A chat with Cory Booker heralds the start of 2016 'Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly' time

Senator Cory Booker (left) smiles upon receiving a vegan cheesesteak made by Rich Landau at Vedge restaurant, and delivered to him at the Free Library by V for Veg columnist Vance Lehmkuhl.
Senator Cory Booker (left) smiles upon receiving a vegan cheesesteak made by Rich Landau at Vedge restaurant, and delivered to him at the Free Library by V for Veg columnist Vance Lehmkuhl.
Posted: March 04, 2016

Our third annual Best Vegan Cheesesteak in Philly contest launched Tuesday, the same day Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), a vegan, came to town to promote his new book, United.

Coincidence? Probably. But if you've read the book (and if not, do!), you get his point that everything, and everyone, is connected; the subtitle is Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.

So during my chat with Booker just before he stepped onstage at the Free Library Tuesday night, you bet the subject of vegan cheesesteaks came up. The contest, after all, provides common ground for all kinds of venues to share plant-based offerings. Animal-free cheesesteaks can certainly advance the common good in terms of health, planet livability, and social justice.

These are prime topics in United, but its focus is on being accountable, not just for our own actions but for how all of society fits together, because everything we do affects us all, eventually.

No surprise, the senator is a very likable guy in person, and we discussed how veganism fit into this network of accountability. I got his take on "voting with your dollar" and knowing how it's spent, especially when it comes to food. He said that was one of the things we all should be aware of.

"I think it's important that we try to live our values, whatever they are. Even if you're a meat-eating hunter, it's important to have a consciousness about what you're doing and why," Booker said. We can find commonality in the shared "struggle" to live truthfully, he continued, without staking out separate ideological fiefdoms.

"It's not like I've arrived at the perfect place. I eat unconsciously, too, even as a vegan, sitting in front of the TV."

The senator, who has spoken out about animal-agriculture subsidies and worked on a bill to curtail testing on farmed animals, addressed how our sphere of connection may extend beyond other humans. "A good thing about this country is that we do have a consciousness, we really don't want to see unnecessary cruelty to animals, and we get upset - we've seen that in campaigns for dolphins, for other particular animals - that's why they have these 'ag-gag' laws'" that keep animal farming processes from the public eye.

"I have a passion about trying to change this," he said, alluding to how taxpayers' money is spent on farming and/or abusing animals. He recounted his path, starting from an athletics-minded, health-oriented vegetarian to a bigger-picture approach, and he said that as a vegan, "I actually feel happy."

I knew we'd found common ground when I mentioned the vegan cheesesteak contest and he responded, "I'm excited, and I hope more people discover through a contest like this how really good a vegan cheesesteak is."

And when he followed up with "I don't want to take away from cities like San Francisco and New York, because I know they have lots of options, but I was surprised to discover that Philly is one of America's greatest vegan and vegetarian eating cities," I wanted to hug the senator. But, you know, probably wouldn't be appropriate.

Besides, it was showtime at the library.

I can't report on the talk itself. I had previously invited the senator to come to Philly for a vegan cheesesteak, but his schedule for this visit was too tight for extra stops, so I offered to bring him one for his drive back to Washington.

Then I realized I couldn't bring him any cheesesteak that was part of the just-launched contest, as that would come off as an unfair endorsement, singling out one entrant over the others. So I talked with Rich Landau, who gamely agreed to make the senator a one-of-a-kind Vedge cheesesteak, which I nipped over and picked up as Booker finished speaking.

As he settled in to sign books I delivered the goods. I explained how the rutabaga cheese was packaged to be added separately, and how we'd included some snacky items from Miss Rachel's Pantry.

That's when the senator said, "I know this might not be appropriate, but I got to give you a hug." And he did.

Though I'm not one of the people competing in this contest, I got to count that moment as the biggest win of all.

"2016 BEST VEGAN CHEESESTEAK IN PHILLY" CONTEST RULES

Vote once a day for your favorite vegan cheesesteak at philly.com/vegancontest or via your Twitter account, using #vegancheesesteak. Voting period ends at noon on March 18.

Vote tallies will be updated once a day around noon at philly.com/veganblog. One Philly-area voter will be chosen at random to receive dinner for two at Miss Rachel's Pantry in South Philly.

Highest vote-getting venue wins "People's Choice Sandwich." There is also a prize for best newcomer.

The top-10 vote-getters will be listed in the Daily News and invited to participate in the final judging event, where the top three qualifying sandwiches will be taste-tested by our expert panel of four judges to be named next Thursday.

The final judging will be held at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., at 4 p.m. March 20. This event, emceed by Pat's King of Steaks' owner and former vegan cheesesteak contest judge Frank Olivieri Jr., will also feature special guests and vegan treats for attendees, including vegan cheesesteak samples. $10 admission.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia.

VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.

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