A panel of animal product-free Bay Area-ites tell it like it is
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."
Vegan cred: Founding blogger of vegansaurus.com
Loves her job because: "The vast majority of my commenter are so rad. They're smart, awesome activists, not preachy dicks, which is what a lot of people think vegans are."
When's she's not blogging: Beck's favorite Bay Area vegan eats include Encuentro, Golden Era, the flan at Gracias Madre, schwarmas from Herbivore, Saha, Jay's Cheesesteaks, and Souley Vegan.
Note: Beck was sick for our summit but I hollered at her afterward so she could still join the conversation.
Elbow-deep as we were in the toothsome culinary contributions my summit attendees had whipped up for the occasion, it was perhaps no surprise to learn that food cravings were the least of the challenges to their vegan lifestyles. Indeed, to a (wo)man, our panel participants — many of whom had been vegans for the better part of a decade — found their eats superior to more omnivorous spreads.
"There are only five or six animals that people eat for meat," said Loewen, who works at a senior citizen center by day and spends her free time organizing events like the Vegetarian Society's annual Meat Out. "But we've got so many options in terms of grains and vegetables."
One of the upsides to being vegan — in addition to the animal treatment and health and well-being issues that panelists cited as their salient motivations to make their lifestyle switch — is that it compels a certain amount of creativity in the kitchen. When you're operating largely outside the parameters of what your family considers a standard meal, you tend to think outside the prepackaged box.
Dyson runs my favorite reason to cross the Bay Bridge — Souley Vegan's crispy tofu burger and mac 'n' cheese have magical properties. She came to veganism when she had a visceral reaction as a teenager to a chicken bone, and now can't imagine life any other way. She started her cooking career at a farmers market booth and now brings Souley Vegan's cuisine to African American expos and public schools, where it teaches people about life, post-pork flavoring.
We talked about living vegan in the Bay Area, where my panelists agreed the vegan community had yet to come together the way in has in places like Austin. They pinned this lack of cohesion on the dearth of a central cultural hub, and Beck affirmed that a need for just such a meeting space was one of her motivations behind Vegansaurus.
Evans bemoaned the "ideological chasm" that separates omnivores and vegans and makes it difficult to share information and understanding between the two. The group debated over whether the "vegan movement" could truly be said to exist — and yeah, we talked shit too.
"I think it's bullshit!" Loewen opined suddenly when I asked the group how they felt about Michael Pollan's assertion that eating sustainably is more important than eating animal-product-free. "[That view] takes out the ethical aspect. That animal is going to die — free range animals want to live even more than other animals."
Benedetto and Vazquez attended the California Culinary Academy (where they met and Vazquez became vegan) and were the summit's official "vegans on the front lines" because of it. The school, they said, accommodated their desire not to work with meat — to a point. They still had to cook a steak for a final exam and take a two-week butchery course. "It smelled like death," grimaced Benedetto. "Postgrad, I decided I would rather work retail than have to cook meat."
Bottom line? There are challenges to being a Bay Area vegan. But there are victories as well: feeling "lighter," minimizing your impact on the environment, being your own person, and delicious meals, to name a few. After hearing everyone's stories, I realized that becoming a vegan in the Bay is a lot like being a human in the Bay: endlessly frustrating, completely crazy, but also a chance to be a part of an earnest try for a more sustainable world.