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First Vegan Sunday in Berkeley!

Dec 12, 2010

It was about three years ago that Christian and I first went to Karma Kitchen in Berkeley for our “first date”.  We enjoyed the food, the games at the table which helped us to get to know each other in a fun and meaningful way, and the embodied spirit of generosity.  When we got the check, though, we were given the opportunity to imagine a community, with our dining experience enabled by the generosity of those before us, and to which we could contribute for those coming after us, and it became much more than a traditional date! We have eaten several times since then, once meeting friends for lunch as part of a day of mindfulness for the New Generation Sangha and another time as a lunch gathering for a Young Jain Professional group, feeling the connections in our spiritual practices, communities and the spirit of Karma Kitchen.

In early November, when Christian read one of the many inspiring recounts of a Karma Kitchen Sunday, he was moved to action and exclaimed:  "We should volunteer!"   And the time was ripe.  Since the last time we had come to Karma Kitchen we had the surprise pleasure of hearing Bhoutik and other ambassadors of generosity from Charity Focus speak at a big Jain center celebration in the South Bay. That celebration also featured several vegan speakers and we were there serving vegan treats to the attendees. Inspired by the Charity Focus panel's energy to "be the change", Christian and I affirmed our intentions to do just that in a way that continued after the event. He created a website for me to write about ahimsa, Jainism and veganism.  And serendipitously, our friend from Washington DC who came to the Jain center event told us that Karma Kitchen DC had already had some vegan days. So I joined Christian in his excitement  to volunteer at Karma Kitchen in the glow of our recent experiences, and we hatched a proposal to change the menu from vegetarian to all-vegan -- just as we had been asking the Jain community to consider in their own diets, for reasons of compassion to dairy cows and chickens.

When we approached the core coordinators and host restaurant about a vegan day in Berkeley, they were all for it if we were ready to take the responsibility to coordinate it.   And so we began to plan in earnest for the first vegan Sunday in Berkeley!

We roped in our friend, fellow vegan, and founder of Karma Clinic, Dr. Aumatma. She brought in more of her friends, including Kanchan. Oh, and our friend Bhoutik who had inspired us as part of the Charity Focus panel at the Jain center , who that day, had declared that he would go vegan, though he decried his cooking skills—he opted in, too!

We talked to the DC Karma Kitchen and VegSociety DC volunteers to hear what they did  on their Vegan Days (now institutionalized as monthly happenings) and get ideas for entrees, drinks and dessert. Happily, the Taste of the Himalayas already had a vegan menu, so we easily picked a few entrees: Tofu saag, chana masala and a mix of fresh, locally available vegetables. We just needed to pick substitutions for butter on naan, vegan drinks and desserts, and we had lots of choices. We thought we’d try Chai with soy milk, Kheer with almond milk, and Mango Lassi with coconut milk, coconut yogurt and the newest kid on the block, coconut kefir. For the naan, which the restaurant had already developed in a vegan form, we’d spread on some Earth Balance rather than the traditional butter.   For dessert, we had lots of options from vegan ice-cream to pies.  This could work!

Though the restaurant staff and owner were somewhat familiar with veganism, we thought it would be helpful to meet with them and  introduce the range of choices in a vegan diet in the context of why people chose veganism, for ethical, health and environmental reasons. We brainstormed additional slides to add to Dr. Aumatma’s nutritionally robust PowerPoint presentation, and I brought a poster board that we had made for the Jain center event showing how to make almond milk.  We sat around a table at Himalyan Flavors with them, and rounded out our presentation with a sharing of samples of almond milk and earth balance as we discussed all kinds of vegan possibilities in Nepali, Indian and other cuisines. They were on board for Vegan Day.

Then, we went shopping for all our goodies.  I asked Turtle Mountain to contribute to our experiment, as they had for the Jain center vegan event, and they provided the coconut milk, yogurt and kefir, as well as all the delicious flavors of soy and coconut based ice cream. With their donation, they wished us well and in a letter to us, predicted that the day would be a magical experience! (They helped to make it so…) Christian had also been gifted a box of almonds from his friend whose family had an almond farm and we made the almond milk using the gifted almonds, dates and a powerful blender.    

Aumatma and I brainstormed other resources to have available on the vegan day. We heard from our friends in DC, the organizers in Berkeley, and reaffirmed to ourselves that we wanted to maintain the primary focus of Karma Kitchen as a generosity experience and so we thought a lot about what it meant to offer up this special day as way of eating mindfully and consciously, in line with our highest values. We opted to place information about the health, ethical, environmental benefits of a vegan diet on the kindness table so that it would be handy for people to pick up if they were interested.

