The Yupik say a vegetarian is just a bad hunter. I have yet to meet a vegetarian Eskimo – with the exception of my son who still abides by his self-described cultural affiliation – so perhaps the adage is true. Either there aren’t any or the good hunters share with the bad ones. In which case, there aren’t any.
It seems nearly impossible to explain vegetarianism to people in rural Alaska. It’s even difficult in urban Alaska. My education on this challenge began abruptly with my first attempt at ordering a vegetarian meal in Dillingham.
We went to dinner at a little restaurant located right in the heart of town, which is to say it was between the two grocery stores, on one of the two streets. The menu included a large array of sandwiches - a vegetarian sandwich it is, I thought! Our lovely waitress went around the table taking our order with nothing but a nod and a smile until she came to me.
With a puzzled look she said, “I’m sorry, did you say you want a vegetable sandwich?”
“Why yes!” I replied. “Vegetarian, with just vegetables and some cheese, please.”
“No meat?” she questioned.
“No meat,” I replied.
Shortly, a lady touched me on the shoulder and said, in a thick Greek accent, “Excuse me. You want a sandwich with just vegetables and no meat?”
“How about lamb, do you want lamb?” she asked.
What an odd question! Those of you who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding are wondering now if I’m just making this all up. I’m not and the movie did not yet exist.
“No thank you,” I said, confused, “Just vegetables and cheese, please.”
“I will have to ask the chef,” she said shaking her head as she walked back to the kitchen.
I was keenly aware that the entirety of the tiny restaurant was staring at me. But my sweet future family ignored them so I did the same. Meanwhile I could hear a loud discussion coming from the nearby kitchen.
“What!” a man said. “What do you mean no meat, just vegetables? That’s not a sandwich!”
To which the thick Greek accent replied, “I know! Just do it! Make it with no meat! Just put mushrooms, lettuce, tomato…”
I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or crawl under the table.
It was a delicious sandwich. It’s a good thing it was because the waitress, the lady and the chef all came out to ask how I liked it! Thus I learned how foreign vegetarianism is to rural Alaska – and to the Greek, for that matter!
It is much easier to be a vegetarian in Anchorage, thankfully. We have wonderful grocery stores. We even have a farmers market that continues through the winter with hydroponic vegetables. Periodically, though, I find myself explaining my foreign dietary habits. At one particularly memorable event in an Anchorage hotel, which shall remain nameless, I was served a mixing bowl of salad when I requested a vegetarian meal. The enormous bowl was only slightly less embarrassing than the waitress standing over me while shouting across the crowded room, “This one doesn’t eat meat! What are we supposed to serve her?!”
In recent years though, many vegetarian-friendly restaurants have popped up all over town. So if you happen to be on the hunt I have several I can recommend. The Middle-Way Café has a lovely selection as does Snow City Café. The City Diner has veggie burgers which are delicious. In fact, many restaurants in Anchorage now offer a vegetarian menu option or will make something upon request without batting an eye. My favorite, though, is Kinley’s! Their menu changes seasonally and always has two very creative vegetarian options. Kinley’s never disappoints!
Now if I can figure out how to explain my vegetarianism to Alaskan friends, family, talk radio hosts (Are you listening, Dan Fagan?)…I’ll have it made. The simple truth is that I just don’t like the taste of meat! I’ve tried it. I don’t’ like it! I’m not offended if you do. I don’t have an ethical problem with meat eating. I can even get a couple bites of fish down - which I do regularly for the sake of my children and my commitment to wild Alaskan Salmon - but that’s it.
I’ve come to accept that potlucks, parties, in fact, any food-serving programs I attend will result in me discussing my culinary preferences. I have fun with it now! Whenever one couple comes over I make tabouli. It began as an accident. Now I do it on purpose. They think that’s all we eat! I do like me some good tabouli!
My eldest child is proven correct once again. Vegetarianism is, in many ways, my culture. It is the fodder for curious conversation much the same way Gary’s preference for moose, caribou and seal oil is when we visit my family. And, as all things cultural should be, it is a great bridge for building relationships. A lesson I learned a few years ago while at a child’s birthday party. Having just launched into my “nothing with a face” conversation, a thickly accented Greek voice asked, “Did you ever eat at a restaurant in Dillingham.”