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Photos: Liz Clayman

What the World Needs Now Is Anarcha-Feminist Vegan Chocolates

Lagusta Yearwood gets comfortable with expansion, canned beans, and calling herself a writer

When I walk into Lagusta Yearwood’s New Paltz, New York cafe, Commissary! — an airy, sun-soaked space decorated in blonde wood and rainbow-colored, hand-lettered signs — Yearwood sits typing at a table near the door dressed in a black and white striped sweater, her shock of short black hair styled tall. When she stands to greet me with a gentle hug, I notice her dog Xoli, curled in a window seat and dressed the same way down to the little puff of fur atop his otherwise hairless head. My intention not to open with the clichéd description of my subject’s clothes frizzles to mist. It would be criminal not to start with this scene, serving, as it does, as both a tidy introduction to the Lagustaverse for those unfamiliar, and reassurance for those that follow along online that the world Yearwood presents on Instagram actually exists in real life, snappily-dressed Xoli and all.

Yearwood suggests we chat awhile first, then go pick up produce from some neighbourhood farms, then, if I want, I can watch her smoke tahini and seitan for tomorrow night’s ramen special. Um, I want.

I snack on an almond croissant from Commissary! while we chat. I thoroughly enjoy our conversation, but wish I could conjure a simultaneous moment to sit with this croissant in quietude, reflecting on its buttery flakiness, and its power in a world that often believes veganism to be defined by juice-cleanse deprivation or corporate burger PR. That croissant makes me want to weep with joy.

To complicate things, my beloved cat Clarence was sick when I arrived in New Paltz; dispatches from home implied he wasn’t bouncing back. I felt more tender, hyper, and baffled than normal which is truly saying something. I fear my observations here, on croissant, cafe, proprietor, might veer toward hagiography. But man, do I care? How nice was it to enter such a soft world with all that clanging in my brain? To be presented with an ethically produced treat of the highest order? To witness Xoli lolling loved and resplendent in the sun? For Yearwood to respond with full empathy to my near-immediate confession of obsessive cat-worry? This, I started to think, as I savoured the last shards of perfect pastry, is the entire fucking point. What if more of the world was like this?

In her brand new cookbook, Sweet + Salty, Yearwood writes that she was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona because “my parents’ Volkswagen van broke down on the drive to California.” The book’s introductory essay “Are You There, Sugar? It’s Me, Lagusta” summarizes Yearwood’s own backstory with such wit and aplomb that I won’t be able to do it justice here. In short: Yearwood had a non-idyllic childhood; joined an animal rights group in high school; got into feminist lit in college; studied cooking at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City; mentored with the chefs at legendary veggie resto Bloodroot; ran a meal delivery service in New York for nine years; started making chocolates on the side; burnt out completely; then opened Lagusta’s Luscious, the world’s first vegan chocolate shop, in a converted New Paltz laundromat in 2011.

In 2016, she expanded, opening two more businesses: Commissary! (the cafe) and Confectionery!, a teeny sweet shop in New York City’s East Village, a joint venture with baker and friend Maresa Volante. These shops have fun, prolific, often political Instagram accounts, maintained in part by Yearwood herself, plus she maintains her own. And now she’s released her first book. Yearwood recently posted on Instagram that she thought of an anarchist skillshare when she wrote it: “If you’re tired of buying our stuff, make it! (After you buy a $30 book I know I know),” the caption read.

Sweet + Salty is written in Yearwood’s signature wild style that many came to know and love through her now-defunct blog Resistance Is Fertile (start here; bring kleenex). Amid the storytelling, Sweet + Salty details how to make a wide range of the truffles and candies sold at Lagusta’s Luscious, plus includes cough drops, tofu in caramel sauce, and an extremely weird headnote to the Rosemary Sea Salt caramels, a prose-poem-homage to blue Icees that, like all writing I love, made me ask has she gone too far? And then conclude no.

When I tell Yearwood I see her career as having three intersecting strands: writing, politics, and food, she is surprised by the inclusion of “writing.” She doesn’t think of blogging and social media as formal writing, but rather laughs and says “I just have an oversharing disease. I wear out the people in my life, so it’s nice to have the internet…this whole other audience to annoy with your shit.” Rather than wearing anyone out, Yearwood’s outsized online presence has drawn thousands of followers. People move from across the country to work for her, based on the stories from the chocolatiering trenches and the nuanced, intersectional politics she espouses online.

