After writing my story, I decided to stop in at Cousin’s to try some raw food.
After writing my story, I decided to stop in at Cousin’s to try some raw food.
Some Like it Raw
A Look into The Ever-Growing Raw Vegan Food Movement
“80 to 100 percent of your food should not be heated above 115 degrees, all food should be unprocessed and 100 percent organic, all food should be free of any animal products.” To most of us, vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters alike, these rules may sound extreme—but a growing number of people across the world are choosing a raw vegan diet not just as detox, a cleanse, or a quick way to lose weight, but as a way of life.
According to most raw foodists, the raw food diet began, “with the dawn of man.” Before we could yield an open flame, man subsisted off of a mix of found foods like nuts, berries, greens and, if they were fast enough, raw meat (but we’ll get to that).
In terms of modern diet, however, reverting back to raw food didn’t become a “thing” until the 1980’s, and wasn’t promoted by any modern (westernized) humans until 1897 when Maximillion Oskar Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician and nutritionist, started using a diet of raw fruits and vegetables to cure patients.
According to Bercher’s biography on the City of Zurich’s website, Bercher discovered the diet when he himself suffered from jaundice and cured his ailment through a diet of raw apples.
Bercher eventually went on to open his own dietics clinic promoting a diet full of raw fruits and veggies. According his bio, this diet was in stark contrast to nutrition beliefs of the day, which focused on getting as much protein and as many calories as possible.
There were other individuals throughout Europe who promoted raw foodism at the turn in the 20th century, but they were few and far between. It wasn’t until 1936 that a dentist, Weston A. Price published Nutrition and Physical Degeneration that the first real, scientific argument for raw food came into being. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation website, Price “observed dental degeneration in the first generation who abandoned traditional nutrient dense foods which included unprocessed raw milk.” His patients, who maintained a diet including raw dairy, and sometimes raw meat, seemed to be the healthiest and have the healthiest teeth.
After years of little-known gurus here and there catching the ears of few to none, the raw diet finally hit the mainstream in the 1980’s. Books on raw juices, the benefits of eating raw berries, seeds and sprouts began to take hold in both Europe and the U.S.
The principles of raw vegan foodism align closely with those of most vegetarians and vegans—don’t use animal products or byproducts, eat organic, natural food, don’t eat too much fat—but it goes a big step further.
Raw Foodists believe that “living food” (food that has not been cooked) contains enzymes and nutrients that aid in better digestion, slow signs of aging, improve skin, teeth, and hair, increase energy, and cure illnesses from colds to cancer. They believe that cooking food above 115 degrees (or boiling point), kills healthy enzymes and in some instances, actually creates toxins that are harmful when consumed.
According to T.C. Fry, a raw-food pioneer who met a rather untimely (and controversial) death, “Only humans cook their food, and only humans suffer widespread sickness and ailments. All the diseases of civilization—cancer, heart disease, diabetes—are directly attributable to the consumption of cooked food.”
According to Dr. John Green M.D., well-known and outspoken Australian raw foodist, people on a plant-based diet are proven to be 200 times less likely to develop cancer, and 20 times less likely to develop heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Dr. Green cites controversial book The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health. The study, conducted in the early 2000’s, showed that people who lived in areas where plants served as a main source of food had better life expectancy and less disease.
“Our primate body requires mostly plants as food,” said renowned American raw foodist David Wolfe at and The Longevity Now Conference in March. His prescribed diet includes leafy greens and fruit, but he also focuses on the importance of fats, stating that bananas, avocados, and nuts are key in a healthy diet.
Wolfe has written numerous books on the topic of raw living, and has aided in the movement becoming a big celebrity trend (see Demi Moore, Alisha Silverstone, Gwyneth Paltrow).
Celebrities, published health gurus and some doctors (so, people with a hefty disposable income) have praised raw food way of life, but is it possible or practical for an average westerner on an average income?
The answer seems to be yes, for those willing to commit.
For 21 year-old Adam Gallegos, and 22 year-old Roxanne Bavarian, it started with a want to get rid of toxins and to lose weight.
In winter of 2010, Gallegos, a resident of Detroit, felt that had gotten to a very unhealthy place.
“I was eating a lot of fast food and smoking a ton of cigarettes. I was depressed and I knew it was because of my diet and what I was putting into my body,” he said. “When I learned about raw food while browsing for a diet online, it was the only thing that made sense to me diet-wise.”
Gallegos picked up Wolfe’s book, “The Sunfood Diet Success System” and an “idiot’s guide” book, and got started.
Though it may have been a challenge for some to convert from such an unhealthy lifestyle, Gallegos was close to a group of cooperative living vegans in Detroit, and was able to fall easily into the healthy routine. He says the results were immediate and drastic.
