When a friend offered me two tickets to a plant-based, five-course meal sponsored by Slow Food Chicago, I eagerly accepted. Their last big event apparently celebrated the more predictable “conscious carnivore” theme, featuring a whole roasted pig (locally-commodified of course) that one would come to expect from a locavore group like Slow Food. So their swing at a vegetarian meal piqued my interest. Were they having a change of heart or just appealing to the other side of the aisle to show how open they are to all conscious eaters?
The event was to be held at an innovative, self-professed green restaurant in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, called Uncommon Ground. UC boasts a rooftop garden where they grow many of their vegetables and project an image built on sustainable food. Yet one look at the standard menu reveals an indulgence in all three of the most enormous food polluters— meat, dairy and eggs — as well as plenty of seafood options that are helping to contribute to the rapid depletion of all marine life. All of this environmental havoc packaged up nicely in a beautiful eco-chic setting that is admittedly quite sexy indeed.*
It all began as a very pleasant and civilized event. The crowd was predominantly affluent urbanites 40 and up, with a speckling of bohemian baby boomers. We began with a tour of the rooftop garden, a hefty glass of local cider, and some scant morsels of local veggie appetizers to whet our appetite. After an hour and a half, we were finally seated. My guest and I had eaten very lightly, and by this time we were ravenous.
I began making small talk with the two 50-something women seated at the long table next to us. At one point in the conversation I mentioned that I and my guest were vegan now and were interested in seeing what Slow Food would present at what seemed like an unusual event for them. The woman next to me responded by telling me that she only ate chicken from her brother’s farm. In the Slow Food mindset, that makes it all okay, I guess. The local factor, in her view, makes the leap to ethical dining in one huge, mindless leap.
The servers were keeping us well hydrated with alcohol but offered us very little to eat even after two and a half hours into the event. I was feeling saucy and perhaps a bit more outspoken than normal. So I began to tell her how I had rescued four adopted hens and how they had changed my life. I told her that if she was to know them on this level, she would no more want to see them harmed than she would her dog. I could sense her discomfort and yet I continued.
“Does your brother slaughter his birds on the premises?” I inquired. “No,” she replied. So I continued, “You’ve never seen what happens to these birds once they leave your brother’s farm? Do you know about the kill cone method of slaughter? It’s the most barbaric act of violence I’ve ever seen.” And I began to explain exactly how the birds are stuffed down the cone, how their necks are pulled through the other end and cut with a knife, and how their bodies writhe in agony as they bleed to death.
“I don’t want to hear about this. I asked you to stop and you keep going,” she said. But I was already well past the point of no return. “Okay,” I argued, “but here we are at a Slow Food event which is allegedly all about understanding the truth about where our food comes from and we don’t really want the whole truth? Amazing how we can just block out what we find unpleasant and still enjoy for ourselves what causes so much suffering to others.” I didn’t get the hand, but at this point she and her friend sitting across the table from me shut me out completely. It was like one of those episodes on the Carol Burnette show where Carol becomes invisible at a party. But unlike Carol, I didn’t start crying.
I’ve already gotten a lecture about the flawed approach I took here. My excuse: I was under the influence. So cut me some slack! And anyway, the best was yet to come. Soon the Slow Food spokeswoman appeared and talked about the event. Still no food, just a big bowl with a few cherry tomatoes and a sprig of wheat grass swimming in vinegar, a dish the chef called “gaspacho.” At one point she asked how many vegetarians there were in the room. And she stressed the importance of conscious eating even though she confessed to still eating meat. I started getting the impression that this vegetarian event was a novelty to her. Was this 2012 or 1971, I asked myself?
The most disturbing part of the evening though was when the chef of Uncommon Ground came out to talk to us. He was soft-spoken and well-intentioned. And yet here was the chef of one of Chicago’s green restaurant icons confessing that it was an exciting “challenge” to make a vegetarian meal for this event. Again, the question I asked myself earlier kept nagging at me: “Have I suddenly been transported back to 1971 or are we really in 2012?” I had to pinch myself.
Now the menu this chef had developed clearly indicated to me that he lacked the creative skills to make this meat-and-cheese-loving Slow Foodie crowd warm up to a plant-based meal. The menu consisted of lots of vegetable dishes and some grain berry dish. To be fair, we did not stay to try all of his offerings. We were just too damn hungry to wait around. His admission that the meal was a challenge was the red flag that sent us fleeing for some hearty vegan grub.
It was tragic to me that a sustainable restaurant like this one found it a “challenge” to make great plant-based cuisine in an age literally overflowing with amazingly creative plant-based chefs, restaurants, recipe books and websites. Maybe I was having a moment like the woman I met who eats her brother’s chickens. I wanted to stand up and query the chef, “Have you ever been to Native Foods? Chef Tanya Petrovna makes all of her plant-based meats and cheeses from scratch! She does an amazing job of converting people who are on a traditional western diet to absolutely loving her vegan food.” But, alas, I showed restraint. We quietly made our exit.
I later emailed the organizer and the restaurant to tell them of my experience. The organizer claimed that she had been a vegetarian for 17 years and that she still enjoys eating vegetarian (when she chooses to, I guess). The subtle suggestion here is that she has moved on to a more evolved way of eating. I speculated over why she abandoned her vegetarianism. I imagined that she had read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith (an ex-vegan neurotic who irrationally and contemptuously blames her poor health and the ill health of the planet on veganism).
That next evening I met with the friend who so graciously gave me the tickets. I thanked her once again and told her all about how the evening unfolded. And I apologized for what had happened. Then we laughed over it while enjoying our hearty meal of vegan baked enchiladas smothered in rancheros sauce and vegan cheese and stuffed with grilled vegetables, black beans and grain-based mock chicken chunks. Dessert was a vegan brownie topped with coconut whipped cream. “Now that really hit the spot!” she said.
*To the restaurant’s credit I will say that they offer many vegetarian and vegan options. Yet truly vegan main courses are fairly marginalized in favor of the standard meat and dairy-heavy dishes. The restaurant makes very little attempt to creatively explore what is perhaps the most ecologically sound food choice of all — vegan food that is really tasty and hearty.