“I feel like I’m at a place of having to admit about writing,” Yearwood concedes. “My mom was a writer, my grandfather was a writer, my grandmother could have written professionally but didn’t because of patriarchy. It’s definitely something that I’ve been around my whole life. But the idea of being like ‘I’m a writer’…I’m just like ‘I’m gonna throw up.’ It just seems like such a weird thing to claim. I think now having A Book it’s so different.”

With Sweet + Salty hot off the press, the Lagustaverse is expanding again. Over the last year, Yearwood has delegated much of her businesses’ day-to-day to her managers while she works on a “pretty wild growth plan.” In the past, she’s taken a “let’s see how this goes!” approach, but has now for the first time produced a solid financial plan and is applying for a grant. Though Yearwood says she sometimes misses making chocolates all day, working on the big picture, designing better systems for the shops, and creating a plan for expansion all feel creative and fulfilling in other ways.

The decision to expand wasn’t made lightly. Since the inception of Lagusta’s Luscious, Yearwood’s anarchist values and practices have been an integral and public aspect of how she runs things. She carefully inspects her supply chains; has visited farms in Peru and Ecuador to deepen her knowledge of sustainable chocolate and sugar; sources local, seasonal produce; uses compostable ribbon; donates revenue from her Pride Bark to community members’ gender affirmation surgeries; creates iconic, sweat-shop-free anti-fascist totebags; and the list goes on. Before visiting New Paltz, I dropped by Confectionery! (reader, I purchased the tote), and Veronica, the kind, conscientious manager, neatly summed up Yearwood’s approach: “She walks the walk for sure.”

“I’m impatient, I can’t wait for an overthrow of the system. I recognize that that is the problem, I’m the problem. But we’re living where we are. I’m trying to make an impact right now in people’s lives and my life.”

Nonetheless, Yearwood told me over email before we met that she spends “99% of my life wondering if I’m a sell-out for running a capitalist business.” When I ask her about this in person, she laughs. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I’m just interested in keeping that discussion alive. I hate it when people are like ‘[being a sell-out] doesn’t exist.’ To me it totally does. It just means losing touch with the values you started with.”

For the most part she has made peace with the tension inherent in running her for-profit businesses in anarchist ways. “I’ve had huge fights online with ‘real’ anarchists who are like ‘You know you’re not a real anarchist right?’” she says. “I’m like ‘Yeah, I do. And I also know that I’m living anarchist values more than you ever will,’ you know? I’m impatient, I can’t wait for an overthrow of the system. I recognize that that is the problem, I’m the problem. But we’re living where we are. I’m trying to make an impact right now in people’s lives and my life.”

Ironically, Yearwood has realized the best way she can further her values is by allowing her businesses to grow. In the early days of Lagusta’s Luscious, for example, a handful of staff had to do everything the shop required, from making chocolates to packaging shipments to serving customers to mopping the floors. Today Yearwood employs about forty people, all of whom are asked what they’re good at and what they actually want to do; the managers work to align staff’s answers with the needs of the shops. “It’s been really beautiful to see that,” Yearwood says. “You don’t have to force people to do this job they hate doing.” Another aim of the growth plan is to be able to offer salaries to staff, some of whom, like the chocolate shop’s manager, Kate, have worked for her for over seven years.

Yearwood credits her managers and staff with pushing her to make tiny compromises so the businesses they love can thrive. “I’m trying to change things up so they can be more doable,” she says. “That’s been a really good challenge for me. It used to be ‘I’d rather die than open a can of beans!’ And now I’m like ‘What if for this one dish we use Rancho Gordo’s beautiful [heirloom] beans? And for a frigging tuna-like chickpea casserole thing we use a can? It’s fine! The labor costs are so much better and we can use the aquafaba for the waffles or whatever.’

“I don’t want that to make me sound like I’m some pie-in-the-sky-like person who is not realistic.” Here she pauses, reflects, laughs. “I mean I think actually that is the case. I’m lucky I have people around who aren’t ashamed or afraid to be like ‘we can’t do that.’ That’s a testament to the great people that this business has drawn.”

During a shift-change meeting, I witness the attention Yearwood and all the staff pay to detail; the presentation of a wedge salad is discussed, they trouble-shoot the tofu-placement atop the noodle bowls, and staff are informed that canned pumpkin puree will arrive shortly for the fall drink specials. I try to imagine what a PSL with actual pumpkin would taste like in contrast to the usual glop of glucose and potpourri. For Yearwood, though, the canned pumpkin is another small concession; in years gone by, it took staff hours to make the puree from scratch.

