A Variety of Vegetation: An analysis of meat-free options on and around campus

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BY EMMA JESZKE

Published January 9, 2011

Less than 3 percent of Americans keep a vegetarian or vegan diet. Because the vegetarian and vegan population is a small minority, members claim they're often misunderstood by meat lovers.

All over the country, it’s up to vegetarians and vegans to do their homework to find where they can eat in public. But in a progressive city like Ann Arbor — whose reputation is built on the liberal persona of townies and students bashing with hash and frequenting farmer's markets — it would seem that the veggie-movement would be at the forefront of the University and city’s dining scene.

But if the city and the University were to duke it out for the gold medal in veggie-friendliness, it appears that Ann Arbor takes home first prize.

Ann Arbor is home to three exclusively vegetarian restaurants with many places having vegetarian-friendly options to be enjoyed by herbivores and omnivores alike.

University alum Ananth Pullela recently opened Jazzy Veggie, the most recent all-vegan eatery on Main Street.

“My vision was always meant to make this a very mainstream, fast, casual eatery — not a very upscale vegetarian dining experience with pricey food,” he said. “I wanted this to be a place where people could just grab a bite — a burger or a pizza — it just so happens that it’s all plant-based.”

Pullela, a lifelong vegetarian, explained he was disheartened about vegetarian food options after moving to America.

“When I first came to this country, I had to temporarily eat meat because I was kind of starving,” he said. “You go to McDonald’s, and you can’t get anything else.”

Pullela wanted to create a restaurant where people could find a variety of options — sans animal fat and cholesterol — all underneath one roof. As a former University student and resident of Ann Arbor, he knew there was a vegetarian population here to cater to.

“There aren’t many choices out there, especially for vegans,” he said. “So here, people can come to eat in groups — omnivores, vegetarians, vegans — and find something for everybody.”

Jazzy Veggie makes all of its pizza crust, sauces and dressings from scratch, uses Zingerman’s Delicatessen bread for sandwiches and capitalizes on the variety of vegetable-based proteins available to create a menu of familiar, American food. His trademark lies within the flavorful twist he specializes for each dish.

“The ingredients are all gourmet,” he said. “I wanted to bring all the flavors and sauces traditionally associated with meat options to the vegetarian side. This is not your average veggie burger — a patty thrown on a bun with some greens, tomato and ketchup. A lot of ingredients go into it.”

Pullela emphasized that though he and his restaurant choose to avoid animal products, he isn’t running an anti-meat campaign.

“Different people have different lifestyle choices,” he said. “I’m not advocating veganism or vegetarianism here. I’m just offering food that’s flavorful for everybody.

“We’re not offering ‘vegan’ food — it’s good food. That’s how I like to be seen.”

For some vegan and vegetarian students at the University, like Public Policy junior Joe Varilone, living in Ann Arbor has gone beyond simply supporting a distinct lifestyle choice: It has brought other ethical food questions to the forefront — especially as it relates to the environment.

“Living in Ann Arbor and talking to people, I think it has affected other ways I eat besides just being vegan,” said Varilone, who is also the president of the Michigan Animal Rights Society. “It has definitely made me aware of issues in organic agriculture versus the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, pesticides and insecticides."

Varilone’s top picks for vegan cuisine are Big Ten Burrito for its vegetarian rice and bean burrito and Raja Rani for its channa masala stocked with chick peas — two dishes rich in protein, which is a must for Varilone when eating out.

LSA junior Lyndsay De Carolis, a vegetarian, prefers Chipotle for her black bean fix because the restaurant uses local vegetables and organic beans whenever possible.

Other popular choices among vegan students: Seva Restaurant on East Liberty Street, an all-vegetarian restaurant, Sava’s State Street Café which offers three types of veggie burgers and Mia Za’s on East University Avenue which provides pasta and salad choices that are generally vegetarian or easily modified. Most ethnic restaurants around the city and campus are also vegan-friendly, nutritious and affordable.

Earthen Jar offers an all-vegetarian Indian buffet, No Thai’s menu, with locations on South University Avenue, North 4th Avenue and Plymouth Road, includes noodle or stir-fry dishes with tofu, Jerusalem Garden on South 5th Avenue serves a falafel and hummus sandwich and Sadako on South University Avenue offers a vegetable roll and miso soup. A vegan sweet tooth can be fixed at Silvio’s Organic Pizza on North University Avenue with its vegan cheesecake, chocolate mousse and cookies.

