A gardenburger for your thoughts

It seems you can’t throw a can of potted luncheon meat in Asheville without beaning a vegetarian. And you can expect your victim to protest not only your random act of violence, but also the very ethical and dietary nature of your chosen missile.

Vegetarians (and their stricter kin, vegans) are heroes to some. To others, they’re simply people who spend far too much time worrying about what to eat.

If any of this strikes you as odd, then you must be new in town.

To many longtime area residents, our sprouting vegetarian scene is old news. Asheville has long been a mecca for those devoted to alternative health, the category under which vegetarianism often falls. Local vegetarian groups abound, and two natural-foods grocery stores (and even more veggie restaurants) are here to feed those who panic if it’s not organic. This trend, unusual in small cities, has gained Asheville much recognition as a haven for healthy eaters.

And if you’re still not convinced you’re living in tempeh heaven, here’s a news flash: The North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS) is set to hold its annual conference here in the coming weeks. According to its brochure, NAVS chose our area for its “majestic mountains, cultural enrichment, recreational opportunities, [and] Southern friendliness.” In other words, it continues, “The Asheville area offers it all.”

The NAVS conference seems extremely well suited to the creeds of many Ashevilleans, covering not only the ins and outs of not chowing down on critters, but also animal rights and general natural-health issues. Featured speakers include Robert Cohen, author of the book Milk: The Deadly Poison, and Gary Francione, who penned Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog. Other speakers will address topics ranging from vegetarian cooking to fasting, nutrition and athletic performance, and cooking for menopause.

It’s easy to see why a group such as NAVS would wish to hold its conference here: Local vegetarians take their eating habits pretty seriously. Consider the current crisis at the French Broad Food Co-op: To those with no interest in organic foods, the Co-op is just a cramped, expensive grocery store with no video-rental department. But to its patrons and supporters, the place is a focal point for their loftiest ideals and most passionate politics, which cover a vast range and extend far beyond nutritional issues — often intensely so.

But if you opt out of this noncarnivorous circle — perhaps having once been on the receiving end of a particularly vehement lecture regarding the evils of your McMurder burger — the idea of the NAVS conference bringing still more vegetarians to Asheville is only slightly less exciting than a film festival of really bad sequels (“Ooh, look, honey! Jaws 4 and Star Trek 5, followed by Howard the Duck II: Quackin’ Up!“). If so, here’s one point that may pique your imagination: Many vegetarian groups argue with each other as much as they do with carnivores. The culture of vegetarianism includes some of the most outspoken advocates around, and — like any large group — is striped by plenty of factions, each vying to establish itself as the “true” vegetarian order. There are those who view not eating meat as the moral high road, believing that killing a conscious creature is deplorable (except for roaches and spiders, because they’re yucky. Of course, if you’re a Buddhist, you can’t inflict harm on anything (strangely, however, the Buddha died from eating rancid pork).

Many vegetarians believe that adhering to a no-meat diet is conducive to a better and longer life, and that by eating natural or organic foods one can enjoy many health benefits. This is well documented by modern science. Vegans are those who not only don’t eat meat, but any form of animal product — including eggs, milk and honey (admirable as this may be, it’s never a good idea to go suddenly vegan without getting all the facts on how to safely do so and get your needed protein).

NAVS aims to unite all of these branches into a cohesive lifestyle, even if that’s biting off more than they can chew.

Vegetarian Summerfest 2000, the annual conference of the North American Vegetarian Society, runs Wednesday, July 5 through Sunday, July 9 on the UNCA campus. Registrants can choose either the five-day or three-day package. Conference fees cover classes, lectures, workshops, discussions, films, entertainment, use of some athletic areas, on-campus housing and vegan meals prepared under the direction of gold-medal-winning chef Ken Bergeron. All ages are welcome, and special programs will be offered for children and teens. For prices and other details, contact NAVS at (518) 568-7970.

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