Breaking Vegetarian: Restaurant Survival Guide

Paste's column on eating meat mindfully

Food Features Vegetarian
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Flickr/Ed Kwon

In what is probably my favorite episode of Portlandia, Carrie and Fred play conscious carnivores who visit an upscale farm-to-table restaurant, and want to know everything they can about their food before they order it. The scene is a hilarious parody of the ethical eater: the server provides them with more detail than anyone could dream of about the chicken they’re considering, returning to the table with a portfolio that includes his organic certification papers, a photo, and his name (Colin). But even still, the diners want more. They grill the server about Colin’s living conditions, asking if he had little chicken friends. In my favorite moment, Carrie exclaims, “I mean, who are these people raising Colin?” before eventually, the pair leaves the restaurant to visit Colin’s farm before ordering.

Obviously, the scene’s humor comes from its taking the concerns of ethical eaters to a not-unbelievable extreme, and I like to be able to laugh at myself. But still, the scene had me thinking: how do you do that in real life? As an eater with certain ethical principles, how do I dine out without becoming those people?

Figuring out the sourcing of ingredients can be tricky at certain restaurants. Even as some restaurants list local farms on their menu, others might not be forthcoming with the information, and it can feel embarrassing to ask. The first, and easiest, way to make the process of dining out easier on your ethics is simply to choose your restaurant wisely. There are plenty of farm-to-table / seasonal / vegetarian / gastropub joints to go around these days, and knowing their farmers (and those farmers’ methods) is a key part of their restaurant identity. They are happy to talk about it.

I find the most rewarding part of being an ethical eater learning my local hot-spots, and getting recommendations for great local and sustainably-sourced restaurants when I travel. I make sure to spend time asking friends, or browsing on Urbanspoon. But I also like to turn to the local farm-to-table or sustainable farming organizations, or visit the farmer’s markets to chat with the source. Farmers are proud to tell you which restaurants in the area buy their food, and you might be surprised by some of the answers. It’s fun, and it reminds me of why I stopped being a vegetarian in the first place: to participate. I want to get to know the other people—farmers, eaters, and chefs—building the sustainable food community I’m trying to help create.

Ames, Iowa, where I went to graduate school has an amazing farm-to-table treasure in The Café, which features a rotating seasonal menu and a kitchen that develops entrees based on the best products available from their local farm sources. When I met Mike DiStefano, the owner of Numero Uno in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I was surprised to have him explain that he bought all the meat and fresh produce from a handful of local farms I knew well from the market. This was a casual Italian place in a strip mall seventy miles from the nearest metropolitan center.

Of course, restaurants like this aren’t everywhere, not yet, and though a pleasant surprise is nice, you can’t necessarily count on it when you dine out. So what to do if you find yourself in a restaurant without a clear sense of where and how they source their meat? Me, I remember my vegetarian training for this. When I’m faced with a menu, I always look to the vegetarian option first. I find the more creative and delicious a vegetarian option sounds, the more likely it is that the restaurant has spent time thinking about ethical diets and how to accommodate them.

And remember, simple doesn’t necessarily mean basic. A restaurant with menu items that highlight the ingredients, and don’t fuss over them too much, is a restaurant with high-quality ingredients, which are likely to come from the area. A rotating menu is also a good sign, as it indicates a chef in touch with the flavors of the local seasons, and with nearby farm sources for those ingredients.

If, however, I’m not at a restaurant that offers up this kind of information freely, here are a couple questions I’ll ask the servers to figure out what might best fit my ethical framework.

If, however, I’m not at a restaurant that offers up this kind of information freely, here are a couple questions I’ll ask the servers to figure out what might best fit my ethical framework.

What’s the freshest meat you’ve got?

This provides a nice segue into a conversation about sourcing, and allows servers to take pride in their kitchen. And if they don’t know, the kitchen crew will likely take pride in that answer, too.

What’s the newest menu item / why was it developed?

If the server or kitchen is creating new recipes, they will likely be inspired by the food sold at local markets, and the most recent development is probably the freshest or most seasonal.

breakingvegIIMAIN.jpg
Flickr/Alpha

Overall, I try to make sure I phrase the questions as genuine curiosity for the art being made in the kitchen. Servers and chefs who feel like you’re excited about their creations are going to want to open up and respond. A more aggressive line of questioning (“Who are these people raising Colin?”) can be off-putting. If nothing else, I try not to be part of the negative impression some people have of ethical eaters. I want to learn, not simply occupy a moral high ground.

Even still, you’re occasionally going to find restaurants where there is no locally-sourced or sustainable food. Any chain restaurant, for instance, or your local greasy spoon may be lacking. There are some regions with still-developing economies that may not yet support an organic, and sometimes more expensive, food economy (though I know some urban centers where community action programs feed outstanding restaurants). In those cases, you usually have to make a call between meat choices that have varying issues of sustainability and food safety at play.

These issues may even be at odds with each other. According to a study conducted by environmental researchers at Carnegie Mellon, the production of red meat generates a significantly greater climate impact than the production of chicken, which is comparatively efficient in its use of resources and carbon footprint. On the other hand, the Center for Science in the Public Interest lists chicken as one of the riskiest options in terms of food-borne illness. Processed meats like ham and sausage carry a relatively low risk of illness—likely because of all that processing—but processed meat is more likely to contain nitrates, which have been linked to long-term illnesses like cancer and heart disease.

Even fish is loaded with sustainability complications from overfishing, pollution, and toxic chemical contamination, though the experts at Seafood Watch have a handy mobile app that can help you decide whether to try the fish based on your location and sourcing.

The best options become even more blurred when you try to include other environmental considerations like the distance the meat has traveled to arrive at your plate, or the labor conditions for the workers who raise or process the animals. Unfortunately, if you can’t get all the information about your restaurant’s sourcing, the truth is, you’re going to have to make some trade-offs.

If you’re generally an ethical eater, I think it’s okay to loosen up a bit. Sometimes, I have to prioritize one set of ethics over another.

For instance, I lived in rural western Kansas for a while, a place rife with cattle ranching. When restaurants served Kansas steaks, they were proud to tell you about how close by those steaks had been raised: but they were corn-fed, confined cattle, and they were raised by ranchers under contract with major livestock corporations, not local or sustainable outfits. But I absolutely ate such a steak every now and then, because I believe in supporting my local economy, even if it wasn’t yet the sustainable food economy I wanted. When you live in a place, you get to know the people there. I knew some ranchers, and believed they cared deeply about their animals. In those cases, I chose local over sustainable, and I don’t feel badly about that.

In other contexts, when faced with limited meat options, I’ll happily just eat the vegetarian offerings on the menu, even if I know the vegetables and tofu are coming from South America. I try to think of my order as a vote for something on the menu, and in certain cases, I want a restaurant to know they have a vote for ethical offerings in the form of a vegetarian entree. When I’m not cooking the meal for myself, and I don’t have control over every aspect of it, I go with the best available option, and accept the fact that isn’t always going to be a perfect one.

As for my fellow diners’ impression of all this questioning, I rarely feel like an inconvenience. I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with groups of people who are more interested in eating with me than they are with what I eat. In fact, I’ve found my friends to be among the most accommodating of any restaurant. Usually, I’m asking them to take a little adventure with me, to discover a new restaurant, an amazing set of local ingredients, a farm they may recognize next time they’re at the market. And with the promise of eating local, sustainable food comes the promise of better, fresher, more seasonal flavors. Pretty soon, everyone is interested in asking after Colin.

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teach writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

Also in Food