"Being from Montana, I'd rather get caught riding a stolen horse than tell anyone that I was thinking of becoming vegetarian," said Howard Lyman, a fourth generation cattle rancher turned vegan activist, and speaker at the Vegan Holiday Festival, "I was a closet vegetarian."

Sponsored by Northwest Veg, Vegan Bodybuilding and other vegan organizations and companies, the festival held yesterday at Lincoln High School aimed to uplift and motivate vegans to make healthy and compassionate food and lifestyle choices during the holiday season.

Arriving at the festival, I was a wee bit skeptical. I spent the last four years living in Chicago, where vegans have been known to be pelted with 9" hot dogs in the street.

But at the festival, beyond the fragrance of fried garbonzo beans there lingered a smell of urgency that even I couldn't ignore. Speakers like Lyman were intent on getting the message out about veganism and health. "If there's one thing you would be willing to remove from your diet right now," Lyman pleaded during an incendiary speech, "make it dairy." According to Lyman, consumption of dairy products have been linked to an increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer. He also cited recent research proving that consumption of red meat can increase the risk of colon cancer. (For more information on these issues, visit the web links at the end of this story.)

Other vendors at the festival represented a burgeoning alternative market comprised of earnest, young business owners. John Wilson is an artist at Scapegoat Tattoos, an entirely vegan tattoo parlor in SE Portland. "The glycerin in tattoo inks, and the soaps and ointments that are used, are sometimes derived from animal by-products," he explained. "Scapegoat got started because Brian (the owner of Scapegoat,) was vegan and he was tired of being around so many animal products while he was working. Like most of us, he wanted to work in an entirely vegan environment. So he created one."

Inspired, I headed for the sweets to find out what a world without animal by-products would taste like. Peeking out from behind a towering tray of chocolate cupcakes topped with pink icing were a pair of glasses belonging to Lisa Higgins, a dark haired, fashionably bespeckled young woman, and the brains behind Sweet Pea Vegan Bakery. "The bakery got started about two years ago," she explained, "and has been gradually picking up speed." Sweet Pea treats, which were the yummiest of the sweets I sampled throughout the day, can now be found at New Seasons, Food Fight!, and other health food shops around town. I was beginning to have a change of heart...

Later in the day I visited a vegan cooking demonstration with Chef / author Beverly Lynn Bennett, also known as "The Vegan Chef." Admittedly, I was pretty excited as I watched her mix soymilk, cinnamon, maple syrup and cardamom to make Vegan Soy Nog. The inventiveness of it all! But the booze-free drink I sampled at the end of the demonstration was slimy and flavorless, without any of the zippy flavor of the real thing. Vegan pumpkin cheesecake was similarly bland, and after consuming a million other soy based deserts throughout the day, I was ready to kneel in reverence to the butter and milk sitting in my own refrigerator at home, waiting to be made into something old fashioned and full of dairy.

As a former vegan turned vegetarian, and current carnivore, I can admit to feeling a little confused about what the right choices are when it comes to health. Vegans tell me not to eat dairy, while the health and nutrition book I keep in my kitchen claims that milk and eggs are among the most nutritional foods available. Even fat, dead Robert Atkins seems to have a subconscious influence on what I eat. In the meantime, my trip to the Vegan Holiday Festival reminded me to keep thinking about what I feed, clothe and decorate my body with. And I guess I'll quit throwing hot dogs, too.

For more information about vegetarianism and health, check out www.chooseveg.com and http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/diet/2001-12-07-vegetarian.htm For a BBC story documenting the link between red meat and cancer, go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4662934.stm