Saturday, April 6, 2013

Some of my best friends are chunky vegans

Many, many years ago in NYC, there was a all-vegan cafe, one of the few of it's kind. [Note: I myself am not vegan but one does try to accommodate friends' needs]. My friends and I referred to it as "going to eat hippie" and that was perhaps the best way to describe the experience. Friendly, but spacey service. Somewhat dusty in decor and filled with people who were likely to spin around spontaneously to droning music. The food was earnest but not very exciting; usually lumps of hummus and babaganoush sitting on some lettuce leaves or maybe sliced seitan buried in soy sauce. Desserts were ... well, they did try. The fruit flavored seaweed pudding lacked the color, scent or taste of a truly yummy dessert, but it did give us a good topic to joke about for years.

Flash forward a few decades. More healthy, organic, vegan options start appearing all over the city. The all-vegan cafe, perhaps sensing it was no longer the only game in town, goes through an extreme makeover. The decor becomes streamlined and modern. The service more efficient. Alcoholic beverages and topical cocktails appear. It becomes a go-to for brunches. The menu is now open and diverse, blending all sorts of cultures.

After a few too many old-time experiences, I was never too eager to go there anymore, even in a post-ironic way. But I was dragged and the food was indeed tasty.

But what made it so tasty? It was all still vegan, but it was swimming in oils, fats and salts. I think the times I walked out of there in recent years has been with the same feeling I get when I've just eaten barbecue or heavy Chinese food.

Backtrack some years back when I was working in midtown. My coworkers and I often ate at fast food chain promoted as healthier with easy to make choices for better options in regards to it's Mexican style food. It seemed a healthier option than most other fast food places. Except a few months later, I decided to check out the nutrition information they post online. Sooooo many calories! Sooooooo much sodium! Even their salad bowls.

Just because something is "healthy" doesn't mean it's prepared that way. Check out this cute video on how food labels do not show correct calorie amounts. Even in the more "natural" eating groups, it's not always simple food. Truth be told, I do know a lot of chunky vegans. Daily vegan cupcakes aren't any better a choice for a healthy diet than lard-laden ones.

Mmmm.....vegany lard cakes...

And now here's the latest from Mark Bittman in the NY Times where he dreams of starting a vegetarian/vegan fast food. He visits some smaller chains trying this scheme already. The price certainly is an issue (Those McNuggets can be cheaper than a bean burger), but he also comments that at one place, "even when I didn’t overeat, I felt as heavy afterward as I do after eating at a Junk Food chain."

Having worked in an established that researched foodservice, I can say that I have seen the process of how many of these dishes are made. Let is say that convenience rarely means unprocessed. These food products need to travel, have a stable shelf life and be under a certain price point.

So why try to recreate this total fast food scenario? I don't think there's anything wrong with creating a convenient "family dining" establishment that caters to better options. It would enable an actual lifestyle change, as opposed to a restrictive "diet." But convenience is one thing. All that sodium laden fried tastes are another. Just like the old vegan place in my neighborhood. Very popular now, but I never feel like I've made a healthy choice, even if I just eat one of their salads.

I think we all need to remember that restaurant food in general (and fast food in particular) is not the clean slate, no matter what your food preference.

So are we all doomed if we step outside to eat? Maybe. On the plus side, chunkier vegans (and carnivores) would evidently not be as harmed when hit by a car in NYC. 

It's the little things, really.

Bittman, M. (2013, April 3). Yes, Healthful Fast Food Is Possible. But Edible? The New York Times. Retrieved from
“Calorie Detective”. (2013, February 12). The New York Times. Retrieved from
Flegenheimer, M. (2013, April 2). Study Details Injuries to Pedestrians and Cyclists in New York City. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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