Attention all vegan shoppers: You’re definitely in the right place.
Fish-free “toona”? Check. Sweet potato dog treats? Absolutely. Coconut bacon? Yep.
And Bryan Zurek working the check-out stand — a 27-year-old who hasn’t used an animal product since 2006, who plays in a punk band and whose right arm is covered with “animal revenge” tattoos. (More about those later.)
You’re wandering the well-stocked aisles of Food Fight!, a rare, all-vegan grocery store in the middle of what is billed as the world’s first vegan mini-mall. In Portland. In Oregon. Of course.
Not just because Portland is the U.S. capital of food carts, singular facial hair, craft breweries and bicycle commuters. Not just because Rose City stars in a television show focusing on its most twee characteristics, which are abundant. But because Portland has a vegetarian pedigree that stretches back to the late 1800s. That’s when members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who adhere to strict health and dietary rules, began to settle here, and the Portland Sanitarium Food Co. opened.
“Portland already had four vegetarian eating establishments by the start of the 20th century,” Heather Arndt Anderson writes in “Portland: A Food Biography,” which “reveals much about the city’s long history of supporting alternative lifestyles and esoterica.”
These days, Portland is at or near the top of most lists of vegan-friendly cities. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls it “a mecca for all things vegan.” There’s a vegan strip club, where the food is free of animal products and so is the dancers’ scanty attire. No fur, no leather, no silk, no pearls.
No. 7 on VegNews magazine’s vegan bucket list is a visit to Portland’s vegan mini-mall, where those who shun animal products can “leave with a tattoo, cookie, message T-shirt and a few snacks for the road.”
Those snacks are among the bestselling items at Food Fight!, where the shelves are stocked with “Stonewall’s Jerquee,” hold the beef, and “Rescue Chocolate,” a confection that comes in flavors such as “Peanut Butter Pit Bull” and whose proceeds go to animal rescue efforts.
This is where you can buy a few naturally occurring vegan products — oranges and kale, carrots and broccoli — and a whole lot of the less-than-naturally-occurring, like “Julie’s Original” white cake mix.
At $7.50 a box, the cake mix is “gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, non-GMO, all natural, no preservatives.” The package also notes that it happens to be a snap to make: “Just add non-dairy milk & oil!” (Exclamation marks abound here. See the “Go Veggie!” vegan Parmesan.)
“A lot of our customers aren’t necessarily vegans — they just come in and buy for dinner,” Zurek said. “We also have a lot of vegans who make the trek in from Beaverton and Vancouver. And we’re a tourist destination. We get a lot of Canadian vegans.”
Two doors down from Food Fight! in the low-slung green building on Stark Street is Sweetpea Baking Co., where the butter cream is butter-free. The purses at Herbivore are pricey pleather and the T-shirts explain that “bacon had a mother.” And no animals were harmed filling the needles at Scapegoat Tattoo.
Scapegoat is where Zurek got the intricate and deeply colored sleeve that covers his right arm. Starting at the shoulder and working down, the tattoo depicts a whale attacking a fishing boat. His forearm is resplendent with a regal gorilla seated on a throne of human bones.
Brian Thomas Wilson, owner of Scapegoat, is often called upon to ink scenes depicting clients’ moral, political and culinary choices. The most disturbing, he said, was the disemboweled pig with the word “betrayed” on its flank in deep black, capitalized letters.
The guy who commissioned that one grew up on a farm, Wilson said, where he had a pet pig. When he was 14, his parents took the animal to sell at auction, but there were no takers.
“So they took it home and hoisted it up and slaughtered it,” Wilson said. “He’s probably in his late 30s. His heart’s still heavy.”
At 6-foot-4 and upward of 400 pounds, the soft-voiced tattoo artist is a commanding presence. His head shines in Scapegoat’s low light, and his gray-streaked beard reaches halfway down his chest. His heavy arms are heavily inked, but only the more recent tattoos are certifiably vegan.
That’s because there wasn’t much call for vegan tattoo products before Wilson opened Scapegoat 10 years ago and then moved the shop to the mini-mall with his fellow vegan business owners in 2007.
What makes a vegan tattoo parlor — beyond the fact that its owner and artists avoid animal products as much as possible?
Regular tattoo inks can contain animal byproducts, particularly black inks, which can be made with bone char or shellac from beetles. Glycerin can contain animal fat. The tracing paper used to transfer outlines to skin can have lanolin in it, which comes from sheep.
A vegan tattoo parlor uses none of the above.
Wilson, who became a vegan out of “compassion” for other living creatures, still has a vivid memory of the time and place he left animal products behind. It was 1999, at 11 p.m., and he had just ordered the 79-cent breakfast special at the Carson Nugget casino in Nevada’s capital.
His meal arrived, a plate loaded with hash browns, toast, a slab of ham and fluorescent yellow scrambled eggs. He couldn’t eat a bite.
“That was the lightbulb that went off,” he said. “It changed my whole life.”