OKC’s Vegetarian Bounty
In praise of minimizing meat
Photos by Carli Wentworth
Illustration by Chad Crowe
Hey, guess what? Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones” is a vegetarian. So are Betty White and Natalie Portman. So is Joe Namath. Vegetarians in history include Rosa Parks, Mr. Rogers, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Pythagoras (thanks for the theorem). Vegetarian writer, philosopher and historian Voltaire said, “Men fed upon carnage, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and arid blood, which drives them mad in a hundred different ways.” What he meant is, you are what you eat.
Can you see where this is heading? While 405’s enthusiastic carcass eater, Greg Horton, will eloquently argue otherwise (see page 62), and while many of you won’t give up eating meat until it’s pried from your cold, dead hands, there is mounting evidence that what we’ve long suspected is true: vegetarianism rules.
“Based on what I know, I should be a vegetarian,” says the University of Oklahoma’s Dr. David Sabatini, David Ross Boyd professor and Sun Oil Company endowed chair and director of OU’s Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Center.
“We know that producing meat for consumption uses much more water than plant crops like rice, soybeans or potatoes. Meat production leaves a bigger carbon footprint, but also a larger water footprint. To produce one kilogram of potatoes, it takes 500 liters of water. One kilogram of soybeans takes 1,600 liters, and the same amount of rice requires 1,900 liters.
“A kilogram of poultry takes 3,500 liters of water, and one kilogram of beef takes 15,000 liters of water,” he says. “There is no question that a vegetarian lifestyle is more environmentally conscious than a meat-eating diet.”
Another, grosser environmental hazard of the beef industry are CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations.
“I have colleagues who are interested in CAFOs, because the negative impact of animal waste becomes very severe when it’s concentrated. You really see a large, damaging impact to the environment with confined animal feeding operations,” says Sabatini.
All that poo and pee, as much as 1.6 million tons per year per operation, according to the Center for Disease Control’s publication Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities, can wreak havoc in several important categories.
“Human health can suffer because of contaminated air and degraded water quality, or from diseases spread from farms. Quality of life can suffer because of odors or insect vectors surrounding farms, and property values can drop, affecting the financial stability of a community,” reads one paragraph.
So, OK, yikes. Not the best for the environment. But if done in a non-factory manner, raising animals for slaughter is slightly better. Probably no way to get around giving them water, though.
But You Won’t Get Enough Protein. Or Will You?
“There are 20 essential amino acids that the human body does not make; we get them from food,” says Catherine Palmer, OSU-OKC’s nutritional sciences department head. “There is an old misconception that if you don’t eat meat, you won’t get all of those 20, or ‘complete’ proteins, unless you combine certain foods. We now know that we don’t have to, because the liver stores essential amino acids, so as long as you are eating a well-rounded diet, you’ll get plenty of protein.”
Turns out, though, that if you did want to get all 20 essential aminos in one bite, you could do it with tofu or quinoa. “Both of those actually are what we used to call a complete protein,” Palmer says.
And, she added, we eat many more foods today that are fortified, meaning that another old saw about vegetarians not getting enough iron or minerals is also kaput. “It depends on the type of vegetarian diet you’re following, but there are really no downsides if you do it right,” she says. “But you can also be a vegan and be really unhealthy. Did you know that Oreos are vegan?” No, we did not, but let us rejoice!
The quintessential Hortonian eating plan, followed fervently by many of our fellow Oklahomans – meat and potatoes – easily can leave you depleted. “There is no vitamin C in a traditional meat and potatoes diet,” Palmer says. “You can only get vitamin C in fruits and vegetables. You also won’t get any antioxidants, like vitamin E, which may help us fight against cancer.”
Once Limp and Steamed, OKC’s Vegetarian Scene Blossoms
“We launched the first vegetarian entrée at Cheever’s in 2000. It wasn’t an item we gave a lot of focus to, so it was the standard, token grilled vegetable plate. We thought our sauces were creative, but really it was pretty sad,” says Good Egg Group’s co-founder Keith Paul. Paul and his wife Heather are the creative force behind many of the metro’s favorite eateries including Red PrimeSteak, Cheever’s, Republic Gastropub, Kitchen 324, Tucker’s Onion Burgers, The Drake and Iron Star.
