from farms like my grandfather’s.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
LEAH KIRTS: And even that wasn’t ideal.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Did you ever see a slaughter, then?
LEAH KIRTS: I, I don’t think that I did, apart from chickens. Actually, I take that back. I participated in killing chickens when I was in my early teens, because that was something that was, like, you know, they’re small enough animals that it could, you know, be done. That was like, you know, this get-together and we like chopped the heads off of chickens, and I definitely remember either actually doing it or, like, cleaning the chicken. And actually, like, a funny story we always told was this chicken ran into my mom’s friend’s van with like its head cut off and it got blood everywhere. We were like, “Oh, it’s so funny,” because we hated her. But looking back I’m like, “Wow, that was, like, really dark and gruesome, and we totally didn’t even consider this chicken is, like, bleeding because it’s dead.” Instead, we thought it was funny that her Dodge caravan was totally destroyed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So when did you start to reconsider your politics? Was it really just the book that made animal rights come into it, or, or was that a consideration otherwise?
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, so I was in my early twenties when I read that and I immediately was so angry, I was so horrified that no one had told me about this, that I was, you know, had been blind to it for the first, like, 23 or 24 years of my life. And I immediately stopped eating, like, most animals. And I think actually previously I had stopped eating pork and shellfish for, like, health reasons, but yeah, I was really pissed and, you know, just totally stopped. I think I continued to eat fish occasionally until a cousin of mine was like, “Yes we let them suffocate in a bucket.” I was like, “OK, cool, I won’t that anymore.” And then veganism kind of followed within the next year. I started, kind of like, learning about the dairy industry and, you know, other animal products and slowly decided to stop eating those, but that definitely was parallel with becoming more feminist, becoming, I actually used to be kind of homophobic. I mean, I grew up a Republican, like, evangelical, so it was this huge shift in all forms of political understanding world view, but the veganism, kind of, shifted right along with that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. I think this is a question omnivores like to ask, is, what was the hardest thing to give up?
LEAH KIRTS: Ah, that’s a good question. I mean, it was probably, like, you know, ice cream and cheese. I mean, it was definitely, most people say cheese. I remember having this very visceral moment after I had definitely gone vegan and stopped eating cheese and I was tempted by this like piece of pizza and I was tired. It was, like, shitty Papa John’s cheese pizza. And I ate it and I remember just thinking, “This is so disgusting. This tastes like cholesterol, this, like, tastes awful.” That, like, cured me. I think it’s also the memory of the way food smells, the positive memories we have associated with it. That was the hardest thing, and also the invisible ingredients, like baked goods were probably actually the hardest. My mom’s homemade baked goods, because I couldn’t see any of those products and they were from, like, the most ideal sources, like her own chickens and eggs and, you know, the butter she churned, but like still problematic.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you do think it is as problematic to have eggs from your own chickens from your yard?
LEAH KIRTS: I mean, no, it’s definitely like variations of, but I think it’s variations of the same kind of bad thing, because, like, of hatcheries, you can’t really escape that. So it’s still part of this really cruel system.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, of course. Yeah. Now a lot of your family members are vegan? How did that happen?
LEAH KIRTS: Some of them are, yes. So that was very gradual. My sister became vegan a few years back and, you know, I’m sure that I influenced her in some ways, but honestly it was because of her pets. She got dogs and she kind of had this moment of like, “Oh my gosh, I’m eating animals, but like I don’t eat my dogs, and they’re so smart and I know that other animals are even smarter. So why would I do that?” Which is a weird problem with the way we view intelligence and give people value because of that, but still, it pushed her. And then yeah, like, one of my younger brothers recently went vegetarian and then vegan. And then my mom actually has been, I think, eating mostly vegetarian and sometimes vegan after she and my step-dad went on this binge watching all of the health documentaries on Netflix, which actually pissed me off because I was like, “OK, so I talk about this stuff for years and then you watch one documentary that totally, like, has issues and has lots of, you know, inaccuracies, and then that does it. OK.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: What do you think of those sensationalistic documentaries?
