The Library of Table

Given an infinite combination of games & food . . .

Vegan With Strangers

SufferbusIn the summer of 2000, I went on a month long bike ride with a friend down the Mississippi. It was quite a feat. Many adventures were had, each and every day. Sometimes twice a day. I’ll probably talk about them more on this here blog when I’ve got  the time. Especially as the summer of 2010 approaches and I come to the horrifying realization that it’s been ten years since that trip.

But in the spirit of VeganMoFo, I want to talk a bit about what it was like being a vegan biking into the deepest South in ’00.

I’m not a “be prepared” kind of Boy Scout. I’m more of a “earn the merit badge for astronomy and then quit” kind of Boy Scout. The bike I rode was not well designed for such a journey. I borrowed it from my mom, so it was a girl’s bike. The sort that’s missing the crossbar that gives it structural integrity. And with around 100 extra pounds of camping gear and what not, you really feel that missing integrity.

I also didn’t train for the trip. Except for one little 10-mile bike ride a month before we left, I had not ridden my bike since I was in high school, nearly a decade earlier. That first week was brutal. Every moment of every day I was hoping for an injury that would allow me to beg off the trip and retain my honor. A broken leg, a mild concussion, perhaps just a brush with death where I lose my bike under truck careening down a Minnesotan hill.

No such luck.

The Perfect Way to Brighten Up Truck Stop Marinara

This was the sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, live-in-the-moment bullshit we survived on during the trek. With the  exception of a package of spaghetti and a can of marinara sauce we regularly purchased for our dinner from truck stops and gas stations along the way, we really never quite knew where our next meal would be coming from.

This was a scary prospect for a vegan. Especially in those dark ages before Vegan With a Vengeance, when even vegans were a bit unclear about what vegans ate. (I mean, back then a bran muffin with carob on top was considered a cupcake. Fuck! I’m not sure how I survived.)

But there was some magic in this trip. Everywhere we went, people were just about as warm and inviting as they possibly could be.

Well, not everywhere.

There was an observable correlation between how affluent a neighborhood was and how likely we’d be told to move along. But these few moments of inhospitality were far overshadowed by the overwhelming kindness of strangers.

I’m talking frequency and amplitude here. People were not just kind often, but their generosity was titanic in proportions. Seriously. One night in Illinois this couple gave us an entire house–to ourselves–to weather out a stormy night in. Bike shops all along the great Mississippi repaired our bikes for free, even when it meant adding new parts. Some dude in Louisiana gave us money because Jesus told him to. It was pretty humbling.

And food. People were constantly offering us food. And here I was, the douche with the zany diet. My biking partner wasn’t vegan and he was all about trying new foods. So we ended up in all sorts of highly vegan unfriendly places. And I had learned, in my few years as a vegan up to that point, to be timid when confronted with these sorts of situations. After all, saliva is an animal product, so I want to avoid provoking anyone into spitting into my food.

But hunger slew my timidity. And after biking nigh 90 miles a day, you learn to be a little blunt about your diet. Blunt but not defensive. I just had to explain plainly what I could and couldn’t have. And to my surprised, people cheerily responded with delicious vegan food. (If you’re ever in Ripley, Tennessee, do yourself a favor and have a local tomato. Best in the world.)

One particular incident in Memphis stands out. We were in a dive bar with a soul food menu. It was pretty grim, but we planned to spend a couple days in town, so if I couldn’t find food here, I didn’t have to bike off on an empty stomach. When I say dive, I mean dive. Boarded up windows. Black & white TV bolted high in a corner set between channels. A pool table that the cook had to pick up and drop to dislodge the balls.

The cook, by the by, was a mountain of a man. Stared at the TV with a grimace on his face as he took your order. Didn’t speak at all when my biking partner went first. Just nodded without breaking eye-contact with the static. Then I stepped up to the plate. Carefully explained what my situation was. No animal products, like dairy or eggs or meat.

And then I held my breath.

This was the moment I had been training for my whole vegan life. I started revving my righteous indignation so I’d have something to land on when he threw my carrot-eating ass out. I was about to become a martyr.

He laughed a deep Ghost of Christmas Present laugh, winked and told me he’d take care of me.

Next thing I know, I’m enjoying a plate of rice and beans, collards, and fried plantains (for the first time, I might add). We didn’t become fast friends or anything. In fact, if I recall, he just went back to grimacing and staring at TV after we got our food.

But there’s a moral to this story somewhere, and I suspect it’s about being a bold vegan. Something, blah, blah, blah. I’m not sure. It’s late and I need to stop the rambling in this post.

The thing is, it’s not that hard to communicate what you need. I think a lot of vegans give up on strangers before trying. They just assume that they’re going to lose the dinner battle. But if you communicate clearly and politely, the vast majority of the time you’re going to find yourself eating plantains.

Oh great, now I want plantains.

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7 Comments»

  Jimbles wrote @

Great post!

  Holly wrote @

What an awesome post! I’m a deep south vegan – nice to hear you got some hospitality while you were in our neck of the woods. (I also feel you on the getting older thing!)

  Epidiah wrote @

Oh, I love the South. You know, except for the heat. There’s frost giant blood in these veins. I did get a bit acclimatized during the trip, but I only felt it when I returned to home (which at that point was Wisconsin) and felt a constant chill until I was able to put on a protective layer of winter weight.

(The getting old is compounded by my memory of feeling old on the trip. The guy I biked down with was eight years younger than me, and as spry as he was youthful. Left me in the dust most days.)

  Fee wrote @

I’m gonna go ahead and take about half credit for this. I believe it was my mere mention of my home state that stirred all of your feelings and emotions for this blog post that set you into Mofo Fame and Fortune…aaaand you’re all welcome

  Deb wrote @

Oh, this was awesome! Especially as a bike commuter with touring aspirations…I can actually feel sympathy butt-bone pains.

I’ve found the same to be true, about being bold, but the lessons were more subtle for me…and I think I therefore trust them less. I go back and forth between bold, and being a shrinking violet when it comes to my veganism with strangers.

I just found your blog through the veganmofo but now I’m going to be looking forward to your future rides down memory lane!

  Epidiah wrote @

Yeah, I still run the timid route, too. Especially at events and such. Like weddings. It’s not my wedding, and I really don’t want to be the center of attention. So I’ll just eat before hand and enjoy a dry salad, thank you very much.

We also tended to hit restaurants (the very few of them we ate in) during the slow hours, just because our biking schedule happened to work out that way. And I think that helps. When the kitchen staff is relaxed, I think they actually enjoy getting a creative challenge.

And of course, it doesn’t always work.

  veganf wrote @

LOL,. I sent my 6yo along with my husband to Memphis on business. I packed a whole suitcase full of food for him. Yet I was pleasantly surprised at how well my husband managed to convey to people what he couldn’t eat, and even some friends ended up ordering what my son was brought because it just plain looked better.


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