Restaurant Review - Spare the bird

A Turkey Day primer on vegetarianism

If Norman Rockwell attempted a modern rendition of his famous "Freedom From Want" painting, he might have a tough bird to slice. Gathered around the Thanksgiving table in a modern American family, Cousin Chloe won't touch the turkey or dressing, Uncle Frank can't stand anything cooked with beef stock and Sister-in-law Shahira wants only grains and nuts.

Hard to swallow? Not really, considering that more than 12 million American adults consider themselves vegetarians, according to the American Dietetic Association — and that's not even counting the folks whose diets are harder to classify.

Though the concept of vegetarianism is hardly a new one (historical advocates include Leonardo da Vinci, Henry David Thoreau and Albert Einstein), its impact on Western tables has become increasingly apparent in the past couple of decades. Vegetarianism has proven to be more than just a fad or a choking point of political correctness. The mantra of the modern vegetarian is no longer "meat is murder" — it's more like, "Meet me at that great new Indian place around the corner."

The preponderance of modern herbivores, though, has led to a confusing mouthful of labels. For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians don't eat meat, but do eat dairy products and eggs. Vegan, a term first coined by British vegetarians in the 1940s, refers to a lifestyle free from all animal products. That means no milk, no eggs, no Kosher gelatin (which usually contains fish bones). The distinctions don't end there. Fruitarians focus on raw fruit, grains and nuts. Demi-vegetarians (or semi-vegetarians) take in a little meat or may eat fish. And vegetarians who eat fish but no meat are sometimes called pescetarians.

"I just always tell people I don't eat land animals," says Jonathan Huff, an Atlantan who cut most meat out of his diet more than seven years ago. "Even now I don't eat a lot of fish, but I do eat eggs and cheese. So I guess I'm a lacto-ovo."

So why take the plunge into a meat-free existence? For some, the choice is largely political.

Melissa Martin, executive director of the local advocacy group Vegetarian Solutions, says she adopted the vegan lifestyle originally due to her beliefs on animal rights.

"Basically, when I realized how the animals were treated for milk and eggs, it just didn't make sense once I figured out what other options there are," Martin says.

Her transition to vegetarianism started for health reasons at an early age. Martin stopped eating pork when she learned about trichinosis in seventh grade. She later phased red meat and poultry out of her diet before going fully vegan in 1992.

Health also played a role in Huff's decision to reduce his meat intake, but he was motivated by other reasons as well.

"It takes fewer environmental resources to produce beans and grains than meat," he says. Huff is far from an activist on the issue, though, and never one to condemn dinner mates for their diets. "For me, it's not a religious issue or an ethical issue not to eat meat. It's just something that I don't want to do. If somebody wants to give up meat, then just do a slow process. Nothing precludes you from going back."

The process for going vegetarian doesn't usually happen overnight. Huff took six months or so to eliminate "land animals" from his plate. Now, he says he's content with his limited sea creature consumption and doesn't miss meat overall.

"At this point, I'm content to eat just vegetables at a meal. Thanksgiving dinner for me is that I eat everything but the turkey and I'm fine. I don't feel like I have to have turkey to have a meal."

For some vegetarians, the key word is substitution.

"I don't like sitting down for Thanksgiving and having a lentil loaf when everybody else is having turkey," says Martin, who opts for the meat-free turkey substitutes that are increasingly available in grocery stores.

When Martin started Vegetarian Solutions last year, one of her main goals was to show people just how easy the transition could be. The self-described "junk food vegetarian" says she now finds substitutes for most of the things she used to eat.

"When I do crave a hamburger, I go get a Boca Burger. I'm not one of these kinds of vegetarians who just eats sprouts," she says.

Dining in restaurants, though, presents a whole new set of problems. Vegetarians sometimes struggle to find dishes not prepared with some form of meat product. And a garden burger cooked on the same grill as a chicken breast is definitely out.

Earlier this year, fast-food monstrosity McDonald's found itself in hot water with vegetarians due to its French fries, which are flavored with beef fat. But restaurants are becoming more clued in to their vegetarian patrons.

"I'd say the biggest challenge is trying to make sure something isn't made with chicken or beef stock," Huff says. "So many places — and it's not nearly as bad as it used to be — add chicken stock to everything they make, but they don't so much anymore."

Overall, Huff still eats at his favorite Ponce de Leon restaurants (Eats, Tortillas, Fellini's) and says he usually has no trouble finding vegetarian options on most menus.

Martin prefers all-vegetarian restaurants because she wants to patronize places that share her beliefs. But she also likes going to other restaurants and letting them know they have customers who are vegetarians.

"Sometimes I'll just work with the place," she says. "If I find that there's not something I can eat, I'll ask them to create something for me. And usually they do. Even at a steak place, I can always find something. I might have a baked potato with salsa instead of butter, but I don't like sitting there eating iceberg lettuce with a slice of tomato."

For those considering making the move into a flesh-free diet, Martin has this advice: Go slow.

"I tell people, as you're transitioning, first go to the restaurants you're familiar with and see what you can find on the menu," she says. "Second, go to ethnic restaurants and try new things. And I always tell people if you try something and don't like it, try something else. Don't give up on vegetarianism."