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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ten Responses To My Dinner

I spent last weekend languishing in lush, balmy Minneapolis, sipping on cocktails in coconut shells and skipping pebbles on the sapphire blue of Lake Minnetonka as my silk sarong flapped langorously in the sweet cloudless Midwestern sky.

Okay, so that paragraph was obviously bullshit, but writing it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Minneapolis was cold and mostly dreary, and I spent a lot of time huddled up in the backs of cabs using my friends' body heat for precious warmth, but hey - the part about the cocktails was true (no coconut shells, though).

One of many fabulous things about my visit to Mpls was the absolute ABUNDANCE of vegetarian-friendly menus to be found in the city. We started out at a traditional South Indian buffet joint which was all veggie - so much so that a sign hung in the front forbidding customers to bring meat into the establishment (so of course, we left the ground chuck in the Pinto).

The Indian restaurant was an extreme example, but I never felt alienated or at a loss for yummy eats the entire time we were running around the city. Even the lunk-head sports bar at Calhoun Square offered some creative pub grub, including a fantabulous quinoa veggie burger that I inhaled with no small amount of glee. Of course, the menu did puzzlingly offer the inclusion of bacon on their veggie burger for a small extra fee, which left more than a few of us scratching our heads...but hey, it's all about options!

I'm a little shocked to say this, but as a vegetarian, I came away from my weekend amazed that Minneapolis has got it going on way more than my current digs in Chicago, which as we all know is a mecca for big portions of good food.

Don't get me wrong: I'm absolutely in love with some of the restaurants in my city - Hema's Kitchen, Chicago Diner, Bite, Earwax Cafe and Sinbad's Falafel all make me a very happy fattie - but I couldn't help but notice a sense of fun and adventure in the menus I scanned while in Mpls. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect those people actually enjoyed eating new kinds of food.

I had mashed potato pizza last weekend. Twice. From two different pizzarias. And despite what some of you uninitiated folk may think, both pies were really, really good. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, I'm still at a loss for a good local pizza joint, because everywhere in the city insists on the traditional Chicago-style deep-dish goo (which I loathe).

There's a lot about this city that I love, and there's even more that I'm coming to love the longer I continue living here. Still, one issue I have with Chicago is that it's a meat eater's paradise, and there's no getting around it. It's kinda one of those "well, duh" statements, right?

I became a vegetarian when I was 18 years old. I was living in Indiana at the time. Being a vegetarian in Indiana is not easy. In Indiana, vegetarians are people you see on TV or read about in magazines, but you never think one might move next door or even be a member of your own family. I think many families in Indiana would rather their children turn out gay than ovo-lacto veg - if their child came out as a vegan, I think the poor kid would be taken to the riverbank and left to die of exposure.

Growing up veggie in Indiana was a bit of a boot camp. I went through college learning how to eat creatively and how to make the most of the limited choices I was given. Fortunately, college campuses know how to feed throngs of precocious little veggie gullets, so I didn't exactly starve...but there were always my trips home, in which I had to reprogram my mom's cooking. This wasn't a huge ordeal, as my mom was always an adventurous cook when I was growing up - during my high school years, she even played around with preparing her own falafel and veggie chili recipes - but she never had the pressure of catering to a full-on non-meat-eater. I'm sure it was just another sweet, sunshiney reason to love her deliciously low-maintenance son all the more (and if you can spot all the BS in that last sentence, I will actually send you a prize).

My first few Thanksgivings were especially rough during my early veg years. I remember one particularly white-knuckled family gathering at my grandmother's house in the sticks of southern Indiana, when the turkey plate was passed to me and I very offhandedly said "oh, no thanks, I don't eat meat" and I was met with such stink-eyed awkward silence that I might as well have said "I'm wearing frilly silk panties right now, and I brought extras for everyone!"

Fortunately, over the past 17 years everyone has gotten a titch more chill with my dietary habits. Maybe I'll actually chime in with the panties thing this year just to keep 'em on their toes.

After a few years of figuring out how to get by in the bowels of the Bible Belt without a meat-based diet, I moved to New York City and for the first time in my life experienced Vegetarian Nirvana. Long story short(er), I became spoiled. Being able to eat what I wanted was no big deal. People eat what they want in New York. You have choices out the wazoo. And it can be a vegetarian wazoo if you so desire.

Then, after six years of veggie wazoo, I'm in Chicago. Chicago's not bad. As stated above, there's lots of good stuff here. The groceries are pretty veggie-friendly, so I'm never without Boca or Morningstar Farms treats - and we also have a Trader Joe's nearby, so really, I have no reason to complain.

Honestly, maybe the weirdest thing about adjusting to Chicago is finding myself having to justify my vegetarianism again. I was used to it at first, living in Indiana, where our type were burned at the stake and thrown over cliffs in barrels - in fact, I'm glad I was asked to explain myself as often as I was, because every time I was asked "why?", I was explaining it again to myself as well.

In New York, I learned nobody cares what you eat. Just pay for it and don't make other people eat it if they don't wanna. The end.

In Chicago, I learned that there's a healthy slice of the population that still doesn't "get" it. In the more urbane and hipster neighborhoods, sure, eat your tofu, enjoy it, good times abound. When I'm toiling away at my job downtown, however, it's a different story. Folks who commute to The Loop from the suburbs (or from Indiana) aren't exactly Vegetarian Digest subscribers; and as my dear friend Stymie once told me about Chicago's Southside while she was trying to choke down a plate of twigs at a vegan diner in Boystown, "look, we don't have vegans in The Hood".

