Most Portlanders can point to the herd of steakhouses in this city--Morton's, El Gaucho, Ruth's Chris, et al.--as a trend. Eating meat seems de rigueur; clogged arteries be damned.
Scratch a little deeper, though, and you'll find a less obvious but more interesting movement underway. Recently, a number of eateries have opened that cater to vegetarians (who eat no meat) and vegans (who eat no meat or dairy). Just in the past year, vegan-friendly restaurants such as Kalga Kafe, the Soul Shack, the Divine Cafe and the Purple Parlor put the tofu in the pot, joining established veg-friendly cafes such as Vita and Paradox.
It's not clear whether there are more vegans in Portland than in other cities, but it sure seems that way. Bruce Carey, co-owner of the famed Zefiro restaurant and currently an owner of Bluehour and Saucebox, says that when Zefiro opened in 1990, it was rare for a vegetarian order--vegan wasn't even part of the equation--to come through. Carey says the kitchen staff was less than pleased when one did. "They'd say, 'What a freak--why are you even eating out?'" Carey admits. But by the time Zefiro closed in 2000, vegetarian dishes were regularly on the menu. Now he even gets requests for vegan dishes at Bluehour.
Two years ago, a vegan bakery popped up; run by Amanda Felt, Black Sheep Bakery supplies animal-free sweets to local restaurants. Felt isn't even a vegan herself; she started whipping up batches of vegan desserts to woo a meat- and dairy-free girl. "It made me recognize that there was nothing available in that market and there was a demand," she says.
I've always been fascinated by vegans. As someone who finds extreme pleasure in the bounty of foods available, vegans always struck me as the personification of Kafka's Hunger Artist: people who put their aesthete diet on display as proof that they are superior to the rest of us. In actuality, they have a fanatical need to control their diet as a way to seal off their leaky personalities. The recent headlines about a couple in New York who decided breast milk wasn't vegan and fed their newborn only nuts, fruits and vegetables until she was half-starved, help add to the belief that the vegan world is inhabited by whack jobs.
Still, as someone who has become more and more interested in the sources of food supply (reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser had a profound effect on me), it seemed clear that I was dismissing something I didn't fully understand. To make up for my ignorance, I decided to go what is called--with a hint of vegan humor--"cold-tofu" and try the lifestyle for two weeks. I submerged myself in a world without meat, cheese, butter, milk or anything else that may have come from some living creature. The results were surprising.
My first meal is breakfast at the Purple Parlor, a North Portland all-vegetarian restaurant. I get a vegan scramble with a mess of tomatoes, basil and chunks of tofu, and a side of potatoes and toast. Tofu is the manna of the vegan world and provider of much-needed protein and calcium in animal-free diets. My position on tofu has always been: Why? To me, tofu is the Vanilla Ice of food--a bland chameleon with no soul of its own. The colorful plate arrives, and I'm heartened. But try as I might, I can't enjoy the tofu, which tastes like a sponge. I gobble up the tasty potatoes and the crunchy corn-based toast and am satisfied. I feel a sense of accomplishment in finishing my first vegan meal.
What is a vegan, anyway? Ask a couple of them and you're likely to get different answers. From a dietary perspective, vegetarians generally don't eat animals, while vegans not only snub dead animals, but also avoid food--such as butter, milk, eggs and cheese--that comes from animals. Some even cut out honey because it's made by the labor of bees.
The real question is: Why are vegans vegans? For many, it is a reaction to what they see as a cruel practice in using animals as commodities.
Brent Carter is a 31-year-old secretary in the medical field who lives in Southeast Portland and looks the vegan part: He's tall, thin and laid-back, forever wearing his yellow bike jacket and carrying his helmet under his arm. Carter describes his pre-vegan diet as "platters of cadaver framed by vegetal matter and steeped in concoctions of non-human breast milk." He switched to veganism in 1995 after becoming more informed about factory-farm systems that warehouse animals in overcrowded conditions and put profits over humane practices. For Carter, drinking milk is supporting a larger system that kills and tortures animals. "Veal would not exist without the dairy industry," he says, referring to the fact that dairy cows are kept pregnant for their milk and their calves are often killed for their meat.
