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Front Page - Friday, March 2, 2018

River City: Vegan for a day in Chattanooga turns out to be a pretty tasty proposition

The Morning Shred Bowl at Southern Sqweeze is a vegan’s dream breakfast come true. - David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

My favorite meme is a text exchange that goes like this:

Person 1: “I’m having a cookout. You should come.”

Person 2: “Love to! I’m a vegetarian, though. Can I bring veggie burgers? Will the grill have a non-meat side? And will there be vegetarian baked beans?”

Person 2: Hello?

Person 1: Cookout’s cancelled.

Person 2: Seriously?

Person 1: Death in the fam.

While funny, the meme illustrates a common dynamic between vegetarians and meat-eaters, wherein the former try to bend an intolerant, burger-loving world to their will, and the latter are loath to accommodate them.

One look at history can reveal what happens when two opposing groups continue to butt heads over an issue. While the tension between meat-eaters and vegetarians has not quite reached the boiling point, am I going too far to suggest that it’s just a matter of time until we see rioting at the local butchery booth at a farmer’s market?

Retired U.S. Navy admiral William H. McRaven once said something that applies here: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” In other words, change begins with me. If I want to see peace between meat-lovers and vegetarians in my lifetime, I need to take the first step and extend an olive branch to my adversary.

There’s just one problem: I love meat. While I don’t have to have it with every meal, that’s my preference. And I’m not picky about what’s on my plate, either. Beef, pork, chicken, fish - I like it all. Give me a grilled ribeye steak and a baked potato topped with chewy bacon bites, and I’m a happy man.

But the divide between people like me and those who eschew meat for either moral or practical reasons is bigger than me, so I decided to bite the bullet (rather than another Whopper) and go vegetarian for a day.

Someone who’s lost to history said, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” How true that is. By experiencing the vegetarian lifestyle, I would come to understand their perspective, which in turn would foster harmony between us.

As my guide in this journey, I looked no farther than my daughter, Abby, who’s been a vegetarian for four years. Before making the switch, Abby suffered from intense migraines. Her doctor could offer no cure, so she started looking for changes she could make on her own.

When Abby learned that a vegetarian diet can address a variety of illnesses, she decided to go meat-free. She hasn’t suffered a single headache on that scale since becoming a vegetarian.

To get the ball rolling, I invited Abby to Chattanooga for a day of local vegetarian cuisine. Always one for an adventure, she accepted.

As a city that’s deliberate about eating local and healthy, Chattanooga is home to several restaurants dedicated to serving vegan dishes, including Southern Sqweeze, Cashew, Sluggo’s, Plant Power Cafe, Real Roots Cafe and The Green Tambourine, Chattanooga’s only vegan food truck.

Not only that, but a few local eateries have emerged as vegan-friendly favorites, including Mojo Burrito and Two Ten Jack. Even before deciding to become a vegetarian for a day, I was a long-time fan of the former’s Veggie Wedgies and the latter’s yasai shoyu, a vegan ramen.

As Abby and I put together a battle plan, something occurred to me: going vegetarian for a day would be too easy. We could enjoy a stack of Aretha Frankenstein’s famous pancakes for breakfast, grab a grilled cheese sandwich at Mindy’s Deli for lunch and then cross the finish line with nachos at Chuy’s that night.

That didn’t sound challenging, it sounded like every other Tuesday.

So, I bit the bullet (rather than a Big Mac) and proposed we go vegan, which would place all animal-based foods – including eggs and dairy – out of bounds. Not only was I going to go without chicken, I was going to give mother hens the day off, too.

I couldn’t imagine forgoing not only meat but all the foods that comfort me for an entire day, but I was committed. Or maybe I was fit to be committed. Either way, I was all in.

The most important meal

Before embarking on any journey, one must prepare for the difficulties that lie ahead. I prepared for a day as a vegan by eating steak nachos the night before. Judge me if you must, but I thought filling my belly with beef would help to suppress my carnivorous instincts the following day.

I had a lot to learn.

That same belly was already grumbling as Abby and I made our way to Southern Sqweeze in North Chattanooga the following morning. Eager to begin our adventure on a strong note, we chose Southern Sqweeze based on its delicious-sounding breakfast menu.

Southern Sqweeze is known for its organic, cold-pressed juices. But as it added a downtown location, they also expanded their menu to include several grab-and-go and sit-down-and-enjoy dishes.

As Abby stood at the order counter pouring over the menu, I selected the avocado toast, which comes with guacamole, sauerkraut and sprouts on a slice of sprouted grain bread. The girl behind the counter said, “Excellent choice,” like a server in a fancy restaurant.

