By Amanda Factor
Milling about the Harbourfront like suburban shoppers in a warehouse-sized supermarket, vegetarians were in heaven as they grazed on meatless dishes from around the world.
The annual Vegetarian Food Fair planted itself at the Harbourfront Centre from September 7 to 9. The fair featured munchies and enlightenment for wavering omnivores and hardcore vegans alike. Venture into the Vegetarian Café and five bucks gets you a curry or noodle dish. Indulge in a mouthful of hemp ice cream or a green tea moon cake and wash it all down with a tropical fruit smoothie or coconut milk – straight from the coconut.
The crowd moves snake-like among the booths, which push everything from hemp hiking boots, aromatherapy candles and organic bread to buttons that encourage people to break a butcher shop window. The amplified voices of demonstration resonate from large tents. A peek through a flap reveals a person standing at a table covered in ingredients while doing a cooking demonstration.
Complete strangers chat like old friends about environmental issues and animal rights – the topics of several petitions floating around. This is a place where the herbivore minority is surrounded by scores of like-minded people.
An informational survey of the crowd quickly shows that it’s a mixed bag. Parents push strollers, older folks flock to cooking demonstrations and teenagers crowd picnic tables. One of the most conspicuous demographics is the college crowd, and logically so, since it is often during those mind-expanding years that one picks a pet cause such as vegetarianism.
Adopting a plant-based diet may seem illogical to students faced with time and budget constraints, especially for those used to convenience food. Most can’t afford to frequent vegetarian restaurants every night and may not think they can fit vegetarian cooking into a jam-packed schedule.
Xavier Garcia, busy blending juices for thirsty patrons at the Fressen Restaurant booth, has been vegan – he doesn’t consume any animal products – for 10 years. His best tipfor busy university students? Keep it simple, stupid. “There’s a little secret that you can make any food with four ingredients.” he says. “You can make yourself a really good meal, you can even make it look fabulous.”
To get the most from your meals, Garcia advises piling your plate with foods of different colours. The more colours, the more vitamins. For example, green veggies are loaded with calcium, orange with beta carotene, red peppers contain vitamin C and a spoonful of purple beets will pump iron through your blood. It’s that simple. And a meat-free diet doesn’t have to be expensive, especially considering that meat can be a real drain on the wallet. Garcia pitches this plan to the cash-poor veggie students. “If you’re broke and hungry and have five bucks and your friends are in the same boat, you put your five bucks together and you can have a feast.”
Garcia says recipes can easily be found on the Internet, but if you want to learn first hand, get a job at a vegetarian restaurant. “If you see how the food’s made, you’ll learn from it.” He says vegetarian cooking can be tough to get into if you’re a working student with time constraints. “A lot of vegetarian and vegan restaurants will feed you because they know how [difficult] it is.”
Since its birth 17 years ago, the fair has been growing steadily to reflect the new doors constantly being opened to vegetarians. Once housed on a George Brown campus, it featured 20-30 exhibitors and attracted a mere 500 people. Now the free event features 75 exhibitors and draws upwards of 10,000 people, says Toronto Vegetarian Association president Peter McQueen.
McQueen says being vegetarian wasn’t easy when he was a teenager, 17 years ago. “There were a few health food stores, stodgy places. You couldn’t get tofu and soy milk in supermarkets,” he says. “The Toronto Vegetarian Association wasn’t that big then and it was mainly elderly and middle-aged people.”
Now, McQueen marvels at the ease with which one can write off meat. “I walk into my local grocery store and I’ve got my choice of two or three types of soy milks on the counter and there’s at least one variety of tofu.” He also notes the proliferation of vegetarian restaurants, of which there are 30 in Toronto. “It’s just a great place to be vegetarian.”
Besides stuffing your face at the fair, you can pick up tons of free literature on various animal rights and environmental issues. You can scoop up goodies to appease your inner activist – T-shirts and stickers with messages like “Pigs are friends, not food,” and “Yuck! Your disgusting fur coat.” All the exhibitors are eager to educate you about coronary health, yoga, meditation and shiatsu.
It’s overwhelming to be surrounded by so many herbivores at once, a feeling which is motivating in itself. “You’re not just feeding yourself here,” says Garcia. “You’re feeding your brain.”
He admits a little bit of willpower is required to go veggie but most of that comes from the belief that you’re doing the right thing for animals, the environment and yourself. “I’m doing cartwheels right now. I can actually go to bed at night knowing that I’m not denying people of food,” he says. “I’m not killing anything or anyone, I’m not creating waste, I don’t exactly feel a cancer coming on.”