For many vegans such as Carter, not using animals for human purposes is seen as compassionate living. "Practicing compassion toward non-humans encourages me to remember my solidarity--and thus empathy--with other people," he says.
Veganism can be controversial because it's a philosophy that, when taken to its logical conclusion, is pretty extreme. In theory, hardliners shouldn't wear leather or silk or wool. In theory, vegans should avoid going to the movies because film is made with gelatin, which is derived from animal tissue. In theory, vegans shouldn't drink wine or beer because it's often clarified in a finishing process with egg whites. In reality, very few vegans honor all of these rules.
I asked a vegan colleague, who may be the most ethically minded person I know, about this. He doesn't eat anything animal-based, doesn't drive and rabidly recycles, but because he wears leather shoes he's disqualified from being a true vegan? He waved his hands dismissively at that sort of extremism. "There are always gray areas," he says. "You have to do the best that you can, but you have to live."
The biggest surprise for me in going vegan is that it's not too hard, especially when grocery shopping. Even though I'm stopping to look at labels, shopping goes a little faster because I can skip entire departments. There are bumps, of course. In my first week, I host a dinner party for meat-eaters. One of my guests balked when I announced that I'd be cooking vegan, so I want to go out of my way to wow her. I decide on a theme of Middle Eastern food, a cuisine that's as vegan-friendly as they come. I scoop up sweet yellow peppers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, crimini mushrooms and red onion to turn into kabobs and grill outside.
As I prepare the feast, I snack on tortilla chips and the Toby's tofu pâté that a friend described as an addictive vegan treat. It tastes great, sort of like mock egg salad. It seems that the two weeks will fly if I just gorge on this. Then I read the label. First ingredient--tofu. Second ingredient--mayonnaise. Mayonnaise. As in the kind you make with eggs? Should I gargle? Make myself throw up? I calm down and accept this as something that must happen to real vegans on occasion.
My dinner party goes off without a hitch, and even the grousiest meat lover sings its praises, although she said she wouldn't want a vegan meal all the time. I also discover that cooking an all-vegetarian meal has its benefits; I can take the bowl I marinate in and put the cooked veggies right back in the sauce with no concern of cross-contamination.
While many vegans are largely motivated by the cruelty-to-animals issue, there's also a strong environmental component as well. Vegans contend that the land used to farm vegetables and grain for a purely vegetarian diet can feed more people than the same amount of land used to raise animals and feed for animals; they say that the amount of water it takes to produce a pound of beef is a lot more than it takes to produce a pound of potatoes; most important, they allege that the way animal farming is done in this country is ruining our land and water by contaminating it with animal waste.
Environmentalist and longtime Portland river activist Don Francis agrees. He calls the factory farmers "terrific polluters of water" and points to overgrazing right here in Oregon as something that's trampling our fragile landscape. Yet Francis still eats fowl and fish, although he tries to stick to free-range and organic products. "I'm one of the great American hypocrites," he says. Francis points out that he makes up for eating animal by riding his bike and living an environmentally clean life in other ways, but says he'd have a hard time giving up fish and chicken. Why? "Habit, convenience, taste--all those things are part of it," he says.
Urban naturalist Mike Houck of the local Audubon Society agrees that beef production has a significant impact on the environment, yet he says, "I'm probably the most non-vegan person in Portland. I just came from the Bijou, where I ate bacon. I probably eat more steak than anyone--the filet with port-garlic sauce at Cafe des Amis is my favorite." Houck says he lives in a small apartment as his way of leaving a lighter ecological footprint than those who sprawl. "I believe I am doing what I can, but I'm willing to accept my impact on the environment," he says. He adds, "Do I respect vegans? Absolutely."
During my two weeks as a vegan poseur, I find out there's a surprising array of products that seem like they'd be vegan, but aren't; even Altoids have gelatin. On the other side, I also discover things that are surprisingly vegan: most breads and pastas, for instance.
