Party of one?: Dining with friends, family as a vegan, vegetarian sometimes a challenge

loberle@islandpacket.comMarch 10, 2014 

Page James in her kitchen at the Urban Vegan Cafe, at Palmetto Bay Marina.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

In today's world of expanding food philosophies, the scenario is a common one. A group of friends meets up for a fun night out. They gather at a restaurant; drinks and cocktails are ordered and passed around.

The waiter goes to each person and takes her dinner order. One woman asks about the special that night, another requests no mayonnaise on her burger, another substitutes fruit for fries.

Then the waiter gets to the vegan.

There are no vegan options on the menu, so the vegan will have a chef's salad, hold the cheese, hold the ham, hold the eggs, and could the vegan see the dressing ingredients, please?

At this, the rest of the group might feel uncomfortable or annoyed, perhaps even guilty because of the unhealthiness of their own food choices -- or because they had so many options to choose from whereas their friend did not. But at the end of the day, the vegan doesn't want to cause a scene, she just doesn't want to eat dry lettuce for dinner.

Eating away from home is a common obstacle for those who make the choice to adhere to a specific dietary lifestyle -- such as veganism, vegeterianism, gluten-free or raw food. People choose to follow these diets for more than just health reasons. The diets fit into what they believe about what is and isn't food. Their diets can be vastly different from those around them, making gatherings with friends and family sometimes difficult, even contentious.

More than two decades ago, Hilton Head Island resident Page James, a vegan, made the choice to eliminate all meat and animal by-products from her diet. She wasn't always supported by those around her.

"It gets discouraging having to defend your food choices," James said. "People think you're just being silly. Especially your family, they don't cut you any slack."

Bluffton resident Kelly Kimball is no stranger to eye rolls from her family either.

She has been a vegetarian since age 9, when she visited a farm on a school trip. The class fed the deer there, and later that night, deer was served for dinner.

"It was just this strange experience, but I wasn't a big fan of meat anyway," Kimball said.

She is the only vegetarian in her family, so her parents would prepare separate meals for her. They would say, "Oh, it's just a phase."

But it wasn't a phase -- it was her lifestyle.

"As I've gotten older, I've realized (vegetarianism) can be a healthier lifestyle choice," Kimball said.

Her husband, John, is a chef at Port Royal Golf Club. A meat lover himself, he prepares two separate meals for dinner to accommodate both their preferences.

When it comes to potluck dinners or holiday parties, James and Kimball both want to be gracious guests and not impose their food requirements on others or inconvenience them. They'll bring a vegan or vegetarian dish that everyone can enjoy.

Kimball said that awareness of vegetarian needs has risen in the past decade, and most restaurants have good vegetarian options, which makes dining with friends easy. But for James, eating out with non-vegans is a struggle. Few restaurants offer diverse enough menus and taking your non-vegan friends to a vegan restaurant isn't always the most popular of ideas.

"A lot of people have had bad vegan food and are turned off to it," James said.

For instance, James said that tofu -- a popular vegan option -- is itself very bland and needs to be prepared with lots of spices and flavors for it to be more widely palatable. Dishes that mimic non-vegan selections can sometimes fall short, too. She once had vegan lasagna from a restaurant and found it tasted nothing like lasagna.

"If you're going to call a vegan dish something that is typically made with animal by-products, it has to taste as close to that thing as possible," James said. "People are going to have an expectation and be disappointed if it doesn't."

While traveling across the country, James noticed that almost all the vegan restaurants she encountered were either struggling to break even or had closed. Last August, she and her husband, Doug, opened Vegan Cafe and Captain Fishy's, a joint restaurant with two separate kitchens and menus served to the same tables -- a place where vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free eaters can enjoy a meal out with their non-vegan counterparts without sacrifice.

"Here, you have options, and it makes it easier," James said.

Others who adhere to a particular dietary belief system sometimes have room to stray, making dinners out with friends who are not like-minded easier.

Hilton Head resident Patricia Wilkens, a self-described raw food enthusiast, follows a diet that she said gives her more energy, better digestive health and improved overall wellness. For the most part, she sticks with it.

Wilkens founded RAWTERNATIVE LLC in retirement and works with people to promote natural and healthy eating lifestyles, including, but not limited to, vegan, vegeterian, gluten-free and raw. In November, she hosted an Almost Raw Thanksgiving, with a stuffed tofu "bird" and raw vegetable dishes.

"Raw food is our birthright. It's what we were created to eat," she said.

But when she goes out to eat with friends, Wilkens doesn't abide by restrictions. Rather, she takes the opportunity to treat herself.

"People really make it uncomfortable for themselves, the people they're with, and they put everyone else on a guilt trip and can't enjoy their meal," Wilkens said. "I like to be a gracious guest when I'm on a date. The times I follow my natural diet suffice to where when I go out, I can enjoy myself."

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