“For some people it would be real hard to change their life style as drastically as I did, but I was completely motivated by myself and the people around me,” he said. “I remember just feeling extremely great about what I was doing. I started off 100% raw. The results of raw became obvious after a couple days. I just started to feel good. Real good, like the best I’ve felt in a while or even maybe my whole life. It was great. Also I started to lose weight naturally.”
As he rounded month two in his “diet,” he realized that it had become more than just that, it had become a way of life.
“I felt like a kid again, I just had so much energy and such a better outlook on everything.”
Gallegos says eating raw has been a bit more expensive, but that it is balanced out due to the money he was previously spending on eating out. He has also discovered a love for cooking.
“With raw food you have to be creative, I always make different things everyday. I like making vegetable salads and squash spaghetti. Most meals I use a processor or just slice, dice and chop whatever I eat. It is semi-expensive, but I never really think about the money because prior to eating raw food I would eat out a lot, so it sort of evens out.”
Gallegos says he uses youtube.com and various blogs to find recipes, and is lucky to have inherited a lot of kitchen supplies from family.
22-year-old Oxsanna Bukowsi saw her venture into raw foodism as a purely a diet and a detox, one she had learned about online through celebrity blogs and interviews.
“I actually first heard of raw foodism as part of a celebrity trend on how to stay youthful and fit or something, I think I read it in a maybe in a magazine or online. I’m not sure when I started taking it seriously and not as a trendy diet, though, but I think it became more and more popular on health and fitness blogs and I started to investigate it more.”
Planning initially to use the raw food diet only as a detox, she used the “live food box” program through Chicago raw restaurant Cousin’s Incredible Vitality, to get her meals.
“Cousin’s has a program where they will deliver fresh, raw meals to you each day at a somewhat decent price. Their food is great and the people are so helpful, it made me realize that I wanted to continue doing it even after my initial cleanse.”
Cousin’s is just one of many raw food restaurants popping up all over Chicago and the rest of the United States. Aside from offering raw food, they hold the belief that raw is a lifestyle—promoting fitness and education as well.
Bukowski has been completely raw for two months now, and in those two months, she realized that raw food was not only making her skin clear up, extra weight fall off, and her energy level rise—but that the food could taste good, be filling and support environmental causes.
“I like that in doing it I’m supporting the slow food movement and local produce. Though I’ll admit, my intentions aren’t necessarily for moral reasons—I like how it has improved me! It’s also good for people to realize that raw food doesn’t mean cold food, or flavorless food, it can be served warm and with a lot of different spices, and textures.”
Though both Gallegos and Bukowski saw no negatives effects from their switch in diet, some nutritionist say it does have its drawbacks. There is a common criticism that the diet, and any vegan diet for that matter, is too low in calcium and protein. Where raw food diets really get their bad rap however, is a version of the diet where veganism is left out.
It has been called the caveman diet, the paleo diet, the primal diet, and it involves eating raw meat and dairy. Though it remains somewhat disconnected from the raw vegan diet, it is still a rapidly growing part of the raw food movement and something to be acknowledged.
According to its creator Aajonus Vonderplanitz, the paleo diet is both natural and life saving. His biography states, “Upon learning he had cancer [Vonderplanitz] intuitively begin consuming raw animal flesh, and this cured him of his cancer.” Vonderplanitz claims that the bacteria from raw meat ate the cancer cells in his body. His primal diet includes raw meat and dairy, green vegetables, salads and some fruits, and excludes all grains, cooked and processed foods.
Obviously, many medical experts disagree with Vonderplanitz, arguing, as we have all heard, that the bacteria in raw meat is dangerous and that it is foolish to consume it. Raw meat can also cause tooth decay, stomach and digestive problems and a multitude of other ailments.
Gallegos said he considered doing a raw meat diet initially, but settled on a plant-based diet.
Bukowski said she had no interest in it.
“I am looking to boost energy and lose weight, and a raw meat diet is disgusting, would not be what I am looking for,” said Bukowski.
Both Bukoski and Gallegos started their diets in order to lose weight, but both have expressed concerns over a struggle to maintain weight on the diet after achieving healthy weight goals.
“My mom thinks I’m way too skinny now,” said Gallegos. “I try to make sure I eat enough calories, but it can be difficult.”
“One of the struggles of the raw food diet is being able to maintain a healthy weight,” Bukowski said. “It’s great at first when the weight starts coming off, but I wonder if I will be able to level off at a healthy weight with enough nutrients.”
Experts agree. Most raw food blogs and FAQ’s do suggest using organic supplements and antioxidants as it is challenging to eat enough plant-based food each day to achieve daily nutritional needs.
So, can the average American handle a raw food diet? Gallegos and Bukowski agree that it’s possible but challenging due both to America’s love of convenience food and the increase in expense.
