Friday, March 28, 2014

Sweet Freedom Bakery

Not too far from Govinda's in Philadephia is Sweet Freedom Bakery.

A "no refined sugars, casein-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, vegan, corn-free, peanut-free, kosher, egg-free, soy-free" bakery (their words, not mine): it's worth a visit.


A couple of friends and I stopped in one day in the scorch of summer (I know) when our plans were not conducive to taking anything to-go.


The interior was pretty adorable; I especially liked the chandelier.  There was what we assumed was either a new vegan or an allergy sufferer enjoying when we arrived, and her excitement made the place considerably cuter.

I didn't think there was any wow factor in the presentation of the baked goods; they were suitably displayed, but I wasn't overly impressed and therefore didn't have very high hopes for indulgence.  We each chose a single treat and stayed to enjoy.


On the heels of the amazing one in London, my friend chose an oatmeal raisin cookie sandwich.

I am wholly against oatmeal raisin cookies in general and, since I'm pretty majorly obsessed with another cookie sandwich, I never would have chosen this for myself.  I admit, however, that I wasn't at all prepared to like this unassuming goody as much as I did.

Another friend chose the coconut bliss cupcake.

Coconut cupcake, coconut icing, and coconut flakes: I didn't taste this one, but it was enjoyed by the other coconut lovers of the group.

Because I'd recently enjoyed salted caramel and chocolate ice cream, I couldn't resist the salted caramel cupcake.

It erred a little on the small side, but it wound up being just the right size and really delicious (I also liked their silverware).


So, don't let the lack of pizazz fool you; there is some good stuff in the case at Sweet Freedom Bakery.

And, in case you can't make it to Philly, Sweet Freedom has opened another shop in Collingswood, NJ.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

iV: (my experience at the) Ivy League Vegan Conference

I found out about this past February's iV: Ivy League Vegan Conference, held at Princeton University, quite by accident- which is unusual since I'm a member of their target audience: an Ivy-affiliated vegan.  I didn't previously know anything about the organization or their outreach, but none of the ivy-affiliated vegans I know had a clue about it either.  So, I spread the word as best that I could, signed up to attend, and hoped for the best.

Once registered, there was minimal contact from the "iV Conference Planning Team."  So minimal, in fact, that I hadn't realized that the schedule had finally been posted to the website until I received an email one day prior to the event notifying me that it had been changed.  Due to an impending storm, the 3-day long conference had been shortened to 2: now expected to begin midday Friday (inconvenient for 9-5ers) and end early Saturday evening.  I can't tell you if the adjustment meant simply that all of the speakers and panelists were condensed or if any were cut, but I did immediately notice that there didn't seem to be any social events on the schedule, as is the norm for networking purposes at such academic conferences.  In any event, to add insult to injury, by the time Friday rolled around the following day it was both obvious and reported that the storm would completely pass us by.

Day 1:
I was able to take time off from work so that I could attend the Friday portion of the foreshortened conference, for which sign-in was expected to begin at 1:00pm.  I arrived at the designated Princeton University building shortly thereafter, only to find zero indication that I was in the right place.

Once inside, still nothing.

When I turned the corner I could finally see the iV insignia projected on a screen in the distance; I had made it to the right place after all.

However, there was no one welcoming attendees or confirming registration.

No one to hand out the programs,

no one to offer the Jill Milan "gift cards" (which were actually percentage-off coupons),

and no one to explain whether the Health Warrior chia bars were for sale or sample.

So, after about 25 minutes of nothing, I helped myself.

I tried the chocolate peanut butter chia bar first; I think it's the only chocolate peanut butter anything I've ever tried and not liked.

When 2:00pm rolled around and the conference had yet to start, I helped myself to a coconut chia bar which was a vast improvement.

I believe it was about 2:15 when the lead organizer finally addressed the room: to state the obvious, that we'd be starting later than expected.  He said it was because one of the panelist's travels had been delayed...due to sun glare. So things were not exactly getting off to a very smooth start.

