This is the time of year when Nina Casalena test-cooks whatever she plans to bring to the Vegetarian Resource Group's annual pre-Thanksgiving potluck dinner in Roland Park.
"It's a dry run," said Casalena, 22, who lives with her twin sister, Taylor. "I usually make her eat it."
Last week, substituting almond milk for dairy milk, Casalena, the Vegetarian Resource Group's part-time outreach coordinator, baked vegan Snickerdoodle cookies in the large kitchen of their apartment in Abell, in anticipation of the group's 33rd annual potluck, which is scheduled for Nov. 23 at the North Baltimore Mennonite Church in Roland Park.
About 100 people from around the Baltimore region are expected to attend and are encouraged to bring vegan (pronounced vee-gan) dishes, made without meat, fish, fowl, milk, cheese, eggs, honey or any other animal-derived ingredients.
Casalena said she's not much of a cook and eats at restaurants like Red Emma's downtown more often than not.
"To be perfectly honest, I made the Snickerdoodles because they're my foolproof," she said. "I know they're good."
Helping her was a more experienced cook, Dina Gharib, 19, of Perry Hall, a Vegetarian Resource Group intern and student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Gharib made a puff pastry called Seitan Wellington. Seitan is a meat substitute made of wheat gluten and sometimes known as "wheat meat."
"That's a little more gourmet," Casalena said.
Together, they tossed a tempting salad of mixed greens, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, tomatoes, craisins, avocado and apple.
"That's a huge salad," Casalena said.
Gharib, born in Egypt, is vegetarian and thinking about going vegan. Casalena has been vegan for four years and was a vegetarian for two years before that. They cited reasons ranging from wanting to eat healthy to protesting the killing or perceived mistreatment of animals.
Gharib's motto is: "Anything you can make normally, you can make vegan. If you don't know what to make, type 'vegan' into Google."
Gharib, Casalena and volunteers like Matt Baker, 25, of Cockeysville, and Soren Clarkwest, 18, whose parents live in Hoes Heights, represent new blood for the Vegetarian Resource Group, founded in 1982 by Charles Stahler, a vegetarian since 1977, and his wife, Debra Wasserman, of Remington.
Moving to Baltimore from Washington, the couple looked up a vegetarian group they knew of, but found only an abandoned building.
"It was gone," said Stahler, now 59. "There was nothing there."
So they started their own, envisioned as local education group that would talk at schools and man booths at fairs. Their first meeting attracted 50 people and their first potluck attracted the local news media — not because it was vegetarian, but because it was non-smoking, a much bigger deal at the time, Stahler said. Even at that time, the public was conscious of vegetarianism, although, "Vegan was an unknown word," he said. "I probably knew on one hand people who were vegan. We did a lot of potlucks because there really weren't a lot of places to go out and eat."
Today, the Vegetarian Resource Group is known as a nationally focused organization, with a staff of five, plus interns and volunteers. It has about 2,000 members and 250,000 people visiting its website, http://www.vrg.org, which offers everything from vegetarian recipes to restaurants serving vegetarian meals on Thanksgiving Day. It does everything from publishing a quarterly magazine and popular books like "Simply Vegan" and "Meatless Meals for Working People" (100,000 copies sold of each) to working with food companies that want to know if the ingredients or chemicals they are using are vegetarian or vegan.
Sometimes, it's a hard call to make, and a part-time researcher for the Vegetarian Resource Group has to investigate, "like a detective," Stahler said.
He said food companies ask such questions because, "They know the market is out there," and he noted that Dunkin Donuts has added almond milk to its menu and Chipotle has vegan options.
"Times have definitely changed," he said.
The Vegetarian Resource Group also does polling and prides itself on releasing accurate information. It reported in a press release Nov. 13 — headlines "How many young people are vegetarian or vegan?" — that 2 percent of youths 8 to 18 in the U.S. eat vegetarian meals at least once a week and 4 percent consider themselves vegetarians.
The poll was commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group and conducted by the Harris polling organization, according to the press release.
The Vegetarian Resource Group also awards annual scholarships. This year, $20,000 is available, thanks to "a generous donor," a flier states.
The group is headquartered in unassuming offices at 409 West Cold Spring Road, actually in the alley behind the street, next to where Alonso's restaurant, famous for its huge hamburgers, dumps its garbage. There, you will find volunteers like Baker, a registered nurse for a surgery center in Lutherville. He has been a vegetarian since he was a teenager, partly for ethical reasons and partly because, "I just didn't like meat."
Baker plans to help at the potluck and to bring a dessert. He brought sweet potatoes last year, but a friend dropped the dish in the parking lot.
Also planning to attend is Michael Blum, 60, of Owings Mills, owner of an insurance agency, who has been a member since his daughter, Sarah, now 31, was 6 months old.
"I didn't want to kill animals and I felt there was a healthier lifestyle," Blum said. "I used to be up on my soapbox more than I am now."
Blum said he and his wife of four years, Sherry, had their first date at the potluck in 2009.
He is uncertain what he will bring to the potluck this year.
"Last year, I brought mashed potatoes, about 20 pounds," he said. "Pretty simple stuff. But it was all gone when I left."
"It's one of my favorite events," Wasserman said. "Everyone is in a good mood."
Soren Clarkwest, 18, said he too will try to make it to the potluck. The UMBC freshman, an economics major, remembers riding his scooter to the Vegetarian Resource Group offices to volunteer there as a middle schooler.
"My belief is that meat is a luxury," Clarkwest said. "You don't need meat to survive. We're killing living creatures for a luxury."
Then, Thanksgiving Day
Those interviewed said they are looking forward more to the food at the pre-Thanksgiving potluck than they are to their Thanksgiving Day meals with their families. Stahler's sister, hosting Thanksgiving dinner in Syracuse, N.Y., is a vegetarian, but her husband is not.
"She's actually glad all these vegetarians come," Wasserman said.
"I eat all the sides," said Gharib, who will spend Thanksgiving Day at an annual get-together for 10 Egyptian families in the area.
Casalena is grateful that her aunt in Perry Hall will be making side dishes like vegan sweet and mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and mushroom gravy to go along with the turkey.
"Generally, I don't look at the turkey," Casalena said. "Looking at the carcass freaks me out."
The Vegetarian Resource Group's 33rd annual potluck begins at 5 p.m. on Nov. 23, at the North Baltimore Mennonite Church, 4615 Roland Ave. For more information, call 410-366-8343 or go to vrg.org.