“You have to be resourceful and dedicated. It’s a pretty intense diet but all it takes is a little effort. Anybody can do it but I think that a majority of the population are tied down by the convenience of fast food, be it McDonalds or microwave meals,” Gallegos said.
“I don’t think most people have the willpower, I’ve had my own problems maintaining it—I have a pastry addiction—but the benefits are numerous and it really, really makes you feel incredible. It also takes a lot of prep work and equipment to do from home, Bukowski said.
Both Wolfe and Bukowski suggest anyone interested in the raw food diet shouldn’t start out with “extremes”, implementing a raw meal or more raw food into one’s diet slowly through juices and smoothies.
Losing My Religion
A Vegetarian’s Brush With Beef
As an idealist turned realist, there are some hard truths I have come to accept in my life. 1. Mother was right, I do regret tattooing a peace sign on the top of my left foot (I was a sixteen, guys!), and 2., no matter how much you want the relationship/care about the job/believe in the movement—whatever it is that you are completely committed to and passionate about in your life, you will, at some point, question your loyalty/fall into a rut/hit a slump and think about ending it. And, it is in this “take it or leave it” period, that you learn most about your beliefs, ethics and willpower.
It was the summer after my freshman year of college and I was miserable. Having realized I was in no position to support myself in Chicago for four months, I had accepted my dull job at my uncle’s contracting company back (40 hours a week as a receptionist, mind you) and moved back into my parents’ house (though not into my own bedroom, it had, in my 10 month absence, already been turned into “the guestroom”).
Tension between my mother and I was high (there is a reason I moved across a large lake for school), and I was spending all of the time I wasn’t working drinking 40’s and smoking cigarettes at my friend Tyler’s house (it may better be referred to as a hostel, there were usually at least eight teen or 20-somethings staying there) in a neighboring Detroit suburb.
At this point, I was going on six years of strict vegetarianism. The first five had been a breeze. My family, a group of people who had long ago accepted that we did not have the same tastes in or morals surrounding food, and that meals were best served as a sort of choose your own adventure, had made it easy for me, at 13, to move into a vegetarian lifestyle. My mother, always picky about meat anyway, was happy to grocery shop meat, fish, and poultry free for her and me while my brother and father hunted and cooked wild game in the back woods of Michigan. When after two years I decided to eliminate all meat byproducts (gelatin, rennet, animal shortening, etc.) from my diet, she supported that as well.
College was a different story. Like all campus residents, I had a meal plan, and this meal plan allotted me two meals a day in the cafeteria where my options included the build your own nacho station, peanut butter and jelly, a sad, wilting salad bar and a slew of terribly unhealthy side dishes (mac and cheese, cheesy potatoes, green been casserole, you get the gist). I left freshman year still a vegetarian, but bored enough with my food options that I had stopped checking labels for animal byproducts.
It was an excessively hot and sticky Friday night. I had had a bad day at work and showed up at Tyler’s in a foul mood. It was 7 PM and I was already working on drink three when someone suggested we go grab some snacks at a nearby Meijer.
I volunteered to go along, needing a break from the air conditonless, smoke filled bungalow and followed my friend Alana to her car.
We walked up and down the cool Meijer isles, musing about how nice it would be to have air conditioning (I did, of course, have air conditioning at my parents’ house, but hadn’t been home in a week due a particularly ugly spat) and deciding what foods would best suit our boozy needs. We came to the conclusion that making margaritas might be the best idea ever, and after grabbing some tequila, a bottle of mixer, and a few bags of various chips, we were heading to the checkout line.
That was when I spotted it. Sitting in the deli isle below the hummus and to the left of feta and roasted red pepper dip was the most mouthwatering, colorful and delicious thing I had ever laid eyes on—a seven layer bean dip.
It looked like some sort of geological model, perfect layer stacked upon perfect layer, each looking more fresh and delicious than the previous. It started with a sprinkling of tomato and green onion, below it a shredded Mexican cheese blend, next, a smearing of sour cream, followed by a large spread of guac, then came a thick red salsa, followed by a brown layer of chunky refried beans. It was six dollars, definitely putting us over the money we had pulled from the can fund (Detroit has bottle returns, if you don’t know what that is, it’s a magical system where you get money back for recycling), but I had to have it. I grabbed it from the shelf, marveling at its awesomeness, and threw it into our basket.
When we got back to Tyler’s, half of the crowd had either gone home or fallen asleep watching an episode of Planet Earth. I plopped down on a worn, blue sofa, pulled my treasure from its plastic bag and threw off the plastic top on the delicious dip. I realized I hadn’t actually bought tortilla chips, but we had a bag of Doritos that would do the job. Alana and I dug in while Tyler mixed the margaritas. It was just as good as I had expected. The fresh, light top layers hitting the pallet first, then giving way to the thick, creamy guac and heavy bean layers before the nice crunch of the nacho cheese flavored chips.
