Saturday, August 04, 2007

Being Vegan in the Big World

I'm back from a lovely time in Mexico, but i'll talk more about my great adventures there at a later post. I just wanted to take a moment to talk about food. While there, i was reminded of just how difficult it can be to be a vegan when out of the place(s) you may call home. Each day, i have to make a choice about what i eat and i have come back home with a new-found philosophy of food and my own eating needs.

For instance, i knew i was in trouble when the host of the wedding shared that 'there's no meat in the dish, just fish.' I told her fish IS meat and she looked confused. I know that people might identify as vegetarian but still eat fish, but i don't agree with that definition. Further, i was told that a lot of restaurants and taco stands use lard in their refried bean mix. Does anyone know the word for lard in Spanish? I don't. So i had to make a choice. Luckily, a good friend of mine speaks Spanish so when we were at a yummy and cute taco stand, i knew i was okay. But when we went to an ex-pat run beach restaurant, J's cheese and bean quesodilla was served with chunks of weiners in it. I doubt they were veggies dogs! And the waiter told me ' the cook is not happy with you' when i requested something off the menu and vegan-friendly. Oh, and there's chicken in that photo of Tortilla Soup; again it's not considered 'meat' so we didn't know until J ordered it.

Some nights, all i ate was a plain but big salad because there was nothing for me to eat otherwise, and other times i was served one of the best tofu sandwiches i've ever eaten (and it was on the menu!). Cafe Brown, you rule! Other places didn't seem to mind taking the cheese out of my order, but then didn't take the sour cream out as well. Others bent over backwards so that i had a great meal, like our server at the wonderful Los Adobes restaurant. They even have a vegetarian section on their menu. So, each day was a food adventure, for sure.

For those of you that want to learn more about the restaurants in Todos Santos, Mexcio, go here. As a fishing village, they do have some great places to eat and it truly is a lovely town.

I recently went to San Francisco, one of my favourite cities thus far. But getting there and back was like going to Mexico - slim pickings. On the way there, i planned ahead and made a tempeh sandwich. The customs guy gave me a bit of a speech for not declaring my food, but i got to take it with me. I'm so glad i did, because airports can be a vegan's nightmare. Some may have sushi stands or salad delis, but for the most part, what can i eat on a full day of travel?

And these adventures, for me anyway, don't just happen when i travel but can happen right here in my own city. When going to a new place, i have to ask a few questions before i order, and when going out in groups, I have been lucky when friends and family call the restaurant ahead, to request something for me. And i have been awarded with some okay meals for the most part. It blows my mind when chefs can't think outside their own culinery box, and the nutritional value of my dish is left to be desired. My 'favourite' (there's sarcasm in those quotes) is when i get a fruit bowl for dessert and everyone else gets a delectable dessert like chocolate mousse. And i mean when we called ahead for a big party, not for every day trips out. I'm not that hard to please.

The king of all disappointments was on a recent afternoon tea party for a good friend, at a swank urban hotel tearoom. I had a lengthly email exchange with the catering manager who started off our dialogue by telling me that 'to prepare vegan dishes would be an extra cost.' Yikes, the already pricey amount of $30 isn't enough to get me some chickpeas in my salad, or to give me a crustless cucumber sandwich? And then he went on to tell me that all their breads as well as their pastries weren't vegan-friendly. Now, i know pastries aren't, but i know that not all breads have milk in them, let alone eggs. So, in the end, we compromised and i got a lettuce salad. Nothing on it. And the dressing of plain oil and vinegar on the side. Nothing else. Oh, and a lovely serving tray of fruit. Of course.

So my question to you folks is: What do you do to make sure you're eating well when you travel?

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Blogger robiewankenobie said...

i always check with happy cow to see if there are already restaurant recommendations. after that? i aim for ethnic. we're going to indianapolis this wee, and i've googled my butt off to find everything ahead of time. if things get dicey, i go to the grocery store in lieu of a restaurant. all these things are more difficult when in a group.

i was the only vegetarian in a company of 150, for example. and i had to call ahead to restaurants every time i went to a company function. sometimes? awesome portabella dishes. and one place? a roasted vegetable puff pastry which was amazing. other times i was stuck at the steakhouse under the stuffed trophy animals. in that case, i mixed and matched the menu and asked for something they didn't have on it. i made it my "signature dish" and asked for it every time i was stuck there.

*i hate the culinary box, as well. good grief...they all default to pasta, don't they?

5:45 PM  
Blogger krissy said...

i'm so sorry to hear about your meal troubles while in mexico (and other places). it is sad that people still don't see fish or chicken as meat. wha??? (i used to have a shirt that said "chicken is not a vegetable"). while i haven't had nearly as much trouble as you have (since i'm veg, not vegan) it does irk me that as robiewankenobie mentioned above, restaurants always seem to default to pasta or stirfry. boooring!
as for that hotel where you went for tea service (which i think we toronto gals can figure out. boo on you k.e.!) they are idiots to try and charge you *MORE*. uh, cucumber is a hell of a lot cheaper than your fancy fois gras! you should be getting a price cut if anything!! bleh.

9:28 PM  
Blogger krissy said...

ps. thank you so much for the kind words on my blog. i totally appreciate it!

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Jodi said...

Dear Vania:

I was a carnivore most of my life. I love food. All kinds of food.

Last year, I discovered that I had developed sensitivities to several kinds of foods. Mainly red meat and some dairy.

Recently, I made the choice of going vegetarian after several unpleasant incidences with "food poisoning due to animal products."
At times, I have even contemplated becoming vegan but realize in the end that vegetarianism is easier to maintain - primarily as a result of food limitations outside the home.

