At the Gates of a Plant-Based, Gluten-Free, Soy-Free Universe

Heather Crosby’s cookbook caters to a select few

Heather Crosby’s new cookbook, YumUniverse, is visually delicious. Almost every page features pictures of well-dressed, skinny people laughing in the woods while snacking on vibrant and meticulously arranged raw fruits and vegetables. It was only after flipping through just over three hundred pages of bright photography that I began to notice the accompanying recipes and short essays. 

For a cookbook, YumUniverse reads a lot like a lifestyle thesis. The first 160 pages are dedicated to the “why” and the “how” of eating plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, and animal-product free.

“The heart of the journey is what people need to make a sustainable lifestyle change,” Crosby said. “How to shop, how to plan, how to prep the kitchen, how to deal with social situations, how to sprout, how to bake, etc.—the list goes on.”

After reading about the personal renaissance Crosby experienced following her conversion to a plant-powerful diet—she credits the diet with her recovery from a variety of chronic ailments—I found myself wanting to explore all her recipes. Imagine how much energy I would have! I’d be so fit!

And it seems like Crosby has done her research. She examines the relation of food to the human body in great detail, from the intricacies of the immune system to pH balance. It’s convincing, to say the least.

But, flipping through the recipes, I became discouraged. Even in an age where vegan restaurants are commonplace and it’s no longer shocking for someone to proclaim that they eat only caveman-fare, Crosby’s meals are dauntingly complex and restrictive. Where would I even begin to look for nori, chickpea miso, buckwheat groats, psyllium husk powder, and hemp seeds?

Apparently, people worldwide know the answer. When I asked Crosby to describe her audience, she cited inspiration from a far-reaching online community in Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Asia, and Germany. She says she’d like to reach “folks of all kinds—the BBQ-lovers, the veteran vegans, the new moms and dads, the single men and women, farmers—anyone who wants to eat good food and take care of themselves (and the people they love).” But she’s missing some groups—like overworked, underpaid college students and people in low-income areas. It seems like “wants to eat good food and take care of themselves” really means “has the resources to eat good food and take care of themselves.”

I started to wonder about the other groups Crosby could be overlooking. She’s a Pilsen native, so I asked her how the culture and community of Pilsen have affected her. She cited some of her Mexican-influenced recipes, like Lentil & Quinoa Blue Corn Tacos, Creamy Chipotle Sauce, and Homemade Taco Seasoning.

However, she didn’t mention the working-class families who make up the majority of Pilsen’s population. It seems unlikely that families with kids and two working parents would have the chance to trek to from specialty stores to specialty store in search of certain ingredients, or set aside an entire day of the week for “self-care.” Many people can’t forgo their microwaves for a high-powered blender, a cast iron skillet, stainless-steel pots and pans, and glass bakeware, cookware, and food storage, to name just a few of Crosby’s kitchen “necessities.”

YumUniverse may be a symptom of the changing face of Pilsen. The neighborhood has seen an influx of hipsters, students, and artists in the last few decades. The white population increased by about twenty percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, and this change hasn’t gone unmarked. Crosby’s way of healthy eating may be a growing part of Pilsen’s culture, with markets like Belli’s Juice Bar gaining popularity, but it’s not necessarily accessible to everyone.

YumUniverse is filled with great tips, tasty recipes, and beautiful photographs, but it targets a specific type of person—young people with time to spare, who can afford to buy into an expensive and arduous lifestyle. For that purpose, the cookbook is perfect. It’s easy to read, engaging, and persuasive. But for people without the time and means to completely change their lifestyles, it’s nothing more than a vibrant collection of photographs.

Heather Crosby, YumUniverse: Infinite Possibilities for a Gluten-Free, Plant-Powerful, Whole-Food Lifestyle. BenBella Books. 320 pages.

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