Kale and potatoes: Baltimoreans embrace vegetarian cuisine
It hasn’t always been easy being a vegetarian in a meat and crab cake town like Baltimore.
“Twelve years ago, you’d be lucky to find maybe one soy milk in the grocery store,” says Baltimore vegan Aaron Ross. “Now even chain stores have choices — sometimes even whole aisles dedicated to vegetarian options.”
Along with the growing number of choices for the herbivore consumer, Ross points to more evidence that vegetarianism is gaining currency: Baltimore City last month became the first “Meatless Monday” public school system in the U.S. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is one of the partners in the effort.
Baltimore’s soul may still be made of meat and crab cakes, but the city has seen more vegetarian-friendly restaurants, groups, and activities springing up around town. They include Liquid Earth
in Fells Point, Mount Vernon’s Land of Kush
and One World Cafe
in Charles Village.
The real fuel behind the mini-explosion in vegetarianism may be coming from an unlikely source: meat eaters. According to Baltimore’s Vegetarian Resource Group, one-third of Americans identify themselves as flexitarian, or someone who sticks with vegetarian food most of the time, but also eats meat. The national Meatless Monday campaign and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman’s book “Vegan Before 6” have enticed many meat eaters to become part-time vegetarians. One contestant on this season’s “The Next Food Network Star” is pitching a show cooking mostly vegetarian foods.
“In the last five years there’s really been an explosion,” in eating vegetarian, says Ross, co-director of the Maryland Human League
. The group promotes a vegetarian lifestyle through community outreach and distributes a Vegetarian Starter Guide. “The public is becoming more aware.”
Ross has the numbers to prove it. More than 2,000 people came to the Humane League’s third annual VegFest in April. That’s more than double the attendance of the festival’s first year. Exhibitors included Mercy for Animals, Field Roast Grain Meats and the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. B-More Alive
, Mango Grove
and the Land of Kush
served falafel, Indian vegetable curries and vegetarian citrus "ribs" smothered in homemade barbeque sauce.
Other events cater to local vegans and vegetarians. Baltimore Vegan Drinks
is a monthly happy hour held at vegetarian-friendly venues. The next event will be held June 20 at Mr. Chan’s Szechuan Restaurant in Pikesville.
“It’s about raising awareness and getting to meet vegans in your community,” says one of the organizers Nicole Creech. “But mostly, it’s fun.”
Don Robertson has been running a monthly series of potluck and educational dinners through the Baltimore branch of vegetarian advocacy group EarthSave
for the past nine years. In the last few years, he says, his vegan membership has more than doubled. “We used to have half as many vegans as vegetarians,” he says. “I used to think that we [Baltimore] were all about meat and potatoes and very traditional. But that has really changed in recent times. I think people are more interested in meditation, yoga, personal fitness and veganism.”
An increasing number of non-vegetarian restaurants are now offering more vegetarian choices besides the standard grilled vegetable plate.
“It’s definitely not as hard to be vegan as it used to be,” Creech says. “Gordon Biersch has a vegan menu. Chazz has vegan things. Brick Oven Pizza offers vegan cheese. Now, if I were to go in to Ruth’s Chris and ask for a vegan dish they would probably laugh at me. But so many more places are accommodating now.”
And many restaurants are accommodating vegetarians because it’s good for their business. Zia’s Cafe
in Towson, a mostly vegetarian restaurant, has seen uptick in the number of flexitarian customers, Owner Daniela Troia says.
“I have people call me and say, ‘What do we do? What do we eat?’” To help answer that question, Troia offers a three-day raw food meal plan, featuring dishes like her raw vegan “live” lasagna and mock tuna salad. “I say, ‘try it for three days and see how it makes you feel.’” She also hosts a popular series of vegan potlucks. The next one will be held on June 8.
That said, Zia’s also has meat on the menu. “I want to provide a place where people can eat together,” she explains. “I’ve definitely had moments where I want to be a solely vegan restaurant, but we attract different people and they are being educated. We want to be accepting.”
Adam Pierce, executive chef of vegan mainstay Great Sage
in Clarksville, says he’s seen his customers double in the past two years, which he attributes to the growing numbers of non-vegans interested in a cleaner way of eating. “People are becoming more health conscious,” he believes.
Indeed, people’s motivations for embracing a vegan lifestyle tend to fall along generational lines. Ross says that in his experience younger, college-aged vegetarians are attracted to the animal welfare and ethical reasons for giving up meat, while older people tend to be concerned with the health aspects of leading a vegan lifestyle.
But whatever the reason, as long as local chefs continue to deliver delicious vegan and vegetarian meals, chances are more and more people will continue to explore a meat-free way of eating — at least some of the time.
After all, as Pierce points out, vegans and flexitarians alike flock to Great Sage for his tasty and creative cuisine, like the crispy tempeh bacon BLTs or homemade seitan stewed in barbecue sauce. One of his most popular items is my mushroom stroganoff with potato gnocchi,” says Pierce. “It sells out. Good food draws everyone, doesn’t it?”
Tracey "Trix" Middlekauff is a freelance writer, editor and food photographer. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest International, Urbanite, and Epicurious.com. She writes the food and travel blog TastyTrix.com and is the recipe columnist for Style magazine
All photographs by STEVE RUARK.
Click photos to read captions.