Meatless Monday Interviews Michelle Cardulla

September 4th, 2017


As a citizen of Rochester, artist and educator Michelle Cardulla is an active part of the Meatless Monday cause in Upstate New York. She provides cooking classes and outings for kids as well as recipes for them to take home to their parents, sometimes teaming up with Super Bowl champ Roland “Big Ro” Williams. We spoke to Michelle about how her efforts are making a difference in Upstate New York and how she hopes to spread even more awareness of Meatless Monday and make Rochester a Meatless Monday city.

Meatless Monday: What made you choose the vegetarian lifestyle?
Michelle Cardulla: Well, it was actually because of an ex-boyfriend, embarrassing to say. I didn’t eat a lot of meat, but I’m half Colombian, half Italian so there was always meat around, such as chorizo and foods like that. But I love to cook and he was vegan, so I immediately switched.

Then I realized that this is better food and the whole concept about Meatless Monday is that it’s good for you, it’s good for the planet and good for the animals. So it happened instantly, and now I’m just hooked and crazy about it.

How do you feel about being a vegetarian in upstate New York?
We do have several places that offer vegan food that also have meat. But you find out that chefs really love the chance to make vegetarian and vegan dishes if you go a little early or call ahead and request it. There’s one place that we go to with friends, and we call the chef a day in advance and say, “Just cook us whatever you want.” He loves the challenge. All chefs are kind of into it if you give them a little bit of a heads up and aren’t demanding.

You also work a lot with kids. How do kids respond to Meatless Monday, or meatless as a rule? We know that kids don’t like rules, but they will do something that might be cool and different and experimental. Is that how you sell it to them?
I try to never treat it like a rule. For example, when I’m doing an art project with them, instead of “Hold the paper the hamburger way” I say “the veggie burger way,” and they laugh. So I make it something fun and they ask, “Veggie burger, what do you mean?” I said, “Well I’m a vegetarian so I hold it the veggie burger way.” It’s a win-win, and it’s always positive.

Then the food has to taste great. No one’s going to say, “I want steamed broccoli.” It’s got to be good. First it has to taste good, then it’s vegetarian or vegan, not the other way around. Otherwise you’ve lost the kids.

And involving them in the cooking is probably really fun, because then it’s not just food, it’s a project.
Exactly. I did a cooking class a few years ago and we made burritos, which are very easy to make with meatless crumbles and vegan cheese. Everyone got to make their own. Then I told them that there was no meat and no dairy in their burritos and they were shocked. They were quite young, so they’re learning the words “Meatless Monday,” “vegetarian,” “vegan” at an early age and having a great experience. We have a Kinderfarmin’ event where we take them on a field trip with a picnic and they get to pet animals. I mean, food, animals – you got them! They’ll never forget that.

So you just talked about how easy it is to sell kids on Meatless Monday. What about their parents?
You know, I don’t really deal with the parents that much. But I try to send them home with little things like a little recipe. Adults are a little bit tougher than the kids because they’re stuck on what they want.

You’ve worked with Roland “Big Ro” Williams, and I think one of the most effective things in the vegetarian scene is having powerful, successful athletes proudly proclaim their vegetarianism or veganism. Has working with athletes such as Big Ro made a difference in this?
He’s a hero! He’s a guy who won the Super Bowl. He gets up there and does his speeches, saying “Miss Michelle’s over there cooking up vegan food and I’m a vegan.” That is worth a million dollars. When celebrities say it, when athletes say it, people want to emulate them. They want to be like them. So the more celebrity and sports people saying that they’re vegan, the better. Especially the people with big muscles showing that they’re vegan!

What’s your ideal goal for Meatless Monday in Rochester by the end of 2017?
First of all, I’d like to make it a Meatless Monday city. I think we can do that because I think I can talk the mayor into supporting it. I also want to get the restaurants involved and continue my programs with kids. Keep on spreading the word and building awareness of Meatless Monday. I want everybody to know what Meatless Monday is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.