Catherine in Vegetarian Land

I’ll be honest – I’m not actually 100% certain of the theological reasons for fasting in Lent.  I have a vague notion that it’s about commemorating Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and that there is a penitential aspect, too.  For me, it’s partly because I love the idea of a religious observance connected with food in any way – I think I’ve mentioned before that I find the idea of the Jewish dietary laws appealing in the way they bring the eternal into everyday life.  Lent works like that for me, a bit.  Also, of course, I tend to view being vegetarian as being an intrinsically good thing environmentally and on an ethical / animal welfare level.  It doesn’t work for me very well physically for long periods, which is why I don’t do it full time at present, but 40 days isn’t too overwhelming.

Having just spent the last three days away from home and at the mercy of caterers, however, I’m beginning to think that Lent has another, very good reason for existing:   it promotes empathy.

Because let me tell you, Special Needs Catering can be pretty bloody awful.  I don’t know how full-time vegetarians who have to go to a lot of conferences cope with it, honestly.  I was so *hungry* all weekend.  Apparently, vegetarians don’t need protein.  But they do need mushrooms at every meal!  And who ever thought that avocado and chutney sandwiches were a good idea?

I’m sorry.  That probably sounds terribly shallow, but nothing brings home the difficulties intrinsic in sticking to a particular set of dietary rules not followed by the world at large like doing so away from home.  At home, I may be kind of crappy at getting enough iron into my diet, and I may *still* be wimping out about figuring out savoury uses for tofu, but I can make food that tastes good and is satisfying.  If I’m at a hotel or a function centre, I am at the mercy of caterers who, the evidence suggests, think that vegetarian food is boring.

The odd thing was that there was some very nice food there – the tomato sandwiches had really nice bread in them, for example – but it didn’t combine very well.  A very creamy, buttery, goats’ cheese tart should probably not be served with a parmesan and rocket salad, for example.  And all too often, the nicer vegetarian food was actually hidden away at the omnivore table, disguised as salads or sandwiches on real bread – but one had to look carefully for it. The food on the Special Diets table tended to be less tasty, if safer which was a pity – why not put some of the same food on both?  Part of the problem, I think, was a tendency to interpret vegetarian food as vegan, and frequently make it gluten-free as well.  I do understand why you might do this if you don’t have very many people in these categories – I’d probably do the same – but if you’ve decided to combine all your food allergies into one, you do need to think about how to add flavour and texture to what you have left. The more things you take out, the more imagination is required…

And I don’t even want to think about the main course at the gala dinner.  So depressing, especially compared to what the omnivores got.

On the up-side, the full buffet breakfast provided by my hotel (not the conference hotel) was sufficiently broad-ranging to give me lots of options – fruit, muesli, pancakes, eggs, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms (sigh), bread and so forth.  I quickly learned to make breakfast my main meal of the day.

The surprising culinary highlight of the whole trip turned out to be my aeroplane food on the way home.  Qantas gave me pasta with a tomato, vegetable and lentil sauce, and I have never in my life been so happy to see a lentil!  It was pretty good, too – the sort of thing I might make at home if I wasn’t feeling imaginative.  The vegan-and-gluten-free fairies had visited my cake and (I suspect) bread, but that was OK.  The banana was nice.  And nicer still were the flight attendants, one of whom actually came back to ask me whether my meal was any good, and another of whom brought me a chocolate bar, because she didn’t think it was fair that the special meals people never get the chocolate!  So three cheers for Qantas!  And lentils!  And meals without mushrooms in them!

(actually, the flight home was pretty amusing on several counts, because our flight had been delayed by the late arrival of the previous flight, and our pilot was, I think, a little annoyed at having been forced to spend half an hour and more circling above Brisbane Airport when he had left his previous airport on time.  So he decided to go *really fast* all the way home – usually, I don’t feel speed in an aeroplane, but I did this time – and got us home to Melbourne in record time…)

So, yes.  I’m not sure where to go from there.  Part of me is now wondering whether I need to be working towards opening a function centre that can actually make decent vegetarian and allergy-friendly food, because clearly someone needs to, but since I really hate big functions, I am probably the wrong person for this job.  I really would hate to be stuck with this sort of food every time I travelled, though.  And I can only imagine what the vegans are stuck with – my main protein source this weekend was the eggs for breakfast, which wouldn’t be an option for them.

But on the non-food side of things, the conference itself was great fun, full of smart, funny, creative women with interesting things to say.  And I think it’s the most feminist space I’ve ever been in.  Fabulous. (I’ll be writing more about this on my personal journal, if you are interested) Also, I have a truly embarrassing number of new books (to be fair, I only bought five of them – the other thirty or so I was given or won in various competitions, and I am not actually capable of turning down free books).  So it was a weekend well-spent.  Not much food for the body, perhaps, but plenty of food for thought…


This time last year…

Not dead!

Omelette for One



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14 comments for “Catherine in Vegetarian Land

  1. Heath Graham
    March 4, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I’d heard Qantas did good vegetarian food.

    • Catherine
      March 4, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      They do. But I was particularly impressed with the fact that they cared enough to come back and specifically ask how it was. Nobody has ever asked me whether I enjoyed my meal on an aeroplane before (which, in the case of Austrian Air, they certainly should have – really good chocolate at every meal!).

  2. March 5, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I may *still* be wimping out about figuring out savoury uses for tofu

    This is like the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. We should get around to scheduling our cooking date so I can show you the joys of Chinese cooking.