Though most of Ann Arbor is fairly conducive to the veggie lifestyle, not every restaurant complies. For vegan restaurant goers, variety and complexity of vegan-friendly options is key in making a restaurant attractive.

“At a restaurant, I like to have a meal that doesn’t just take out the meat but replaces it with something like tofu or tempeh,” De Carolis said. “That’s why I like Noodles & Co. because I can get spaghetti with tofu in it, not just noodles with no protein source.”

Vegetarians and vegans who rely on the dining halls and other campus eateries as a food source aren’t always as fortunate. The options available within University Unions are generally a meatfest, with fast food restaurants like Wendy’s and Panda Express dominating the choices. Most vegan and vegetarian students also concur that the meat-free options available at the majority of dining halls are mediocre at best.

“I found the options available in the dining halls limited, and the options that were available were kind of gross,” said De Carolis, who lived in South Quad Residence Hall as a freshman. “During lunch they always had this cold tofu available which, after a while, you don’t have any variety with — you can’t do anything but put it on some rice with soy sauce.”

Many students are discouraged by the unappetizing appearance of vegetarian and vegan options, which cause non-vegetarians to scoff at those who eat the dining halls’ vegetarian options.

“I think I’m the only vegetarian my friends know, so (in the dining hall) they’d be like, ‘that’s so gross, why do you eat that?’ ” De Carolis said. “It gave them the impression that being a vegetarian makes you a very narrow person in terms of what you can eat.

“Now I live with them, so they understand there are more options. But if that’s the only food non-vegetarians see, it’s a very narrow impression of what being a vegetarian is.”

LSA junior Lauren Morrison believes common misconceptions about vegetarianism and veganism hold back the University and its students from trying animal-free diet.

“There is a belief that it’s more expensive to have vegan options, but that’s usually not the case,” Morrison said. “I think more options in the dining halls would encourage people to eat healthier and to consider veganism as not this super weird way to live, but as something that’s normalized and healthier.”

However, University alum Rodolfo Palma, who worked for the University for seven years, has noticed changes for the better in on campus vegan dining from his time as an undergraduate.

Palma lives in Ann Arbor with his two children and wife, all of whom are vegan, and he would occasionally eat in the dining hall as a University employee. Like most vegetarians, his residence hall of choice is East Quad Residence Hall. The selection vegetarian-friendly dishes is new since his time here at the University.

“When I was a student first eating in the dorms, I remember the one thing I could always have was pasta,” Palma said. “And now, when I was eating in East Quad a lot as a staff member, the food was just amazing — I was surprised.”

Palma explained that as an active member of the Michigan Animal Rights Society as a student, there was a large push for labeling vegan food in the dining halls and having more vegan options.

While he admits what he ate as a staff member in East Quad wasn’t exactly gourmet, he was delighted by the diversity and availability of options — something he and MARS fought for.

Varilone has organized recent efforts with MARS to encourage students who may not be vegan or vegetarian to support the meatless options available in the residence halls. Last winter, Varilone and MARS orchestrated a program with East Quad called "Meatless Mondays" to reinforce their cause.

On Mondays, MARS set up a table outside the East Quad Dining Hall and informed students of the benefits of a plant-based diet and the dining options available.

“We tried to coordinate 'Meatless Mondays' with specific menu options that were vegan that we thought students would find especially good or appetizing,” he said.

Some vegans are also finding choices in the dining halls outside of East Quad. Engineering junior Samantha Luber switched to a vegan lifestyle and saw the dining halls as a resource.

“Because there are such good vegan availabilities at the dining halls, it has actually given me different ideas of what I can be eating,” she said. “When I first came to school I brought a lot of canned food and granola bars because I wasn’t really sure what to expect in terms of availability for vegan food … But then, I found that a lot of the places are really helpful in making salads and other things of that nature that are vegan.”

Palma explained that an apprehension toward vegan food stems solely from labeling the items as such — therefore making omnivores assume because it’s labeled vegan, the food is “foreign or different.”

“We were in charge of getting dessert for Christmas dinner,” Palma said. “We got these pies which happened to be vegan, which happened to be the Meijer brand apple and blueberry pies. (My nephews) refused to eat the pie that they would normally eat because it happened to be vegan.”

Palma noted that much of the food omnivores eat is already vegan.

“Vegetarianism is not the lifestyle that a lot of people think of,” De Carolis said. “People think of really granola-hippie people that don’t want to eat meat. But I’m completely normal — at least I think so — it’s just a lifestyle choice I happen to believe in.”