I’d just returned from the festival of carnage that is the annual Lambstock chefs’ retreat when I learned I would be attending Asheville VeganFest, the inaugural vegan event hosted by and benefiting Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. It was hard to imagine going from the field in Virginia where I’d spent the weekend roasting whole hogs over open coals to a meatless gathering in the heart of the city. But I figured I’d give it a shot. Hell, my body could use a break from all that meat, and I always love testing myself.
And what if I’d been wrong all this time? What if the key to my happiness and health truly does lie in depriving myself of the flesh of other animals that I, a hunter risen from a million years of evolution, have killed and skinned — or just bought at the supermarket? What if the seitan — hail seitan — I’d been passing on for all these years was the steak I’d always craved? There was only one way to find out: experience.
Right from the start, I was faced with the grim reality of how deeply I would be engulfed by the vegan passion. At the festival’s entrance, a woman wearing a sandwich board handed out guides to the festival the way street preachers hand out tracts. Say what you will about the vegan tribe, but they are a fierce one, armed with conviction, a firm belief that their way is the only true way to care for other living creatures and an evangelical mission to convert the world. I was instantly consumed with the fear that I might never leave this place, that I might die here, smothered under a blanket of kale.
I made my way through the crowd, a diverse group of white people ranging from dreadlocked hippies wearing tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts to soccer moms in yoga pants struggling to wrangle children. In the distance, I saw a Catawba Brewing Co. sign peeking over the roofs of the other tents like a beacon and changed course accordingly. A man does have to have priorities and, thank god, beer isn’t made from anything with a face.
After sufficient social lubrication, I weaved my way through the tents of vendors. There were nearly 60 of them — everything from soap companies to yoga studios, vegetable farms to animal shelters. “But where is the food?” I thought. There were, of course, the food truck staples like Gypsy Queen and Farm to Fender, but I’d had their fare and figured that if I was really here to to see the other side, it was time to buy the ticket, take the ride and actually give those meat substitutes a shot.
I ran into my friend Richard, a kind, white-haired fellow with a perpetual smile. I asked him what he was doing in a place like this. “Some friends of mine convinced me to try a vegan diet to get this under control,” he said, pointing to his belly. “I’ve got a stack of books at the house, and I figured I’d give it a shot.”
“Is it working?” I asked.
“Meh… too soon to tell,” he said. “You should try those guys over there — they’re pretty good!” He pointed to the No Evil Foods tent. I took his advice and forced my way through the mob to sample their vegan chorizo. I liked it, but it reminded me of stuffing, and all I could think of was how wonderful it would taste stuffed inside a chicken and slowly cooked over wood coals.
I tried several other tents as well. Bean Vegan Cuisine offered an imitation pimento cheese that was quite tasty and did bear some resemblance to the Southern staple. There I also ate vegan beef jerky. But I couldn’t help thinking, “I don’t eat real beef jerky, so why the hell would I want to eat this?”
Then, staring me in the face like a big, bloodless valentine, was Eden-Out, a vegan delivery service. Eden-Out’s shepherd’s pie was excellent, with soft, sautéed tofu nicely complemented by potatoes, red and green peppers and a host of other veggies followed by a lingering finish of thyme. The mock tuna salad was also quite enjoyable, with tempeh, chickpeas, kelp powder and your typical tuna salad make-up, sans the fish. “Why does it have to be mock tuna? Why can’t it just be its own salad?” I asked the kind woman at the booth, but she never answered, and that is probably just as well.
Although I found that some of the foods were so heavily processed that they resembled a Dorito more than a vegetable, there were also representatives of some of the truly great vegan food that is out there, including Addissae and Plant. Downtown Ethiopian restaurant Addissae epitomizes the legacy of a nation which has built its cuisine on plant- and grain-based foods, and a culture whose flavors and nutrition are unparalleled in the world. And Merrimon Avenue restaurant Plant treats vegan food with the respect of a fine dining establishment.
The event was surprisingly festive, particularly for a festival that opted not to have live music and instead offered a tent with lectures scheduled throughout the day. It looked like one of those big tent revivals that churches used to host in rural parts of the South, but here, the fire and brimstone was aimed at factory farms. “I don’t watch the news…,” said one speaker in his opening statements. A man in the back sported a shirt with a picture of a cow reading: “Save Souls, Go Vegan.” I retreated to a park bench to sit and ponder the meaning of all this.
By the end, I’d grown a little softer. Yes, there were fanatics, and as fearful as that might make a man, that fear came with a respect and understanding that these were also people with a conviction to try to be kind to their doomed world; to live a life free of carnage, guilt and pain. And for a moment I felt a tinge of jealousy about that conviction. What must it be like to go raging after that white whale of a life without sin, without blame, a life that leaves no footprint?
Here’s a slideshow of photos from VeganFest by Sarah Whelan:
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