Leah Leneman became a vegetarian, for ethical reasons, about 20 years ago. For the last 14 or 15 years she has been a vegan. "I am not an animal lover particularly, and I don't have pets. I just have a strong feeling of what's right or wrong - and if my conscience tells me something's wrong then I can't do it. It's not a sentimental thing about animals...."
Between 1973 and 1975 Leah worked at Parkdale as assistant editor of The Vegetarian. She then went to university in Edinburgh, where she still lives, and got an MA, and a PhD in Economic History. She is now a freelance historical researcher.
Leah has written three books, all of them published by Thorsons: in 1980 SLIMMING THE VEGETARIAN WAY, in 1982 the very successful VEGAN COOKING, and in 1984 THE AMAZING AVOCADO. She also writes regularly, on food and general topics, for The Vegetarian, and has been an occasional contributor to Vegan Views.
At the end of last year, when I was living in Edinburgh myself, I talked to Leah about her books, and her involvement in vegetarianism and veganism. The interview has been brought up to date in a few places. Unlike me Leah wasn't apprehensive of Edinburgh winters: "I wouldn't live anywhere else now... the winter in Scotland has an elemental quality".
How did you come to write Vegan Cooking?
Well, I'd already done Slimming The Vegetarian Way for Thorsons. I was trying to think of other ideas for cookery books, and they just rejected most of them.... When I wrote the Slimming book I had the idea that I would write books that were basically vegan, but call them vegetarian, because that way people would start reading vegetarian books that didn't all have eggs and cheese in them.
And then I suddenly thought, well maybe a book that just calls itself The Vegan Cookery Book - so I suggested that amongst the other suggestions I made to Thorsons, and they pounced on that one, and said yes.
Did the ideas and the recipes in the book come from your own experience as a cook, or out of your own head? ... Or were they pinched from Eva Batt?
Oh, they were not pinched from Eva Batt!
No, I've been cooking for years, I've collected recipes from all sorts of places, and adapted them. A lot of it's adaptations of recipes which are not vegan obviously. I don't claim to be the most innovative or original thinker - I collected ideas and adaptations from all different sources and put them together into a book.
And how has the book done commercially?
It's in its third edition already. Something like 12,000 copies sold during the first year - which by international best-seller standards is nothing, but for a book of fairly minority interest I think it's incredible. It's interesting, I thought the Slimming book was the one that would be a really big seller, with the vegan one being rather small scale - whereas Slimming just sold a few thousand and that was it, whilst Vegan Cooking just seems to have taken off.
Do you get any feedback from the public? Any letters or any thing? People writing to say they appreciated it?
No, you don't get people doing that! I've had the odd letter - somebody who's had trouble making yoghurt, or things like that, but not a great deal. Thorsons sent me all the reviews though.
And it got good reviews?
Vegan Cooking only got noticed within the vegetarian world. It got very little outside. Oh, the Sunday Times mentioned it amongst its Christmas suggestions, as something unusual, but the Avocado book on the other hand has got much wider coverage. It was written up by the Guardian for example. But to what extent that wider coverage affects sales I don't know. I won't know sales for a while.
At first sight a book of recipes centred around the avocado seems a little bit strange. What gave you the idea for that? Do you have a fascination for avocados?
Oh no, no. They're just an incredibly adaptable fruit - or vegetable, call it what you like. I'd had the idea several years ago, and had suggested it to Thorsons at that time - as I say, I'm always thinking of ideas and suggesting them, and seeing which ones they pick up on. And at that stage they said, well we don't really think so. Then a year or two ago a book called The Little Green Avocado Book came out, which wasn't vegetarian, and I thought it was dreadful. I wrote to Thorsons again and said: "Well, somebody thinks an avocado book is a good idea, and this particular avocado book is not very good, so what do you think?". And they came back at that time, and said yes, go ahead.
By and large you've tended to work within the wider vegetarian and health food movements rather than the specific vegan movement. Have you sometimes found a conflict in having to work with people who perhaps were not interested in veganism, or who were content to stay in their 'vegetarian armchairs'?
I don't think that could be said about many ethical vegetarians these days. They may continue eating cheese and eggs but they are aware of it, and they feel guilty about it, and in their own way, I think, more and more of them are working towards veganism.
It seems to me that on the whole the general meat-eating public are not going to switch overnight, are not going to give up meat and become vegan - but they might become lacto-vegetarians. And that's what The Vegetarian Society exists for, to help them.
