John Allen: Bringing Vegan to the Table at CDR
As a Community Dining Room (CDR) board member, John Allen brings a lot to the table, including his dedication to helping CDR incorporate more nutritional, plant-based meals. That’s why John is thrilled to share the news that CDR will host a meet-up group for those interested in learning more about plant-based nutrition and cooking, featuring a very special guest: chef and cookbook author Claire Criscuolo of Claire’s Corner Copia.
“Claire is such an iconic chef in the region,” says John. “She’s just the fairy godmother of food for some many of us.”
Criscuolo founded her iconic New Haven bistro in 1975 and serves up delicious organic, sustainable, vegetarian, kosher dairy, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. On Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., she will discuss plant-based nutrition and cooking in CDR’s Branford dining room located at 30 Harrison Avenue. Registration is required for community members who want to attend this free event (email firstname.lastname@example.org to register). Guests are asked to bring a plant-based, nonperishable food item to donate to CDR.
John and his husband of 41 years, Keith Hyatte, started on the path toward their vegan lifestyle in 1989, beginning with embracing a vegetarian diet. The Short Beach residents of 26 years migrated to their vegan diet in 2012.
“Full-on vegan means no meat, seafood, dairy or other animal milk products, or anything that’s related to animal by-products. We avoid honey, as well, and eggs,” says John. “Keith is the chef in the family. I can cook enough to survive, but he’s truly an amazing cook! He really understands how to put things together.”
John joined the CDR board about two years ago.
“I’ve been so impressed with the Community Dining Room,” says John. “It fits in with my philosophy of life. My career’s been dedicated to working in human services and helping folks, so it was just a natural progression. And I’m very passionate about several subjects, including veganism and plant-based eating, so one of the things I’ve been wanting to do is to help steer Community Dining Room into more plant-based offerings.”
To that end, John helped to gather CDR staff and volunteers for a demonstration and discussion with personal chef Jeffrey Cave Jr., a Short Beach neighbor.
“He and his wife are personal chefs, and they are finding more and more that they’re being asked to provide vegan and plant-based meals all over the state,” says John. “He came to speak with us at the dining room and made a vegan moussaka that was just unbelievable. It was really impressive for people to see that you don’t need animal products in order to have a nutritious and delicious meal.”
Over time, John hopes to help incorporate vegan meals among CDR’s offerings. CDR serves free and nutritious meals to any residents in need within the towns of Branford, North Branford, Guilford, and East Haven.
“I’m not expecting dramatic change at Community Dining Room; I’m expecting incremental change,” John says. “I think that by being a quiet force, and making sure that people try these things, they are going to recognize the value in it.”
Speaking of value, John notes there is an exceptional savings to the grocery bill for vegan shoppers and that a wide variety of produce and other ingredients, including those providing nonmeat based protein, can be found at any grocery store.
Since food is so tied to culture, family, friends, and emotion, it can be quite a leap to adopt a vegan lifestyle, but John says the past decade’s explosion of offerings in both products and ideas is accelerating the ability for many to give it a try.
“We all gravitate towards the things we know. But if you just search on Google the name of your family dish and put ‘vegan’ after it, you will have oodles of things to choose from. It’s incredible,” says John.
John says veganism is a personal choice for him and Keith due to its health benefits and the fact they are not contributing to the meat and dairy industry’s negative impact on climate change, nor the food industry’s treatment of animals.
“We support sustainable, environmentally friendly food that’s free of cruelty,” says John, who recommends a book, Diet for New America by John Robbins, for those interested in learning more. “He really lays it out — what meat and dairy products do to your body, what it does to the climate, and what it does to the animals that are forced to exist to create food. That’s an important book. It certainly changed our life,” says John.
John feels confident that blending plant-based offerings into the wide variety of meals served at CDR will become yet another benefit provided through the important work of this local nonprofit organization.
“The thing that is so important about the Community Dining Room is that it offers not just a meal but also a sense of community. It’s a place you can come to and connect with others,” says John. “I think it’s feeding the soul, in more ways than one.”