“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
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.”
Chef Katie Gluck conducts her vegan cooking classes at the Wine Vault & Bistro on India Street.
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?
“We don’t eat a Flintstone’s-size steak,” he says. “Or a hunk of bread.” Greenberg indicates a small portion size with his hands.
Raw Chocolate and Raspberry Cake
Raw Chocolate and Raspberry Cake
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1/4 cup cacao powder
- 1/2 cup coconut shreds
- 8–10 dates
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Salt to taste
Chocolate ganache layer:
- 1 cup coconut oil, liquefied
- 1 cup cacao powder
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup peanut butter
- 1 package of organic frozen raspberries, thawed and drained
Chocolate cashew mousse:
- 2 cups cashews, soaked 2 hours
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, liquefied
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla 3/4 cup cacao powder
- Salt to taste
- In a large food processor, combine all ingredients until dough forms, salt to taste. Line the bottom of a spring form pan with parchment paper. Evenly pack down crust on the bottom of the pan.
Chocolate Ganache Layer:
- Combine all ingredients in a high-speed blender. Pour ganache over crust. Layer with raspberries.
Chocolate Cashew Mousse:
- In a high-speed blender, combine all ingredients until smooth. Pour over raspberry layer.
- Place cake in refrigerator for at least 8 hours to set.
“Maybe a piece of chicken,” Gorevitz says. “Or fish.”
“Why? Because God gave us teeth.” Greenberg bares his choppers in a toothy grin. “Ripping, tearing teeth, teeth for meat eating. If we were supposed to be vegetarians, we’d have teeth like cows.” They are here tonight, he says, in order to learn to make a few more healthy alternatives to add to his wife’s post-breast-cancer diet.
To my right are Marcie and her son Chris, who is a history major at Mesa College. Marcie is an executive in the Petco organization and divides her time between San Diego and San Antonio. Neither are vegans. “We’ve been coming here for years,” Marcie says. “Katie convinced us of the importance of adding more plant-based things to our diets.” I ask Chris where we’d go if he and I were to hypothetically ditch class and head out. He says he’d be good with a Smashburger.
Gluck, 24, who is slight and brimming with energy to the point of being perky, says by way of introduction to the room, “Tonight, we’re going to be doing a plant-based Thanksgiving.”
She explains her own path to a plant-based diet. “It was an eight-hour train-ride home for the holidays. When I got on the train, I was a meat-eater.” Someone gave her a book about the vegan lifestyle titled The Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. “I read the book all the way down the coast, and it changed my life.” She got off the train a vegan. Gluck asks to see a show of hands. “How many of you here tonight are vegan?” From my vantage point, I see less than half a dozen hands go up. Out of 25 or so attendees, four of them are men. Carrot soup is up first. Gluck goes to work with a blender and a frying pan.
“I’m obsessed with pumpkin seeds. Pumpkin seeds are really good if you have parasite issues,” Gluck says. “My sister came home from Namibia once, and she had so many parasites. She was on antibiotics. I convinced her to eat pumpkin seeds for a year, and she cleaned up.” Pumpkin seeds, it turns out, are an integral part of Gluck’s recipe for carrot soup.
Marcie likes the soup but suggests Greek yogurt as an improvement. Seated next to her is a striking woman, a late arrival who resembles Frida Kahlo but with softer features. For whatever reason, I fail to ask her name. She agrees with the Greek-yogurt comment but says it would take the soup out of vegan territory entirely. “It would still be vegetarian,” says Marcie, “but not vegan.”
It turns out the Frida Kahlo lookalike is not a lifestyle vegan either. “Vegan food is just a different night out, like Thai food. It’s interesting.” Many of the guests here tonight fit into a far more expansive and new healthy diet definition: “flexitarian,” a term that has been coined to describe those who eat healthy but follow no strict regimen such as that of the true vegan.
