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Vegan Shakers: Interview with Liz Cook Vegan Views 95 (Winter 2002/3)

Liz Cook is the person behind the colourful and informative food chart that many vegetarians and vegans have on their kitchen walls. She also published the book "So, what do you eat" in 1999, and later a few other charts. John Curtis interviewed her (and somehow managed to earn a free copy of her book!)
photo of Liz Cook photo of Jamie Cook
Pics: Liz and her son Jamie

When and why did you become vegetarian?

I was doing a degree at Surrey University in hotel and catering management 23 years ago, and while doing this I learnt a lot about factory farming. One of the lecturers was an ex-Meat Marketing Board employee. I think he wanted to shock us. He showed us a video of intensive farming, and in one lecture, brought in a skinned lamb, slapped it on the metal kitchen table, and showed us how to joint it. I got the feeling he particularly wanted to upset first years and women on the course, to show us what "real" catering was about. From that point on, I only ate free-reared meat from a butcher in Guildford.

Soon afterwards, a housemate bought some pork belly. I thought this was just a catering term, but when it was taken out of the packet it had skin and a nipple on it. I felt sick and turned vegetarian. My reasons were completely for animal welfare. The problem was that I then ate lots of eggs, cheese, etc, which contain lots of saturated fat.

Being vegetarian while doing a catering course was tricky and involved some compromise. But I got my degree. In fact, my thesis was on food technology and the impact of meat on third-world starvation, and also on the health problems and illnesses of the over-indulgent Western world.

What made you go vegan?

There was this emotional click when my son Jamie was born 11 years ago. When I was pregnant, I had cravings and my vegetarianism lapsed. I ate enormous quantities of prawn mayonnaise sandwiches. I didn't know enough about nutrition at the time and my vegetarian diet was not well thought out. Looking back, I'm wondering if I might have been short of some nutrient that I needed, hence the cravings. When Jamie was born, we were living in the countryside in Sussex. Around that time, I was doing school talks on vegetarianism for the Vegetarian Society and Animal Aid, and also talks for the RSPCA. I received a lot of information from various groups on the dairy industry. Also, I heard calves in the field crying because they had been taken off their mothers. I breastfed Jamie for three months and was struggling a bit. People said I should feed him on cow's milk, but after witnessing the calves this seemed like an obscene thing to do. I became vegan at that point. I couldn't come up with a good reason for giving Jamie cow's milk. I had an old book which claimed that dairy milk is not necessarily the best thing. I instead used soya formula milk and Jamie thrived on that. He's been brought up vegan and is now 11. He's been robustly healthy and energetic all his life, is tall for his age and is rarely ill. He's never had eczema, asthma or colic.

You sell a food chart. I help to run a local veggie and vegan group and it's the biggest seller on our stalls. Where did you get the idea from?

The food chart was born for Jamie after he was born! People kept saying "What about his selenium" and such like. When asked about protein that was easy to answer, but with vitamins and minerals I kept having to refer to my university text books (I studied nutrition as part of my degree) every time I was questioned. I thought it would make life easier to put it all on a wall chart, and it was then that I put together an early version of the food chart. I drew illustrations on it and my brother said I ought to sell it. I improved it, tidied up the illustrations and had it printed to sell. It was vegetarian but not vegan - it included things like eggs and cheese. I thought at the time that it had to be broad based, and I didn't have the confidence to sell it as a fully vegan chart. The subsequent printings of the chart were vegan and it's now on its 10th printing. It's sold 100,000 since I first produced it. I made it out of a genuine need for Jamie and for other parents, not as a way to make a living.

Wow, 100,000 is impressive! Was it an instant hit?

It built up steadily. I've done very little marketing for it. I sell them to charities and wholesalers at very low cost. A big element of it is to promote the vegetarian and vegan cause. I give them out free to schools. I think that the more generous I've been with them, the more it has sold.

Have sales mainly been in the UK? How well does it sell abroad?

It has sold very well in the UK, but it has sold all over the world. I recently signed a contract to sell it in the US. I had to make a few alterations - they have different names for some vegetables and the recommended daily allowances tend to be higher in the US than in the UK.