“I’m trying to really grow in that way and not have these sacred cows of ‘We have to make this soup with thirty ingredients and we have to saute each of them separately until they’re totally caramelized,’” she says, laughing. “But the problem is, like, my recipes are great you know?”

She’s not kidding. While we continue to chat, I hoover down noodles in a green olive and collard pesto, perfectly fried tofu, slow-braised seasonal beans with garlic, and chips with a creamy, tart, and salty artichoke dip.

Though Yearwood is primarily known as a chocolatier, she also designs the Commissary! menu, develops the recipes, and teaches the staff. Every second week she cooks ramen for the cafe’s popular Tuesday night special, and she’s preparing an ambitious menu for nearby Woodstock Farm Sanctuary’s Thanksliving fundraiser.

When I ask how her passion for food came about, she briefly hesitates. “I always struggle about how sad to get,” she says. “But I think it’s because I grew up, like, lightly hungry. There was really not quite enough food. It wasn’t like ‘I haven’t eaten all day.’ It was like at all times I could have eaten another meal.”

In college she caught a glimpse of the food world and was hooked. “I would cook in my dorm and invite my friends over,” she recalls. “My friend Mary has this menu for this dinner I did in my senior year in our little apartment. Like, I wrote out the menu, it’s pretty hilarious.”

“In 1995, we’d never met another vegan. Everyone would swap these tips, like ‘You can eat bread, I bet you didn’t think you could.’”

Years ago, Yearwood rented a commercial kitchen for her meal delivery service. She remembers one day looking into her crammed walk-in fridge and thinking, “That feels good. There is so much food.” She still finds this aspect of running food businesses calming. “I think a lot of vegans have that too,” she says. “You’re always concerned ‘Is there going to be food for me?’ Like, you have to have raisins in your bag. And now I’m just like ‘I’ll hang out in this place I own where I designed the menu and I can eat the food whenever I want.’ It’s like” — she breathes out — “Okay.”

Yearwood’s veganism pre-dates her passion for food. Vegetarian since the age of twelve, she and her mother joined “the only animal rights group in Arizona” when Yearwood was in high school. “Everyone in that group was vegan. In 1995, we’d never met another vegan. Everyone would swap these tips, like ‘You can eat bread, I bet you didn’t think you could.’”

The decision to cook professionally was influenced by Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. As head of the University of Rochester’s environmental group, Yearwood invited Adams to speak. “I had this heart to heart with her. This was my senior year, I’d already gotten into NYU. I was going to study eco-feminist literary criticism, which now is very TERF-y and not popular. But at the time it was like ‘Yeah! Women and the Earth.’ I was going to become a professor and talk about Adrienne Rich basically.

“Or my other option was to go to culinary school. I talked to Carol Adams and was like ‘I don’t know what to do, I want to make an impact on the world and do activism.’ She was like ‘If you want to make a big impact on the world, don’t go to NYU. You’re just gonna be in this circle where you talk to other professors and that’s going to be your life. You’ll have students, but…If you go to culinary school you can have a much bigger impact on the vegan world.’ I totally took her advice and we’ve been good pals ever since.”

Yearwood’s impact on the vegan world is, of course, undeniable; her premium treats are rave reviewed by laypeople and pro-chocolate-nerds alike. Though she acknowledges the dramatic improvements to the vegan culinary landscape since Phoenix in the nineties, she isn’t always thrilled with the current trajectory. “I really hate the vegan junk food trend,” she says. “I feel like it’s taking over and is the worst trait of veganism which is, for me, being stuck in a weird teenager phase. Like, what vegans want is a cake that looks identical to something you get at a supermarket. And I think it does us no favours with the mainstream food world. Everyone thinks it’s harmless indulgence and being vegan is so hard and you need these treats…and it is so hard for a lot of people. But I feel like the people indulging are very privileged people who are eating very processed, terrible food. I’m hard against it, I don’t care who hates me.

“I don’t want to say [veganism] doesn’t matter. But it’s not The Thing. I feel like it’s one small component of an ethical life, you know?”

