But it’s expensive. Summerfest itself is not inexpensive, to stay in the dorms, to have your meals there, for the full five days. Plus, there is airfare. And I wanted to get in the door on the day it started (Wednesday) at 10am, which meant I had to go the day before and get a hotel room for a night.
Man, was it worth it.
Vegan Summerfest is held on the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus every year. (Note to organizers: How about alternating coasts?) It begins on the first Wednesday of July. You can come for the whole Wednesday-through-Sunday conference, or you can be a weekender, starting at 5pm on Friday. I highly recommend the whole shebang. Stay on campus, eat at the vegan cafeteria (more about that in a minute), walk through the afternoon thundershowers to various talks in various campus buildings. Be there. Be present. Soak it all in.
There were over 60 presenters, including some of the heavy hitters in the medical community like Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, and Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die, and moving force behind www.nutritionfacts.org and the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, as well as Dr. Ted Barnett, of Rochester Lifestyle Medicine. Doctors, nutritionists, chefs (check out Chef G.W. Chew’s YouTube videos! He gave fantastic, hilarious food demos!), lots of people who run vegan associations and giant VegFests to give tips on how to get started and how to keep the momentum up.
There were talks about the Biblical imperative of veganism, the Philosophy of Food (one of my favorite talks by Dr. Mylan Engel), talks about diet and cancer, diet and diabetes, diet and ethics, vegan athletes, even a naturalist who talked about how bats are integral to the food system.
There were products to buy, of course, t-shirts and hats, magazines, and a huge bookstore.
The days began with nature walks around campus, and/or yoga. Then breakfast (more on the food in a minute). Then 45-minute classes with 15-minute breaks to get to the next one, likely in a different building, all the way to lunch. After lunch, more classes, until dinner. After dinner, there were plenary sessions, entertainment, and then parties and sky watching with telescopes for those who were up late and still eager for more. The last night, after the plenary session where Dr. Greger debuted his new talk on How Not to Diet (also the title of his forthcoming book), and he was inducted into the Vegan Hall of Fame (his name to reside alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Esselstyn, Dr. Klaper and other vegan lifestyle luminaries), there was dancing until the wee hours with a great DJ.
But let me tell you about the food.
When you walk into the cafeteria, you’ll see a giant semi-circle serving bar. For breakfast, for example, there might be roasted potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, vegan sausages, a tofu scramble, muesli, and oatmeal. All of this would be at three different stations, and in between would be condiments: nutritional yeast, raisins, flax seed, etc. Beyond that semi-circular station is a fruit bar, with all kinds of fruit. Beyond that is the SOS (salt, oil, sugar free) bar, with exactly the same breakfast food, only SOS free. Next to that is the gluten-free bar, with exactly the same breakfast food, only gluten free. On the other side is a gigantic soup and salad bar, three times a day. At lunch and dinner there is a pizza oven, with nonstop pizzas coming out that were thin-crusted and delicious. And in the adjacent room, there is the raw bar, with amazing frozen desserts. Wonderful desserts every day. And all of this is prepared by university staff under the direction of celebrity vegan chef Mark Reinfeld. This was gourmet food. Outrageously good. Al is currently enjoying all the new culinary tricks I discovered.
The lodging was in dorm rooms. Two twin beds, two desks, two dressers. I stayed in a room by myself, but two rooms shared a bathroom. My through-the-bathroom roommate was Diane, with whom, I was delighted to discover, I had a lot more in common than just our vegan lifestyle. That was another thing, it was kind of like summer camp. Diane and I hung out together, and the first day we met Chuck, and then it was the three of us, sharing notes and handouts at meals after our various sessions. We made fast friends for life.
Yes, campus-wide wifi. And free shuttle to the Johnstown airport.
The programming was remarkable, with something for everyone. It was hard to choose which sessions to attend, as few were repeated, and there were at least five going on simultaneously. But we did our best.
All of this was made possible for me by the generosity of my good friend Dianna Rodgers. Dianna was a passionate vegetarian, and she died last year, leaving me some money in her will. What a sweet and unexpected gesture. That money, and another surprise windfall came at just the right time and it was just exactly the right amount for tuition, lodging, and airfare. I know Dianna would be pleased at how I used her generous gift.
The whole experience was inspirational to say the least, and I am already scheming on the budget to find my way back to Summerfest next year.
Here’s to your health!