vegetarianism in the midwest, and a bump in the road

So I had already intended on saying something about this January 10th New York Times piece “Meatless in the Midwest: A Tale of Survival,” and the topic dovetails nicely now with our first minor bump in the road for the vegetarianism part of our challenge: yesterday, at Panera Bread, Ryan unwittingly consumed chicken stock in Panera’s Broccoli and Cheddar soup.  As soon as our friend Emily kindly pointed out that the soup actually contained chicken stock, I felt this sinking feeling in my stomach: we were barely one week in, and we had failed already.  I hated telling Ryan (who was already having a lousy day).  As stupid as it is (I used to compulsively read food labels, I should know better!), I feel like I should have just KNOWN—but I don’t eat at Panera often, and I don’t like broccoli and cheddar soup, and it just didn’t occur to me that a dish wherein the main ingredients are ‘broccoli’ and ‘cheese’ would contain any meat-derivatives (again, we’re not going vegan, so cream-based things can be okay).  Sure enough, when I looked at their menu online after the fact, Panera lists several soups as ‘vegetarian,’ but not the broccoli and cheddar soup.  So consider lesson #1 officially learned: just because it seems like it’s meat-free, it doesn’t make it automatically vegetarian.  Panera helpfully does indicate that some of their offerings are indeed vegetarian: more often than not, when eating out you’ll have to ask someone about the ingredients.

Despite this hiccup, the New York Times piece still confounds me a little.  I get that Kansas City is one of the ‘meat capitals’ of the midwest.  I understand that folks out here in “flyover farmland” enjoy their meats and potatoes.  Maybe it’s a function of living in a hippy-dippy liberal college-town, but I’ve been consistently impressed by the vegetarian options out here in Lawrence, at least.  I’ve got to qualify this, however.  I did not expect Lawrence, Kansas to be anything like my hometown in terms of vegetarian offerings, and to be fair, it’s not.  But there aren’t many places like my hometown, and Norfolk, Virginia is quite peculiar and special because the city is home to a very famous animal rights organization that I won’t link here (Lord knows they get enough traffic).  But the infamous animal rights organization put a lot of pressure on local restaurants and food suppliers to offer substantial vegetarian and vegan options, and the pressure worked: you can get some really fantastic vegetarian and vegan food in Norfolk, but I know that not every town has an animal-rights giant breathing down it’s neck.  That’s okay.  I also know that New York City is very different from every other city on earth in terms of the variety of food one can find there: the fake chicken wings and the Disco Fries at Foodswings, a vegan fast-food joint in Brooklyn, are freaking amazing and one-of-a-kind.  I don’t expect them to be replicated widely, so I’m not terribly surprised that I can’t find anything like them in Lawrence.  That is also okay.  You know what I can find out here?  Some seriously delicious (and vegetarian) Ethiopian, Indian and Thai food.  Good pizza.  Beautiful, fresh produce from our CSA share and the Lawrence Farmer’s Market.  A legit farm-to-table restaurant in Baldwin City.  Between cooking our own meals regularly (and having easy access to fresh, local ingredients in many cases) and being mindful about where we’re going out to eat (by scoping out reviews on Yelp, for example), we’re doing pretty okay finding vegetarian options out here in flyover country.

When we took on this challenge, Ryan and I started compiling a list of places we knew we could eat and dishes we knew we could cook at home.  Granted, it’s easier on us since we’re not vegans, but both lists are not short.  We know, for example, not to bother going to Oklahoma Joe’s while we’re doing this challenge.  The onion rings and fries are great, but we can’t eat anything else there.  Five Guys?  Forget it (although they do apparently served grilled cheese?!) I’d say in general (broccoli and cheddar soup hiccup aside) we have a pretty good idea of the kinds of things we can eat and the kinds of places that serve those things, and in the future, we’ll be more mindful in asking about ingredients.  It sucks that people threw ground beef at the vegetarian restaurant in Omaha.  That’s closed-minded and unsanitary and cruel.  The author of the article longs for the “terrific Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Lebanese and Venezuelan restaurants” he used to frequent in New York City.  There may not be as many and not as big of a variety of ethnic restaurants out here, but they do exist, and some of them are quite good.  Mr. Sulzberger admits to not being terribly adept in the kitchen; my advice is to learn how to cook more than rice and beans if you’re craving variety.  I’d imagine Mr. Sulzberger has heard of/shopped at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, both of which have some vegetarian/vegan items for home preparation and quick bites to-go.  I hope someone drags him to a farmer’s market or a CSA pickup so he can see some of the amazing food that comes from local farms (which is one area where at least my little pocket of the Midwest is kicking Norfolk’s ass right now—there are more than a dozen different CSAs we could have joined, and farmer’s markets in small neighboring towns too).  I hope his stay in the Midwest opens his mind a bit about the vegetarian options available outside of the bright lights of New York City.  And this quick response to Mr. Sulzberger’s piece was pretty funny, too.

