INTERVIEW: Kick Off World Vegetarian Month With Author/Activist Terry Walters

BlogHer Original Post

Today is World Vegetarian Day, the beginning to World Vegetarian Awareness Month, and as BlogHer's resident vegan, I am thrilled to kick it off with an interview with author Terry Walters. I own Terry's two books, Clean Food and Clean Start, and while Clean Food and Clean Start aren't categorized as veg*n cookbooks, they effectively are. It was a thrill to meet Terry in person at the recent BlogHer Handmade/The Creative Connection event. Of course I asked her for an interview, when I was probably supposed to just shake her hand! Luckily for me (and us), she happily agreed, and we had a great chat earlier this week.

Terry Walters

Like Kathy Freston, Terry is an ambassador for healthier, more conscious eating. In addition, I learned about her path from self-published author to an author working with a traditional publisher (and currently working on her third book). This was a bonus topic, given our upcoming Writers Conference. Terry told me she wants to track the post and answer any questions you may have, so please do leave your comments and questions!

Thank you so much for talking to me and to the BlogHer Community. I am always most curious to know: What is your background? What was your journey to start talking about "clean food," and how did you become an expert on food and health?

It's a good question, and the answer has many components to it. Mother was always very natural in her approach to living, and that was the home I grew up in and the values that were taught to me. When I was in college, my father had a heart attack. My mom called me and told me to get my cholesterol checked. Well, I was young, female, an athlete. They informed me at the clinic that that put me in this "no risk" category, and they sent me home. My mom said "Go back!" so I went back, got tested, and my cholesterol was really high. I didn't want to be on medication at my age, and I knew there had to be a connection between what I ate and my cholesterol.

We'd been mostly vegetarian for years when that happened; my mom didn't have a lot of sugar around the house. She cooked from scratch. When she brought my father home from the hospital, the doctors gave my mom a cookbook to use to cook for my father. Well, it had more meat, dairy, eggs, sugar than we had already been eating. So Mother was in crisis too. We went on this path together to try to figure this out. We talked to a lot of people and explored a lot of approaches to nutrition. That was where it started for me.

Within a couple of months, I had moved off campus to get a kitchen and cook for myself. The first thing I had ever done in the kitchen was use an Easy-Bake Oven! When I was a kid, that's what I would do while my mom cooked.

But when I moved off campus and started cooking for myself, I didn't know what I was doing. A doctor told me to eat brown rice and kale, and I made it and thought "Holy cow, there has gotta be a way to make this taste better." That's what I did, and I went through a lot of stages. It grew; I grew; I learned a ton about myself.

As I started having children, I started being able to use the knowledge I had gained to heal them...they had food sensitivities when they were younger, with all sorts of complications and symptoms. It became a journey that empowered me. It was nourishing because I was sharing it with my mom, and it was having positive effects on family.

Meanwhile, my friends and family looked at me like "What is that weird stuff she's eating?" But as they got older, they had their own health issues and wondered if it would make a difference if they ate how I ate. At the time I had young children; I was working in a different career.

And someone said "Maybe you could teach me how to make that kale." And what to do with tofu. So, I started teaching cooking classes in my home. It was more of a gift to me and more nourishing to me than the people who took the classes!

I had young children, and I was doing something I was passionate about, and it was an audience who selected themselves, and I was doing from home. About three years in, someone asked "Could you bind your recipes?" So shortly thereafter, I self-published my first cookbook. I had grown my cooking classes and pure word of mouth and developing a community. I published the first cookbook to give back to that community. I wasn't looking forward.

In fact, it wasn't until the day that Clean Food went to press that it got its name. I was talking to a friend who asked "So, what is this...is it all organic...?" and I said "It's not all about organic. This is about really good clean food." And I realized: I need to change the name of the book! (It wasn't called Clean Food.) I self-published the first edition. It sold about 2000 copies in 3-6 months. Within a year, I signed a deal with a publisher and they re-published, then published Clean Start and now a third on the way. Go figure. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Well, the topic is really all the rage now.

