At the ripe old age of 8 Leslie Durso declared herself a vegetarian, and she has never looked back. Today Leslie is an actress, chef and vegan personality who is reaching the mainstream on a daily basis with a “kinder, gentler” message of veganism. We had the good fortune to chat with Leslie the week before she hits the Green Festival in DC (September 29, 2012) as the mistress of ceremonies!
Vegan Mainstream: In a nutshell, can you share “your veg story” with our readers? (ie. why you became vegetarian – when you were 8! – and then vegan, and why you have remained committed to it all these years)
Leslie Durso: I love this question because I grew up in a household of meat-eaters and in a big Italian family where meat was always on the menu. Quite innocently, I just didn’t like the taste of meat, so I guess you could say cooking for myself became a survival tactic. Of course it helped to have 3 generations of scratch cooks, from mom to great-grandmother – to inspire me. I ultimately became vegan because frankly I believe wholeheartedly in the lifestyle and all its benefits. I don’t miss anything. As for my commitment, I see it as honoring myself. I cannot imagine ever going back.
VM: You have done a lot of different things to promote veganism and sustainable living; what have been some of the highlights so far, and why?
LD: This past year has been so much fun participating in Green Festivals (Next one D.C. September 29 & 30) and Food & Wine Festivals (Next up is Big Sur, November 1-4) around the country. The appearances give me an opportunity to connect with people face-to-face and the inspiration to keep improving. But I have to say one other highlight was appearing on TV as the guest judge on the all-vegan episode of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. I think I ate 30 cupcakes that day!
VM: You promote a “kinder, gentler” message to the world about vegetarian and vegan eating – why do you find this approach is the best one to take?
LD: Preaching is out. Today it’s all about reaching out. And I don’t think disturbing images and guilt-trips are the best approaches to reaching people. I choose to communicate with carnivores with relatable content…in my case, it’s inviting people to my dinner table, virtually or in real life. I also try to appeal to the exploding number of people who are becoming interested in veganism because of health and wellness. With so many studies pointing to the benefits of going meat-free and with so many people getting sick on the standard American diet, it’s becoming easier for “meaties” to open their eyes. I can’t think of a better motivation to go veg than living longer.
VM: Do you talk about the darker side of the meat industry (ie. animal cruelty) during public appearances; if so, how do you approach that? If not, why not?
LD: I do not. Mainstream journalists are now successfully exposing what many organizations have been trying to prove for decades. The awareness will win in the end. My job is to remain extra-aware and stay on my message of an animal-free life, excluding my rescue dog Pepé, of course.
VM: You focus not only on veganism, but on eco-living and sustainability. Can you talk about how these two things work together/compliment one another in your work?
LD: Well, just by choosing a vegan lifestyle you are contributing to a more eco-friendly world. The environmental impact of the meat industry is undeniable and staggering! If Americans went meat-free for a day, the U.S. would prevent 3 million tons of soil erosion, 7 tons of ammonia emissions and it would save 100 billion gallons of water…One day! So the correlation between veganism and the environment is clear and very compelling. More brands are recognizing this, which creates opportunities within the vegan community. Aside from working with brands, I also try to encourage others to shop local, support farms and grow their own food whenever possible. Whether you have a backyard or just a window sill, plant something! I don’t think there is anything tastier than eating food you’ve grown! And it’s only being treated with love, not pesticides.
VM: You are working with Dasani EcoCommunity to promote breakfast month – why would you say breakfast is such an important meal, and what tips do you have about fitting a healthy breakfast into busy mornings?
LD: Yes, the Dasani ECOmmunity has been a wonderful platform to share vegan tips and recipes with audiences who may not have previously been exposed to veganism. As for breakfast, aside from setting the tone for the rest of your day, it literally sets the tone for your life. According to the World Health Organization, breakfast-skipping has been linked to higher levels of smoking, alcohol and drug use, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Even as vegans, we tend to reach for junk to compensate for missing fuel throughout the day. So I recommend breakfast options to give your body energy and your brain a boost. If you don’t have time to cook, your blender is your best friend. I love a hearty breakfast smoothie with banana, strawberry, peanut butter, chia seeds and kale. Or I love a hot cereal with quinoa and oatmeal steamed in coconut milk and topped with blueberries. Bottom line: don’t skip brekkie!
VM: Can you share your favorite recipe for fall?
LD: Well, we’re coming off a heatwave here in LA so we’re still in summer mode. But one of my favorites from last fall is Massaged Kale and Roasted Acorn Squash Salad (more to come when temps cool!).
VM: You’re going to be mistress of ceremonies at the Green Festival in DC on September 29; have you done this before? What do you love about being part of events like this? What are you most looking forward to?
LD: I’m honored and beyond excited!! I’ve participated in Green Fests in NYC and L.A. but this is my first time being part of the opening ceremony. Green Festival is such an extraordinary organization of dedicated people. You can’t help but want to do everything in your power to make the planet better, kinder, safer. Of course we vegans are a big part of that, so, for me, participating is a chance to share my enthusiasm for veganism and connect with amazing eco-minded people around the country.
VM: What changes have you been seeing in the vegan movement – and how does this make you feel about what the future holds?
LD: It’s totally tipping. And it seems to be casting a wider net than ever — people-wise and industry-wise. It doesn’t hurt to have Hollywood giving it a mega-celeb push. From Usher to Rosie O’Donnell to Anne Hathaway, the list just keeps growing. I also see health becoming a major motivator in the future of veganism. I see major chefs beginning to take notice and reflecting the movement in their menu offerings. I see fashion designers and labels eliminating fur and leather from their collections. I just started working with Melissa Shoes — not only an all-vegan collection, but 100% recyclable and 1000% couture-trendy! So the sky’s the limit to how all-encompassing vegan can get.