However, it was at this point that I noticed the hair adornment on the woman in front of me and recognized it as the work (and head) of none other than Michelle Leon!  With her in front of and animal rights' attorney Doris Lin behind me, I was in good company; things seemed to be looking up.

Finally, the conference began: with the panel "Northeast Entrepreneurs in Packaged Food and Retail."  The speakers were a mixed bag of vegan business owners/employees: Joel Henry, Fig Food Company CEO;  

Joseph Holder, Health Warrior Northeast Marketing Manager; Michael Schwarz, Gardener Cheese Company/Treeline Treenut Cheese CEO; Arshad Bahl, Amrita Health Foods CEO; and Peter Kidd, Marquis &Co/HipCity Veg Legal Counsel.

The email I'd received just prior to the conference interestingly included this notice:
"Since this is an academic and professional conference (and not an identity-based conference), we ask that you keep questions to speakers, panelists, and your fellow attendees as topic-driven as possible. We ask that you avoid questions about anyone's lifestyle, eating habits, or personal choices."

At the time I hadn't been certain if this meant that they did not advise discussing being vegan with speakers or amongst fellow attendees.  However, when it became obvious that not all of the panelists were vegan, I decided that it must have been a warning in order to avoid the inevitable questions that would arise with regard to working for and promoting a vegan company as a non-vegan. But, it didn't come up. 

The panelists spoke about the generalities of beginning and building a small business, then earnestly described the specifics of how niche items play into the already difficult process.  Michael Schwarz emboldened everyone by sharing that he had grown up in apartheid South Africa where they thought things would never change, but they did.  It was the single most inspiring analogy I think I've ever heard with regard to the future of veganism.

The question and answer segment was terrific- with an important discussion about the cost of specialty items being respectfully addressed.  It was interesting to learn that if you price specialty items too low, they sell less because people equate cost with quality.  Joel Henry posed, "Am I making vegan, organic soup for rich people?  I hope not." and explained that Americans work most in the world and don't have time to cook for themselves.  He encouraged attendees to support these smaller, vegan companies so they can grow enough for the price to eventually decrease.

The highlight of the panel, for me, was when Michael Schwarz respectfully disagreed with the ethos Peter Kidd described when he explained that Hip City Veg does not market itself as "vegan" in advertisements, literature, or within the restaurant.  "I'm proud of being vegan; cater to your base and then expand."  I knew the man made exquisite cheese, but he was quickly becoming a vegan hero. 

At the end of this panel there was a short break, but no refreshments.  A break without refreshments?  If that's the case you may as well skip the break entirely, in my opinion.  Is it truly possible that no vegan-friendly Princeton-area restaurants would have contributed to this event?  Because it was now dinner time and there was nothing on offer to eat or drink- either complimentary or for sale.  People started pounding the chia bars like peanuts; the soundtrack of the break was a cacophony of crinkling wrappers.  It was exceedingly generous of Health Warrior to have provided so many bars, but I'm not quite sure that this was the ideal scenario for them to have been consumed.

And then the second panel began- also sans refreshments and/or water for the panel or attendees.  When one panelist coughed and mentioned that his throat was dry, it was uncomfortable and actually quite embarrassing.  David Benzaquen, CEO of PlantBased Solutions, and Jody Rasch, SVP at Moody's Corporation presented "Current Topics in Vegan Finance, Microfinance, and Investment Funds."

Jody was engaging as he talked about investing specifically in animal-friendly endeavors and the possibility of having a social performance department that could rate companies from a social standpoint.  David offered an interesting perspective by relaying an experiment that tried to even the playing field for fresh fruits and vegetables by giving them the same opportunities afforded junk food marketed by huge corporations.  He spoke of marketing companies focusing on non-veg consumers because they will incite the most change, while admitting that veg consumers bring repeat and consistent business, a willingness to pay a premium, and act as citizen brand ambassadors without much or any marketing.  I took all of this to mean that vegans are a built in customer base that don't require much marketing to in order to be a huge part of a company's business.  While probably true, I'm pretty sure I'm a tad offended by the notion; vegans are a specific and opinionated lot: you don't want to underestimate them or take their business for granted.  Overall, the conversation was a bit more lively than it had been earlier- perhaps because everyone was fortified by mass quantities of chia.

