John Schlimm grew up in rural Pennsylvania working in his father's butcher shop — a long way from the Capitol Visitor Center, where the vegan cookbook writer lunched on Thursday with the Congressional Vegetarian Staff Association.
The veggie caucus, as it's known colloquially, has been hosting vegetarian lunches and educational events since a small group of like-palated staffers decided to fight back against the lack of vegetarian fare in congressional dining halls.
The group had an event planned last month, but the government shutdown forced it to postpone. For Thursday's to-do, about 60 staffers filled the room to learn about eating a plant-based diet while munching away on vegan wraps provided by Zenful Bites and vegan chocolate chip cookies from Sticky Fingers.
Schlimm, who hails from an area where "it's always hunting season," spoke for about 30 minutes. He said he learned how to skin a deer and make sausage in his youth, but he can't reconcile eating animals anymore, especially not from "factory farms."
And while a vegan or even vegetarian lifestyle might daunt omnivores, Schlimm told those present not to fear. Eating vegan food doesn't mean "hummus smeared on cardboard," he said. The tastiness of vegan food is the subject of his most recent book, “The Cheesy Vegan."
Camal Pennington, a staffer for Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., was attending his first veggie caucus lunch and while he's not a vegetarian, he said he's looking to start trying vegan dishes. Pennington said he had no idea there was such a thing as vegan cheese before attending the session.
Going vegetarian and vegan happens one bite at a time, Schlimm said, and he recently witnessed a powerful first bite. His father finally asked him for a veggie burger.
"One small step for man, giant leap for veganism," the animated Schlimm said to laughs.
Still, if Schlimm's father worked on the Hill, he'd have a hard time finding one of those veggie burgers his son is always hawking.
While staffers continue to turn out for veggie caucus meetings, vegetarian options remain slim, said Adam Sarvana, the communications director for Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., and the president of the veggie caucus.
"In the Longworth Cafeteria, most of the time your options are iceberg lettuce, cheese pizza and not much else," he lamented.