Clued In: An Interview With Alicia Silverstone

Interview by Sarah Toland

In a world where image often trumps integrity, 33-year-old Alicia Silverstone is a breath of fresh air. The actress, best known for her starring role in Clueless, is a devoted vegan, environmentalist, and animal-rights activist—and has been for 11 years. Alicia is so passionate about clean living that she recently wrote The Kind Diet (Rodale, 2009) [[hyperlink to the recipes story]] to tell the rest of the world how a plant-based diet can drastically change your health—and life. In Natural Solutions’ April 2010 issue, she talked about why being vegan is so important. Here, she shares more of her secrets on holistic health, easy ways to go vegan, shopping for inexpensive eco-fashion, and more.

On what shapes her everyday life
I try to be environmentally responsible in everything I do and everything I bring into my life. Every time I make a decision, I think, “How is this going to affect the environment?” So if I need mouthwash, I’m not going to buy a huge plastic bottle filled with toxins—I’m going to look for a brand that uses clean ingredients and comes in a recycled bottle. I do the same thing when I make other decisions about my health, home, and food. I really think hard about what is the most responsible choice.

On why she went vegan
I became a vegan 11 years ago because I love animals. There’s a reason slaughterhouses aren’t in our cities, and there’s a reason no one can see them. I saw it, and I was hysterical. I came home, looked at my dog and thought, “How am I able to love and cuddle you when I let other animals be tortured to death?” After awhile on the diet, I started experiencing incredible health. My nails grew strong, my eyes got really white, and my hair got long and thick. I started to thin down, and my asthma and allergies went away. I saw these amazing effects, and at the time, I thought it was just good karma. But then I started doing research, and I realized that it wasn’t karma. There’s a ton of research and hard medical proof behind a plant-based diet—people are using it to cure cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. I started to wonder, with all these incredible results, why isn’t everyone on a plant-based diet?

On why it’s and easy to be vegan
I don’t think maintaining a vegan diet is any different than maintaining any diet. Everyone has to make time to find food, and it doesn’t add any extra time to find vegan food. It’s about prioritizing your life and figuring out what is important to you. I don’t care about new clothes, new cars, or fancy jewelry. I don’t go out and spend money on alcohol. Most people spend a lot of money on stuff: coffee, cigarettes, medication, or liquor. But when you stop spending money on stuff and start spending money on living well, it’s amazing what can happen to you.

On why she decided to write The Kind Diet
I wanted to give people the tools to live their best lives, free of illness and full of vibrancy. You don’t have to care about animals or the planet to be vegan—you may only care about looking your best. The reason I called it The Kind Diet is because it’s about being kind to yourself and gifting yourself with beautiful and glowing skin, mental clarity, and great fits of joy. It’s a bonus that the diet also happens to be good for the environment. I’ve learned that what you put into yourself is an investment. Because I eat right, I don’t go to the doctor, I don’t take any medication, and I don’t drink coffee—I don’t need it.

On how she handles the pressure to be thin
Whenever I got a little chubby in the past, my only options were starving myself or going on some dumb diet. You never know what will work, and that’s the fear, pain, and suffering in the diet cycle. But now I don’t worry about my weight because I know exactly what to do if my jeans don’t fit: I fix it by eating macrobiotic veggies and whole grains. Weight’s not an issue anymore—and that’s freedom. I know my body will always look beautiful.

On her dreams for the fashion world
A lot of my clothes are completely green, either from thrift stores or eco-clothing companies, shop thrift stores first, then buy new stuff from sustainable designers before I resort to clothes that aren’t organic. My dream is that more big-name fashion designers start using natural, clean fabrics—then people will see that eco-clothing can have style.

On how to save money on eco-fashion
Eco-clothing is not more expensive for anyone who already buys those horrible, ridiculously expensive designer clothes—and there are a lot of people who do. I don’t think that eco is more expensive than stores like J. Crew when you compare prices. But I don’t feel good about spending money on clothes, either, so my biggest recommendation for people who don’t want to spend the money is to do what I do—go to used-clothes stores. Everything is so beautiful and unique, and if I buy a dress for $40 and don’t like it a year later, I don’t feel so bad about it.

On her passions
I can get incredibly passionate about green issues and, of course, disappointed by the choices other people make. But I don’t want to judge anyone; I just want people to make better choices. I don’t expect everyone to care about the environment as much as I do. The environment is in my bones, my heart. And any step someone else is willing to take, I think, Thank God, come on board.

On making a green home
I live in an old house that I bought when I was 19. I’ve made some renovations to it, and I’ve tried to be as responsible as possible with these renovations. I have solar panels, which is a really easy thing to do, and my air conditioning and heating units are made out of fiberglass. Every decision I make for my house is made with the environment in mind. And it’s little stuff, too: My husband [Christopher Jarecki] has been bugging me about getting new sheets because the ones we have are all torn and ripped, but I haven’t done it yet because I want to make sure we get ones that are good for the environment.

On her yard
I really wanted a laundry line for our house, so my husband bought me one for my 30th birthday. I love it. I don’t have to use the dryer—I can just hang our clothes like people use to do before machines that used all this energy. I feel like I’m living in Italy. It’s beautiful.
Another thing I’ve really gotten into is my garden. My gardening choices in the past were completely non-conscientious—I would just a pick a plant, use all this water on it, and move away. Now when I pick a plant, I think, “If you can survive in my garden without all this water, you can live here.” I’m very interested in permaculture and using grey water to feed plants. These are the things I’m really excited about—they’ve been dreams I’ve had for a long time, and it’s so exciting to finally be making them happen.

