New Orleans, La. –
Those who choose the meatless lifestyle have long found the going a bit bumpier in New Orleans, especially when they dine out, and most especially if their idea of the vegetarian diet happens to be so orthodox as to exclude seafood. Of course, some may naturally assume that vegetarians forego fish as a matter of course, but that's not always the case with the special food attitudes that New Orleanians of the old school bring to the game.
They are out there, I can assure you, and some work at restaurants where they stand willing and happy to inform the inquisitive table that the kitchen's many meatless options include catfish, shrimp or oysters. Newcomers to this city's dining ways are sometimes astonished to learn that a main ingredient in vegetable soup is often beef. And of course those who hope to adhere to the more broadly accepted precepts of the vegetarian lifestyle quickly learn, when visiting New Orleans dining rooms, to inquire about the flavorings and seasonings lurking behind quite innocent sounding side dishes, lest they revolve around chicken stock and ham hocks.
While by no means a vegetarian myself, I've broken bread with enough of them to witness their frustration and even detect sometimes a quiet sense of growing conspiracy. For the ardent vegetarian here, it may very well seem as though some New Orleans cooks and kitchens are out to get them.
It must then be a welcome change for people in this predicament to see the New Orleans Vegan Food Festival appear on the calendar. Known more simply as Veggie Fest, it's planned by the Humane Society of Louisiana as a showcase for the vegan lifestyle in general and it's scheduled over two days, May 21 and 22, at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in Central City. See details below.
National speakers will give presentations on nutrition, fitness and preventative medicine, and there's a lot of local music on the agenda, too. For some, though, the strongest draw must be the panorama of vegan-friendly foods that Veggie Fest offers, and the opportunity to spend a day noshing though it all with the like-minded, or at the very least the genuinely open-minded.
There will be cooking demonstrations and plate meals for sale from New Orleans restaurants that specialize in vegan options - yes, they're out there. And there's also a bazaar of booths featuring local resources and national suppliers ranging from raw food chefs to fair trade coffee importers. Veggie Fest visitors will find vegan renditions of famous New Orleans dishes like jambalaya and gumbo, and other Southern soul cooking minus the meat. There's the chance to sample vegan ice cream, mock meats and dairy-free dips and spreads and to see myriad more foods and drinks made from hemp, soy, rice, and nuts.
Being vegan, as opposed to vegetarian, is about a lot more than just what one chooses to eat, and Veggie Fest takes in the full range of this lifestyle. But it also puts food front and center, and in this way at least the Veggie Fest format isn't so different from the many other festivals around town. Nothing gets a New Orleans out to an event like food, and that seems to be as true for local vegans and vegetarians as it is for the omnivores among us.
1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., New Orleans
$10 for adults, $5 for kids age two to 12, free for kids under age two