Story and photos by Elsa Säätelä
With mock meatballs, ice cream made from unprocessed nuts and donuts and cupcakes made without eggs or dairy products, New York’s first Vegetarian Food Festival lured thousands of people to Chelsea on the first Sunday in April.
On a bright and chilly morning, long lines formed outside the Altman Building on West 18th Street, and about 3,500 people eventually made it inside, the organizers said.
“I tried to go to the vegetarian festival, but the line wrapped around two blocks and I couldn’t get in; it was insane,” said Silissa Kenney, a recent Baruch graduate. “You would’ve thought the Beatles were in there!”
Sixty-two vendors, including vegetarian and vegan restaurants, offered their wares. Many promoted local products, such as homemade tofu and fruit snacks made in Brooklyn.
Dessert was the festival’s main attraction.
“I always thought vegan food was super healthy and bad tasting,” said Pat Andrews, who describes himself as a “real meat eater” and says he came just to keep his wife company. After sampling a green tea cupcake, he said it was “one of the best I have ever had – and it’s vegan!”
The festival offered cupcake- and doughnut-eating competitions. Karen Hoffman won the latter, besting three competitors by polishing off six doughnuts, cheered on by a crowd of onlookers.
The doughnuts were supplied by Dun-Well, a new vegan bakery based in Manhattan, that supplied five dozen doughnuts, with flavors including strawberry-coconut and chocolate peanut.
”We wish we could have had our own stand and let everyone try our doughnuts,” said Dan Dunbar, a co-founder of Dun-Well. “But with the limited capacity for doughnut making that we have for the moment, baking enough donuts for an eight-hour-long event did not seem manageable or economically smart.”
Visitors could also sample heartier fare.
Foodswings, a Brooklyn-based vegan fast-food restaurant, offered variations on traditional American comfort food, with mock meatball sandwiches and vegan mac’n’cheese, with no dairy products. “The creamiest mac’n’cheese I ever had!” a woman in the crowd said, as her friend nodded, forking up another mouthful of gooey macaroni.
Not all the food was familiar. One young man grimaced after sampling raw kombucha, an ancient fermented tea drink that some people believe promotes health. “I have no idea what I just drank, but it sure tasted healthy,” he said.
The Vegetarian Food Festival was the brainchild of Sarah Gross, for whom this was not the first act in promoting animal rights and a vegan lifestyle. In 2010, Gross founded Rescue Chocolate, which produces vegan chocolate and donates its profits to animal rescue organizations around the country.
After a trip to Boston’s Vegetarian Food Festival last fall, Gross decided to launch a food fest in New York. She contacted her friend Nira Paliwoda, an event planner, and the two vegetarians began promoting the event on Facebook and Twitter.
The social media sites helped Gross and Paliwoda attract volunteers and sponsors, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Aninalsand Yelp, the Internet search and review engine.
Admission was free, and vendors paid have stands. In addition to the free food samples given out, the vendors had the chance to sell products and bigger food portions.
“Most vendors are happy to pay a small fee to make the festival possible, and also see it as a great opportunity to promote their products,” Gross explains. “So in the end, it is a win-win situation for both us and them.”
The festival also featured dance, yoga, live music and lectures, with speakers talking about topics including vegan cooking and sustainable lifestyles. Alexandra Jamieson discussed her books Vegan Cooking for Dummies and The Great American Detox Diet, while Chloe Jo Davis, creator of GirlieGirlArmy, a Web-based guide to green living, discussed eco-friendly fashion.
A range of advocacy groups set up tables at the festival. For example, Amie Hamlin, executive director for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, handed out flyers promoting vegetarian, organic and local food in schools.
An hour before the festival closed, the line still stretched for two blocks, and those outside were turned away. But those who made it in seemed pleased.
“Me and my friend waited in line for over one hour to get in here, but it was definitely worth it,” said 22-year-old Maria McKinley, who came to the festival with her friend Luca Gonzales.” “The doughnut-eating competition was the best. It was gross but fun in its weird way. And who would have thought ‘vegan hippies’ do something like that?”