    • Catherine
      March 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      We should! Though the problem is less my fear of tofu (and I have actually cooked with it successfully on the five occasions I’ve tried to do so) and more the long hours at work and the hot weather when I get home, neither of which inspire me to spend more time in the kitchen than I can avoid…

      (I am seriously keen on this cooking date, I just can’t imagine having time for it until the grants are in)

  3. March 7, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I really want that nice hostess who gave you chocolate to be on my next flight and as for savoury tofu, I suggest a tofu scramble for a quick tofu meal – I also make tofu bacon after work and then have a stash that is really quick to fry up. And I would be excited if you started a veg-friendly catering company – there are so many missed opportunities in these big events.

    I have nominated you for an award – hope it might be a fun meme for you but no worries if you don’t have time (or if you want to wait for months to do it like I did) –

    • Catherine
      March 7, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      Scrambled tofu is one of the few things I’ve made with it, actually. There’s a lovely Deborah Madison recipe for Vegan Migas which I tried a while back. It’s very good, especially as I love that sort of thing and Andrew won’t eat eggs.

      Thank you so much for nominating me for the award! I loved your answers, and will definitely give it a go soon.

  4. March 9, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I get catered for really well, but sometimes it’s like we’ve gone back 20 years to when no one had heard of vegetarianism (and I rarely even bother asking for vegan options). I’m always caught out, too! I figure that at the very least they’ll have good vegetable / salad options, even if protein is lacking, but so often it’s not even at that level.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the conference despite the food!

    • Catherine
      March 9, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Yes, I was commiserating with one of the girls at work who goes to a lot of conferences and is vegetarian. She said the worst was on on Lindeman Island, where there was literally no other food to be bought anywhere, and the vegetarian food was salads and bread and potatoes and whatever else didn’t have meat on it from the main table…

      I don’t understand this way of thinking, I really don’t. Most conferences don’t go for all that long, so you can get away with having a repertoire of about 5 good vegetarian meals. Is this so much to ask?

  5. Pamela Dean
    March 10, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Oh, how I sympathize. Hereabouts, if it’s not mushrooms, it’s eggplant. Somebody somewhere, I think in the 1970’s, decided that both of these vegetables have a meaty texture. I don’t even think they have that, but in any case, that is really not the point. They do not have any more protein than dust. Well, maybe a little bit more. Both are worthy vegetables, but they are NOT the centerpiece of a sustaining meal.

    I am really having trouble with the upsurge of gluten-free options, because many venues and, indeed, individual people, don’t seem able to understand more than one dietary restriction. So if you have lots of gluten-free food, which is in itself a good thing to be having, there may well not be any vegan food. And even people who have known you for years will cheerfully tell you that there is Something You Can Eat on that table, but there isn’t. It’s a nice gluten-free cake with eggs and butter in it. And believe me, if I had to give up gluten, I’d use eggs and butter up to my chin. But I wouldn’t call the result vegan.


    • Catherine
      March 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      I don’t think I’d mind eggplant at every meal quite as much…

      That’s interesting about the gluten-free options. I’m going to have to pay attention and see if the whole thing with one cancelling out the other is the case here. These days, anywhere I go I’ll automatically look over the menu for vegan / vegetarian options, and gluten-free is generally well-marked, but I hadn’t noticed the number of vego options changing much (not that they were ever that good overall).

      I can see, certainly, why someone might decide to specialise in one set of food restrictions rather than all of them (cheaper, less complicated), but it’s frustrating.



      PS – there will definitely be Something You Can Eat on my table. Just in case you happen to be thinking about visiting Melbourne…

      • Pamela Dean
        March 13, 2013 at 6:45 am

        Oh, yeah, if that were my choice, I’d rather have eggplant too. It blends better and absorbs flavors better and is less assertive. The sinking feeling of too little protein is just the same, though.

        I’ll be very interested if you come to any conclusions about the gluten-free options driving out the vegan ones — or not, in your locale. I suspect that gluten-free eating elicits more sympathy. Poor people who can’t have flour, it’s so sad. Whereas vegans are just cranks. Ahem. Sorry. I can’t really read anybody’s mind. I’m just selectively recalling all the stupidest remarks made to me over the years. And to be fair, there are a lot more people who can’t eat gluten than there are vegans.

        I would so love to come to your house and eat and talk and look at the garden and go for walks. I’d have to win the lottery first, though.



        • Catherine
          March 17, 2013 at 12:04 am

          Sigh. May the lottery come soon, then! I can’t see myself getting to the US except under similar circumstances.

          It’s difficult to me to judge what’s normal in terms of menus, I must admit, because I live in a very vegetarian-friendly part of Melbourne – there are quite a number of vegetarian and vegan cafés in Brunswick and Coburg, and even the meatier places tend to be Middle-Eastern, Indian or Italian, which means that vegetarians, at least, can usually find a reasonable number of choices on the menus (vegans have it a harder, but there are dolmades and felafel and ful medames and spinach pastries and all those dips, and of course a lot of Indian vegetarian food is vegan). And the other places I tend to eat out tend to be pubs, which are generally terrible at most sorts of non-standard food, though the one near work has a good handful of vegetarian options, at least, and a fair few gluten-free dishes. Again, people seem less aware of vegan food.

          Posh restaurants are hopeless at anything except gluten-free, in my experience.

          But I am noticing vegan restaurants and cafés in more and more places – I spotted one when I was randomly visiting Sandringham, and another when I was in Williamstown, both of which are the sort of up-market, non-inner-city suburbs that I wouldn’t expect to have high vegan populations. So in that respect, there are a fair number of options open.


  6. lsn
    March 12, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    So that mushroom ad about it being “meat for vegetarians!” lied then?!?

    I am shocked, no really. 🙂

    • Catherine
      March 17, 2013 at 12:06 am

      I know. Sometimes ads lie. It’s quite disturbing…

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