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PRINT EDITION
WHEN EATING OUT MEANS EATING ALONE
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There are always solo eaters at vegan restaurants. Turns out having the same diet isn't much for building a social bond, Gregory Walters writes
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By GREGORY WALTERS
  
  

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Friday, April 12, 2019 – Page A17

It's lonely being vegan. At least it is in my social circles. I should be used to it by now. After all, I became vegetarian 35 years ago. In Texas, of all places. "What are you ... a veg?" one waitress said, in such a way that "veg" was synonymous with "freak." Apparently, her allegiance to barbecue ribs was greater than her desire for a decent tip.

Other times, people would respond with, "Well, you eat chicken, don't you?" After a courteous no, they'd follow up with, "Fish then."

Sigh.

Things got better when I moved to Los Angeles.

"Bunch of flakes there," many a Texan told me. (I didn't share how Californians referred to Texans.) I formed a couple of friendships with vegetarians. I didn't seek them out. Somehow, we had other common interests and the food thing was just a convenient coincidence. Still, that was in the 1990s and, even in L.A., there remained challenges when eating out. What strikes me now whenever I go back is how open my non-vegan friends and new acquaintances are to eating in plant-based environments. They passionately ask, "Have you been to Gracias Madre?

You've got to try the enchiladas verde." They get excited.

Yes, sometimes L.A. does seem like another planet.

When I first moved to Vancouver, the veggie spots consisted of salad bars heavy on the tofu and sprouts - neither of which has ever appealed to me. Sometimes, there were serving trays of mushy hot foods. More swallowing than chewing. I had the common sense to know I would always eat alone.

But the plant-based restaurant scene has evolved, even exploded, in the past decade in Vancouver and in, well, mostly everywhere. (Who can say about Texas? I haven't been back.) There's vegan Thai, veggie Indian, even vegan Italian if I'm willing to drive an hour during non-rush hour times. The problem isn't in the offerings. It's in the friends.

The one time I convinced Suzanne and her husband to join me at a vegan joint, we got two bites into the seitan appetizer and Suzanne all but needed the Heimlich. We had to get everything packed to-go as they scurried off to a medical clinic. Nowadays when we have to decide where to eat, I settle on cheeseless pizza at "regular" restaurants.

It's the same with my friend Rob. We've spent the past two decades doing an awkward dining out dance. I say Indian, he says Chinese. I say vegetarian and he laughs as if it's the freshest joke he's ever heard. Never an option. Lately, we're in a Thai rut. He raves over the sweet and sour prawns as I pick away at the pad Thai, hoping the waitress answered honestly when I asked if it could be made without fish sauce.

There was one time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when my friend Allyson joined me in discomfort as another friend dined on her pan-seared fish, served whole, one eye seeming to stare at each of us. I tried not to make a spectacle of Caroline's fish.

It was Allyson who screamed and offered a running commentary. These days though, Caroline sends me the occasional fish post card and Allyson private-messages me pictures of her meatier lunches on Facebook. ("Mmm ... beef.") To be clear, pepperoni doesn't repulse me and neither does the sight of a hefty burger. It's the eye foods and those that come with bones or shells that make me avert my gaze, more subtly, I think, than way back during that Mexican vacation. I don't want any clear visual reminder that what's on my dining companion's plate once lived.

If I find myself craving butter "chikkin" or the ginger "beefless" bowl from my favourite restaurant, I phone in a to-go order. I could eat there alone. There are always solo eaters at vegan restaurants. It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. On a recent trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, I ate on my own in a plant-based restaurant where solo diners sat at six out of nine tables. Presumably, their friends are as receptive to misinformed notions of plates full of tofu and, yes, "chikkin" as mine are.

I googled "why people hate vegans" and was generously offered many pages of informative links: Top Eight Reasons, Top Ten, something about Freud. There were even videos I could go to; one had a freeze-frame shot with the word "SMUG" smacked across the screen. I didn't watch, I didn't read. Presumably, some links would be in jest, but sometimes the truth underneath the jokes is too hard to laugh off. Carnivores - we're born that way, they say (over and over) - go into attack mode when food talk includes abstaining from bacon.

These days, there are so many plant-based restaurants in Vancouver that I haven't even tried. Constantly ordering takeout gets depressing. I've had to test my diagnosed social anxiety by seeking out the plant-eating flock. I went online and joined two meatless groups on Meetup, a larger social network that helps people connect with a smorgasbord of common interests. You can crochet at a café with fellow stitchers, you can exchange tarot readings with like-minded individuals and you can eat among vegans. There are even niches among the niche - Vancouver Meetups for Conservative Vegans and Obese Vegans popped up in just the past two weeks.

Turns out having the same diet isn't much for building a social bond. On the occasions when I've joined a vegan Meetup group, there are always new faces and the talk immediately gravitates toward all things vegan. How long have you been vegan? Is your partner vegan? What's your favourite vegan restaurant?

The conversation dies down quickly. Except when it doesn't. Once, after I'd travelled to Stockholm, I asked if people had tried Oatly, a Swedish brand of oat milk, and got to hear how one woman makes her own. "It's easy," she said with an air of superiority. This, I told myself, is why people hate vegans.

As I sit through prolonged silences and listless debates about whether to support a burger chain that's added a plant-based option, I try to convince myself that this is better than takeout. I remind myself that I'm trying restaurants that fully cater to me. But it still feels empty. Not any better than eating alone, sometimes worse.

I can continue to hope that, as diets evolve and as the Canada Food Guide gets revised to endorse plant-based diets, vegan options will increase and my friends may one day succumb to kale Caesars.

Maybe the day will come when eating won't feel so lonely.

Gregory Walters lives in Vancouver.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers Have a story to tell? Please see the guidelines on our website tgam.ca/essayguide, and e-mail it to firstperson@globeandmail.com

Associated Graphic

ILLUSTRATION BY SANDI FALCONER


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