airports, conference center dining halls, missing my kitchen
I’ve been traveling. For the first time since before Covid, the “House of Bishops” gathered in person for our semi-annual meeting. The “House” is made up of all the bishops in the church who are currently serving and those who are retired (“resigned”). Twice a year, all those who are currently serving and some of the resigned bishops who are available, get together for study, prayer, worship and fellowship. For our meeting last week, we gathered at a diocesan camp and conference center, Camp Allen, that is an hour north of Houston. The skies were bright blue, the temperatures were in the mid to high seventies, the spring flowers were in full bloom and the morning chorus of songbirds were a living soundtrack for our morning walks. It was joyful to be together again, to see old friends and to meet new ones (there were many new bishops among us who had been elected and consecrated since our last in-person meeting).
I called ahead to ask about their kitchen’s ability to provide for a “plant-based diet.”
I was assured that it was not a problem.
And it wasn’t.
There was almond milk and soy milk for our coffee. There were salads with olive oil and vinegar for dressing. The menu posted at the head of the buffet line each night noted what items were suitable- if at all- for Vegetarians, Vegans, and those following a Gluten-free diet. And, at the bottom of the menu on some nights, there was a single line that said: “Vegan Option available.” The few of us in the House who follow a vegan diet learned to ask politely: “Vegan Option, please,” and that triggered a mysterious process where one of the servers disappeared into the kitchen and, a few minutes later, returned with something on a plate, sliding it to us under the sneeze guard. At first, this caused a great hold-up as the non-Vegans politely waited in line behind the plant-eaters. We soon learned to detour the others around us and to minimize the kerfuffle. We never were told what our vegan plates would deliver- it was kind of exciting to see what would appear each night.
I appreciated the camp’s kindness to those of us who, living in cattle country for a week, eschewed their well-aged meats and bacon and fried chicken and catfish… and put ourselves in their hands.
Of the plant-based meals, I discovered that there were three basic options: 1) chicken-like fingers that were deep fried, 2) beef-like material that was very versatile 3) a round patty masquerading as a fish cake. All of these items were, I think, wheat based.
The chicken fingers came one night with a side of BBQ sauce and beans, cowboy style. On another night they paired up with some sweet and sour sauce, nestled next to a scoop of white rice with peas and scallions, Asian style. And on a third occasion, they had spaghetti sauce and vegan cheese on them, going for an Italian themed “chicken parmesan.”
The beef showed up one night as a good ole’ hamburger in a bun. On another night it came crumbled over pasta with a red sauce and basil, and on a third evening- our final banquet at which most diners had giant rib eye steaks from real cows- we had the burger patty presented “Salisbury Steak style” with sauteed mushrooms and onions on top. It was actually pretty good.
The fish cake? It only showed up once, on a bed of mashed potatoes. I’m not complaining.
But here’s the thing: there was a lot of other food in that dining hall. TONS of food, literally, set out for us all to enjoy: Chocolate cake with frosting. Peach cobbler. Garlic bread. Broccoli with cheese. Corn muffins. Macaroni and Cheese. Ice cream. None of it vegan-friendly.
When one adopts a plant-based diet, there is more that is erased from the menu than meaty main dishes. All those sides made with eggs, milk, butter, cheese, honey… they were off limits, too, and it was hard not to eat them.
I made a couple of “mistakes.” I took a corn muffin one day and, after the first bite, realized that it probably had eggs and milk in it. I bit into a garlic breadstick and discovered that there was parmesan cheese dusted on it. I didn’t finish either of these items, but put them down and felt sorry for myself. I love bread.
Flying to and from camp was also an adventure. The one slightly intriguing restaurant in the Atlanta airport that might have been a good choice, “Garbanzos,” was shut up tight, its metal grate pulled down and locked. No beans for me. I ate my Larabar pulled out of the bottom of my purse, and couldn’t wait to be back in my kitchen.
I always miss my kitchen when I travel. Cooking is my primary hobby- along with hiking which burns off the calories from the kitchen- and I miss the creative opportunity to create meals each day.
When I got home I headed to the grocery store. Kale. Asparagus. Peas. Black beans. Rotini. Tofu. Almonds. Cashew yogurt. Oat milk. Carrots. Broccoli. Green beans. Ahhh.
Lest this all sound like vegan whining, let me say that I learned a lot. I learned about the generosity and graciousness of a camp staff to accommodate a diet that is not contextual, I learned more about my “why” of veganism, and how the “why” informs the practice. I could have eaten the rest of that corn muffin. No one would have noticed. I’m not allergic to eggs or milk. But I thought about my first “why” (seeking to make a radical change that can strengthen me, spiritually and mentally) and my evolving “whys” (environmental benefits of plant-based eating, health benefits for my body) and I was glad for the opportunity to deepen my resolve and my practice.
I also went horseback riding at camp on our free afternoon. In the past I have done the trail rides at camp without blinking. This time, as I rode through the piney forests, I wondered how this practice would be regarded by those following a vegan lifestyle. To vegans, animals are friends, and they are to be respected and not to be used for entertainment. That’s why vegans eschew rodeos and zoos. This was a little different than pushing the uneaten corn muffin to the side of the plate. I couldn’t really jump off old “Shaq” and tell him to make his way back to the barn without me because I’d had a sudden vegan-epiphany. And so we rode on, and I patted his neck, all shiny and warm from the sun, and I thought kind thoughts about the work that he was doing lugging me up and down the hills of our trail in the soft red dirt. Thanks, Shaq.
I’m learning. I’m growing. It’s an adventure.
Here are some pics from my walks at camp, most of which took place before dawn. And a shot of my first night’s dinner back home.