Some vegans say eating meat abets animal cruelty, but my recent experience with certain vegan food makes me wonder: What about cruelty to humans? I went vegetarian for a week in October, and eating some of the fake meat and cheese dishes that I encountered at vegan eateries seemed downright masochistic. One dish in particular — a vegetable flatbread with faux shredded mozzarella — offended my every sense and sensibility. It looked bad, smelled bad, tasted bad and even sounded bad, thanks to the assorted "ughs" and groans coming from my dining companions.
But I kept an open mind and mouth throughout the week, and it wasn't all terrible. In fact, much of it was delicious. During the same meal as the flatbread, at Sublime restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, I had mushroom ravioli in a cashew-cream sauce that truly was sublime. And I had one of my best meals of the year at the stunningly good Plant Food + Wine in Miami, a vegan restaurant from California-based chef Matthew Kenney, whose trademarked slogan is "crafting the future of food." I'd usually poke fun at such a pretentious motto, but the things the kitchen is doing with vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, flowers and seaweed is seriously amazing. There, I ate creamy "cheese" made from fermented cashews and delicate noodles made from kelp.
Vegetarian and vegan food, now trendily labeled "plant-based cuisine," has grown increasingly sophisticated since the days of alfalfa sprouts and wheat germ at bohemian health food stores. There are vegan bakeries, tea rooms, delis and juice bars across South Florida, along with high-end restaurants featuring four-star service and cuisine.
And the Seed Food and Wine Festival in Miami, which runs Nov. 2-6, will attract hundreds of plant-based food exhibitors and chefs from across the country. In its third year, the Seed festival has grown to the point where comparisons to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival aren't outlandish. There will be a Veggie Burger Battle at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach Thursday night (Nov. 3), special dinners throughout the week, a Seed summit with speakers and presentations, and a 5K race and tasting village at the Wynwood Mana space on Saturday (Nov. 5).
"It's both a movement and a lifestyle," says Nanci Alexander, an animal-rights activist who went vegan 30 years ago and opened Sublime nearly 14 years ago. "This is the way the world is going. Maybe it's not moving as quickly as I'd like, but I'm thrilled by how far we've come."
I went vegetarian as a way to spotlight the Seed Festival, but I learned there can be pitfalls accompanying the plants. Going meat-free doesn't necessarily mean eating healthier. I gained five pounds during the week. I ate many deep-fried items, heavy pastas and ultra-sweet desserts at vegan eateries. I ate highly processed, high-fat foods that were loaded with sugar and salt. I also ate salads, quinoa, buckwheat and barley. I had one shot of wheatgrass, and a few glasses of organic rosé wine. Some days, I ate butter, cheese and eggs, but many meals were completely free of animal products.
Overall, my digestive system did fine, but one night I had cramps after eating a deep-fried "coconut burger" that oozed oil and made me pine for a lean, grilled chicken breast. That burger, made from shredded coconut and lentils and covered with a creamy sauce at Green Bar and Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale, was juicy and good when hot. But it quickly lost its allure when it cooled off.
"Not every vegan is focused on health," says Ryan Bauhaus, the founder of Atlas Meat Free Deli, which makes faux meat and cheese products for vegan eateries and operates a stall at the Yellow Green Farmers Market in Hollywood. "There are health vegans, and there are junk-food vegans."
"You can eat nothing but Oreos and french fries and still call yourself a vegan," says Richard Hales, a Miami-based chef who went vegan for a few years. In November, Hales expects to open Bird & Bone restaurant in Miami Beach, which will feature chicken and meat dishes.
Sareen Gropper, a professor of nutrition at Florida Atlantic University, says numerous studies have shown diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains are associated with reduced risks of several chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. But she also warned that vegan foods can be highly caloric and loaded with fat, leading to weight gain. "It's the old saying — everything in moderation," Gropper says. And she says people who give up meat and dairy should make sure they get nutrients such as calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and vitamin D from other sources, including supplements.