Eating out at mainstream restaurants can be tricky. A conundrum occurs when I go to a dinner party at McCormick & Schmick's Harborside before heading off to a show. Plates of alluring cold seafood are everywhere. A week into being vegan, I have a Zen-like composure about the whole thing. I grab a waiter, tell him I'm vegan and ask if I can order something off of the menu. He's super-nice and points out two vegan dishes; one is a penne with veggies and pesto. "Isn't there cheese in the pesto?" I ask. He says no, so I order it. He comes back a little bit later and tells me that he's double-checked with the chef and there is cheese in the pesto. "But you can get it without the pesto," he says, "and there's a white wine sauce, so you should be fine." A bit later the dish comes, and it's clear that either the kitchen has a magical way of turning wine into butter or I've left Planet Vegan. I've got to eat something before the show, and there's really no time to make a fuss. I try to shake the sauce off and just go for it.
Overall, eating vegan in Portland isn't that awful. True, I consume a very joyless "Smart" dog that is a culinary affront. But I also enjoy a vegan corndog at the creative, primarily vegetarian Paradox Cafe that was hand-battered and so good I would stack it against any other corndog in town, meat or not. The great vegan meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy from the Soul Shack inspires cravings. I tend to avoid certain situations, including dinners out with large groups of meat eaters. One friend asks me to go to a French dinner at the restaurant Scarlet Begonias. When I tell her I'm vegan, she calls to see if special arrangements can be made. She reports back, "There was this long, awkward, 'You're joking, right...?' pause." Of course, I don't blame them: France's culinary tradition was built on sauces distilled from butter and cream and veal stock. It's sort of like asking if a roasted pig could be supplied at a Seventh-day Adventist feast.
While many vegans are motivated by "causes" like concern for animal rights and Mother Earth, some people just do it for their bodies. Jim Abeles, who used to work at WW and now runs a software company, turned vegan six months ago for health reasons. Last August, I was at his wedding reception, the highlight of which was a backyard barbecue featuring racks of pork ribs. Jim, who is 37, lost 40 pounds after going vegan. "I felt every year I was getting fatter and more unhealthy," he says. Jim also contends that his cholesterol level is the lowest it's been in his adult life.
Sonja Connor, a nationally known nutritionist who works as a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, co-wrote The New American Diet, an eating plan that is low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. "Like any diet, veganism can be healthy or definitely not healthy," Connor says. "You have a huge range of foods that you can eat, and it can be very healthy. On the other hand, if you just eat pasta and snackies, it's very unhealthy."
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a professor of nutrition at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fellow with the American Dietetic Association who's helped author papers on vegetarianism for that group, agrees with Connor's assessment. "Vegans are still at risk of falling victim to our junk-food culture," she says. "Other than that, vegans should be sure to get a reliable source of vitamin B12 [a vitamin found only in animal products] in their diets, but generally face far fewer risks than do meat eaters."
In my fortnight's foray, I found it would be pretty easy to be a junk-food vegan (the animal-free donuts at Whole Foods are awesome). Abeles avoids that kind of crap, which may explain his drop in weight. Connor, who eats meat in moderation, says our bodies could do just fine on what she calls a "classic" vegan diet that includes lots of beans, grains and veggies. "That's what humans are genetically adapted to do--that's what we've had for the history of the world," she says.
After two weeks, I have to ask myself, do I buy into being a vegan? There's something satisfying--even pleasingly sport-like--about paying so much attention to food labels. In the short time, I don't feel any better or worse, save the ill effects on my system of too much roughage too soon (I'll save you the indelicate details). I am not opposed to eating animals, but I am opposed to the greedy, inhumane and unsafe direction that mass production of meat has turned. I do think our culture chows way more meat than is healthy, and I have the fat American ass to prove it. And it's clear we need to pay close attention to how our production of food affects the environment.
Just when I began to think I could be a vegan, the Portland chapter of the Slow Food group (an international movement whose stated mission is to protect taste, culture and the environment) hosted a convention in town.