Ryan and I are not going to let our small bump in the road bruise our egos or derail our challenge in the slightest: we’ll work harder in the future to be aware of ingredients and get better at making sure we ask people when we’re not sure.  This is not a huge deal (we didn’t accidentally eat a hamburger or anything) and there are bound to be mis-steps in any journey like this: the important thing is that we keep at it and keep learning.

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9 thoughts on “vegetarianism in the midwest, and a bump in the road

  1. Franzi says:

    For cheaper on-the-go-options you could try subway sandwich. They not only have the veggie sandwich but (if you are really lucky) also the veggie paddie stuff. Also, Wendy’s has yummy fries or, for a healthy option, a baked potatoe which comes with cheese and broccoli and their salad is not too bad…

  2. Emily Keen says:

    Basically Ryan just committed a bit of a rookie mistake in the vegetarian lifestyle. New vegetarians are all guilty of it. A week after I became vegetarian (like legit, I swear on Mother Earth I’d never eat a piece of meat again) I actually ate a bacon wrapped shrimp like it was nothing. It was sitting on a friend’s plate and she didn’t want it so I popped it in my mouth, swallowed, and then that sinking feeling came over me. What had I done?!! Meanwhile I was still reading Skinny Bitch about vegan lifestyle and I felt like the shittiest person. Ah well. Mistakes happen.

    As far as Panera is concerned, here is what is safe: I know since I eat there almost weekly.
    Greek Salad and Garden Salad
    Mac and Cheese
    Mediterranean Sandwich
    Black Bean Soup
    Veggie soup

  3. Lynette Good says:

    I read that article and was sad he hadn’t driven to Lawrence to check our restaurants yet. Good luck with your quest!

  4. Renée says:

    I was really surprised the piece didn’t talk about the rich farm-fresh opportunities in the area, too. Even if he didn’t make it out to Lawrence, there’s the City Market in KC that is open all year-round, unlike our Farmer’s Market. I think anyone following a diet that isn’t the typical American “I’m hungry so just put food in my face” mentality has to put a little bit of effort into it. I am not a vegetarian, but I refuse to eat conventional meat or animal products. It HAS to come from a farm and I HAVE to know the name of the farm. That’s easy here, but if I were ever to go anywhere else it would be a struggle. That’s the nature of our food system at this time. Some people might think it’s bizzare to have to think so much about what you eat, but we are what we eat. I don’t want to eat animals that I know probably died really traumatic deaths in a slaughterhouse, and I know for a fact (because I’ve visited them) that local farms take really good care of their animals. Yes, this meat is almost double the price in some cases (especially with chicken), but I feel that price increase reflects the true cost of raising and caring for these creatures.

  5. That place in Baldwin looks awesome! I gotta go there when I get back.

  6. Tim says:

    It’s hard to consider it a failure — failure is “I can’t do this anymore, give me a large hunk of meat.” It’s just a reminder that everything requires more attention when you’re carving things out of your diet.

    I made it 8 months without eating pork and ended up going to Pizzeria Paradiso and they had a special “Christmas Pizza” — since it was the 26th and it looked like it was completely vegetarian — with one ingredient I didn’t recognize but that everyone at the table agreed must be some kind of cheese. I ordered it.

    Nope. Some sort of ham. Ugh. So my 8 months ended — since my diet’s a personal thing and not a religious one, I felt like it was better to eat it and not waste it since I was effectively now responsible for that pig’s death one way or the other. And it, mercifully, was dreadful — easily the worst pizza I’d ever had there. So I’m not exactly going to be loading up on pork because of it.

  7. The way my day was going yesterday, I’m just happy I only accidentally ate chicken stock and didn’t mistakenly kill and eat a deer.

  8. […] tale of woe about finding vegetarian options in flyover country (see my original post here).  I stumbled across two good responses, both with some resources/suggestions for Mr. Sulzberger: […]

  9. Swimmy-Swim-Swim (aka Kristina) says:

    First – I think what you are doing is awesome and I wish you the best of luck living ethically!

    Second – Try not to beat yourself up over the small mistakes. I was vegetarian for 3 years and it happens. After awhile you can often tell if there is some meat by-product just in the first bite. There were a few times when a friend would be eating something that seemed vegetarian and they were raving about how delicious it was, but there was a flavor they couldn’t identify. I’d take a bite and know immediately it was ham (for some reason I was always acutely aware of ham – apparently I missed it). I could have freaked out or been upset about having consumed meat, but instead I shrugged it off and acknowledged that it is a little more difficult in this world to be a vegetarian. Of course, that was 10 years ago, so I hope it’s gotten a little easier. Still, the effort is worth the applause, with or without little mistakes.

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