Mystery meat: How my search for missing taste buds led me to a Chicago vegan diner

 

Last night at this time, I was in a diner in Chicago’s Boystown district, sitting across the table from my very talented, very funny and very fast (in that marathon/triathalon kind of way) friend Molly. We were having a blast catching up after not seeing each other for two years.

But there was one undeniably strange thing about the situation. It wasn’t the circumstances that brought the two of us back together. It was that we were voluntarily doing our celebratory catching-up dinner in a vegan joint.

I’m no Anthony Bourdain when it comes to my view on veganism. I respect other people’s choice about food. For myself, however, I draw the line at vegan dishes — if I can’t have milk or eggs, that’s a deal breaker, and I don’t even want to spend my hard-earned money in a place that caters to vegan taste buds.

I’ve always eaten meat, except for about three years in my mid-20s in which I pretty much cut out pork, poultry and beef from my diet. (I am very nearly a seafood addict, so I never even considered cutting that.) I had initially cut out pork because of one bad sweet and sour pork dish I ate — it tasted like I was eating a carcass, and I was not OK with that. A while later, I cut out poultry because I didn’t like what I had heard about the way chickens and turkey were raised. I cut beef out last, because I believed that red meat wasn’t healthy.

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out that this experiment was not working. I seemed to constantly feel tired. My hair would fall out in clumps every time I washed it.

When I finally started listening to my body, though, was when I started having random thoughts of cheeseburgers (like, while driving). If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. So perhaps for the first time in my life, I really listened to my body. I reintroduced meat — all of it — and I felt much better. On every level.

Now, at the not-so-tender age of 35, I’m facing another fork in my gastronomic journey. The last year or so, I’ve felt strongly that I wanted to eat better. It seemed to be less about what I ate — because I don’t eat much fast food, and I naturally crave things that are good for you, like greens, Brussels sprouts and squash — and more about how much I ate.

Then came the game changer — the six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice.

One day off

While I have long aspired to have a six-day-a-week Ashtanga yoga practice, that resolution has gone the way of so many diets over the years — great intentions, but never actually starting.

Since returning from an Ashtanga yoga retreat at Mt. Shasta this past August, though, I’ve fought for, and so far maintained, a schedule that gives me only one rest day a week (in addition to the typical two moon days a month when you don’t practice). When I say “fought,” I mean it. It has been a battle to keep this schedule up — for six days of every week, I fight to carve out enough time to practice.

On the level of honoring traditions, I’m drawn to how this is the prescribed schedule for an Ashtanga practice. On a personal level, I’m drawn to what such a consistent practice does for my body and my mind.

But right now, I think that more than anything, I am fighting for this schedule because I want the discipline of it. I need to prove to myself that I have it in me to follow through. If six days had been something dictated by my employer, I would have done it already. I have always, on some important level, put my personal life after my professional life. I feel, first and foremost, that my responsibility is to my work — to doing a kick-ass job on whatever it is, and to meet all my deadlines. I’ve always asked my family, my friends — and, finally, myself — to understand during those times when work had to come first.

What I’m proving to myself with this six day a week practice is that I can do both — I can still rock out at work while not short-changing my personal life. Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor has reminded me that the Ashtanga practice is by design a householder’s pursuit. This practice wasn’t designed for people who could shirk off daily responsibilities.

Do you have chicken that tastes like something else?

So it’s early November now, and one thing that started happening maybe three weeks ago — so roughly eight weeks into this six-day-a-week practice — is that I have not been able to bring myself to eat chicken. I’ve been fine with beef — even had a craving the other week for my favorite burger place in Lansing. It’s just been chicken that I’ve wanted nothing to do with — something about the taste and the texture. If someone were to set a plate of Southwestern eggrolls — one of my guilty-pleasure appetizers — in front of me at this moment, I think I would look and then keep typing.

Is that a vegan menu?

This weekend, I headed to Chicago for Tim Miller’s workshops at the yogaview studio. My friend Molly very generously offered to let me crash at her place, so we had the chance to compare notes about how the past couple of years have gone. For our big dinner Saturday night, Molly ran down a long list of suggestions — awesome-sounding places that featured small plates and/or seafood. Fancy places, less fancy places, fun places. The one that sounded the best? Chicago Diner, a joint that specializes in vegan cuisine.

I had had a lovely, sweaty Timji-led Ashtanga primary series practice that morning, in a room full of more than 60 yogis all going to the flow of this practice. I left feeling amazing. I know that feeling carried me through the day, and I know that played a role in not feeling like eating anything heavy.

But vegan?

After seeing the full menu of choices including sweet potato quesadillas and a chicken firehouse wrap with “chicken” seitan, curiosity and an appreciate for creative flare and fare drew me to the place. It reminded me of Chu Chai, one of my favorite places in Montreal — a vegetarian Thai place that offers delicious faux-meat dishes.

The Chicago Diner did not disappoint. The food was fantastic. Molly and I started out with some sweet potato fries topped with “cheeze” and I had a Soul Bowl with quinoa (love that stuff!), spicy grilled tofu with chimichurri sauce, black beans, flashed greens and mashed sweet potatoes. We ended with — get this — vegan chocolate chip cookie dough shakes.

Did the dining experience make me want to go vegan or even vegetarian? Absolutely not. It did make me want to return to Chicago Diner, and it did make me reflect some more about the power of practicing six days a week. If this is already what I’m experience 11 weeks in, it’s going to be interesting.

As for chicken — will I start wanting to eat it again? We’ll see. I kind of like having this be my mystery meat for the time being.

How about you? Do you practice six days a week? What, if anything, changed for you?

(Photo credit: (Top) Wallace and Gromit‘s Feathers McGraw, as imagined on a T-shirt (Bottom) Chicago Diner’s website )  

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  1. Pingback: A response to everyone with Ashtanga ‘secrets’ « The Confluence Countdown

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