Meatless in the Midwest: A Tale of Survival

Some patrons, unlike the reporter, line up for brisket at Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, in Kansas City, Mo.


IN an ideal world, vegetarians would be built like camels. Not humpbacked, of course, but able to sustain themselves through long stretches by tapping stored energy reserves, like previously consumed soy products.

But after the first three dinners in my new hometown, where I moved from New York to cover the Midwest for this newspaper, even this veteran vegetarian was flagging.

This city, after all, is celebrated as a Mecca of meat. And any newcomer should expect to start with a tour of the most venerable purveyors of cows, pigs and chickens in what I’ve been told are their most delicious forms.

So, yes, I’ve “eaten” at some of these famous restaurants. There was the meal at the Golden Ox steakhouse (baked potato), Stroud’s fried chicken (rolls) and Arthur Bryant’s barbecue, where, searching for vegetarian options on the menu, skipping over the lard-bathed French fries, pausing to consider the coleslaw, I ordered the safest option (a mug of Budweiser).

After three days of this, starving, I went alone to the nearest Chinese restaurant I could find, where I feasted on a steaming plate of meatless mapo tofu.

It should be stated right up front that the Midwest, with its rich culture, stark natural beauty and superlative decency, quickly defies stereotypes. Living in the middle of the country is very different from living in the middle of nowhere.

But make no mistake: meat-loving is one stereotype that the region wears with pride. Lard still plays a starring role in many kitchens, bacon comes standard in salads, and perhaps the most important event on Kansas City social calendars is a barbecue contest.

Even though the region boasts some of the finest farmland in the world, there is a startling lack of fresh produce here. This is a part of the country — and there’s no polite way to put this — where the most common vegetable you’ll see on dinner plates is iceberg lettuce.

“The mentality of the Midwest is, green is garnish,” explained Heidi Van Pelt-Belle, who runs Füd, a vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City.

As a result, many heartland vegetarians say that eating, that most essential activity, can be a constant struggle. Longtime members of the club recall the days when doctors and family members alike warned that forgoing meat would result in serious malnutrition. This was not hyperbole to those who, lacking other options, subsisted on pizza.

Over the years, many have learned tricks, like calling ahead to a restaurant to negotiate a special entree. Dinner party? Best to eat first, knowing that side dishes might be the only options. Some say they have learned to cook for themselves more, to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions, if not outright mockery, that comes with eating in public.

Just outside Iowa City, Sparti’s Gyros taunts vegetarians even as it caters to them. The menu includes the Greek Veggie Wheat Pita, but adds a punch line: “For people who just don’t like eating. Put some meat on it!”

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.

“Being a vegetarian in Nebraska is like being a Republican in Brooklyn — less of an outcast than a novelty,” said David Rosen, who became a vegetarian as a teenager in Omaha and is now a writer in Brooklyn. “Except that you don’t have to prepare special meals for Republicans.”

But around the Midwest, the situation has improved, vegetarians acknowledge, not least because hummus inexplicably has joined Tater Tots as standard bar fare. There are two fully vegetarian restaurants in Kansas City, and most restaurants in the bigger cities of the region offer at least one vegetarian-friendly option.

There are all sorts of compelling reasons people become vegetarian. Health. Discomfort with the killing of animals. Environmental concerns.

My own reason requires no soapbox. I never liked meat. And when I learned, while eating a burger at the cafeteria of the American Museum of Natural History at age 5, that “meat” was actually a euphemism for — and even dedicated carnivores hate being reminded of this — muscle, I felt my preference had received a hearty endorsement from common sense. Over time, even chicken stock disappeared from my diet.

Friends and family members have regarded my status as a vegetarian with curiosity and amusement over the years. But even with that practice I was unprepared for the barrage of jokes that followed the announcement of my assignment covering the Midwest — some playing on the theme of squandered opportunity (how could someone turn down all that delicious barbecue?) and others hinting at concerns about survival (are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?).

There is, both here and elsewhere, something about being a vegetarian in Kansas City that simply strikes people as funny.

In truth, it is less satisfying to be a vegetarian here. Those on the coasts have it better. Like many of my brethren, I have instinctively gravitated to cuisine from faraway places where meat is a luxury not all can afford. In New York this meant frequenting terrific Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Lebanese and Venezuelan restaurants. But here — with a notable few exceptions like the Aladdin (the best lentil soup I’ve ever had), Blue Koi (expert dumplings and noodle dishes) and Lill’s (terrific Spanish tapas) — the best options are better described as good enough.

To be fair, that is probably more than can be said for my cooking, which typically consists of simple batches of rice and beans large enough to sustain a week of protein-rich lunches. And my attempts to teach myself to make my favorite Indian dishes have had the unintended effect of making the local Indian restaurants that I had thought lacking suddenly appear more palatable.

Credit...Steve Hebert for The New York Times

But most difficulty comes on the road during reporting trips in an area that stretches from Oklahoma to North Dakota. And though many meals, particularly in small towns, are of the bread-and-water variety, I have stumbled upon some decent restaurants as well: Japanese in Tulsa, Okla.; Indian in Lincoln, Neb.; Ethiopian in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Italian in Minot, N.D.; and, my favorite place to stop on a reporting trip, Thai Spice, just outside Joplin, Mo.

Along the way I’ve also picked up a few valuable lessons for vegetarians roaming these wide open spaces.In no particular order: check out Web sites detailing the vegetarian options at fast-food chains; look for Chinese restaurants, which consistently turn up in the most unexpected places; carry a jar of peanut butter everywhere; and never underestimate the potato — what it lacks in flavor it makes up for in ubiquity.

And, finally, it is important to not forget that hunger is the price a picky eater must be willing to pay without becoming insufferable.

During a recent visit to the Ranchito Tex-Mex Cafe in Hugoton, Kan., a small community encircled by feedlots packed with cattle and the plants that process them, I inquired if the beans at the restaurant were prepared with meat.

“There’s no meat,” the waitress replied helpfully. “It’s just pinto beans smashed up with lard.”

Lard, of course, is rendered pork fat.

A day later and a day hungrier, a waitress at the Down-Town Restaurant in nearby Ulysses was more understanding and forthcoming about ingredients. The beans had lard. The rice had chicken stock. And on it went.

“You want a salad,” she finally declared.

This, for the record, is one of the great misconceptions of vegetarians. Most do not, in fact want a salad. We want something with a bit more substance.

But a salad it was. And yes, iceberg lettuce. Thankfully, no bacon.

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