It's funny for me that it is, because for so many years people looked at me like I had three heads because i was eating kale. In those first classes I would cook things like quinoa and millet...and not only did people not know what they were, but they were actually hard to find. With my writing now, I'm always trying to incorporate ingredients that might be hard to find right this second, but in a year or two these will ingredients that are readily found. Trying to stay ahead of those food trends is integral to the work I do.

When you talk about building community, and word of mouth and self-publishing, I think that's something many in our community could see themselves doing. What were your mechanisms for building that word of mouth and community?

For me, it started organically. I started teaching in 2000. We didn't have social marketing at that point, only email. And I didn't want to be too vulnerable, since I was teaching in my home with young children. I used postcards for each class, which I sent to a listed that started with about 60 people I thought would be interested. In all my years of teaching, I only generated interest via word of mouth. I never advertised. I kept it close to home. That felt more manageable to me.

When that became too much, I moved to newsletter. It started as print and then moved to an email newsletter. Then it became a web site and so on. I also love Facebook and Twitter, because it's a direct connection with people.

That's the thing about food: Yes, it nourishes us, but where we truly get nourished is in how it brings us together. I was never focused on being a successful cookbook author. I was focused on sharing my passion every day and feeling really good about it at the end of the day. And I still focus on that.

The day to day is what makes our lives, not constantly reaching for who knows what it's gonna be.

I have two young daughters, and my husband and I are always questioning ourselves about how we're parenting. The careers that I was able to choose from when I was their age are now totally different. The careers we thought of as kids (I could be a doctor, I could be a lawyer, I could be in business) they don't really exist anymore. Having community is so important, especially for women. You step out of the marketplace and the business world, and you look at going back and there's nothing to go back to. I was working in educational marketing, of all things. I said to my husband one day:

"There has got to be a way that I can live my life with one definition of success, not one definition for my personal live and one for my business life." So he said, "Quit your job and find out."

I was blessed to be able to pursue that, and a lifestyle that afforded me to grow it slowly and organically. There aren't any rules anymore. We can make it if we have a great idea and connect with others and in doing so, give so much back to your community, and get so much back ourselves. For women, that's critical now. And if not critical, if nothing else: It's a great opportunity.

I never thought of that "one definition of success" issue before, I love that.

Of course, unfortunately that means for a lot of us that the computer is at center of house, and I'm working 24/7. I'm constantly thinking about it. It's my life. Like anything else: 90% is good, 10% stressful. And that's part of it.

Speaking of that: When people ask me about balance, I usually make a joke that co-running a Silicon Valley start-up means that "balance" isn't even in my vocabulary. But it's true for me. So, I'm always curious what people do or how you feel about balance?

I think the key is: What you choose to do, do fully.

Those doctors who told me that I needed to lower my cholesterol, also told me I needed to reduce stress. It took me years to figure out: Most of the things that were stressful were things I chose, and that I loved the best. We choose our stresses very often. Granted, there are a lot of things in life we don't have control over, but I didn't want to get rid of the things that i did have control over, because I brought them in in the first place.

So much of achieving balance is about changing the way your body reacts to stress. We can do that through meditation...meditation can be going for a run, walking your dog, anything that allows you to clear your mind and slow things down, so that when the stress comes at you, you don't have that chemical physical response that is stress. For me, exercise is critical. With my family and sometimes completely on my own. I would love to tell you that meditate every day or have a regular meditation practice. But I can't. When I am meditating regularly, everything is easier. But I don't. Although, I do much more in the winter.

Being a writer now, and so much time is spent with me and my best friend, the computer, so I run with a group, and I teach my classes. I still teach classes in my home. These are ways I stay connected to community.

When I was working on self-publishing the first book, my husband said "I can't wait for this to be done so life can go back to normal." It never did, it just keeps changing and becoming something new. For me it's been key to let go of a lot of fear, and do the best I can and not judge myself, and take it day by day.