Since no dairy whatsoever is allowed in the vegan kitchen, the next entrée, macaroni and cheese, seems like a violation. And when it arrives at the table a visitor can’t help but notice that there is no macaroni, nor is there any cheese. Instead, spaghetti squash and nuts and roasted garlic make up the dish. Gluck suggests an organic coloring to make it even brighter than the natural yellow of the squash, “if you are feeding kids and trying to sneak one in.”
But why call it “mac and cheese”?
“I’d call it a riff on mac and cheese,” Marcie says.
“It kind of goes back to what we were saying earlier,” Frida lookalike says, “about the vegan’s need to make food that looks like meat but is really soy or vegetable protein.” Later, when I ask Gluck about this, she says, “Maybe I should put the word ‘cheese’ in parentheses.” Her mac and cheese is good, but it tastes nothing like its namesake. But when she makes faux bacon bits next out of mushrooms, I have to hand it to her — they almost do taste like bacon.
Katie Gluck's vegan cooking classes
Vegan chef Katie Gluck of Katie's Healing Kitchen creates a vegan dish from scratch at the Wine Vault and Bistro.
The main course, the one with the mushroom bacon bits on it, comes with steamed brussels sprouts. “I recommend agitating them in water,” Gluck says. “They get cleaner, and that way you can stress less about them.” She is a vortex of plant and food aphorisms; for example, kale: “It’s a superfood; it’s closer to the sun, so it’s full of chlorophyll and antioxidants.” I glaze over during some of the explanations, but my mind subconsciously keys in on certain words such as “diabetes” and “heart disease” and “anti-inflammatory” and so on.
“Once you try these,” Gluck says about her mushroom non-bacon bacon bits, “you’ll be hooked.”
“I love the smell of bacon,” the vegan-friendly woman I call Frida says. “I just don’t like the taste of it.”
The Vegan Child
Mixed Berry & Coconut Coffee Cake
Mixed Berry & Coconut Coffee Cake
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup roughly chopped pecans
- 1/4 cup toasted coconut chips
- 1/2 cup brown sugar (organic & vegan)
- 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 3 Tbsp. organic virgin coconut oil, melted
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup raw sugar (organic & vegan)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder (aluminum-free)
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1/2 cup organic virgin coconut oil, melted
- 1 Tbsp. organic apple cider vinegar
- 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups organic mixed berries, fresh or frozen
- In a medium bowl, combine flour, pecans, coconut chips, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add coconut oil and toss with two forks until it appears crumbly (crumbs should be the size of small peas).
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch-square pan. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugars, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together almond milk, coconut oil, vinegar, and vanilla.
- Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and whisk until just combined (do not overmix!). Gently fold in the berries. Fill the prepared pan with batter and evenly sprinkle the streusel topping. Bake for 40 minutes uncovered, then cover with foil and bake another 10 minutes. Let cool, slice, and serve.
“I have a 12-year-old son who is vegan.” Lolly Brown, 45, lives in Oceanside. Her 20-year-old daughter is a vegetarian and her husband is a full-on carnivore. “I stopped eating meat when I was 12,” she says. “My parents were cool about it, and growing up in San Diego, it was easy.” She says her family ate Mexican food frequently. “I just didn’t like meat.” But later in life, she became more philosophical about her dietary choice. “I got into Buddhism. I’m not uptight about it or anything, but I started thinking, Am I that hungry that I have to eat another thing with a soul?”
She stayed the vegetarian path but she did like fish, soul or no soul. “When I was 25, the vegetarian guitarist in a band I sang in gave me a hard time about it. I told him I ate fish because I liked fish. He bet me I couldn’t go without it for a week. I lasted 15 years.” Brown eventually returned to eating fish along with her standard vegetarian meals but allowed Aidan, her son, to make his own choices as a toddler. She started him on a no-meat diet and says the boy has never eaten meat in his life. She also discovered that her son is allergic to dairy products. Once, as a toddler, she gave him cow’s milk. “He staggered around gasping for air. He went into anaphylactic shock. It was lucky that I had some Benadryl. I poured it down his throat.”
