Sunday, April 10, 2011

Remembering Shirley Wilkes-Johnson

A tomato bread bowl holding a festive salad. One of Shirley Wilkes-Johnson's original recipes.
Tonight, as we approach what would have been her 74th birthday, I remember Shirley Wilkes-Johnson, who died on Saturday. As we await a public celebration of her life this Saturday in Houston, I want to take a moment to remember.

For those who didn’t know her and her marvelous vegan activism, she was one of the producers and hosts of Vegan World Radio on  Pacifica's  KPFT 90.1 FM in Houston (since 2002).  She taught vegan cooking classes in the Houston area for many years.  She traveled around Texas speaking on “Vegetarian Roots: The Fascinating and Little Known History of Vegetarianism.”  She was co-founder and director for 13 years of the Lone Star Vegetarian Network. They have sponsored a statewide vegan chili cook off for twenty-two years.   She was co-founder and director for seven years of the South Texas Vegetarian Society in Brazoria County.

I first met Shirley and her wonderful husband Ben in 1991. I was one of the dinner speakers at an event sponsored by the Fund for Animals (now a part of the Humane Society). The vegan meal was fantastic. I never thought a Dallas hotel, unfamiliar with serving vegan food for several hundred people, could have done such a great job. But it turned out that sitting at my table was the reason the hotel pulled it off: Shirley Wilkes-Johnson, vegan chef extraordinaire. She never met a recipe she couldn’t veganize, or a hotel catering staff she couldn’t teach. I knew I had so much to learn from her.

During these years, Shirley offered vegan cooking classes in the Houston area. Lucky me! She sent me copies of the recipes as she developed them. I have a three-ring binder filled with her incredibly sophisticated, easily accessible, creative, tasty recipes from the decade of the 90s.

I learned to make her tofu feta cheese recipe around 1993. It became the basic component in our versions of spanokopita and tiropetes (baked phyllo triangles filled with tofu feta cheese). Every time I made tiropetes, my elementary son took at least six to school with him for his lunch. That thrilled me. Then he asked me to pack even more into his lunchbox. This made me curious; he had never struck me as having that great an appetite. It turned out all of his classmates loved them so much he was sharing them during lunch. That’s Shirley’s influence—share wonderful vegan food.

Over the years Shirley taught classes on Mexican cooking (with “Tamales de chorizo,” tofu flautas, pozole rojo, and enchiladas vegetarianos), Indian cooking (with Saag tofu), and many other themes. When Ladies Home Journal featured an article on “100 Sandwich Stars,”  she made them over: Barbara Bush’s was no longer “The First Lady” but “The Kind and Gentle First Lady” (using mock lobster instead of dead lobster). The John Goodman was transformed from “The Big Guy,” to the “Big Nice Guy,” and featured a vegetarian sloppy joe. Cher’s “forever fit” became “forever fit and compassionate.”  You get the idea.

My sons didn’t eat as much veggies as they might have; Shirley sent me a recipe for Spinach Bread. In her notes she wrote, “You don’t have to mention it has spinach in it—it doesn’t taste like it.” Believe me, I didn’t.

Meanwhile, she and Ben were yearly taking home prizes for their chili at the Lone Star Vegetarian Chili Cookoff.

At some point, Shirley told me she was hoping to do a vegan cookbook some day. This is before “vegan” was, in a sense, on the map. I offered to help however I could.

After 9/11, she began teaching 'Celebrate the World' Classes to help teach love and respect of other cultures. She had celebrated world cuisines when her children were growing up, too.

Last Monday, Shirley sent me answers to a survey Patti Breitman and I are doing for a book on what vegans eat. We asked her to identify “The best meal I ever prepared for anyone else.” Answering this question must have been really tough for Shirley!  But she sent me this wonderful answer, which in a paragraph sums up Shirley, the excellent chef and teacher, the loving and challenging parent, and the person who recognized everyone in the world as her neighbor. She had first done the “Celebrate the World Classes” for her children: “About once a month, I would prepare a meal from another country and no one was allowed at the table unless they could discuss the people and the country.  It was before computers so they had to read in the encyclopedia.  They complained about having to study before they ate until they grew up and then they told me how much they appreciate that I did it.  My son says that is what gave him the wanderlust he has now as a world traveler.”

Sometime after the tenth anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat (2000) came out, Shirley interviewed me for Vegan World Radio. I asked how the cookbook was coming; she still wanted to do it, but she had lots of commitments to meet first.

Then, in 2008, she hosted a show that included Patti and myself discussing our first book together, How to Eat Like a Vegetarian Even if You Never Want to Be One. Shirley was her inimical self. Afterwards, when Patti and I were talking, I told her about Shirley’s incredible recipes. “Offer to help her again,” Patti said.

This time, Shirley said, yes.

For almost a year, in 2009-2010, Shirley and I talked every Monday at 3 p.m. “Well hi there,” she would greet me, in her Texan accent. And we were off: discussing garfava flour and seitan, vegan omelets and salads, desserts galore and main dishes that floored me. I, so lucky, would open my email in the morning and there would be another recipe to read, cook, and plug into the rather massive file that was becoming the book. She was prodigiously creative, and soon we had more than two hundred recipes.    

That book was still in process at her death.

Shirley told us, “I believe that creating a vegan world is the most important social justice change in the history of this planet. Vegan activists are kindred souls to the abolitionists who worked to end slavery. I think that meat eating is the foundation of violence on this planet. Like Alex Hershaft, founder of FARM told me in an interview, I too can never stop being an activist until the world goes vegan or until I die - whichever comes first.”

And this is where she has left us. About her death on Saturday something must be said. I heard this directly from Ben, Shirley’s husband, and he has authorized me to share this. Shirley’s death was caused by a major stroke. The cause of the stroke was a congenitally malformed blood vessel in the brain. As Ben shared the news with me, he said, “While this blood vessel might have given way at any point in her life, it appears that her vegan diet kept her alive and healthy for this length of time.” I am grateful she was among us for as long as she was.

For those who haven’t yet become vegan, Shirley offers a rather profound insight, in answer to the question: “What have you learned about eating as a vegan that you wish you had known earlier?”

She said, “I wish I had known that it is harder to make the decision to give up cheese than it is to actually give it up.  Once you understand, it is easy to do without meat, dairy and eggs, fish, etc. and then you wonder how in the world you ever liked those things.”

One last question was, “Is there something about being a healthy vegan you want others to be sure to know?”

Shirley’s answer: “It absolutely cannot be healthy to eat misery.”

Shirley Wilkes-Johnson believed people could change and good vegan cooking helps! Her taste was impeccable; her love unbounded.

Shirley Wilkes-Johnson, my hero.

It is up to us to keep up her work, her love, her passion, her vision. Cook a great vegan meal and toast her. She would have loved that. And pass the vegan word on.