Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Vegetarian on the Road (Entirely by Stephen, The Nervous Vegan's Official Expert on All Things Kosher)

One who keeps a vegetarian diet is in fact keeping kosher by definition, at least at its basis, since all non-animal food products are unquestionably kosher. Fruits and vegetables are so fundamentally kosher that unprocessed and uncut fruits and vegetables do not even need certification to be consumed in kosher households or establishments. They may need to be washed and cut in a certain manner, depending on how stringently one observes their kashrut, but that is an other story for an other day.

The thing about keeping kosher is that, while it is probably easier now than at any time in history, it can still be tricky and expensive when traveling to areas outside of dense Jewish populations. In America, that can pretty much mean everywhere outside of New York and a host of other large cities. Finding nutritious, abundant kosher food that doesn’t cost a mortgage can be a challenge.

There are two basic ways kosher consumers deal with this situation. One is to pack all of our own food and bring it with us when we travel. The fundamental problem with this method is it can get cumbersome, heavy and, with today’s reality of fares for luggage, expensive. The second way, at least for more liberal kosher consumers, is to go vegetarian.

Now, like with anything, those Jews who are willing to go outside of strict kashrut supervision have an array of standards as to how far they will go.

Some will eat only raw uncooked and unprepared fruits, vegetables and grains. Others will eat at typical American non-kosher restaurants and will eat all foods, even cooked, so long as they do not include meat products. Some will ask about sauces, bases and broths. Some will take a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. Of course there are a variety of approaches in between.

I tend to be more liberal when I travel. I call it my “60-mile rule.” If I am 60 miles away from home I will eat at restaurants as a vegetarian, not as someone who keeps kosher. I will ask and inquire of the waiter about sauces, broths, and bases. I try to eat as informatively as I possibly can. It is not a perfect system but it is good enough for my comfort level. Of course, like with any system, there can be snags.

Once, when I was traveling in Florida, I went to a Bennigan’s and asked about a Pasta dish. I specifically asked if the sauce was meat-based and was assured it was not. I asked about broths and told them I wanted only vegetables, no meat. I was assured it would be cooked to my request. Imagine my surprise when my pasta was presented with an obvious pink meat. I protested. I asked for a vegetarian pasta. I was told, “There is no meat in your meal, just ham…” It was then I came to learn that many in the South mean meat to mean beef only. Pork and chicken are not understood by some to be meat. Lesson learned. No I did not eat.

More recently, I was traveling with my kids to North Carolina, where my sister lives. We went to an Italian restaurant, and I went through my routine with the waiter to make sure all prepared foods would be vegetable-based: No meat, no chicken, no pork. I topped it off by telling the waiter to “please make certain that no animal products are used, my family eats only vegetarian.” Which caused my then-6-year old daughter to exclaim in surprise, “We are?” Well, when traveling at least, yes, we are.

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