After my weekend in Minneapolis, it was nice to have a breather in a city where vegetarianism seems not only to be respected, but seemingly also a little bit celebrated. It also brought me back to Chicago reflecting on how ignorant people still can be about vegetarianism these days, and on how most folks consider it to be such a bigger deal than it really is.

I spent this morning scrawling down a list of things people say to me when they first discover I'm a veggie. Before I share the list, please allow me to cough out the basic thesis of my gastrophilosophy:

People, it's just food.

I think this whole topic is tainted by the oft-named "Nazi vegetarian" types who overzealously lecture and judge and make mooing sounds whenever you bite into your quarter pounder. I think it's also tainted by people way on the other side of the issue, who are so threatened by the mere possibility of a world without their precious meat products, the mere mention of vegetarian is enough to throw them into a foul mood for the rest of the day.

These people need to relax.

For me, what I choose to eat is part of how I define myself. I'm not going to lie and say that my diet is perfectly balanced or devoid of unhealthy crap - I'll eat a bag of cheesy corn puffs and wash it down with a 2-liter of Diet Coke and then I'll happily suck the corn puff powder goo off my fingers as if it were a thoughtfully-placed garnish. Ice cream? I'm there. With Magic Shell? Bring it on.

But I choose not to eat certain things because, well, at this's because I can tell myself that I've committed to one thing requiring a significant amount of discipline, and I've made that commitment for nearly two decades now. That kind of self-control is within my reach, and I prove that to myself every day, with every meal.

Sure, it's about health - the benefits of a veggie diet have proven themselves to me over the years, and I'm so appreciative of that; and sure, it's about ethical issues - I'm sorry, I love animals. I adore them. I don't like the idea of slaughtering them so I can devour their remains at Taco Bell.

But that's me. It's a big world, and results may vary. You go do your thing. We're all just trying to live a life here, after all.

It's when we stop respectfully teaching by example and start forcing our ideals into other people's lives that things get unattractive, regardless of the purity of one's intentions. And by "teaching by example", I mean this: In the space of 17 years, I've turned more people on to a veggie diet (or a more veggie-friendly diet) simply by doing my own thing, than I ever did when I was preaching about the evils of red meat and factory farming.

People look at what I'm eating. They get curious. They ask questions. They wanna try what I'm having. They usually tend to like it. They start trying other veggie stuff because they realize it's not as gross and bland as they thought it would be. They may not wind up giving up meat all together, but they eat a little healthier and a little bit of bad karma is shaved off my credit report because I helped make another person's life just a little bit healthier. It's all good.

And I wouldn't have it any other way, despite the days when I can't stop complaining about "if one more person asks me why I don't eat meat, I will SCREAM". At the end of the day, if I'm a walking vegetarianism kiosk, then fine. I'm putting something good into the world. I just have to remind myself of that sometimes.

That said, here are the ten most repeated comments and questions I've gotten over the years when someone first learns I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian:

  1. "I could never give up certain things - I mean, like, completely."
  2. "You do it mainly for health reasons, right?"
  3. "You just eat your tofu - I'm going to enjoy a big fat bloody steak, huh huh huh."
  4. "I tried being a vegetarian once, but I need more protein."
  5. "If I go without meat, I'll get sick."
  6. "You're a vegetarian? But you eat chicken and fish, right?"
  7. "At least you're not a vegan."
  8. "Will you have enough to eat tonight?"
  9. "Isn't eating fake meat just a passive-aggressive way of saying you like real meat?"
  10. "Come on. Be honest. You sneak a hamburger every now and then. Come on."

I was going to respond to each of these compiled comments in kind, but I dunno...I kind of want to leave them up for those who may read this post and recognize themselves in some of those comments.

And I'm not just saying that because I'm getting tired of writing this post. Nope. Perish the thought.


Blogger sep said...

I have to admit, I made myself read your post even though I didn't want to at first glance. I'm not a vegetarian and I get sick of folks evangelizing me on what to eat so the idea of yet another blog post about "why I'm a vegetarian" seemed just too much of a muchness.

However, I was so pleasantly surprised to read your post! Thanks for sharing such a sane, funny, sincere yet not sappy or preachy take on why you eat what you eat. I totally respect that. I've consciously tried eating less meat - mostly for health reasons and ya know, it's not all bad.

I totally relate to your post on another level - when I try to explain to folks why I don't drink alcohol. Most of the time they walk away feeling judged or confused but for me, it's just my decision for me. I like your attitude on it, yay!

11:59 AM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger Corvus said...

I get a little tired of people expecting me to sit in judgment of their eating habits once they find out I'm a vegetarian, not to mention sugar free, so I usually try to not mention it until it's important... like when they invite me over for dinner.

Oh, and the next time you're in Minneapolis, you should check out the Blue Nile. Yummy, yummy, Ethiopian food.

12:40 PM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger TrickyTricot said...

That's my favorite one - "You're vegetarian? But you eat chicken right? No? But fish is a vegetable..."

My favorite response? If it had lungs or gills, it's off the list.

And what about those omnivores who are like, "There's just meat in the sauce you can pick it out...."

5:41 AM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger Franklin said...

I raise a glass of soy milk to the first person ever to prepare tofu so that I could eat it without gagging.

7:58 AM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger A. L. Deviant said...

Pray tell, where did you find the recipe for the quinoa veggie burger? Been looking for ages. Afraid to try to improv it.

Sounded like a truly great meal overall.

12:43 PM, June 04, 2007  

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