If you want to buy some marshmallows for a camping trip this weekend, stop by any grocery store and grab a bag. It’s a little more complicated, however, if you’re vegan. Standard marshmallows have gelatin in them, made from meat by-products.
But a local company, Chicago Soydairy, has made it a little easier: they’ve created a vegan marshmallow, which received the “Best New Product” honor at the 2009 Natural Products Expo West. They’ve also made vegan ice cream and cheeses, which have “real cheese flavor and texture,” says co-founder Ryan Howard. “Some other dairy-free cheeses taste rubbery, gummy, or just like plastic.”
The company began by trying to create a vegan ice cream that tasted creamy, rich, and high quality. It started in 2002, “as a part-time weekend experiment,” says Howard. “It really got going in 2005 when we got our ice cream really going in Whole Foods and local restaurants like the Chicago Diner.”
I spoke with Howard about Chicago Soydairy and about the challenging and exciting elements of practicing veganism.
When and why did you decide to eat vegan?
I went vegan when I was 15 after being given a copy of John Robbins’s Diet for a New America from a veg friend of mine. The author abandoned his family’s ice cream fortune (Baskin & Robbins), which gave his convictions credibility to me. I couldn’t ignore the truths in there, and boom, there it was. Vegan. My hunger for knowledge on the animal rights and health issues surrounding veganism were insatiable, and everything I found further supported the diet. Being vegan was difficult back then. We didn’t have the words “VEGAN” written on the package like they do now. Regardless, it was worth it because it meant one more person not supporting animal cruelty.
How did you come up with the original product recipes?
The whole point of the company is to help people transition away from animal-based foods. So, we had to find the products people grew up with and model those flavors in our vegan versions. We formulated Temptation Vegan Ice Cream to taste rich like Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Teese Mozzarella was modeled after fresh mozzarella cheese, and the nacho-flavor Teese after the familiar nacho cheese you’d find in any baseball park in the country. My personal background is in food development and process engineering, so I came up with a starting point, and Dan and I tweaked recipes until they tasted great.
Can you share any memorable feedback from customers about your products?
This is what makes all the work pay off. I got an e-mail the other day from a woman telling me that Teese was the key to her giving up dairy cheese and going vegan. Our facility is not only dairy-free, but also egg-free and nut-free. Some children with allergies, who have never been able to eat ice cream, have hugged me – their mothers too. That makes me feel good. I also had a couple write us about the Dandies Vegan marshmallows we make being the hit of their camping trip in Yellowstone!
Tell me about your staff.
All-vegan staff, nine of us. I feel it adds legitimacy to the all-vegan product when it’s made by vegans.
Aside from places that sell your products, where do you think is the best place to get vegan food around Chicago?
Farmer’s market. Keep it simple: don’t forget your fruits and vegetables.
What are some of the new things that you’re working on at Chicago Soydairy?
Always working to increase capacity at the plant and increase quality. Product wise, we have some new marshmallow novelties, and are scaling up our Teese shreds capacity.
What are some of the most exciting and most challenging things for you about being vegan?
I really enjoy seeing veganism becoming accepted. All the things I used to tell my grandfather in 1995 are now accepted as truths. Animal rights are much more accepted (although a lot quieter these days). The challenges to me are to get people to stop thinking that “cage-free” and “humanely raised” is enough to justify animal slavery because it’s still “future chicken patty” and “killed cow” in the end.
What do you think is the most annoying misconception about vegans?
That we’re lacking in protein, or that it affects your manhood. One or the other. I’m 6’2, 185 pounds, have a six-year-old vegan son, and run adventure races and skateboard. [Cofounder] Dan [Ziegler] is the real beast though – this guy could run laps around 99 percent of all meat eaters! He’s a triathlete and adventure racer.