Hegui and I recently returned from beautiful Toronto. Do you know the city? It is nestled along the northern coast of Lake Ontario only a short drive from Niagara Falls and the US Border. We planned our trip by committee: first we thought Seattle, though I’ve read that the weather gets dreary at this time of year. Then we toyed around with Chicago but Hegui vetoed it, saying he wanted to go “abroad.” We’d both been to Montreal already, so Toronto seemed like a good choice. And who knew that the city is the “festival queen” of North America? We scheduled our visit for the week of theToronto International Film Festival, the annual Queens West Art Crawl, and our story for today, the 26th Annual Vegetarian Food Fair.
Here’s the “about” from the Toronto Vegetarian Association, the fair sponsors:
Regarded as the largest event of its kind in North America, the Annual Vegetarian Food Fair gives you an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy a diverse cross-section of vegetarian cuisine. Discover new products and ideas from more than 100 exhibitors and enjoy a wide variety of presentations and cooking demos.
Not a vegetarian? Whether you’re looking for new ideas to add colour and variety to your meals or you’re a seasoned vegetarian interested in expanding your knowledge of nutritious and ethical foods, this is the place for you.
Here’s someone else’s review. We missed the vegan “Iron Chef” cook off and the various exciting cooking demonstrations. I was curious about Carol Adams talk, “Living Among Meat Eaters: A Survival Guide for Vegetarians.” But that required way too much planning for a lazy afternoon. Nevertheless, we truly enjoyed wandering around the various booths and listening to live Beatles cover music while munching our vegan banana leaf-wrapped steamed rice stuffed with shitake mushrooms as we lounged around on the artificial turf that surrounds the Harbourfront Centre. That’s right: artificial turf! Doesn’t that seem ironic at a vegetarian fair? We thought so, too. But I have to admit that the stuff felt surprisingly soft and seemed remarkably clean. I wonder if they use a carpet cleaner on the thing?
The kiosks had a whole range of things that you might expect to find at a vegetarian fair. It was a real mix of information booths about organic foods, the welfare of animals, health, environmental protectionism, veganism, raw food, etc. Numerous folks seemed to be selling various kinds of enticing vegetarian or vegan desserts (though aren’t most desserts vegetarian?) We saw tents selling clothes, ceramics and belts. There was even one woman, Sally Grande, hawking paintings of carrots. Her sign said that carrots are the internationally recognized symbol of vegetarianism. I wanted to talk to her about that but just as we approached, some one spilled a huge cup of steaming coffee over everything and she was way too distracted for chitchat. The paintings were beautiful.
Inside the main building were stands with meat-like products made from soy. I tried a sample of a pseudo-beef but found it repulsive. I’m a firm believer in eating the real thing if you really must but why pretend one thing is something else?
There was this one very unusual group apparently representing the Supreme Master Ching Hai, who promotes vegetarianism as part of a path to enlightenment, I think they explained. Ching Hai has a very complex biography that made me a bit squeamish though the folks we saw were definitely true believers. She has a 24-hours a day cable channel. The “movement” has even developed their own vegan restaurant chain, Loving Hut. Prior to our Canadian trip, Hegui and I tried the one at the Westfield Mall in Downtown San Francisco. The food wasn’t bad, but I wonder what we’d think now that we’ve learned about the business model?
A few of the booths were sort of funny. For example, there was Zespri: possibly the worlds most powerful fruit! And the ever present booth with hemp related products. Is the hemp fiber really superior to cotton? Does it really have a role in a healthy diet? If so, I wish that someone would enlighten me. I think that people are thrilled by the “hemp” idea merely because the plant produces cannabis. It seems so easy to blend and distort the issues surrounding hemp: “No, officer, really, I’m only growing this hemp because I need some new T-shirts and all my stuff from GAP was ruined when someone threw bleach into the machine. Honestly! I’m not using the leaves at all! You can even have them.” ‘course, that may all be an academic question in California this November if the marihuana legalization ballot measure passes. (Surprisingly, at this fair, we hardly smelled any marihuana smoke and counted less than a handful of people wearing tie-dye. That would be way different here in San Francisco. Vegetarianism must finally hitting the main-stream!)
After our stroll around for an hour or two, while listening to “Hear Comes the Sun,” sprawled out on the soft Astroturf, Hegui and I had a big debate about the meaning of the fair. I was perplexed by the fact that though many people were selling desserts and unusual vegetarian/vegan foods without much of a strong cultural provenance (e.g. vegan chocolate anythings, artificial chicken and steak), I hardly saw anybody selling more “conventional” vegetarian food. There were a few Asian (were these Chinese, Japanese or Korean, I wonder?) foods. And one guy had olive oil for sale. But what about vegetarian takes on Italian, Mexican, or even regional American food? Where were the organic wine producers and boutique beer micro-brewers? I would have welcomed some Ethiopian food or perhaps some Vietnamese. There could even be a farmers market connected to the event; that would be very vegetarian, pro-environment, organic, raw, green and what have you.
Hegui thought that I was overreacting, as most of the food for sale was merely snacks, not meals. That’s true. I’m sure that the cooking demonstrations would have touched more on the everyday side of vegetarianism.
Misgivings aside, the fair was thrilling because of all the sights and sounds and, like lots of vegetarian events, the many controversial ideas about the role food has in our lives and the role our lives have in the larger world. In that sense, it was a huge success. Thank you for organizing it, Toronto Vegetarian Association, and thanks also to your numerous devoted sponsors.