Ellen Vaagen, the sassy, dreadlocked woman known affectionately around town as “Crafty Ellen,” is launching Vaagen’s Vegan Sauce, the Twin Ports’ first vegan blog on April 22.
She’ll also be selling an e-book she wrote. Veganism 101 includes recipes for easy vegan dishes as well as nutritional information about a plant-based diet and tips on how to stock a vegan pantry. Each person who purchases an e-book will be entered in a drawing to win a free dinner party catered by Vaagen.
The blog will feature vegan recipes as well as commentary about veganism as a lifestyle. Part of Vaagen’s mission is to educate and dispel common misconceptions.
“Vegan food can be flavorful, tasty and fun,” says Vaagen. “People don’t have to miss out. They can feel very satisfied eating a vegan diet and get all their nutritional needs met.”
Vaagen became a vegetarian in high school in response to her concerns about animal cruelty. At the University of Minnesota Duluth she studied environmental issues and majored in cultural anthropology. Her resolve to forgo any animal-based foods solidified in 2008 after watching Earthlings, a documentary that highlights the ways humans exploit animals through practices like factory farming.
Beyond the moral reasoning, Vaagen points out veganism because is a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. She also says she’s realized some health benefits of veganism, including losing weight and generally feeling more energized.
It’s estimated that 3.7 million people in the United States are now vegan. The Midwest has been a bit slower than the East and West Coasts in adopting the trend.
“I usually try to hide the fact that I’m vegan. It results in some uncomfortable discussions because my lifestyle choice for some reason makes people feel like they’re being attacked,” says Vaagen. “People have strong emotional ties to what they eat because it’s what their parents gave them growing up … I also think people have a sense of guilt and shame at the slaughter of animals.”
Having grown up in North Dakota, where meat and potato dishes reign, Vaagen admits switching to an entirely plant-based diet was a challenge. “I didn’t know diddly about cooking,” she says.
Her practical Midwestern parents had some initial concerns with Vaagen’s dietary change. In the end, it was Vaagen’s mother Patsy who encouraged her passion with cookbooks and kitchen supplies.
“To have a family ally has been immensely helpful,” says Vaagen. Patsy now eats a largely vegan diet as well. The pair has even adapted Patsy’s famous jambalaya recipe to be meatless.
The lack of vegan-friendly eateries in the Twin Ports has been a motivator for Vaagen, too. Unable to find the types of food she wanted to eat around the area, she taught herself how to make it.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” she says. “I learned pretty quickly that two tablespoons of curry was too much for any dish,” she says.
Vaagen has had a couple of cooking adventures in other countries. While studying abroad in India, where nearly a third of the population is vegetarian for religious reasons, she seized the opportunity to learn how to cook native dishes for her host family. Later, she spent a few months volunteering in the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant in Mexico. It was a bit of a trial by fire since she wasn’t fluent in Spanish. But it was a good chance to channel creativity, as she was responsible for concocting a daily vegan special for the lunch buffet.
She credits these immersive experiences with honing her culinary chops and broadening her cultural understanding of food.
Vaagen makes her own seitan, a high-protein food made from cooked wheat gluten. Lately, she has also been experimenting with beans. A recent successful concoction she developed: quinoa bean balls. And she notes legumes are packed with protein and fiber and can be used as meat and cheese substitutes. “You can do so much with them, it’s a fun challenge.”
Like her personality, Vaagen’s creations are big on spice and flavor. She doesn’t skimp on oil and healthy fats like avocado.
The blog will serve as a launching pad, creative outlet and portfolio of her vegan voyage. “I’m hoping it will attract a wealthy person and they’ll ask me to be their personal chef,” quips Vaagen.
Some of her ambitions include teaching vegan cooking classes and creating a vegan-friendly restaurant guide for the area. While she doesn’t want to be tied down by operating traditional restaurant, Vaagen says she’s been inspired by Duluthians—particularly young female entrepreneurs—who are developing non-traditional small business models that allow for more creativity and flexibility.
When not in the kitchen perfecting recipes, Vaagen can also be found tending the bar at Vikre Distillery or the Red Herring. Both jobs encourage creativity and personality, which she appreciates.
Vaagen has some unique ideas for getting her food out to the community in the future, including a vegan lunch delivery service. A vegan takeover of the Chow Haul food truck or a vegan dinner and cocktail pairing at Vikre might also be on the horizon.
She says she’s had good support and feedback from the community so far. “When people try my food they often say, ‘I didn’t know vegan food could be so good.'”
To follow Vaagen’s Vegan Sauce on Facebook visit facebook.com/vaagensvegansauce.
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