When Aidan goes to sleepovers, his mother sends him with his own food. “I pack his lunch every day for school too.” His favorites? “Black-bean-and-brown-rice burritos or tofu hot dogs. I made Tofurkey for Thanksgiving.” I feel ignorant in asking if a Tofurkey turkey comes in the actual shape of a turkey with wings and drumsticks and all that, but I ask anyway. No, she says. A Tofurkey is round.
“My husband is a really good chef, but he’s a meat eater.” She and her husband play in a band called Hanging from the Rafters. “We all cook together on the weekends after rehearsals, and we’ve gotten it down to being able to make an entire meal that suits everybody, including my son.” She admits to some hazing from other kids at school over Aidan’s vegan life. “But it’s usually his friend’s dads who are the worst. At a cookout, one of the dads kidded Aidan by saying he’d switched his veggie burger out with real meat. He said, ‘How’s that juicy beef taste?’ The father didn’t actually do it, but Aidan was sweating for a minute.”
Vegan in the ’hood
Barry Pollard lost his bid for a seat on the San Diego City Council; instead, he started the Urban Collaborative. We meet at a Starbucks in a Southeast San Diego retail development within eyesight of the Four Corners of Death: the intersection of Euclid and Imperial, remembered as such for the dope dealing and the gang turf wars that have gone on there. The Urban Collaborative is a volunteer outreach with a design to heal the ills of Southeast. One of the ways Pollard sees that happening is via a plant-based diet. But, he says, “This cuts deep into our culture, because our culture is so aligned with food.” Pollard started the plant-based diet ball rolling by promoting Meatless Mondays in Southeast. “If I can get them to do that and commit to go up to Chollas Lake one day a week and exercise, that’s huge, just that one little thing.”
I first got wind of Pollard’s veggie plan in an Urban Collaborative email blast. The email goes on to recommend Forks Over Knives, a documentary about the physical ills created by a meat diet. Pollard learned the hard way — both of his parents were incapacitated by strokes. “Eighty percent of what I eat now is fruit and cereal. When I eat meat, I’m slowed down.”
Pollard has a backyard garden that he thinks is rubbing off on the neighbors via the overflow vegetables he hands out. He’d likewise care to see some of the area’s vacant lots turned into community gardens. “When health becomes a priority in the households,” he says, “it will grow into new habits.”
Would he go so far as to say that a plant-based dietary makeover might affect violence in Southeast, where 52 different gang sets are known to operate, according to the San Diego Police Department? “What would that involve? What would that look like? For generations, we’ve been eating a bunch of meat that’s not good for us. That’s become the norm. Chicken,” he says, “is not necessarily bad for you. But, fried?”
Gingered Soba Noodles with Watermelon Radish, Broccoli & Cabbage
Gingered Soba Noodles with Watermelon Radish, Broccoli & Cabbage
- This is one of my favorite recipes to make and take for lunch at work. Because it is a “chilled salad” it doesn’t require re-heating. It is intensely flavorful, from its blend of fresh herbs to the zesty Sriracha-spiked dressing. Soba noodles, made out of buckwheat, are more nutritious than white pasta and hold up very well in chilled salads. All of the vegetables used in the original recipe were from Suzie’s Farm and are available in late winter/spring.
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 3 Tbsp. sesame oil
- 3 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar
- 3 Tbsp. raw agave nectar
- 2 Tbsp. Sriracha 1/3 cup tamari
- 2 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 2 watermelon radishes, halved & thinly sliced
- 1 broccoli crown, cut into florets & steamed
- 1 small purple cabbage, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced
- 1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup mint, roughly chopped
- 12 oz. soba noodles
- Gomashio for garnish
- Cook soba noodles according to manufacturer’s instructions. Steam broccoli florets for 5 minutes, shock in ice water, and set aside. Shred cabbage, slice radishes, chop scallions and herbs. In a large bowl, combine olive oil, sesame oil, rice vinegar, agave, Sriracha, tamari, garlic, and ginger in a large bowl. Mix well. Add cooled noodles, vegetables, and herbs and toss until well coated. Garnish with more herbs and gomashio.
