03/12/2012 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Politics in Every Bite

The phrase "food festival" is so overused.  It is a label plastered onto every gathering that features food, without regard for a genuinely festive component -- and the events are often comprised of entitled attendees and self important or reluctant exhibitors.
The NY Vegetarian Food Festival last weekend at The Metropolitan Pavilion restored my confidence in the true festivity associated with sharing food enhanced by ideas and passion.  It was not a large gathering of vendors, but it is quality, not quantity that makes the difference.  And unlike other gatherings, the participants were connected to their products with infectious excitement. 

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  The expo featured vegetarian and vegan food products as well as animal rights organizations and lifestyle activities.  Politics with every bite.

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  I met Kim Karona, a young woman in her 20s, who has been a vegetarian since 16 and a vegan since 20.  Though she was volunteering for Mercy for Animals, her passion is teaching.  She works for HEART, an organization that goes into public schools to raise awareness and build connections between animal and human rights, environmental protection and ethics.  She stressed that they do NOT tell students what to think, but attempt to stimulate thinking and brainstorm solutions:  Writing letters to elected officials, buying secondhand clothing, eating less meat, supporting local farms, signing petitions.  With younger children, they discuss treatment of pets (cats and dogs) and the intelligence of animals.  Kim and her husband came from Michigan where they were volunteers for Mercy for Animals, putting up billboards.  They are now New Yorkers and productive activists.  


Sara, the creator of Sweet and Sara, a marshmallow company with beautiful products, enchanted me.  Vegan for 20 years, she longed for a vegan marshmallow (most marshmallow are made with animal derived gelatin).  An NYU graduate with a political science degree, Sara detoured into the food world inspired by her childhood rabbit Skipper, who is now the company logo on a line of marshmallow products that are vegan.  It has been a six-year struggle, working 7 days a week, bringing her parents and siblings into the now thriving business.  She has been featured on Food Network, MSNBC, Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and more.  Her line is carried by Duane Reade, colleges and bodegas -- impressive!  Her new distributor is Albert's Organics.  Her dream is to be carried "everywhere" and to stop working 7 days and have her parents retire.

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Michelle, from Portland OR, is a 10-year vegan.  She and her husband searched for a way to 'fly the flag' and found inspiration through his design abilities, so "here we are."  Their company -- The Herbivore Clothing Company -- features the coolest t-shirts made from organic bamboo cotton fabric.  The show brought her to NY for the first time.  Our NYC food -- more options than in Portland, but not better!  (Chalk up one XL t-shirt for Farmer Bob.)
Marissa will be the next big filmmaker we read about!  It started about 10 years ago for Marissa Miller-Wolfson after she saw We Are All Noah, a 1986 movie by Tom Regan, which explored animal rights.  It was an 'Aha' moment and she emerged vegetarian, then vegan.   Her movie is Vegucated, launched via Kickstarter.  Marissa uses film to educate, realizing that the art of engagement is what is most important.  She chooses ethical constructs as the way to draw in new supporters as opposed to the shock factor in Super Size Me; she calls it "veg-ucating."  And she offers choices -- go cold tofu-turkey or go vegan over the course of a month, giving something up each week.  I bought her movie and everything else she said.  For her next project, investors and distribution so she can reach a mainstream audience.

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  I then met Bad Ass Organics -- Raw Slaws and Kombucha along with volunteers Rose and Jimmy.  Mike Schwartz started the company three years ago in a search for integrity and health in the food world.  Perhaps being a father to two sons was his motivation.  The product he offers is delicious and his business model is equally appealing.  In a kitchen in Queens, he offers incubation space to six other food start-ups, without state or city economic incentives.  And let me tell you about Rose and Jimmy who almost stole the show -- both ICE students volunteering at the show.  Rose has always loved cooking and working with BAO is part of her plan to build a career in catering.  She is smart and sharp and passionate.  Jimmy, first generation West Coast Vietnamese, has yet to tell his parents that he gave up a promising tech job to pursue a food career.  They know he is in NY for graduate work.... but that's it.  As far as the difference between BAO fermented products and traditional Vietnamese dishes -- his have longer fermentation and are more acidic and less pungent.   Should he tell his parents? 


I met volunteer Ethan Bodnaruk at the garbage where we had to sort our trash -- compostable, recyclable, trash.  Ethan is a systems organizer and an aspiring author.  He told me about a Meetup group for ecologically-minded citizens.  He is unique, blending his atheism with science and the environment.  The book he hopes to publish incorporates spirituality, morality and ethics, transcending religious dogma.  He has a unique view of composting -- life after death, nature's resurrection.  He has worked in Haiti, studying sanitation for crowds and combining that with soil fertility issues.  Sustainable eco-sanitation was his message as he guided hundreds of guests through the disposal selections. 


  Briefly, other highlights: Alison, of Perelandra -- a 36-year-old store in Brooklyn (where else?) with a dedicated following.  She is involved with the store over 11 years -- and politics is on the table.  No Naked Juice or Vitamin Water; they are owned by industrial food (Coca-Cola) and are not welcome.  She became a vegetarian at 10 years old, inspired by both her older sister and Diet for a New America by John Robbins.    Cavi-Art -- a vegetable based 'caviar'-like product.  Thoughtful and delicious, this is fish-friendly product conceived in Denmark.  


Turmeric -- a product launched in the BAO incubator.  Ralph and Phoenix, both employees were fervently extolling the properties of their product, it is the curcuminoids present in the turmeric that are anti-inflammatory/depressant/bacterial/oxidant.

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  Beyond Sushi was all vegetarian, organic sushi that tasted as appealing as it looked. Event the rice was different -- six-grain and black rice with toppings including chili and mango, tofu and miso and more. I had an amazing afternoon.  The passion was in the food and the people.