The culinary landscape of New Orleans has not been the easiest for vegetarians and vegans to navigate.
It’s a seafood-loving city, after all, where “vegetable soup” traditionally calls for beef and where many cooks believe no pot of beans or greens is complete without some pork.
But times are changing; views on food and flavor are expanding, and for people who keep meat or other animal products out of their lives, the prospects have improved. The annual event that serves as a showcase for the New Orleans vegan community is changing, too.
NOLA Veggie Fest returns this weekend, May 7 and 8, and its organizers hope to draw a larger and more diverse audience by steering it closer to the familiar New Orleans festival format.
“It comes down to the music and the food,” said festival director Leah Duncan. “We want people to leave with a feeling that, damn, those vegans know how to throw a good party.”
In past years, the event was held inside the Healing Center in the Marigny. With a slate of speakers on stage and demo booths around the venue’s corridors, it often felt more like a conference than a party.
But this year, NOLA Veggie Fest will be held at a unique outdoor venue, the campus of Kingsley House in the Lower Garden District, and for the first time, admission is free. (VIP tickets for $20 support the festival and include special perks.)
Kingsley House, a community services organization founded in 1896, has a large, oak-shaded center courtyard that has hosted other small festivals and events through the years. For this year’s Veggie Fest, there will be bands onstage and a greater focus on food and drink from local restaurants (see the vendor list here).
Not all the participating restaurants are exclusively vegan or vegetarian, but their offerings at the festival will be.
In practice, this runs a gamut of flavors from Breads on Oak, the Uptown bakery and café that prepares many vegan sandwiches next to its traditional offerings, to Meltdown, which sells specialty popsicles in seasonal and offbeat flavors.
The increasingly rich range of ethnic and regional foods available in New Orleans will be represented, too, with food from Good Karma Cafe, a vegan café in Mid-City with Indian culinary roots, and Lahpet, a recurring pop-up for Burmese dishes (try the fermented tea leaf salad for a caffeinated kick).
Look for special presentation booths from Carmo, a Warehouse District cafe known for tropical cuisine and a range of eco-friendly restaurant practices, and from Seed, a Prytania Street eatery that serves po-boys and other comfort food dishes rendered in vegan recipes.
There will be cooking demos from other chefs, local and nationally touring speakers giving presentations on topics like nutrition, fitness and preventative medicine and a bazaar of booths for products and services.
The common thread for it all is compatibility with the vegan lifestyle, Duncan said, while the overall goal of Veggie Fest is to show people the diversity of what that entails and resources to learn more after the two-day festival ends.
NOLA Veggie Fest is run by the Humane Society of Louisiana, and the event was first staged in 1990. Its founders later opened the city’s first vegan restaurant, Jack Sprat’s Vegetarian Grill, which was in business on South Carrollton Avenue from 1994 to 1998.
After a hiatus, the festival was rebooted in 2009. It started small but has steadily grown, and Duncan pegs that to rising interest in the vegan values at the event’s core.
“You see the word vegan everywhere; people have vegan options when they dine out; it’s a buzzword on shelves,” she said. “If people are spending money to market it like this, you know it’s taking off.”
Duncan also is the vegan outreach director for the Humane Society, and through her own business, Vegan Village, she runs programs for events and companies that want to add a vegan element to their offerings.
Born and raised in Thibodaux, where her business is now based, Duncan is well aware that vegan choices can still face severe skepticism in the Bayou State. That’s why she believes so much of the success of NOLA Veggie Fest will hinge on the quality of the food people find there.
“I’m a bayou girl, so I understand the mentality we’re up against. That’s why we really try to showcase the vendors who embrace how good this food really is,” she said. “This is not the time to have your casual curiosity seekers turn their noses up. We think we can blow people away with what’s out there.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.