The food table at the “Fellowship Hall” in the Methodist Church was loaded with all sorts of tempting, homemade salads, casseroles, and other foods. It was a hazard-zone for vegetarians. It seems like most small town folks have little or no awareness that we vegetarians live among them, so I don’t blame them for scattering food bombs on the buffet line.
At this occasion, there were a few obvious vegetarian boobytraps. Hot dishes or casseroles presented hidden tidbits and ingredients. Of course, there were pork and beans. Lurking within many creamy potato or pasta dishes were poultry, tuna, pork, or beef nuggets. I was disappointed to find a tempting broccoli salad laced with chunks of bacon.
Church buffets and family potlucks yield types of Jello dishes. We find the ubiquitous green Jello with shredded carrots. Then there are the whipped Jello concoctions that are served as either salads or desserts. I’m guessing that when marshmallows are added, they’re desserts. Maybe not, it’s hard to tell. Even before I became vegetarian, I didn’t care for them. Of course, Jello and similar products are made from gelatin–a meat product. The same goes for marshmallows, unless they are specifically labled, “vegetarian”.
That potluck mainstay, chips, present a special challenge. Many of the barbecue or cheese flavored chips contain pork enzimes to stabilize the coatings, some may also contain chicken fat. When in doubt, I opt for the plain, salted chips.
If you’re attending any sort of buffet, potluck affair, or dining out, it’s a small matter to simply ask the host about any questionable dish. There’s no need to create a fuss; a subtle, discrete inquiry is all that’s needed.
Restaurants and supermarkets present their own special vegetarian boobytraps. When I’m rushed, I look for “vegan” foods. During regular trips to the grocery store, I read the ingredients lists. This is an important step, even with previously safe products. Sometimes, a manufacturer decides to “improve” or add the word “new” to the label. This might mean an animal based or mystery ingredient has been added to the product. Check the label to be certain of no boobytraps.
Boobytraps lurk in the orange juice department, too. Many of the so-called “heart healthy” juices include vitamin D. The vitamin may be derived from sheeps’ wool lanolin. The omega-3 additive might have a base from anchovies, sardines, or tilapia fish. The vitamins and additives may be vegetarian safe if they are wholy synthetic. Fresh squeezed will always be the safe bet.
Whether you find yourself in a food line or at the supermarket, beware of salad dressings. Many of them contain bacon fat. Most mainline caesar dressings contain anchovies. There are vegetarian and vegan alternatives to these. Be careful with other condiments, like Worcestershire sauce, too.
A similar situation exists with soups. Unless I’m eating in a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, I avoid them. More often than not, restaurant soups are cooked with chicken, beef, ham, or fish stock. Sadly, even vegetable soups often have beef or chicken stock. I love soup, so if I’m not making mine from scratch, I get vegetarian-friendly varieties from the grocery store.
Mexican restaurants, in particular, and ethnic Mexican supermarket products, in general, are red-flagged. Be sure and ask or check to see if the tortillas are prepared with lard. The same goes for refried beans. It’s easy to get vegetarian varieties of both products. Just check the ingredients lists.
By now, you may have noticed that there is an intersection of vegetarian with Halal and Kosher foods. A muslim or jew who needs to be wary of food ingredients will often follow the vegetarian shortcut of buying vegan foods, just to be safe.
Ovo-lacto vegetarians, those of us who sometimes include dairy and egg in our diets, have to read the cheese labels. Many cheeses are made with animal-based rennet. Rennet is the polite word for stomach enzymes obtained from slaughtered animals. When unsure, get the cheeses prepared with vegetarian rennet which is made from nutritional yeast.
Sometimes I like to enjoy a frosty, refreshing beer. Unfortunately, many beers are not vegetarian or vegan friendly. Several beers use isinglass (fish bladder) in the finishing process. Even though isinglass isn’t always present in the end product, it is still used in the recipe. My advice is to check online to find out if your favorite brewski is vegetarian friendly or not.
I’ve already mentioned Jello and marshmallows, but I haven’t mentioned some other sweet boobytraps. Sometimes jellies contain meat byproducts. This includes Gummy Bears, and Altoid Mints. There are many veggie-friendly treats available that use starches or pectin instead of gelatin, so label reading is again important.
This rough guide should help you navigate the boobytrapped food territory if you’re new to the vegetarian lifestyle or if you’re just trying it out for National Vegetarian Month, in October.
The Blue Jay of Happiness sometimes thinks about veganism, too. This thought from Chuck Pulhniuk gives pause. “Do you know why most survivors of the Holocaust are vegan? It’s because they know what it’s like to be treated like an animal.”