“It’s hard for business owners because that’s what people want, so why would you not make that stuff? But I don’t want my market to be vegans because that’s not activism for me. I don’t even want people to know we’re vegan. Because I want people to come in here — it happens, and I’m always very gratified by it — and just be like ‘Oh, that’s good food.’

“The way I think about it is that I’m a political person trying to run businesses from a political standpoint. Veganism is just a piece of that. You can get into a lot of trouble when it’s like ‘Oh, but it’s vegan!’ But that can leave out so many other ethical concerns. I don’t want to say [veganism] doesn’t matter. But it’s not The Thing. I feel like it’s one small component of an ethical life, you know?”

A few hours into our talk, Yearwood and I walk the short distance from Commissary! to Lagusta’s Luscious. When we arrive at the chocolate shop, I yelp “Here it is!” trying to fully take in the peaked roof, the cheerful teal facade and, inside, the rows of chocolates in their neat boxes and beribboned bags. But I’m distracted. The plan is for Yearwood to have a quick chat with collaborator Maresa Volante while I call my partner for a cat update. Yearwood suggests a nearby rail trail well-suited to walking and talking, and I set off along it.

Now is supposed to be the actiony, descriptive interlude of Yearwood and I driving to the farms, laughing with quirky vegetable-obsessives she’s known for years against a backdrop of sun-drenched rolling hills. After that, the part where I closely observe the smoking of several vessels of tahini and a watermelon-sized hunk of seitan, carefully reporting on the attendant scents and sounds. Next up, a rollicking play-by-play of my tour of the chocolate shop — learning what’s done by machine, what by hand, which feminist chocolatier mastermind does what, descriptions of a world redolent with toasty cacao and bubbling sugar, the way a miso and/or onion and/or preserved lemon caramel melts on my tongue. Then on to evening in New Paltz, tasting a bowl of that smoky ramen, observing the makeup of Yearwood’s community, chatting with a few more folks on the scene, finding out…who knows what?

Instead I went home; it was Clarence’s time. As I trudged back toward the shop, destroyed by the news about my beloved companion, I worried that Yearwood would think me brutally unprofessional. I’ve lost a cat before, and I’ve internalized the shame of sharing my grief with people and feeling dismissed; I’ve learned that some people don’t think you can love an animal as fiercely and fully as a fellow human being; I’ve experienced guilt for my own sadness and worry about my cats, have told myself I’m being too dramatic and soft, and felt bad about taking full days off work to mourn and heal.

I thought about all that as I walked, but then remembered where I was going: a place built on the principle of not harming other beings; a place where everyone treats Xoli as one of the gang; a place devoted to crafting true treats, devoid as possible of ugly backstory; a place where it’s made explicit on the hand-lettered signage that Clarence’s and my and everyone’s well-being are more important than what we might be used for or what we taste like or what we can produce. “These people will get it,” I reassured myself. I was right.

I’m not trying to say that Yearwood’s trio of businesses are pure, uncomplicated utopia; I’m not saying we, as vegans, all experience animal love and loss the exact same way. I’m just saying when I stepped back in the shop, visibly crushed, I felt intelligible. There was space to be just who I was. After blathering a bunch of details to Volante, I apologized for oversharing and she shook her head slowly, the expression on her face so chill and full of empathy. Meanwhile, Yearwood hastily packed me up a bunch of (creamy, mapley, herby, salty, crunchy, radical) chocolates to bring home and offered to drive me anywhere that would be helpful. I felt so fucking weird, but I also felt okay.

A place built on the principle of not harming other beings; a place where everyone treats Xoli as one of the gang; a place devoted to crafting true treats, devoid as possible of ugly backstory; a place where it’s made explicit on the hand-lettered signage that Clarence’s and my and everyone’s well-being are more important than what we might be used for or what we taste like or what we can produce.

The rest of that day and much of the next, I kept picturing what I’d be doing in that world had I been able to stay; some of the scheduled plans scrolled by on Instagram — the tahini smoking, for example; the fact that all the ramen sold out. I was sad and angry to be missing out for such a wretched reason. But I’m grateful to have been there at all, if only to confirm that the Lagustaverse is more than just a writing project or personal brand. It’s real and alive, dynamic and growing, producing delicious food so many people can enjoy without destroying the earth or ripping others off. It’s making nice jobs for lots of folks with big feelings who need space to be who they are.

It’s vegan, but that’s just a small piece of the picture.

What if more of the world was like this?

Written by

I write about vegan food, abledness, The Bachelor, and other things.

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