La vida vegan

A panel of animal product-free Bay Area-ites tell it like it is

Chef Carmen Vazquez brings vegan to the people: "Gracias Madre has everybody, not just your dreadlocked hippies."

DINE It's a wild, woolly world when you won't eat its cheeseburgers. Or so I discovered last autumn when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and found that my inner logician could no longer justify consuming products from the loins (and udders, and uteri) of animals that spent their lives experiencing the systematic abuse of factory farms.

But the most shocking tiding from Foer? A University of Chicago study, he writes, found that omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gas of vegans. My bicycle eyed me from its perch on the storage hook in our apartment's foyer. Environmentalists, are we?

So we traipse along the hippie-liberal continuum — just one more step to independence from fossil fuels, I suppose. But though I've been riding the pescatarian train for years, going animal product-free was harder than a piquant wedge of manchego (Jesus, even my metaphors have dairy products in them).

I was surprised how many places I would go — even here, in the befigged plate of the Bay Area! — where wearing my vegan hat meant going underfed and, by extension, becoming a whiny envelope-full of social anthrax addressed to my dining companions. Some restaurants even ghettoize our kind with separate menus, as if vegan food holds no interest for the general dining public.

Surely, though, this is nothing compared to the brave, ice cream-rejecting, pizza cheese-peeling pioneers of the vegan world! Even if it's still hard to break society's "five food groups" programming, as a whole our country is well out of the "what's a vegan?" stage of cultural development.

It was high time for a pulse check. So one rainy spring day, I met with some of the Bay's best and brightest vegans for a potluck and chat on where living animal-free is at these days. Food activists, chefs, moms, a boyfriend, a blogger. We ate like kings and bitched about steaks. We called it the Summit of the Vegans. I'll tell you more — but first, a word on our vegans ...



Vegan cred: Owner of Souley Vegan and self-taught chef

Comes natural: "When someone asks me what I use instead of milk or butter, I don't even know how to answer that. What do you use? You just don't use it!"



Vegan cred: Chefs. Started the now-defunct vegan Brassica Supperclub. Now the manager of Frog Hollow Farm's Ferry Building store and kitchen supervisor at Gracias Madre, with a restaurant of their own on the horizon.

Vegans on the lam: The couple's underground supper club was shut down by the fuzz in 2009 for lacking required permits.

A love that knows no animal products: "There are a ton of factions, splinter cells," Benedetto says, "but all vegans secretly, quietly love other vegans."



Vegan cred: Nurse and vice president of the SF Vegetarian Society

Don't even try to win that argument: "The Vegetarian Society has been around for 40 years. We continue to be a small group, but the number of vegetarians continue to grow. I love animals; I don't like to go to the doctor; there are the environmental reasons; and I love the food. You just can't win that argument!"



Vegan cred: Guardian production manager. Has been animal product-free for years. Our Joe Vegan.

Breaking down the meat lines: "The things that crack me up and annoy me at the same time: my girlfriend is the opposite of vegan and she'll order a steak and invariably the waiter will come back and give me the steak and her my salad. There are some societal expectations about what's a manly food."


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