Last fall, Husband and I were invited to a going away party at a restaurant for a good friend who was moving cross-country. A steak and seafood restaurant. Fuck. I went to the restaurant website to scope out the menu. Fuckity fuck.
At that time, it had only been about two months since I had taken an interest in veganism. I was eating at least two vegan meals a day, and some days I was eating all vegan. I had started this as an experiment to see how I felt physically and emotionally. I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed, like I was changing my life (in retrospect, it has changed my life, for the better), so I was taking it one meal at a time, monitoring how it affected me, and trying to gauge the effects of my efforts on my relationships, which was and is a concern. I was essentially trying a new philosophy and a new purpose, and when this invitation to a steak and seafood restaurant arrived, I recognized it as a challenge to integrate the old parts of my life with all that was new.
The menu wasn’t exactly bursting with vegan choices. I could get a side dish of pan roasted wild mushrooms paired with a side dish of wild mushroom spinach saute – maybe, if they weren’t sauteed with butter, which I doubted. That sounded very, um, mushroomy. Don’t get my wrong. I like mushrooms, but can’t say I was excited about eating them for dinner under those circumstances. As infrequently as we go out to dinner, I at least want to enjoy it when we go. The mixed greens with walnuts and balsamic, minus the blue cheese, seemed to be the only other viable option. Even if I were resigned to having a vegetarian meal, as opposed to a vegan meal, that only added the mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese or creamed spinach to my short list. Ugh.
99% of the time, I don’t feel that eating a vegan diet is limiting. Quite the opposite in fact. That 1% of the time, when I’m with a bunch of people who have choices they enjoy, and I’m faced with an edited salad that I don’t even want, has been difficult for me to navigate though. I’m in a better, more peaceful place with this scenario now, but five months ago, I felt lost.
If it had been almost any other occasion, I would have politely declined. I didn’t want to miss my friend’s send-off though. I knew that socializing as an aspiring vegan was going to present a whole new set of challenges. I have always been a famously unpicky eater. My great-grandmother used to brag that I would eat anything put in front of me. The only thing I won’t eat is olives. I’m not a fan of rye bread, and until relatively recently, I avoided avocados, but I’m eating those now with great enthusiasm. Off the top of my head, that’s the extent of my dislike list. Previously, I’d eat what was served, and be happy. As an aspiring vegan though, I’m in bizarre new territory.
I googled to learn how vegans navigate more challenging social contexts. “Call the restaurant in advance.” I called to ask if they could accommodate my dietary requests. “Hello. I don’t eat animal products. I’m coming for a group event. I’ve looked at your menu, and would like to know if you’ll be able to accommodate me.” The man seemed understanding, and said that I could request a simple pasta primavera dish. I felt relieved and satisfied that dinner would be fine.
The night of the event, we were seated, and the first thing I noticed was butter with the bread. I asked for olive oil instead. Ask and thou shall receive. I fancied it up with some black pepper, and Husband, who’s omnivorous, asked to share with me in lieu of using butter. So far so good. Eventually, the waiter came around to take our order, and I explained that I had called ahead, and was told I could order pasta primavera. I specifically told him I didn’t want cheese, butter, or other dairy; I wanted it prepared with olive oil. “Are you allergic?” I didn’t like that he was asking. I told him no dairy, and regardless of my motivation, they should accommodate me. Instead of directly responding to his question, I paused before reiterating that I didn’t want dairy used in the dish. He persisted though, and asked me again if I was allergic. Again, I restated that I wanted the dish prepared without dairy. He indicated that he got it, the awkward exchange ended, and he took Husband’s order.
Now, I can’t say for certain, but I think there might have been cheese in the pasta sauce. I was a little paranoid because of the exchange I had with the server when ordering, so I worried that not saying I was allergic affected how the dish was prepared. I expected a dish of pasta tossed with veggies sauteed in olive oil, or something comparable. I was served rigatoni in a thick tomato-based sauce with a few slices of summer squash, and I was convinced the tomato sauce had Parmesan in it. I wasn’t certain, but I didn’t ask either. I didn’t want to make a thing of it, and I didn’t want to disrupt the spirit of the party by having to confront the server.
My transitional mindset about my relationship with food and animals was already undermining my confidence going into the evening, so suspecting that I hadn’t been taken seriously when ordering my food, even after having done what I thought was the right thing to do – calling ahead, planning ahead – flattened my spirit and momentum in that moment. When it was time for cake, I had a slice. I knew better, but I felt angry and alone, and just said, fuck it. I know that was shitty. I’m not perfect.
As Husband and I were driving home, he asked how I liked my meal, and I shared that I thought the pasta had cheese in it. He’s very pragmatic, so he suggested that I tell people I’m allergic to dairy to ensure they prepare dishes to my liking. I see his point, and from a practical standpoint, agree that it would be efficient. This incident has been on my mind lately because I’ve been listening to the Our Hen House and Food for Thought podcasts about finding my voice, refining my language, expressing my truth, advocating my cause, raising awareness, and upholding my principles. If I were in the same situation tomorrow, how would I manage it?
I’m not confident that even if I stated my truth, requesting a plant-based dish because I do not want to consume animal flesh or secretions, that my dinner would have been made to order. I’m not sure that the outcome would have been any different. Why would anyone who works in a steak and seafood restaurant honor my wishes, or understand the ethics behind my request? I understand that the server felt obligated to clarify the allergy issue, likely following restaurant policy since allergies are serious business, but in the end, that seems irrelevant. It assumes that my request would have been more valid, and they would have made a greater effort to honor it if I were allergic. It suggests that ethical reasons shouldn’t be taken seriously. I wouldn’t feel any better getting a meal prepared to my specifications by obscuring the truth, as if my truth were invalid, than I felt by getting a possibly adulterated dish by evading his question. The truth is that I don’t want to consume something that is the direct result of suffering, and no, I’m not allergic.