Vegan outpost has deep roots in South Jersey

JRIORDAN31P
Students of the academy of culinary arts at ACCC, Carme's in Mays Landing, prepare Springtime Salad made with wilted baby spinach, crispy leek, & charred tomato with a lemon-chive vinaigrette.

When the American Vegan Society was established more than half a century ago in South Jersey, "you couldn't get tofu unless you went to San Francisco," Freya Dinshah recalls.

"Now you can get shredded vegan cheese in the supermarket," adds Dinshah, whose late husband, H. Jay Dinshah, founded the Society in Franklin Township's Malaga section in 1960.

What a difference 56 years and a food revolution make. The number of American vegans may be approaching four million. And there's even a vegan cafe in the small, working-class Cumberland County city of Millville.

Considered the first national organization of its kind, the Society in the beginning "was essentially Jay and I and our convictions," says Dinshah, the president.

Her nonprofit educational and advocacy group has grown to about 2,000 members, and produces online and print publications, such as American Vegan magazine, reaching thousands more, she adds.

Nevertheless, as a person committed to a life utterly free from consumption or use of animal products, "including honey," Dinshah is not prepared to declare victory.

"When it comes to sitting down and eating a vegan meal, most people don't know what to do," she says, as about 45 diners prepare to do just that at Careme's restaurant on the Atlantic Cape Community College campus in Mays Landing.

A five-course dinner - highlights include roasted cauliflower with kimchi cream, and Jersey veggies in a saffron broth - is being prepared and served by about a dozen students in the college's Academy of Culinary Arts.

Together, the Society and the Academy have hosted such dinners once or twice a semester since 2010.

"Everything we're serving is totally plant-based," says chef educator Joseph T. Sheridan. He notes that students entering the profession will find vegan diners no longer a rarity, and vegan palates "growing more sophisticated."

American vegans number about 3.7 million, according to the results of a 2016 Harris poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group.

The online survey of 2,015 adults posed the question "Do you never eat meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy or eggs?" Charles Stahler, a director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, says from the nonprofit education organization's main office in Baltimore.

Dinshah notes that the Society (americanvegan.org) regularly schedules social and educational events to promote veganism. In April it plans to host both a lecture by a Boston University psychiatrist and a progressive dinner in (where else?) Millville.

A garden party is set for May 29 at the Malaga headquarters.

"It's easier to follow and stick with veganism if people feel they are part of a community," Dinshah says.

The child of a vegetarian couple living near London, she went vegan at 18 after answering a newspaper ad and becoming pen pals with Jay Dinshah, who was born and raised in Malaga.

Their daughter, Anne, sets up an information table - family members have authored at least half a dozen vegan cookbooks and philosophical works - as diners begin to arrive at Careme's.

Mother and daughter agree that veganism is much more than a mere fad among health-conscious foodies.

"It's ethically rooted, and those ethics have, to us, the validity and strength of religious reasons," Freya Dinshah says.

Says Anne, who's 46 and the mother of a 5-year-old son, Clint: "My parents became vegans for compassionate reasons, and for me that has always been the main reason as well."

The Society "is a fantastic resource," says Eric Nyman, 32, who opened the pioneering Wildflower Vegan cafe in downtown Millville five years ago. "They've stayed true to the core ethical principles of veganism. For a small group, they do a lot."

In Careme's stylishly low-lit dining room, Ocean City vegan guitarist Reid Alburger gently strums, and Karen Dimacale tells me she became interested in exploring options to meat and dairy products after a friend's cancer.

"I just started to use almond milk," says the Egg Harbor Township database engineer, who's 50.

"It's very good. They even have dark chocolate."

Indeed, even committed carnivores like me are likely to be impressed by the variety, eye appeal, and tastiness of vegan fare.

But the growth in the number of vegans, the emergence of vegan celebrities (rocker Morrissey, auto racer Andy Lally), and the proliferation of vegan products on supermarket shelves don't alter the fact that for millions of humans, meat remains a staple.

The battle, Freya Dinshah says, "has just begun."

kriordan@phillynews.com

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