The vegetarians, the ones who already are lacto-vegetarian, they're the ones who are more likely to become vegan. And I think it's terribly important to work within those people, and keep them constantly aware. Years ago when I worked at Parkdale there were very few vegans. But now they would never dream of catering for anything without providing either all, or virtually all, vegan food. And most of the recipes they produce are either vegan, or make alternative suggestions for vegans.
I think most, at least most of the lacto-vegetarians that I know, are saying: "I know I'm at an intermediate stage...". And more and more young activists are becoming vegan virtually immediately, that's certainly true. Hunt sabs and so on tend to be totally vegan rather than lacto. They don't want to compromise, they don't want the comfortable thing. I see my job in fact, with cookery books and everything, as just making it easier and easier. It's so much easier now, foodwise, to be vegan than it was even when I became one - and the easier one can make it, the more people are going to say right, I really must do it.
Was it an accidental or a conscious decision on your part to get involved in the vegetarian rather than the vegan movement?
It was a combination of things. Not immediately, but after a few years, I got involved in the vegetarian movement in London and I got to know a lot of people in it. When the job of assistant editor was created at The Vegetarian, I was asked if I would do it - I hadn't actually thought of applying at that stage. So I obviously have the contacts within the vegetarian world, so I stayed with it....
How do you see the recent progress of the vegan movement, and the Vegan Society? Do you think the Society's been moving in the right direction over the years?
Well it's been in a state of flux. There's no way I can give a definite answer. I think it was desperately needing changes. To me the old-style magazine was extremely stuffy and self-righteous in many ways. I mean, I think the vegan movement's done some marvellous things over the years but there are a lot of things I've not been particularly happy about.
I didn't submit any articles to The Vegan for a long while, but things are changing now. I've kept in touch though with whoever's been doing the commodities. Remember, I edited The Vegetarian Handbook and the Shoppers Guide section - I've always tried to keep abreast of commodities, and anything I've found out I've told whoever's doing the commodities for The Vegan.
I know you feel strongly that veganism shouldn't be tied in with other philosophies, New Age or whatever. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, it's just that people become vegans for many many different reasons. There are probably more reasons now than in the days when I did, because now people are aware of ecology and health. In the States, for instance, a lot of people give up dairy produce for health reasons - cholesterol and all that sort of thing. Well, it's going to stop animals being killed, and for me that's the important thing.
But as soon as you import certain things to go with veganism, you're going to put off potential vegans. I mean, there are two approaches. There's the Jay Dinshah approach, in the American Vegan Society, which is that veganism is almost a religion. You even give up sex, according to Jay Dinshah.
I hadn't heard that.
Oh, he was on about celibacy. Whole new life, purity, etc, etc.
Or else you can say: vegans do not eat any animal products or by-products. Beyond that, your lifestyle's your own business. And I'm very much in favour of that.
Do you think Vegan Views imposes something beyond basic veganism? For example it gives off an alternative air which I know puts off some people...
It does give off an alternative air, but it does provide a forum at least. And you've printed letters, for example from those people who ate nothing but TVP sausages and chips and so on. I thought that was great, not that I fancy eating TVP sausages and chips because I don't, but it was great just to show that people could live in pubs and eat that sort of food and still be vegans.
WHOLEFOODS, AND THE HONEY QUESTION
What about wholefoods? In VV33 there's an interesting letter from Maxine Burgess in Wales, she and her sisters being fed up with "being treated like criminals by other vegans because we like using white flour, sugar, etc". When I did Vegan Views before, before Valerie and David took it over, we used to have a policy of only printing completely wholefood recipes - we never printed anything with sugar in it, and so on. That was relaxed by Valerie and David.
I started out when I was a vegetarian as a fanatical wholefooder! ...I still don't use white sugar myself, but if I buy biscuits that have white sugar in them it doesn't bother me. I don't like extremes. At home I cook with wholemeal flour and so forth, but I do like eating out, I like travelling, and I just don't want to have to worry. It's enough to have to worry about the vegan content of food. As long as you eat a generally healthy mixed wholefood diet, then I think the extras don't matter at all. The odd white rice or white flour or sugar or anything - its not important. It's your basic diet that matters. Getting too worried about wholefoods is counter-productive.
Well, how strict are you when it comes to actual veganism? Does the odd animal ingredient bother you when eating out for example?