And, I would be remiss if I didn't mention David's swank Brave Gentleman shoes, which I was admiring much of the evening.

But, I digress.  Once the panel ended, an abbreviated career/networking fair commenced in the narrow hallway that had led up to the conference room.  If memory serves, the companies that participated in the first panel were all represented, along with peta2, The Humane League, and Lantern Books; I was surprised not to see a broader range of representation considering the presumed intended audience.

Amrita wasn't nearly as generous as Health Warrior; they seemed to put a single sample on the table at a time.  Unfortunately, the sample available when I passed was the apple cinnamon endurance bar (I'd been angling for chocolate maca).  I did not like the apple cinnamon in the least, but should note that I saved it- minus one bite, for VM and she thought it was delicious. I purchased the chocolate maca a few days later and am happy to report that it was significantly better.

Treeline gave out some of their amazing products; it was surprising to me how many people had never tried it before.  It did make me cringe to see the ravenous attendees eating the exquisite hard cheese wheels like candy bars: unwrapping them halfway and taking a bite, or breaking a hunk off to share with their friends.  For such a refined product, the consumption was utter blasphemy.  But people were practically starving by this point; what else are you gonna do when there's awesome vegan cheese in your face?  Michael was kind enough to give me a tub of their exquisite soft cheese to take home.

A little later, a group went over to the student center where a casual counter-service restaurant called Cafe Vivian purported to offer "organic, sustainable, and local food."  The vegan options available were cheeseless pizza, a hummus sub, or a "salad bar" of pre-packaged Macro-Vegetarian products you can find in NYC bodegas and 7-Eleven.  It's my understanding that these offerings are always available at Cafe Vivian; it seemed that no special selections had been made available for the event (no word on whether or not additional options had been requested, but the employees seemed not to have expected the sudden onslaught of vegans).  I passed on the fair fare and went instead to the local Whole Foods to pick up some crackers for my cheese, which trumped any of the options I could have chosen at the cafe.

Day 2 began in a different building, but still no sign.

However, unlike day 1, there was a surely well-intentioned, though messily presented, brunch spread.  Points for the vegan cream cheese assortment, but the supermarket bagels and vegetable trays alternately screamed, "I barely tried," and, "An omnivore thinks this is what vegans eat."  Once again, I was left feeling that the conference committee hadn't considered the community resources available to them and, in turn, had done a disservice to the surrounding businesses with the missed opportunity.

Further, the online conference schedule had said that an "exhaustive list" of vegan-friendly eateries would be provided, but if it was I certainly never saw it. A few day's prior to the conference, an email from the organizers included this information.

If you have any severe dietary allergies or limitations, we recommend that you bring supplemental food with you. We will work to ensure each person's food situation is stable; however, we ask that you prepare to be in a town that historically has had limited success in accommodating a wide variety of eating styles.

"Limited success in accommodating a wide variety of eating styles?"  While I certainly wouldn't want to have to find sustenance in P-town on a regular basis, there is no shortage of vegan options to sustain and even wow you for just a few days.  Within walking distance there is a Qdoba and a vegan-friendly coffee shop, Small World.  Two new friends told me they'd enjoyed a fabulous vegan breakfast at nearby, vegan-friendly infiti-T Tea Cafe, and the Princeton Whole Foods was massive and closeby.  The local coffee shop offered a mean, pre-packaged kale/chickpea salad, and there's a health food store with an all-vegetarian deli within walking distance of campus, not to mention the vegan options at the local ice creamery The Bent Spoon.  Surely there were better options on offer in Princeton, if only they'd been researched.