LEAH KIRTS: I mean, I, I think that, you know, they do a little bit of good but also a lot of harm. I think they’re trying to sell a product and so they have to make it, they have to exaggerate certain things to try to win over a more shallow audience, maybe. You know, it’s like clickbait, but like to watch instead of read, I guess. So yeah, it’s disappointing because tends to focus on health or, like, conspiracies, and it’s not actually that radical or political.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LEAH KIRTS: But it has the guise of being super-progressive.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. I mean, I feel like that’s a huge problem, is that a lot of vegan things and vegan people really zero in on the health and the animals and then forget that these have implications beyond that, or that they should be concerned with like human life too, and, so I feel like there are certain kinds of vegans who, I mean it’s getting better and it is a lot better, but, like, dehumanize the people who work in the slaughterhouses and then don’t have any concern for the economic factors that force the person to take a job in a slaughterhouse. And it’s like, “These are all interconnected,” and you just want to shake a person.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, and they’re usually very white as well. The people that get featured, the issues that get discussed, yeah, it’s anticipating that the audience is white or it’s just completely, like, forgetting about, you know, half our country’s population.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, right. So what made you want to go to NYU to study food studies?
LEAH KIRTS: So when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Indiana University, I, that’s when I, kind of, really got interested in like feminism and veganism. It all kind of started with a few years back, an uncle of mine had made some comment like, “Well, I’m not gay, I don’t eat tofu.” And I was just like, “Argh!” And it really, it caught me so off guard and I just was so, kind of, disturbed by it. It was also, of course, in retrospect, hilarious. It’s just so absurd, you know. That really honestly, like, his comment, I should just have it, you know, like a plaque, because like that quote pushed me to just start thinking differently about, about like animal exploitation and how it connects with, you know, human exploitation, how it connects with other forms of oppression. So basically I had started researching for my undergraduate thesis, kind of like, Carol J. Adams, like I started reading The Sexual Politics of Meat. I was also getting really into queer theory.
So for me, I’ve found this, like, kind of this blind spot where no one was really talking about the homophobia and kind of like the queering of veganism. I was really interested in basically researching that more and I was already, kind of, at the end of my undergraduate degree and so I wanted to find a place where I could learn more about that, study more about it. And so yeah, that’s kind of what drew me to come to NYU, and mainly because that’s one of the few foods studies programs in the country. So it was, kind of, toying between, “Do I do literature and focus on, you know, veganism and food and sexuality, or do I just study food and then tie in the other things with that?”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And was it weird to be a vegan in that program?
LEAH KIRTS: Oh, totally. I think it was, I think there was one other vegan, we actually bonded. I mean, she’s an incredible person, but we bonded because we were the only vegans in the program initially, and that was really disappointing for me, to kind of, you know, I’m from the Midwest, so it was very, kind of, removed from the whole foodie culture and like, you know, obsession with chefs and restaurants and pork belly and all that stuff. So when I moved here, it was definitely like a different world and the program is kind of, I mean, it has really some great people and high points to it, but it, it’s very removed from actually any, like, ethical or kind of radical political approach to food. And just no conversation about animal agriculture. It was like this unspoken, “Of course, we all know factory farming is awful,” but then it’s like, “But we also eat all the animals from factory farms and so much cheese and wine.” Now it’s like, “Wine. Yeah, I’m done with that.” So yeah, it was really disappointing that there was this disconnect and, kind of, patronizing responses to when I would vocalize that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What kind of response, what did people say?
LEAH KIRTS: It would just be, you know, not like belittling, but just kind of like, “Oh yeah, OK.” Or like one of my professors, you know, had a section in his course on ethics, the ethics of eating animals, and we read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and it was just like, “OK, if you actually want to talk about the ethics of eating animals, this is like, you know, Dick and Jane, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah yeah.
LEAH KIRTS: “We could go so much deeper and you put it at, like, the last week of your course.” So it’s just, like, little things that showed, “I’m trying to look like I care about this. I don’t actually care about this.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: That is really disappointing to hear, actually.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: We’ve never talked about this before, and like, but that is actually kind of shocking that, in that kind of a setting, people would still be so dismissive.
LEAH KIRTS: I mean, Marion Nestle has been, I would say, the best about, you know, talking about the importance of eating fewer animals, but again, it’s always in that context. “Eat fewer animals.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s always that Michael Pollan thing.