On making compromises
You have to make some compromises, and it’s about trying to make the best decisions for the environment whenever you can. Right now, I’m living in New York, and I have to buy plastic gallon water bottles because the water in my apartment is coming out brown, and I can’t filter it. I feel bad about wasting all this plastic, but I know I’m making as many of the right choices as I can. And any right choice anyone makes is a step in the right direction.

On her advice for the government
I just wish the government would say, Enough, we’re not allowing people to produce pesticide-laden cotton. It should be illegal. How can it be legal to produce all these pesticides that kill the environment? But that’s just me being innocent. That’s my idealistic side. That’s my dream.

On her favorite foods
I love soups and fresh produce and good whole grains. In New York, I’ve been on a food orgy, walking around trying all the great restaurants, stores, and vendors. I can get a warm bagel with vegan cream cheese on almost every corner. The vegan cheese plate and vegan mint ice cream sundae at Pure Food and Wine [a raw-foods, vegan restaurant in Gramercy Park]? Oh my God, it’s so good. And there are falafels everywhere—I love falafels. When I don’t eat well, I get tired, I get circles under my eyes, and I start to get grumpy. When you’re used to feeling amazing because you eat great food, anything less than that is not acceptable. You immediately want to get back on because you want the great feeling again.

On holistic health
I don’t need to do acupuncture, take supplements, or go to a naturopath—I use food. If I get a little sick, I know exactly what made me sick. When I get sick, I think, “What did I eat?” Maybe I had too much sugar or maybe I ate some dairy. I think people on the standard American diet take supplements because they’re eating terribly and leaching minerals out of their body. I know I don’t have any nutritional deficiencies, and I love my body now. I feel really good; I feel really comfortable in my skin. We eat three times a day, so you have a choice three times a day whether to poison yourself or to nourish your organs and spirit.

 

Polenta Casserole With Seitan
This dish is elegant, delicious, and satisfying—great for brunch. Because it incorporates a grain, vegetables, and seitan, it’s a complete meal. A nice side of greens would make it absolutely perfect.
SERVES 6

1 1/2 cups polenta or cornmeal or 1 cup millet
1 medium-size head cauliflower cut in large pieces
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen and thawed
2 pinches fine sea salt
1 (8-ounce) package seitan, sliced
Kernels from 2 ears corn or 1 cup thawed frozen kernels
6 asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons roasted sesame tahini
1/3cup soy milk
1 1/2 tablespoons shoyu plus more for sprinkling on top
2 teaspoons umeboshi vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Fresh basil leaves for garnish

1. Place the polenta or millet in a large pot. Add the cauliflower, peas (if using fresh), salt, and 5 cups water (add just 3 cups if using the millet). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer the polenta for 30 minutes (cook for 25 minutes if using the millet). Polenta must be stirred frequently as it cooks to prevent it from sticking or becoming lumpy, but you don’t need to stir millet.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8x8 casserole dish.
3. While the cauliflower mixture cooks, arrange the sliced seitan in the casserole dish. Layer the corn kernels on top, and then add the asparagus.
4. Remove the polenta mixture from the heat. Add the tahini, soy milk, shoyu, and umeboshi vinegar, and mash with a potato masher or fork until the mixture resembles mashed potatoes. Add the chopped parsley and peas (if using frozen) and mix well.
5. Spoon the mashed mixture into the casserole dish over the vegetables, and smooth the top. Poke a few small holes in the surface, and sprinkle with a little extra shoyu (this makes the top crispy).
6. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Let the casserole cool for 15 minutes before cutting into squares. Garnish with the basil, and serve.

 

Sicilian Collard Greens With Pine Nuts and Raisins
Beyond being incredibly yummy, this dish is also a sneaky way to introduce people to the glory of collard greens. Tip: Try substituting the balsamic vinegar for shoyu and the pine nuts for pumpkin seeds.
SERVES 2 OR 3

1 bunch collard greens
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1. Use a sharp knife to cut out the central rib and stem from each collard leaf. Rinse the leaves in a sink of cool water, lifting them into a colander to drain a bit (you want some water to remain on the leaves).
2. Toast the pine nuts over medium heat in a dry skillet for about 5 minutes or until golden. Shake the pan often to keep the pine nuts from burning. Transfer to a plate, and set aside.
3. Place the garlic and oil in a large skillet, and sauté over medium heat for 1 minute or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the damp collards and stir, then cover the pan and cook for 2 minutes longer.
4. Add the raisins and pine nuts to the collard greens, and stir. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, cover, and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer.
Note: The stems of the collard greens are full of minerals, so if you want to use them, chop them into 1 inch pieces and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the collard greens.

 

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
Back in the day, I was obsessed with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Now I make this healthier version, and they are way better. In fact, I think they are the most ridiculously delicious things in the entire world. Look for graham crackers that are naturally sweetened or low in sugar (Health Valley makes a good one), and store the leftover crackers or crumbs in an airtight container for future use.
MAKES 12

1/2 cup Earth Balance butter
3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter (preferably unsweetened and unsalted)
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs or 10 graham cracker squares
1/4 cup maple sugar or other granulated sweetener
1 cup grain-sweetened, nondairy chocolate, or carob chips
1/4 cup soy, rice, or nut milk
1/4 cup chopped pecans, almonds, or peanuts

1. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. (The company If You Care makes unbleached liners made from recycled paper.) Set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the peanut butter, graham cracker crumbs, and maple sugar, and mix well. Remove the mixture from the heat.
3. Evenly divide the mixture, approximately 2 tablespoons per cup, among the muffin cups.
4. Combine the chocolate and milk in another pan. Stir over medium heat until the chocolate has melted.
5. Spoon the chocolate evenly over the peanut butter mixture. Top with chopped nuts. Place in the refrigerator to set for at least 2 hours before serving.

Excerpted from The Kind Diet (Rodale, 2009).