When it was (past) time for the "Academic Programming" small sessions to start, I unfortunately noticed that it was, again, much more meagerly attended than I would have expected.  I thought the previous day had been light on attendees due to the timing, but roughly 40 people in a room fit to hold 250 isn't exactly bolstering to a vegan crowd.

There was a "The Global Diet & Sustainability: Multi-country Perspectives" talk by Mia MacDonald and Sangamithra Iyer, but my friend and I decided to attend "Combating Common Diseases With Plant-based Nutrition" by Michael Gregor.  If you can believe it, I've never heard Michael Gregor speak live before (this doesn't count); I was impressed by both the content and the dynamic delivery of his presentation.

He talked a lot about the highest causes of death- suggesting it's best not to get sick at all because it mostly boils down to doctors, hospital accidents, and prescription drug side affects; the supporting information was positively chilling.

Ultimately, no medication has come close to a vegan diet to demonstrate success.  However, while diet significantly affects the occurrence and progression of disease, nobody profits monetarily from a plant-based prescription.

For lunch break, it was recommended that attendees return to Princeton's Frist Student Center.  Not for more Cafe Vivian, as they are apparently closed on Saturdays; instead, for food from the student dining hall.  The best vegan option we found there was, yet again, cheeseless pizza.   We- an old friend and two new from UPenn, instead opted to take the 15 minute walk to Whole Earth Center, Princeton's health food store showcasing an all-vegetarian deli.  We collectively enjoyed flavorful soups, sandwiches, and salads before heading back to the conference.

It was an iV miracle: a sign had finally been posted to the door.

The mystery of who the conference attracted vs. intended to attract deepened as my friend and I overheard this conversation between two young men we hadn't seen before now seated behind us:

Man 1: Are you vegan?
Man 2: No.
Man 1: Yeah; I was for a year.  It was hard.
Man 2: I like butter too much.
Man 1: Butter's good.

In what may have admittedly been a tad over-zealous, I implored these two to please go vegan; "There's vegan butter!" I wailed, but was told "It's hard in the dining hall."  I've actually been a guest in some of Princeton's Residential College dining halls in the past- where I've enjoyed Pho, tofu milanese, an entire spread of vegan dessert, etc.; this was an awfully flimsy and, frankly, lazy excuse not to live compassionately.  More egregious though, was that we were now closer to the end than to the beginning of the conference and these two young men hadn't learned to put some effort into combating speciesism; it was disheartening to say the least- especially when they moved their seats.  If they simply ignore what makes them uncomfortable, how can we expect the younger generation to incite change?

Breeze Harper began the keynote, "Oppositional Bodies of Knowledge: A Black Feminist Perspective on Race, Gender, and Embodiment in Vegan Politics," with a Civil Rights-era song: "We are the ones we've been waiting for."  It was unique, calming, and quite beautiful.  Incongruous was the camera she had set up recording her every word, which also kept her pinned to the podium for the duration of her talk.  That, coupled with the fact that much of her keynote was made up of her reading directly from her dissertation, made for a less-than dynamic presentation that hindered her ability to connect with the audience.

She explained that she is often accused of race-baiting, so purposefully comes to "white-based" institutions (this might be news to diversity-centric Princeton) and began her speech by clarifying that when she uses the term "white," she refers to anyone who acts colonial.

She spoke a little about her path to veganism through Queen Afua's Sacred Woman, but mainly about how PETA's guides for animal-product substitutes are geared towards white America.  For instance, when they recommend, "Frozen burger crumbles make veganizing grandma’s spaghetti sauce or secret meat loaf recipe a snap," she posits that they are speaking exclusively to white America, for whom grandmas did make spaghetti or have a meat loaf recipe- whereas other cultures' grandmas did not.

