Thursday, June 5, 2008

Veggie Might: Eww…That’s Not Vegetarian 101

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

My roommate is a waitron at the same restaurant at which I slung (sling/slung/have slung?) eggs and sandwiches from the mid-90s through the earliest aught. We are both vegetarians and quickly learned what we could and could not eat on the menu. The owner is generous with her vegetarian soups and sandwich offerings, so the place is a nice respite from the Curse of the Veggie Burger found at most diner-style joints.

Last week, The Roomie (hereinafter to be known as TR) came home in a rage. To put this in perspective, let me give you a little background. Dude is very laid back. The angriest I’ve ever seen him was the time … three minutes have passed and I still couldn’t think of an example, so I guess this was it.

In a nutshell, the owner tried to make TR taste an appetizer even though she had made a special point of telling him earlier that it contained beef stock. There was a snippy exchange along the lines of, “Here, taste this.” “No, I can’t.” “It’s just a little meat.” “No, I can’t.” “It’s just a little meat.” “No, I can’t.” “It’s just a little meat.” “You’re an idiot.” I may have fantasized TR’s last response.

Then he told me that she just revealed there is Worcestershire sauce in several of the vegetarian soups and Thousand Island dressing, which they slap on the many of the signature sandwiches. One of them is even called the Vegetarians, We Love You, Now Eat This Melt. Or something like that. Oh, sweet Rosalind Russell! Every time I ate that dressing, I was eating fish paste. Ugh.

And for years, I not only ate it myself, but as a helpful waitron, I encouraged my fellow veggies to nosh on the fish paste too. This can be chalked up to ignorance on my end, but that would be giving madame owner too much credit. She did try to make TR eat the meat after all. Who’s a veggie to trust?

I guess I just have to continue to be diligent and do the best I can. So in the spirit of education and my love of lists, I present a primer to help you stop the mystery meat.

  • Worcestershire sauce has anchovies in it. With a dash of Worcestershire on your burger, you have the original surf and turf. And if you put it in your vegetarian black bean soup, you may as well have used ham. There are several vegetarian versions of Worcestershire sauce out there that work great in your sauces and soups—or try soy sauce. It’s a winner!
  • Beano, a drug-store brand digestive enzyme, contains fish bits and gelatin. Beano is heavily marketed to vegetarians to keep things from getting too windy if you catch my drift. They used to advertise in Vegetarian Times for the love of Julie Christie! It never occurred to me to read the label until a couple of years ago and then, I don’t know, something made me turn the bottle around. Quel horror! A lie. I’ve been living a lie. (Don’t worry; there are alternative vegan enzymes out there, which take care of things, allowing me to retain my friends and job.)
  • Other sources of hidden fishiness: Caesar dressing, barbecue sauces, papaya salad and almost anything in Thai restaurants, vitamins – particularly Omega-3 supplements (flax seed, linseed, and hemp oil are stellar subs)
  • Gelatin: You do not want to know what’s in there. Okay, fine. “Gelatin is made from the bones, skins, hoofs [sic], and tendons of cows, pigs, fish and other animals. It is animal protein used especially for its thickening and gelling properties.” Many vegetarians believe that kosher gelatin is, well, kosher, but it does not square with most veg heads. Now you have a great reason to pass on Aunt Jessie’s congealed salad other than good taste. But if you insist on suspending pineapple and pistachios in gelée, agar agar is the suggested vegetarian substitute.
  • Marshmallow is one of the many confectionary delights cursed by gelatin. That means more rendered animal parts for your culinary enjoyment. That’s right. Rice Krispie treats might have pork rinds in them. Mmmm. Try your marshmallow treats with Marshmallow Fluff. They’ll be veg and just as delish.
  • Other sources of hidden gelatin: Altoids (I know!), chewing gum, candy, especially the gummy kind (Swedish fish are okay), ice cream, yogurt, vitamins, coated pills, and gel-capsule medications—read those labels; it’s insidious.
  • Meat (that includes fish) stock and broth is everywhere: soups, sauces, pastas, rice dishes. If you’re not sure ask your waitron. If you’re not sure read the label. Packaged foods are notorious for sneaking in the chicken stock somewhere in the middle of the ingredients list. You’re already back there reading the calories, fat, and fiber; give the contents a quick scan, and you’ll feel better.
  • Good old-fashioned lard and tallow (rendered beef fat): just sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Lard is a slippery one. Watch out for it in canned refried beans and packaged bakery goods. It’s also in stuff you’d never think about. Twinkies used to have it. They still might, but I haven’t checked in a while. Anybody want to confess to having a Twinkie in their desk drawer? Let me know if there’s beef fat in there, ’k?