LEAH KIRTS: Exactly. Nobody wants to say, “This is horrible and you should stop doing it.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right. So I wanted to ask you more about the specific intersection of veganism and queerness, which you’ve written about at length and, kind of, continue to explore a bit in your writing.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah. So, basically, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my thesis at NYU, I knew I wanted to do something around, like, queerness and veganism. And I’d decided, I’d already gotten a little bit into food writing and so I decided that probably the most effective and maybe meaningful way to talk about it would be to share people’s stories, which is something I really like to do, is like, profiling people and, kind of, getting into their backgrounds. I wanted to also understand ways that I haven’t experienced, were there these connections between, I hesitate to use the word “intersectionality” a lot, except when I did, you know, interview some women of color, but like, there were these connections between, you know, being a minority, being an immigrant, being many different, you know, letters of the LGBTQ community and being vegan or vegetarian, that were, like, not my experience. So I really wanted to learn, basically through people’s experiences. I mean, I did do a lot of research as well. And basically what I found, I think I interviewed about 12 people in the original group and, kind of, what I found, was there’s this underlying empathy for a lot of the people where they experienced certain forms of abuse, whether it was homophobia or xenophobia or racial violence, and that really gave them much more, like, a greater sensitivity to, like, seeing animal cruelty and that really resonated with them. Like, as far as being bullied maybe as a kid for being gay before they even knew they were gay, and then seeing videos of, like, you know, piglets being you know, hit, or cows being punched and also the words being used, because it’s not just physical, it’s usually very verbal.
So it’s interesting, some of the, like, words used towards animals in farms and these settings are very sexist and so it was, like, that really struck a chord, if that was already, kind of, maybe your own experience. And then there’s also this interesting, kind of, queering on the outside and then this empathy on the inside. So, like, in my experience, which was very mild, it was an offhand comment, but there’s this really deep history of queering vegans and vegetarians because of this like hetero-patriarchal construct around power and eating animals, and that power and that masculinity being a very straight masculinity. And so therefore, if you stop eating animals or you present as anything other than, like, the very standard like machismo version of what masculinity could be, that’s an immediate flag for like, “Maybe you’re gay.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LEAH KIRTS: And so there’s, and it’s interesting, because some of the people I spoke to, they were like, “You could be outed for being gay because you went vegetarian, but maybe you are actually gay but you’re not out and people call you gay for not eating meat.” So it’s this, kind of, like, tenuous relationship because there are a lot of vegans who are LGTBQ.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LEAH KIRTS: Because of this greater sensitivity to suffering.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
LEAH KIRTS: I mean, not to say that all of them are, certainly, there’s also an overcompensation that goes the other way, like the lesbians who barbecue and like, “Look how tough I am, look how,” like not wanting to conform to that stereotype, because it is a stereotype. Like the cheerleader movie where, you know, her parents find out she’s gay because she’s eating tofu. Again, I don’t know why, tofu gets this, that’s a whole other conversation.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I mean, there’s probably some Orientalism in that too.
LEAH KIRTS: Of course there is, yeah, the feminization of Asian culture, yeah. So that’s, kind of like, one element of it. Definitely one thing I found interesting that came up was that the way people’s families responded to them. A lot of people I spoke with came out in, like, the 80s and 90s and then became vegan or vegetarian maybe 10 years or so after. And the way their families responded. Some of them, you know, were totally fine with them being gay but then freaked out when they went vegan, and some of those fears were closely aligned with homophobic fears that push parents to send their kids to conversion therapy. Like, “This is unnatural, this is unhealthy, this is self-harm,” you’re, you know, or, “This is just a phase and we don’t take this seriously,” or, “You’re delusional.” Like, all these things that were eerily similar to, yeah, conversion therapy of the, you know, crazy evangelical, right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yikes. Yeah. It’s really weird. I read that in your thesis, that, that idea that going vegan is far more of an offence. And, and it’s just very strange because I understand, and I’ve written about this, but how deeply connected what you eat is to the people around you and how you interact with your loved ones and stuff. So it’s almost understandable, but it is still hilarious.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, and I think one, like, the added layer of defensiveness is when someone comes out as being LGBTQ, they’re not asking you to be LGBTQ, although that is a common like misunderstanding of homophobic individuals. This idea, you know, essentially around the topic of gay marriage, that it’s a big problem. Like, “No, this is our thing. You can’t have it,” but when you say you’re vegan or vegetarian, I think for a lot of people, especially if they haven’t thought about it and haven’t reckoned with it, which most of them have not, it, there is more of a call to action. There is more maybe guilt or defensiveness around that because it’s something that they could do, because obviously being vegan and being gay are two very different things. They have very interesting connections, but one is, you know, I mean, for some people, they feel like they were born this way. Others, kind of, it’s an understanding that happens later on, but it’s definitely a much more, like, I don’t know. It’s not something you can control or choose or decide in the way that you can control and choose and decide what you eat, for most people.