If you've read Michael Pollan's Food Rules or Marion Nestle's Food Politics, but didn't know what to do with yourself after you were done, pick up Christina Pirello's latest: I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going To Eat It Anymore: Taking Control of Your Health and Your Life—One Vegan Recipe At A Time. Finally, a book that tells it like it is, and then tells us how to take charge of our health—starting with what's in our pantry and ending with accessible recipes that satisfy (Mexican Bean Fondue Dip, anyone?).
Pirello's new book is an opinionated departure from her regular gig as host of television's Christina Cooks. We asked the long-time vegan and Delicious Living fan (and former contributor!) about why our food supply is degrading our health and the health of our planet. Plus, get a peek into her favorite natural products and what makes her really tick when it comes to food.
Delicious Living: What inspired your book's title, which (we looked it up!) comes from a modified quote in Network, a 1976 American satirical film?
Christina Pirello: I started working on the book with my publisher, and we were talking about Michael Pollan's books, specifically, and my publisher said to me, "The only argument I have with all the books out there is, I close the book and think 'now what?' People who read these books are panicked about the food supply and don't know what to do. Why don't you write a book that gives a solution?"
So, I start working on an outline, but I didn't know what to call it. As a writer, I need a title before I can really move forward. One evening, we were having dinner with our best friends, and I was them about all this research I'm doing. And one of my friends, who has struggled with his weight and is addicted to junk food said, "Oh my god—I don't know about you, but this is making me so mad as hell that I don't want to eat it anymore!" That's how we got the title.
I think that's how people should be feeling. We all think we're doing healthy things, but we're getting fatter. What people don't realize is a conscious effort has been made by marketing. They're counting on the fact that moms are busy. Who's got time to read labels and do research? We don't know that the cereal industry is lobbying FDA so they can now say flour is a whole grain—so that Lucky Charms are now a good source of whole grains. What nonsense!
DL: Did you have any reservations about speaking so strongly against our food system in this book?
CP: I pretty clearly take Monsanto to task, with everything well-sourced. I didn't even offer any opinions except to call them Darth Vader a couple of times. The legal dept at Penguin expressed concern, because apparently Monsanto can be litigious. The publisher and I talked for a long time and then said, "Let's go for it." We are finding national media outlets are all nervous. They say, "Can you come on, mention the book and make cookies?" and I'm thinking "What?" Everyone's afraid of advertising dollar loss.
I'm OK with being an activist. If we don't start stepping up, then, as much as I love her as a person, we think that Paula Deen representing a drug company is the new healthy way of approaching diabetes. And type 2 diabetes is 90 to 95 percent preventable!
DL: What's your opinion of the reworked MyPlate, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables more than ever before?
CP: Fortunately we [plant-based eaters] did get a very good position in the guidelines. We are no longer considered fringe, and vegetarian and vegan is considered a healthy way to eat. But that took 10 years of lobbying on behalf of people like Neal Barnard and T. Colin Campbell. I've always been political, but this seems to me a much more important fight than whether we're republicans or democrats. This transcends parties—this is the future of humanity and whether or not we remain a natural species or a species of transplants and medications. Yes, we're living longer, but what is our quality of life?
DL: About 28 years ago you were diagnosed with terminal leukemia and were given a few months to live. After 14 months of adopting a plant-based diet, the cancer was gone. Knowing this, why don't more people treat their illnesses with nutrition?
CP: It's the harder way. It is way easier to just take a pill and change nothing. To me, I felt like the options were pizza or death, so I was really happy to give up pizza. But the other thing is we are what we eat to the cellular level. So it's really hard to change your food. And the third factor is we don't live in a society that ingrains in us that food has this kind of power. We don't want to believe food can make us sick, so how are we going to make the leap that food could actually make us better?
Certainly genetics play a role, but diet and lifestyle play a huge role. We don't think about food the way so many other cultures do. Although we have a million cooking shows, we're extremely detached from food. That's why chefs are celebrities, because we can stand back and watch it but not actually be involved.
DL: You're a proponent of organic and have a section in the book about GMOs. What makes you "mad as hell" about GMOs?
CP: What makes me mad as hell is there hasn't been any long-term testing. I don't know in all honesty if they're good or bad for us. But I feel like they've let us live in a petri dish. Well, you don't test out things when it comes to DNA. If a strawberry and a salmon were in a bar…they wouldn't pick each other up and have babies! So to me, GMOs make me mad because there's really been no long-term testing to see the results on us, other species and the planet. And they won't label it.
DL: Your one piece of advice for people switching to healthier eating habits is simply to eat vegetables. As you mention in the book, it's old news. Why aren't people listening?
CP: They think it's too hard. We've been so hooked on fat, sugar and salt that vegetables don't taste good. When you've got a Pop Tart with apple filling that tastes more apple-y than an apple, how do you get a kid or adult to eat an apple? It takes about 30 to 45 days of no processed food for you to realize that a parsnip tastes different from a carrot tastes different from a winter squash. We live in a culture where our tastebuds are in constant orgasm from processed foods. That's a big problem—processed food has really done us in.
DL: You've also studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, and have a section on eating seasonally. What do you recommend for those who don't have year-round farmer's market?
CP: I will say to people to do the best they can. Before you buy anything canned, buy it frozen because at least they freeze it when it's fresh. If you don't have access to organic produce, buy commercial and wash it really well. They have natural washes that do an OK job and are better than nothing. There are so many organizations that will help people start a community garden where there isn't fresh food. And I think it's going to take people just getting mad. And we're really close, we're hearing it more and more. I have more hope than I've had in 10 years that things are changing.
DL: In your book you write: "Because we have chosen to eat poorly for so long, many of us don't even realize we don't feel well and vital." What's the first thing someone notices after they begin eating vegan?
CP: They're not tired anymore. You know how we're all tired all the time? Yes, we work hard, and yes, the economy is tough. But literally within 10 days, the first thing you notice is how much more energy you have. It's almost as if someone added an hour to your day. When you eat veggies you certainly don't veg!
DL: Who do you hope reads this book?
CP: Everybody! But particularly I hope young mothers read it so that they raise a generation of kids that has a better shot at being healthy than even my generation did.
DL: What is your favorite food?
CP: I'm Italian, so anything with pasta. And in the winter, simple roasted winter squash with a little olive oil and salt will do it for me any day. And the chocolate chip cookie recipe that's in the book. I don't, but I could make them every day!
DL: Favorite natural brands?
CP: Eden Foods—their commitment to quality is out of this world. My new favorite is Madhava for coconut sugar. They're fair trade. Also Suzanne's Specialties who makes rice syrup (I'm a big fan of rice syrup!) In fact, two girlfriends and I are launching a natural vegan company called Christina Cooks Cookies. Suzanne is actually our rice syrup provider, and I love the quality of her company. I love Seventh Generation for everything. I think I use every product they're ever made. For certified organic, vegan skin care I like Vita Bella. You can only get them online, and it's the only skin care that I use these days.
DL: When will you launch your cookies?
CP: We've done the soft launch on our website, and we're in negotiations for a space and a baker to get it off the ground. We have six varieties.
DL: What's next for your Christina Cooks show?
CP: We are in production for the 10th series of Christina Cooks which will start airing across the country in September. This one is very different in that we are literally filming live demo classes that I do every month at the restaurant school in Philadelphia where I teach. There's a room of students asking the questions that people are probably asking at home. It's been really fun.