Gene Stone is an accomplished editor (Esquire magazine and Simon and Schuster are among his conquests) and writer (he’s authored books under his own name as well as ghostwriting for people like the medical directors of the Canyon Ranch health spa). One of Gene’s more recent projects was The Engine 2 Diet, which he penned with firefighter Rip Esselstyn (click here to read my interview with Rip.) Gene also had a hand in founding Stogo, one of NYC’s vegan ice cream shops.
SuperVegan: Hey, Gene, thanks for speaking with SuperVegan. When did you start transitioning to vegetarianism? And what prompted that change?
Gene Stone: I think it was about 20 years now—I just didn’t feel good about eating animals. Also, I was reading more and more about the negative effects of animal protein on the body. But I wasn’t ready to make the full vegan shift yet.
SV: So it was more of a health issue than an ethical one for you?
GS: It was both. I found it hard to look my cats in the eyes when I was eating their mammalian relatives, even if they would have been delighted to do the same.
SV: In winter 2001, you coauthored The Engine 2 Diet with firefighter Rip Esselstyn. How did you end up working together?
GS: My agent, Richard Pine, had signed up Rip, then tried him out with a different ghostwriter. That relationship didn’t work at all. Then he asked me if I’d be interested. When Richard first told me about Rip, I thought, What in the world would I have in common with some rabble-rousing, Texas firefighter/triathlete? It turns out, more than I ever could have imagined.
SV: Like what?
GS: I didn’t expect he would be liberal (politically). I also didn’t expect we would have similar senses of humor and really enjoy hanging out with each other as much as we do. I’ve become very good friends with several other members of his family as well. In the summer, I go up to the Esselstyn family farm near Hudson and spend a weekend in vegan paradise, where two dozen or so Esselstyns gather and there’s nothing but incredible plant-based food everywhere, all the time.
SV: Rip is very energetic, while you seem more subdued. What was it like to work with him? What was the writing process like?
GS: Rip is one of the most energetic people I have ever met. But I have some energy of my own, so it was something of a roller coaster. We fought at times, we argued, and we really liked each other enormously. Once, when I felt Rip was behaving poorly, I overreacted a bit, perhaps, and told him to go fuck himself. The next day he sent me flowers.
SV: Nicely played! So what was the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?
GS: The most surprising information came from all the studies, etc., that back up The China Study: Animal protein really isn’t good for anyone outside of babies. Like most people, I believed the meat, dairy and egg industries’ promotion of the need for protein, protein, protein. Turns out most Americans eat way too much protein, and it’s not good for us.
SV: Does The China Study actually say that animal protein is good for babies? I haven’t read it, but from what I know of the findings, that would surprise me.
GS: No. I was just thinking of Jill, Rip’s wife, and how she breast-feeds her daughter. But when the baby is two, she’ll become vegan, as did Kole, their son.
SV: You went vegan while writing The Engine 2 Diet. How did that come about?
GS: When I agreed to do the book, it was evident I’d have to go vegan—I knew it would make Rip trust me more and make the writing process easier.
SV: So you were willing to go vegan in order to write the book? Did you think you would go back to being vegetarian once the project was finished?
GS: Yes, I became vegan to write the book—you can’t expect to spend that much time with Rip and not be vegan. But I was more than happy to try. However, I did think that when the book was done I would revert to vegetarianism. It didn’t happen. I can’t imagine eating cheese or dairy or eggs anymore.
SV: Was going vegan difficult for you? What was the toughest part? The greatest reward?
GS: The most difficult part was giving up fish, eggs and cheese. The cheese part, though, became easy. Now it just looks like solidified fat. The eggs were a little harder; I’d been eating eggs for breakfast my whole life. But now I prefer tofu scrambles. Fish was the hardest. Every now and then, when I can’t avoid it, such as if I’m at a dinner party and I’m really hungry, I’ll eat fish. I’ve seen Rip do it as well. As he says, you don’t have to be plant-perfect, just plant-strong.
The greatest reward was seeing my cholesterol drop from 240 to 160 and my LDL go from 140 to 98. Also, I can look any living creature in the eye without guilt.
SV: So when you stray, why with fish? Fish have been shown to feel pain just like other animals. Do you make that choice from a low-fat perspective? I’d say from a health perspective, if not for the mercury and other contaminants.
GS: Because I really like it, and it can be the only alternative between something to eat and nothing to eat. And I sometimes think it has health benefits, although I’m not sure because, having written so many books on health, I suspect that modern Western medicine knows little about the subject. But yes, I know that fish feel pain, and I don’t like eating them, so I’m eating less and less. Fish-free since early April…
SV: What would you say to people who tell you you’re not really vegan or at least not vegan enough if you eat fish occasionally? How do you feel about vegan “purity”?
GS: Very good question. For one, at this point, my fish eating is so limited that people are only aware of it if I tell them. But what I say is something I mentioned before, something Rip taught me: I don’t expect people to be plant-perfect. It’s hard in this society to be vegan 100 percent of the time, particularly if you travel. For instance, a friend of mine goes to rural Argentina often, and he’s served steak three meals a day. He’s going to have to make an exception when he travels. I have other friends who are close to being vegan, but every now and then they stray. I don’t want them to feel guilty or bad about themselves because every now and then they have a piece of fish or cheese. If so, they might just say screw it and go back to their ugly meat-eating ways. Instead Rip and I—and many of my other vegan friends—feel that if you can get someone to go 80 percent vegan or 90 percent vegan, that’s better than their not being vegan at all. It’s what we call plant-strong. Even Rip’s father, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., one of the nation’s leading experts on the plant-strong diet, has, now and then, had a nonvegan piece of food—not on purpose, but because life throws curveballs. Again, if you make people feel bad about that one occasional break, you may lose them for good. Better to be forgiving than strict, better to be tolerant than cruel, better to be plant-strong than plant-stupid.
