A Side Order of Snark–My Culinary Journal (part one)
Recently, I haven’t cooked much. I spent a big part of the past year crashing on couches and building dressers out of luggage. I’ve had to dig through suitcases that served as portable desks. So, in this transient phase, I wasn’t exactly able to schlep all my kitchen gear around with me. Sure, I carry a suitcase filled with fifty pounds of books, but I needed to draw the line somewhere.
Beyond that, I’d be cooking in someone else’s kitchen, which just feels weird to me. Not ‘going through someone’s medicine cabinet’ weird, but weird nonetheless. It feels inappropriate to poke around into someone’s spice rack. They might not be comfortable with me knowing they use a lot of turmeric.
Consequently I eat out a lot, at least compared to other broke people I know. So, as a way of justifying my profligate ways, I’ve decided to introduce a new regular feature here, in which I will toss a thousand or so words at a restaurant wall to see what sticks. In this installment, we visit a vegan soul-food joint in Eugene, Oregon.
I had never been to a vegan restaurant, but during my six weeks as a denizen of the greater Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area, enough people recommended the Cornbread Cafe that I figured I had to try it. And mind you, these weren’t just vegans recommending it–normal, healthy-looking people seemed to like it, too.
Restaurant reviews don’t normally use the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance,’ but that’s the first impression you get from the menu at this yin-yangy diner. Their catchphrase is confusing enough–the vegans I know rarely seem comfortable, which makes sense to me, given all the delicious food they prohibit themselves from enjoying.
Then you’ve got the menu , which is best described as “down-home deep South, if the deep South had no animals and the people there had to survive on plants.”
I would be more open to vegan food if vegans would stop trying to trick us into thinking we’re eating yummy animals. I have no philosophical problem with tempeh, but don’t describe your tempeh as ‘chick’n-fried.’ Tempeh is fermented soybeans, and no matter how much you compress it and season it, it will never become a chicken. Stop pretending, and be cool with what it is.
When you use ‘chick’n,’ you just remind me I could have eaten actual chicken somewhere else. I don’t have a problem with the tempeh being depicted as ‘smothered with cashew gravy, because not they’re saying it’s smothered in ‘beef-ish gravy,’ or ‘beefy sauce.’ The gravy is made from cashews, and I’m good with that. I don’t understand it, but I can accept it.
Then there are the ‘phish’ phillets. Putting aside the fact that there is NO reason, vegan or otherwise, to misspell ‘fillet,’ why won’t you call it tofu? Yeah, after you con us with the name of the item you come clean, but people don’t read the words that come after the big letters. If they did, they might wonder if even want something that is ‘seaweed-seasoned.’
Lastly, let’s talk mac . . . AND cheese. Not ‘Mac Uncheese,’ which makes no sense on several levels. Grammatically, are they saying they started with old-fashioned macaroni and cheese, and then through mysterious process, uncheesed it? Or is ‘uncheese’ a food unto itself, one that doesn’t exist in a stable state in this world, made from anti-milk produced by rare anti-cows? Is it something that can’t coexist with cheese from our world without causing a cataclysm that would destroy both the uncheese and the cheese, leaving only plain macaroni?
So, the menu threw me a few curves, but how was the meal? Being an adventurous gourmand (and frankly, hoping to hedge my bet if some of it was inedible), I had the sampler platter, and it was surprisingly good! Surprising, mostly, because it all tasted like real food, instead of the ‘near food’ I was expecting.
I was also amazed at how satisfying it was, since usually after sampling a vegetarian dish, my mouth’s first reaction is “You know what would make this perfect? If they would put some meat in it.” Typically, after an evening at a vegetarian restaurant, I would find myself wondering whether I had, in fact, eaten dinner. Not at this joint–I left with a wonderful, first-world, top-of-the-food-chain feeling. I felt strangely full, without a single animal dying!
I wasn’t sure if tempeh and tofu could headline a meal, but they performed like talented, plucky understudies given their first break on Broadway (“If you’ll check your program, tonight the role of ‘Steak’ will be played by Processed Soybeans”). And the cashew gravy might have been the real star of the show. It was so good I thought about asking for a little cup of it to go . . . it would be great over some ground turkey I’ve got at home.
There are some food items that neither food scientists nor well-intentioned hippies can replicate. Hot dogs, for example, are tasty precisely because of the bad things they contain. Maybe there’s a numerical correlation between the amount of nitrites and the coefficient of yumminess, but every vegetarian ‘not dog’ I’ve tried tastes like something that wants to be a real hot dog, like Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy.
In the same sense, there was only one menu item that disappointed: the Mac Uncheese. Just stop it, vegans. We all know that vegan ‘cheese’ sucks, so stop trying to reverse-engineer the stuff. Stop trying to lure animal eaters by making faux versions of unhealthy comfort food. Embrace your eco-conscious choices–feel free to slather some beet-kale-carrot sauce over a bunch of twigs and call it whatever you want–but don’t try to trick me into believing that noodles covered with cruelty-free goop is the same as macaroni and cheese. Other than that, though, I could happily go vegan again. I’ll take extra seaweed seasoning, and don’t skimp on the cashew gravy.