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Why I write cookzines

By jae steele

or me, “it all vegan” six years ago on a little herb farm in Nova Scotia, when I fell in love with a vegan. He was charming, and passionate about wanting nothing to do with the consumption of animals–in the food he was eating or the belt that held up his pants. You’d think my conversion to more ethical eating habits would have been based in political action, but in truth, that came later. The boy soon left to work for an animal rescue organization in California, but the veganism stuck, and it changed my life–including the way I make zines.

Back in Toronto, some friends were starting up a queer environmental group. I offered to make a small cookzine as a fundraiser, with the 20 vegan recipes I’d mastered so far. I was already familiar with zine-making–I’d started a feminist health collective with some friends in high school and our first zine was born out of the necessity for a handout to accompany our menstruation workshops. Once we’d tapped into a zine community (and stopped calling the handout a booklet), we also created Beating Around the Bush, a zine about gender and sexual health. With my cookzine, Vegan Freegan, I discovered the joys of recipe sharing–dairy- and egg-free eating is still not commonplace enough, so vegans will snap up almost any resources they can get their hands on. At first, my zines included adaptations of other people’s recipes, but as I got more comfortable in the kitchen, I wrote my own. When I’d collected another 50 recipes, I put Vegan Freegan out again for a zine fair in Halifax. The zine sold out, and I ran back to Staples to make more.

The more I get into food–whether it’s devouring cookbooks like trashy romance novels or studying holistic nutrition–the more content I accumulate for my zines. Since that first cookzine, I’ve produced four issues of a publication called Ripe. I’ve made it my mission to create vegan baked goods that don’t taste vegan. You know what I’m talking about–muffins that bake up like hockey pucks, or cake that isn’t decadent enough to make you crave a second slice. I want to make the kind of information found in glossy food magazines available to the folks who wholeheartedly embrace all things D.I.Y., in a context that feels accessible to them.

I write pretty anecdotally because I want people to feel like we’re chatting in their kitchen together. Despite a (short) history of professional kitchen work, a big part of my food knowledge comes from trial and error in my own home. I swoon when I think about the hundreds (or thousands maybe? Who counts when you’re using the honour-system photocopiers at Staples?) of cookzines in kitchens around the world with ratty covers, pages popping out from under stapled bindings, spattered with squash soup or globs of peanut sauce. It thrills me to think that I tried something in my kitchen one afternoon, and by way of a zine, someone I don’t even know has recreated it for a road trip picnic or their kid’s birthday party.

I don’t think it’s about ego, but about a sense of connectedness. I worry that we shell out tonnes of cash to faceless big businesses that churn out additive-packed meals, and then raise our eyebrows at $3 organic broccoli at our local food co-op. In making my cookzines, I work to get in on a food-positive movement that encourages D.I.Y. cooking instead of insta-meals from a box; food that really nourishes us, that we can build communities around.

As any self-promoting zinester knows, zines aren’t always easily explained. “Oh, so it’s online?” someone will ask. I explain to them that I hardly know how to do anything on the computer. I cut ‘n’ paste them, literally, and assemble nice little booklets you can hold in your hand. I haven’t washed my hands of everything computery, though. Writing cookzines has led to a food-based weblog called Domestic Affair. The blog serves as instant gratification–it’s like zine writing, but I get to publish it immediately for thousands of people to see online. And one serves the other: my posts become the content of my zines, I sell my zines through my blog. While I love posting recipes online, it’s far easier (and less risky, I might add) to bring a zine into the kitchen than it is to bring a computer.

Over the years I have put in serious time as a zinestress. Frantically cutting and pasting the night before a zine fair, late nights at the copiers, followed by collating and long-armed stapling at the fair the next morning. It’s rare that I make any money off the things–we do it for love, right? On more than one occasion in my job as a childcare provider, I’ve strapped wee babes to my body, lined zine pages up on countertops, and walked circles around the kitchen to collate. It’s proven to be a great way to put kids to sleep, too.

With a couple hundred recipes in print now, my cookzines have become the building blocks for a full-fledged cookbook. I look forward to finding it a home with some hip, vegan-friendly publisher. While I love the place I’ve made for myself in zine culture, I now want someone to back me, to help get my work out into a wider world.

jae steele is a registered holistic nutritionist and writer of six veg cookzines. New recipes appear on her weblog, domesticaffair.ca, each and every Friday.

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