This list is designed to be helpful, not to make you go crazy. Everyone has to pick his or her own battles. One thing I’ve learned after years of vegetarian living is that I’m an imperfect human being. I try to live my values in this mad, mad, mad, mad world, but a girl’s gotta take a deep breath and have some fun too. We all get an A for effort.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr members thekidds.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Ashley said...

I have't eaten a twinkie in years so I felt it was safe to satisfy my curiousity and look up the ingredients online. Unfortunatly the Hostess website does not post this information, but wikipedia has an article which contains the ingredients:
It includes, "Vegetable and/or animal shortening (containing one or more of partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed or canola oil, and beef fat)"

Kacie said...

That's so infurating! I'm not a vegetarian, but if I'm expecting to eat a vegetarian thing, I want there to be NO animal bits in it.

Maybe it's just a lack of awareness on the part of some cooks, but what if people are allergic? Or their religion/beliefs restrict them from eating such foods?

Di Hickman said...

As a vegetarian for almost 20 years I'd be furious to find out that something touted as veggie onthe menu contained non-veggie worcestshire sauce or other non-veggie ingredients. As a restaurant owner you should get clued up on these things. Your roomie is right to be pissed! I'd never eat there again! But then I'd be so pissed I'd quit then boycott the restaurant and write to the local papers etc.
Like Kacie mentioned, allergies and religious beleifs are NOT to be toyed with. the owner could end up with the serious lawsuit on her hands!

Brigid said...

One thing you can do is look for the kosher symbol. If there's a U or a K, the product definitely doesn't have lard and probably doesn't have hidden meat, although it might have kosher meat in it—but that would probably be spelled out. Sometimes it's marked "dairy," in which case there definitely won't be meat. If it's marked "pareve," that means there is no meat or dairy, although it might contain eggs or fish.

Watch out for gelatin, though, because there is kosher gelatin made from animal products.

The rabbis who are responsible for these labels are quite strict, so I trust them. I'm not Jewish, but I rented a room in a kosher house for a while, so I learned all the rules—back in those days, Oreos were not kosher but all Sunshine products were OK (including Hydrox), although I think Oreos are vegetarian now as well.

Little Miss Moneybags said...

As you say, we have to pick our battles. I've been a vegetarian my entire life, due to my mother's religious beliefs. Now, it's more a matter of custom and habit rather than strongly-held beliefs on my part. I am less worried about things like Worcestershire sauce and caesar salad than I used to be.

However, a restaurant owner duping vegeterians is unforgivable. I frequently tell waiters/staff and restaurants that don't understand vegetarianism: Pretend I'm deathly allergic to animal products. Think hard, are you SURE this item has none?

angelle said...

The FAQ on the marshmallow fluff site says it's made with egg white. So that's something to be aware of if it's a concern.

Chocoholic said...

I was veggie for a few years. Not out of an ethical issue, just out of a lack of desire for meat. I think the owner should be very concerned. There are people who have fish allergies. What if they ordered something thinking if it was vegetarian, they wouldn't need to worry? Don't advertise something that's vegetarian that uses fish products. Yes, some people are pescatarians and the only meat they eat is fish, but let them make the choice.

Leigh said...

angelle, yes, Fluff has egg whites. I didn't mean to imply it is vegan. there are companies that make vegan marshmallows, but I've never tried them.

Thank you all for your righteous ire. TR is on the case for getting the menu updated. Go veggies go!

LibrarianonaBike said...

Additionally, the whipped cream on desserts served in restaurants? Stabilized with gelatin, usually.

Charity said...

One that I didn't know until after several years of vegetarianism was rennet in cheese. SO many restaurants provide cheese-laden dishes as the only veggie options. If you don't know the source of the enzymes in the cheese, you don't know if it's truly vegetarian or not. And most waiters, chefs, and owners seem ignorant to the issue (not that I can blame them, since I ate any old cheese for years thinking it was okay). So I avoid all restaurant cheese unless by some miracle I've been able to determine it uses non-animal enzymes.

I am considerably more disturbed by the idea of eating something sourced from a cow/pig/sheep (e.g. gelatin, rennet, etc.) than I am something with fish sauce, though I do my best to avoid all of those things.

Anonymous said...

As far as kosher marshmallows go, I worked as a counselor at a Jewish camp in college, and they were not a good idea. We made "not hot smores" cause we couldn't safely skewer 100 of the buggers for the kids to roast cause the were just TOUGH. Don't know if they were veggie friendly or not, but they were not roast over open flames friendly.