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Ready...set...vegan! Meet the vegans 

Don't call it 'Turkey Day' around here, bub.

It was two weeks before Thanksgiving but a diverse group of revelers—some friends, some strangers—lined a long wooden table to give thanks.

Roasted vegetables, wild rice stuffing, yams, red cabbage, and more holiday fare were laid out on silver platters before the crowd as the sun began its descent over the leafy green canopy of the Dallidet Adobe in San Luis Obispo. An anxious hush swept down the line as the Thanksgiving centerpiece was unveiled.

And there it was, what they had traveled long and far to share—a massive, cruelty-free, sliced loaf of Tofurky.

Their dietary preferences have been called extreme and their views on the environment radical, but the vegans and vegetarians enjoying themselves at the Central Coast Vegetarian Network’s (CCVN) first annual turkey-free fall feast bore a greater resemblance to the folks next door than to unshaven hippies at Burning Man.

Veganism is no fad. Diets free from meat and milk are gaining popularity nationally, but the lifestyle still raises more eyebrows. New Times caught up with the founding members of the premier vegan group on the Central Coast, as well as several restaurateurs and a Cal Poly nutrition professor, to learn the truth about the vegans. We asked what motivates them to resist foods derived from animals, and whether the lifestyle is healthier than the traditional, Five Food Groups diet ingrained in our minds by the U.S.D.A.

We also asked why, if vegans can’t stand meat, do they call the stuff Tofurky?

Soy support

The CCVN formed in February 2009 as a resource and networking group for people who reject consuming meat and has attracted more than 70 members. Anyone is welcome, including carnivores who want to eat less flesh and learn about animal rights. Of course, the group provides recipes and tips on how to achieve a balanced vegan diet.

“That’s the key part of it: to find people who support you and do the same thing that you’re doing,” said founding member Ria Bacigalupa, of Santa Maria. “That’s what this whole network is all about, just knowing that there’re other people out there and getting together with them, going to restaurants with them and where everyone is eating vegetarian; where there’s no meat on anyone’s plate.”

Though the group calls itself the Vegetarian’s Network, all five founding members are strictly vegan. New Times joined them one Sunday afternoon at New Frontiers market in San Luis Obispo, where they shared what motivated them to go vegan and explained their dietary balancing act.

According to Bacigalupa, going vegan is not difficult. There are no physical withdrawals—all it takes is the will to rid yourself of cholesterol, she maintained. One tip she offers new vegans is to go on eating whatever they already enjoy, but only the vegan versions.

“There’s everything you could imagine out there,” she said. “Just for beginners, if you like hamburgers, you could substitute Boca burgers. You can substitute everything. It’s just a switch to a different way of thinking and your taste buds will change as you loose taste for certain things.”

Asked why, if the sight and smell of meat make some vegans sick, are such imitation meats as Tofurky so popular, Bacigalupa laughed as she explained they can be an easy route for people to become comfortable with the diet and the lifestyle.

 “I remember when I first went vegan, those meat substitutes totally grossed me out. It took me a long time to start eating them,” she said. “But for people who like meat already, I think it’s a good way for them to say, ‘Oh, this is a turkey substitute. Okay, I’ll try that.’ So, if you didn’t like meat before, it will turn you off. But if you were a big meat eater, it’s a good way to get people interested in vegan foods.”

As for what motivated them to go vegan, the overwhelming consensus of the group seemed to be ethics.

“The motivation is what really matters,” said founding member Judy Lautner of San Luis Obispo. “What I’ve found in my experience is that those who become vegan for animal rights reasons—ethical reasons—stay vegan. And it makes sense because you’re doing it for something else, something larger than yourself.”

“Educating yourself is key,” said Grover Beach resident and founding member Erika Hirsch. “For us, animals are central. But for others it might be caring for the environment. These issues are very tied in together. But I think if you educate yourself in any one of these issues, you’ll say, ‘Wow, maybe there is some truth to this.’”

Though the group has no official stance on animal rights as such groups as PETA, they say ethical treatment of animals is always foremost.

 “For me it was always about the animals,” said founder and San Luis Obispo resident Johanna Andris, who became a vegetarian when she was nine. “Once I discovered that when we’re eating meat we’re eating animals, that wasn’t okay with me. And then living on as a vegetarian and learning about the abuses that were going on in the modern day, it’s just horrific the way animals are being treated. And it’s not just that they’re killed, it’s that they’re treated so horribly, they’re basically tortured for their incredibly short lives.”