Of course it bothers me. The idea of eating an animal product is disgusting, even if it's done inadvertently. But I accept that we live in a non-vegan world, and quite aside from the fact that, as I said, I enjoy eating out and travelling, I also think it's terribly important to go to restaurants and make chefs aware of vegans' needs.
What about toiletries, wool, leather, and so on?
I certainly can't imagine washing myself with animal fat, I mean yuck. And I do my best when it comes to toiletries. But I could not say that everything I use on my face or in the house has never been tested on an animal or even that it's 100% free of animal by-products. As for leather, there's no way I could walk around with the skins of dead animals on my feet, I just couldn't do it. Wool I consider a much more marginal issue.
I wanted to ask you about honey, which is a small but contentious point amongst some vegans. You left it out of the recipes in Vegan Cooking, but I know that you do use it yourself. Do you see it as any sort of issue?
Well, just after becoming vegan I went through a short period when I didn't eat honey. I hate to say it, but it's almost an emotional blackmail - you are vegan, therefore you don't use honey.
I sat down and thought about it, and talked to people who kept bees, and decided that my conscience allowed me to use honey. I can respect people who don't, I can see the logic behind it, but one is not perfect, and it doesn't bother me, and there are a lot of vegans who do in fact use honey - and a lot more who would, if they didn't feel this kind of pressure on them not to.
I think fewer feel it now because the Vegan Society no longer makes it a requirement.
Right. Even in the early days when they did, Mabel Cluer - who was one of the founding members - always had honey, and that helped me to think "Oh, for heaven's sake... I mean my conscience is my own business".
VEGETARIANISM AS A CAREER
How large a part of your life is food and veganism? Do you feel sometimes that you need a breath of fresh air, and to get away from it all?
Well, I felt that when I was working as assistant editor of The Vegetarian. I really would not like to make a career of vegetarianism again. It was great fun in many ways, but I found it absolutely stifling.
Parkdale was the only time you've done it full-time?
Full-time, yes. My way now suits me fine. One has to eat anyway, and my man cooks for me every other night as well, so I'm not the only or even the main cook of the house. So it's fun, I like trying recipes, I'm happy enough to write the articles, to write letters about veganism, because I do it in my time and when I'm in the mood and feel the inclination to do so. I have a career that's totally separate from anything to do with veganism, so I don't have the feeling of wanting to get away from it.
LIVING WITH A NON-VEGETARIAN
You've lived for several years with a non-vegetarian. How have you found that?
Oh, fine! We're vegetarian at home, and the meals I cook for Graham, and he cooks for me, are entirely vegan. When we eat out then he eats what he likes. We eat out at a lot of ethnic restaurants where I can get vegan food and he can have the occasional meat. It fits in very strongly with what I feel about individual conscience. I mean, I can't bear hypocrites who say "Oh don't remind me that animals are killed - I just don't want to think about it", and so forth.
He has sat down and thought about it. He won't eat lobsters or crabs because he thinks it's just so unbelievably inhumane the way they're killed. But he is perfectly prepared to kill animals if necessary.
Has he done so?
No, he's never had to. So, we don't know.... But at least he's thought it out, and feels it's an acceptable thing for him to do. The optimum diet for him is the sort of Colin Tudge idea - a basically vegan diet and just the occasional meat as garnish.
I think it's very helpful in a way to be with somebody who you care for and respect who does not share your views, because otherwise it's all too easy to think that your way is the way and to stop understanding how people can feel differently. This way you're constantly reminded that your way is your way and it is not the only way. You have to respect other people's consciences.
You say it's your way and it's not the only way, but you spoke earlier of right and wrong.
Yes. My conscience. Not absolutes. I do not believe in absolutes.
Right and wrong for you?
Yes. I have to think everything in my life out. I don't have a religion or a dogma or anything that tells me something's right or wrong. I've had to think it out, and expect other human beings to do the same. I can't impose my will on others. I hate it when people say "Have you converted him yet?". I do not want to convert. I'm delighted if somebody I know turns vegan - obviously we all are - but I do not think of it as a conversion exercise.
Do you have any plans for future books?
I've done one, The International Tofu Cookery Book, which Routledge & Kegan Paul are bringing out next spring or
summer. And at the moment I'm working on a pitta bread book for Thorsons. Both publishers are keen for me to write
further cookery books for them, and they're both coming up with exciting ideas, so it looks like I'll be writing vegan
cookery books for some years to come....
Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Cookery & Recipes
Cross-reference: Meat Eaters - Coping with them
Related Vegan Views articles...