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): Mmm...it 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.)