State of the veggie union
Just in time for the fourth annual Sacramento VegFest, local experts explain how the city's meat-free options have evolved beyond lonely iceberg lettuce dinners
Boring iceberg lettuce salads, fried potatoes and, if luck was kind enough to strike, an uninspired veggie burger—it used to be these were the top choices offered to vegetarians who dared to dine out in Sacramento. Indeed, once upon a time, vegetarians were seen as the ultimate hippie, eaters of unappetizing green things, at least in the eyes of the meat-eating majority.
These days, however, veg heads are considered mainstream, and vegans and vegetarians can now find comfort when ordering plant-based fare at some of the city’s best restaurants, vegetarian or otherwise. For example, despite their omnivoric diets, more than a dozen chefs brave the annual Sacramento Vegan Chef Challenge each October, taking delight in crafting animal-free eats for patrons. There’s also the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, an organization dating back more than 20 years, which continues to educate the surrounding areas about healthy eating.
And, of course, there’s the Sacramento VegFest. The one-day celebration, which this year takes place on Saturday, January 26, offers vegetarian food tastings, speakers and cooking demos.
SN&R recently chatted with five members of the meat-free community—experts encompassing nutritionists, cooking instructors, organizers and chefs—to measure just how much the capital has grown to love its veggies.Appetite for change
Whether you forgo cheese and dairy altogether or swore off the moo cow for life, there are still ways to make a veggie diet flavorful and satisfying instead of bland and uninviting. In fact, Emily Webber, a certified nutritionist and cooking instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has made it her life’s work.
Webber prepares meals that fight chronic diseases, like diabetes and cancer, and she often teaches classes at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and the Whole Foods Market on Arden Way. Whether she’s demonstrating a creamy sauce, substituting cashews in lieu of dairy for an entree, or blending a green smoothie with spinach and kale, Webber’s techniques prove that meat-free doesn’t equal taste-free.
Webber will also share her know-how with audiences at this year’s VegFest via a live cooking demo in which she’ll show how to prepare healthy lunches for children.
With myriad celebrities such as former President Bill Clinton and actresses Lea Michele and Alicia Silverstone adopting vegetarian or vegan diets, Webber says she’s seen a “huge upturn in interest in plant-based cooking.”
“My classes are always full, often sold-out, [and] sometimes with a waiting list,” she says.
Raphael Kendall says he’s witnessed change as well.
When he was a sous-chef at Capitol Garage, Kendall remembers a menu with scarce vegetarian options, and when it came to vegan offerings, forget it. Now, with six years spent at the downtown restaurant, Kendall is executive chef and continues to implement more vegan cuisine to the ever-changing menu. His latest creations include a coconut curry with vegetables and cashews, and a mixed-greens salad with an orange vinaigrette and sesame avocado.
A collective shift in people’s dietary beliefs and eating habits has proved key, he says.
“The demand is increasing, and people like what they’re tasting,” says Kendall. “With all the information that’s out there, people are starting to realize it’s a healthier way of life. … A lot of the flavor comes from the vegetables.”
Since he participated in the first Vegan Chef Challenge in 2011, Kendall, who’s been vegan for 10 years, says he watched his competition cultivate in creativity and in numbers. He also saw Capitol Garage’s animal-free options becoming more popular than his meat dishes.
“In the past, we only used to do like, meat or wine dinners with course pairings,” explains Kendall. “This last year, we stopped doing the meat [dishes], because the vegan ones were selling more.”
Mary Rodgers remembers when Sacramento’s vegetarian dining options were sparse. Rodgers, a veteran member of the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, moved to the city in the late ’70s, and back then, she says, there were only two veggie options.
Flash forward more than 30 years: Dozens of restaurants opened their doors to vegetarian- and vegan-based dishes, making Rodgers feel more “normal.”
“It’s becoming accepted. It’s not a fringe, weird thing anymore,” says Rodgers. “It’s hard to go into a restaurant now where the staff doesn’t know what ’vegan’ means.”
Rodgers and her husband Glenn Destatte, president of the Vegetarian Society, believe in reaching out to lower socioeconomic communities, particularly educating children on the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Over the years, Destatte has helped organize a petition drive with Healthy Development for Oak Park in an effort to stop the development of a new McDonald’s in the neighborhood last March.
“I just felt that it was something worth doing because I live [nearby],” said Destatte. “McDonald’s makes a big deal about healthier options, but healthier compared to what? This is giving kids less access to unhealthy food.”
Between splitting her time as an organizer of the Vegan Chef Challenge and as a certified PCRM cooking instructor, Bethany Davis still finds time to be a member of the Sacramento Vegan Society. Davis, who probably bleeds green, says she’s on a mission to influence the public—and public officials—to try a veggie diet.
“[When] Gov. [Jerry] Brown [was] diagnosed with prostate cancer, it’s like, hello, he needs to give up the dairy, man,” she says.
He wouldn’t be alone, she adds.
“There’s is a huge following of vegans and vegetarians throughout Sacramento, and if you look statistically at our … population, … 20,000 or so are likely following a vegan diet. That’s a lot of people.”
Still, not everyone fancies leafy greens over a nice cut of meat. And straying from the herd when it comes to a plant-based diet sometimes feels like a lonely venture.
That’s becoming less the case, however. The Sac VegFest hosts more than a thousand veggie lovers each year, according to Davis. There are also regular Sacramento Vegetarian Society events and meet ups, which, as Webber adds, will help make anyone feel a sense of camaraderie.
“When you’re first making this change, sometimes you feel really alone, especially if your family members and friends aren’t doing it,” says Webber.
“When you go to these events, you can really learn, you can listen to an author, [and] you can go to a potluck and eat everything.”
Even the iceberg lettuce, if you’re so inclined.