I'm still processing my thoughts on the subject, but here are the points I've been coming back to: One, PETA is notorious for not updating the vast amount of information on their site; this could very well have been written decades ago.  Two, how many grandmas actually cook these days anyway?  Three, with so much of the country gentrified- good or bad, spaghetti is probably one of the most American dishes I can think of that isn't always already vegan.  And four, is this really the best use of a vegan's time: nit-picking possibly race/culture-specific/exclusive language?  I really can't imagine that someone who grew up on kimchi and rice would dismiss veganism solely because PETA neglected to include their personal, cultural foods in their literature.

Ultimately, Dr. Harper maintained that there is no universal way to talk about veganism.  But, I wholeheartedly disagree; compassion is universal

A few days before the event we'd received an email from the conference planning team that included language regarding dress code.

All attendees are expected to wear business casual at all times. This is an academic and professional conference environment. If this presents a major barrier for you, please discuss arrangements.
    • Examples: blouses, slacks, skirts, dark-wash jeans, blazers, button-ups, polos, professional footwear
    • Do not wear: t-shirts, light-wash jeans, tennis shoes/sneakers
I glazed over it, thinking only that it was odd.  But, it turned out that it was received rather offensively by many.  One casually but neatly dressed gentleman in particular was reminded of the dress code on Friday, after being looked up and down rudely.  However, on the second day someone entered the keynote wearing a dark sweater emblazoned with the word "bitch" in large, white, block letters and did not seem to receive any admonition.  I realize that we are all adults and may wear what we please, but when you dictate and attempt to enforce a dress code, it is necessary that you do so equally and appropriately once you've opened yourself up to it.

My friend and I agreed to skip Matthew Hayek's session, "The Climate of Animal Farming: A Critical Evaluation of Pollution from Agriculture" in lieu of the panel, "How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain."  Gregory Berns began by explaining how he chose to focus his research on studying animals in a non-invasive way and explained that when it comes to research, while IRB (Institutional Research Board: human subjects) considers risk benefit, IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee: animal subjects) does not.  He then showed us a short documentary on his research, which involved more dogs than people, so everyone enjoyed.  His research raises many reasons, from a biological point of view, for why we must reconsider the treatment of dogs as property (although doesn't get into why we should stop with dogs).  "If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person."  Interesting in and of itself, let alone from a neuroscience perspective.

What followed was a riveting and entertaining critique of non-vegan Berns' book and research from a vegan perspective by Sherry F. Colb and Michael Dorf.  My only complaint was that all panelists continuously referred to an op-ed by Berns that I wasn't familiar with at the time, but I recommend as worth the read.

Unfortunately, the revision of the conference's agenda meant that the final meal of the day was cancelled and replaced with what was supposed to be fifteen minutes of closing remarks that amounted to a simple, anti-climactic, non-resolution of a dismissal, "That concludes the conference."

At this point attendees verbally scrambled for suggestions on what to do/ where to go/ options for eating nearby; my friend and another vegan we'd met at the conference decided to go to Cross Culture, a short drive away.   After the limited food options over the course of the two-day conference, we all cleaned our plates.

While we did so, we also discussed the conference.

Despite the obvious lack of organization, we agreed the information gleaned was worthwhile.  However, we still shared an overall confusion as to whether the conference was intended to be a think tank exclusively for vegans, or an informative event for all interested parties.

And then we three "ivy-affiliated vegans" brainstormed the question of elitism, since regardless of the persuasion of the intended audience, proof of ivy-affiliation was required for registration [UPDATE 3/28/14: To clarify, non-Ivy affiliates had the opportunity to submit an application to attend the conference].  If it was intended to be an "elite" think tank: was it successful?  Did it plant a seed in busy, educated folks for furthering their activism?  Or, was it just an alienating, missed opportunity on a vastly open-minded, liberal, predominantly forward-thinking campus?  I ran into a handful of vegan, Princeton University students at an un-related event some weeks later and they had no idea the conference had even taken place at their University.  Surely they were the target audience, so how were they missed entirely?

