Veganism is too often stereotyped as a “hippie” movement; much of our plant-based history finds its roots in punk culture. That’s the story Samantha Dreifuss, founder of OnRoot Tours—New York City’s newest vegan food tour company, wants to tell. For $35, Dreifuss takes locals and visitors on a two-and-a-half-hour culinary adventure through the East Village, exploring four of the neighborhood’s top plant-based restaurants and highlighting veganism’s connection to its bohemian, activist, and counterculture subgroups. A vegan and New York native, Dreifuss sat down with VegNews to talk about the inspiration behind OnRoot, her favorite dishes on the tour’s menu, and how plant-based eating became an integral part of the city’s counterculture identity.
VegNews: What inspired you to create OnRoot Tours?
Samantha Dreifuss: I was looking up dining options for a vacation in Copenhagen and found a European company called Vegan Food Tours. Unlike all the other food tours I found online, they featured vegan cuisine as their main dishes rather than as a dietary option. I wondered if there was an equivalent tour in the US, but I didn’t find much that matched what Vegan Food Tours was doing. That’s when I decided to create OnRoot. I wanted it in New York’s East Village because the neighborhood vibe is really indicative of how the vegan community developed as an “against-the-mainstream” lifestyle. The neighborhood has played a major role in harboring counterculture communities—making a home for different groups of people—and helping them thrive.
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VN: How much did you know about veganism’s connection to New York’s counterculture?
SD: Nothing at all! To me, being vegan feels mainstream. Once I started looking into the history of the East Village and the kinds of communities it’s supported through the years, the connection between veganism and counterculture made itself pretty clear. The research I found suggested that punk subcultures, animal rights advocates, and environmental activists were all drawn to vegan and vegetarian diets because of their anti-establishment mindsets—being vegan or vegetarian was a way to “stick it to The Man.” Consequently, the East Village was the natural area for the vegan community to grow because, up until very recently, veganism wasn’t a well-known or widely accepted concept. Something interesting I learned is that punk-rocker Joan Jett, who performed at the East Village’s infamous CBGB club, has been a vegetarian since the 1980s and is now an advocate for animal rights.
VN: What’s your favorite landmark on the tour?
SD: I love stopping at the Bowery, one of the area’s oldest streets. There, I talk about the intersection of the vegan community, the neighborhood, and the rise of counterculture movements. Manhattan was originally settled from its most southern point upward, so there was already a lot of activity downtown. After the removal of the Elevated “El” Train during the 1950s—which connected Lower Manhattan to the rest of the island—the East Village became isolated from the rest of developing Upper Manhattan. This allowed fringe communities to grow and thrive. I think it’s really powerful to see the affects of city infrastructure on the development of cultures and communities within an urban environment. There’s such a rich history here that I think a lot of people—even New Yorkers like myself—haven’t really considered or don’t know much about.
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VN: What are some of your favorite dishes on the tour?
SD: A crowd favorite so far—and one of my favorite meals in the city—is the breakfast sandwich we sample. A great thing about vegan food is that it doesn’t have to be an exact replica of its non-vegan counterpart. It can just be good food, and that sandwich is amazing. The desserts we try on the tour are also some of my favorites because they’re constantly rotating. At that stop, we get to talk to the people who work there about the seasonality of their desserts and what’s popular. It’s really fun to switch it up.
VN: What do you enjoy most about being a tour guide?
SD: I get to constantly educate myself. I’ve lived in New York my whole life and have been in and out of Manhattan constantly, yet I’ve walked by these places hundreds of times and haven’t thought twice about what was there years ago and what its history was. Now, I’m seeing the city in a whole new light. There are endless opportunities to learn, and it totally changes my perspective as a New Yorker.
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VN: What do you want people to take away from their OnRoot experience?
SD: I want OnRoot to be a source of local expertise for vegans and vegetarians who are visiting or living in New York City. It can be hard to find good vegan options when you’re traveling and having a local tell you what’s good is really valuable. I also want OnRoot to be an accessible way for anyone—regardless of their dietary lifestyle— to learn about the city’s unique history and enjoy vegan cuisine with no agenda. I want the experience to simply encapsulate the joy of good food with good company and exploring an interesting neighborhood in (my opinion) the best city in the world.
OnRoot’s walking tours are available for booking at onroottours.com.
Carolyn Grace is a writer, podcast fanatic, and avid karaoke singer living in New York City.
Photo credit: OnRoot Tours
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