Warning! Strong Opinions and Wistful Thoughts: An Interview with Lagusta Yearwood


I wish I had the nerve to be Lagusta Yearwood. Most days though, I perpetrate numerous small betrayals against my ideal self (calling myself “flexitarian” when I’m really too lazy to go full vegetarian; recycling only when it’s convenient; etc.). Perhaps I haven’t fully grown into the Radical Me. Or perhaps it’s the opposite: the Radical Me is like my skinny jeans, an identity that I’ve outgrown, as I’ve been fattened and jaded by age… (your thoughts? Have you radicalized or softened with time?).

So, “what’s a Lagusta?” you might ask. She is equal parts vegan chef, political activist and spunky feminist. Oh, and Jewish to boot. I conducted an email interview with her. My questions are in bold, her responses follow. Join us, below the jump.

So, this is a bit oversimplifying, but through your blog it is clear that you are: a Jew, a feminist, a vegan, an environmentalist. Is there a synchronicity between these “isms”? How do you see them as interconnected? (hmm, that’s a phd thesis of a question, so feel free to distill your answer down a bit!)

Yes, absolutely. I did write my senior thesis on this!! And I was just days away from going to grad school at NYU to study “eco-feminist literary criticism,” so it almost became my PhD thesis, in fact (in the end, I decided to go to cooking school instead). So I will try, with much difficulty, to be brief.

Carol Adams explains the connections between feminism and veganism so much better than I ever could in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, so I would first refer people to that (as well as her excellent follow-up, The Pornography of Meat) before they listen to my drivel.

Basically (leaving out the Jewish aspect for now), there is a wide-ranging culture of domination and hierarchy that most thinking vaguely liberal people are vaguely opposed to. The left has defined itself for decades as “against” various “isms” —racism, classism, etc. My belief (one I started forming as a result of Women’s Studies classes in college and refined through studying ecofeminist theory and working at a feminist vegetarian restaurant) is that the only way to work for a truly just world is to understand that all “isms” stem from one source: lust for power, control, and domination.

Our need to keep and unnecessarily kill animals when it is clear we do not need to eat them to survive is connected to the need to continually belittle and oppress women, and both of these are manifestations of a belief that (white, male) humans have a “natural” place at the top of a hierarchy, with animal and environmental concerns far below. Thus, I think it’s important to understand that being a feminist and standing up for women’s rights also means being a vegetarian and standing up for animals who are being slaughtered by the same set of beliefs that explain why we call women “chicks” and “hens” and “pieces of meat”, etc. etc.—an idea of patriarchal control that thinking people should be fighting against.

I have honestly no idea how Judaism fits into that, but I bet someone smarter than me could make a great argument! [interviewer’s note: please post your thoughts in comments!]

Aside from the obvious lack of animal products in your cooking, how do your politics influence your food?

When I started cooking for a living, I decided to make it into a little game: “How Clean Can I Be”? I was working as a private chef in Manhattan to pay bills while I become some sort of a (amorphous, completely undefined) revolutionary, so I figured it was temporary. I figured I would be as pure as possible and probably not make much money, but I felt guilty just for selling something in the first place (capitalism depresses me), so it seemed like an OK compromise. These days it’s become a way of life to run my business (now a meal delivery service and chocolate company I run from Rosendale, New York) just as I (and most environmentalists) run my life: unbleached paper towels and toilet paper, using almost no virgin paper and 100% recycled paper when I can’t use scrap paper, eco-friendly cleaning products, a delivery person with a biodiesel car, things like that.

I’ve always tried to use local produce, and in 2004 I moved to upstate New York in large part to be closer to good farms, and now I am really happy to have great relationships with amazing farmers that I work closely with. I give them kitchen scraps for their compost, and we work together on what crops they could grow that I would buy. It’s very political, but also its just common sense.

Also, because I am a committed anarchist (in a friendly, let’s-think-of-solutions-to-problems-ourselves-without-the-help-of-corporations-and-governments sort of way, not in a handkerchief-over-my-face-bomb-throwing sort of way), a lot of my business is barters, which is wonderful. There is a completely different feeling you get when you trade your work for someone else’s skills instead of getting cash.

