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Originally published Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:36 PM

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Vegfest 2013: An invitation to gaze and graze

About half the thousands attending this weekend’s Vegfest at Seattle Center are the “veggie curious,” says the event organizer — meat eaters who just want to know more and explore the many choices available today.

Seattle Times health reporter

Vegfest 2013

Vegfest continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. In addition to free food samples, there will be cooking demonstrations and free health checks, including cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose tests, as well as scans of arteries.

Adults, $8; kids 12 and under free. Tickets available at the door. For more information, seewww.vegofwa.org/vegfest.

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How did veggies get to be so popular?

You only had to look around — if you could get enough room to actually swivel your neck — at the crowd of thousands at this weekend’s Vegfest at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, to know these are no longer your father’s vegetables.

The vegetables of the 1950s — the ones with the bad rap, with the slightly wilted look from being overcooked, with a stern-faced parent hovering just behind a plate full of peas or beans or turnips — have been rehabilitated.

And remade, repackaged and reintroduced to the hungry throngs as “vegan seafood,” vegetarian frankfurters, vegetarian, dairy-free “cheese” and more.

Organized by theVegetarians of Washington, the annual event, which continues Sunday, is expected to persuade as many as 18,000 people to pay $8 for the chance to nibble their way around tastes provided by more than 200 vendors.

“Look at how the public is going for it here,” exclaimed Stewart Rose, the organizer. “This is not three people from the commune here!”

About half this crowd is the “veggie curious,” Rose says — meat eaters who just want to know more and explore the myriad choices available today.

When Rose committed to being a vegetarian 32 years ago, he and his wife had to make their own soy milk, he said.

Now, demand has unleashed creative juices.

“Think about the cheese! Soy cheese! Rice cheese! Almond cheese!” says Rose.

He thrusts forward a small, faux-plastic compostable dish of dairy-free whipped “cream.”

“Do you know how much guilt we’re skipping today?” he demands. “ You’re going to walk out of here healthier than when you walked in!”

Whatever your issue — soy allergy? dairy intolerance? gluten problems? — you could find something to eat here. Actually, plenty of things to eat and drink.

There was “SortaSausage,” looking pretty sausagy, but vegan, gluten-free and even non-GMO, if you care. “It’s like sausage, but without the oink!” proclaimed a woman busily serving up bites to waiting customers.

And — not that you could make a meal out of them or anything — the gluten-, dairy- and additive-free vegan dark chocolate truffles were not to be ignored.

But this crowd wasn’t just hungry for snacks. They wanted the facts, too.

At the back of the hall, about 100 people listened carefully as Dr. Arun Kalyanasundaram, an interventional cardiologist who practices in Burien and Seattle, talked about the research and about clots — the stuff he takes out of people’s arteries.

Dale Bonfield, 48, was one of those listening. He and his wife, Wendy, have been meat-free for about two months, Wendy said.

As these things often go, it was a snowball thing. It started with Wendy’s niece, who went meat-free in college for money reasons. The niece’s parents, Penny and Gary Hutchins, of Selah, Yakima County, thought they’d try it out, too.

Then Penny sold the meat-free idea to her sister, Wendy, but it didn’t immediately entice Dale, a tall guy with a big appetite who’d always eaten meat.

“I was probably skeptical,” he said. “I thought meat was where I got my protein.”

But Wendy took some cooking classes and they both did a lot of reading about cooking without meat. They watched a film called “Forks over Knives,” a 2011 documentary about the medical benefits of a plant-based diet.

The food was good, Dale said, and he felt full and satisfied.

So they traveled to Vegfest all the way from Asotin, Asotin County, in the far southeast corner of Washington, to learn more.

Dale’s dad, also a serious meat-eater, had quadruple bypass heart surgery at the age Dale is now, he said. “I want to be one of those grandpas who gets around.”

Carol M. Ostrom: costrom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2249. On Twitter @costrom

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