Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview: Author and vegan champion Rynn Berry

January 10, 2013 UPDATE: So terribly sorry to learn this morning of Rynn's death, and I've posted a tribute here.

If you're vegan, if you've ever lived or worked in New York City, or if anyone has ever attempted to liken you to Hitler because of your vegetarianism or veganism, you owe a debt of gratitude to Rynn Berry.

The prolific author and longtime vegan who serves as Historical Advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society has spent his life educating and informing people about how to celebrate veganism—no matter how hard it can sometimes be to live so differently than the rest of society.

Long before the Internet made vegan restaurant searches and reviews so easy, Berry published The Vegan Guide to New York City. The guide even featured a graphical "thumbs up" icon next to featured reviews a decade before Facebook popularized the image—let alone existed. I had the good fortune of meeting Berry twelve years ago when he inscribed the 7th edition of the guide for me at the Union Square Greenmarket. At that time, I'd only been vegetarian for about four years—and he was the first person I asked about veganism.

If you're "meeting" Berry today for the first time, enjoy this fascinating chat with a modern vegan pioneer—and take a look at (and help spread the word about) some of his other important work!

New Vegan Age: How have you been? How are you spending most of your time these days?

Rynn Berry: Having just run a 10K race in Brazil, and having just put out the 19th annual edition of The Vegan Guide to New York City, I’m in tip-top condition, physically and mentally. Currently, I’m working on the 20th anniversary edition of The Vegan Guide to New York City, as well as several other literary projects.

NVA: Please share with us how your early life experiences led to the dedication of your life's work to vegan research and writing. Were any animals, authors, or ideas particularly influential? How did they enter your life or come to your attention and impact your work?

RB: When I was 19, and an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I learned that before they are slaughtered to supply humans with meat, animals excrete adrenaline in anticipation of their death. That was enough to convince me that animals are fellow sentient beings who should not be tortured and dismembered for human delectation. I became a vegetarian on the spot, and decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to mitigating and eliminating animal suffering at the hands of humans.

NVA: Your popular Vegan Guide to New York City, a must-have for vegans and vegetarians who visit, live, and work in the city, is now in its 19th edition. How did the first edition come to fruition?

RB: After attending an international vegan conference in Malaga, Spain, in 1994, my two friends and I collaborated on the first edition of The Vegan Guide to New York City. It was just a  slender, saddle-stitched pamphlet really. There were so few veg. restaurants at the time that we had to bulk up the guide with so-called vegetarian-friendly establishments, i.e. restaurants  that served animal flesh but condescended to cater to the culinary whims of vegetarians.

The very next year, my two erstwhile collaborators went off to graduate school (in England and California respectively); so, it fell to me to carry on the work of putting out an annual edition of the vegan guide. Not long after they left, I made the guide exclusively vegetarian. Serendipitously, I discovered that vegan restaurateurs are unsung animal activists who perform direct action every time they serve a delicious vegan meal.  Every time a non-vegetrian partakes of a vegan meal, an animal life is saved.

At last count, there were over 136 listings for vegan and vegetarian restaurants. Now in its twentieth year, The Vegan Guide to New  York City still enjoys the distinction of being the first and only exclusively vegetarian guide book on the planet.

NVA: What have some of the highlights (and challenges) of the guide's updating process been through the years?

RB: At first “vegetarian” and “vegan” were such highly charged, controversial terms, that many stores refused to stock the book. Gradually as even veganism has become socially acceptable, not to say admirable, The Vegan Guide to New York City has become ubiquitous. Now it is being sold in restaurants, health food stores, gift shops, stationery stores, on-line stores, news stands and bookstores, etc. Moreover, there is so much dynamism in the market what with the myriad openings, closings, and shifts of location, that keeping abreast of all the changes is another challenge. It’s the principle reason why I revise The Vegan Guide to New York City every year.

NVA: How has the introduction of the mobile app for the guidebook changed how people use and interact with the guide?

RB: The mobile app has vastly increased the audience for The Vegan Guide to New York City. Surprisingly enough, the mobile app version has augmented sales of the print version. People still like to have the tactile sensation of holding a book in their hand. Nonetheless, the app version is reaching people for whom the smart phone has become almost an anatomical appendage.

NVA: In addition to the Guide, you've authored several other books on vegetarianism, including one refuting the famous assertion that Hitler was a vegetarian. How did that project come to be, and how has it been received through the years?

RB: As the author of a bestselling book titled Famous Vegetarians (a biographical history of vegetarianism that spans 3,000 years), I was constantly being heckled by hostile non-vegetarians, who during my lectures, or at book signings, would invariably ask me why I hadn’t included Adolf Hitler among the Famous Vegetarians. So, I decided to research the matter in order to ascertain whether this butcher of Europe was in fact a vegetarian.

To my dismay, I found that historians of the second world war and Hitler biographers stoutly maintain that he was a vegetarian in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Since no one had written a book that marshals the evidence to prove that Hitler was not a vegetarian, I decided to write a book on the topic—Hitler: Neither Vegetarian, Nor Animal Lover. When the book was published, The London Times wrote a feature article on it. For the article, the reporter interviewed Sir Ian Kershaw, professor of modern history at Sheffield University.

As the author of a three-volume biography of the Fuhrer, Sir Ian is held to be the world’s leading authority on Hitler. The reporter asked Sir Ian for his assessment of my book. Sir Ian opined as follows: “To say that Hitler was not a vegetarian is just an absurd allegation. It is true that Hitler was inconsistent at times, and that there was the odd extreme exception, but he ate what was by any stretch of the imagination a vegetarian diet. The fact that vegetarians don’t like the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian shouldn’t deny the fact that he was one.”