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. So to, kind of, get into what you’re doing now, now that you have your food studies degree, you are a nutrition educator.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah. So I, in order to, you know, pay my bills and because I’m a slow writer, I decided I wanted to do something food-related, that would be, kind of, meaningful, and continuing to write on the side. So I started working for a non-profit in Harlem, teaching nutrition, and that’s actually been really great. I’ve definitely been trying to keep it very vegan and vegetarian focused, and a lot of those kinds of questions have come up. It’s always really interesting to talk to kids about that and to just try to introduce them to foods that maybe they haven’t had, or had once and hated. And so, and also to try to downplay some of these negative, kind of, ideas we have around nutrition and health, like, you know, body size and you know, policing people, what they eat. It’s funny, I was thinking about this the other night, there was this whole reducetarian movement of like, “No, just eat less,” or whatever. Actually, that’s what I say to people, even though that’s not my own personal ethic, like, that’s the most effective to, I think, to get people to maybe just be open to it. And so, you know, for some maybe just eating a salad is, like, a really, which, kind of, fuck salad too. I’ve controversial emotions about salad.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What are your emotions about salad?
LEAH KIRTS: Well, maybe not controversial. There’s this thing when you’re vegan…
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, you just eat salad.
LEAH KIRTS: The one thing you can always eat is, like, French fries and salad. I mean, give me a French fry any day, but sometimes I really do want a salad, but it’s like the stereotype that, you know, you don’t want to be pigeonholed into a salad. So I understand.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, that’s actually my favorite meal, is to have a salad and French fries. I just feel so balanced.
LEAH KIRTS: It is, it is kind of the perfect balance. It’s like you’ve reached nutritional equilibrium.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So can you talk a little more specifically about how you incorporate veganism into your programming for the kids?
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, so, we’ll, you know, we’ll, kind of, do different, like, tastings of fruits or vegetables or grains, and so that’s kind of an easy one, but then with some of the other classes I teach with the older kids, we will, you know, actually make a meal. So I really try to incorporate not only just foods that are vegan and vegetarian, but also, you know, teach them a little bit about, like, geography and food culture. Like, you know, some of them had never had tabbouleh before and didn’t know where Lebanon was, and so that’s really cool. Also, a lot of the kids are from elsewhere in the world. Like, we have a large Senegalese population of students, some Syrian kids, like, so it’s been trying to incorporate dishes that are meaningful for them too. And then just things, like we cooked tofu one day and they were like, “Oh my God, this tastes like chicken,” or whatever. I’m like, “It does not taste like chicken, but OK.” Then, like, burgers, you know, being able to give them a food that is otherwise like, a woah food or a junk food that is, you know, rich and hearty and not so bad for them is also really nice, to show them, like, food can be pleasurable and still be healthy for you or good for you. It can nourish, you know, you, and I think there’s this misconception that, like, you should suffer if you want to be healthy.
And, you know, it’s nice to try to incorporate those things and to get feedback too. Like, all the parents come and find me and say, “Oh my gosh, like, whatever, little George loved that thing. What was it? I want to make it.” So that’s really nice, to get feedback like that, and I’m learning as well, I mean, in the process, like you know, because they’re all bringing their own experiences to the table and so it’s cool to hear what they do or, you know, know of a similar food in their culture, and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s the same thing. It just has a different name.” So that’s fun.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do you feel, like, a special responsibility to try and make veganism less white? I mean like, just to like make these kids know like this is a thing, you can do it because the perception of veganism is so white and middle class.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah. No, absolutely. So, and, I remember one of the people that I interviewed, Pax, they were like, “Yes, the animal whites movement,” and I was like, “Oh, my God, yes.” So yeah, there is this, and also very tone deaf to what’s important for people. Yes, like, you know, we don’t want to be like the Soylenters of veganism and be like, “Just eat whatever you can, as long as it’s not animals.” Like, no, food needs to be meaningful and culturally relevant. So I do feel responsible for integrating veganism into their life rather than trying to make their life conform to veganism. Like, that is not the goal at all. And sometimes it can be, sometimes it’s too much of a burden or I feel too responsible. Like, “If not everyone goes vegan tomorrow, I totally failed.” It’s like, “No.”
