My First Vegan Road Trip

My trip to Chicago with my family.

Though I had thought about it a little bit, it hadn’t really hit me that travel would be so difficult. As soon as I started packing my things for a trip to Chicago with my family, I realized I should bring a lot of food for myself in case we, say, stopped for some “edibles” at a White Castle (which we did on the way back from Chicago – I didn’t order anything, I just ate my almonds and a clementine). My brother Jake was nice enough to think ahead, too. He’s always looking out for me (including sending me all sorts of NYTimes articles about veganism – thank you Jake!), and this time he bought extra peanut butter and an avocado just because he thought I might need them to supplement my diet while staying at his place. I don’t think I needed them, but I was very happy that he was thinking of me (and the avocado was delicious!). The first real challenge of the trip (and truly the first real big challenge of my vegan experience) hit me as we were arriving in Chicago. I love adventure, trying new places, experiencing new foods, etc, and driving by all of the local restaurants made me jealous of omnivores. I wanted to eat out!

Well, eventually we did eat out, though it wasn’t anywhere vegan. To be fair, our group consisted of my two brothers (Jake and Josh), Josh’s wife and two kids, and my dad and his wife. Though I would expect to be able to sway my brothers or my dad individually to try a vegan restaurant with me, convincing the whole group just wasn’t going to happen. So, we went out to eat at a place called Lulu Belle’s Pancake House. I knew I would have trouble finding a delicious vegan option when I saw two things on the menu:
  1. “we offer delicious southern specialties” and
  2. “order anything smothered in sausage gravy for just $1.25”

The waitress, although accommodating, didn’t seem too excited about helping me find a vegan option. Not knowing exactly how to respond to my request, she went and asked the head chef. I learned then – and was reminded of this fact at each place we ate in Chicago – that the easy and common answer to “what can you make for me that’s vegan” is “anything, so long as we remove any animal products”; no substitutions, no creativity – just remove any animal products. Something like this:

“You want the veggie burger made vegan? Sure, we’ll just remove the cheese and butter. You want the veggie skillet? Sure, we’ll just make it without sausage gravy, eggs, or cheese. You want the Farmer’s Ommelet? Sure, we’ll, uh… we’ll fry up some mushrooms for you, I guess.”

My meal at Lulu Belle’s. Basically just veggies wrapped in greens and a bowl of fruit. Not bad, not good.
The other two places we ate at, The Art of Pizza and Grahamwich, were no better. I had high hopes for Grahamwich since it is owned by Graham Elliot, a renowned chef. I expected that a great chef would own a restaurant with intelligent employees that could understand, imagine, and possibly concoct vegan options. Nope. No such luck. I’ll have the most vegetarian option on the menu with any cheese or cream sauces removed, please. But I have to give them credit – they were at least understanding and a little knowledgeable. The 15-year-old kid who answered the phone at Art of Pizza thought vegan meant no salt. Nice try kid.
What I couldn’t eat at my brother’s house. Part of me was jealous, but part of me is starting to see this as disgusting.
Overall, my trip to Chicago was great. It was just tricky convincing my family that veganism might be cool, delicious, and worth a try. I found a place online called Karyn’s, and I was super excited to eat there. My family sort of agreed, in a “we love you and we’ll humor you for a while” kind of way, but it didn’t result in me eating at any Chicago vegan restaurants. It tended to go something like this: “Oh, yeah Spencer, that sounds awesome! Hey, I know: let’s order a deep-dish pizza loaded with cheese, pepperoni, and butter!”
Key take-aways:
  1. Most chef’s suck at being creative. Even if you’re not vegan, asking a chef “what vegan options do you have?” will probably give you a pretty clear picture of whether the chef is a creative, passionate, wonderful chef and gastronome willing to whip up a delectable dish or a slouch who peeled himself out of bed to warm up some food products for you in exchange for a steady paycheck.
  2. I love my family, and they are understanding and kind, but it’s hard to convince them to eat vegan food with me as a group. I’ll have to work on them individually.
  3. When you travel anywhere, bring lots of snacky foods. This way, when everyone else goes to White Castle, you can still eat healthy and vegan.

 

I’m still VERY happy with my veganism, and I look forward to the rest of a year of awesome, a lot of learning, and a little bit of challenge.

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