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Bringing vegan to the people

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Seitan Wellington, it's what's for dinner this holiday season. At least it is if you're vegan, interested in becoming vegan, trying to balance your meat-heavy diet or just hanging around in the Spork Foods kitchen. Founded four years ago by sisters Heather and Jenny Goldberg, Spork Foods is a vegan food company that teaches cooking classes and revamps pantries with vegan and organic diet options.

And just in time for the food-saturated holiday season, the sisters, in conjunction with an independent film collective called Open Road Films, have launched an online series of cooking classes in order to teach their vegan techniques to as many people — in as many places — as possible.

Members pay $7.95 per month or $74.95 for a year and get access to one cooking class per month, plus seasonal and holiday bonus classes, of which the aforementioned seitan Wellington is one. The sisters also film the occasional "Out of the Kitchen Adventure," in which they roam the city and learn something new — or teach something new — about a vegan lifestyle.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the women, chipper in festive dresses that bring to mind 1950s homemakers, chat with their students while Open Road directors Casey Suchan and Denis Hennelly ready their cameras to film a special holiday episode. They're in their massive living-and-work space kitchen in West Hollywood, located directly above Salt's Cure butcher shop and restaurant and across the street from both a Fatburger and an Astro Burger.

And the woman next door to them owns Baby's Badass Burgers, says Heather, 32, referring to the popular gourmet food truck. "They say don't go where you're wanted, go where you're needed. We call what we do 'delicious persuasion.'"

Then she giggles and adds, "We want to film something where we go down to Fatburger and grab a few people, take them up here and teach them how to make a veggie burger. They'll be like, 'Oh my stomach doesn't hurt after I eat.'"

So strong are their powers of persuasion that both of their parents decided to go vegan in their 60s. "My weight is lower than it's ever been and I don't consider myself dieting at all," says their father, Eddie Goldberg, adding that when his daughters cook for a large event, he and his wife, Diana, come to their kitchen to help. "We're not proud; we'll get there and do anything they want."

Despite the women's commitment to veganism for environmental, health and animal-rights reasons, the sisters are not militant. In fact, about three-quarters of the people who take their classes and sign up for online memberships eat meat.

"Food is emotional for people; we don't expect people to just make the vegan choice," says Jenny, 29, who went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York after briefly flirting with a career in environmental law.

"She started to study for the LSAT and she became a raging [witch], so we realized she was on the wrong path," says Heather in the same chipper voice she uses to dish out nutritional advice in the cooking video.

During this class, her advice includes information that most medical doctors probably won't agree with about why sea salt is better than bleached salt (she claims it won't contribute in the same way to high blood pressure); how mushrooms are good for filtering out radiation ("Whenever Jenny and I fly we try to incorporate mushrooms into our diet"); how maple syrup can boost your immune system ("It has a high zinc content so it's great for preventing prostate cancer. Sorry for talking about that in a cooking class!"); and that you get garlic breath that won't go away because garlic's essential oils actually stick to your lung tissue.

While Heather narrates and performs certain cooking tasks, Jenny happily preps, chops and talks about what she's doing to make the pecan crescent holiday cookies, seitan Wellington and green bean casserole that are on that day's holiday menu. The women say they have always known they would go into business together and come from an exceedingly close-knit family. They have an easy back-and-forth that is part New Age sweetness and part "I Love Lucy"-style comedy.

When Heather brings out some shallots she turns to Jenny and says, "Do you feel like crying?" Jenny nods and begins to chop, tears springing to her eyes.

"Are you crying?" Heather asks.

"I'm totally crying, but it's all good," Jenny says. Heather immediately takes over the chopping duty and tears well up in her eyes.

"I'm crying, too," she says.

"I didn't want you to cry!" Jenny exclaims.

"You cry, I cry," Heather says with determination. They smile at one another while the class chuckles.

Later when they wrap the seitan Wellington — which is made from homemade seitan (a wheat meat analogue) and mushrooms — in puff pastry, Jenny tells the class to roll out the pastry (made with non-hydrogenated vegetable oil) very thin. "You don't want a giant chunk of pastry," she warns.

"I want a giant chunk," Heather says before launching into a narrative about what oils are good for cooking which items.

"Flax oil is a gothic oil," she says. "It likes the darkness and doesn't want to see the light of day, so you don't really cook it — you add it to smoothies."

From a filmmaking perspective, the Goldberg sisters are a dream to work with, say directors Suchan and Hennelly, who were making a documentary on animal liberation when they met Jenny and Heather at a party a year and a half ago.

"We want to make films that challenge the status quo and make the world a more positive place," Suchan says. "Their world view is the same as ours, only they use the art of cooking and we use the art of filmmaking to tell the same story."

And the story that vegan cooking isn't really that difficult — or that strange — is one that the whole group hopes to spread far and wide. Since Spork Online launched four weeks ago, members have signed up not just from L.A. and New York, but from Sweden, Australia, Canada, Alaska, Nebraska and many more unexpected places.

"We both came from small towns in the Midwest. I didn't know what guacamole was until after college," Hennelly says. "So I feel for people who want to eat better and be healthy but have no resources."

Plus, the price is right, says Kevin Tseng, a graphic designer and children's book writer who became vegan after thinking about his beloved chinchilla, and how he would never eat it or its byproducts. He decided there was no difference between a pet and any other animal or fowl, such as a chicken and its eggs. Tseng attended the class and also signed up for a year-long membership with Spork Online. "I've been taking their classes for about two years now, but having all those recipes available online is just insane. I'm like a kid in a candy store."

Another student and Spork Online member, Amardeep Kaur, agrees. "I've actually printed out all their recipes and watched all their videos. They are very thorough in their videos, they film everything, so there's almost no room for questions after the online class." But if you do have questions you can e-mail them, and Heather or Jenny will answer you personally.

As the class wraps up, the sisters carefully plate their freshly made holiday meal.

"Instead of carving something else, we're going to carve our seitan," announces Jenny, drizzling spinach sauce on the Wellington, garnishing it with fresh herbs and looking at it lovingly. She contentedly scrunches up her shoulders and smiles at Heather. "Isn't that a little somethin', somethin'?"

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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