I did not know Clean Food was self-published at first. Once again, I think a lot of members of our community would hear about you selling 2,000 books in 6 months or so, and again would think: I could do that. Can you tell me more about your path from self-publishing to traditional publishing? And what was your incentive to do that, given you had already self-published and owned that outright?

In hindsight, the best thing about having a publisher is distribution. So if you don't need that, sometimes I think you can do better continuing to self-publish. For me, self-publishing took me away from the passion of what I wanted to do. I was spending so much time fulfilling orders, managing distribution and selling the book and everything that goes with that, that I was no longer able to teach, create new recipes, take people to farms, empower them and share that component of the journey.

How I got to the publisher is twofold. First, I received an order straight through my website, and the purchaser's business was a publishing company. With every order, I always wrote a note that said "Thank you for your order...tell me how you heard about it, etc." For this one I added, "And I couldn't help but notice that you work for such and such. I hope this is for professional consideration, as well as personal enjoyment." And they wrote me back moments later, and it was.

Someone else had given me the name of someone in publishing, and that publisher who didn't do cookbooks, but he gave me the name of a colleague of his who did.

So soon, I was entertaining two offers from two small publishers. In doing my due diligence, I interviewed a number of lawyers and literary agent to help with the process. One of those agents stepped forward and is the one who suggested shopping to larger publishers.

Had that not happened, I'm not sure that going with one of the smaller publishers would have done me any better service than self-publishing.

I wasn't really sold on doing a second round of printing, but I didn't really know what was next. I hadn't thought "I'm going to self-publish this book and keep publishing it for the rest of my life." I just knew I couldn't afford to pay to self-publish more than 3000 copies. And I knew I could afford to sell it if I published fewer, because the price would have to be so high. That's what allowed me to know that if I sold them at a reasonable price, I'd be able to sell those books and recoup my investment. But it depends on what you want to get. I can't say I actually knew when I first self-published.

I went with the publisher I went with because everybody liked the book, but this publisher seemed to really believe in it and embrace its value. They didn't want to change it. I had nothing to lose, so I decided to go with the people who connected with it. And who connected with me.

[Note: I asked, and Terry's publisher is Sterling Publishing, the presenting sponsor of The Creative Connection, which, of course, makes sense!)

I signed a one-book deal, just to re-publish Clean Food. After it was very successful, within 3 months, we were talking about multiple books, and I'm still with them.

At this point I shared with Terry BlogHer's own story of meeting with entrepreneur Caterina Fake while seeking our first round of funding, and how she shared the best advice we ever got: People, Terms, Valuation (which I explain in this post).

At the end of the day, I want to sleep well and feel good about what I've done. I'm teaching my children how to lead their lives. I'm in touch with the Publishing people every day. I want to love my work. because that's how I started, and I don't want anyone to take that away from me. I don't want to be bitter. Business can do that.

My husband says "You need to have a business plan", and I do: I wake up every day, set the intention in my heart. I blow it out into the world. And I believe very strongly that the more I do it, the more world will start reflecting what's in my heart. And that's how I run my business.

[Note: Terry literally takes a deep breath while setting her intention and then blows it out.]

I have goals. People ask what do I want to do with this, do I want to be on TV? Well, I'd like the opportunity to find out if I want to be on TV. I don't know what's gonna work for me, or how I can reach the most people. I do know that every time I reach people, that connection nourishes me, and I think it nourishes them too.

You started by mentioning "sustainability". That's what sustains us, our families our health our environment. That's what the future looks like. The future is not about eating food that requires 10x the resources per calorie vs. a clean or plant-based diet. That's not sustainable. In the long run, it doesn't do us a world of good.

As a vegan, people often ask me what they should prioritize when eating. What's the best hierarchy of food selection and wanting to do the "best" thing: Local?, Seasonal?, Sustainable practices?, Organic?, Plant-based? Closest to the source? We're looking for these things, but it's not possible for everyone to find all of these things. How do you answer that question?

It's all about balance, and it's multi-faceted. Clean is different for each person. We have different lifestyle, different needs, different resources.

