Mangia, mangia! Eat, eat! But only vegan

As a girl, Heather Edwards remembers sitting at her grandma's kitchen table, hungry. Her grandmother studied her for a moment. Then with a discerning smile and an Italian accent thick as homemade sauce, she whispered, "I know what you like."

A bowl of olives. A bowl of Cool Whip. A bowl of margarine. She presented each one ceremoniously in front of her young granddaughter.

The girl smiled and scooped. Grandma was right.

Growing up Italian in Syracuse, N.Y., a city named after the original in Italy, a child could rely on two givens. The ratio of pasta dishes to people at family gatherings would seem disproportionately lopsided to outsiders. And Italians, women especially, felt a fervid desire to feed everyone around them.

"Italians give you everything you want," said Edwards, 33, who has lived in Concord for the last four years.

"They need to fatten you up."

So no one said much when young Heather drank the cream meant for coffee at restaurants, or unwrapped pats of butter and popped them like soft mints.

But what happens when the Italian girl goes to school one day and learns about animal slaughterhouses and the abuses that take place in them?

Lulu DeRienzio remembers the moment her teenage daughter announced she was adopting a vegan lifestyle. "She came home from school and said, 'I can't eat meat anymore.'"

Earlier that day, a class discussion on factory farms and animal cruelty had deeply disturbed the normally bubbling cheerleader.

Along with her announcement, Lulu thought she detected a hint of apology in her daughter's voice, maybe for leaving the family staples behind.

Vegans choose to eat or use nothing derived from animals.

Gone would be the cannolis her grandma made with heavy cream and butter. No more homemade lasagna layered with ricotta and mozzarella or thick sausages hidden under peppers and onions.

Lulu and Vinny, Edwards' father, worried at first their daughter would not get enough nourishment from a vegan diet. They took her to a pediatrician who assured them she would be fine.

In fact, The American Dietetic Association not only approves a vegan diet as healthful if followed correctly, but suggests it can ward off certain diseases like hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

Now married to husband, Ian, also vegan, Heather strives to raise her sons Nathaniel, 6, and Ethan, 4, the same way, but it's not always easy.

Competing with the flashy packaging of products marketed to kids in the grocery stores or watching the milky, frozen treats pass by as the ice cream truck rambles through their Oak Park neighborhood can be challenging.

"I try not to make a big deal about it," said Edwards. She will let them make their choice just like her parents let her.

Times have changed since Edwards became a vegan. The selection of vegan foods continues to grow as health food stores sprout over the area.

She has even learned to turn many of the old family favorites vegan.

Edwards may not eat much of the traditional foods she devoured growing up, but one aspect of being Italian remains.

"We always gear around food," she said. "If we find it vegan, we overeat it."