The chart has great artistic charm. Did you study Art?

No. The first version was a funny sketch. I re-do it occasionally, for some of the re-prints. I also update the information. I've had a great deal of help from Steve Walsh of the UK Vegan Society. Last year I re-did the column on fats, and stressed the importance of linseed oil (also known as flax oil) as a good source of EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids) for vegans. Steve is a scientist and is extremely knowledgeable on vegan nutrition.

Have you worked in catering?

I've dipped in and out of it since my degree. In many cases I've found it compromising. I've worked as a YTS (the now defunct Youth Training Scheme) tutor. I've been involved in marketing for a while. One firm wanted me to test Chicken Double Decker, but I refused. They told me I shouldn't be working there if I don't eat meat. I've also been involved in marketing at Green Giant which mainly involved their sweet corn, which was OK. I set up a pub and was involved in the catering. They only used free-reared meat, but I found that compromising too. I've also run a small vegetarian frozen food business. I guess that all of these experiences helped me to write my vegan recipe book, "So, what do you eat?". My degree does seem to have helped me in the end.

Where did you get the idea from for your cookery book?

It came from the chart. It's really a survival guide based on my and Jamie's experiences - how to feed a kid and be as 'normal' as possible. Recipes include vegan versions of conventional meals like shepherd's pie, pasties, pizza, pancakes and cakes. They are all my own recipes. The Bristol Cancer Help Centre even sell it - it shows people how to give up traditional food without having to be 'odd'. Not only are the recipes very practical, but the book itself is too. It has a spiral binding so that it can be opened flat and even bent all the way round, and all the pages can be wiped clean - all important when using it in the kitchen.

How well has it sold?

It's sold around 4,500 copies so far. It can't easily be sold abroad since the postage costs are too high. It costs me £2 to post it even in the UK. It's available from Amazon and BOL. Waterstones took it also. WH Smiths won't sell it because of the spiral binding - they can't easily stack them. Again, I haven't done much marketing for it. I have a database of people and outlets who sell the food chart which helped. The distributors (Orangeburst) of the food chart were keen on me writing a book. In fact, they are a company that started up mainly to sell my charts. They now employ 10 people and sell many other things as well like organic soaps. They were the ones who wanted me to do my "A Woman's Healing Herbs" chart. They did all of the research for it, and all I did was the illustrations. The same is true for my recent "Natural First Aid Remedies" chart, although I had some involvement in the research for the information contained in this.

What did your publisher think of your book? Were they enthusiastic?

I didn't go to a publisher, I published it myself.

As well as looking after the charts, the books and bringing up Jamie, do you somehow manage fit in a job too?

Selling the charts and books is my full time job! I do the packaging and posting.

You live in Brighton which is where Viva! are based. Are you involved much with them?

I'm too busy to be involved with them really, but I've been on a few of their marches. Jamie was at their Ban Factory Farming march in London a few years ago, and presented the petition to Downing Street. He was also on the megaphone for hours chanting "Ban Factory Farming, Pigs Have Rights". I do some school talks for Viva! too, although this was mainly before they moved to Brighton. Now, they handle many of the school talks in Brighton. I still do some school talks though, mainly through Animal Aid. One school invites me back every year. I've also done cookery demonstrations in schools.

Liz's book and charts are available from some healthfood shops and also by mail order from various vegetarian, vegan and animal groups. Special offer to Vegan Views readers: buy them directly from Liz at a discount. Charts: £2.95 (inc p&p), book: £10.95 (inc p&p). If you buy the book Liz will also send you a free food chart. Tel: 01273 388864 or write to Liz Cook, 65 Lincoln Street, Brighton, BN2 9UG. Web: www.thevegancook.co.uk. Orangeburst, the company who encouraged Liz to write the book, is the main distributor of her charts and book. Tel: 01273 558112.

Pics: Liz's food chart and book.

Liz's food chart Liz's cook book

Also available (not pictured) are her "A Woman's Healing Herbs" chart and her "Natural First Aid Remedies" chart.

Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Cookery & Recipes
Cross-reference: Children
Cross-reference: Nutrition and Health
Cross-reference: Why I'm Vegan