May it Please the Palate: A vegetarian odyssey

I am not a vegetarian. I had been, I recall, for three years in my 20s. I also go completely vegan (no meat, fish, egg, or dairy) every year for seven weeks during Greek Orthodox Lent. And I live with vegetarians.

It's not easy being a vegetarian, even within the crunchy-granola city limits of Ann Arbor. There are exactly four brick and mortar all-vegetarian restaurants in Washtenaw County. Only one is formal enough for table service (Sevá). What's a vegetarian to do?

Depends on the range of one's vegetarianism. Some flyspeck every ingredient of every food--does that soup have meat broth? Do your crackers have whey? Was the chicken cooked in the same fryer as the French fries? Others look the other way when going out. Torn between staying true to their principles, or "going along to get along," vegetarians often find themselves in a limbo world of perpetual frustration.

I recently spent some time researching an article I am writing for another publication. I call it "A Vegetarian Odyssey." Vegetarians and vegans were in our group, and we interviewed restaurateurs at the few dedicated vegetarian places in our county. I have learned, and confirmed, some basic commandments about vegetarianism.

(1) Respect what people eat and don't eat. Do not treat vegetarianism as a curiosity or affliction; do not judge meat eaters as immoral.

(2) Do not ask vegetarians, incredulously, "Where do you get your protein?" The question has occurred to them. They figure it out.

(3) If you work in a restaurant, take the time to learn what is in the food you are serving. People will ask. Not just vegans and vegetarians, but people with food allergies and other intolerances will need to know.

(4) If you are making something, think about the ingredients you are using. Can you make your dish vegetarian without sacrifice? For example, "Better Than Bouillon" makes a fabulous non-meat broth base for soups and stews. Or bacon bits can go on the side. You get the idea.

(5) If you are vegetarian, respect the pricing of restaurant items. Yes, vegetables are relatively inexpensive. But a good vegetarian recipe takes a lot more personal prep time than grilling a slab o' meat. And prep time costs time and money.

(6) In turn, if you are a restaurateur (by the way, spell check always throws me off on that word. It's not restauraNteur--there is no "N."), respect your customers enough to offer vegetarian alternatives other than pasta or an iceberg lettuce salad. Yes, I'm including that skanky frozen Garden burger with freezer burn.

(7) Vegetarians don't eat bacon. They are not deprived. They can still have French fries or potato chips.

Remember that no matter how different people are--whether European or African, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, prosecutor or defense--we all eat. If you are faced with a conversation with someone you think you have nothing in common with, start talking food. You might not have much in common, but I bet you'll have fun swapping potluck recipes.

Published: Thu, Nov 8, 2012

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