Half of my business is cooking for a small meal delivery service, and half is making chocolate truffles and things, so I am very interested in the politics of chocolate. Child slavery in the chocolate-growing regions of the world (primarily in Africa) is, horribly, a very real practice, and so it’s always an interesting challenge to find “clean” chocolate that tastes wonderful. Happily, more and more small, ethical, chocolate-makers are producing their own chocolate (some of it in Hawaii, the only state in the US where conditions are right to grow cacao), so I am hopeful for the future. As with everything, I think people should be eating a lot less chocolate, and paying a lot more (that is, a real price) for it.

In one of your posts you mention how annoying you find it when people refer to themselves as “jew-ish.” So how does your judaism influence your cooking?

Ha ha, I am Jew-ish!!

Well, Judaism influences my cooking in the sense that I am very interested in cooking the food of poor people around the world (and let’s admit it: for most of our history, Jews have been poor). It is my belief (one instilled in me by my [Jewish, coincidentally] mentor) that poor people’s food is, historically (not currently, for the most part, because things have recently switched and healthy food is actually more expensive in some ways) healthier, more interesting, more vegetarian, and tastier than what the middle- and upper-classes were eating. And of course I am interested in exploring the culinary traditions of the countries of my ancestors, so a lot of my dishes are take offs on traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes like stuffed cabbage and deep, complex beet soups and things.

Also, I try to listen to my clients and cook food that they like, and for some reason a super high amount of my clients are Upper West Side Jews, and they always compliment my tzimmes and Russian beet salads!

Here’s the part where all your readers start hating me: I would definitely place myself on a Jewish continuum, but I don’t feel comfortable calling myself Jewish because of what Israelis are doing to Palentinians—if I were to claim that name, some of that violence and horrifying racism would be done in my name. Israel has poisoned Judaism for me. Some Jews might work for peace in the Middle East in the name of Judaism, and I commend them for that, I think it is brave and wonderful, but it’s not the path I have taken.

That said, as an atheist, I am proud to be a part of a religion that has (historically, at least) welcomed atheists—Trotsky, Einstein, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, my grandfather, etc. I love the fact that so many prominent Jews are proud atheists, and I really believe there is no contradiction between being an atheist and a Jew. A Jewish (even Jewish atheist) spiritual practice is not my path—I’m just not a spiritual person—but I love that it works for some people and that the Jewish “tent” is big enough for all of us.

And how about feminism? Is there such a thing as “feminist food”?

Yay, I think I covered that above!

In addition: yes, there definitely is. If you think of yourself as a feminist because you are opposed to hierarchal power structures, the food world is FULL of them. The entire French chef tradition is explicitly anti-feminist, and the way I cook is completely opposite to all that. There is no screaming in my kitchen, no humiliations. I learn from the people I cook with, and value them as people, not just as hired hands. I worked for several years at a restaurant (Bloodroot, in Bridgeport, CT) that was staffed entirely by women, and at first I thought it was a little silly: how could it really be that different? In time I came to see that all the little differences were what made the place amazing: what do you do when you can’t call in the guy to life the heavy stuff? Being a bit of a weakling, these basic things were pretty mind-blowing to me, just to see women—only women—working together to solve problems on their own, without any of the power politics and sneaky cultural biases that even the most feminist women and men have.

The funny thing is that over time, Bloodroot has found a really amazing group of men (not all of whom are even gay!) that they really adore. The restaurant has been around for over thirty years, and they say that in that time they have seen men change and that today’s men have a certain sort of softness to them (they love my partner, Jacob, for example!). I say that they only see “good guys” and that there are still horrible dudes around everywhere. ;)

How do you keep up the momentum of your convictions, the energy for activism? It seems so easy to just lapse into half assed “progressivism” usually recycling, usually buying organic or local… I sometimes conveniently “forget” why I believe the things that I do. Any required reading and/or eating to inspire and motivate?

Well, this sounds super cheesey, but I try to have compassion for myself when I lapse. If I am not doing a “good job” today, it’s not the end of the world (it sort of could be, though! Doomsday thoughts like this are always a good motivator for me…). For example, I have a pretty hardline rule that any clothes I buy can’t be made in China (of course, there are sweatshops even in the US, but I picked China to boycott and am sticking with it.). I don’t always stick to it, and when I fail I try not to beat myself up too badly. If you make it too hard on yourself to live with convictions in the world you will just give up completely one day, you know?

