Growing up, my love Susan had little interest in cooking or baking. Neither of us was a foodie by any stretch. But when our love of animals finally nudged us to follow our hearts and become vegetarians and then vegans, it changed our lives in more ways than we could have imagined. Going vegan led us to become more aware of our food and how it’s prepared. And much to our surprise, we learned how to cook, and discovered that cooking was fun! And interesting! And vegan food tasted really, really good! We’d never appreciated or enjoyed food more.
We wondered why we hadn’t known about this sooner. And we realized it’s because vegans and true foodies knew this, but non-vegans needed to hear it, too! We had even met grown adults who wouldn’t even put food in their mouths if they were told it was vegetarian or vegan.
So we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow do our small part for the animals, by helping to show that vegan food could taste just as good as non-vegan? What better way than a head-to-head competition? Susan’s first thought was for us to hire an experienced cook to create a good vegan recipe to enter and win a contest. Then I told her, hey, why don’t you just do it?
So she did a bunch of research, read a lot of books, made a lot of really bad pies, and finally a consistently good one, and entered it into a local Apple Pie contest. Not some vegan or health-food category, mind you. Just Apple Pie. And guess what? She got 2nd place! The presenter even made a point of saying it was vegan. I think the crowd gasped. I know I did. I mean, I know my love is capable of anything she puts her mind to, but it really wasn’t that long ago that her cooking reputation was primarily based on setting a bagel on fire in the break room at her office.
Encouraged by that 2nd place finish, she decided to enter some items in the 2009 Orange County Fair. Again, there weren’t any separate vegan categories or anything – just head-to-head with the non-vegan stuff. She was hoping for maybe just one ribbon. She got FIVE. Including a 1st place for her Vegan Apple Pie (a tweaked version of the one that started it all), and a 1st place and Division Win for her Vegan Sundried Tomato Cornbread Muffins. At the award ceremony, when they announced her Division ribbon, the crowd gasped again when the announcer said it was vegan. Maybe it was just because the photo of it looked so good on the video monitor. And then to her surprise and delight, people (including some who had previously refused to try vegan food) started to get curious, and asked to taste the things she made.
For the 2010 OC Fair, she was energized, but also a little nervous. What if 2009 was a fluke? She started thinking about it months in advance, preparing recipes, making test batches. Me, dutifully eating the early rejects and giving my unbiased feedback. Finally, everything was ready.
In the first week of competitions, her Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies got a 3rd place. And her Vegan Vanilla Bean Almond Brittle got a 2nd. Soon after that, an Honorable Mention for her Vegan Apple Tart with Almond Frangipane Filling and a 1st place for her Vegan Chevre Tartlette. Next, another 1st place (plus a special Judges Award), this time for her Vegan Hawaiian-Asian Party Mix, and a 2nd for her Ginger-Soy Lime Tofu Cutlets over Cashew Rice Salad. Plus her Vegan Macadamia Nut Shortbread Cookies got an Honorable Mention.
But the biggest thrill by far, was when we went to the Fair and saw the big blue ribbon sitting next to her Vegan Coconut Lime Cake in the display case. BEST OF SHOW! Of ALL baked goods! She was in such disbelief that she stood outside the hall and sent me back in (twice) to make sure that the ribbon was really for her cake, and not the one next to it. She actually didn’t even tell anyone until the Fair was over, and she had the ribbon in her hand. She just couldn’t believe it. A vegan cake won Best of Show!
I can’t tell you how proud I am of her. But she doesn’t do it because she’s competitive. Anyone who knows Susan knows how uncomfortable she is with a lot of attention. She’d never enter any competitions if it weren’t for her love of animals. And when she learned that embracing vegan food not only helps animals, but reduces worldwide human suffering and starvation as well, that further strengthened her resolve to help spread the word that vegan food can be decadent and delicious. She hopes that when people hear that vegan food is winning awards against non-vegan competition, it may help inspire them to move a bit closer toward more compassionate choices about the food they eat.