For one person getting rid of artificial ingredients in their packaged foods really does move their diet closer to the source. It makes it less processed. For someone else it's getting rid of packages is how they clean up.

I try to avoid creating "shoulds" and ideals based on somebody's else's standards. Getting rid of "should," and ideas that are based on someone else's standards that aren't realistic. It really is making one good choice after another. We do that by being empowered with education. My goal isn't to get everyone to eat certain things. My goal is to give them the tools, so they can make those choices themselves. My hope is that those same choices will nourish their family and the environment as well.

For me, what does it look like? Well looking around my own kitchen I see this:

  • Organic olive oil from California. I get it from a co-op.
  • 99% of what's in my kitchen is organic.
  • I don't have a lot of packages. I do have canned beans...sometimes canned vs. fresh makes the difference between eating beans and not.
  • Most produce is also organic. Most is from a local urban farm that I support.
  • In the winter it's more challenging. So I depend on Whole Foods a little bit more.
  • I have my own garden, and I do the best I can do with that.

It's a beautiful thing to say eat local and in season, but we don't have the resources evenly distributed across this country to do that and maintain good health. No grain grows within 100 miles of me, so obviously I can't get my grains here.

Plus: I think organic is losing its integrity. I think "nutrient density" is the next big thing. Non-organic kale grown locally may have more nutrient density than organic kale grown elsewhere.

There are so many variables that there just isn't one answer.

Ask questions: If you're at a farmer's market, farm, or grocery store: How is this grown? When was it picked? Was it sprayed?

It's about being a wise and bold consumer. The more we ask those questions, the more we create the demand, the more the market will reflect that we want that information and it's going to be more readily available. We see it happening.

Our food system is at two extremes: There is so much happening at the grassroots level, and yet there is more and more processed food in our grocery stores. It's harder than ever to be small organic farm that is financially sound. There's so much good happening, but there's still so much work.

There's also the extreme that there is so much available to a certain income level...via Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, even my local Safeway has added more organics, bulk foods, more vegan foods. And yet in lower income neighborhoods they may not even have a grocery store, or anything with a fresh produce produce aisle!

Which is why I support Urban Oaks Organic Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the country. It's 4.5 acres, 6 greenhouses and it's in a very impoverished neighborhood that is designated as a "food desert." It makes a lot of sense why bad habits and trends are perpetuated. It took private organizations to fund it and make it accessible. I participate in educational programming to teach folks in the neighborhood about nutrition and how to cook. At first people will fill up their basket with potatoes, apples, onions. That's what they know how to cook and are familiar with. There's nothing green, or orange. But with education, it's starting to change. All those changes are from grassroots level up, not government down.

Is there anything I didn't ask you?

It's important for people to know that food is something that grows. All Clean Food starts from a plant. That's my goal to have people have that understanding. It won't necessarily help our economy/food system if we are bringing conventional produce from Mexico. There are all sorts of issues … that's a whole other interview! But by and large if we can get people to understand where food comes from, then they can add it to their diet or move their whole diet that way. If people make changes like that, even adding one new clean food a month, over time that's enough to do it. That will return their health to them and help counter some of the imbalances we face, especially our children. I'm all about empowering that kind of awareness and that kind of change so we can make healthy choices.

Since this is being published for World Vegetarian Day, I need to ask: Clean Food isn't marketed as a vegetarian or vegan cookbook, but is it?

There are no recipes in the book that aren't veg*n, but I don't like the judgment of the labels, so I kept it out of my books. I just like to say these are the foods we need to be eating more of. If it were based on what was best for our environment, we'd all be vegan, but it's not realistic for everybody. Since Clean Start everything has been gluten-free as well. Not because I am, but because I want these recipes to be accessible to everybody!

Thank you so much, Terry. It was a pleasure meeting you, hearing more of the philosophy behind Clean Food and getting some bonus information about the self-publishing-to-traditional-publishing journey as well!

You can also follow Terry via Facebook and Twitter.

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