Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Veggie Quest

“Do you have anything for vegetarians?” We were in a café near Viitna and my wife Liina was hungry.

“No!” shouted the woman behind the counter. Shouted, I kid you not.

But Liina could see carrots and beets under the sneeze-guard and just had to point it out. “Couldn’t you just put those on a plate for me?”

“Those are for komplektid,” she sneered, meaning that in order to get a vegetable you had to order a full meal. She turned to the next person in the line, which just happened to be me.

“Don’t you have anything for vegetarians?” I couldn’t let her off without a fight.

By the look on her face you would have thought she’d been asked to gouge out the eyes of her favorite child. What had vegetables ever done to her? Had she been forced to eat beets as a child? Had her stepfather beat her with a sack of potatoes? I can’t say she hated vegetables, but she clearly had something against people who ate them.

“Just replace the meat dish with another vegetable,” Liina surrendered. “You can even charge me the same price.”

I thought that was a pretty good deal for the cafe, but the worker obviously disagreed. She crossed her arms and turned her back. The international signal for Get out of my restaurant.

I should have flashed the toy plastic police badge I keep in my wallet and told her I was closing her restaurant for violation of EU vegetable discrimination laws. I should have reached across the counter, touched her softly on the back, and whispered, “Vegetarians forgive you.” I should have done a lot of things. But those ideas, l’esprit d’escalier, as zee French say, came later. At that moment I was nothing but stunned. What had Liina done but ask for some carrots?

It wasn’t the first time she had been refused service for ordering only vegetables. Being an open vegetarian in the former Soviet Union is tantamount to being a convicted pedophile. At best, you’ll be scorned but served. At worst, you’re at risk for a beating. But usually, without too much of a fuss, you can strike some sort of deal with the restaurant.

The negotiation process can be intense. It often involves a long exchange with the waitress where Liina explains that being a vegetarian means eating vegetables. “Well, we’ve got chicken” inevitably follows, to which Liina replies that that’s meat, too. “What about fish?” Liina then explains that some vegetarians eat fish, but she does not. She eats only vegetables. At this point, the waitress’ memory will fail her and she’ll offer chicken again. After a several minute process, the waitress finally exclaims: “You mean you only eat vegetables?”

Sometimes, the waitress will have read about this phenomenon in a society magazine. She may be aware that Alanis Morrisette or Anne Hathaway are vegetarians. (Rarely will anyone know that Albert Einstein and Rainer Maria Rilke were vegetarians.) If you have a male server, there’s a small chance he’ll know Jenna Jameson, the porn star, is a vegetarian. But usually, even if the rural waiter has heard of vegetarians, he actually hasn’t met one.

If the server happens to be open-minded, Liina often gets a chance to make her vegetarian case. She’ll debunk the myth that you have to eat meat to get protein. She’ll tell how she once got anemic and when doctors blamed her vegetarianism, she proved them wrong and got her iron through beans, lentils, grains, and dairy products. “But you wear leather shoes!” someone always points out. This invites Liina to talk about how we unavoidably kill lower organisms with every step we take, but that she only wants to minimize pain caused to animals. It’s like listening to Gandhi (who, Liina will point out, was also a vegetarian).

It may be difficult to be a vegetarian, but what’s more difficult is being a carnivore husband of a vegetarian. I actually like the cholesterol bombs served in rural Estonian cafes. Every once in a while, I love the classic country fare: a fat-laden kotlet, seapraad, or snitsel. So every time we’re turned away from some greasy stolovaya, sent packing toward a healthier restaurant (or worse, the local grocery store where we’ll have to fix our own), I suffer a little bit, too. More and more, we end up taking our own food to the countryside, which means that, since I’m lazy, I eat whatever Liina prepares, making me a de facto vegetarian.

So as a vegetarian, I’d like to ask all rural café owners reading this to please allow your staff to replace the meat with a vegetable. Even if you don’t give a damn about animals, your profit margins will be higher. And you’ll sell one more karbonaad than you would have otherwise, since Liina’s husband always follows when she gets thrown out on the street.