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April 1998
The Worst Vegetarian Foods Pageant

By Mark Warren Reinhardt


It is about time that someone said something about the subject of lousy vegetarian food. You see, everyone knows that a vegetarian diet is healthier and better for the planet than the gruesome non-vegetarian alternative. And most of us vegetarians also know that, given its inherent diversity, vegetarian cooking is usually lots tastier too. What never gets mentioned, though, are all the truly bad vegetarian foods out there. Giving awards is one way to bring the subject out of the closet and alert potential innocent vegetarian victims. It's a story that has to be told.

Now, when I talk about bad vegetarian food I'm not referring to mistakes. We're not going to consider those eggrolls I once made where the onion somehow liquefied and soaked through the skins. And I'm not talking about the potato pancakes I didn't even taste because they were gray when I took them out of the pan. No, this pageant is for real, planned foodstuff that's inherently lousy in its conception as well as its execution.

Third Runner Up: Mike's Oriental Goulash

You probably know someone like Mike. He's easygoing and friendly, with the kind of looks that ooze good health--a real vegetarian's vegetarian. The problem is Mike can't cook worth a darn. As a matter of fact he eats the same thing over and over: brown rice covered with steamed vegetables. On Sundays he might sprinkle some sprouts and a little wheat germ on top for diversity. Mike doesn't believe in spices. He doesn't really believe in cooking things very much either, and he chops his vegetables large enough that you'll have trouble fitting them in your mouth.

I've tried variations on Mike's theme cooked by many vegetarians (myself included) over the years. The experience is always pretty much the same: hours of chewing and a full stomach. You can almost feel the vitamins coursing in your bloodstream. Somehow, though, eating should be less work and more fun. Is there anything for dessert?

Second Runner Up: Anything I Cook Outside My Own Kitchen

Many people must share this same frustration: I'm no great shakes even when I'm cooking in my own kitchen (I took cooking lessons from Mike), but ask me to fix food anywhere else and I'm a total wreck. That's too bad, because it's when I'm visiting non-vegetarian family or friends that I really want to show off that new vegetarian dish I've just discovered. So I usually end up bragging about it, and then when someone asks me to cook I turn into an obnoxious, brain-dead mass of Flubber.

"Where's your Chinese rice wine vinegar?" I ask frantically, halfway into fixing something. "Where are the knives? Do you have any pots other than these?? You expect me to use steak knives??? What do you mean, you don't have any Chinese rice wine vinegar???!!"

When I finish my tantrum I usually end up serving something with roughly the shape and texture of a deflated volleyball. This is much better when it's fixed right, I say. My hosts smile politely and poke at the volleyball with their forks. They hate me. As soon as I leave they're out the door to Kentucky Fried Chickens.

First Runner Up: Aunt Doreen's Reunion Food

Everyone has an Aunt Doreen who insists on getting the family together for a reunion picnic every Labor Day. All the food (except Uncle Harry's honey chicken wings) is prepared by six matronly women from the Midwest, and every year Aunt Doreen squeezes your cheeks as the food is laid out and says, "Look at all the vegetarian things you can eat!" Sure.

The problem here is that these six women, despite their best intentions, are deadly. To them no vegetarian dish is complete unless it contains one or more of following: mayonnaise (and lots of it), marshmallows, canned mushroom soup, or Jell-O (flavor: red). The ideal vegetarian dish at Aunt Doreen's reunion might incorporate all of the above. This year, I'll eat before I go.

The Worst Vegetarian Food: Stuffed Eggplant

There's a rite of passage in the vegetarian world that requires all new vegetarians to make a fancy dinner of stuffed eggplant for that special someone. If you want to try it, here's the recipe: slice a large eggplant lengthwise and scoop out the middle. Chop the pulp, mix it with rice and vegetables, and stuff it back into the shell. Top with cheese (soy cheese, please) and bake for half an hour at 350 degrees F.

Okay, so this is the scene. You've poured the wine and turned down the lights, and you've got your best Barry White album on the stereo. You bring this beautiful eggplant with a golden-brown topping to the table and serve it up. It looks just like the picture in the magazine. Everything is perfect. Until you start to eat.

The first thing you notice is that when you touch your beautiful dish with a fork, the tough slab of cheese slides right off the top. You put it back in place like a cheap toupee and hope your date didn't notice. Then you take a bite. You immediately realize that the fatal flaw with this meal is its disregard for two of the fundamental laws of vegetarian cuisine: (1) you often have to bake eggplant for three days to get it fully cooked; and (2) most people would rather eat their old furnace filters than uncooked eggplant. You smile. Your date smiles. Neither of you will admit the meal is horrible. In the background Barry White is still singing on the stereo, oblivious to the disaster ("Oh baby, Oh baby"). This is the worst night of your life.

There is a plus side to all this, however. In the event of potentially dangerous, maybe even life threatening, thermonuclear war, I know where I want to be, and that's under an eggplant. Because they take so long to cook, it leaves no doubt in my mind that eggplants can provide wonderful protection under adverse environmental conditions. So remember, you heard it here first. In the event of a pesky nuclear attack, run, do not walk, to the largest eggplant you can find. No sense taking chances on anything else. Until that time, however, you're just going to have to learn to adapt. It's not pretty when vegetarian food goes bad but, like I say, it's a story that had to be told. Now that it's out in the open, I can only hope that future generations of vegetarians learn from the experience and lead happier, tastier lives.

Mark Warren Reinhardt is the author of The Perfectly Contented Meat-Eater's Guide to Vegetarianism (Continuum 1998), from which this article is excerpted.



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