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Nancy Palmieri, Associated Press
November 2009

Vegans living in the area who seek education and advocacy - not to mention potluck ice cream parties and seitan-preparation tips - now have a way to break eggless, nondairy bread together.

“My idea was to have a community for those who are vegan, and support for those who want to learn more about it,’’ said Maynard resident Victoria Mangus, founder of the Vegan MetroWest Network, which marked its first anniversary this week.

While vegetarians generally avoid eating beef, poultry, and fish, vegans usually go several steps further, often citing ethical, environmental, or health reasons. Most do not consume any animal byproducts, such as dairy or eggs, and some refuse to wear clothing made from animal products.

Boston and Worcester have had vegan groups for quite some time, so Mangus decided it was time for vegans living between them to join together as well. “I wanted to bridge that gap,’’ the 40-year-old accountant said.

“I really think I probably would have gone vegetarian earlier in life if I had known other vegetarians, so I see this as an opportunity for people’’ to learn there are other options, she said.

Mangus manages the 90-member network via Meetup.com, an online bulletin board where she and other members arrange monthly get-togethers and point people in the direction of vegan-related dining gatherings and lectures all over Eastern Massachusetts.

Susan Costello, 54, attended two recent potluck dinners, for which she prepared pasta salad with spicy peanut sauce, and tempeh (soybean cake) salad with parsley and scallions she had grown in her Sherborn garden.

“It’s a wonderful feeling, because people who eat a plant-based diet tend to feel very isolated,’’ Costello said of the network. “It’s really fulfilling to meet with other people who share your values of compassion for all beings.’’

Drew Wilson, 23, who says he has been a vegan since he was 12, and now works with VegWorcester, a nonprofit group advocating vegetarian living, declared that he is “psyched’’ about the MetroWest network.

“By creating support networks . . . she can encourage people to make changes in their lives for animals and for the environment,’’ Wilson said of Mangus.

The group’s first gathering took place last November at a Mediterranean restaurant in Acton, Ichabod’s Café.

On Sunday, to celebrate the network’s first anniversary, members held a brunch at Café Evolution, a vegan restaurant in Northampton’s Florence section, followed by a hike in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park.

Their common interests have taken them all over the region in search of vegan cooking and learning.

They’ve dined at Café Prana in Newton, toured the Taza Chocolate factory in Somerville, where they watched stone-ground organic chocolate being made, and held their own vegan ice cream party at a member’s house.

That was fun, although it might have been too much’’ ice cream, Mangus said with a laugh.

Potluck vegan dinners, often with an educational component such as a recent viewing of a DVD on nutrition, are one of the network’s biggest draws.

At another gathering, a group member demonstrated how to cook seitan, the high-protein part of wheat gluten that often serves as a meat substitute in dishes because of its firm texture.

“Within the network, people are learning from each other,’’ Mangus said. “I love the energy.’’

It also provides a social environment in which vegans can eat as they choose without feeling out of place.

Costello practices veganism at home, where her husband and son are also vegan, but acknowledged that she’ll occasionally accept a slice of cake made with eggs or butter if it’s offered to her in other settings.

But, with the vegan network, “nobody is going to look askance at me or my husband for the choices that we make, because everyone else is in the same position or wanting to and needing support to get there,’’ said Costello, a life coach. “There’s really camaraderie with other people who feel similarly.’’

Eating out can be difficult for area vegans, network members acknowledge, and that’s one challenge they’re looking to face.

“If we go out, we tend to go to Indian restaurants, where some dishes are vegan,’’ Costello said, noting that dishes based on lentils, chickpeas, and eggplant tend to be the best.

Wilson said the Worcester group works with local restaurants to add items such as soy cheese to their menus. Most restaurants offer at least one vegan option, he said, and vegans have seen their dining options expand in recent years.

“The vegan movement is growing tremendously, and there are new vegan restaurants opening up all the time,’’ he said.

To make it easier for people to locate vegan options, Mangus said, she’s looking to assemble a vegetarian and vegan dining guide covering area communities, and hopes the network can advocate for more.

“There’s honestly not a lot of very vegetarian-friendly restaurants, but my goal long-term is to be a voice,’’ Mangus said. “There are more vegetarians out there. What can you offer us?’’

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