“These days, we challenge our chefs to create thoughtful vegetarian dishes at every menu change. In fact, my favorite one right now is our new eggplant dish at Red Prime,” Paul says.
“Even our steakhouse has two really creative vegetarian entrees, the eggplant and a great chile relleno.
“Our chefs love it because it pushes them outside of their wheelhouse creatively, and lets them showcase their talent. It’s fun to let them spread their wings. We are seeing a trend toward more and more vegetarian and gluten-free customers, so we just adjust. And as Heather and I have spent more time in the L.A. area, we’re seeing more ways to serve vegetables and more vegetable-based entrees.”
The black bean stack at Republic is a decent seller, although it stays in the bottom 25 percent of menu item sales. Cheever’s quinoa and avocado salad, on the other hand, consistently sells in the top 50 percent. “It’s not really fair to judge vegetarian items that way, though, because there isn’t a huge population that is going to eat that way. We have the ingredients on hand anyway, so we just have fun with them.”
More insight from this Good Egg: Broccolini sells great, which surprises Paul a little. People love beets and root vegetables, and Kitchen 324’s kale Caesar is the No. 2 selling salad in the company. “We’re doing things you just wouldn’t have seen 15 years ago. I find myself eating vegetarian two or three times a week. It’s not hard, and it’s fun to experiment. My favorite dish right now is the new eggplant at Red PrimeSteak. It’s grilled, and roasted with garlic puree, and it’s seasoned with garam masala. It’s so good.”
Other restaurants hopping on the lentil train are Picasso’s in the Paseo Arts District – which may have actually started the lentil train – and Vast, the fancy restaurant atop the Devon Tower. Picasso’s offers an entire menu section filled with creative vegetarian and vegan entrees, like the crispy and satisfying chicken-fried Portobello served with vegan cream gravy and fries.
Under the culinary eye of longtime Oklahoma City chef Kurt Fleischfresser, whose culinary masterpieces include co-founding Metro Wine Bar & Bistro and Coach House, Vast now offers vegan items on its regular menu, and Chef Kevin Le has experimented with vegan menus of late.
So it would appear that these days, when it comes to vegetarian dining in the 405, the sky truly is the limit.
► Young, Vegetarian ... But Don’t Call Him Green
Patrick Clark, II, is part owner and chef at The Red Cup on Classen, which serves breakfast and lunch … and is the only completely vegetarian restaurant in town. “We are 100-percent vegetarian and 99-percent vegan,” Clark says.
At 24, he may seem green, but Clark has been cooking at The Red Cup since he was a wee sprout of 16. He attended culinary school, and in 2011 became a part owner of the Cup, with an eye toward elevating its food even further. “We are about to launch a new menu, which is mostly vegan. We went completely vegetarian around 2010, and our challenge was to do it in a way that didn’t alienate our meat eaters, so we transitioned them with fake meat options,” Clark says.
Now that everyone’s comfortable, he’s taking it up another notch with the addition of the Green Plate, coming in March. It’s a moderately priced, three-course dinner series, and everything is gourmet vegetarian or vegan. “It’s more satisfying to experiment with vegan food than meat. I view meat as a monster,” Clark says.
The Green Plate is the offspring of the Red Cup Supper Club, which unofficially began in March, and will conclude early in 2017. “In February, we have our annual Un-Valentine’s Banquet, and then we started hosting a dinner on the third Thursday of each month. We keep it small, 18 people at the most, and it’s an eight-course, small-plate meal, at $65 per person. We realized that even though that price is a great value, it’s still a little exclusive, so we are changing the model. We will keep the Green Plate dinners at $35 per person.”
Clark thinks it’s a shame that most of OKC’s fine dining restaurants are steakhouses, and it angers him that exquisite, beautifully prepared food is often priced out of a regular Joe’s budget.
