How to Be an English Vegetarian in Salem

Forget everything you know about being a vegetarian. Just because you think you’re in another somewhat English-speaking country, it is still a foreign country, and most of it just isn’t going to happen here, or be understood.

British vegetarians are used to seeing a symbol like this, usually in green, and often varies in design based on the brand of product. Sometimes you’ll just see a big green “V”, but the message is pretty damn clear: we can eat it. The philosophy of being a vegetarian is pretty clear, too: we eat and use anything, including things that come from an animal (milk, wool, honey), as long as the animal doesn’t have to be killed to obtain it.

It’s a bit different here in America, and in Salem in particular. While hippie states like California and Oregon might tolerate our annoying non-allergic lifestyle choices, it’s different on the North Shore. You have the black pinstripe-suited conservatism of New York, but without the willingness to accommodate this. Sure, a hot dog cart vendor who never, ever, ever cleans his grill will serve melted cheese and veggie subs, but he is going to fry that on the same meat-encrusted stove he did with that non-Kosher/non-Halal pork weiner.

It’s reflected in the attitudes of vegetarians here, too. Plenty of them will say they eat gelatin or Thai curries with fish sauce, because being vegetarian is a grey area here. It’s more about avoiding the meat you can “see” as opposed to making a more conscious choice about what you eat. That’s why there are so many VEGAN communities online. It’s yet another American social extreme – either you’re a steak-eating carnivore (like several of my roommates) or you’re a hippy-dippy vegan.

"I wonder how many lentils I've ever eaten?"

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that local restaurants and cafes follow suit. You can order a mushroom and spinach crepe at Gulu-Gulu, and it’ll be delicious, but bear in mind it’ll be cooked on the same tiny little crepe pan they use to cook the bacon ones.

“OK then,” I hear you think (I know, I’ m psychic. I do live in Salem, after all), “I’ll just get something simple like french fries/chips”.

Sorry, mate.  I know from experience that almost everyone cooks their fried foods in the same oil as everything else. Everywhere from the aptly-named TiTS (Tavern in The Square) to Passage to India cooks their french fries and pakoras in the same oil as fish. Even the Greenland Cafe, a swanky little brasserie, served me up a plate of sweet potato fries with an giant piece of calamari hidden in there (they then kindly “offered” to take it off the bill).

And now for a quick list:

Best place for fries – The Old Spot (121 Essex St). They cook their fries separately and will serve it up with a side of curry cream if you ask nicely. A side of fries costs less than $4, but there’s a $10 minimum for credit/debit cards.

Best quick-eat place – New England Soup Factory (140 Washington St). Every soup is labelled as either Vegetarian (V) or Vegan (VV). Their 4-5 core, evergreen soups are meaty/fishy, but their daily, changing soups of the day always, always, ALWAYS have at least one V or VV. You can sample any and all the flavours you want. Best flavour: Spicy Chickpea Butternut Squash (which has coconut). A small cup sets you back about $6.

Best sandwich place – Front St Coffeehouse (20 Front St). Their sandwich artists usually at least sanitize their knives between sandwich-making, and you can see everything being made while you wait. They also carry soy milk (and don’t charge extra). Sandwiches are usually $5-$6, and are cash only.

Best baked goods – (was – update 2012 – closed 😦 )Coven (281 Essex St). Plenty of vegan baked goods (brownies, red velvet cakes, mac and cheese, meatball subs, Thanksgiving catering – all vegan).  The owners used to live in Manhattan, so they know what they’re they were doing. They also don’t didn’t charge extra for soy milk, even though I think it’s gross.

Milk and Honey (32 Church St) have been doing some good vegan cardamom-ginger-clove-baby cakes as of late. Like any baked goods, though, they are always the most delicious on the day of purchase.

vegan butter pecan cupcake at Coven

Also a lovely surprise is the Boston Hot Dog Company (60 Washington St). Previously a daytime-only pitstop for hungry commuters,  this teeny-tiny, awesomely-decorated gem is now open until 2am on Fridays, and serves not only veggie hot dogs, but also veggie sausages. These ones:

They have 4 types of these vegetarian sausages, and a varied menu that acts as a suggestion for how many things you can pile onto the dog. Personal favourite: Chicago Dog (onion, tomato, peppers, lettuce, relish, mustard, poppy seeds, celery salt and a pickle). The sausages and the veggie hot dogs are usually microwaved separately (whereas the meat ones are boiled), but your hot dog bun is likely to be toasted on the same grill as meat, and the same tongs/hands might be used to make your dog inbetween meat-handling.

left: Chicago Dog; right: New York Dog (sauerkraut; mustard; cheese), both with Apple Sage veggie sausages

Now it’s irrelevant why I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not some overly moral militant veggie. I can go out to eat and not feel uncomfortable if people are eating meat. What I don’t like is someone forcing/sneaking it into my food. Like the time I stopped eating lamb and my mother tried to pass it off as chicken (which I was still eating at the time).

(skip to 2m 30s)

Being a vegetarian in England also means you actually, genuinely do not eat any meat. So anything marked “suitable for vegetarians” does not, say, contain beef stock, fish sauce, rennet or gelatin. The same goes for any restaurant menu items – a “fish paella” is NOT vegetarian.

I once went to an IHOP (my first and last time) somewhere off of Route 66 where I ordered a vegetable pasta dish (which was on the menu). They brought it out with a huge slab of chicken flattening the coagulated pasta block and tried to tell me it was vegetarian.

Then there was the coach trip I took around California and Nevada. They asked everyone to put their meal requirements/allergies on a clipboard. I was one of the last to get it and saw so many entries saying, “Vegetarian – but can eat fish”; “Vegetarian option – but I eat chicken”; “vegetarian – except for beef”.

Me? I put “Vegetarian – no meat or fish whatsoever.” Like I really had to explain it like that?

And what did I get every single night?

A Caesar salad.

Yep. A Caesar fucking salad. While everyone tucked into their own entire bucket of fried chicken, mashed potato and fries, or a huge tuna pasta  bake, or a steak burrito, or a curry, or a burger…I got a Caesar fucking salad.

Guess what’s in Caesar dressing? –


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