Guest post: Captain Marty’s rules for vegan dining in a non-vegan establishment  »

I fly a charter jet for a living and I’m usually in the air 15-plus days a month. Sometimes I fly somewhere, wait for a few hours, and fly home; other times I’m away for a week. Sometimes I spend that week in one place and others I do 14 landings in different cities. I eat out a lot. And I’m a vegan. And the other pilots I fly with and eat with aren’t.

You know when a flight attendant gives that briefing five times a day? That’s the way I feel when I look up into my waitress’ eyes. Well, I might feel some other things too but I hear the same litany in my mind, the one I just gave at lunch and here we are at dinner. Déjà vu all over again. Here’s what I go through to get my vegan victuals while I’m on the road.

I have a few rules:

  1. No one knows what you’re talking about.
  2. No one cares, really. You’re the freak and the pain in their culinary ass.
  3. No one has ever heard of a vegan before. Perhaps the chef read a paragraph about these weird diners he might encounter in culinary school.
  4. When you tell your waitperson you don’t eat any animal products they don’t think about the butter, milk, lard, bacon grease, or chicken stock that the chefs use. They just think, “No prime ribs? OK. Got it.”
  5. You must be patient.
  6. You must be a teacher.
  7. You will get what you want most of the time.
  8. You have to have faith. If you don’t think the waiter asked the chef then you shouldn’t eat the food. If they tell you no animal products are being served in your food, you have to go with it unless you can prove the opposite. (This means finding chicken pieces in your food).
  9. You will with certainty get, “Oh, you know, I never even thought of that!” I’ve learned that this is my fault for not explaining well enough what my restrictions are. (Did you know that Outback Steakhouse cooks their baked potatoes in bacon fat? Now you do).
  10. You’ll get the most amazing vegan fare where you least expect it and get served food with hidden animal ingredients where you least expect it. (John Bozeman’s Pub in Bozeman, Mont. served me one of the most amazing vegan dinners. Bozeman, Montana?)
  11. If you go south of New Jersey there is bacon grease in everything.
  12. If you go south of Virginia there is bacon in everything.
  13. If your server doesn’t speak English as a first language and you don’t speak their native tongue as a second language you should have a copy of Veggie Passport on your phone. This has translations for our needs in a bunch of different languages.
  14. Assume all soup is not vegan.
  15. Read the menu like a proofreader. Sometimes we’re in a hurry and imagine the food is going to come the way we make it at home but you ain’t in Kansas any more—or maybe you actually are! “Who would put butter on THAT?”
  16. Veggie burgers always have egg and cheese in them unless you find out otherwise.

I like to tell my server I’m a vegan and ask if they know what that means. Their answer gives me a good indication of how much explaining I have to do. You’ll get good at judging. “OK, so no meat right? But chicken is OK?” is vastly different than, “OK, so no animals or animal products of any kind, including cheese or dairy?” I’ve had both. In the first case you just have to take a breath, dig in, and start from the beginning. “No, no animals. Nothing that was made from anything that came off of or out of an animal, nothing….” In the second case you can skip the primer and start to ask very specific questions such as, “Is the rice made with water or chicken stock?” Most servers don’t really think in the same terms we do. They never even thought that the rice might not be vegan so it’s up to you to explain it.

I go from the general explanation to the specific questions. Take the Mexican burrito. This should be easy. A no-brainer but right off the bat you have to ask:

  • Is the tortilla made with lard?
  • Is the rice cooked in water or stock?
  • Is there lard or pork in the beans?
  • Is there bacon in the spinach?
  • Is the soy cheese vegan or just vegetarian?
  • Are the vegetables sauteed in butter or oil?

You go through all this and send the waiter back into the kitchen four or five times (you had better leave them a good tip. I think if you get a person working that much above and beyond, 20 percent should be the standard vegan tip rate. Plus, isn’t it nice to create an image of vegans who are generous and appreciative? Pay it forward). You finally sit back with your vegan glass of water and eventually the food is put before you.

Two more rules:

  1. Re-question. This involves asking almost every question again but this time you get to point to every item on your plate. Is the sour cream vegan? What’s in the BBQ sauce? Are you sure they used the soy cheese? I never ask, “Is this vegan?” That’s too easy to just agree with. I will say, “What’s this?” and let the server say, “Oh, we have a vegan mayonnaise, or we use Earth Balance vegan spread.” Of course, sometimes you just get that look and, “Oh, crap. I’ll have them make it over.”
  2. Examine your food like you’re a pathologist looking for a clue on CSI. If you order a veggie burger and they serve the burgers with mayo, guess what you’re going to get with your veggie burger? Yup. Been there, done that and have many t-shirts.

This is by no means a complete list. It’s a good start and if you take nothing else away from the list take this: Until this upside down world changes, if you have a vegan meal in a non-vegan restaurant, they did it right. If you didn’t get what you wanted, just smile, ask for your food to be redone and take away a lesson about how you can do it better in the next place, the next time.

Follow the adventures of vegan pilot Marty on Marty’s Flying Vegan Review!

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