Sustainability is another main reason the members removed animal products from their diets. They said if more than six billion people are to continue to coexist on our planet, we had better think about the impact we have on it now.

“The idea that you can grow meat animals sustainably is not really true. It takes way more intense farming, no matter how you raise the animal. And then there’s all the waste, the methane, and all these issues regardless of whether they’re raised in crates or in these nice, ‘happy’ farms,” Lautner said.

“If someone is looking at that issue only, if sustainability is their motivation, they’re going to realize that eating meat is not contributing to any kind of sustainability whatsoever,” Bacigalupa agreed. “There’s no way to be sustainable and eat meat. It’s an oxymoron.”

According to the group, strong personal feelings about cruelty to animals and adverse effects on the environment make it easy for them to maintain the vegan lifestyle. It’s not easy for everyone. But they said the physical aspect of craving meat is far easier to overcome than kicking cigarettes.

“I’m sure it’s hard at first because it’s a different way of eating,” Andris admitted. “It’s really easy once you’ve gotten a little used to it. But at the same time, eating healthier in general takes more prep time and more thought.”

“Someone who is used to eating McDonald’s all the time is going to see a huge boost in energy and I think that alone would motivate them to keep going,” Hirsch said.

Okay: You feel better, run less risk of developing heart disease, have more energy, support a healthy environment, and feel relief knowing nothing suffered for the sake of your palate. But is the vegan diet actually growing in popularity? For evidence that at least a meat-free diet is catching on, walk in to any big chain grocery store. Most likely, it will have a section for mock meats—which was not the case until recently.

Local eats, vegan treats

“Being vegan or vegetarian is a journey and you have to be ready for it because when you see it that way, like an adventure, it’s such a beautiful thing and you learn so much.” Those are the words of Vraja Sauer, owner of San Luis Obispo’s only exclusively vegan restaurant and bakery, Vraja’s Kitchen, which opened Nov. 19. In San Luis Obispo, several restaurants have added vegan-friendly dishes to their menus. Though animal-free alternatives are sprouting up here and there, eating out largely remains a struggle for vegans, Sauer said, and that is a major reason she set up shop. Her unique take on traditional Italian, Greek, and Indian fare, as well as her old-fashioned European-style bread and vegan cookies, has attracted a following at the SLO Farmers Market.

“A lot of people who are becoming vegan are finding out that taking care of their body is an extension of taking care of their neighborhood, their community, and the planet,” Sauer said. “A lot of people who haven’t been aware are waking up.”

Due to increasing demand, eateries such as Croce’s Pizza in San Luis Obispo also offer vegan-friendly versions of their menu favorites. The new pizzeria, which opened in October, actually has its own vegan section on the menu, making pies with dairy-free Follow Your Heart cheese and faux sausage and pepperoni. Owners Shawn and Michelle Croce told New Times the inspiration behind the vegan section came from suggestions from friends and employees, and the vegan section has earned them a loyal customer base.

“It’s amazing how in such a short period of time, word travels,” Shawn said. “It started with a spark and has really taken off. I wouldn’t say it’s our main market, but we wanted to offer it to our customers.”

Mention of the word ‘vegan’ likely conjures mental images of leafy greens, brown rice and fake meats, but as one vegan put it, you can be cruelty-free and still please the sweet tooth.

San Luis Obispo-based baker Amy O’Kane creates vegan-friendly cupcakes at Amy Bakes Cupcakes, using natural local ingredients to create interesting flavors such as chocolate merlot and Kahlua and orange. And natural foods author and Arroyo Grande resident Cathe Olson recently came out with a book containing over 200 recipes for ice cream, all of which are completely diary free. According to Olson, the secret to making the frozen treats creamy is coconut milk.

The skinny

Though still only a small fraction of the population, a significant number of people subscribe to the vegan—and that’s vee-gan—lifestyle. Given the country’s alarming incidence of obesity and concurent heart disease, coupled with a recent emphasis on organics, it seems the traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ diet is getting a facelift.

According to a 2008 study by the market research company Harris Interactive, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, followed a vegetarian diet. Of those, approximately 0.5 percent, or roughly one million, considered themselves vegan. Last year, the publication Vegetarian Times reported a 19.4 percent increase in newsstand sales for the period of July through December 2007 from the previous year.

