One sentence—one word, really—in the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer changed John Schlimm’s life. When Schlimm, Ed.M. ’02, read about “unloved” Thanksgiving turkeys, “something shifted,” he remembers. “I stopped, highlighted the word ‘unloved,’ underlined it, circled it. It was a light-bulb moment for me.”
His life, he says, “took on a whole new and wonderful direction.” Not as a cookbook author—he’d already written seven, including The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook. Not as a teacher—he’d already taught at a local university. Instead, that one word transformed him from the guy who had helped at his father’s meat-processing business—skinning deer, cutting meat, and making sausage—into someone who wouldn’t eat or wear animal products. The son of a small-town Pennsylvania butcher, Schlimm, who grew up in hunting country, became a vegan. That moment also inspired him to write two vegan cookbooks, The Tipsy Vegan (2011) and Grilling Vegan Style (2012); another, The Cheesy Vegan, is on the way.
How did someone who never went to culinary school or worked in a restaurant become a cookbook author? Schlimm explains that he’s the son of two fantastic cooks as well as a member of the Straub family, which runs one of the country’s oldest breweries. He wrote one of his first titles, The Straub Beer Cookbook, in partnership with the brewery, and The Tipsy Vegan, unsurprisingly, includes some sort of alcohol in every recipe. He also has a team of people who help him develop and test recipes.
For Schlimm, food is all about flavor and enjoyment. Vegan hedonism? Isn’t that a contradiction? Not with Schlimm’s recipes, filled with spices, fruits, nuts, wines, and other alcoholic spirits. He calls his cookbooks “parties between covers.” Consider “Bruschetta on a Bender,” which combines fragrant fresh thyme and oregano with a couple of dashes of vermouth. “Baked & Loaded Acorn Squash” contains rich fall flavors like cinnamon and nutmeg, warmed up by a hit of Calvados. Mandarin oranges, water chestnuts, and ginger dot his “Wild Rice Under the Influence,” a recipe kicked up in flavor by rum.
In Grilling Vegan Style, he offers a buffet of barbecue sauces for vegetables, tofu, seitan, and tempeh, including “King Wasabi” with ginger, soy sauce and rum and sweet and smoky “Pineapple Does the Teriyaki.” There’s a “Grilled Picnic Pizza,” a “Presto Pesto No-Bake Lasagna,” seven ways to grill potatoes, and 10 variations on tapas. Schlimm runs through burgers, kebabs, desserts, and happy-hour options. One chapter, “Supper Under the Stars,” collects 11 dinner-entrée recipes, such as his “Starry Night Tart with Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini, and Plum Tomatoes.”
“Taking out the meat and dairy is the most obvious part” of writing vegan recipes, Schlimm notes, but there’s much more: “Common, refined sugar is not vegan, as it’s created using animal bone char, and some breads, mustards, chocolate, mayonnaise, broth, Worcestershire sauce, and other common products are not vegan.” He therefore includes “pantry sections” in his books to explain these fine details and point readers toward plant-based substitutes.
“I also strive to make my vegan cookbooks as small-town-friendly as possible,” he says, “meaning that my family, friends, and neighbors can go to our local grocery stores and, just like my big-city pals, find the majority of the ingredients needed for the recipes, making this an easy and accessible way of eating.”
For Schlimm, it’s easy to make food sing without meat, dairy, or eggs. “I use fresh ingredients and have a blast playing with spices and herbs, just as you would with meaty, dairy recipes. After all, when you think about it, meat alone and dairy alone don’t really have much flavor. It’s the other ingredients, like the spices and herbs, the fruits and vegetables—not to mention the shot of whiskey, tequila, or vodka—that add the real magic and pop to a dish!”
Still, aspiring to live a vegan life can be a challenge. Schlimm recalls a dinner party where his friend’s sister announced she had made a special meatless casserole just for him. It contained lots of vegetables—and cheese. “It was a huge moment for me,” he says. “I knew I could say, ‘I’m vegan, I won’t eat that,’ or I could eat a little and then encourage everyone else to try some, too. So that’s what I did, and everyone there agreed that it was delicious even without the meat.” To Schlimm—who wants everyone to start “thinking a little vegan”—it was a victory because, until that night, most of the hunter types he was dining with had never tried a meatless meal.
Through a series of fortunate events, Schlimm once ended up sitting beside Jonathan Safran Foer on Ellen DeGeneres’s television talk show. By then, thanks to Foer and that “unloved” Thanksgiving turkey, Schlimm was a changed man. At one point, he looked into the camera and spoke what he believes will be the most perfect sentence of his life: “No living being, human or animal, should ever go through this life unloved.”