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.