Lisa Nicholson, associate professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly, explained to New Times that though meat and dairy products are by no means the cause of all society’s health problems, things that could so easily improve our health such as fruits and vegetables are  often neglected in exchange for what should be considered for meat-eaters “holiday foods.” By default, she said, many vegans, because they eat so many vegetables, have a healthier diet.

“Meat, all of it, any source of animal product is going to contain cholesterol,” Nicholson said. “You want to look out for things like cholesterol and saturated fat. And meat contains both. Red meat has a lot of both.”

It is no secret that too much meat is unhealthy and that a balanced diet is key. But can a vegan diet be even healthier?  According to Nicholson, an intelligent, well-planned vegan diet is going to have every health benefit: fiber, vitamins, minerals, less sodium. And the kicker: no cholesterol coming in from any dietary source. 

However, there are a few risks associated with a vegan diet if not done properly, she said, but added that the risks are outweighed by myths and misconceptions. Nicholson maintained that with sensible planning anyone can live a healthy life, from the pregnant woman to the breast-feeding mother to the 80-year-old man.

The biggest myth about vegans is they don’t get enough calcium, iron, or protein. Nicholson pointed to ancient Chinese and Central American cultures who, because of a lack of dairy sources, got calcium from other sources, namely plants. She said iron and calcium are found in plants, but at low levels and are less bio-available. When we get meat-sourced iron, we use it in the form it comes, called hem iron, picking it up into our red blood cells. In plants we get non-hem iron, which is bound differently, forcing the body to work harder to get the iron out of it, and therefore requiring larger quantities. But when you’re a vegan, she said, you’re already eating a lot of plants.

Another myth is that vegans need B12 supplements. Not true, Nicholson said. While the lowest component in the vegan diet is B12, a vitamin that creates energy in the body and prevents anemia, you can get it from fortified cereals or soymilk.

“If the person does it well, if they’re watching their protein, their B vitamins, their calcium and iron, then I don’t see where you can go wrong,” Nicholson said. “If somebody already has an issue with one of the things that could be low in the diet, then they may have to take additional care.”

Another question is whether vegans are being true if they consume genetically modified soy. Soy products often claim to be 100 percent organic, but some researchers claim that up to 85 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified. Ethically, this may make vegans cringe. Biologically, Nicholson said, it’s not a big deal.

“Speaking as a scientist, although it contains those genes, genes are no more than a protein, and we break that protein down in our stomachs with everything else,” she said. “The genetically modified issue to me is an ethical issue, not a biological one.”

The major drawback to veganism is that it requires thought for balance, time for preparation, and money for quality goods—all of which could be in short supply.

“This is a major lifestyle component. This is not an ‘also’ thing. This is a ‘central’ thing,” Nicholson said. “I would say the number one heads-up caution is thinking ahead, planning ahead.”

It’s about thanks, not turkey

As the image of the vegan continues to evolve and an individual’s dietary preference becomes less a subject of table talk, members of the CCVN hope the more people will recognize the benefits of the vegan diet. In the very least, they say, people could respect the reasoning behind their choice.

“The stereotype is so far from the truth,” Andris said. “If you meet any one of us, you’ll find we’re professionals, we’re educated, we’re compassionate. I think it’s pretty obvious to see that the stereotype is slowly changing.”

“Look,” member Peggy Koteen said. “Einstein, Gandhi, Plato, Socrates—they were all vegetarians. Caesar Chavez became a vegetarian later in life. So I think we’re hanging out with a pretty bright crew.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, families across the nation are getting ready to reunite for an evening of gratitude and appreciativeness for the things that matter in life. But for many vegans, “Turkey Day” is one of cruelty and alienation.

“It’s really challenging because it kind of takes away from the purpose of the day,” Bacigalupa said. “It’s a family day and if your family does not agree with how you live your life and then they have this big feast where it’s all about the turkey—I personally don’t feel comfortable sitting at a table with a turkey carcass in the middle of it—I’ve just said many times, sorry, I’m not going to be there.”

“It’s definitely hard,” she said, “because you’re missing out on your family. But at the same time, it would be harder to be there, I think.”

“You don’t have to have meat on your table to be thankful,” Sauer agrees. “It’s beautiful when you sit at a table with family and you feel that love. And then you look at your food, and it’s pure, it’s balanced. It’s not full of hurt. That is really something to be thankful for.”

Staff writer Matt Fountain likes his Tofurky Jurky. Contact him at mfountain@newtimesslo.com

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