I ask if he knows of any vegans in Southeast. “You buy what you can afford. You cook what you have.” I take it that means no, more or less. “This is what I mean about cultures. It starts with education, by letting people know what options are out there. There is a big missed opportunity in the churches here. Even though they’re not the centers they once used to be, that’s where you could reach the families. All it would take is classes in cooking. It would be great to see the churches take more responsibility in the physical health of their parishioners.” Likewise for the area’s schools: “Obesity is a huge problem in kids. There’s a couple of groups out there trying to distribute cookbooks with recipes for healthy soul food, if you will. For example, they recommend you use apple juice instead of sugar. It tastes better, and it’s better for you.”
But first there is the issue of steady access to fruits and vegetables. The one local big-box grocer in Southeast, Pollard says, sells tainted fruits and wilted vegetables that are beyond expiration. He pulls out a smartphone and scrolls through images of discolored meats, piles of lemons clad in greenish fuzzy jackets of mildew, pomegranates that have ruptured and dried out, and rotting, bruised oranges on the sale racks. “On Monday, there will be an action committee meeting with the managers. I’m a product of the ’60s. Don’t be surprised to see me outside with a group of people holding up signs.”
San Diego Ladies Vegan Cooking Club
Amanda and Nicole discuss forming a social group around veganism.
“I started my business in San Diego.” Stephanie Redcross, 37, launched Vegan Mainstream, a company that specializes in marketing vegan products to vegan consumers, before she moved to Georgia in 2011. Redcross left because her boyfriend is a member of the Armed Forces and, as such, was transferred. They now live just outside of Savannah. Is he vegan, too? “He’s not a lifestyle vegan, no. He made the switch to vegetarianism when we started dating. It’s really hard to be a vegan in the service. If he goes out in the field [he has so far been deployed four times], he can’t eat vegan. He has to eat vegetarian. I can’t have him starving out there,” she says.
“They make vegetarian MREs [initials for ‘meal ready to eat,’ which is an individual field ration designed for U.S. military use in the field]. I know of a veggie burger and vegetarian lasagna.” They also offer a bean-and-rice burrito. “It’s really tough being vegan here in Georgia. It’s a much more conservative environment. The military base,” she says, “brings diversity in levels of interest, but it’s not like being in Washington DC or in San Diego.”
I read that Mike Tyson had turned vegan. Bill Clinton, too.
“The vegan circle would not call him one because he eats a little salmon now and then,” says Redcross, “but, yes, he’s on a plant-based diet.”
Redcross’s market research shows that there are two predominant vegan groups: one is young females, and the other middle-aged of either sex.
“Vegan women tend to be younger, college students, or recent grads. Some are still in high school. Then, you have pockets of older vegans that are aging into health problems,” meaning people in their late 40s or 50s. “Cholesterol, heart disease — your doctor tells you to make some changes. There are many older vegans who came to it from a health standpoint. But younger vegans,” she says, “they tend toward activism. They’re more for animal rights or for the environment.”
Does she come across many vegan families with children in her market research?
“Not yet. It’s easier to transition into a vegan diet when you are single. With a family, you are re-writing the whole script. Only 1 to 2 percent of the total population in the U.S. is vegan. It kicks up to 5 percent when you include vegetarians.”
But the general population is more and more willing to add vegan options to their diet, which she says is evidenced by the growth of vegan restaurants.
“This does not indicate that the vegan population is growing; it shows that meat eaters, or vegetarians, are willing to try vegan food.”
In order to grow the vegan empire, she says that one can’t just market to vegans. “You have to talk to everybody. If you want to see growth in your business, you have to step outside the stereotype vegans — the people that wear Crocs, the women that carry a burlap sack for a purse, or people that have a peace sign tattooed somewhere onto their bodies, and a lot of vegan businesses don’t want to do that. It’s far more helpful for people to see that there are other vegans that are like them,” meaning non stereotypes. “You can be a vegan and be a lawyer. You can be a vegan and be an athlete.”
