I took my Vegan Challenge on the road this week from Boulder to Pittsburgh for the Fleet Feet Conference. My goal was simple – I wanted to know how hard it would be to eat vegan in a town that isn’t Boulder. The simple answer is that it's easy, if you are okay eating very limited food choices, many of which don't taste very good. It's hard if you want yummy, easy-to-find, nutritious food.
Let me start with the airport. Your best chance of success is to bring your own non-perishable vegan food options since ther's basically nothing except black coffee and fruit. You might get lucky and stumble across a $12 salad like I did in Denver at Root Down. However, in order to add protein in the form of tofu, my small salad would have cost $19 and I couldn't justify it. On the flip side, it was actually delicious. Of course you can buy bags of nuts and other snacks, but we all know that these cost three times more than they should, so even if you’re not vegan, that’s only recommended if you're desperate or have a few bucks to burn.
Before I visited Pittsburgh, I thought it would resemble Chicago in the 80s. Lots of meat, cheese fries, beer and sports team fanatics. What I found was an incredibly cool, smaller city, socked in by beautiful rivers (okay, they were pretty polluted when you ran up close), gorgeous rolling hills and lots of green trees everywhere. And yes, I did find lots of meat, cheese fries, beer and sports team fanatics! But there were also great little restaurants and store fronts everywhere I looked. I couldn’t wait to get out there and find some vegan gems.
My first attempt was at the very cute Market Street Grocery near my hotel. I went in with high hopes. The first thing I stumbled upon was a woman sampling various flavors of macaroons. I reached for one and then realized, "Crap – these have eggs! And probably dairy too." So I moved on to the prepared food section. My mouth started watering as I viewed tasty looking scallops, beef, lamb chops, salmon, crab cakes, and more. I asked, "Do you have any tofu dishes?" The answer, "We usually do, but not today." I said, "I’m vegan. Where should I go to dinner?" I got a blank stare and this comment, "I’m pretty sure nowhere in the downtown area." Finally, one of the guys pulled up his phone and suggested thai. Thai! Of course! Tofu, rice, veggies. A vegan’s dream. I then went back and took two macaroon samples declaring that I would now be 98% vegan on this trip!
The next morning, I was lucky to join the Fleet Feet stores to a gorgeous buffet breakfast. It was a vegan dream. I had a huge bowl of steel cut oats, loads of fresh fruit, and I made a special request for soymilk which was "no problem." All I had to do was ask.
The second night, we were invited to a Pirates game. I haven't been to a ballpark in years, so I didn't know what to expect for dinner but I wanted to see how easy it would be to eat a vegan dinner inside PNC Park.
During the 5th inning, I headed to the nearest concession area and perused the menu. Vegan options included water, beer, French fries (but maybe not because who knows what’s in the deep fryer oil – and no one could tell me a decisive answer), and a soft pretzel with two tons of salt. Since I was starving, I opted for the pretzel even though it was probably brushed with butter. I later discovered that if I had time to spare, I could have found some additional options including rice and beans, a California roll and sorbet. Next time…
The next morning I woke up excited to relive my slow-cooked oats experience, only to find that they decided not to include oatmeal, so my only option was fruit and Frosted Flakes. Not cool.
I then complained on Facebook. This was a smart thing to do because I was referred to the Happy Cow app which helps you find your desired food category whenever wherever. Sadly when I typed in vegan, the closest restaurant was 6.2 miles away.
My final night in Pittsburgh was much better. It was a fancy, sit-down dinner for all of the wonderful Fleet Feet franchisees. They set the default option in front of me: beef tenderloin, veggies in cream sauce and potatoes with butter. I flagged down the server and was relieved that they had an extra vegetarian entree; turns out it was vegan, and really good!
So here’s what I learned. Don’t be afraid to say out loud, "I am a vegan," when asking for guidance in a strange town. It is often the only way you will navigate the options. Do however be prepared for the blank stares and looks of pity from people as they ask, "Well what CAN you eat honey?"
One of Skirt Sports Facebook fans, Sue M, sums it up well, "I'm a pastor's wife who is a 'closet vegan' in a very unhealthy part of the country. My all-time favorite moment came from a parishioner who was behind me in a potluck line. When she observed my all-veggie selections, she exclaimed 'Don't tell me you're one of those VEGETARIANS?!' I answered 'Heavens, no!' And thought 'I'm much worse. I'm a VEGAN!'"
Vegan is not hard to do. But it’s harder than I hoped it would be on the road in downtown Pittsburgh.