by Erika Stern.
So have you seen “Gravity” yet? If you have, great. And if you haven’t, keep reading anyway because you won’t be getting any spoilers from me. And since there’s not a lone chance in heck that any one of you has escaped the trailers and endless hype surrounding “Gravity,” I’m pretty comfortable in saying that being a suburban vegan for the past year and a half has given me a crystal clear understanding of just how Sandra Bullock felt as she drifted through the vast, dark cosmos. Completely alone and untethered; only deathlike silence as she vainly attempts to communicate with her world; harboring the deep, persistent certainty that her chances for survival are statistically improbable. Wait a minute…this is EXACTLY how I feel every time I go out to eat!
“Should we go out to eat tonight?” This was once so simple. I used to love going out; exploring new restaurants, returning to the comfort and familiarity of old favorites. But now, as a vegan, each dining experience is a series of formidable challenges that sometimes feel as insurmountable as those facing Astronaut Ryan Stone:
1. Pick a Restaurant: This always involves a combination of issues. We have to find a place that will mutually please Vegan Me, Vegetarian Husband and Carnivorous Teenaged Son. (You should see what we go through when we go out with Celiac Father-In-Law. Our table is easily even the most hardened server’s worst nightmare.) Just search Yelp for “Vegan” anywhere within 30 miles of Duxbury and you’re going to come up pretty empty-handed. I just now did it, and Longhorn Steakhouse came up 10th out of a total of 22 “vegan” hits, just to let you know what we’re talking about here. (Which does however, bring up a good point: a house salad and a large baked potato drizzled with a little olive oil will always do in a Genuine Vegan Emergency. Especially if there’s a good wine list.)
2. Study the Menu: I’ve found that it helps tremendously, whenever possible, to take a good peek at the menu before you leave the house. Take a few minutes to check the websites of a few places you’re considering. This ensures that the establishment you’re heading to will have something on the menu (or, in very rare and special cases, multiple things) that you can actually eat. It’s pretty easy to tell from the menu whether a dish has meat in it, but butter and cream can be harder to sleuth out. Some places use cheese in their tomato sauces, so even something seemly innocuous can get sneaky. If it appears that you might be able to combine ingredients from several different dishes on a menu to make one tasty vegan one, then just get ready to ask your server if it’s possible to do that. If there is any type of pasta on the menu, chances are pretty good that the chef will saute some vegetables and garlic in olive oil and throw it all on a bowl of angel hair for you if you ask nicely. Which brings up #3…
3. Interrogate the Server about Plant-Based Options (Without Embarrassing Son): I actually have no words of wisdom here. There is, in fact, no possible way for any mother to ask a waitperson any question about anything that will not mortify a 13-year old boy. So, while he’s in the mens’ room, try to find out how knowledgeable/sympathetic your server is about a Plant-Based Diet (never describe yourself as “a Vegan” in front of your teenager unless you’re prepared for a full half-hour of eye-rolling.) Please try to be kind to your waitperson when you ask them if they know whether a dish is, for example, prepared with chicken stock. Some have visibly tensed up like a deer in the headlights when I’ve asked questions, but most are happy to go check with the chef if they don’t know the answers. Please leave a little extra tip if they are helpful in any way. This paves the way for how future
obnoxious vegans plant-based diners will be received.
4. Be Flexible or Be Hungry: This part is really up to you and your personal choices, but the way I look at it, if I’m not 100% convinced that the waiter at my local Thai place understood that I didn’t want any fish sauce at all in my vegetable pad thai, well…I’m not going to make a big fuss about it. If your salad arrives at the table with goat cheese on it after you requested that it be left off, pick it out. I try to be a Vegan when it’s at all possible, and a Vegetarian when it’s absolutely not; and accept that a teaspoon of fish sauce (or butter, or cream) isn’t going to kill me or the planet, or sadly even save one single fish or cow. Do the very best you can.
So here are a few of our family’s stand-bys:
The British Beer Company (yes, I was shocked too) seems to have a noticeably progressive edge to their menu lately. I’ve had a great Mediterranean Tabouli Salad there (ask to leave off the feta) and the Whole Grain Orzo Lettuce Cups are a real treat. (I’m praying that the fried green beans are vegan, but I’m afraid to ask for fear that they aren’t.)
A pizza from Bertucci’s with any of their vegetable toppings and NO CHEESE. I know this seems weird, but I honestly prefer my pizzas cheese-less now to the several frozen ones available with vegan “cheese” on them. Roasted artichokes, portobello mushrooms, zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes on a whole-grain crust. Yummmm.
Asian cuisines are pretty safe because there’s typically no dairy hiding anywhere, and it’s easy to sub tofu in for any meat. (Just be on the alert with the aforementioned fish-sauce.) Amazing vegetable sushi plate at Quan’s Kitchen, and likewise the Spicy Green Beans With No Pork. Likewise, lots of vegetarian options at Indian restaurants, but they do love their ghee, so again, ask. And here’s the spoiler I spared you from earlier: naan is made with yogurt! (Did you know that? I didn’t know that until yesterday!!!!)
I do want to give a quick shout to the app Happy Cow. It’s essentially a vegan Yelp, and looks like it would be hugely useful in the city although it is even more useless than Yelp at finding anything in the suburbs. Truth be told though, it’s really not the fault of the apps, it’s just darned hard to be a vegan in the suburbs. Boston would be easier, Jamaica Plain or Somerville even better. And all of New England is, of course, light years behind the West Coast with all of this new-fangled plant-based stuff. (I was just reading that Portland, Oregon has a vegan strip-club where there are zero animal products on either the menu or the dancers, yet I can’t even find a vegan cupcake within 30 miles of me.)
So, having said all this, will somebody puh-leeeeeeeze open an exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurant on the South Shore? It would be like a bright, safe, foodie Space Station for those of us floating alone in the blackness. I can’t be the only one out here…
…sing it with me now: “For here/Am I floating in my tin can/Far above the moon/Planet Earth is blue/And there’s nothing I can do…”
Erika Stern is a wife and mother, an artist, a kitchen designer and a new food blogger with no professional experience whatsoever with either food or blogging. But her mother is French and her father is a poet, so everything should work out just fine! She lives in Duxbury with 3 dogs and 23 chickens.