“To vegan women, I’m a unicorn.” I take Jared Meyer up on his offer to attend a San Diego Vegans Meetup gathering at Sipz, a vegan sushi bar in North Park. Meyer is a whirlwind of activity in charge of a modest turnout of around 20 group members. The grandson of a rabbi, he claims atheism. He is originally from New Jersey. He is a self-employed marketing professional. He bears resemblance to Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 singer. “I used to do beer promotions. I managed the talent.”
“You know, the promo girls.” Yes, I do know. But Meyer says the nightclub lifestyle is in his rearview mirror now. “Since I gave up booze when I went vegan, and I rarely drank anyway, I’m not interested in going to bars.” What did he get in the exchange? Better dating options, he says. “There is nothing more exciting to me than a woman who is vegan or who eats vegan.”
Later, I ask Meyer to explain what he means by the unicorn comment. “Firstly, I view any and all women who are vegans, or who are committed to a plant-based approach to nutrition as unicorns.” They get more points, he says, for being vegan, atheist, child-free, and substance-free. “Given that I, too, am one of just a handful of vegan men, I would imagine that due to scarcity I would also be considered a unicorn. And who wouldn’t want to meet, hug, or ---- a unicorn?”
Vegan potluck in Balboa Park
Members of a San Diego vegan social group hold a potluck event in the park and chat about their relationships to the lifestyle.
Meyer says there is no defined vegan social life, per se. “Dating is more of an art than a science, no matter if one is vegan, eats vegan, likes vegans, or only dates vegans. I have the feeling,” he says later, “that many vegans are sometimes lenient when it comes to dating others,” a condition he attributes again to slim pickings. “I dated a woman recently who told me that she’s relaxed on who she dates. I thought she was a unicorn. But she clearly didn’t care that I was one, too.”
Consider the dating sites Veganpassions.com or Vegandatingservice.com. These are only a few of the plant-based diet dating options available online. There is even a site for green daters: Planetearthsingles.com. VeggieFishing.com advertises itself as a vegetarian online dating service for singles in San Diego (in truth, they are nationwide.)
“The 20s and 30s vegan guys?” says Nichole Dinato, “They’re like catnip to all of us.”
Vegansexual is a term coined by ABC News in 2007 that describes a vegan that only sleeps with other vegans. “There is some truth behind the statement that vegetarians taste better.” Nichole Dinato lives in Hillcrest, works in administration, and on the side has her own blog called VeganSpin. She is a part of the Meetup party at Sipz. “Or, as I like to say, vegans taste best. Meat and dairy as well as caffeine and cigarettes make your [bodily] fluids taste bitter, whereas veggies and fruit (the exceptions being garlic and asparagus) make you taste cleaner and/or sweeter. From personal experience, vegans who eat a clean diet do taste better. I know vegans who can’t think about kissing someone who has recently consumed meat. I totally get that.”
Dinato, 32, is single. “My ex and I went vegan together. We were a vegan couple the whole time we dated. We broke up just over a year ago. In that time the only romantic experience I’ve had was a brief affair with an old flame. He did ask me if I would cook him meat if he wanted me too, which was insulting as hell. I bought all new pots, pans, and utensils when I moved out last year. My kitchen has literally never had a single animal product in it.”
It can get that serious for vegans and vegetarians, the avoidance of meat. At a friend’s birthday party in a Chinese restaurant in North Park, one of the members of our group requested a vegetarian dish with the stipulation that it not be cooked in meat grease. In order to comply, the kitchen scoured a fry wok. The vegetarian was made to wait while the rest of us got our steaming platters of red snapper and boiled octopus and orange chicken and sliced barbecue pork served first.
