“What are you doing here? You are a meat-and-potatoes man.” Joe Shemirani has blown my cover in a room full of vegans. Heads give a half turn. The room goes silent for a beat. “Meat and potatoes! On New Year’s Eve!” he shouts, laughing, enjoying this now. It’s true — I’m a meat eater, here to research a story about vegan life at a Barons Market vegan-product test. For the past five years or so, Shemirani, who owns Barons, has attended the same year-end party as I and he has always been the person in charge of food there, and not one speck of it has ever been vegan. “You don’t eat this food,” he chuckles, gesturing at the spread of vegan goodies that have been arranged on folding tables. He would be right. Today’s event is being staged to help Barons managers decide which new vegan products will make it to their shelves. For the next hour, 15 local vegans will gnaw their way around the room and sample from numbered displays of pre-packaged store items that range from vegan cookies to vegan shrimp.
“It’s some kind of soy protein,” Jared Meyer says.
Meyer, 35, is the organizer of a Meetup group called San Diego Vegans. He’s here as part of the test. He points out other meatless meats that are intended for vegan (or vegetarian) consumption, faux products such as turkey made from tofu and hot dogs made of soy. “I didn’t know this store existed until today.” Meyer generally shops at Sprout’s or Costco. Meyer has an encyclopedic knowledge of vegan-product price points at the stores he frequents. He extends an invitation to a Meetup gathering at a local vegan restaurant. “We’ve quadrupled our membership over the past two years.” I accept.
COCONUT RED LENTIL SOUP
- 2 tbsp. coconut oil
- 2 cups squash, medium dice
- 1 carrot, medium dice
- 1 medium onion, small dice
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 in. piece of ginger, minced
- 1 (15 oz) can coconut milk
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 2 tsp. cumin
- 1 cup split red lentils, picked over for rocks and rinsed
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- Salt to taste
- In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add squash, carrots, and onions to the pot. Sweat veggies, stirring occasionally over low heat. Add garlic and ginger, stir until fragrant. Add coconut milk and stir until boiling. Add the remaining ingredients, except the salt. Stir the soup, bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Salt to taste. Remove from heat.
- Cool soup completely, place in freezable container (leaving at least an inch at the top) and cover with plastic wrap (to prevent freezer burn). Can be kept in the freezer for up to three months. To thaw, take out of freezer and keep in fridge overnight.
Much of the food on display here today at Barons’ Loma Portal headquarters looks a lot like those freeze-dried pre-packaged meals made for backpackers or U.S. military field ops. Eating them requires a suspension of one’s gustatory disbelief: the vegan smoked salmon, for example, looks more like pink-ish ribbon candy and tastes nothing like the real thing. The baked goods actually do look like baked goods, but they are missing ingredients such as eggs and butter, foods that are nixed in accordance with the vegan dietary mantra: no meat, no dairy.
The Shemiranis themselves are not vegan. Barons has evolved over the years from being mostly a wine-and-gourmet-foods shop to a specialty grocer with upwards of 9000 vegan products on their shelves. “There’s been a market shift.” Rachel Shemirani is one of Joe’s daughters. She works in-store marketing. “Our shoppers want more natural, GMO-free options. They don’t want a bunch of junk in their food. And they want to shop local.” She begins to work the room. “Would you pay $4.99 for this item?” No. Only $3.99, the group agrees, and that’s a big maybe. The members of the focus group know what works for them and what won’t. Tofurkey, for example, which is the brand name of a soy product that has been made to seem like turkey, is a big winner today, but not so much a stovetop macaroni-and-cheese item.
“You have to camouflage it for my kids,” says a mother, “and that’s a downside for me.”
“The Chia Pods?” asks Shemirani. No, says the group. “They’d be fun, if they didn’t taste like that.” Chia Pet jokes follow. Next comes a cookie. One of the testers reads aloud from the list of ingredients on the label. She frowns: “This one has 16 grams of sugar. Oh, wow.” Another reads from a different label: “The first two ingredients are love and water.” Then Shemirani holds up a small vegan faux-meat deli sandwich that looks more like an appetizer. She wants to know if there is a market for this sort of thing, and possibly for other similar deli items. Indeed, there is. This group seems warm to the idea of a vegan deli counter.
“But,” says a guest eater as she regards the sandwich with a measure of skepticism, “lose that cheese.”
It’s a full-moon night when I stroll down India Street, past a sausage joint (“Our Links are the Wurst”), a window display of gleaming fish slabs displayed on crushed ice, and golden chickens making endless slow turns over a flaming rotisserie. Any one of these options, I think, would be pleasant. Instead, I climb the stairs to the Wine Vault and Bistro, a boutique restaurant renowned for ribs and such, to attend a vegan cooking class taught by the owner’s daughter, Katie Gluck.
Guests are arranged in groups of five. The table mates to my left introduce themselves: “We’re meat-eating vegetarians.” Alan Greenberg and his wife Sharon Gorevitz live in Talmadge Park. “Most vegans won’t eat anything with a face,” he says when I express doubt at his claim of being a vegetarian and still eating meat. Does not animal protein cancel the equation?