JULIE WATKINS: VEGAN APOLOGIST

 

there’s a joke that circulated the Internet a few months back that goes something like this: An atheist, a CrossFitter and a vegan walk into a bar. You only know because they told everyone within two minutes.

There’s probably some truth to that. But eschewing beef and fish and pork and poultry and dairy also means having to constantly explain yourself — Why did you get the soymilk? Are you sure you’re getting enough protein? — and it’s not until you consciously decide to go without that you realize how ingrained meat is in American culture. We feed toddlers hot dogs. We eat ribeyes rare. We consume processed fast-food chicken nuggets by the ton. We put milk (or butter, if you buy into these newfangled fads) in our morning coffee. Bacon is the unrivaled object of foodie worship.

It’s everywhere, so much so that, until you step outside of it, you don’t even notice. That goes double in Duval, a place where there’s seemingly a barbecue joint next to every church (and there are a whole lot of churches).

This is a dynamic that Julie Watkins has made it her mission to change. Last year Watkins quit her day job as a meteorologist at Action News (just ahead of that station’s ensuing talent bloodletting), where she’d worked since 2008, to become, in essence, a full-time vegan apologist. She runs the nonprofit The Girls Gone Green, organizes the Northeast Florida Veg Fest and No Meat March, and is currently hosting a seven-weeks-long series of vegan cooking classes at Riverside Park United Methodist Church. And, after she’s finished interviewing with me this rainy Thursday afternoon, she’ll be headed Downtown, to protest the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus’ opening night.

We met at Lillie’s Coffee Bar over in Neptune Beach. Watkins ordered a café con leche (with soymilk, of course), her first, she said, which by the end of our conversation made her talk just-noticeably faster. She is, as vegetarians and vegans tend to be, focused foremost on animal welfare — the often-horrid conditions of commercial factory farms and slaughterhouses, both for the animals that are to be slaughtered and the people doing the slaughtering. But, just as important — more important for our purposes, actually — there are considerable health benefits to going veg.

“You have a longer life,” Watkins begins, “and better quality of life. You don’t have a lot of wear and tear. Increased energy. Lower body weight. You sleep better.”

Indeed, vegetarian and vegan diets are typically low in fat and high in fiber, which leads to lower incidences of certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other kinds of bodily nastiness. (And no, contrary to popular belief, protein isn’t a problem. Vegetables have protein, too.)

Watkins went veg in 1997, full-on vegan a year later (she researched growth hormones and dairy products), and hasn’t wavered since. While working for a TV station in Orlando, she helped out with that city’s Veg Fest, and when she moved to Jacksonville in 2008, she knew she wanted to do one here. What she wasn’t sure of was how receptive the local population would be.

This ain’t Portland, after all.

At the first Northeast Florida Veg Fest, in 2010, she expected — maybe hoped for is the better term — 500 people. She got four times that.

“I think it really brought the community together,” she says. “Holy crap, there is something here.”

This March, at her fifth such event, she’s expecting 8,000 to gather at Riverside Park to sample vegan foods from vendors, drink in the ecofriendly beer garden, listen to music and (maybe) speakers, and commiserate with likeminded vegheads.

This city, Watkins says, has become more aware, and more veg-friendly, in the intervening years. You can find solid veg offerings at a good number of area restaurants. Pizza joints like Mellow Mushroom and Moon River offer vegan cheese. Yeah, there’s a fast-food place on just about every corner and, sure, Jacksonville isn’t the healthiest city around, but more people are taking an interest in what goes into their bodies, and that’s something Watkins wants to build on.

The cooking classes are one way to do that — to overcome a perception that vegan recipes are dull and lifeless — or bland. The class she taught the evening before focused on healthy desserts, banana ice cream, something called chia pudding (which is apparently akin to tapioca), and so forth. She’ll often show newbies to the vegan world how to make tempeh sliders with avocado relish and jalapeno sauerkraut, or maybe a homemade marinara sauce.

Yes, it takes effort, more effort than many of us put into our food preparation, more effort than I certainly do. But in the end, she says, your body will thank you.

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge into life without meat, the trick, Watkins says, is the same as with breaking any habit: Find a support system, and “don’t beat yourself up if you can’t go vegan right away.”

Indeed, we can’t all be Julie Watkins.

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