“My test right now is if a potential date asks me why I’m vegan or he asks me where I get my protein,” Dinato says, “I’m pretty much uninterested. But if they have some awareness about veganism and can ask intelligent questions that they sincerely want to hear the answers to, then I’m game to pursue it further.”
But she would not advertise herself as vegan on a dating site. “I feel like that would make a lot of people pass me by. It’s tricky territory. The vegan singles sites I’ve looked at are all clunky and sketchy looking and are, frankly, wholly unappealing to me. Being vegan and single is tough, and it constantly challenges your beliefs not in the sense of what would you do yourself, but what will you tolerate in someone else.”
She says the same singles from the same dating pool tend to inhabit local Meetup events, like tonight. “A lot of the single vegan men, for some reason tend to be on the middle-aged side, whereas many of the single women are in their 20s and 30s. So, as a straight youngish woman your options for someone in your age bracket are limited. The 20s and 30s vegan guys? They’re like catnip to all of us,” which tends to explain Jared Meyer’s unicorn concept.
Sara Kennedy is 25 and works in retail management at Anthropologie. She lives in Normal Heights. She is a born-and-raised San Diegan. “I have dated vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores, but it has only mattered who the person was and not necessarily what they ate. My lifestyle requires certain traits in people.” She lists compassion, rationality, and free-thinking among them. “I am definitely looking for those in a partner. I have no doubt that when I find the right mix, this potential Prince Charming will cut back heavily on meat and dairy.” If not for her, she says, then for science. “Vegans have significantly lower chances of having heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and the list goes on. Living a long and healthy life while decreasing your carbon footprint and doing your part to stop the annual slaughter of billions of farm animals? What is there not to like?”
But if this sounds like a vegan ambush in disguise, Kennedy says otherwise. “My goal is not to convert everyone to veganism, but to let them readjust their own priorities when they learn about what the standard American diet is doing to their bodies and our environment. Like I said before, I wasn’t vegan until I was vegan. If a potential mate looked at all of the evidence and came back to me saying he’d rather die young than give up bacon, then he wouldn’t be the right match for me whether or not I ate meat.”
The San Diego Ladies Vegan Cooking Club celebrates their first anniversary.
Nick and Katie Casamassas, ages 30 and 27 respectively, are here for the fellowship of the plant-based diet. Nick is in the Navy. The couple just moved to San Diego from Virginia where, Nick says, “There’s a total lack of understanding,” toward plant-based diet.
“You have to approach it from a different standpoint than just kindness to animals,” Katie says.
“Even my mom was, like, you’re not having any Thanksgiving turkey?”
Nick is a vegetarian; Katie is full-on vegan. “I tried going vegan for a few months,” Nick says, “but I came back.” The reason? “I love cheese too much.” How about being an active vegan or vegetarian in the armed forces? Are they serving vegetarian chow? “Of course not. It’s impossible to stay vegan, especially when you are deployed.”
No, Katie says, vegan is not a form of extremism. “Everyone can eat vegan food, but not everyone can eat meat or shellfish due to allergies. The one common denominator,” she says, “is vegan food.”
“We had a vegan wedding in Washington,” Nick says. “My mom cooked the whole thing.”
The one who was lamenting the no-turkey Thanksgiving?
“Yes.” He laughs. “It was fantastic.”
“I don’t want any pain or suffering to go into the food in my house,” says Katie. “Being vegan is close to my religion. It is representative of everything I believe in, my core values like kindness, and so on.” Do they drink alcohol? It turns out they do. There’s an app for it called Vegan Xpress. Katie dials it in on her smartphone. “This shows lists of wines, beers, and liquor that are safe for vegans.”
I see Jared Meyer again before I leave. The unicorn himself is single at present. “Location, timing, desire, attraction, and so on all play a role,” he says. “I consider myself vegan, but I don’t drink, don’t want kids, and I don’t believe in God. Some women might simply prefer a vegetarian man who does some or all of those things. Good thing I’m okay with being alone.”