I am not a vegetarian, but I like food, I like free stuff, and I like gently teasing hippies. The scene at the Seattle Center March 24 and 25 was all crunchy, dreadlocked madness for Vegfest, the annual celebration of vegetarian and vegan superiority. Vegfest is like hippie heaven, where five dollars gets you unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of samples from local vegetarian restaurants like the Healthy Hedon, and national vendors like Gardenburger. For all its earnest, earthy shtick, Vegfest is really about good old American capitalism. Paper cups and tiny plastic spoons piled up by the tens of thousands; smiling volunteers, however committed to their cause, were, in essence, just salespeople. It's a trade show for the terminally sincere, banking, cannily and cynically, on their high-minded ethics. It's also totally wonderful.
The Vegfest crowd was an interesting one. There were grumpy vegan baristas as far as the eye could see; plenty of "My Other Car Is a Goddess" types; a septum-pierced granny in a red leather hat; and a handful of grizzled neighborhood wizards in sarongs, visibly sad they had to leave their ferrets at home. All pretty standard. A couple of forlorn clowns wrangled squeaky balloon swords (if there's a difference between a balloon sword held absentmindedly at crotch level and a literal penis, I can't see it), while some odd beefcakes in "VEGAN BODYBUILDING" T-shirts hawked complete proteins. One foreign lady accosted a volunteer, shrieking about "too much names!" and demanding some sort of directory. A surprising number of festgoers seemed completely out of their depth, as though they'd accidentally stumbled down some fiery stairs into Satan's own dark pantry. "WHAT is 'hummus?'" I overheard a woman ask. "It's beans—like, ground beans," her companion whispered. I could tell she wasn't sure.
My intrepid dining squad and I started off strong, sampling everything that crossed our path: spring rolls, lentils, yam chips, miscellaneous nuggets both sweet and savory. Gradually we began to prioritize, forgoing yogurts and granolas (boooring) in favor of Field Roast sausages (spicy, delicious), and Sunrice Korean seasoned tofu. A huge segment of the veg-foods market is devoted to replicating, to exacting and unsettling standards, the chewy, fibrous delights of animal flesh, from the Gardenburger BBQ Riblets (AMAZING) to the Smart Stuffers broccoli-cheddar-fake-chicken-pocket thing (rubbery). A lot of the hot foods suffered with only microwaves to prepare them, but it didn't matter—desserts are where Vegfest really shined.
Mighty O Donuts, Theo Chocolates, Soy Delicious ice "cream," and Panda licorice were free and abundant, but we'd had these things before. Others were new to us. Liz Lovely artisan certified-vegan cookies came all the way from Vermont, courtesy of Dan and Liz (impossibly cute high-school sweethearts). The cookies were moist and delicious, better than their nonvegan brothers. The Cravings Place offered spoonfuls of buttery cookie dough (it couldn't have been vegan, right?) and we filled up on coconutty, chocolatey snack balls at Laura's Wholesome Junk Food.
Weirdest Food Item of the Day went, hands down, to Cavi-Art, a novelty caviar substitute made from seaweed. In two "flavors," yellow and black, and served on Wasa crackers, it looked a whole lot like the real thing, and tasted like salty mustard. And the Food Item I Am Least Likely to Ever Try Again had to be the Living Harvest Hemp Protein ("100 percent organic milled protein powder from raw hemp seeds"), and its accompanying Hempmilk. It was gritty. "You shouldn't be able to chew milk," observed one of my companions.
There were some nonfood offerings as well. Tables near the back overflowed with vegan cookbooks, tips for organic living, Raw Food Made Easy, and so on. ("I can't taste a book, so don't waste my space," my friend griped.) The Seventh-day Adventists had set up a mildly creepy back-rub station, distributing a mysterious, spicy "Immune-Boosting Drink" beneath banners proclaiming: "Nutrition, Exercise Benefits, Water Drinking, Sunshine, Temperance, Fresh Air, Rest, Trust in God."
Nearby, people sat in rows behind a blue partition, while a woman talked. "Unlike Michelangelo, my sculpting tool is not a chisel, but a spoon," she said. We headed back toward the cookie-dough area. The second-best thing about Vegfest (after the cookies) was the babes. Babes were everywhere. Vegan babes, tan and strong from working on organic farms. Babes handing you free bottles of aloe water ("Purify Your Life"—yeah, I'll try). Babes in Crocs with lamentable sunflower tattoos (still hot).
A lot of people like to hate on vegetarians because, obviously, a lot of vegetarians are annoying. Wearing a T-shirt that says "LICK ME, I'M VEGAN!" is annoying. Soy cheese is annoying. Giving a person a stinky, judgy eyeball because maybe they tried a McGriddle once as a joke and it turned out to be totally good and they like to secretly eat one on the way to work once in a while, but this time they forgot to dispose of the evidence before you got in the car, is annoying. (And if you object to my meat mobile so much, maybe next time you can hitch a ride on the tofu truck, Judgy "Judge Reinhold" Judge-face.)
But guess what? Most of every segment of the population is annoying, including the carnivorous ones. Rush Limbaugh (way more annoying than homeopathic medicine) eats at least 17 steaks a day. Mosquitoes (did you know that "mosquito" means "annoying" in Latin?) regularly gorge themselves on the blood of innocent human babies. And it's a widely accepted fact that Hilary Duff literally devoured her own sister, Haylie Duff, mistaking her for a smoky glazed ham, and replaced her with a less argumentative animatronic robot. Annoying! So until you haters can prove to me that vegetarians are statistically more annoying than the rest of us, I'm staying staunchly on their side. What can I say? I've got a soft spot for the veggie little bastards. At least as long as they keep giving me free cookies.