There are now an estimated 16 million vegans and vegetarians in the United States, roughly 7 percent of the adult population. Some, such as Alexander, go vegan for moral and ethical reasons, because of the way animals are slaughtered for meat and treated when they produce milk, cheese and eggs. Others, such as former President Bill Clinton, who had heart-bypass surgery, do it for health reasons. Bauhaus says he's encountering more "flexaterians," generally younger adults who hew to a mostly plant-based diet but sometimes eat meat.
"I call myself 'vegan-ish,' " says Darlene Mars, a yoga instructor and lifestyle coach from Davie. She eats vegan most of the time, but says she'll eat fish, seafood or other animal products occasionally, when she's out at restaurants or parties.
Alexander says her conversion began when she stopped eating veal and then she stopped eating (and wearing) all animal products and byproducts. She founded the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida before opening Sublime. She'd like to see a world without filet mignon and foie gras, because in her words, "Animal agriculture is violent … there's institutional violence every second of every day." But she says she doesn't proselytize or preach veganism.
"I don't push it on anybody," Alexander says. "I'm just thrilled when people come in to experience the restaurant for themselves. I'm happy more people are aware of the issues involved."
But there are hardline factions among vegans and carnivores. At one extreme is dour and sanctimonious British singer Morrissey, whose former group, the Smiths, released an album titled "Meat Is Murder." When Morrissey made a 2012 appearance on "The Colbert Report," he insisted there be no animal products in the studio that day. Host Stephen Colbert asked whether it might sometimes be OK to eat meat, such as from "a pig that commits suicide from listening to too many of your songs."
At the other end is Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author and star of CNN's "Parts Unknown," who once wrote, "Vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. Vegetarians are … an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living."
I completely understand the moral and environmental imperatives of veganism — meat production requires many more resources than plants and grains — but I tend to side with Bourdain. Thankfully, more Americans are willing to embrace a sensible middle ground. Hales, 46, who gave up meat for health reasons, says he accepts that he lives in a "meat-centric town" and that, as a restaurant chef, "essentially I run a slaughterhouse." He says he tries to stay vegan at home and ends up eating vegan 70 percent of the time. He would like to increase the ratio to 95 percent. When he recently conducted a month of testing on fried chicken recipes for his new restaurant, he says he adopted a "sommelier approach," tasting samples and then spitting them out.
My biggest issue with vegan cuisine is the prevalence of processed items trying to be something they aren't. Vegetables prepared simply taste good to me. But soy-based cheeses, fake burgers and Gardein cutlets don't. Bauhaus has developed gluten-based sausages and pastrami with decent flavors for Atlas Meat Free Deli, jazzed up with spices, garlic and brown sugar. But the texture is still off-putting to me, with mealy interiors that don't stand well on their own. They are more palatable when covered with bread, or crumbled into pasta dishes with sauce and vegetables.
I told Bauhaus I don't understand why faux meat or cheese is necessary, if the goal of veganism is a world free of meat or animal food products. He said replicating meat and cheese products is important to many vegans, for nostalgic and comfort reasons.
Bauhaus, 37, who has a vegan wife and once struggled with a meat-free life (he used to sneak off to Flanigan's for ribs), offered an interesting analogy. Some vegans can give up meat without a problem, akin to cigarette smokers who can quit cold turkey. But others, he said, are more like heroin addicts. Faux meat is their methadone, a way for them to get a fix and prevent withdrawal.
I told him about the first-night meal I prepared at home, beefy and earthy portobello mushrooms sauteed in butter, soy sauce, red wine and vegetable broth. I made a portobello sandwich the next day. To me, this natural goodness was much more satisfying than make-believe meat.
"You're coming from a point of view of dabbling in [vegetarianism]," Bauhaus says. "If you had to eat portobellos every day, you'd want to kill yourself."
The trouble is that's probably the way I'd feel facing the prospect of life without meat, cheese, butter and eggs. Vive la différence.
For Seed Food and Wine Festival tickets and information, go to SeedFoodAndWine.com.