Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On being meat-free in meaty places

It was around this time last year (give or take a week or two) that I decided to try out eating exclusively vegetarian. I was in a car with a friend talking about food politics, and we both came to the conclusion that although neither of us was especially comfortable with the idea of eating meat, we both kept eating it out of habit, convenience, and of course tastiness. Out of this conversation, "project bacon" was born: We decided that we would try eating vegetarian for a month and see just how difficult it really was. Although I'd been eating less and less meat over the years anyway, I thought that going full on meatless was going to be too difficult. What would happen when I went to a restaurant or to a friend's house? Would I find myself undone at the sight of bacon and then feel guilty about eating it?

Turns out, it wasn't nearly as much of a problem as I thought. Social situations have been a bit awkward at times, and the only meat I've eaten in the past year was my mother's thanksgiving turkey, mostly out of a desire not to make it an issue at the dinner table (this year I think I'll be able to get away with eating the tofurky). I still do like the smell of bacon, but I haven't really had an overpowering urge to eat it. Frankly, if I had I would have eaten some by now, both because I lack willpower and because I believe in making environmental/social justice life choices that work for you. There are a lot of ways to be better to the world and to other people, some of which will make you more miserable than others. I'm perfectly happy living without a car, but take away my hot shower and I'm a truly cranky person.

I've always thought of these things as personal preferences, which brings me (in a long winded way) to the point of this post. I've been thinking of myself over the past year as a person who is happy not eating meat, but my recent trip to California made me think a lot more about meatless eating and infrastructure. I think about this in transportation terms all the time, because there are some places in the world (California is a bad offender here) that are obviously not built with pedestrians or bikes in mind. Trips that would be perfectly manageable on foot become really unpleasant when there are no sidewalks or crosswalks to speak of, and it changes the way you relate to the world around you. What this trip made me realize is that this is true for vegetarian eating as well (at least in my case). Not only is it difficult or impossible to find tofu in some places, but it changes the degree to which I miss and want to eat meat.

Our flight path took us through a rather long layover in Memphis, and it became obvious to me pretty quickly that this was not a place designed for vegetarians. Trying to eat meat-free there was very much like trying to walk in places not meant for pedestrians: you find yourself doing the culinary equivalent of tromping through bushes and sprinting across freeway entrances. Getting a vegetarian meal would basically require subtracting the meat (where possible) from what was on offer, which would result in pretty boring meals: sandwiches with veggies and a sad slice of cheese, etc. I had nachos without the meaty chili, which was fine for one night but would probably cause serious unhappiness if I had to do it every day. My poor SO has even fewer options, and usually ends up eating fries in situations like these. With his steely German willpower I'm pretty sure he'd stay vegan even if it meant fries for weeks, but I know I wouldn't survive as a vegetarian in these circumstances. I don't deal well with the feeling of deprivation that comes with being a meat-free eater in a meaty land.

Needless to say, I was glad to come out on the other side of the airport system and find myself in California, where the SO and I could eat at an entirely vegan Chinese restaurant (me above, with my fresh rolls and salty plum lemonade) and many other places where meals could easily be made meatless. A friend took us out to Burma Superstar for an absolutely stunning lunch:

I could eat this food forever and never look back. We had the tea leaf salad and the rainbow salad, fried yellow bean tofu, coconut rice and vegetarian noodles. I can't even tell you which dish was my favorite because they were all so good. Too bad they don't have a Burma Superstar Ithaca outpost, because I have a feeling there's no way I'll be recreating a 22 component salad on my own any time soon!

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