There's Something Big Shifting in American High Cuisine
On a recent episode of their weekly comedy podcast, Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher recount a laughably horrendous experience ordering the two token vegan items on a restaurant menu in Miami: some type of vegan burger (though not served on a vegan bun), and buffalo cauliflower (a whole head of cauliflower served with sauce on top). The two riff about people not knowing what vegetarians actually eat, and why so-called vegetarian items on menus often have strange ingredients or come from a completely different cuisine than the rest of the restaurant's menu. To anyone who has ever tried to avoid eating meat in a public setting, the concept is highly relatable. A former vegetarian myself, I quickly grew sick of asking if the dishes labeled vegetarian on restaurant menus were prepared with chicken stock or lard or who-knows-what animal part deemed necessary to create purportedly meat-free menu items.
While some cities still struggle with the concept of vegetarianism or veganism (hint: it’s just like regular food, but without the animal products) other cities are excelling at becoming dining and lifestyle hubs for meat-free diners. A new study from WalletHub ranks America’s best cities for vegans and vegetarians, considering the affordability, diversity, accessibility, quality and overall "vegetarian lifestyle" of the nation’s 100 most populated cities. Top of the list: New York City, where non-dairy milk is pretty much a staple in every coffee shop and vegan sushi is commonly found in grocery store refrigerators throughout Manhattan.
Following New York are some other vegetarian hubs: Portland, Oregon; Orlando, Florida (who knew!); San Francisco; Los Angeles; Seattle; D.C. and Scottsdale, Arizona. Scattered throughout the middle are some famously granola cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with some surprises: Anchorage, Alaska, is 39th on the list, and Jersey City, New Jersey, mere minutes from downtown Manhattan, is 63rd. (No other New Jersey cities are ranked.)
Obviously, moving to a major city should expand diners' food options beyond America's meat-heavy, fast-food landscape, so it’s no surprise that the most diverse city in the country caters to vegans and vegetarians, with similarly diverse cities trailing behind it, but does this list stand up in chefs’ eyes?
"Yes and no," says Sean McPaul, executive chef of New York’s High Street on Hudson, who notes that "plenty of meat-heavy cuisines" still dominate the New York food scene. "But our job as chefs is to make these vegetarian options truly delicious, not just serviceable.”
McPaul hasn't noticed any increase in meat-free orders in his restaurant, but says his vegetarian pasta dish—housemade spaghetti with charred cherry tomatoes, aji dulce peppers and pecorino—is a popular order. McPaul recently added a "vegetarian beet steak" served with lentils, toasted barley and currants to his winter menu, which is fleshed out with beef, chicken and seafood entrees.
"I think [vegetarianism] started as a fad, but is now becoming a concrete cultural shift," McPaul says. "It has to do with restaurants like Blue Hill Stone Barns pioneering great vegetable cookery and the farm-to-table ethos, which is something else that started as a fad, but became a cultural shift and a staple of the restaurant industry. This is how we should be cooking, going to the farmers market and supporting local farmers. It's a big win for the restaurant industry that everyone has embraced farm-to-table cooking and in turn, chefs are excelling at cooking fresh vegetables."
Outside of New York, vegetarian and vegan options may not be common on restaurant menus, but they exist, and a greater interest in eating greens is certainly pervading the country. Charleen Badman, co-owner and chef at Scottdale’s FnB felt her city's ranking at number 8 on the list (and fourth for vegetarian lifestyle, higher than New York or San Francisco) was "a little high," though she's proud that several Arizona cities made it onto the list (Phoenix—which is #40, despite being right next to Scottsdale—Mesa, Glendale, Gilbert, Chandler and Tucson), indicating that her state is aligned with her vegetable-forward mentality.
Although the Grand Canyon State may not immediately come to mind when thinking of where to find an excellent kale salad, the state's unique climate makes it ideal for eating vegetables year-round.
"So many people coming to this area just think of steak and potatoes," Badman says. "But Arizona and the Valley of the Sun has such wonderful produce, we have the opportunity to have a lot." While the northeast is bogged down with root vegetables from November to March, Arizona has fresh corn in November and December, newly harvested asparagus and snap peas in January and February and it's "not uncommon to have eggplant from May to December or heirloom tomatoes until February," Badman says.
At FnB, Badman doesn't necessarily cater to vegetarians, but she bases her menu on what she likes to eat, which incidentally, is vegetables. She's noticed an increase in the desire to eat more vegetables in recent years, which she believes is indicative of a national wellness mentality—just look at the abundance of vegetable-driven cookbooks that hit the shelves this past year.
"People are making lifestyle changes, wanting to eat more vegetables and be a lot more conscious of what's on their plate," she says. "I've always had more vegetable options than [meat] entrees on my menu, partially because I want to eat that way but I want to encourage people to eat that way—a vegetable can be your entrÃ©e!" FnB sees a lot of business from New York, San Francisco and Chicago—major metropolitan areas that set trends for the rest of the nation—and Badman anticipates the Scottsdale dining scene becoming even more veggie-centric.
Overall, the list's span from the West Coast to the East Coast, through Fort Wayne (#57), Omaha (#85), Tulsa (#97) and a handful of Texan cities, shows that choosing a plant-based diet is not a fringe movement of coastal hippies. Instead, vegetable-focused cuisine is becoming a national movement, with farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), salad shops and vegetable nurseries represented throughout the country. A recent Harris Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group shows that vegetarians are equally split between the northeast, south, midwest and west; that an equal proportion of men and women report following vegetarian diets; and that while vegetarianism is most popular among 18- to 34-year-olds, the older generations also eat vegetarian at similar rates.
Perhaps, if anything can bring Americans together, it's a widespread, common love of vegetables and a desire to eat less meat.