This is typical of the attitude of European historians towards Hitler’s diet. Sir Ian concedes that Hitler “was inconsistent at times, and that there were odd extreme exceptions.” So how on earth can Sir Ian possibly classify Hitler as a vegetarian? Sir Ian and others of his ilk are not practicing vegetarians; so they don’t seem to realize that one cannot be a vegetarian and be so inconsistent as to eat liver dumplings, and cured meats, which eyewitnesses attest that Hitler did on a regular basis. If anything, Hitler was a flexitarian. By no stretch of the imagination could he accurately be called a vegetarian.

My recent letter to the London Telegraph neatly epitomizes the whole matter. In my letter I upbraided Royah Nikkah, the author of the article, "Hitler’s Food Taster Speaks of Hitler’s Vegetarian Diet." I accused her of trying to have it both ways: On the one hand, she implies that Hitler was a vegetarian on the strength of the testimony of one of his former food tasters, Margot Woelk, 95. In a recent interview Ms. Woelk stated that she had been a member of a 12-person team who tasted Hitler’s food—lest he might have been poisoned—for one hour a day from 11am to 12 noon, for a period of 800 days.

On the other hand, Ms. Nikkah admits that Mr. Hitler "was not fastidious about declining meat. Dione Lucas, his cook before the war, claimed that he was a fan of stuffed pigeon, and he was also known to be partial to Bavarian Sausage and the occasional slice of ham.” Ms. Nikkah doesn’t seem to realize what constitutes a vegetarian. According to the World Book encyclopedia, a vegetarian is defined as “a person who eats only vegetable foods and refrains from eating meat, fish, or some other animal products, especially one who does so on the basis of principle."

So, if Hitler was indulging in stuffed pigeon, Bavarian sausage, and the occasional slice of ham—which Ms. Nikkah acknowledges that he did—then Hitler was emphatically not a vegetarian. At best, he was a flexitarian, or one who eats a mixed diet of vegetables and meat, or fish and other animal products.

Personally, I am chagrined that so many of the people who have reviewed my book, Hitler: Neither Vegetarian, Nor Animal Lover, on Amazon and elsewhere, give no evidence of having read it. Clearly, they are anti-vegetarian ideologues, who are using HItler (and the latest misinformation about him) to bash vegetarianism.

NVA: Well, on behalf of vegetarians and vegans everywhere, thank you for your tireless work to clarify this important historical issue. Speaking of history, during your years of service as the historical advisor the North American Vegetarian Society, how have societal attitudes towards vegans changed? In what ways have they improved, and what can ordinary vegans do to help perception continue to improve?

RB: Clearly, there has been a paradigm shift in societal attitudes towards veganism. Our cultural trendsetters—film stars like Toby McGuire and Woody Harrelson; TV personalities like Bob Barker and Ellen Degeneris; athletic champions like ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek and Olympian Carl Lewis (who garnered a record number of gold medals in track and field); pop music icons like Paul McCartney and Moby—all have embraced a vegan lifestyle.

Bookstores now boast entire sections dedicated  to vegan cookbooks with too-clever titles like How It All Vegan or Skinny Bitch in the Kitch. Distinguished physicians like Dr. Neil Barnard, MD; Dr. Caldwell, Esselstyn M.D.; Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D.; and Dr. John McDougall, M.D. have written bestselling books advocating a vegan diet to cure cancer, reverse heart disease; reverse diabetes, etc. Business moguls like Mort Zuckerman; Steve Wynn, and Russell Simmons; political bosses like Bill Clinton (the first vegan ex-president of the US), and Dennis Kucinich (the first vegan to run for the US presidency)—have all gone vegan.

There are at least a few vegan restaurants in every major city in the US. Vegan packaged foods and frozen entrees, made with ersatz dairy products, are available in local supermarkets. Just a decade ago, such an efflorescence of veganism would have been inconceivable. Now veganism is one of America’s burgeoning social movements. Vegans can contribute to the momentum by taking a non-vegetarian to lunch at a spiffy vegan restaurant, and by setting a shining example for non-vegetarians to follow.

NVA: What current and upcoming project or projects most interest you at present? Are there any ways for others to contribute to/support them or otherwise get involved?

RB: I recently contributed seven entries on veganism and allied topics to the second edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. It runs to three volumes. My most recent book is a collaborative effort—Becoming Raw: An Essential Guide to Vegan Raw Food Diets. I contributed the historical section to that book. I’m currently working on expanding that section into a book on the history of the raw food movement in America. And of course, I am currently working on the forthcoming edition of The Vegan Guide to New York City.

NVA: And how can readers find out more about you and your work?

RB: Readers may Google or Bing my name, Rynn Berry. They may order my books from or Barnes &, as well as from other on-line bookstores.

NVA: Any final thoughts?

RB: Using The Vegan Guide to New York City as an oracle: When I first started the guide 20 years ago, there were only a handful of vegan restaurants in New York City. Now New York City boasts the greatest wealth of vegan restaurants in the world. My book has grown from a saddle-stitched pamphlet to a quality paperback that has an international readership. If veganism were a stock, I would certainly invest in it. Its growth has been exponential and will ever continue thus.

NVA: Thank you so much, Rynn. We are grateful for you and your work, and we look forward to keeping up with your future projects. Keep us posted!