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Tofu to the People

The hippie mountain granola boys vs. the flesh valley meat eaters

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It's an interesting thing nowadays: in times gone by, you had your folks who just wanted a burger, fries, hold the salad, and gimme some of that A-damn-1 sauce. And you had your vegetarian purists who were all into the sprouts, the hummus, the wheat grass, and if you even considered using the sacred veggie-stuffed-pita-pocket-heatin' skillet to cradle that steaming pink slab of ribeye--well, being crushed under the psychic weight of righteous indignation is its own particularly terrifyin' brand of retribution. Not to mention all those Birkenstock footprints about the head and neck.

Nowadays, things have gotten a little more tolerant on both sides of the fence. Restaurants that were once purely vegetarian have added more and more meat dishes to satisfy a diverse clientele, and more mainstream eateries keep in mind the needs of their vegetarian diners as a matter of course.

We asked restaurant owners, cooks, and managers to share their opinions on the meat vs. veggie debate from a culinary perspective. While vegetarian food can taste great, most folks eat it 'cause it's good for you. And meat? People love the taste. Even folks in the Mediterranean, with one of the healthiest diets in the world, put meat at the top of their list as the one food they'd like to see more often.

Could it be that these diametrically opposed modes of devourment could actually ... get along?

The Irregardless Café is one of the most established restaurants in the area catering to vegetarians. Owner Arthur Gordon has been at the helm the entire time, and he is still the one who cooks all the restaurant's vegetarian meals

Lately he's added beef to the menu (The Irregardless has had fish and poultry for more than 20 years) in response to demand. Arthur's not entirely an idealist. He acknowledges the convenience, and even the wonderful taste of meat. But he still regards the vegetarian dishes as the heart and soul of his culinary mission.

He considers it more of a challenge to cook vegetarian, but he seems more than up to the task. Taking the entire day to prepare what's usually the one vegetarian and one vegan dish on the daily menu, Arthur first considers the nutritional aspects of the meal, and then ensures that it's backed up with amazing visual aesthetics and taste. In Arthur's opinion, every dish he cooks has the potential to lure a dedicated meat eater over to the vegetarian side, at least for the time they spend at the Irregardless. He also sees vegetarianism as an "opportunity for abundance." We could all have a lot more by eating a little less meat, because it's so much more efficient to grow vegetables than raise cattle, hogs and poultry. You don't have to dwell on it too much though; it's just cool to know. Instead, just get off on Arthur's daily vegetarian masterpieces when you feel like experiencing something near miraculous in what might otherwise be an average day.

So you're a meat eater: You're eating a dripping rack of baby-back ribs, and wondering what kind of arterial roto-rooter you'll need to unclog your strangled vena cava. What are you gonna do, what are you gonna eat?

Anthony Little, manager of the Cosmic Cantina in Chapel Hill, says that a lot of carnivorous customers will come in and request a veggie burrito, with black beans, cheese, salsa, and maybe sour cream. It's healthy, but still gives you that full feeling meat lovers are used to. Asked what meat-containing dish he would tempt a vegetarian with, Little replied, "I wouldn't even try. If they're not used to eating meat, their system might not take to it so well."

Bill Piscitello, co-owner of Breadmen's, another Chapel Hill institution, tempts folks with vegetarian fare by unhesitatingly recommending their vegetarian chili. All those tasty beans, and the spice is nice. "Meat will leave you heavy and ready for a nap," says Bill. "Eating a vegetarian meal, you'll feel lighter."

But Bill is also a little more confident in the persuasive powers of the flesh. Although he's cut back a lot over the last 20 years, "I still love a good steak," he laughs. If you were a vegetarian who was curious about how the other half lives, or you're the type of person who only likes the occasional meat dish, the chicken salad would make a great choice. Bill knows that "people don't want to eat any fat with their meat, but it's the fat that carries the flavor." Instead he marinates the chicken, keeping it moist and giving it flavor, while sitting it on top of all those greens, making the whole spectacle a little more reassuring. Dig it, and dig in!

At the Greenhouse Café in Durham, co-owners Will Foy and Linda Steiner have a sizeable number of vegetarian entrees. Asked why people eat vegetarian, the health concerns again came up. When Linda was asked why she also eats meat, she says simply, "I like it." She also figures that perhaps there's some genetic predisposition, stating that she doesn't do nearly as well on a carbohydrate-rich diet as some people she knows. Asked what would tempt a vegetarian, she concurred with Bill at Breadmen's. A marinated grilled chicken salad would have 'em chompin' away, but not the Philly Cheese Steak." Again, beware the beef.

