“We want to be a visible presence; we want to be taken seriously,” insists Sylvia, a founding member of the Asheville Vegetarian Society. As if to drive that point home, four group members have met me for lunch at the Early Girl Eatery — and together, we’re a server’s nightmare.
“Does this have any dairy?” one of us asks, pointing to the menu.
“Would you recommend the vegan chili?” (She does, and it’s excellent.)
“What kind of oil do you use?” asks Lara, who does eat fish occasionally but avoids hydrogenated fats, fried foods and white flour.
And then there’s the issue of finding something kid-friendly and animal-product-free for Lara’s pre-school-aged daughter. For a vegetarian child, PB&J gets old fast.
“Since there are a lot of people in Asheville who are vegetarian, I’d like to see us get more respect in the restaurants and in grocery stores,” continues Sylvia. Not that we aren’t treated well at the Early Girl — in fact, the menu offers a tasty selection of vegetarian (meat-free) and vegan (meat-, egg- and dairy-free) options. But what Sylvia wants is more widespread recognition of the dietary concerns that are playing such a large part in many people’s lives these days. She’s talking about labeling menu items with the increasingly popular OLV (for “ovo-lacto vegetarian” — someone who eats eggs and dairy), LV (for “lacto vegetarian” — someone who eats dairy products), and V (for vegan), so diners don’t have to ask quite so many questions. She’d also like to see local grocery stores offer a wider range of meatless options — not that Ingles doesn’t stock an impressive supply of soy-based meat-and-dairy substitutes, but the overall product balance is still heavily tipped toward meat consumers.
“The market isn’t keeping up with us,” Sylvia maintains.
But she, among others, is keeping up with the increasing vegetarian head count by offering the Asheville Vegetarian Society as a source of support, inspiration and community. Launched last June, the group now boasts about 115 members — and that’s counting only those who’ve signed up at the Web site (www.ashevillevegsociety.homestead.com). Most members, guesses Sylvia, have a significant other and/or child who’s also vegetarian.
But the group doesn’t worry too much about statistics. There’s no cost or commitment to join, although everyone is invited to a monthly get-together (usually a potluck or meal at a veg-friendly restaurant).
“It’s nice to know you can belong to something and be welcomed somewhere without having to commit either funds or time,” comments Sylvia.
In fact, members don’t even have to commit to an animal-free diet. “It’s vegan, vegetarian or thinking about it,” Lara explains.
Tania, Sylvia’s 20-something daughter, adds: “What I love about the potlucks is that the food is so good. There’s a stereotype that vegetarians eat only healthy, bland food. It’s good for nonvegetarians to see that’s not true.”
“We want to demystify what vegetarianism is,” notes Sylvia. “We’re not weird. We’re careful not to offend anyone.”
Group members, she continues, represent a broad spectrum. “Since there is no typical vegetarian, our members are diverse in age, lifestyle and background. The only thing we all have in common is a certain amount of concern in what we eat.”
My lunch companions, for example, had varying reasons for becoming vegetarian. Lara, a doctor of internal medicine, believes increased concern about health is what will ultimately induce more people to choose a vegetarian diet. “I stopped eating meat [except fish] 17 years ago,” she recalls. “At the time, I did it mostly for health reasons. I went to school to be a dietitian. When Dean Ornish [author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ivy Books, 1996)] had his first study come out, I realized I wanted to go to school to study how diet affects people’s health.