After careful consideration, Abby selected the Morning Shred Bowl, a veritable vegan feast that comes with sprouted gluten-free grains, pesto, herb cashew cheese, avocado, peas, seasonal greens, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and a side of sprouted grain toast with coconut oil.

Southern Sqweeze offers a lovely space for enjoying its fare. The bright, squeaky clean decor, positive messages painted on its walls and music playing at just the right volume set us at ease as we waited for our food.

The inviting presentation continued as our meals arrived. Impressed by plates laden with food, Abby and I uttered a simultaneous “Wow!” Abby’s dish, which was covered with artfully arranged food, including sprouts poking out of the herb cashew cheese, looked out of this world.

I had thought our meals would consist of only a small amount of food, which I had assumed would suit vegans just fine since all they did was graze on vegetables. But no. Based on the portions at Southern Sqweeze, vegans know how to eat.

Abby waited about three seconds after I took my first bite of toast and then asked me what I thought. Being a fan of sprouted grain bread (Ezekiel 4:9 bread is a staple in my house) and guacamole, I gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. I especially liked the sauerkraut, which gave the toast a nice kick I wasn’t expecting.

As Abby and I ate, we chatted about her experiences as a vegetarian. “Eating vegetarian is hard at first, but like any change, you become used to it,” she said as she dug her fork into a scoop of sprouted grains. “One thing that makes it easier is eating the vegetarian versions of the foods you enjoy. Pasta and a meatless sauce make a wonderful meal.”

I ate my last bite of toast as Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” played in the background. After washing it down with alkaline water, I told Abby how good I felt compared to when I eat fried eggs, bacon and buttered toast. She smiled and told me her Morning Shred Bowl was the best meal she’d ever eaten in Chattanooga – and she and I have done our share of eating in the Scenic City since I moved to the area ten years ago.

Pleased with the success of breakfast, we plotted how we would fill the time until lunch. Little did I know I was about to make a critical error.

Is that meatloaf?

When you’re trying to avoid something, common wisdom suggests you should steer clear of things that might cause you to stumble. If you’re trying to quit drinking, don’t meet your friends at a bar; if you want to kick the nicotine habit, don’t hang out in a smoky pool hall; and if you’re avoiding meat, don’t go to Five Guys.

Speaking of pool halls, Abby and I decided to spend the hours until lunch at Diamond Billiards Club. It seemed like a safe choice. But there was one unexpected catch.

In addition to pool, darts and beer, Diamond Billiards Club offers some of the best comfort food in Chattanooga. If memory serves me correctly from my June 2015 story about the place, there’s a little old lady in the back who makes the best burgers, chicken wings and meatloaf in the city.

As Abby racked up the balls for our first game, the aroma of freshly cooked burgers cut through the smell of stale tobacco and reached me at my weakest point: just as I was growing hungry about 20 minutes after breakfast.

My avocado toast had been delicious, but it wasn’t going to get me through the morning.

Fortunately, my daughter was there to hold me accountable. Plus, after she won the first game of eight ball, my attention shifted to setting things right.

By the time we headed to Sluggo’s for the noon meal, I was growing “hangry.” Fortunately, we’d picked the comfort food capital for vegans in Chattanooga as our lunch spot.

Located on Cherokee Boulevard, Sluggo’s is the polar opposite of Southern Sqweeze when it comes to decor and atmosphere. If Southern Sqweeze is Jack’s Bistro in “Three’s Company,” then Sluggo’s is Mel’s Diner in “Alice.” But none of that mattered when I saw the food they put in front of me.

Sluggo’s has a menu that ranges from lentil patty melts to sweet potato enchiladas. Your tolerance for vegan foods will probably impact how good the food sounds to you.

The mushroom walnut burger sounded OK to me. I’d ordered a black bean burger at the now shuttered 212 Market Restaurant and vowed never to try another one after leaving most of the mushy mass on my plate. But the helpful and patient lady at Sluggo’s answered all of my questions about their food and assured me their burgers would offer a better culinary experience, so I went for it.

I also ordered potstickers as an appetizer. (When you’re hangry and eating vegan, you don’t wait for your sprout burger to arrive; you order a starter.) They were phenomenal, as were the three dipping sauces served with them. As much as I love my daughter, I regretted having to split the appetizer with her.

Just like Southern Sqweeze, the plates at Sluggo’s were loaded with food. In addition to my burger, which was sandwiched between the two halves of a thick bun and stacked high with veggies, my plate groaned under the weight of steamed kale and a side salad with creamy dill dressing.