And meat lovers don't have to fear. If you're brave enough to forsake the flesh, Linda recommends her Mediterranean pasta salad. "I just can't stand boring food," she says. So just pick something, and start eating. Simple.

Also in Durham, Wimpy's Grill has a love-love relationship with beef. When asked what item he would recommend to the vegetarian faithful, owner Larry Mishoe can't help but respond, "It would have to be a burger." A burger? "Yes ... It would have to be a burger ... ." His earnest voice gets a little dreamy as it floats over the phone line.

Larry has cut meat as a butcher on and off for 20 years. He was a cook in the army, and he grinds his own hamburger from chuck. He's got some pinto beans on the menu, but they got fatback in 'em. Most all the dishes find their way back to the meat gravy train one way or the other.

"Naturally, I'm the type of person who craves meat. Though I try to do it in moderation. I think people were geared to eat meat. I guess it's a prehistoric thing. Of course, I like to eat vegetables too," Larry discloses. "We were meant to eat meat. And vegetables too. We're omnivorous." Which means you'll probably want to eat the entire menu.

Sitar India Palace's P.C. Davis is an engaging host and conversationalist. His weekend buffet offers more vegetarian dishes than you could shake a ham bone at, and his clientele are all enthusiastic about the healthy feeling they get from eating them. But the taste is good too, P.C. asserts. "We cook Indian, but it's homestyle," and you get the feeling that you wouldn't leave hungry, meat or no meat. They go easy on the exotic spices, which ought to tone down that sense of panic many meat eaters get just looking at a vegetarian dish. But not to worry, P.C.'s got you covered there too. There's so much on the menu, especially the buffet, that you can lose your nerve and still eat well. Sissy.

Ter Mehari is owner of the exotically appointed Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant in Lakewood Shopping Center. If you're needing, or just plain desiring, something a little un-vegetarian, check out the Kay Watt beef dish: "very lean chopped beef with garlic, ginger, and berbere (red pepper) sauce." And although the Manwich-sandwich set might balk at the name, Ter will tell you that his vegetarian dish of "cabbage, potato and carrots is just magnificent." Meat eaters have a reputation for being big on systemic fortitude, so no shirkers allowed. No beefing, and no chickening out. If Ter says it's magnificent, it is. Grab an injera-lined handful, Ethiopian-style, and then shut up and eat! If you're up to talking with your mouth full, (and you probably are), you might be able to blurt out a garbled "Damn, that's good!" or maybe even a "Pass me the honeyed wine" or most eloquent of all,

"Got any more of this stuff?"

Ha Guthrie, owner of Kim Son Vietnamese, serves a very flexible menu of Vietnamese dishes. She'll substitute just about any meat ingredient with tofu, which is very accommodating, and also very helpful in promoting goodwill and understanding between the plant-chewers and the flesh-eaters. Is your friend ecstatic about his curried chicken stir-fry? Counter with a bite of your curried tofu stir-fry. Try each other's, and see if you can tell the difference. Ha says "when they tell me they are vegetarian, I respect them." She respects those who prefer meat, too, and if she was a vegetarian, she's not sure if she'd be able to resist Kim Son's beef soup--simmered, bone and all, for 8 hours so you get strong flavor without using MSG.

Interestingly, Gayle Murrell, one of the managers at Crook's Corner in Carrboro, is the only person I talked with who is an actual vegetarian. The menu at Crook's rotates, but their revved-up macaroni and cheese, with mushrooms, spicy tomato sauces and spinach, might make you forget meat ever existed. Her own vegetarian soul is sorely tempted by their jambalaya, complete with salt-cured duck leg, so go figure. She may be a vegetarian, but it takes a lot of discipline to fight the desire to gnaw on waterfowl.

So there it is, clear as mud. But one thing seems true. Most people want to go both ways on this issue, diners and restaurateurs alike. Like a do-si-do at a barn dance, you've got to switch your partners, round and round. Go out and try all this good stuff, all of y'all meat eaters and veggie lovers. It's good food, and good for you. l

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