The main course

I stopped eating meat almost four years ago, primarily for health reasons after reading The China Study, and cut out most dairy too. I do eat a bit of fish, for the vitamin B12 (and because it keeps me sane), and I still eat things that have butter in them/on them, because that makes me happy.

I’ve noticed over these past few years that, in the US at least, there are more and more veg-friendly options out there. Salad shops, soup shops, and also food from around the world that is delicious and not made with meat.

Where I still feel vegetarians are misunderstood is that, because it can be such a strange concept not to eat meat, many people assume that vegetarians go to the other extreme: that being vegetarian means that I eat side dishes all day long, food that’s more spare and has less flavor than meat-eaters would find satisfying. In fact, I have no interest in steamed broccoli with no salt or olive oil, nor do I like salads and raw, cold food much more than most people.

Great, complex, fully satisfying vegetarian main dishes are still hard to find, so when I come across them I’m quick to go back for more. The other day I had a vegan mushroom ramen from Mokbar that was every bit as ramen-y, rich, and delicious as I hoped it would be, and I was pretty amazed that they could create that much depth of flavor without any pork shoulder in the broth. That got me thinking about my top-top list of most delicious vegetarian dishes that erase any remaining longing for meaty goodness:

  • Squash rice from the Fat Hen in Johns Island, South Carolina (just had this last month for the first time. Amazing)
  • The Warm Farro & Fried Egg Salad from Red Hat Bistro in Irvington, NY (which may have disappeared from their menu, which would be a shame)
  • Tofu Bahn Mi sandwich from CoBa, on 17th St and 9th Avenue
  • Eggplant Sabich from Taim Falafel, 45 Spring Street, New York
  • Black bean burger from Smashburger (far and away the best veg hamburger I’ve ever had)
  • Lentil pie from the Tuck Shop in Chelsea Market
  • Vegetarian chili recipe from Cooks Illustrated (umami-full flavors that win over the meat-eaters)
  • Pumpkin Curry from Ariana Kebab House on 52nd Street and 9th Avenue

This list omits Indian restaurants, as I don’t have a favorite, and gets me thinking about great veg dishes at Thai restaurants.

What about you? What would you add to this list of great main course vegetarian dishes?

Bok choy, not chicken

One of the things that I’ve discovered about being a (mostly) vegetarian / (sorta) vegan* is that if I don’t plan accordingly I will nearly always be starving whenever I fly anywhere.  The vegetarian options on a plane are inevitably either very sad salads or cheese plates, hence the hunger.

Last week when getting off a plane in San Francisco I had an extra 10 minutes before being picked up at the airport, and I found a small place to get Chinese food, mostly stir-fry.  You’ve been to this place and its many cousins: pick the entrée (chicken, beef, etc.) to go with your noodles or rice for $10.  As usual there was no non-meat option, which to me means no lunch option, so I asked the woman behind the counter what I could do and she told me that they’d be happy to whip up a vegetable stir fry (for $16, but that’s another story).

This got me thinking about doing what I want versus following rules that I set for myself.

The omnivore I used to be would have happily and without a second thought ordered the chicken or beef entrée.  The vegetarian I aspire to be saw nothing to eat and asked a different question that led to a different outcome – one that I was just as happy with (and my omnivorous self would have liked just fine as well, but would never have dreamed of asking).  With the pre-existing rule in place I behaved differently and got a better outcome for me.

Reflecting on my ongoing exploration of the practice of generosity, it’s impossible to ignore that virtually every major religion has specific norms and expectations around generosity, giving, caring for others. When I think about what my generosity exploration is a reaction against, part of the answer is the modern, progressive, liberal, often not-so-religious worldview that is all too familiar to me as an American northeasterner who went to a liberal arts college.  In this worldview I’m supposed to be aware of and care about the world, supposed to believe in the role of government and believe in social safety nets, but in terms of how I individually am supposed to act, what’s considered right and wrong, sacred and profane, how I fit into a broader group (my community, my religion, my extended family) and how and when I subjugate what feels right to me to rules or expectations or group norms or tradition – it’s a conversation we rarely have and often don’t even know how to start.

What have we lost in this world free of constraints?  What do we give up when we shed rules, expectations, obligations, a sense of duty or service or respect for traditions?

The balancing act is that I am a huge believer in bucking tradition, in unshackling ourselves from a set of norms that keep us from contributing to our full potential, to recognizing all that we have to offer and all that the world needs from us.  At the same time I know from my own experience that creating a set of expectations – of rules – whether around food or a practice of generosity or, yes, religion causes me to take actions I wouldn’t otherwise take, actions that expose me to different experiences and different people and different behaviors….not each one exactly what I hope it will be, but more often than not I’m discovering wisdom and connection and a sense of place and belonging along the way.

How much do I really know what is best for me and how I carry myself in the world?  And how much are we all giving up when we give up our obligations?



* “(sorta) vegan” is what I’m able to pull off without embracing meat/cheese substitutes and/or avoiding nearly all foods and restaurants.  It essentially equates to low dairy.

10 (percent)

I’ve been finding a lot of power lately in 10% shifts in how I spend my time.  It’s an increment big enough to matter – an experiment big enough that you can learn something – but small enough that there’s no excuse but to start.

So, if you’re feeling stuck you could:

  • Work 10% more, or less
  • Sleep 10% more, or less
  • Turn your email off for 10% of your workday
  • Delete 10% of your emails, or reply to them with 10 words or less
  • Eat differently (veg, vegan, cro-magnon, all liquids, whatever) 10% of the time (aka one day a week…which I know is more like 15% but you get the idea)
  • Make 10% of your decisions in 10% of the time you normally take (and figure out if it makes a difference)
  • Etc.

Or if 10% doesn’t work you can try 10 days, e.g.:

  • 10 days of eating differently
  • Exercise for 10 days in a row
  • Sleep 8 hours a night for 10 straight days
  • Work 16 hour days 10 days in a row to ship a product
  • Write (and publish) a blog post for 10 days straight
  • Each day for 10 days, write down one thing you’re grateful for
  • Conduct a 10 day generosity experiment
  • For 10 days, apologize first
  • Etc.

Increasingly I’m feeling like long-term happiness results from our ability to evolve.  If that’s true, then discovering how to change is even more important than discovering what to change.

At least for me, all the big changes start small.   They start with an experiment that’s big enough to mean something but small enough that I can’t pretend it’s impossible.

What about you: do massive leaps work, or do you do better when you start small?

Vegetarian mini-rant

I became an almost-vegan about a year ago after reading The China Study.  I gave giving up meat and dairy a try for 30 days, and I discovered to my surprise that I felt so much better all around that I needed to keep at it.

So I’ve been a not-so-strict vegan for the better part of a year now, eating a little fish and a bit of cheese every now and again, still trying to find my way.  I’ve lost weight, I feel better, my cholesterol has dropped, and I’m enjoying myself.

The mini-rant is about salads.

Somehow the moment you say you’re not eating meat people thrust a salad at you.  Not an eggplant or mushrooms or broccoli or pulses or grains or rice or pasta or rutabaga.  A salad.  A big pile of lettuce with some oil and vinegar on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like salads, I eat plenty of them, I just don’t eat any more of them now than I did before I started this crazy food experiment.

I know it’s all very well-intentioned and done with love, but there’s gotta be more to this than salad.  Please!