Saturday, March 27, 2010

Vegan Eats?

Back in September, I traveled to a town around an hour or so outside of Philadelphia to visit with a certain floppy-haired boy. The trip involved a lot of firsts for me. Aside from the fact that I hadn't ventured out of the country in well over seven years, it was my first time traveling through the US on a bus and setting foot in the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was the first time I've ever fallen asleep listening to a loud chorus of cicadas. I also met a couple of vegans for the first time since going vegan, myself, when we got to share a meal in a fantastic and unassuming little vegan restaurant. The trip also provided me with rare (for me) opportunities to explore a wide variety of other vegan options.

Online vegan friends and acquaintances from the Philadelphia area had recommended Govinda's Gourmet Vegetarian to me. More specifically, they'd recommended the fast-food / takeout part of the restaurant called Govinda's To Go. Although it had been described to me as a vegan establishment, I soon discovered that it wasn't. When the floppy-haired one and I arrived, I noticed that the menu posted on their wall stated that they offered (dairy) mozzarella cheese as an option for their sandwiches and other dishes. Having had their cheese steak sandwiches recommended by one of the vegan friends who'd suggested the place, the floppy-haired one ordered their Chicken Cheese Steak and I ordered their Pepper Steak Sandwich, both of us making sure to confirm that we wanted dairy-free cheese on them.

After a short wait, our food was ready and we carried it outside to eat, due to limited seating inside. I then noticed that we'd each been prepared Chicken Cheese Steak sandwiches, and after my sweetie and I
discussed our disappointment with the amount of filling in them, I took a bite. We'd spent part of the ride into Philly laughing over his stories of the notoriously sky-high-piled classic Philly cheese steak sandwiches he and his family had enjoyed when he was a kid; these sandwiches had a modest amount of "chicken" in them, with some grilled peppers and just enough of a very, very tasty gravy to moisten them. The bread was whole grain, hearty and delicious and to make my sandwich a little less "dry", I eventually took some of the small bit of plain mesclun mix on the side and tucked it into the bread. Don't get me wrong--it was good. In fact, it was good enough that I took yet another bite before remembering to either stuff in the mesclun mix or take a photo.

When we got home, I took a look at the takeout menu I'd grabbed as a "souvenir" and noticed how the words "vegan" and "vegetarian" were both used as descriptors in it, but that although the front of the menu had the words "fresh", "healthy", "vegan" and "fast" written on it, the back of the menu stated that all items on the menu were either "vegetarian or vegan". I decided to visit the Govinda's website to see what it had to say and found the following general disclaimer:

All of our Selections are Either Vegan or Vegetarian - No Meat, Poultry, Fish or Egg products are used in the preparation of our dishes although for familiarity we utilize the names of meat products. We are committed to the protection of animals.
I then noticed that the menu on their site also mentions that "Authentic Mozzarella Cow Cheese" or casein-free soy cheese are both offered as options for their sandwiches. What was really disappointing, however, was reading that the meat substitute used in their version of the classic Philly cheese steak--the Philly Pepper Steak Sandwich I'd initially ordered and (thankfully) not been given--is not vegan. Curious, I did some searching using Google and brought up a few ads for the restaurant where they described their menu as "90% dairy-free".

I live in a small city where vegan options in restaurants or other eating establishments are limited to a small handful of decent ethnic places or the local pita place. I rarely eat out aside from the occasional workplace-related lunch (and even then, I often opt out). The bottom line is that the very few times a year I do eat out, it's at the few places in my city where I know the menu and know the staff and am sure that there's little chance of cross-contamination. I know that many vegans feel that eating at non-vegan establishments is wrong since it entails supporting businesses that also profit off the exploitation of non-humans or that some vegans make exceptions for "vegetarian" non-vegan restaurants.
There are no "vegetarian" restaurants here in my city, and even if there were, I wouldn't view them any differently than I would ordinary restaurants (i.e. where animal products including flesh are served) and wouldn't feel compelled to support them any more than I would ordinary restaurants. I have mixed feelings about consuming animal-free products at establishments that otherwise profit off the sale and use of animal products, hence my generally refraining from eating out here, since although I can't avoid buying groceries, I can avoid restaurants. For years, I felt that it was important to provide a demand for vegan options at ordinary establishments, but I'm no longer sure of how (or even whether) this is effective.