But yeah, it’s important, I think I’m the only vegan in that, in my site, but there are definitely are some vegetarians and some people interested in veganism and, kind of like, in that in-between phase. And so it’s fun to hear like, you know, the director say, “Oh my God, I had this vegan burger or this veggie burger that was so good,” or, you know, “I had vegan empanadas and I’ll send you the recipe.” And so it’s a lot of recipe swapping, which is fun. That’s how I know, like, it was good. They want the recipe for it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s great. And have there been any, like, bad responses from kids at all? Like, if a kid is negative about veganism, what does that look like?
LEAH KIRTS: So, there definitely has been. Some of the kids if there’s, like, a new food and of course if I’m giving it to them, it’s vegan, they’ll be like, “Oh,” within 10 seconds, “Oh, that made my stomach hurt. I didn’t like that.” It’s like, “Well, that’s not how digestion works.” I took a group of kids to the Urban Vegan Kitchen in the West Village, and most of the kids really enjoyed it and I think it, kind of, made them think differently. Like, one of the kids was like, “Oh, we had this like pet chicken and I really loved it and then my dad killed it and I was really sad about that.” So I think it’s, like, maybe, kind of, shifting a little bit of consciousness, but some of the kids, you know, didn’t like everything and were critical of, well, actually there was this one kid, I was like, “You’ve got to be a chef when you grow up,” because his palate was so, kind of like, refined, and he just had all of these really great detailed responses, and I encourage that. I encourage them to be critical and to think about the flavor of the food and use words to describe it instead of just like, “That’s gross. I hate it. That’s disgusting. I don’t like it, “which they’ll usually say before they’ve ever even tried it. And that, so that usually is more the common case. Like, “I don’t like that. That’s gross.” “Well, have you tried it?” “No.” “Well, why don’t you just try a little bit?” “No.” “Well, what about just like a tiny little bite? “Well, OK. Actually that’s good. Can I have more of it?” Like, that’s the most common conversation that I have, but yes, when kids are not into something, I always try to reiterate like, “That’s OK, you tried it, that’s the most important thing,” and, and take that back with me and remember that that didn’t work. Try something else.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. So in the broader vegan movement, like what, if you had one wish that vegans broadly would change, what would that be?
LEAH KIRTS: Man, that’s a big one. I mean, there’s so much homophobia and racism in the vegan community, so I think that really making it a priority to, like you were saying earlier, factor in just humanity, factor in, and especially, yeah, for minority groups that are currently experiencing the most, like, discrimination in this country. I mean, I can only speak for, like, North America I guess, but yeah, I think that’s what I would wish, because when I do look for resources to try to educate in my classroom, whether it’s environmental as well as whether it’s veganism, the B-roll is white, they’re white hands, they’re white faces, they’re white voices. It’s encoded white food. There’s just no inclusion of, like, the whole rest of the people who live here, which is, you know, so diverse, and that’s something that I constantly keep running up against. So professionally, in that way, and in writing as well, of course, it would be refreshing to just see, like, the actual people being factored in. Like “#veganfortheanimals.” I understand why people say that, because of, like, the health vegans and the ego vegans and all of that, but it’s actually all very much connected and if we don’t consider, like, our own humanity and how that relates to this, yes, it’s not going to change anything, and just joining movements. Like if you’re, you know, kind of, aggressive against the disabilities movement or the queer movement or, you know, black liberation, those are all people who you have something in common with. So, like, why not try? Just try.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How do try and, how does that factor into what you write about?
