On being meatless in the Midwest

11 Jan

This morning, a number of friends sent me this article from the New York Times, about being a vegetarian in the Midwest.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out and then read on.

(That’s me eating meatless at Eden Alley, a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City, on the Plaza.)

I didn’t eat meat for almost four years. I stopped eating it in the fall of 2007, right before Thanksgiving. I started again in 2011, right before Thanksgiving. I was also born and raised in Omaha, Neb. Beef capital of the world.

A.G. Sulzberger gives my hometown a shout-out in his story:

In Nebraska, a place where cattle outnumber people, vegetarians are sometimes accused of undermining the state economy. The owner of what was billed as the lone vegetarian restaurant in Omaha said it had several pounds of ground beef thrown at its doors shortly after opening. After a short run, it closed last year.

When I traveled the state working for Nebraska tourism it was challenging to eat. Sometimes there weren’t any good options. I ate a lot of grilled cheeses and some of them tasted more like a hamburger than they should have. Once, a lady told me the only meatless option at her restaurant was chicken strips.

But I never had to sustain myself on iceberg lettuce alone, and nobody ever accused me of undermining the state’s economy. In Scottsbluff, I ate many wonderful meals at the Emporium Coffeehouse and Cafe, where I had my choice of a few meatless dishes. At guest ranches in the panhandle, I ate homemade meatless meals. I’ve had plenty of meat-free Mexican in central Nebraska.

In Omaha and Lincoln, I have even more choices, and though its true that Omaha doesn’t have another restaurant with a menu that’s 100 percent meatless, it has oodles of options. Soup at Greatful Bread/Freakbeat Vegetarian and many menu items at Bread and Cup in Lincoln. A cheese plate at La Buvette. A tempeh Reuben at Marks. Falafel from many places. A vegan Philly sandwich at Block 16, formerly New York Chicken and Gyro. There’s always a meatless choice on the rotating special menu at M’s Pub. The list goes on.

I emailed Sulzberger after I read his story. I pointed out the  vegetarian menu at McFosters, and told him that I didn’t think the vegetarian life in Omaha was as barren as his story made it seem.

He wrote me back, saying that he didn’t consider McFosters vegetarian because it serves meat. For him, that means it’s “just a restaurant with a lot of great vegetarian options.” (For the record, McFosters serves just eight dishes with chicken, fish or seafood. It’s menu includes more than 50 meatless choices between appetizers, salads, sandwiches and entrees.)

He says the point of his story was not to say that Omaha and Kansas City were barren. He said he notes a number of restaurants where he’d had good meals and that the big cities of the region have gotten a lot better, but there are significantly fewer options in the Midwest than in much of the country, particularly “if you travel outside the major metros.”

I’ve faced some of the same meatless challenges that Sulzberger points out in his story. And I agree with him that there are substantially more options for vegetarians in the big cities, both in the Midwest and elsewhere in the country.

But I still feel like the part about Omaha — including the factoid about how we have more cows than people in Nebraska — rings snarky. It makes it seem like no one here takes vegetarianism or veganism seriously. That no one cares about it. That no restaurants offer much of anything for the people who don’t eat beef. And that’s simply not true.

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9 Responses to “On being meatless in the Midwest”

  1. adrianblake January 11, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    The New York Times is an solipsistic lifestyle publication (with a hobby in slanted political coverage) designed to be read by wealthy women in specific zip codes to make them feel good about themselves. One of the things that makes them feel good about themselves is looking down their nose at the Midwest, where people stay married, go to church, and have much nicer houses then they do. If our lives are better– happier families, more time away from work, good public schools, less crime and ugliness– we must be brought down somehow. Because of course nothing is better than New York (overpaying for a tiny apartment, keeping up with the Joneses, living hand-to-mouth in a high tax bracket, relentless competition for everything.)

    The usual trope from the NYT is that the Midwest is a hotbed of racism and that we all hang out with Fred Phelps. Gastronomic philistinism is the second most common trope– iceberg lettuce and Miracle Whip. The third most common would be our rampant homophobia.

    None of these things are true, but they make bitter, high-income people in New York feel better about their own lives.

    The New York Times has some valuable things in it (well, Dining and Wine and Theatre reviews), but any coverage of sports, politics, life outside NYC, and business outside of Wall Street is laughable. The culture of the New York Times considers the Midwest taboo. Their business model is set up to serve people who think they’re better than you and me and all our friends. Very few people get the Times to actually read the whole thing– it’s a cultural signifier. It shows that you’re a cosmopolitan New Yorker, nothing like those thugs upstate. It exists to be brandished more than read. (See also: The New Yorker, Literature Majors after Junior Year Abroad, et al.)

    I (and someone else you know) loved New York when we lived there. It’s a great city. The New York Times used to be a great newspaper. It isn’t any more.

  2. Kristin January 11, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    Hey Sarah,

    What about Pepe’s Veggie Bistro in Havelock? They only serve a few dishes each day, but all of them are vegetarian. It’s small and family owned, so maybe it’s excluded from the list…

    Kristin (Sherwood) Williams

    • sarahbakerhansen January 11, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

      Hey Kristin – I haven’t been there but I will check it out. Small and family owned definitely counts. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. miget78 January 11, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    Sarah,
    If the authors contention is that it’s hard to get vegan/vegetarian meals in small town let’s compare apple to apple. Have them go to upstate NY or Vermont and try the same. Results would be similar

  4. K January 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    It’s curious that article is willing to offer an opinion but doesn’t have a comment forum to allow for other points of view.

