When Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar a few weeks ago, he gave a rambling speech extolling the virtues of veganism that left even the livestock in the audience confused and unmoved. If he wants to persuade people to change their eating habits, he should forget appealing to the heart and mind and go straight for the stomach. Duh.
The challenge, though, is not in making plant based food delicious, because it is. It’s in convincing the restaurant industry, which is providing more and more of the meals we eat, that it should do its part in easing up on the meat and dairy.
When my husband and I switched to a plant based diet, we found the hardest part wasn’t what we were giving up food-wise. It was giving up the joy of eating out in a restaurant. Menus that once presented us with an array of enticing possibilities now were more likely to make finding something we’d want to eat an impossible task. It isn’t a surprise that restaurant menus reflect people’s long-term love affair with meat and dairy products. Just ask any French scholar, and they’ll tell you that “bon appetit” translates to “enjoy the bacon.” That’s why it can be hard to find a menu item that doesn’t contain bacon, or cheese, or bacon-flavored cheese, and that’s just in the salad section.
So the thrill is gone. Some would argue that not eating out as often saves us money. But they forget that cooking dinner night after night not only costs me both time and energy, it also saps me of my will to live. And the cost of all those healthy ingredients can really add up. It’s not like quinoa and avocados grow on trees. Well, I don’t know, maybe they do. I only eat plants — I never claimed to study them.
When we do go out, though, we do our research ahead of time to make sure the restaurant is vegetarian-friendly. Then we hope that there is actually a plant-based item on the menu (there is never more than one) and that it is something we want to eat. Sometimes the vegetarian entrée is easy to spot because it’s isolated from the rest of the menu in a sort of chlorophyll-induced quarantine. Usually, though, finding a meatless menu item can be more challenging. That’s when our pre-dinner entertainment is playing a game we call Find the Kale, because the darling of the cruciferous crowd rarely mingles with duck fat and pork cracklings. It’s like a cruel type of scavenger hunt where the winner gets a month’s-worth of the FDA’s recommended intake of fiber.
That’s because, no matter what fancy name they put on the menu, most restaurants’ idea of a vegetarian entrée is nothing more than a pile of big chunky vegetables with rice or pasta. Don’t get me wrong — I like vegetables. It’s just that there are a lot more creative things you can do with them that don’t require a stamp of approval from the American Dairy Association.
But I often get a less than enthusiastic response from the server when I make my selection. Sometimes it’s fear, which I attribute to them thinking that I’m contagious and they’ll wake up tomorrow as an herbivore. Other times it’s confusion because, before I place my order, they’d only heard “Roasted Root Vegetables Over Couscous” pronounced as “Hell, no.”
That’s what happened recently when I ordered grilled vegetable kabobs served over rice. The server’s reaction (a cry of dismay that she’d lost the kitchen’s betting pool as to when someone would actually order this) didn’t inspire confidence or my appetite. When I asked how the vegetables were seasoned, she told me I’d have to rely only on the salt of my bitter tears.
I ordered them anyway and they were as untasty as she’d described them. Even so, I cleaned my plate because the entire entrée, including the rice, added up to about 200 calories worth of plant product. I can get 200 calories licking an envelope. That’s when the breadbasket becomes a vital part of a meat-free meal. And I’m not just talking about consuming all the bread, but eating the basket, too.
Of course, none of this is going to persuade you to eat less meat and dairy. But I’m willing to bet that if Joaquin stopped talking, opened a chain of vegan restaurants called JP’s, and started handing out mini Oscars with every meal, you might be willing to give it a try.
Betsy Bitner is a Capital Region writer. firstname.lastname@example.org