It doesn’t matter why I originally went veg about 20 year ago – it only matters that I did.
And at that time, Charlotte was one of the worst cities to attempt to go veg in.
It wasn’t just that it was the height of the Atkins diet revival, when protein was good and carbs – any carbs – were evil. Almost everyone, even those not actively dieting, strove to eat lots protein – most of it flesh based – and limited their carbs. Not coincidentally, almost everyone had terrible breath.
And it wasn’t just the standard “coming out of the vegetarian closet” problems I faced. Yes, my family was horrified and shocked. Everyone was terribly worried about “where would I get my protein” and how it was so unhealthy to eat all those carbs – you know, all those UNHEALTHY fruits and whole grains and veggies. My father, an ordained minister, probably even prayed I would start eating meat again! My friends thought I was crazy. And I faced a lot of delicate situations at work when, for example, the company took us to steakhouses for a special “treat” or had nothing at the company party that I could eat. But those are problems many of us face, in various cities, even today.
Charlotte, for a city of its size, just was (and still is) an unusually unfriendly city for vegetarians and vegans.
Growing up in Charlotte (yes, I am a Charlotte native!), back in the days before the ‘90s relocation BOOM, Charlotte was not very ethnically diverse. You were either black or white. And most of the whites were descended from the Germans or the Scots-Irish. Black or white, everyone ate some kind of Southern soul food. Crispy fried chicken, especially on Sunday. Lots of BBQ – fights could break out over “styles” of BBQ (Eastern or Western) and different sauces. Country style steak and gravy. Sausage gravy biscuits. Craving seafood? There was plenty of catfish and flounder – fried, of course. Lots of veggies – fresh corn on the cob, messes of greens (collards, turnip, mustard, dandelion), pots of beans (especially pinto and black eye peas), squash casseroles, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, succotash. But often the greens and beans were adulterated with bacon grease, ham, or “streaking meat.” Pretensions of gentility? Then you’d often finish your meal with some kind of “Jell-O mold” – fruit, nuts, and sometimes marshmallows entrapped in gelatin and molded into fancy shapes using Bundt cake pans.
Dining out? Since Charlotte wasn’t ethnically diverse, our restaurants weren’t either. We had a few Mexican, Italian, and Chinese places, but they usually weren’t very – ahem – “authentic”. The most popular, “upscale” destination was “a steak house” and that’s still true today. Some of Charlotte’s original steak houses are still around, almost laughably anachronistic – The Ranch House on Wilkinson Boulevard or Beef & Bottle on South Boulevard, for example, very dark places where the height of luxury used to a shrimp “cocktail”, iceberg lettuce salad, and a hunk of seared red flesh.
Shopping for food? Charlotte’s lack of diversity for many years meant no need for ethnic supermarkets (Indian, Asian, Mexican) or “international” food aisles in stores. Yes, you could read all those enticing recipes for vegetarian Indian or Asian food, but where exactly were you supposed to get the ingredients to cook them at home? When I became veg in 2001, there were no Trader Joe’s, Earthfares, or Whole Foods in Charlotte. Your only real option was the Home Economist (now Healthy Home Market). Mainstream grocers carried a few Boca and Gardenburgers, and 3 flavors of Silk soymilk, but little else. I can still remember my delight when the stores began stocking Morningstar Farms and Amy’s frozen entrees!
Charlotte was also not very religiously diverse, and that too played a large part in the food scene. Charlotte is the birthplace of Billy Graham, and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Tega Cay, home to the infamous PTL Club and Jim and Tammy Baker in the 80’s. (PTL Club = Praise The Lord and Pass The Loot.) Charlotte was (and still is) mostly Christian, with over 700 places of worship. Some religions mandate vegetarianism (Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism). The official statement of Unitarian Universalists is “we must make food choices that minimize the pain and suffering of animals.” Vegetarianism is encouraged if not mandated. Judaism and Islam have specific laws (“kosher” and “halaal”) concerning what animals can be used for food and the care and slaughter of these animals. If one follows the kosher or halaal mandates, most factory-farmed, slaughterhouse animals are off-limits, as well as meat-based meals in most restaurants. Only in Christianity is the Holy Book frequently misinterpreted to mean God gave us animals to eat, and to have no concern for their care. It’s a cavalier attitude that is often reinforced by the ubiquitous church BBQ fund raisers. “God gave us dominion over animals, so we have a right to eat them,” I have been told by numerous “Christians.” In fact, I have even been told I’m non-Christian if I don’t!
Fellowship? I didn’t know any other vegetarians back in 2001. I knew they existed – someone besides me had to be buying all those vegetarian cookbooks! I met a few on vegetarian message boards on the internet. But I never actually met any face to face. The first Charlotte vegetarian meetup group – VegCharlotte – was not founded until June, 2007.
Fast forward to May 12, 2012….
Some things have changed, some things remain the same. Charlotte is certainly a lot more ethnically, culturally, and spiritually diverse, which is reflected in a sizeable choice of ethnic markets. Harris Teeter grocery stores, which dominate the market, all have sizeable selections of vegetarian, vegan, and international foods and spices. A restaurant critic’s list of “top restaurants” in Charlotte usually includes Bill Spoon’s BBQ, Price’s Chicken Coop, a number of fancy steakhouses (Morton’s, Sullivan’s, Ruth’s Chris), and “four diamond” restaurants like Zebra, where you can get veal, lamb, and three kinds of foie gras. BUT we also have Zizi’s (a vegan deli), and Fern, an all-vegetarian restaurant. Plus numerous veg-friendly Indian, Thai, Asian fusion, sushi, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican restaurants … Vegetarianism, which used to be so hard, is now almost a no-brainer and it’s veganism everyone is striving for. And not only do I have many vegetarian and vegan friends (and a veg partner), I am now the organizer of that very first groundbreaking vegetarian/vegan meetup group … VegCharlotte.
And, on May 10, I found myself at Charlotte’s very first Vegfest! Badly advertised, with almost no publicity, it still pulled a crowd of several hundred people. Held in the back of Eco-Licious, it featured various vendors – Chelly’s Cakes-n-Pastries, Zizi’s Awesome Vegan to Go, Mobile Soul, Fountain of Youth Foods, Savory Spice Shop, Nourish catering, Carolina Green Supply …. none of which even EXISTED when I went veg! It was the most amazing feeling, being surrounded by so many like-minded people!
Yes, Vegfest could have been better. The flyers had advertised live music, and there was no music at all. Vendors, having underestimated the crowd, began running out of food by noon. The organizers of Vegfest were thinking too small. And it’s time for vegetarians and vegans in Charlotte to start thinking BIG!!
Gandhi said you need to be the change you want to see in the world. I’m proud to be part of the change that’s happening in Charlotte. And I’d love to have you join me!