Breakfast with The Honky Tonk Man: Interview with Natalie Slater of Bake and Destroy

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

My wife and I picked up a copy of the cookbook Bake and Destroy one dreadfully sunny day, and it caught my attention right away. Yes, the recipes were quirky and creative (and vegan obviously); and yes, the author had lots of tattoos. But thumbing through it, I found myself laughing–frequently–at the oddity of it all. And at the rightness of it all (for someone a little off and a little dark, such as myself).

Natalie Slater, who created the Bake and Destroy website back in 2006, pulls out all the stops in her vegan cooking, drawing on her main obsessions of heavy metal and punk/hardcore, professional wrestling, and B-movies. To browse her various manifestations via Bake and Destroy is to appreciate the funny side of darkness, be it the off-color, the odd, or the inappropriate.

After my interview with Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis, I was eager to explore the idea of “vegans with an edge” more and to speak with Natalie about her metal-fueled path to veganism, her creative process, and her weaving together of all her favorite things in Bake and Destroy. And she was kind enough to oblige…

Photo: Sean Dorgan
Photo: Sean Dorgan

I understand that your path to veganism meandered first through the lands of metal and hardcore. Can you discuss how you became vegan, and when? How did music play a role in the transition?

I was in 4th or 5th grade when Headbanger’s Ball started airing on MTV. One night my uncle was babysitting us and he let me stay up and watch and I just became totally obsessed with thrash metal after that. All the New Kids on the Block posters in my room got replaced with pages from Metal Hammer. There was a little crew of “metal kids” that hung out at school, and once we hit high school we started going to see any live music we could–there wasn’t a big metal scene in the mid-90’s in Chicago, industrial had kind of taken over at that point, so we ended up at hardcore shows. Veganism was a big part of the hardcore scene then, and it was actually a guy named Tim Remis who plays in a band called Sweet Cobra who first got me to go vegan.

What does your music playlist look like today? I see homages to Cannibal Corpse (the Cannibal Corpse Crock Pot recipe for Shredded Humans is perfection) and invocations of Immortal, so you seem to stay up to date on death and black metal, among many other things. What do you listen to when baking and destroying in the kitchen? Do you have particular musical genres for particular cuisines, occasions, etc.?

I don’t think there are many surprises on my iPod. It’s all over the place but the one consistency is that I can’t stand pop music. You’ll find lots of Youth of Today, Mouthpiece, Chain of Strength, Darkthrone, Marduk, Immortal, Cannibal Corpse, The Cramps, Agnostic Front…

Your website, book, and social media channels have a distinctive punk/metal vibe—not in a “Today I’m wearing my Sex Pistols t-shirt” sort of way, where the punk is sprinkled on like funky sugar crystals, but suffused through everything as a mighty mouth-puckering flavor. How does this aspect of your personality and personal life influence your creativity when making new vegan recipes?

Ha! That’s a funny description, thank you. I rarely approach a new recipe from a traditional standpoint. That’s to say–I almost never start out with, “I’d like to make a recipe for peanut butter banana French toast.” I usually start out by daydreaming a goofy scenario–like, what would happen if the Honky Tonk Man had to crash at my house? What would I make for breakfast? Well, he’s an Elvis-impersonating pro-wrestler so I could probably do something with peanut butter and bananas. Maybe start with banana bread and dip it into peanut butter custard…

Along with that, how do you see the relationship between the hard-edged bad attitude of punk and metal and the “cruelty-free,” “compassionate” message of mainstream veganism? Do the two play well together in your head? Do you find any instances in which your musical tastes clash with the principles of veganism?

I’ve jokingly remarked in the past that veganism is very metal because it’s just another way to be disgusted with the human race. But I do think those of us who listen to punk and metal tend to question the world around us more than people who listen to more mainstream music. And when you listen to a song like “Shredded Humans,” to use an example from my cookbook, if you really think about why those lyrics are disturbing you can’t help but realize that’s what we do to animals every day. Butchered at Birth isn’t just a sick name for an album; it’s also what happens to male chicks every day thanks to the egg industry. They can’t lay eggs, so thousands of male baby chicks get shoved through a grinder while they’re still alive. Cows are impregnated by rape racks, their calves ripped from them and sent off to be slaughtered for veal, all so humans can drink the milk that was meant to feed those babies. Most people’s breakfast plate is the result of acts more brutal and horrific than any grindcore song ever written.

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

One thing that struck me when I picked up your book was how much fun it is to read, and your website is also hilarious. I have never seen such a deft handling of professional wrestling, loud music, B-movies, and vegan food, and with such positive and popular results. What does the response to you and your creation(s) say to you about veganism in popular culture? Would you say that your mélange of sub-cultures in Bake and Destroy reflect veganism’s place as a sub-culture, or do you see the vast variety of people and styles promoting veganism today as a sign of its growth and vitality?

Well jeeze, after I just got all dark and heavy with that last question I don’t sound like much fun but I’m glad that came across in the book! Vegan athletes and celebrities have definitely helped to make it more of a household word, and of course it didn’t hurt me that CM Punk wrote the forward of my book. What’s great, though, is that a lot of people who bought it just for that reason have reached out to me and told me that they’re making my recipes and really enjoying vegan food. It’s not just punks and weirdos anymore, I mean, I went to Veganmania in Chicago last year and there were whole families of totally “normal” people there–people are just figuring out that it’s fun and easy to eat plants.

You do impressive work to make vegan foods that could appear at grandma’s birthday party, a Sunday brunch with yuppie friends, or a greasy diner in a back alley. (I mean all this as a compliment.) For example, the first recipe in your book is for Banana Bread French Toast Cupcakes; flipping through the pages lands me on your Chicago-Style Sammich; and then I have to pause and chuckle at Spaghetti Cake with Grandma Sharon’s Hater-Proof Sauce. Whom did you envision as your primary audience or audiences when writing your book and developing your website (i.e., the “bad vegans” of your book’s subtitle)? And how does your current fan base reflect that early vision?

When I started my website I honestly only meant for my close friends and family to read it. I was a new mom, bored at home, watching tons of cooking shows on TV and spending my son’s nap time in the kitchen playing around. Once I realized people other than my friends were reading, I didn’t make any effort to change my tone or subject matter. It was a little more difficult convincing a publisher that there is an audience for a vegan cookbook with nods to wrestling, B-movies, heavy metal, etc., but thankfully they trusted me and my book has found its way into a lot of homes–including Elvira’s house! The Mistress of the Dark herself owns my book!

Photo: Bake and Destroy

Your book has a lot of helpful info and resources for vegan baking (and destroying), and your website also has a plant strong crash course and tons of other guidance for vegans cooking and for people cooking vegan (as well as the Joy of Cooking Humans!). How do you see yourself as an advocate for vegan living? Are you mostly interested in the food–creating it and helping people make it? Or are there other components of veganism as a lifestyle and ethical stance that you include as well? And is the food then a portal to that dark and compassionate realm?

I’m sure I’ve been accused of being a “vegan apologist” because of my laid-back approach, but I really think that by being patient and understanding I have reached more people and changed more diets than I would have had I taken a militant stance. It’s not as simple as “go vegan” for a lot of people. I try to give people options and resources that are simple and accessible. When I got interested in veganism there weren’t a ton of resources, I had to rely on other people to teach me and they weren’t always nice about it. The “vegan police” turned me off of the lifestyle much more than they encouraged me to learn more. So I make a conscious effort to not be a jerk about it. I do think vegan food is a “gateway” to making other compassionate choices–from opting for cruelty-free cosmetics to not wearing clothes and shoes made from animals.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

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Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

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