    Being a warm-hearted Midwesterner and a vegetarian for the past 18 years I’d venture to disagree with most of what that author had written. Perhaps that is because I can maintain respect for my hosts while also maintaining my meat-free diet. But that’s just me, the woman on the cattle drive who always has the best vegetarian meals by the sweetest trail cooks in the state of Nebraska.

    And perhaps next time he writes an article the NYT will spring for a fact checker. I don’t think the cow versus human ratio is quite so skewed. But I do believe Omaha still has the highest number of restaurants per capita which translates to amazing food. But again, you have to be friendly and ask for the authentic menu not just the one you are handed at the door.

  5. BW January 12, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    First, kudos to the author for a thoughtful and balanced response to an NYT piece that clearly grated on the nerves of many progressive Nebraskans and provoked more than a few knee-jerk reactions.

    Many of responses that I’ve read to this NYT piece have been harshly critical of Sulzberger, and border on moral indignation. These responses, much like adrianblake’s in this thread, argue for a nuanced view of Nebraska lifestyles and cuisine while painting New Yorkers with the same broad brush they so abhor being tarred with themselves. Strikes me as a tad bit ironic.

    But as to the article, and this post, I want to defend Sulzberger, because there are more than a few kernels of truth hidden among his assertions.

    Nebraska was until very recently the top ranching state in the country, producing more beef than even Texas, and as any vegetarian worth her salt can tell you, the beef industry absolutely dominates the state’s physical landscape. From the endless fields of corn and soy grown almost entirely as animal feed, to the very feedlots themselves, Nebraska is beholden to the big business of rearing and slaughtering animals–no two ways about it. Kansas City and Omaha are traditional hubs of processing and transport for animal products. Along with railroads and the muddy Missouri, the beef industry ranks right up there as one of the primary reasons these cities grew and prospered, dare I say that they even exist.

    To put it another way: aside from some states in the South, it would be harder to pick a more traditionally meat-centric place to visit than the Big O or KC–the entire regional economy, from the ranchers to the downtown Omaha financial companies that insure them, is dependent on the business of killing animals!

    That said, there’s plenty of great vegetarian food to be found in Nebraska. There’s plenty of great vegan food, too. I’ve even ate a vegan meal on a hog farm in Osceola, Nebraska, prepared by the owners. It was delicious, too. And Nebraskans are great people.

    But let’s get real: the kind of cuisine on offer to vegetarians in the Cornhusker State in no way approaches what is available to consumers on the coasts–and I’m talking variety, availability, cost and quality. Nebraskans who tell you otherwise are being disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. It is definitely fair for someone like Sulzberger, who was likely born and raised in our nation’s culinary capital, to feel timid as a vegetarian venturing into the heart of cattle country.

    And to reiterate, there are plenty of vegetarian options in Nebraska. Just take Lincoln for example, the state’s second city. You can find good vegetarian eats at Yia Yias, The Oven, Blue Orchid, The Parthenon, Open Harvest, etc. On the other hand, I’ve definitely been in the position of eating iceberg lettuce at Misty’s before, and so can personally identify with Sulzberger’s characterization on that count.

    It was only after having left Nebraska for many years that I realized the dearth of veg options in the state. One instance sticks out in my mind. I had just arrived in the Star City after a long flight, landing at LNK a touch after midnight. I was absolutely famished, but to my chagrin there was nowhere open from which to procure a simple vegan meal. Despite having lived in the city my entire life, I couldn’t think of a single place. What made this really stick out, however, was that I knew, were I still at home on the West Coast, I would have had no trouble filling my needs. My belly ached.

    I’ll end by sharing another simple anecdote. Two of my best friends, a vegan married couple from Lincoln, came to visit me out west. Their trip consisted almost entirely of food tourism, and their photo album proves it (there’s nothing but pictures of food). We ate out every meal, each day, for one week, and didn’t visit a single restaurant twice. I would have been happy to go hiking or do something else, but they were dying for the food. That’s why they came.

    There’s nothing wrong with Nebraska, there’s just a lot more vegetarians living together in coastal cities, and the food there is better for it. I’m not sure why that’s such a controversial thing to say. In fact, that’s one of the big reasons I live where I do now, and not in Nebraska where I was born and raised: because there’s tons of food I can eat, and lots of people who I can identify with.

  6. Susan McGilvrey January 12, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    I too found this article superficial/facile/cute/really annoying, especially implying Daily Grub closed because someone threw hamburger at it instead of reporting that it was much loved and lauded and lost the battle with the city on streets and utility issues. I moved here in the early ’80s and it was not-veg-friendly (“you can dress them up but can’t take them out”) but it’s changed. We have indoor plumbing now, too.

    N.B. Marks doesn’t have an apostrophe because its not a possessive (notwithstanding that one of the owners is a Mark). It got picked because Mark’s wife (Kristin) and Molly and most of their friends were artists and were always talking about ‘mark-making’ and ‘it’s all about the marks…”

  7. Nicole Sibert-Faaborg January 12, 2012 at 6:37 am #

    Maggie’s Vegetarian Restaurant is a must on my to-do list any time I make it back to Lincoln. Incredibly delicious! Check out this recent article.
    http://www.newsnetnebraska.org/tag/maggie-pleskac/
    Have you been able to eat there Sarah?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Out, damn meat! Out! | WNBTv - will not be televised - January 13, 2012

    […] glaring misstep went unremarked.The personal food search piece, however, was another matter. There were so many quick reactions it was astounding. Hell, even the Star weighed in. 3For my money, M.V. […]

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