Eleni Vlachos: Drummer, documentary filmmaker, playwright and leader of Durham’s vegan movement, she leads the Triangle Meatless Monday and Bull City Vegan Challenge campaigns.
Now more Durham restaurants offer vegan options year-round, and Vegan Flava Cafe recently opened in the old Blue Note Grill space, at 4125 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.
We spoke with Vlachos at her Durham home about veganism and how it has inspired her latest artistic venture, a play satirizing the comments sections of news, culture and food websites.
How did you get the idea for the play?
Vlachos: I was looking at an article about vegan mayonnaise, and how many nasty comments were on there about Vegenaise. People were up in arms, saying ‘Hellman’s is the only mayonnaise. ‘ Someone mentioned that Gwenyth Paltrow likes Vegenaise, and people said, ‘If she likes it than I hate it.’
Comments sections are so hurtful and ridiculously mean; most of us aren’t that mean in person. So I thought, let’s take those comments and make them a play, so they become characters. It’s not just for vegan issues but also to humanize our interactions by poking fun at the ridiculousness of what we say to each other when we’re behind the mask.
When you invited restaurants to participate in the Bull City Vegan Challenge, several of them embraced the idea. Why were they receptive? Why did others decline?
Vlachos: There’s definitely been rejections based on what they deem Southern cooking to be. People in this area don’t have a lot of experience cooking plant-based or it’s not on their radar. But others have been up for an adventure, and into trying something new that will appeal to a wider variety of people.
People who weren’t even vegetarian or vegan were seeking these options. This is a movement, and people are more interested in plant-based eating. Restaurants realize it’s a business opportunity to have good, filling viable options outside of the veggie burger and a portobello sandwich. Dos Perros has gone above and beyond with their vegan Tuesday dinners.
How do you introduce people to the concept of vegan cooking, and convince them that it tastes good?
Vlachos: I ask people what they like. If people like chicken and rice, I suggest Beyond Meat. If they like scrambled eggs, then tofu scramble is a classic. There are now online veggie product reviews, and on VeganMoFo [Vegan Month of Food], people post curated recipes with pictures.
Before you became vegan, you had been a vegetarian for many years. Then you saw a factory farming feedlot. Describe that moment.
Vlachos: We were driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and we noticed the smell first. Then we came across thousands and thousands of cows languishing in the mud. That’s not even the worst of it, come to find out. We pulled over and as we did that, they came to us, interacting with us, which made it even more meaningful. After that, it was hard not to look into it further. I found out about dairy, and how it’s connected to veal industry, how dairy and eggs are some of the most cruelly produced products.
That’s how it is for a lot of people, it’s a process. We want to encourage more plant-based choices. It’s not about labeling people but making the connection between the animal and the products they’re used to make.
As more people are eating a plant-based diet, at least part of the time, there has been a gradual shift in public perception about veganism. What has been your experience?
There is still some idea—and from the comments about Vegenaise—that veganism is extreme. To me, it’s a marketing problem. One, it’s important not to tell people it’s all or nothing. Instead, encourage people by way of restaurants and working with schools for a meatless option. We’re not taking away the meat altogether but offering an option.
Now there are so many meat substitutes out now, there’s no excuse in terms of taste. But understandably, people don’t know where to start. Fundamentally, it’s a connection that has to be made and showing people how easy it is to make these choices.
You can reach Lisa Sorg at firstname.lastname@example.org