OK, maybe it didn’t groan, but there was a lot of food on that plate!

Slathered in Russian dressing, my burger was good, and it held together well. But I spent most of lunch trying to convince Abby to trade with me. She’s ordered the pecan-busted seitan with garlic mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and was loving it because it afforded her something vegans rarely experience: comfort food.

Seitan is a popular meat substitute made from wheat. The dish Abby ordered actually looked like a pile of boneless pork chops covered with gravy. After coaxing a bite out of my daughter, I was surprised at how closely its texture resembled meat.

According to Abby, people often rely on meat substitutes to help with the transition to a meat-free diet. There’s just one catch: some of the food, including seitan, is highly processed.

“There are two kinds of vegans: health food vegans and junk food vegans,” she said. “Just because you’re eating vegan doesn’t mean you’re eating healthy.”

It does, however, allow you to stick to your moral guns if you’re not eating meat due to moral reasons.

Unlike Southern Sqweeze, I left Sluggo’s stuffed to the gills. This pleased Abby, who had spent the previous evening listening to me insist that a plateful of vegetables would not fill me up. I would need protein (i.e. meat)!

To which she replied, “Vegetables contain all the protein you need.”

I wasn’t convinced the night before, but I was after dining at Sluggo’s. Even better, I didn’t feel like taking a nap, which I always want to do after eating my regular lunchtime fare.

I was also pleased with how much lunch cost. While breakfast had been a little pricey, lunch was reasonable. Abby was surprised. “Vegan food usually costs more than the other things you eat because it’s real food,” she explained.

We had planned on hiking, but it was raining, so I suggested we play more pool – and smell more meatloaf. My daughter thought it would be wiser to spend the afternoon plunking quarters into classic arcade games at Coin-Op Arcade.

I liked the idea. Empowered by my mushroom walnut burger, I knew it was my day to top the high score board on “Galaga.” What I didn’t know is how dinner would challenge my resolve like nothing that had come before it.

Vegan dog

Our original blueprint for the day included hitting Cashew for dinner. But we didn’t check their hours. Apparently, vegans don’t eat out after dark.

By the time we’d depleted our supply of quarters and were growing hungry, Cashews was closed, as was every other vegan restaurant. So, we did the next best thing: we toasted our success with a pair of drumsticks at Champy’s.

I’m kidding. Instead, we did what I thought would be the next best thing: we ate veggie dogs at Good Dog on Frazier Avenue.

I like Good Dog, and don’t want my subjective response to their vegetarian hot dog to tarnish your perception of their food. So, please understand I’m not criticizing their overall menu, which includes the best hot dogs and some of the best house-made sausages in Chattanooga. Understand that I simply didn’t care for their veggie dog.

I ordered it my favorite way: Chicago-style. And it looked delicious. Good Dog serves vegetarian dogs from Heritage Health Food in Ooltewah, which by all accounts produces appetizing food. But it just didn’t turn on my taste buds.

The texture was OK. The char on the outside helped. But in the end, I could tell I was eating a vegan substitute for a beloved meat-based product.

But, as Meatloaf once sang, “two outta three ain’t bad.” Besides, Abby enjoyed her vegan chili dog, although it took three employees to convince her that she was not eating the regular version. To her, the hot dog and protein in the chili tasted too much like meat.

As we thought back on the day, Abby asked how I felt. Great, I told her, which would usually not be the case after dining out three times in a row. But after eating vegan for an entire day, I felt ready to take on the world, or at least the high score board on “Galaga.”

She also asked if I’d consider turning vegan. While it might be fun to end my account of our adventure by decrying my years of eating meat and claiming I’d found religion at the bottom of a cup of steamed kale, that wouldn’t be true. But I did resolve to eat vegan once a day.

Although cooking vegan requires a higher level of skill than I have, Abby assured me there are many satisfying dishes to make at home. During her next visit, she’s going to teach me how to make curry, for example.

“Even giving up meat a few times a week has been shown to benefit your heart and the rest of your body,” Abby said. “It also helps the environment, which matters to a lot of people.”

As this father’s heart swelled with pride (rather than cholesterol), we said goodbye and parted ways. My drive home took me past Champy’s, which I’m pleased to say didn’t even tempt me. I’d promised to eat vegan for a day, and I didn’t want to cheat, even though I would have enjoyed burying that veggie dog under some fried chicken.

It was a small price to pay to do my part to promote peace at farmer’s markets around the world.