The Perils of Eating Out Vegan

When you are vegan (do not eat or wear any animal products), eating out rather than cooking your own food can be complicated, even when going to mostly vegan restaurants.

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Some vegans become irritated when a restaurant makes a mistake with their meal. They may send the food back, chastise the waitstaff, or blast their ire over social media. I do not think vegans have any more right to be upset about their meal not being prepared correctly than anyone else does.

Unless you make or grow your own food, there is no validity to being upset at the mistake of a restaurant. If you have a severe food allergy or special diet restriction, then why would you trust any restaurant serving hundreds (or thousands) of people per week, expecting them never to make a mistake?

If you are vegan and choose to eat out, you can be explicit in your instructions and hope they get it right. If they do not, then it is fair for you to ask for (but you have no right to demand) another course or a correction to make your meal vegan. It is good that you let the restaurant know they goofed your order; they likely want to know so they can do better in the future. It is, however, not so good if you tarnish their reputation or cause confusion on the world’s most powerful social media sites or trash-talk about your experience to friends or family.

It is outrageously irrational to fault a restaurant for making a mistake on an order one time out of (let’s assume… more than a hundred?). Can YOU do anything a hundred or a thousand times without making a single mistake?

When I eat out, I can only rationally assume the food is not 100% vegan, even at a 100% vegan restaurant. For example, there are no clear delineating factors to determine what is vegan. Many vegans, to distinguish where they draw the line on the Animal Kingdom, go by the simple rule, “Do not eat anything that feels pain.” Oysters have virtually no nerves and almost certainly do not feel pain. Are they vegan? Most vegans would say they clearly are not because they are an animal. Broccoli, on the other hand, has a central nervous system–the only tell-tale sign that something feels pain. Is broccoli vegan? Most vegans will not hesitate to say it is, because it is obviously not an animal. Some vegans eat honey; some do not. There are many undecided areas–no restaurant can know every kind of vegan that walks in the door.

I do not expect every waiter or waitress I encounter to know if the rice was made with chicken broth, if the beans have lard, if the fries were cooked in the same grease as the chicken wings, if the soup base is water or beef broth, etc… Even when they claim to know the answers, I must assume they are sometimes wrong. I can easily see a waitress asking a chef, “Is our soup broth vegan?” The chef might not know because he did not prepare the broth, but it is vegetable soup, so of course it must be vegan. “Sure,” he says, “It’s sent to us in unlabeled frozen blocks from our corporate distribution center, but it’s vegetable soup. There’s no meat in it.” The waitress then might return to the table and say, “I asked the chef. He says it is vegan.”

Is it the chef’s fault for making a logical leap that vegetable soup is made with vegetable stock? Is it the waitresses fault for not probing deeper on your behalf? Is it your fault for not specifically asking to see the ingredient list for the soup, if there is one?

The bottom line is, if someone else is preparing your food, you are at their mercy. That is your choice. Don’t cry about it if it is not perfect. After all, there are humans cooking your food in the back. Sometimes lazy, forgetful, honestly mistaken, occasionally careless, stressed out, hurried humans. It is unreasonable to expect 100% perfection 100% of the time.

That is why we vegans have the option of making food ourselves and expecting humans to be human is the entry price for convenience.

 

How Can We Fight For Real Food?

How can we stand against a genetically modified industrial and political food complex?

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I posted a snarky comment on FaceBook that sparked discussion about how to fight for real food. My friend Sharon was kind enough to ask what I think we can do about the situation. Here is what I think:

There are lots of ways we can take action. The best thing I think we can do is support local Farmers Markets and vegan, organic, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Here is something else: for the past few years, I have curtailed my support of multiple charities in favor of one or two I care deeply about. Shopping local helps me avoid some of the “forced charity” I already rail against (Big Box stores and brands should not dictate how much charity I give to which organizations). Rather than giving a dollar to the Salvation Army cup and a few cents in the cash register change cups for children with cancer or spare change for breast cancer, a quarter for people with MS, etc… I combine all my giving for maximum impact on one or two charities or projects I care deeply about and gave BIG donations to them. Last year, for example, it was to help make one of my favorite stores, Tree Huggers (a local vegan bulk grocery store that promotes zero waste), and Cult Pizza (a local vegan pizza restaurant being pioneered by Ryan Cappelletti who also started Bartertown, another vegan local produce restaurant).

Kickstarter is a great way to find or create local projects to support. You can contribute as little or as much as you want. In my opinion, I have more impact by making one or two large donations to one or two causes I am passionate about rather than donating to many small causes distributed across many venues.