SV: Did you contribute to the recipes in the book? Do you have any favorites?
GS: I’m not a cook. So no, no recipes from me.
SV: Do you live off takeout? What are your favorite restaurants in NYC? Where do you order from most?
GS: I don’t cook, but I don’t order out all the time because, since I work at home, I tend to graze all day: an apple, a vegan burger, some veggies, a banana, a handful of nuts, a salad, etc. When I do order out, I like ‘Snice, Viva Herbal Pizza and Souen. I also get food from Spunto, the thin-crust pizzeria on Carmine that isn’t vegan but will make an amazing thin-crust, marinara sauce, no-cheese pizza with lots of vegetables, etc. Right now it’s my favorite. I also like Gobo, Pure Food and Wine and, most of all, Blossom. I love their tofu scramble for brunch.
SV: Blossom is my favorite! Although Souen and Gobo and make my short list too.
I was going to attempt the workout regimen Rip outlines in the book, but it seems like a lot of work and time, and I’m not very disciplined when it comes to exercise. Do you do all the exercises?
GS: I don’t. I’m a gym-going kind of guy, so I do everything there. But if there are days when I can’t get to the gym, I do some of his exercises.
SV: In early 2008, you cofounded the vegan and gluten-free ice cream shop Stogo in New York City with Steve Horn and Rob Sedgwick. How did you get involved? Would you have done it if you hadn’t already gone vegan?
GS: I met Robbie at a party, and when we went to the dessert table, I told him I couldn’t eat anything because I was vegan. He said, “Oh, I’m opening up a vegan ice cream store!” And that was that. I doubt I would have done it if I weren’t vegan—I missed ice cream and wanted a place where I could eat it again.
SV: What was your role at Stogo? Did you come up with flavors or get to taste-test them? (That would be my favorite part.) What are your favorites?
GS: All of us did many different things; my role was mostly helping out with communications and websites, etc. I did get to test all the flavors, though. My favorite is the mint chocolate chip. And the pomegranate chip—I love chocolate. But the fruit flavors are great too. And sometimes if I’m in the mood for chocolate ice cream instead of chips, I get the hemp chocolate.
SV: The hemp chocolate is most excellent, to that I can attest. I love the salted caramel pecan too… We need more vegan restaurants and ice cream shops in South Florida!
What was the most challenging part of opening a vegan ice cream shop in New York City in the winter? Has it been easy to keep it going?
GS: It was tough—it’s hard to sell ice cream when it’s 10 degrees outside. You have to make the most of your money during the warmer months. Still, we sell hot chocolate and coffee, and there are always people who crave ice cream no matter what the temperature is.
SV: Your new book is due out in October. What’s it about?
GS: It’s called The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick, and it’s being put out by Workman. It’s about exactly what it sounds like: 25 people who don’t get sick and their reasons, which range from vitamin C to cold showers. Just got a great blurb from Andy Weil:
“Offbeat, informative and fun, this original book reveals the health secrets of people who never get sick—some right on, some you’d never expect. I’ve used a few of them myself and am definitely going to experiment with others. A great read.”—Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Spontaneous Healing
SV: How prominently, if at all, does veganism figure into your new book?
GS: Not surprisingly, one of the chapters is called “A Plant-Based Diet” and features Rip—who never gets sick and credits his plant diet. (He’s not totally vegan, because he does eat honey.)
SV: Does he mention a favorite recipe?
GS: He has so many! The man loves food more than just about anyone I know—which is not what most people think about vegans, right? But maybe his sweet potato lasagna—he and Jill served it at their wedding. It was all gone within minutes, too. You’d think those people were there for the food, not the ceremony. (The wedding was all vegan, all three days of it.)
SV: Does your being vegan have any bearing on the projects you take on now?
GS: I wouldn’t be able to write a book that suggested people eat meat, etc. Not anymore.
SV: So how did you feel about including the chicken soup chapter?
GS: Well, it’s a popular secret, and one that many will try. But I also include information about how it might not be the chicken at all but the combination of the hot fluid, the vegetables and the spices. So in a way, I’m recommending chicken soup without the chicken.
SV: What would you tell someone who’s considering going vegetarian or vegan?
GS: It’s much easier than you think. And as mentioned, the foods you think you’ll miss—you don’t. The body is smarter than most people realize. If you really listen to it, it will tell you what’s good and bad about your diet. But almost no one listens to his or her body. I didn’t for nearly all my life.
SV: What are you working on now?
GS: I’m doing another ghostwriting project, this one for Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, the company that gives away a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair that it sells. Blake is much like Rip: very energetic, very caring and a lot of fun. And after several months of discussion, it looks as though he’s going to give veganism a try! (TOMS, by the way, has a vegan line of shoes.)
SV: Awesome news! Did you persuade him to go vegan? How did you manage that?
GS: He was already interested; he has several friends who are vegan, and he likes the idea. Plus, I keep pushing it—gently, of course.
SV: Way to go, Gene! I hope Blake talks about his transition to veganism in the book. Best of luck with your new books, and thanks again for chatting with us.