A Talk With Ellen Kanner
Author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost:
Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner
Courtesy of New World Publishing
What’s your book about?
It’s about great food—but it’s also about all the things we’re hungry for, including meaning, healing, connection, and unconditional love.
To discuss food without discussing our relationship to it—how it’s grown, our ties to a recipe, the culture or time it comes from, or even the pleasure of food itself—is to miss the bigger picture. Saffron, tarragon, cardamom, and cumin make food taste better. Culture, connection, and faith do the same thing for our lives. They make it delicious. They feed us.
The title’s cool—what does it mean?
Feeding the Hungry Ghost comes from Tao concept of humans so desperate and clutchy, they’re hungry even beyond the grave. So they hang around and haunt us. They’re appeased by food offerings and prayer. You know what? So are we. We’re hungry, not just for great food, but for spiritual connection, for love, for meaning, for the bigger picture. Feeding the Hungry Ghost aims to give everyone what we’re hungry for, a way to reconnect, by way of terrific recipes but also by feeding our need for a deeper, more profound nourishment.
So is it a cookbook, a memoir, self-help, or what?
It’s a what. It is all of the above. Because food is not just about dinner, it is about who we share it with, where it comes from, the cultural and spiritual underpinnings, these are what give food depth and flavour as much as fresh ingredients and lavish spices. To miss that is to miss the larger picture, to miss pleasure and connection, two of the biggest things for which we hunger.
These recipes are all vegan. What if you’re not vegan?
You don’t have to be vegan. I’m the vegan who wants to invite everyone to the table—and what better way than with great food? That’s what these recipes are, first and foremost. We can get scared off by words, and vegan is a strange one. A lot of people still pronounce it Vay-gun, as in from the planet Vega. It just means food that’s plant-based and there are great examples of it in every culture, food you probably already enjoy without knowing—or caring that it’s meatless—savoury Moroccan tagines, spicy Indian curries, comforting Italian soups, fabulous Asian stews and stir fries. Feeding the Hungry Ghost offers you a whole year’s worth of great food from around the world.
Isn’t healthy food expensive?
Whole, healthy food is not expensive. Dried beans and whole grains are cheap pantry staples. I am by nature cheap. And impatient. I won’t spend a fortune on arcane ingredients, or spend my time hunting things down in stores. These recipes comprise simple, recognizable ingredients. They’re whole, unprocessed, the way our food used to be. When I put the book together, I was astonished how many beans and whole grains I included. Oh, Lord, another one? Well, that’s the core of Indian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines. It’s food that’s sustained us for millennia, no need to stop now.
Processed food, on the other hand, comes by way of lots of hidden extra costs. Costs to your health. They’re the most significant source of salt in our food, according to the CDC, as well as fat and sugar, not to mention weird chemical additives. Processed food also comes at a cost to the environment. Production and packaging packs a big carbon wallop and then you’re stuck with Styrofoam or plastic this-and-that which doesn’t biodegrade. It goes into landfill. And stays there.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a food writer?
Hell, yeah. We waste over a third of our food globally. We can’t afford to do that—not personally, not globally. We can’t afford what our food system is doing to us personally—by means of obesity and obesity-related illness. We can’t afford what it’s doing to the environment. So I want you to reconnect with how terrific you are. And being so terrific, you want to do what it takes to keep that going. That includes what you eat. Here, here’s something incredibly delicious that happens to be good for you, is good for the planet, is good for your spiritual well-being, too. Have another piece. Share it with someone. Sourcing food, cooking, eating together is the first significant step to taking back our food system. It’s primal, it’s powerful, and it’s great food.
What did you grow up eating? Why did you give up meat?
I grew up eating a lot of processed and fast food. There wasn’t a lot of fresh produce at home. My father never cared for vegetables, still doesn’t. He eats them grudgingly.
I gave up meat at 13 because I love cows and I wanted to piss off my parents. That was my long-range goal. I didn’t swear I’d stick by it forever, I wanted to try to go meatless for two weeks to see how I felt. Two weeks seemed reasonable, it had a limit in sight.
Within a day or two, I immediately felt better, more energetic, more focused. At the end of two weeks, I didn’t miss meat. At all. I didn’t see a reason to go back. I never have. My love affair with fresh produce has lasted decades and it’s still a thrill. Even after all this time, I’m still discovering new and different things to love about it.
You place a lot of importance on cooking. Why?
Most of us rely on processed foods. We’re trusting other people, companies, to do right by us. From our health—we’re in an obesity epidemic—to food safety issues to the way animals are raised, gives you plenty of signs that isn’t happening. Sourcing and cooking our food puts us in charge. We get to choose where we put our money and where we put our mouth. It’s empowering.
Who are the guests at your ideal dinner party? What’s the menu?
My ideal dinner party has a guest list of 7 billion. That’s right, all of us. Every person on the planet. I want everyone to be fed and nourished and celebrated. That’s probably going to mean a whole lot of rice and beans. That’s okay, that’s food that’s sustained us since the beginning. With sumptuous spice. And if I can get some greens in there, all the better. But we will all be at the table together sharing. It will be a feast.
How much of your book is true?
It’s all true, except for the vegan chocolate cake recipe. No, I’m joking, that’s true, too. I write about food, but I’m also writing about everything we bring to the table. The associations and memories we have, the cultural and emotional triggers—these all flavour what we eat.
Everything in the book is true but it’s filtered through memory. We all have powerful, personal recollections. You know how you can remember something exactly—the rush you got when you met someone you were attracted to, the sweet juicy thrill of biting into a just-picked berry, the scabs on your knees when you were a kid.
Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer, Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blogger, and the syndicated columnist the Edgy Veggie. An advocate for sustainable, accessible food, she has served on the Miami boards of Slow Food and Common Threads. She lives in Miami and her website is www.ellen-ink.com. Feeding the Hungry Ghost is published by New World Library. For more information and/or to purchase this book visit www.newworldlibrary.com, call 1-800-972-6657, or check your local or online bookstore.