Hail seitan: A meat lover explores Asheville VeganFest

VEGGIE ATTACK: What does a hardcore carnivore make of the inaugural Asheville VeganFest? Artwork by Katrin Dohse

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.

Artwork by Katrin Dohse

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.

Artwork by Katrin Dohse
Artwork by Katrin Dohse

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:

Can’t see the slideshow on your mobile device? Click here.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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6 thoughts on “Hail seitan: A meat lover explores Asheville VeganFest

  1. bsummers

    Seitan, once the Right Hand of Tofu, was cast out for challenging Her authority.

    Now, she cooks eternally in the Hot Place, known by her Southern name, Beezlebeque.

    Hail, Yeah!

  2. Mary Finelli

    Thank you for that review and video tour of what sounds/looks to have been a very enjoyable event. Will make it there next year!

    The vegans I know (many) don’t endeavor for “a life without sin, without blame, a life that leaves no footprint.” We are much more realistic than that. What we do try for is a life that causes others as little harm as is reasonably possible. It can be a very heartening (mentally and physically), enjoyable, and delicious way to live. What’s not to love about that?!

  3. We are fanatics. Right haven’t heard that one before…Here’s some preachy jargon:
    .It seems to me that spending a weekend roasting hogs over coal pits has much more fanatical ideological zeal. Carnist Cult. Cannibalfest. Vegans perceive a weekend like that the way she may look at a dog roasting weekend in China. (Pigs are more intelligent than dogs btw).
    The author is kind to us (thank you for that) but in a condescending way; like we are simple minded children and should accept our doomed world. She thinks vegans are motivated by guilt and avoiding ‘sin’ (I don’t think we’re all Christians…). But what would she feel if she witnessed a live pig getting its nose cut off with a chainsaw in her front yard? (a documented and common brutal occurrence on factory farms, but at that point the pig’s been suffering unspeakably for months anyway.). Virtuous? Horrified? Heartbroken? Or maybe just hungry.

    • mynameis

      Nancy,

      Unfortunately the majority gets to frame the narrative. And in general the majority refuses to accept any framing that reflects negatively on them.

      It was nice to see so many people there that 1) don’t fit the author’s absurd stereotype and 2) clearly don’t give a damn about how veganism is portrayed by meat eaters.

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