That said, I try to structure my life so that it’s easy to live through my beliefs. I haven’t been to a mall, for example, in years and years, which makes it a lot easier not to buy mall crap. It’s actually easier for me to compost and recycle than toss stuff in the garbage (because my garbage can is tiny and my recycling bins and compost buckets are huge), and I only go to stores that sell organic and local produce.

Hmm, required reading….I love the novels of Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, both of which have food politics at their center, but are also amazing, beautiful, well-written novels. I mentioned Carol Adams above, and even though I helped work on them, Bloodroot restaurant has a cookbook set (The Best of Bloodroot) that is fascinating because of the wonderful essays at the beginning that describe their politics (OK, I wrote one of them, but mine is boring compared to the others!) and their inspiring way of life.

This is a little random, but The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst, is a really beautiful book I’ve been enjoying lately. In terms of vegan info, The China Study by T. Colin Campbell has great info (it’s actually a good read, a lot less boring than the title makes it sound).

And required eating, yes!! Well, in the Northeast, where I live, ramps will be in season soon, so I’d encourage everyone to find a forager friend and go to the woods to hunt up some ramps! They are wild onions, and their flavor is wildly oniony and garlicky—it’s wonderful!

Something a bit lighter:

If you had to take three cooking implements and three ingredients to a desert island, what would they be?

Oh boy! Hmm….

I would definitely take a chef’s knife, and really, that’s the only cooking implement I would need! I could sharpen it on rocks and use anything as a bowl. A cutting board might be nice though.

Three ingredients: olive oil, onions, garlic! I’m sure I could forage some grains and other veggies to go with them, even on a desert island…

Your idea of a romantic meal?

Something messy and/or rich, like artichokes with a nice roasted red pepper vinaigrette dipping sauce, or lasagna with wild mushrooms, homemade pasta, mushroom velouté sauce, and greens. Yum.

Actually, the most romantic meal for me would be the one I’ve been asking for for years: anything my sweetheart would make!

My partner Jacob and I fell in love twelve years ago when neither of us knew how to cook. When we first got together we would make (terrible) meals together, but for the past ten years we’ve been eating my (not usually terrible) meals. But he’s learned so much about food just from being around me, I know he could make an amazing meal. Someday….

What’s next for you? Big plans? Cool projects?

Well, in just a few weeks I’m launching a new line of chocolates, Bluestocking Bonbons, that celebrate amazing women. For the past six years I’ve been selling chocolate truffles, and these are non-truffle filled chocolates that are completely different. I have 12,000 beautiful (post-consumer recycled paper soy ink) candy boxes on the way as we speak, I am super excited! The website (bluestockingbonbons.com) will be up and running in a few weeks! It’s all exciting. (lagustasluscious.com)

Many thanks to Lagusta for generously sharing her thoughts and time.

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9 Responses to “Warning! Strong Opinions and Wistful Thoughts: An Interview with Lagusta Yearwood”

  1. Susan Says:

    This woman is inspiring. Back when I was in college I was introduced to something called the feminist cookbook and was truly amazed by all the connections between food choices, politics and power. As a now committed vegetarian, its easy to see some of those connections in action as vegetarian eating practices change one’s habits of consuming in entirely productive ways. During the past years, however, I felt that some of these values had fallen out of fashion and it’s really great to learn that some people are not only still living them but also consciously broadening and empowering those values.

  2. Liz Lawler Says:

    Thanks Susan! Yes, she’s very cool and galvanizing. I might not agree with all of her views (Israel, for instance), but she is so passionate and really has the courage of her convictions. And I’m told that her food is really great.

  3. Sharon Says:

    Well said!!! I am tracking with all her view points on being vegan, feminist, environmentalist, and “Jew-ish”.

    Ordering the furious vulvas from bluestockingbonbons.com right now ^_^

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  5. Liz Lawler Says:

    Thanks for chiming in! It is a lot to think about, and I appreciate your reading.

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