On Sunday, Derby Street by the Berkeley Sports Basement was lined with dozens of food trucks dishing out a range of foodstuffs, from corn dogs, funnel cakes and ice cream, to Peruvian ceviche, Nigerian Hausa stew, and Cambodian pineapple shrimp and lok lak (shaking beef). The cordoned-off street was also packed with more than 3,000 attendees who were thrilled that every single dish was vegan.
Although I am not vegan, I attended the third annual Bizerkeley Food Festival because I know this way of eating is kinder to animals and the planet. I was curious to see if I could shift to eating more plant-based dishes and still be satisfied. I brought along an enthusiastic taste tester, my friend Andi Eggers, a practicing vegan for a decade. With 75 stalls to choose from, we divided and devoured. I was most curious about protein-dense dishes because that is what my body seems to need. Eggers’ goal was to sample mushroom-based dishes for inspiration to better incorporate them into her diet. Edible fungi are packed with nutritional value but she does not like them raw.
We started out with two tastes from Prime Roots, a turkey-like sandwich, and sliced salami. They hit both our targets, since they were quasi-meat and made from koji, a type of fungus. We agreed that the koji turkey didn’t taste much like turkey but worked well in a sandwich, but the peppery salami was quite delicious. The meat-eating founders of this Berkeley-based company, Kimberly Le and Jonathan Nixon, met in a class at UC Berkeley and are dedicated to creating meat alternatives that are better for the environment.
After a satisfying griddled corn cake at Vegan Chula, we enjoyed the “lamb meatballs” from Black Sheep Foods that are made from pomegranate, potatoes, bamboo and peas. I was ready to take some home, but they are only sold at restaurants, for now.
After we chatted with chef Sitalbanat Muktari, who was cooking Northern Nigerian food at her stand That Hausa Vegan, we sat down in front of the stage to enjoy her satisfying stew called Miyar Egusi (made with ground melon seed, fermented locust beans, shitake and oyster mushrooms with pounded yam.)
Then the godmother of this vegan food extravaganza, Erika Hazel, took the mic as MC for one of the several contests held hourly on stage. Hazel, who is a Special Education therapist in Oakland for kids with emotional disturbances and autism when she is not working on her Bizerkeley Vegan blog and events, grew up in Vallejo and has lived in West Berkeley since 2015.
“Berkeley is an eclectic place with people of different flavors and cultures,” Hazel said. “I’ve always felt at home in its hippie-progressive culture. Instead of the slang term ‘Berzerkeley’ for berserk, I prefer ‘Bizerkeley’ like bizarre, unique, and cool.”
Hazel didn’t grow up vegan, but “the signs were always there,” she said. “I’ve always been a green and animal focused person.”
Her interest in animal rights grew while attending UC Irvine, and was only strengthened following an internship at the Oakland Zoo working with elephants. Finally, after watching the graphic documentary Vegucated, she converted to veganism in 2016.
The festival, which is a non-profit endeavor that raised more than $3,000 for the Herd & Flock Animal Sanctuary this year, combines two of her passions.
“I love to plan parties, and I have been a philanthropist since the age of eight,” she said.
Becoming vegan changed Hazel’s life and influenced her travel destinations. She has planned healthy food festivals in Vallejo and San Francisco and traveled the country visiting other vegan food festivals in Atlantic City, Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest. She learned the business side from her chef friends and used her experience in counseling psychology for the consumer side.
“Psychology influences everything I do when I plan events, from the pricing to where I place the vendors,” she said. “I specifically do things differently than other festival organizers. I want to make sure my vendors get their money’s worth. I intentionally work with very small businesses and want to keep them happy. My goal is to get as many people as possible to the ‘Green Side,’ replacing the animal products in their diet for their health, the environment, and animals.”
Berkeley resident Lorraine Holmes enjoyed a plate of garlic noodles from San Francisco’s Vegan Hood Chefs while watching one of the contests. This was her first Bizerkeley food event. A vegan who moved here from the East Coast, Holmes is thrilled with Berkeley’s vegan options compared to Washington, D.C.
“East Coast restaurants might have only one vegan dish on the menu,” she said. “Or, I’d have to ask the chef to make me something special. But in Berkeley, I eat like a vegan queen … I can never move away now.”
The last dishes Eggers and I sampled were from Srey Vegan, a Southern California-based Cambodian pop-up and caterer. Eggers had the “beef” and I had the pineapple walnut “shrimp,” which paired crunchy, gluten-free breading with a sweet, tangy sauce. The bouncy “shrimp” is made from konjac, a starchy root vegetable grown in Asia.
Before we left, Eggers and I hit the dessert jackpot at Raydiant Vybes, where everything we sampled—rich brownies made with cacao and maca, crunchy pecan shortbread and creamy key lime pie—was exceedingly flavorful and also gluten free.
Several of the more popular vendors ran out of food early and some stalls, including Vegan Hood Chefs whose “Hot Hunny Chick’n Sando” seemed to be the most popular dish of the day, had very long lines. But the general feeling among attendees at Berkeley’s only vegan food festival was upbeat and positive. Perhaps it was the camaraderie of shared tastes and values that brought out people’s patience. It is the difference between being catered to versus being accommodated (sometimes begrudgingly).
“I usually don’t tell people I’m vegan because they ask stupid questions, like: ‘Don’t you get bored?’ or ‘Where do you get your protein?’ But this feels overwhelmingly great. I wish I could stay longer and taste all the dishes,” Eggers said. “Even if everyone here isn’t vegan, they are here to support the cause.”
Hazel expects to bring back the Bizerkeley Food Festival for its fourth installment in 2024 at the same location.