Aaron Ross serves as the Vice President of Policy and Strategy for The Humane League, a leading international animal advocacy organization and is the co-founder of the Open Wing Alliance, a global coalition focused on eradicating cages from the egg industry. Aaron has been active in the movement for 20 years and has led groundbreaking campaigns for animals in the U.S. and abroad. He specializes in global corporate strategy. Aaron resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.
I know Aaron through a personal friend and chose to interview him for our very first “Meet a Vegan” because he always has such a positive and humorous outlook about everything. I caught up with Aaron while he was checking in with some relatives in Florida:
Tell me about some of your experiences as a vegan, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while in Florida. What was your best meal? Your worst meal?
In a word, accidental.
My first meal was at a gas station (I like to set the bar high when I visit a city). My sister and I were in town to visit my aunt. We stopped at a RaceTrac for a drink on the way back from PBI (Palm Beach International Airport) and saw something we could not deprive our depraved Northern souls of: Cajun. Boiled. Peanuts. We got a large container of boiled peanuts and headed to our aunt’s house in Palm Beach where we washed them down with some Floridian IPAs and where we would end up spending most of our time for the next week.
My first outing the following morning was to Brooklyn Water Bagels. But we weren’t there for the bagels (though we got some of those too). We were there for their iced lattes which are iced with frozen coffee cubes so they never get watery, even under the relentless Florida sun.
My next fine dining experience was at the local Publix. By now you are starting to realize my taste for the finer things in life. But hear me out. If you have never had a “Pub-Sub”, you haven’t lived. They have ready-to-order overstuffed deli subs with all the fixings you could imagine, including garlic herbed tofu (pictured). Go for a half sub because a full length one will defeat the mightiest of giants.
My favorite meal, by far, was at one of my favorite vegan hot spots. That is, of course, Darbster vegan restaurant in West Palm Beach. Their food is unbelievably beautiful and thoughtful and all-around scrumptious. I’ve never had a bad experience there and this night was no exception. I had already eaten a small home cooked meal. We were minimizing our outings in order to do our best to not contribute to the spreading of Covid. There was a Sprouts near the house and they have basically anything vegan you could dream of. But on this night, I ate a small traditional dinner because I was planning a second meal made entirely of dessert (I was on vacation, okay?!). I drove to Darbsters and immediately regretted my decision to do carry out because they had gorgeous outdoor seating, and it wasn’t crowded at the time. But, they had my dessert platter ready to go which I euphorically cradled and drooled all over on my way home. It was a hearty multi-course meal of vegan fudge brownies, New York-style cheesecake, raw chocolate coconut custard, vanilla vegan ice cream, and mocha ganache cake. Oh my, Darbster!
Did you eat anything inspiring that you plan to try to make when you get home?
I love vegan soul food. It’s very popular in Baltimore, and it looks like Florida has some good spots for that, too. I probably could have found some but the local groundswell of Covid did not leave me feeling adventurous. So, now I’m looking forward to making some vegan buffalo wings, home style mac ‘n’ cheese, fresh cut air-fried potatoes, and some steamed kale.
I would also like to try making my own boiled peanuts and playing around with flavors and seasoning.
If you had to pick a favorite restaurant in Florida, what would it be?
My experience in Florida is mainly limited to West Palm Beach, Key West, and a day trip to Miami. So I would have to say Darbster. But I want to try everything from food trucks like Atlas Meat-Free Deli to food carts like The Vegan Hot Dog Cart to the heralded Plant Miami. I want it all!
Florida has a lot of animal-based attractions. Some are in a natural ecosystem, and some are not. What do we need to know about places that are doing a particularly good job with animal rights? And what places have you intentionally avoided?
There is a fine line between zoo and sanctuary. The main difference is how they obtain the animals. Zoos will purchase, trade, breed, and capture wild animals. A sanctuary only takes in rescued animals. However, some sanctuaries are more sanctimonious than sacred. It can be hard to navigate at times since they may appear similar to the outside viewer.
A good guiding principle for me is if a for-profit tourist attraction involves captive animals, it likely does not have the true interest of animals at heart and is probably best to avoid. If you want to see animals, Florida is bursting at the seams with wildlife and opportunities to see animals in nature and often for free. It just takes a little research.
For instance, when I was in West Palm for a week, I (of course) wanted to see alligators like any tourist should. I researched the public parks with the highest probability of sightings and found one within a 30-minute drive. No admission fee. Natural habitats. It was amazing! The park I went to was Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and it happened to be one of the best spots in Florida for alligator watching. I went back to explore it three times. Once on foot, once by bike, and once by kayak. If I had a helicopter, I might have gone a fourth time. I saw countless alligators including many full-sized adults that were as long as my kayak and several newborn babies that you would want to cuddle, except for their mom lurking nearby waiting to crush your rib cage in her jaws for getting near her baby. I also saw a wide array of birds, lizards, and deer, and some of the coolest plant life I have ever seen.
Any entertaining stories from your trip?
The aunt I was visiting does volunteer cat and dog rescue. Her sister (my mom) forgot to tell me that she had decided to adopt two kittens from my aunt’s shelter in Florida and that I was appointed by the family to carry them back to Baltimore. So that was a nice surprise. I had never flown with kittens before. They were the best flight passengers I have ever had.
Thank you, Aaron!