“There is always something anyone can afford at Red Cup, and it’s well-prepared. To exclude people from dining well, on beautiful food, because of money is absurd,” he says. “One way to lower cost is to cook vegan.”
He happily tells a story about a man coming in to The Red Cup and asking how many pieces are in an order of bacon. “Our employee looked at him, and without missing a beat, she said ‘Zero.’”
► The Legend of the Pauls Valley Vegan
Life as a small-town vegan in Oklahoma can be harder than a diamond in an ice storm. In fact, there are those who deny that such a creature even exists. 405 found one, and followed a trail of lettuce leaves and pumpkin seeds until we caught up with her.
Tara Kirby is an occupational therapist living in Pauls Valley. She spends her days driving from home to home, helping people regain control of their lives and limbs. She also eats her share of limbs, leaves, tubers, shoots and nuts, because she’s not only a vegan, she also follows the fantastically healthy whole food, plant-based diet, which takes run-of-the-mill veganism and kicks it up a notch – or 10.
“‘Whole food, plant-based’ means I don’t use oils, or refined foods like flour or sugar,” Kirby says. “I’ve done it for a year, but was working up to it for two years before that, by eating vegan.” Her reason is simple: her health.
On the recommendation of her doctor, Kirby went to hear Oklahoma City’s whole food guru, and one of the founders of the group Plant Based OKC, Dr. Jimmy Conway. The group meets monthly, and welcomes anyone veg-curious.
“After I heard him speak, I decided the effort was worth it. My mother has heart disease, and both of my parents are diabetic. I’ve lost 100 pounds so far, and when I was pregnant, I only gained three pounds but got gestational diabetes. I walk into my patients’ homes and see 30 drugs on the table, and I don’t want that.”
An admirable attitude to be sure, but Kirby gets extra points for doing it in Pauls Valley, a small town like many in rural Oklahoma: full of fast food, processed food and lots of meat. People here eat the way they’ve always eaten, either ignoring or unaware of the hazards of a carcass-based diet. “I try not to have to eat out in Pauls Valley. I try to plan when I’m going to eat out and go to Oklahoma City. If I try it here, I get stuck with iceberg lettuce and beans.”
She works around her town’s dietary proclivities by prepping meals on the weekends and subscribing to Bountiful Baskets, a national food co-op that gives participants fresh fruits and vegetables each week for just $15 per basket or $25 if the basket is certified organic.
“I always pack food,” she says. “Since I’m working from my car, I bring salads and other raw vegetables that I don’t have to heat. If I forget and get stuck in Pauls Valley or Wynnewood, I’m stuck, so I stock my car with nuts and snacks that will keep.”
► Non-Meat Eaters: A Field Guide
Vegetarian, vegan, raw … what does it all mean? Read on, friends. Feel free to tear this out and keep it in your wallet.
Does not eat animals of any kind – including fish, which are animals. Eats no animals. Often eats eggs and dairy, though. Wears leather, but not exclusively.
Eats no animals of any kind, like her vegetarian brethren, but takes it a step further and eats no products made by animals. So no honey, eggs, milk or cheese. May also reject wearing leather. And if they don’t, it seems reasonable to wonder why.
Ups the game even further. No animals, no animal products, and nothing that has been heated more than 118 degrees Fahrenheit, with the idea that cooking destroys vital micronutrients. Many raw vegans also feel spiritually or environmentally called to eat this way.
This group eats fruits, nuts and seeds. No animals or animal products. If you don’t eat meat or animal products and your diet consist of 75 percent fruit (or more), you can correctly call yourself a fruitarian. You will be hard pressed to find a chubby fruitarian.
These folks don’t eat land animals, but they do eat fish and shellfish. They generally do eat dairy, eggs and honey.
Flexitarians or part-time vegetarian
These diets include meat, but usually in a fairly limited fashion. Flexitarians tend to eat meat once or twice a week, or only when they eat at a restaurant, or only if the meat comes from a reliable source – but the vast majority of their meals are vegetarian.