We sent information about the vegan Karma Kitchen day to the San Francisco Bay Area veg list-serv and our Facebook friends.  And the big day arrived on Dec 12th. :)

We arrived early for set up, eager with anticipation, moving and setting the tables. Bhoutik put on the Karma Kitchen soundtrack.  On the kindness table, we put out recipes, Turtle Mountain product info and copies of Vegetarian Journals donated by the Vegetarian Resource Group. We set a theme of "Nonviolence and Compassion" as the underlying values for which veganism was but one expression.  All the volunteers introduced ourselves and set the tone of the day with stories, then veterans like Nipun, Mariette, Bhoutik, Aumatma, and Kanchan oriented the newbies and we all felt the adrenaline rush of doing something new, now!  We sampled the chai, and smelled the aroma of the food cooking.  Anupam made a last minute run for some more coconut kefir to add to the lassi. And then… the diners came! Some people came specifically to support the Vegan Sunday. A couple of diners who came as a result of the veg-list posting were excited to be able to try everything on offer that day and told us they’d come back.  One of the volunteers from the Jain center who had recently turned vegan made a trip from the South bay with his wife and young son and enjoyed trying all the different flavors, asking more about volunteering.  For others, the intersection of gift-economy values of Karma Kitchen seemed like a natural fit with a conscious diet, even if they would not have elected an entirely vegan menu. Christian served my yoga teacher, who unbeknownst to me, used to teach close to the restaurant and had discovered Karma Kitchen a while ago. And on one of my tables—a friend from Sangha! Many more people came, previously unknown to us, establishing a relationship just then.  One table of four left because they wanted meat but that is an occasional occurrence at Karma Kitchen and not specifically related to the shift to veganism.

How did we do with the food? Especially at a restaurant, no matter what the underlying values, it has to taste good. So? For some discriminating tastes, it was not quite what they were used to, but for most, the flavors were delightful in themselves. Despite recommendations from knowledgeable vegan friends for particular brands of packaged soy milk, I had opted to try to save on packaging and make soy chai using a powder that had worked fine in test batches. Given the large quantities of the day, however, the powder didn’t provide an ideal texture. Still Sanjog, one of our chefs, experimented with coconut and almond milk, and as we continued to develop a recipe on the fly, the orders kept coming.   Coconut milk and mango pulp made for a great drink, with many requesting refills.  People liked the warm, creamy almond kheer, lovingly garnished with almond pieces on top.  The earth balance spread on naan went over, literally, better than butter.  The ice cream and pie, too, were hits, though we realized that nine flavors of ice cream were not practical for servers or guests to sort through!

In addition to the food, it was people's conscious spirit that ultimately touched us as volunteers in the Karma Kitchen experience.  My spatially challenged brain messed up the table numbers and gave one table another table’s order several times, but Aumatma and Kanchan  adjusted and the diners were forgiving, even appreciative.  With the added wait, some took the opportunity to check out the kindness table, ask about why we chose a vegan menu, and write notes. Despite my bungling, one table even offered a tip, which they were laughingly advised could not be accepted as such, though we appreciated  their intention.   One gentleman asked me if I had been serving long, and if “they” were treating me well. I told him truthfully that this was my first waitressing gig, that I was happy to have this opportunity to serve outside the expectations of a regular job or relationship, and that the “customers”, including his table, really were treating me well! Several long time volunteers came with friends and family and the line between server and served blurred.  When Christian, Nipun, and Bhoutik discovered that there was a birthday on a table of five, they called on all of us to help celebrate. The volunteers in the kitchen assembled an ice cream sampler and pie “cake”, replete with candles,  and we all sang "Happy Birthday" with gusto.

Our crew of almost a dozen volunteers worked all day to serve 114 guests, and along the way, we practically became family; sometimes quiet, sometimes rowdy, but always supportive.  Pancho and Bill pitched in to clean tables before Christian and I even became dimly aware that we should be doing it after our diners left!  Anisha greeted us with a smile and plenty of enthusiasm whenever we came to the back of the kitchen with an order of 5 mango lassis and a convoluted order of pies and ice cream. Somehow the chai container, with all its iterations of experimentation got filled, the dishes got done and Kanchan single handedly served up orders expeditiously on plates, with everyone joking and having fun. And our family took care of each other too, mopping up spilled water so we wouldn’t trip on the floor, urging each other to “eat, eat!” and offering one another special snacks that the chef had prepared for us.  After seven hours of constant activity, we all sat down for a joint meal and shared stories.  As the conversation ebbed, one of the volunteers accidentally spilled some Mango Lassi on the ground.  Bhoutik requested Nipun not to move, and within a blink of an eye, three other people just sprang up to clean the floor with towels and another volunteer brought the mop.  It was a small action but it spoke mountains about our connection.

One day later, Dr. Aumatma opened a juice bar in a sister restaurant and many of the volunteer crew reconvened, sharing smiles, hugs and stories of Vegan Sunday over smoothies and teas.

--Jina on Dec 21, 2010




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