Climbing the staircase to the Vegan Hacker event is an experience in and of itself. I navigate up the stained carpeted stairs, which are littered with multiple candy bar wrappers and an unclaimed iPad 2, as a man three times my age whizzes past me, carrying his fixie overhead. I immediately know it’s gonna be a true San Francisco night, the fun and funky kind that you can only have in this fun and funky city of ours. At the top of the stairs is Noisebridge, a self-described “infrastructure provider for technical-creative projects, collaboratively run by its members.” Of course. I mean, where else would an event dedicated to hacking food be held but in a space for hackers of all kinds to do their thing? After all, their motto is, “We make stuff. So can you.” I can dig it!
Once inside, I alert the tech bros who sit typing away on their computers that there’s an iPad 2 on the stairs outside. They tell me that they already know and to please not touch it! I guess it’s part of an experimental hack. I tell them that I hope someone doesn’t hack it into their backpack and then hack it onto eBay, but whatever, they’re not worried so I’m not either. After doing what I thought was my good deed for the day, I weave past the tech bros, through a makeshift workshop where some electronically inclined ladies are piecing together a machine that looks like Skynet, and finally into the kitchen. There I find Kathryn Storm, the Vegan Hacker, elbow deep in a bowl of purple cornmeal, getting ready for tonight’s hack: corn dogs.
Seeing as I totally shoulda been a carnie, the prospect of creating this county-fair treat has gotten me excited. You see, I’m vegan, and even the vegetarian corn dogs from Trader Joe’s have egg whites in them. I’ve written pleading letters and then angry letters and then apologetic letters and then back to pleading letters, but nothing can be done. Those corn dogs are vegetarian-only for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t stop my longing for a hot dog covered in puffy, deep-fried cornbread. Just thinking about it has me literally drooling, and I wish that were an exaggeration, but this napkin down the front of my shirt is embarrassing proof that it’s not.
Anyway, enough about my unhealthy obsession with the corn dog, and back to Kathryn Storm. Kathryn, a graphic designer by day, began her project about a year ago when she became vegan and her favorite foods were no longer readily available to her. In addition to that, she liked the idea of not supporting big, crappy companies and knew that making her own food from scratch was more her speed. Dope — I’m down with all this urban homesteading shit. Shut off the electricity and get me two sticks, I’m about to go all Oregon Trail on your ass. Actually, I’d be the first person to die of dysentery, so I better learn a thing or two from Kathryn first.
Kathryn’s first foray into food hacking was creating a vegan pumpkin pie. Pleased with the delicious spoils of this effort, Kathryn started to break down other traditionally non-vegan foods and figure out how to successfully convert them. Wanting to share the tasty love with others, she started holding an official monthly Vegan Hacker event at Noisebridge. So far, she’s hacked everything from Snickers to oeufs à la neige , a dessert usually made almost entirely of eggs and dairy. She says that while her version of the latter didn’t look much like the original, it still tasted pretty damn good. Kathryn buys all the ingredients herself, so this is truly a labor of love. As the events get bigger, she asks that people provide some things themselves, if they’re able.
And I am able. Before the event, I stopped at 26th and Guerrero Market to pick up two kinds of organic vegan hot dogs, Biodynamic mustard, locally made sauerkraut, and artisan potato chips. The inquisitive cashier asked if perhaps I’d like some craft beer to go with my bougie feast. Ugh, I’m so San Francisco, even my cousins who actually eat like this would be humiliated to be with me here. Still, I can’t deny that I’m excited. And once I’m at the Vegan Hacker event busting out my goods, with Kathryn oohing and ahhing over my haul, I’ll know I’m at home with my vegan foodie buddies.
As it closes in on the time for the event to start, curious people cautiously approach Kathryn. She asks them to jump in. There’s no time for being shy, as there’s vegan hacking to be done! We open packages of hot dogs, mix up cornmeal concoctions (no recipes!), and start to heat the oil in a big-ass skillet. I curse myself for forgetting to bring my deep fryer. Yes, I have a deep fryer, please see above about my carnie dreams. Moving on!
Ten minutes into the hacking, and the first batch of corn dogs is already in the oil. As they puff up, we all eagerly hover close, dangerously mesmerized by our soon-to-be dinner. Luckily, nobody is rushed to the ER, and the first batch of dogs emerges victorious. I’m not fast enough to grab one, but I talk to Scott McDowell, an attendee who managed first dibs. He reports that his corn dog is “good, but not very nostalgic.” A lukewarm response, but when I ask how it could be improved, he already has ideas. He thinks adding some sugar to the batter could take it Next Level, and he also thinks the cornmeal needs to be cut with some flour, which will make it less grainy and more puffy. Others chime in with suggestions: “Try rolling the hot dog in dry batter and then in wet batter!” (Good idea.) “Put beer in it!” (Great idea.) “Put weed in it!” (BEST IDEA.) Someone also mentions an immersion deep fryer, and I kick myself again for not remembering to bring my baby.
At this point, one of Noisebridge’s founders, Mitch Altman (inventor of TV-B-Gone!), wanders over and shyly solicits donations for the space. When he strolls away, I see he’s snacking on a still-uncooked Tofurky on a stick. Consider that my donation, Mitch!
And with that, the nitty-gritty hacking begins! I once again realize I’m with my people; my people being those crazy enough about food to head up a funky stairwell on a Tuesday night to attempt to re-create a corn dog. I’m starting to think the whole thing is a little nuts, and I like it. We add some jalapeño to the batter to see if it’s tasty with a kick, and that reveals a whole ’nother creation, one that definitely requires beer for full enjoyment. I suggest adding some crushed-up potato chips to the batter and am completely ignored, so I just go ahead and do it anyway. I’m a hacker now, I don’t follow your rules! However, maybe I should, since that was a crusty, nasty mess. Oh well, a carnie I ain’t. Yet.
The camaraderie at Vegan Hacker is addictive, and I find myself shouting out ideas for the next hack. What about caviar? Foie gras? Ooooh ... I got it, SNOWBALLS! The sky is the limit. Seriously, this is the kind of event that shows people that veganism isn’t only doable, but that the end results can be superior to the originals, and less filled with artery-clogging cholesterol. I won’t get preachy here — it’s hard! I’m so naturally condescending! — so I’ll just enthuse more about what a fabulous event the Vegan Hacker night was, and how I can’t wait to hack the shit out of a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie.
Vegan Hacker events take place at Noisebridge at 7 p.m. on the last Tuesday of every month (Except for July, when Kathryn will be out of town). The event is free, but definitely check the website to see if you can bring any ingredients. Word on the street is that the next hack in August hack is dog (as in canine!) stuff — food, toys, and even vegan rawhide chews. Believe it.