Two decades ago, Thanksgiving Day for Barata El meant dinner rolls and potato chips. On a good year, he found pretzels. His best years, he said, were when the pretzels had mustard.

It wasn't for lack of food for El, now a retired New Jersey corrections officer. He knew he was luckier than many: He had a big family to spend the holiday with, and a table full of food. But as the only vegan at a meal centered around turkey, Thanksgiving Day for El was a burden, rather than a celebration.

"People either forgot I was vegan or maybe they just didn't care," El said.

Today, 24 years since 59-year-old El became a vegan, things have changed: Nearly 2 percent of Americans consider themselves vegan, defined as not eating - or, for some, using - animal products, anything from cheese to butter, or even clothes made of wool. Another 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian.

On Thursday, about 65 non-meat eaters from the Philadelphia region, including El, gathered to kick off what they said they hope will be an annual tradition: a Thanksgiving Day vegan potluck at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia.

And what a tradition it may be: As thousands of families across Philadelphia celebrated Thursday around the classic turkey and sides, the five dozen potluckers swapped recipes and recited poems. Some even entered a raffle. Among the most popular prizes: the chance at a subscription for a dating website for vegetarians.

While not the first of its kind for the region, the event was a first for many. They came as new converts or near-lifelong vegans, some older and some young.

They came alone and in groups, for their health, the economy, and the environment. Some came, simply, "to eat more compassionately."

But above all, many said, they came for the food.

Gathering at noon at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square, the event kicked off after a short introduction and a poem by Shel Silverstein.

"Thanksgiving dinner's sad and thankless,

Christmas dinner's dark and blue,

When you stop and try to see it,

From the turkey's point of view,"

recited one diner as she read from the poet's book.

"Peace begins with your plate!" cheered Barbara Pearl, one of the event's organizers.

Thanksgiving had begun.

Their own plates and utensils from home in tow (a request for all attendees), the diners scooped heaping piles of lentils, vegan macaroni and cheese, and vegetarian egg rolls.

They passed over stacked boxes of imitation turkey, weaving their way instead to a table with cookies, pies, brownies, even vegan cheesecake.

Along the way, they bought tickets for a raffle, bidding on everything from vegan cookbooks to a three-month membership to dating service veggiedate.org. And as they ate, El recited his own poem, The Animal's Plight, while others played the piano and sang.

Many came to build community, to "meet others like me," said Sandy Heng, of Philadelphia. The 20-year-old sales associate has been vegetarian for three months, and said that some day she would like to become vegan. Diners such as Heng pointed to huge gains around the country - and in Philadelphia - for vegans and vegetarians. But, said many, still more could be done.

In recent years, businesses and politicians have worked to make Philadelphia a more vegan- and vegetarian-friendly city. Last year, Mayor Nutter declared Nov. 1 as "Philly Vegan Day." Increasingly, vegan and vegetarian restaurants such as HipCityVeg and Vedge have settled in the city. The animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA, in 2013 declared Philadelphia the most vegetarian-friendly city for a sports fan.

Still, on a holiday where it is estimated that 46 million turkeys will be consumed, many who attended the potluck said people across the world are not doing enough to protect animals, the environment - or even their own bodies.

"I started because of my dogs," said Rojit Mehta, 40, of King of Prussia. "There's not a lot of difference between a dog or a pig or a human or a cow."

Others said what mattered most was the long-term effects on the environment.

"Our demand for food is growing," said Kurt Reimer, a 61-year-old systems administrator from Abington. "You can feed more people with a plant-based diet."

Still, devoted to veganism as he is, Reimer admitted there's one thing he misses.

"Bacon," he said. "Even now, it's one of those things whose taste I can't forget."

610-313-8113@mccabe_caitlin