I'd been excited about Govinda's, as I'd been excited getting to eat at SuTao Cafe earlier in my visit, where for the first time since going vegan, every single thing on a restaurant's menu was up for grabs. I'd been excited and my disappointment with the place ended up being twofold: First, given how the overwhelming majority of their menu offerings are vegan, I don't understand why on earth they couldn't go the extra step to eliminate the rest of their animal-based options. Secondly, I felt that for a place that half-markets itself as vegan,
they should really be more forthright about the animal products contained in their dishes. The fact that the meat sub in their Philly Pepper Steak Sandwich is described as being "not vegan" on their website, while no mention of this is made on their posted or paper menus is disconcerting and--whether deliberately so or not--misleading to vegans. I should have done it months ago, but I do intend to contact them about this over the next few days to get clarification and to express my disappointment.

Govinda's on Urbanspoon


Anna Graham Shonle said...

Unfortunately, it's very rare to find a grocery store that does not sell meat products, and I've never seen a grocery store that does not sell dairy products. So even if we choose to eat at home 100% of the time, we are still "supporting businesses that also profit off the exploitation of non-humans". This is one reason I like to use CSAs for at least some of our groceries. We still have to shop at a grocery store for non-produce items, though.

M said...

There's really no way to get around it completely, I agree. You can try to grow some of your own food and go the CSA route, but the bottom line is that it's next to impossible to buy all of your vegan stuff from strictly vegan stores. At least, not unless you're quite wealthy (and even then, you'd end up having to run to this or that regular store to pick up odds and ends).

I'm not a stickler. I do eat at non-vegan places, since there are no vegan establishments here and since I'm enough of a hermit as it is without occasionally going out. I mean, movie theaters have non-vegan concession stands, pubs/bars sell non-vegan alcohol, coffee shops push milk and often sell non-vegan sweets. Even book stores sell non-vegan foodstuff and books themselves are often bound using glue that contains animal products.

It's by no means straightforward.

tru said...

If I had a gazillion dollars, (or even a little less) I'd send you a plane ticket and we'd spend a couple days just vegan grazing around here.

A new place just opened up in the City of Orange (where I live) and they make excellent Pho and wontons.

I'm drooling just thinking of the tour I'd put together for you.

Come visit! (Don't forget to bring the Z-man.)

Alexandra Jones said...

I would imagine that as veganism becomes more popular, there will be an increasing number of "vegan" restaurants that are owned by non-vegans or non-vegan parent companies. While I'm not a fan of the Vegan Outreach "do non-vegan things to make veganism look easier" approach, I'm also leery of going to the opposite extreme and saying that vegans are "wrong" for eating in non-vegan establishments--or shopping in grocery stores that sell meat and dairy products, or coffee shops that offer "the dairy alternative" alongside regular soymilk. We still live in a non-vegan world, and I think we just have to make the best possible choices we can in each given situation.

That said, it does drive me crazy when "vegetarian" restaurants that claim to be vegan-accommodating aren't upfront about animal products in their supposedly vegan menu items. I learned the hard way that one of the oldest "veg" restaurants here in Vancouver has honey in a lot of their "egg and dairy free" menu options, and that you basically have to grill the waitstaff there just as much as you would in any other restaurant. And that definitely makes me less interested in going there, because it seems like more of a slap in the face when a supposedly vegetarian restaurant is so passive-aggressively hostile to veganism. (As opposed to an omni restauarant, who never claimed to give a shit in the first place.) It leaves me with a yucky feeling.

In fact, even though my last dining experience at that place was several months ago, I think I'll take your example, Mylene, and write to them about my experience. Who knows, if they get enough letters like that, maybe they'll change their attitude! Also, it might be a good idea to leave reviews on websites like Happy Cow to warn other vegans of the pitfalls of places like these, so other vegans don't end up ordering the non-vegan pepper steak.

Crystal said...

I actually know of very few vegetarian restaurants that have a highly egg and dairy based menu, though I've seen them while looking for restaurants online. I often go to ethnic restaurants, which may or may not be right, but I go to vegan restaurants as often as possible.

It's pretty impossible to avoid non-vegan food places. 99.9% of grocery stores sell meat, eggs, and dairy.