The opening event featured Alice Waters, the famed chef whose Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse pioneered the concept of sustainability in America--using organically grown food from small, local providers. Waters is an immensely influential leader in the food field. I managed to corner her as she rushed to a book-signing event in the new Eco-Trust building in the Pearl to ask her what she thinks of veganism. "I'm not a vegetarian; I could be, but I'm not sure I could be a vegan," she said. I asked whether she thinks vegetarianism is good for the world; she said yes. "But you eat meat," I said. Her eyes darted around, and she paused. Maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed to be looking for the bucket of pig's blood that I was about splatter her with. "I use meat for flavor," she said, and turned toward the throng waiting to get their books signed.
Flavor. Yes. There's that. Being a vegan for two weeks hasn't been that hard, but it's sort of like watching television in black and white. I could be a vegan, a vegetarian even, but I don't want to. At the same time, my experiment has bolstered in me a need to spell out a food philosophy. Considering how intimate we are with what we eat, it's ridiculous how easy it is to avoid paying attention to what exactly we're putting in our bodies. While I'm certain that vegans aren't all angels--some drive SUVs and smoke--vegans get my respect for taking a stand and having the discipline to follow though with it. As for me, I'm as flawed as they come. I'll ride my bike home. But when I get there, I'll eat a hormone-free, antibiotic-free steak.
--Thanks to WW interns Rob Manning and Nadia Cannon for research assistance.
THESE PEOPLE ARE CONSIDERED FAMILY BY VEGANS:
WEIRD AL YANKOVICH
Moby's reasons for being vegan, from the liner notes of his best-selling 1999 album Play:
1) I love animals, and I believe that a vegan diet causes less suffering than a diet centered around animal products.
2) Animals are sentient creatures with their own wills, and it seems wrong to force our will onto another creature just because we're able to.
3) A great deal of medical evidence points to the fact that a diet centered around animal products is terrible for you. Animal-product-based diets have been repeatedly proven to cause and exacerbate cancer, heart disease, obesity, impotence, diabetes, etc.
4) A vegan diet is materially more efficient than an animal-product-based diet. By that I mean that you can feed lots more people with grain directly than by feeding that grain to a cow and then killing the cow. In a world where people are starving, it seems criminal to fatten up cows with grain that could be keeping people alive.
5) The raising of farm animals is environmentally disastrous. All of the waste from animal farming gets washed into our water supply, poisoning our drinking water and fouling our lakes, streams and oceans.
6) Vegan food is nice to look at. Compare a plate with grains and fruits and vegetables to a plate with pigs' intestines, chicken legs, and chopped-up cows' muscles.
A 1997 Roper poll estimated the number of vegans in the U.S. to be between 500,000 and two million.
Caryn B. Brooks stole this idea from the Washington Post's Candy Sagon, who went vegan for one week. Wuss!
The term "vegan" was created by Englishman Donald Watson in 1944 when he helped form the Vegan Society.
It's pronounced VEE- gan.
Here's where you can find the vegan friendly restaurants mentioned in the story:
4147 SE Division St., 236-4770
The Purple Parlor
3560 N Mississippi Ave., 281-3560
The Soul Shack
This lunchtime to-go cart on Southwest 9th Avenue between Washington and Alder streets also has late- night hours of 11 pm-3 am Friday and Saturday nights.
Another to-go cart. 1200 NE Broadway, 314-9606
3024 NE Alberta St., 335-8233
3439 SE Belmont St., 232-7508
You can find Amanda Felt's vegan sweets at places such as Fresh Cup, Stumptown, People's and Alberta co-ops and Peet's Coffee.
Ingredients that may sound fine but are actually animal- based: albumin, calcium caseinate, myristic acid, pepsin, royal jelly and whey.
Burger King recently added a veggie burger to its lineup.
Ethnic cuisine (go figure) is the easiest to mine for vegan options; Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese and Thai are the best.
Studies have shown that people with multiple sclerosis tend to be deficient in vitamin B12.