I really feel for your struggles. Honestly, I have begun to experience the same "issues" as you when eating out or going to social functions.

As time goes on I am able to make better choices when eating out. For instance, Thai and Indian always have a wide selection of choices for me. Occasionally, I have to opt for dairy in foods at restaurants (even though I'm dairy sensitive) just because I have no other choice. As I said earlier, I love food to much.

Traveling to other countries probably poses the biggest challenge of all.

Next week there is a work function which involves a BBQ with meat burgers and such. I don't think that veggie burgers will be on the menu. I'm thinking that I should just bring my own veggie burgers from home. Or starve...

An acquaintance of mine has Celiac disease and as such cannot have any wheat in her food. When she came over for a BBQ last year she brought her own home made beef burgers. I did not stop to think about her no-wheat diet and how wheat might possibly be inside standard burgers - meat or veggie.

In my friend's case, consuming wheat can make her very ill.

My point is that nowadays where people's diets have become very complex due to health or political, social and ecological issues - it is VERY necessary for restaurants to provide their customer a pleasant dining experience whether you are vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant, wheat intolerant, or anything else.

I don't think that is too much to ask for. A happy customer will return to the restaurant that catered to their food requests.
A happy customer will spread the word to others which will in turn create good business relations for the restaurant.

This is just common sense and good hospitality practices. Every restaurant should be aware of how important food is and when someone requests a meal with "no meat, cheese, eggs, fish, etc" - should not be an issue.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. My husband is a vegan, and I am a vegetarian. As is our toddler son. Trying to find a place that accomodates our choices of food, as well as small children, is extremely difficult outside the big cities. There have been times, especially driving across both Canada and the US, that there were no food choices for my husband. He was literally stuck eating bananas, salads and drinking juice mixed with rice protein for days. Having lived in Toronto and San Francisco, we are spoiled when it comes to good vegan-friendly restaurants. I couldn't imagine living in a small city anymore.

(Oh, and for Mexican restaurants, I always ask: sin manteca (fat), sin queso (cheese), sin crema (sour cream), sin carna (meat)? I don't know the correct spellings, and my accent is off, but at least I don't get a non-edible dish. Okay, maybe one time when I forgot to ask about the meat and there was chunks of ground beef (?!) mixed in with toddler's scrambled eggs.

11:48 PM  
Blogger Jennifer C. said...

I often call ahead. I've had some good meals and some pretty terrible meals. Now, since going raw vegan, it's even worse. No restaurant seems to know what an entree sized salad is.

I've been most successful when I've taken the time to do some research. I'm going to Reno this month and already know where I'll be purchasing my meals.

I can't believe that a "swank" hotel would be so unaccomodating. That is completely unacceptable.

Lard is translated to "manteca de cerdo" in Spanish.

5:11 PM  
Blogger mishka said...

Oh, vania. What awful experiences! The last 2 times I was in Mexico, I did find it difficult at times. When I stayed on a resort the first time, the buffet was pretty good. There weren't tonnes of options, but at least I could eat my fill of what there was - mostly potatoes, tortillas, salsa and fruit. There was also some scraping off of cheese from a serving of guacamole. When the buffet had refried beans, I pointed and asked the server "puerco?" He was confused for a minute, but then clued in and nodded "si".

The second time in Mexico we stayed in a hotel and I brought lots of nuts, granola bars and sesame snaps. We ate lots of fresh guacamole sin queso, and I was able to get a decent pasta dish at this one restaurant. Again, lots of fruit and tortillas. And scowls from servers when I asked to have something modified.

In Italy, I asked about eggs in the spaghetti, and often had pasta with tomatoes. I didn't ask about the bread and ate it anyway. Menus often had pizza marinara, which comes without cheese. And I brought a bag of oatmeal from home, which I ate for breakfast and whenever I got hungry.

Basically, my suitcase always contains filling, fibreful snacks that I can carry around with me.

10:06 AM  
Blogger oneredboot said...

it sounds to me like you're doing everything you possibly can to prepare in advance--it's just the inconsisent, unreliable, and totally unhealthy attitude toward food that most people, and especially chefs!--seem to have right now. last month i was in the middle of nowhere interviewing an artist in upstate NY (i found a health food store and the hotel room had a fridge, thank goodness) and at the hotel i watched an episode of top chef on bravo. the chefs were required to transform a traditional American dish (mac and cheese, etc.) into a low-fat, low-cholestorol meal. only one of them, of about a dozen chefs, even remotely knew how to begin to do that! that's a serious problem. anyway, good luck, and persist!

11:20 PM  
Blogger The Alt Martha said...

You should just come visit Portland! We have tons of vegan options.

I don't get when restaurants are not more veg friendly...what an easy way to generate business!

I dread traveling out of the North America for the same travels have so far just been to cities to visit vegan friends who know where to eat!

1:40 AM  
Blogger ar said...

The problem is that in Mexico the word "carne" (meat) is the equivalent of beef. That's why you kept asking if dishes had meat, and people understood 'beef' instead. There is no word in Mexican Spanish that means all animal meat (fish, chicken, pork, beef).

People may speak English in Mexico, but unless they have spent significant time living in the US, they won't recognize the subtlety of beef vs. meat. They will just make a literal translation meat=carne in their heads.

On top of that, being a vegetarian, much less vegan IS a struggle in Mexico (unless you live there and can cook at home).

Just some clarification so your next trip goes smoother.

1:53 PM  

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