Finally, I focus on living a minimal lifestyle with less consumer goods so more of my money can be used to enjoy organic and locally produced food. I don’t need a huge stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and jewelry. Those are not things that truly enrich my life or my health. Food and experiences shared with friends and family are far more beneficial. I can’t tell you about the video games I played in 2005, and none of them were really important, but I will never forget the trip to Lebanon I took with my father or the meal we ate high up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees. That was a much better return on my investment in both time and money than my X-box was.

So that’s a start, but it is also important to recognize we have a misconception about food. As Michael Pollan has pointed out eloquently in his books, many people wonder why eating organic or buying from Farmers Markets is SO expensive. That is the wrong question. We should be wondering instead, how on earth a burger from McDonald’s can be so cheap. A fast food burger is assembled from meat imported from many countries. A typical McDonald’s burger has more than 40 ingredients in it (follow the link–I counted them), including the bun, pickles, ketchup, mustard, meat, plus assembly, transportation to the restaurant, storage, and the overhead of the restaurant itself–lights, rent, utilities, wages, benefits, etc… How is it possible McDonald’s can afford to charge a DOLLAR for that, and still make a profit? What, exactly, are you eating when you are not eating local, organic, and real food? Yikes.

Maybe Monsanto and similar companies have a place in the world, though it is debatable. They may seem evil from where we are looking but they have an opportunity to create “food” through bio-technology that can end hunger in the world. If we can show Monsanto, Cargill, and others through conversation and action that they do not have a market or profit margin in the U.S. big enough to warrant their mono-culture take-over, then we might be able to persuade them to find other ways to generate revenue with absurdly cheap “sort-of” nutrition in places where it might be considered a boon. Perhaps then we can all win. Technology and Politics are not inherently evil; it is what we do with them that matters.

But, you know… it takes action and conversations with and through our senators and local artisans and farmers to make significant transformation happen. As with any major change–personal, political, local, or global, it can be done.

 

We just have to be willing to do the work.

Should You Be Afraid of Vegans?

I don’t usually go out of my way to advocate a vegan diet, but occasionally someone realizes I have ordered a meal with no meat or cheese, or they ask  a question that forces my hand and I share that I have a vegan lifestyle.

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For example, someone might ask what my favorite restaurant is (it’s a vegan one, of course) or they might wonder how I am able to get by on so little sleep or how it is I am almost never sick or tired, or how I am able to think quickly and clearly even very early in the morning, or how I can wake up without an alarm clock or coffee, or whatever (and believe me, at best, I might have been able to do any one or two of those things prior to mastering my diet, but never all of them at once).

A funny thing happens when it comes up, though. As soon as I say, “I’m vegan” the reaction is almost always the same: “Oh, I could never do that!”

It’s a very interesting reaction. My first thought is usually, “But I haven’t asked you to; I just answered your question,” and my next thought is, “…But why not?”

The very idea of not eating meat or dairy is so terrifying (or revolting) to some people it sends them into an automatic defensive stance as if they could contract veganism from me (and honestly, would catching a healthy-diet be so bad?). We have been so well trained to believe the western diet is the only option imaginable that we actively choose to avoid those benefits. What’s really funny to me, though, is that people see being vegan as some sort of crazy anomaly.

Imagine your diet is a dial, like a volume control knob, with meat and dairy at one end (“0” on the dial) and vegetables at the other. Obviously, no one is at “0” (because we would die if we ate nothing but other animals). Most people, I would guess, are probably somewhere around 4 or 5. Being vegan is just turning the dial all the way up to 11.

We all eat what is in a vegan diet–I just eat a lot more of the good-for-you stuff.

I watched Forks Over Knives again recently. It’s a pretty good documentary explaining the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet (the new, less-intimidating way of saying, “vegan”). I’m especially fond of this movie because it briefly profiles Mac Danzig–mixed martial artist and UFC champ. I really like that it showcases a top-performing athlete (among many others–Prince Fielder and Carl Lewis come immediately to mind).

If you are curious about why vegans are vegan or just want some basic tips on how to eat healthier, then Forks Over Knives is a good entry level film.

 

The next time you ask somebody about being vegan, consider looking a little deeper into the question of why you’re not. Don’t be scared to look deep; every vegan had to go to the same spot before making such a huge decision. If you are a vegan… the next time someone says, “Oh, I could never do that!”–just ask them why not. The answer, honestly, doesn’t matter. The important part is to get people thinking, and asking themselves.