Back when Naija Wright, one of Baltimore's vegan entrepreneurs, first considered "Vegan SoulFest" as the name for the city's newest food festival, she ran a Google search to make sure the title was not already in use.
"All I found was a group in Melbourne, Australia," Wright explained. "But it wasn't a 'vegan soulfest,' it was just a group of vegans going to a soulfest."
Convinced that her dream of an urban celebration of the vegan diet was unique, Wright kept the name, had it embroidered on polo shirts, daringly billed her event the "First Annual Vegan SoulFest," set a date and hoped for sunshine.
She got the sunshine, and an impressive inaugural turnout.
By Saturday afternoon, dozens of men, women and children lined the sidewalks of North Howard and Franklin streets to sample all kinds of plant-based, no-meat, no-dairy, often gluten-free savories, sweets and juices offered from under colorful pop-up tents by vegan restaurateurs and caterers.
"We've had plenty of vegan festivals, but mostly in the suburbs," Wright said. "You don't see our demographic out there. So we wanted to bring it to the city."
Four years ago, Wright opened a vegan restaurant on North Eutaw Street called Land of Kush. Her partner in the Vegan SoulFest, Brenda Sanders, leads a health education organization called Better Health, Better Life.
They planned the event not only to showcase healthy food choices for a West Baltimore crowd, but to demonstrate what they believe is growing interest in plant-based diets among people from a wide socioeconomic range. Judging from the numbers of people lined up to order almond hamburgers, pomegranate kale salad and falafel, Sanders and Wright might have hit the vegan buzz at the right time.
"I'm curious about what they've got," said Philip Odom, a cook on his day off from the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, as he waited in line for lunch from Zoe's Vegan Delight, a Landover-based caterer. "When I was younger, I tried going vegan. I went slowly, in steps."
He first eliminated beef from his diet, then pork, then eventually chicken and dairy. By the time he was 24, Odom was vegan. "I went all the way," he said. "The hardest part was giving up chicken, and then cheese."
He has since returned to eating meat — an inveterate foodie, he was scheduled to attend the Bacon Wars cookoff Saturday afternoon at Mother's Federal Hill Grille — but the Vegan SoulFest seemed to pique Odom's interest in the challenges of vegan cuisine.
Around the corner, 27-year-old Nakia Porter, who works full-time as a computer engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and part-time as a vegan caterer, whipped up some chocolate sauce from raw cacao beans, vanilla, agave nectar and coconut water. She drizzled the sauce on a mango "cheesecake" made from cashew cream. The cake was not baked.
"Everything is raw," said Porter, whose business motto is: "Find peace and life in living foods." Even the burger she offered for lunch — made from walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, onions and other ingredients — had not been grilled.
But plenty of the food vendors did offer warm meals of cooked vegan delights, some of them advertised in the carnivore's lexicon, such as "vegan popcorn chicken," and "vegan steak and cheese."
Lavinia Ringgold, who lives in Gwynn Oak, stopped by the festival and had an order of "vegan ribs," made from seitan, the gluten-based mock meat, served along with brown rice and cabbage. She liked the dish. "There was a little ginger that gave it a little kick," she said.
Several fest-goers strolled about with green coconuts from Khepra's Raw Food Juice Bar, a vendor from Washington. The coconuts were filled with Khepra's colorful juices — one made from kale and pineapple, another from apples and ginger.
The entrepreneurial spirit appears to be fully alive among regional vegans.
Kerri Namvary started selling fresh juice concoctions a few year ago at the farmers' market in Lauraville, in Northeast Baltimore. She now has a store in Hampden called Jukai Juice.
Saturday, at the first Vegan SoulFest, Namvary offered several bottled juices, including one called "Everything But the Zink," a mixture of beets, carrots, apple, cucumber, celery, lemon and ginger.
The name Jukai Juice came to her while she pondered a combination of the names of her children, Julie and Kyle.
"I Googled it," Namvary said, discovering that "jukai" is Japanese and refers to a Buddhist ceremony, during which certain precepts, or ideals, are invoked. One of the precepts is, "Do good for others." She took that as the motto of Jukai Juice.