LEAH KIRTS: I mean, like, I’m never gonna, I don’t know, I guess I shouldn’t say never, but it is not appealing to me to cover just, like, a straight white person. I mean, that’s, that’s been done. So I definitely try to find more interesting stories, and trying to steer clear of any kind of tokenizing of people just because they’re different, but truly just trying to highlight people doing really cool shit with, in food. Of course, the dream, if I could write about, like, a queer vegan who was doing some kind of radical, like, you know, anarchist political cool shit, that would be the dream. I’m always looking for those stories or those topics, kind of, at the crosshairs of some of those, or within the Venn diagram of my interests and things that I think need to change in food writing, and going after those.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. There are too few queer vegan anarchists out there. Or they must be out there, but just, we need them to come…
LEAH KIRTS: They’re definitely out there. Yeah, and I found that too when I was finding people to talk to and interview, there’re so many gay, white vegans who self-identified and were very loud and very confident and ready and willing and able to discuss their lives. And it was much harder to find, like, queer women of color vegans, because there’s more risk, right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LEAH KIRTS: Like, there’s more risk involved when you present yourself in a certain way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. I’m obviously obsessed with how different social justice movements interact with animal rights, because it works, it goes both ways, where, you know, animal rights people aren’t talking to Black Lives Matter people, but are Black Lives Matter people concerned with animal rights? And it’s just, I wish it were more of a conversation that people are having.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, just awareness, yeah, like, especially with the workers, that’s something that I try to highlight, especially at my job, if I’m talking about veganism and why it’s important as to talk about like, “Hey, it’s, like, communities of color who end up bearing the brunt of the pollution and the groundwater runoff and, you know, the labor exploitation and the air pollution, and like, you know,” yeah, just the absolute abuse from all sides. It tends to be that. So why not support the ways to change that? Definitely, you know, going to a queer event and then there’s, like, me everywhere. That’s always really disappointing because it’s like, “Oh, why don’t you get this? This seems too easy,” but it’s not.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally.
LEAH KIRTS: Yeah, having some grace goes a long way, but it is frustrating.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, it is frustrating, but, like, before, the food is so connected and I feel like when you have to give up a lot other, in other facets of life, maybe it’s harder to also disconnect yourself from the food that you’ve eaten, you know. Not that to be an activist means to give anything up, but you are setting yourself apart from the mainstream in so many ways. And then, when you set yourself apart from the mainstream in this other, like, very visceral and community-oriented way, you know, it’s a lot.
LEAH KIRTS: It’s hard, yeah. The social element is definitely the hardest for everyone. It’s like the fear of being excluded or not being able to, like, to participate in commonality and to be able to do that thing everyone’s doing. On one hand you would think it’d be easier if you’re already an activist, you’re already on the outside, but when it’s, like, that one more thing. Like, “At least I had this one thing and I didn’t have to think about that, and now everything is ruined.” My sister says that, she was like, “No, Leah, don’t ruin it for me.” Ruining everything. Yeah, it’s all people that you don’t connect with well who are representing veganism or vegetarianism and making it look like this really shallow bullshit Instagram-like celebrity thing. Then it makes it easier to, kind of, toss it aside.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh yeah, to definitely toss it aside. I mean, if it’s just, like, thin white women drinking smoothies and bowls and, like, ugh, the raw people. So last question. I should stop saying that. I need to not be meta about anything because then I’m making him have things to cut out. Is cooking, for you, a political act?
LEAH KIRTS: I would say yeah, most of the time. I mean, some of the time, like, I don’t think about it, right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
LEAH KIRTS: I’m just hungry and I just want to fry some fucking tofu. Which is what I do most nights. But in the grand scheme of things, yeah. I mean, it’s both what I’m choosing not to cook and what I’m choosing to cook. Sometimes I fail, like, I think it’s easy for vegans to forget about like how much plastic we use, you know, and shit with palm oil in it or made by, like, rapists, which is totally a thing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
LEAH KIRTS: But yeah, food is a political act and it’s made my life richer. I think there’s this fear of it being, like, all this anxiety that comes with the awareness of the problems in the world and the oppression going on, and even though that’s overwhelming at times, like, it’s made my life and my eating so much more, like, flavorful, and beautiful and diverse.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Awesome. Thank you so much, Leah.
LEAH KIRTS: Thank you, Alicia.
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