I'm interested to see what this conference has in store for the future, but since I've received no post-conference survey or any follow-up correspondence whatsoever, it would seem that the organizers aren't exactly seeking feedback, let alone suggestions for improvement.  Perhaps it is a matter of elitism.  In introducing the iV journal, Vault, and calling for submissions, the conference organizer made an off-hand dig at blogs by stressing to the audience of prospective contributors to keep in mind that it was a JOURNAL, not a BLOG.  I'm not saying there isn't room for both, but it was not only an unnecessarily condescending remark, but also a short-sighted one.  Never underestimate the power of a blog- they are usually written in earnest and reach many more people than an academic journal.  Ultimately, veganism should be about including, not excluding.  I'm glad that this conference exists; I'd love to see it become more inclusive overall.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chipotle's New Vegan Tofu Sofritas- Quick Review

A few days after they went nationwide, I drove to found myself at Chipotle to try the new vegan option: tofu sofritas.

It's currently the featured item, described as,

"Shredded organic tofu braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices.  For carnivores and vegans alike, try it on your burrito, bowl, tacos or salad."  

"Carnivores?"  Pandering much?  But, I digress.

Since I've already reviewed Chipotle, I'll just say a few words specifically about the sofritas: THEY TASTE MEATY. 

But, when I say "meaty," I mean really, really meaty.  For starters, I don't know why but I expected the tofu would have been prepared as marinated strips.  Instead, it's crumbled and possibly pan fried before being served with a slotted spoon out of a saucy bowl.  And the taste, in case I haven't been clear, is MEATY.  Also, the feel of it in your mouth is meaty.  It's been an extremely long time since I've eaten chopped meat, but I remember it vividly and this is it: veganized.  I can't even describe the actual flavor because I just couldn't get over the meatiness of it all.

Which is great!  I'm personally not into it, but I think we've already established that things can taste "meaty" (and "cheesy," and delicious, etc.) without being animal-based.  And, just to clarify: vegans aren't opposed to things tasting meaty, they're opposed to using animals- for food, material, entertainment, etc.  Not all vegans are vegan because they don't like the taste of animal products; they're vegan because it's speciesist to use animals to satisfy your own selfishness.


So, get your cruelty-free meaty meal on…and bring an OMNIvore (sorry, Chipotle; words do have meaning) to give it a whirl.  Apparently the self-described tofu-hating guy on Good Day NY was seriously chowing down on sofritas tacos without realizing it was tofu.  I even got my dad, who eschews all things bean-related (including- sometimes, me) to give it a try; he agreed that it tastes like chopped meat.

While I don't know how Chipotle will convince "carnivores" on a large scale to try the sofritas, if my Facebook feed is any indication, vegans are flocking to do so.  The more mainstream vegan options the better.

If you're looking, you'll now find the sofritas listed as a permanent option on the Chipotle menu: marked with a "V."  It's the same price as the original "veggie" option (beans/no meat), but guacamole isn't included with the sofritas.

UPDATE 3/17/14: yes; these are New Jersey prices (what else are ya gonna eat in Jerz?)

See what you think; I'd be interested to hear it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

More Goodies For 89 From Pet London

It's now been a year since I was in London and, by extension, Pet London, but I have to revisit because this happened.

Yes, 89 has now swapped her jaunty, trademark clip for more formal attire.

You see, after hearing about my love of Pet London, VM gifted me this fabulous collar with inter-changeable ties!  Who doesn't need one of these?

disclaimer: this is the best picture I have because I dismantled it so quickly

It's going to be all ties, all the time- from here on out.

busy day at the office

 Thanks for having such cool stuff, Pet London!

And, as if that wasn't enough, Pet London was kind enough to send me a gift!

I was able to just barely contain my excitement.

89 wasn't!

I love it!

I saved it until my new door was installed so that my neighbors could admire it...and 89.

Truer words were never spoken; thanks for everything, Pet London!

P.S. Now that people know we're fans, the gifts have been rolling in:

We love it all (although the toys have already been loved a little too much…).  Thanks again!