Vegan speed daters smile for the camera. Photo: Karine Brighten

What, pray tell, does one wear to a speed dating event for vegetarians, vegans, and the veg-curious searching for their perfect match?

This reporter flirted with donning her son’s “Meat is Murder” T-shirt, which felt a tad obvious and then promptly opted for her typical uniform (jeans, shirt, boots, all sans slogans) and headed to the vegetarian Saturn Café, the site of the meatless speed dating meetup.

Since said reporter is both 1. single and 2. vegetarian (as long as you don’t count the occasional lapse in her mostly plant-based diet of some 30 years), it made sense to go undercover.

Can you imagine how awkward it would be for speed daters to have a reporter with notebook in tow chronicling, for public consumption, their attempts at meeting a soulmate over vegetable taquitos?

The Veg Speed Dating night was hosted by Berkeley-based Karine Brighten, 29, a vegan who met her husband (also vegan) online. Brighten believes that finding a partner who shares the same politics of the plate is one of the keys to a happy relationship.

“I don’t have meat in my home, go to zoos, wear clothing made from animals, or eat at restaurants that serve meat, so it’s important to me to have a partner who shares my lifestyle choices,” said Brighten, who specializes in vegan events. “Then there’s no explaining or defending to do, you’re both on the same page.”

The Saturn Café’s Space Lounge awaits the arrival of speed daters. Photo: Karine Brighten
The Saturn Café’s Space Lounge awaits the arrival of speed daters. Photo: Karine Brighten

Wednesday night’s meetup was aimed at heterosexual adults 21 and over, though Brighten hopes to hold events for gay folks in the future. Early birds paid $25 to attend. For those who left “looking for luv” to the last minute, tickets at the door cost $35.

Brighten worked hard to keep the genders evenly balanced, capping female sign ups until more men bought tickets. In the end, there were a couple more guys than gals in a group of about 40. Two women dropped out because they’d found themselves in relationships since they purchased tickets. Lucky them.

The assembled crowd, mostly Caucasians in their early 20s through to early 60s from around the Bay Area, mingled over appetizers in the Space Lounge, an area separate from the restaurant.

(A word on the food: mostly fried and fatty, with salsa laden with raw onion. In short: Overwhelmingly unimpressive and not particularly dating-friendly. Raw onion? Some folks eyes lit up at the end of the evening when vegan cupcakes came out, others begged off saying they avoid sugar or that the treats were too sweet.)

But folks weren’t there for the food. If you’re unfamiliar with speed dating, here’s how last night’s worked: people wore name tags and were given a sign-up sheet. After some preliminary schmoozing, the women were asked to sit on bench seats and men sat opposite. Each “pair” had a chance to chat for three minutes. A bell signaled when it was time to move on. After the allocated time, each male slid down a seat and a new conversation began. Every guy got to meet every girl. At the end, each guest could jot down the names of any person/s of interest, which were then passed on to Brighten.

Dating expert Anna Hennings. Photo: Monica Yamamoto

In the event that two people each picked the other, contact details are passed along via email. What happens next is up to the two individuals.

As a neophyte to the speed dating scene, who knew what to expect?  It turned out that the men and women at the event were mostly kind, curious, and thoughtful during the brief interactions.

In the name of research both professional and personal, this writer did check out some speed dating tips in advance. Fresh breath and easy on the booze. (Really? Check.) Accentuate the positive and don’t interview or interrogate. (Professional hazard alert.) Off-limit subjects on one list (work, politics, religion) were given the green light on another. But, no worries, if these topics were even broached they were dispensed with quickly.

The event featured a self-described dating expert, Anna Hennings, 25, who has co-authored articles on the subject and counts among her credentials being raised by sex educators/therapists. Her speech was brief, upbeat and encouraged folks to keep things light.

This participant learned a few things. Talking to 20 men, three minutes apart in rapid succession can make your head spin, throat parched, and keep even a professional listener on her toes. When meeting a fella who announces he works for the Oakland As, it’s probably not a dating-savvy move to blurt out, “Seriously? My son would love that.” And telling a yoga instructor that you stopped practicing after herniating a disc in class can make a conversation falter. Also: keeping a mental tally of how many of the male participants are grad students and/or young enough to be your offspring is probably not what the organizers had in mind.

It turns out I wasn’t alone in my thinking. The gal sitting next to me agreed on the food, age range, and acoustics (really difficult to hear), while acknowledging the need for opportunities for like-minded singles to meet. The organizers plan to tweak the format for future events.

“From a romantic-partner perspective, it seems like a waste of time for a 63-year-old to be mingling with a 22-year-old,” concurred Henning. Brighten said she plans to offer events with narrower age ranges down the track. As for grumblings about too many dates to meet and not enough time to talk, the old adage comes to mind: you can’t please everyone. That said, Brighten claimed the night a success with 24 tabulated matches.

The event also made me ponder how much a prospective dating partner’s dietary preferences really matter in the realm of relationships. It was clear in a crowd that contained many vegans that finding a match who labelled themselves as such was a motivating factor for attending the event, as Brighten predicted. But non-vegans didn’t seem as concerned about finding a perfect match on the food front.

Vegan cupcakes at speed dating event. Photo: Karine Brighten

Speed dating is not confined to people who identify with a certain way of eating. The Jewish community has long offered such match-making mixers for singles and the San Francisco Public Library recently ran its first literary speed dating events for 20- and 30-somethings, one for straights and one for gays, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Speed dating opportunities for people who are secular, slender, tall, 50+ and a variety of other niche groups are run by private companies.

What to make of these first impressions? A 2005 study at the University of Pennsylvania based on multiple HurryDate events found that most people made their choices within the first three seconds of meeting. And issues such as religion, previous marriages, and smoking habits were found to play much less of a role than expected. The research did not address eating choices.

Intriguingly, Malcolm Gladwell’s book on split-second decision making, Blink, includes the work of  two professors at Columbia University who run speed-dating events. These doctors found, from having participants fill out questionnaires, that what people said they wanted in an ideal mate did not match their subconscious preferences.

Could that mean that chemistry can top health-environment-animal-rights-ethical concerns? Is it possible for a committed vegan to fall for an unabashed omnivore and do such mismatches last? Can a rabbit-food loving lass hook up for life with an offal-loving lad? Or is a locavore who subscribes to a CSA doomed if his love interest favors fast food joints?

What say you readers: do our dietary preferences factor into our love relationships and what happens when opposites attract?

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.