When Meredith Pangrace started a vegetarian diet at the age of 16, it was an adjustment not only for her but for her mom and grandma, who made the family meals. Coming from a Slovak background, they regularly ate dishes like stuffed cabbage and pierogies, and together they figured out how to keep them meat-free and delicious. In the throes of the pandemic, Pangrace took her experimentation one step further, creating a New Year’s Day meal for her family complete with all-vegan Eastern European staples (including kolacky, which you can make yourself with this recipe).
An Ohio native and current creative director at Belt Publishing, she began to wonder what other regional dishes could be veganized. A quick call put out to professional and home chefs alike proved the answer was “a lot.” And so the collaborative project Rust Belt Vegan Kitchen was born, filled with vegan alternatives to the meat, cheese, and potato recipes that define the region. I sat down to chat with Pangrace about down-to-Earth dishes, old-school community cookbooks, and shattering the pretension of vegan cooking.
The Takeout: The way this book came together really feels like a community effort, speaking to how, even in the middle of a pandemic, food can really bring people together.
Meredith Pangrace: I really tried to focus on that in the book. I didn’t want it to be judgmental or pretentious. In the forward I talk about how when I made that decision [to be vegetarian], my grandma was very welcoming about it. She was like, “Okay, I don’t get you honey, but I will make this vegetarian roll because I love you.” Food divides us so much now and it shouldn’t, it’s just so silly. I wanted the book to be really accessible for meat eaters too. There’s people in the book who have restaurants that serve meat and that’s fine. I don’t like vegan as a label of a person, I like it as a label of a dish.
TO: The setup of the book does make it very accessible, even with the listing of the pantry ingredients needed for the recipes that aren’t unusual or overly expensive and complicated.
MP: I wanted it to be approachable. I love vegan cookbooks, I have so many, and they’re always just so spectacular and beautiful, but even as someone who’s been eating this way for a long time, sometimes I flip through and there’s not one thing I can make because I don’t have it. I’ll have a million vegetables and be like, “oh, what, what is this very strange thing?” The people that contributed were also down-to-Earth in what they were submitting.
TO: That feels like an attribute of the Rust Belt as well.
MP: I talk about in the book, in the Midwest it’s awesome if you can eat fresh and local but we just can’t all the time. One of my favorite things in the book is a [recipe using] boxed cake mix: Betty Crocker spice cake mix is vegan, and instead of oil or eggs, you put a can of pumpkin. I’ve done that as a bundt cake, I’ve done that as muffins, it’s so delicious. And yeah, it’s probably stuff that’s been sitting in your cupboard all year, it’s not particularly healthy, but it’s just like if it’s a grandma and she has her vegan granddaughter coming over and she needs to make her something for breakfast or a cake, you can do it, it’s not that hard. Those are two very familiar things.
TO: And some things in the book are as simple as the recipe for the Pickletini.
MP: It’s funny because Martha [Bayne, senior editor at Belt Publishing] did the first round of edits and was like, “Isn’t every martini vegan?” There were some people that I just really wanted to feature in the book, and these two women [Abby Lesniak and Lauryn Swanger] started a pickle company [Bold Pickin’s Specialty Pickles]. I almost wanted to write a whole sidebar about pickles and the Cleveland Pickle Fest. I feel like that’s another thing that’s so Midwestern, we love pickles.
TO: Which recipe submissions stood out to you as the most surprising?
MP: The tofu chitlins. I’ve never eaten those in my whole life, and then I kind of had to Google it and was like, “oh that’s really disgusting.” But then I was like, “how in the world is he going to do this?” Tofu skins were a product that I wasn’t really familiar with at all. Because I was not a fan of chitlins before, I’m not sure if I would really make this on a regular basis, but it introduced me to that product, which I found at the Asian grocery store. And I’ve never seen anyone else do those.
The woman in Cincinnati, Heather [Donaldson], who has Mad Cheese, she did like a real light alfredo pasta, her summer pasta, where the cream sauce is pureed hearts of palm. Hearts of palm is another thing where like, well this is a strange ingredient in a can, but it was in the Goya section, it was easy to find, but it never would have occurred to me. I’ve made other cream sauces with cashew or silken tofu or something, but hers I was like, wow, that is super cool.
TO: I have only recently learned what Cincinnati Chili is (with the spaghetti), so I was very excited to see a vegan version in the cookbook. That’s one of many very famous, meat- and cheese-heavy regional dishes in the book that might surprise people.
MP: Yes, like what the hell is this? I served this recipe to a friend of mine who is a meat eater, and he is a die-hard Skyline Chili fan, he will drive half an hour to go there. He loved it—it did not give him diarrhea on the way home. He said usually when he’s driving home from Skyline he has to stop to go to the bathroom. I was like, “you’re welcome.”
TO: That’s definitely a plus of taking the meat and dairy ingredients out of some of these things.
MP: Yeah, a little healthier. I don’t claim that the book is healthy. With everyone that contributed, they have their own reasons for being vegan. Some people eat this way for health, some for animals, some for religion, some for climate change, there’s all these different reasons. Some of the recipes here are healthy—definitely not all of them.
TO: The design of the book and the ink illustrations throughout feel very similar to old-school community cookbooks.
MP: I looked at a ton of those. If you go to a Goodwill you can just find all of those “Junior Women’s League, 1984” and they’re all spiral-bound. Not gonna lie, some of it is budget. We’re a small indie press, so could I really produce a beautiful glossy cookbook and sell it at the price point it’s at? Probably not. But at the same time, because my background is more in design I was like, “okay, let’s find that inspiration and make it on purpose.” You don’t have to have all these beautiful glossy photos. It can work, it can be a little more utilitarian and a little less coffee table.
TO: What tips do you have for people who are new to vegan cooking?
MP: You don’t have to go to a special store, you don’t have to go to Whole Foods. I live in the city proper and like a block away is a Save-A-Lot. It’s not a great grocery store, but a lot of these things that are in the book I can just go to the Save-A-Lot to buy.
I think that you might be surprised by how familiar the flavors are. If someone is used to eating a cabbage roll that is a meat-based cabbage roll, the beauty of that dish, it can come from the sauce, it can come from the cabbage, it can come from the vegetables. When you take that meat away, it’s not like you’re eating a completely different food, it’s a variation. Some people will say there’s a vegetarian or vegan dish they prefer over a meat one.
It’s affordable. When I go through my pantry staples, it’s really not that expensive. If you’re buying vegan cheese, vegan sour cream, if you’re buying the processed products, yeah, they’re gonna be pricey and you’re probably gonna have to go to Whole Foods. We do include some recipes in the book that say, buy some vegan cream cheese. But we also have recipes that say, you don’t need to buy those things, you can use things you’re familiar with.
If someone’s new to it, just don’t be hard on yourself. I like that attitude of, if you do a little bit, that’s great. When I stopped eating eggs, did I give away all my leather boots and jackets? No. Will I think more the next time I buy one? Maybe. Whatever you can do.