There’s nothing like a simcha — dressing up, partying with family and friends, enjoying a delicious meal.
Check out the great food that Bonnie and Arthur Sorak served when they hosted bar mitzvah parties for their boys: spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce, lasagna, portabella mushroom salad, pasta marinara, garlic bread, roasted potatoes and a dark chocolate fountain with pretzel sticks, fruit and cookie dough balls for dipping, plus Italian ices.
Notice anything unusual? Probably not, but in fact, all the dishes were vegan, which means they contained no meat, eggs or dairy products.
With some minor variations, the Soraks of Ellicott City served these foods at the parties for their two oldest boys, Jacob, 19, and Ryan, 15.
“People raved about the food. It was really delicious,” says Bonnie Sorak.
Now, she is planning a vegan spread for the December bar mitzvah of her third son, Matthew, 13. When her youngest, Aaron, 9, becomes a bar mitzvah, you can be sure his party will be vegan as well.
Why vegan? As Bonnie Sorak tells it, both she and Arthur had allergies to cows’ milk when they were babies. In hopes of sparing Jacob the same thing, they went vegan a year after he was born. They figured if they were going to avoid dairy for the sake of their son, the whole family may as well be on board. As a side benefit, within weeks of the change, Arthur Sorak’s lifelong eczema cleared up.
In addition to allergy avoidance, the Soraks say the family’s vegan lifestyle has evolved to include spiritual and environmental aspects.
The caterer for Jacob’s bar mitzvah is no longer in business, but Ryan’s was catered by Zia’s Cafe in Towson. Zia’s is also catering Matthew’s, which will have a Chanukah theme, showcasing latkes with vegan sour cream.
While some hosts may fret that a vegan meal would be unpopular, Bonnie Sorak believes her sons’ guests were more than pleased. Zia’s Cafe chef, Daniela Troia, agrees.
“If you use top-quality ingredients, most guests will never even notice,” Troia says. “We can do a vegan event and it doesn’t even cross [the guests’] minds that there are no animal products.”
For example: Troia’s cookies are baked with organic cold-pressed coconut oil instead of butter, and vegan brownies are made with a chocolate ganache.
“You would never be able to tell,” Troia says. “We have some vegan cheesecakes made with cashews that are amazing. Our lemon chiffon pie is to die for.”
And there are many dishes, such as salads, that are naturally vegan and certainly not out of place at a fancy event.
“Everybody’s into quinoa, wheat berry, so you can go that route,” says Blake Wollman, owner of The Desert Café, a Mediterranean restaurant in Mount Washington, and creator of a wonderful brand of wild-flavor hummus (The Wild Pea Hummous). He also points out that Mediterranean treats such as stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita and hummus are familiar and popular vegan crowd-pleasers.
While most caterers have some vegan offerings, creating an entire vegan menu could be challenging.
Bonnie Sorak says the vegan meal was a real learning curve for her first caterer, and she suggests finding someone you can work with closely. On the other hand, vegan versions of many popular foods are much easier to find and more familiar to people than they were just a few years ago. When the Sorak family traveled to Alaska’s Denali National Park (“one of the most remote places you can go,” she says) they were amazed to find a pizza joint serving vegan pies.
Troia says some of her clients go vegan for health reasons; others are motivated by a commitment to animal rights.
There recently has been a lot of talk about a trend toward more environmentally friendly smachot. To help families make sustainable and socially just choices, the Maryland chapter of the American Jewish Congress worked with area organizations last year to launch the Baltimore Green & Just Celebrations Guide, which is a resource for everything from choosing a hotel that pays its workers a fair wage to organic kosher meat to locally sourced food.
“There are more and more people who are paying attention to where their food comes from, and if we do that at home every day, [then we can do it] all the more for our simchas, where we are not just hosting a number of people, but we’re also expressing our values,” says Matthew Weinstein, president of the AJC Maryland Chapter.
The Baltimore guide is based on similar guides in Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
What about the kids? Will they survive the party without chicken nuggets? Bonnie Sorak points out that most tweens have outgrown the nugget stage. And, she says, the kids were so busy having fun they didn’t eat much anyway. To prevent party burnout, she had a smoothie bar, featuring mango and peanut butter concoctions.
“I knew that if they didn’t eat I could still get a smoothie into them,” she says. “Then they would have the energy to make it through the party. And [the smoothies were] really popular.”
If you do have separate meals for the kids, Wollman says, you might serve meatless nuggets. Troia recommends veggies and dip, pasta, macaroni and cheese or quesadillas, which can be made with vegan cheese.
The Soraks are members of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, where Bonnie is active in helping the congregation go green. As she prepares for the family’s third bar mitzvah, she says that, while the food and the celebration are festive and fun, it’s important to keep your focus on the real meaning of the day.
“The heart of the bar mitzvah should be the Torah and that child,” she says. “That’s what you should be keeping your sights set on.”
Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer