I receive a lot of unsolicited sympathy at Thanksgiving. Friends who know I’m a vegetarian look at me with tilted heads and puzzled brows. “What do you eat?” they ask, implying that Turkey Day without turkey is no kind of holiday at all. With great pleasure, I tell them, I eat everything else. Thanksgiving dinner with my family is a smorgasbord of meatless side dishes: green beans, baby carrots, ambrosia (that heavenly concoction of mandarin oranges, pineapple and marshmallows), and an embarrassment of casseroles—sweet potato, cranberry apple, hashbrown, broccoli. Add a fluffy baked roll and a square of dressing, and my plate is covered from rim to rim with no space remaining for meat of any kind. I daresay we could forego the smoked bird altogether and few people would even notice its absence (least of all the people responsible for its tedious preparation).
But the truth is, most people eat turkey, and ham, and other meats, which explains why meals served on tables at homes and restaurants—on Thanksgiving or otherwise—are dominated by animal products. Because of American society’s historical desire to parade its wealth, the cuisine considered most American is full of meat, preferably beef and the best cuts of it. As far as I know, vegetables don’t have a “council” or massive promotional campaigns that can stack up to “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” Or “Pork. The Other White Meat.” Accompanied by stirring symphonic passages that practically equate patriotism with meat consumption, these messages are freakishly memorable. And even if fruits and vegetables did have their own promotional board, somehow “Broccoli. It’s Good for You.” just doesn’t seem quite as convincing. (Then again, vegetables have always had the support of dieticians and the food pyramid, while the meat and dairy industries have been forced by negative health reports to run interference via pricey media campaigns.)
Regardless of the proven health benefits, vegetarians make up a meager percentage of the national population. A Zogby poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2000 estimated that 2.5 percent of non-institutionalized Americans never eat meat of any kind. Southern vegetarians numbered 1.8 percent. But even the pollsters ran into trouble with their questions, trouble familiar to anyone who has ever called himself or herself a “vegetarian”—the term has different parameters depending on whom you ask. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but some folks assume if you don’t eat meat, you still eat chicken—chickens having lost their status as meat somewhere along the way. There isn’t an official term for people who eat chicken but not other meats, but people who eschew all meats but fish get the unwieldy moniker of pesca-vegetarian (which is where I fit into the veggie hierarchy, although I feel like a serious poser when I talk about vegetarianism with others considering how lax I can be about chicken stock in soups and lard in biscuits).
My vegetarian philosophy is to live and let live; you eat what you want, and I’ll eat what I want, and we won’t bug each other about the reasons no matter how contradictory or counterproductive. But it’s difficult to be so laissez faire when dining out at Knoxville restaurants because all but a few seem willfully ignorant of the fact that some people don’t eat meat—rarely or ever.
As a board member of the East Tennessee Vegetarian Society, Kim Stewart is a worthy spokesperson for the city’s meat-avoiding population. She admits that her qualms with local restaurants stack up to a pretty tall soap box, but her pleas are common for vegetarians who dine out.
“All we ask for is at least one healthful vegetarian— not something like pasta alfredo, something healthy—and one healthful vegan offering on the menu,” she says. “More choices would be great, but there are many large restaurants in Knoxville that don’t have a single healthy vegetarian entree on the menu.” She names the national chain Rafferty’s as a particularly frustrating offender.
Vegetarian diners are easily identified. They’re the ones scrutinizing menus like investigators at a crime-scene. And if it seems like they’ve memorized the litany of questions peppered at the server, it’s because they’ve learned from experience that menus are infamously unconcerned with details. “Does that salad have bacon?” “Is there meat in the spaghetti sauce?” “Can I get that without chicken?” Stewart is particularly miffed by restaurants that foul up perfectly vegetarian items with chicken broth, ham, bacon or other ingredients that otherwise nullify vegetables’ naturally healthy aspects.
“The vegetable offerings are usually a nutritional nightmare, with cheese, butter, breadcrumbs, sugar, etc.,” she adds, implicating the popular local side dish known as Spinach Maria, and, come to think of it, the yummy squash casserole at Aubrey’s. Vegetarians get used to cobbling together meals out of a la carte items, but Stewart confesses an overwhelming desire for restaurants to offer vegetarian entrees that meet the same qualifications as meat-infused main dishes: savory, spicy, interesting, complex, flavorful. You know, something good that’s worth the price.
Unfortunately, no Constitutional clause endows vegetarians with the unalienable right to be offered tasty, nutritious and meat-free entrees. We’re talking about the free-market economy here; there’s a reason Knoxville’s main arteries are clogged with fast-food joints and national chains. But there must be some hope on the horizon. It’s disheartening to hear Stewart say she doesn’t believe an all-vegetarian eatery would succeed in Knoxville. But I argue that one could succeed if its menu were as diverse and interesting as the best dining establishments in America. The Laughing Seed Café in Asheville, for example, has specialized in international vegetarian cuisine since opening in 1991 and helped launch the city’s downtown revival. The place is always crowded at lunch and dinner. And you can say Asheville is full of college kids and hippies and citified Yankee transplants with weird dietary notions, but so is Knoxville , and Knoxville’s more than twice the size of Asheville. Even if we apply Zogby’s low-ball rate of vegetarians in the South, that would put at least 7,000 of us in Knox County—which would seem enough to support at least one restaurant. As it happens, Knoxville has supported a few vegetarian restaurants over the years, the most durable of which was one operated by Seventh Day Adventists, a denomination known for its avoidance of meat, in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Stewart notes that Knoxville’s most veg-friendly restaurants are located on or near the University of Tennessee campus, an observation that could lead to several different conclusions. That teens discover vegetarianism in college and become practitioners once they’re free of their parents’ influence. That college kids and their on-campus cohorts are more adventurous eaters than the general population. Or that more highly educated people seek out vegetarian or veg-friendly restaurants. Since none of these questions were on the Zogby’s poll, such guesses will have to hang there, unconfirmed.
Seymour resident Laura Broderick says she joined the ETVS about four years ago after she went to one of the group’s monthly potluck dinners held at her church, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Membership helps vegetarians feel less alone in their eating preferences, she says, a side effect of being 1.8 percent or so of the local population. “I don’t want to be a hermit,” she says, so she eats out with friends, even when doing so can mark her as “the picky one.”
Broderick quit eating meat cold turkey about 15 years ago and says she’s slowly eliminating dairy products too. Her concerns echo those of other vegetarians who learn to cope with the restaurant scene or just eat at the same few places again and again.
Broderick points out that the veggie burger, the most prevalent vegetarian item on a broad range of menus, is also something you can cook for yourself at home with the same and cheaper ingredients with pretty much the same results. All diners, vegetarian or not, seek more creative and exciting meals than they can whip up in their own kitchens. Otherwise why go out and risk traffic, lousy service, babies crying, cigarette smoke drifting from the bar, and all the other annoying variables that one chances when being social?
Stewart would like to remind restaurants that vegetarians don’t run in packs; they frequently dine out with meat-eaters, the nicest of whom let the vegetarian pick the place.
“I hate to tell them this, but when a vegetarian avoids a vegetarian-unfriendly restaurant, the other four or five people in the group that are not vegetarian also go somewhere else,” she says. “Make offerings to include everyone, and the group will come to your restaurant.”
But to whose doors should Stewart, Broderick and other frustrated vegetarians nail their theses? National chains could possibly be willing to forge the way with interesting meat-free entrees; they seem eager enough to adjust their menus in order to jump on the bandwagon of the moment (sugar-free, low-carb, heart-healthy, fat-free, what have you). Why shouldn’t they not only accommodate diners who want tasty meals without meat but welcome them with open arms? Vegetarians are a minority by choice, which means the broad marketplace doesn’t have to support them. But the diet most vegetarians pursue—one that substitutes high-fat, high-cholesterol meats with whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables—is medically proven to be healthier. Since that’s the case, it seems a wonder that more restaurants haven’t developed more meat-free dishes for their menus.
The real place to start such a campaign is at home, in the city reputed to have one of the nation’s highest rates of restaurants per capita in the nation. After all, the city’s most veg-friendly eateries are locally owned. Their names occur automatically to vegetarians who dine out: Sunspot, Tomato Head, Stir-Fry Café, King Tut’s, and various other ethnic restaurants whose menus cater to non-meat-eaters because of their ethnic bent—Indian, for instance. Such places know how to handle tofu, a high-protein soybean cake frequently used as a meat replacement, and develop creative entrees that aren’t centered around meat.
The Sunspot, which often wins Best Vegetarian in the Metro Pulse readers’ poll, is a vegetarian’s savior. Its Mexi-Cali-style cuisine affords a plethora of vegetarian dishes that account for about one third of the menu. Black beans, saffron rice, grilled tofu, fried artichoke hearts, polenta cakes…. Really, few other places in town serve such eclectic dishes, meat or no meat.
While the Sunspot—owned by Randy Burleson, owner of Aubrey’s, Barley’s and Edison Park—no longer has its own head chef, Angela Santos has taken charge of the daily lunch and dinner specials. She’s concentrating her energies on creating daily veggie specials that break out of the menu’s Southwestern theme. “I want the vegetarian special each night to be the best vegetarian item in the restaurant,” she says. She recently invented a wild mushroom and toasted goat-cheese tostada topped with warm corn and tomato relish. And then there was the Mediterranean-spiced dish of grilled homemade polenta served over a bed of wilted spinach with portabella mushrooms topped with roasted eggplant caviar.
“That’s the beauty of a special,” she says, “you get to test out different flavors.” Sometimes she tests veggie specials on her carnivorous co-workers, and when she gets a response like, “This kicks ass. I’d totally order this,” she knows she’s on the right track.
Because tofu appears frequently on the menu, the versatile soybean curd can be substituted for meat in any of the salads or entrees, allowing a kind of flexibility unmatched at any American cuisine restaurant. Asian restaurants know what to do with tofu, but not many others do. What would Chili’s do with tofu? Fry it and cover it with queso?
“The thing with vegetarian food in general is, in Tennessee, it’s not a common thing. You go up north or out west and it’s everywhere.” But Santos, who has cooked for Sunspot for five years, allows that tofu presents its own set of challenges as a non-meat, non-vegetable ingredient. “Tofu can be very tricky if you don’t know what to do with it. It’s kind of an ambiguous kind of thing. It’s versatile. You’ve got to treat it like a blank pallet to be creative to it so you can get flavors implemented.”
Culinary specialist Kate Webster conducts cooking classes at Earth Fare, the organic supermarket in Turkey Creek. This time of year she teaches people how to turn a traditional Thanksgiving dinner into an all-organic meal with the ingredients available on the warehouse-sized store’s shelves, freezers and coolers.
“It’s basically to show people that they can come to the grocery and buy fresh ingredients, almost all fresh produce—every once in a while you have to have canned and frozen—and in the time it would take for them to call ahead for a meal or pizza, they can make a meal for their family. And they’ve controlled their ingredients.”
That’s Webster’s biggest beef with restaurants—the unknown factor of what’s exactly in the food. She says she isn’t 100 percent vegetarian and hardly ever dines out because so much of restaurant food makes her sick.
“I think in Knoxville there’s definitely a lack of vegetarian-friendly entrees and dishes,” she says.
But if she had her way, restaurants would use more organic ingredients, like those in her recipes for Celebration Roast (a nutloaf made with grains), mushroom gravy, and a recipe for beets she found that she’s sure is the one her aunt used years ago.
Free-range turkeys, considered organic meat, are available at Earth Fare, along with tofu-based turkey substitutes (Tofurky being the brand most likely to be invoked in jokes and on sitcoms).
Webster isn’t sure how Earth Fare could assist local restaurants in improving their menus for vegetarian diners, but her stock of recipes might be a good place to start. She’s collected hundreds, thousands maybe, from family, friends, magazines, cookbooks. Sometimes she updates the cooking methods or ingredients to healthier, modern options.
Certainly Webster will be dining at home for the Thanksgiving holiday, but others with specialized food preferences may find themselves on the road on this year’s Day of the Turkey, doubtless wondering what in the world they can eat with a satisfied palate and a clear conscience. Locally, both Marriott and Riverside Tavern are offering Thanksgiving Day buffets featuring the usual extravagant arrays of enough meats and sides to stuff an elephant. A vegetarian in the company of family or friends could make do. But I’ll keep dreaming of the dinner the pilgrims might have prepared if they were Seventh Day Adventists and their crops hadn’t failed: ginger-glazed grilled tofu, cornbread dressing seasoned with course-ground pepper and fresh sage, cranberry and dried cherry relish, sweet-potato casserole and a spoonful of green beans not drowning in bacon grease. Could anything be more American than that?