This has indeed been the Year of Vegan in Philly - "Vegandelphia," as Craig LaBan termed it in January - and there's still more excitement on the way before year's end, with animal-free offerings expanding here and elsewhere in growing recognition of the appeal of "vegan" to a new generation.
But in some cases (and I'll skip names, as this is about trends, not individual callouts), the enthusiasm for "vegan" outstrips the facts.
Take, for instance, a certain ex-president who's famously gone "vegan." Great! Except on those occasions when he has some eggs or fish -"necessary" for protein, he assures us. Even though many top celebs treat "vegan" as a trendy diet plan, and even though this particular ex-prez is famous for clever hairsplittings of words like "sex" and "is," no one is vegan who eats animals.
In Philly this summer, there were controversies over this kind of thing at the venue level. Early on, for instance, a well-known Citizens Bank Park vendor was lambasted for touting a "Vegan Cheesesteak" that turned out to be a vegetarian cheesesteak - vegan(-ish) if you left off the cheese.
After an uproar, the current signage says "vegetarian." As with many "vegan" sandwiches, the rolls are often non-vegan, containing honey, whey, ground feathers, or other animal products. (Anecdotally, I'm hearing the number of vegan-roll bakeries is growing!)
Soon, another verbal battle erupted. A new diner/coffeehouse offered an extremely vegan-friendly lineup, but one that included animal products. Many vegans were upset with that situation itself; more serious was the venue describing itself in press reports and social media profiles as a "vegan" diner/dinerette.
After a social-media outcry, "vegan" was excised from the profiles without comment. The notion, again, is that animal products are "necessary" to keep people coming in.
This is in contrast to Grindcore House Cafe, which I do have to name, the first venue in Philly to emblazon "VEGAN" on both its hanging sign and an outside wall. Open since 2009, Grindcore put in the considerable grunt work to prove that an all-vegan neighborhood coffee shop can succeed in South Philly.
And though I wish more would step onto the trail Grindcore blazed, there really is no single, um, bullet for making sure the "100% vegan" thing always works, because animal products can show up just about anywhere.
Even the major food and drink festival I wrote about last month got tripped up as a few last-minute vendor dropouts left the event short on food samples (I feel your pain, as a certain ex-president used to say) and the team made the dubious decision to allow non-vegan samples to be given out by one vendor. Organizers also did not catch the honey content of one of the featured drinkables, and for both of these, the vegan community let 'em have it.
In this case (note: I participated in the event but was not involved in vendor relations) a different dynamic prevailed, as one organizer engaged local vegans extensively on social media to solicit feedback and take responsibility for the slip-ups while working to move forward to a better all-vegan event next year.
Though it's true some purveyors might need more education in vegan marketing, we vegans don't always define "vegan" accurately, either. "If you're not X you're not vegan" is a great argument-starter, where X might refer to frontline activism, palm-oil avoidance, belief in "animal rights," promoting Black Lives Matter, or other laudable but separate add-ons. Veganism gets defined so tightly it can seem unattainable, and I have yet to see such public discussions bear positive (rather than acrimonious) fruit.
With more "vegan" choices emerging, potholes and pitfalls will continue to abound on both sides, but note that South Jersey's American Vegan Society (americanvegan.org) has lots of resources, a track record of helping businesses add vegan items, and a network of vegan cuisine consultants for interested venues.
So, kudos to everyone who's getting vegan food out to the public, and to the public who's eating ever more of it. Yes, there's still pressure to backslide into the norm. But as far as possible and practicable, let's keep "vegan" vegan.
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Email him at VforVeg@phillynews.com.