We ate the entire 12-serving container in 30 minutes. Bite after bite, and drink and after drink it became increasingly delicious. Through all of the beautiful layers, the beans were what really had me, they had a real kick to them—something spicy. After the plastic container was as close to being licked clean as humanly possible, and our bag of Doritos held nothing but crumbs, we leaned back and smoked our cigarettes rubbing our bulging bellies.
“That stuff was awesome,” said Tyler. He had just stepped around Justin, who was passed out on a beanbag chair, to change the Planet Earth DVD. “What brand was it?”
“Uhh,” Alana said, looking at the empty container. She spotted the top I had tossed earlier onto a TV table next to the couch. “Fresh Express 7 Layer Bean Dip,” she read then paused abruptly. “And….uhh….Oh. Sarah.”
“What?” I asked, digging through my purse for my lighter.
“This has beef in it,” she mumbled.
“Oh, what, like beef flavoring?” I asked, stopping my search to glance at the top.
“No, like, one of the layers is beef.”
My stomach felt as though it had flown up into my throat. I grabbed for the top and ripped it from her hands. “Fresh Express 7 Layer Bean Dip” read the first line. “Beef” it read in yellow below it. How? How could that be? I didn’t feel it, I couldn’t even see it, it couldn’t have been that much, it must have been mixed into the beans—tomatoes and green onions, cheese, sour cream, guac, salsa, beans—OH GOD, that’s only six layers!!
“Oh. Fuck.” I responded, setting the top next to the empty container. Whether from alcohol or something else, my head had begun to spin. “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” I said, pushing myself up from the couch.
“Are you going to puke?!” asked Tyler. We had all heard tales of sensitive vegetarian stomachs reacting badly to first meat reintroductions.
“No, I feel fine.”
I walked to the bathroom and closed the door. I turned the cold water on and drank from the faucet, my face felt hot and flushed, but, I hadn’t lied, my stomach felt fine. I sank down to the floor and put my head against the wall.
Six years. Six years and I just consumed my first real bit of meat without even knowing it in shitty, grocery store bean dip. I peered at the toilet. Should I make myself throw up? Why does my stomach feel fine? What have I done? I started to cry.
Vegetarianism was the only thing I had, at the time, ever committed to and stuck to (since then I have quit smoking, a feat of equal achievement) and I had ruined it. No longer could I say that no meat had touched my lips in six years, no longer could I say that I hadn’t participated in murder, no longer was I cleansed of animal flesh (yeah, it felt that serious). I pulled my cell phone from my jeans pocket and called my house.
“Hey, it’s me,” I said. “Can you pick me up? I’m at Tyler’s.”
I tried my best to use toothpaste and some sort of aerosol bathroom spray to get rid of the smell of booze and cigarettes, but it all seemed pointless. I had eaten meat. I was a criminal, a sinner. My mother rolled up in her tan mini van. I gave a half-assed goodbye to my concerned friends and trudged toward the door. If she noticed my intoxication, she didn’t let on. I didn’t tell her I had eaten meat on accident. I was too ashamed to.
The next morning I woke up and took a shower, my first in a few days, and sat down at the kitchen table. I was hung over, and my night had been filled with dreams of bloody, red steaks hiding inside croissants, of huge, fat pepperonis, beneath the cheese of supposed veggie pizzas. My mother offered to make me breakfast and I queasily accepted.
“So you’re back then?” she asked. I watched as she pulled a carton of free-range eggs and a block of kosher (meaning animal rennet free) cheese from the fridge.
“Yeah, I’m back,” I responded, and it was in that moment that I knew I was in it for life. I would live and die meat free because it had become part of my belief system—well, it had become my only belief system. I ate my free-range egg omelet in peace.
Since my gluttonous beef encounter in 2008, I have not intentionally or accidentally ingested meat. There was a time during winter of 2010 that I again began to tire of my restricted diet, but, as always, it was reaffirmed (this time when I passed some PETA protesters outside of a McDonalds), and I celebrated the end of my 9th year of vegetarianism as we entered 2011.
This is The Dawning of The Age of The Veggie Burger
From Freezer Favorite to Gourmet Go-To, the Veggie Burger is Asserting Itself as a Poignant Player in the Culinary World
Ah, the hamburger. An American icon (though it was actually developed by Germans)—a handheld staple that makes up 73 percent of the U.S.’s fast food market. Simply hearing the word evokes so many all-American images: a suburban dad standing at a grill flipping smoking patties in his “Kiss the Cook” apron, a teenage couple sitting in a diner, burgers on plates and a malt with two straws between them, and, of course, a set of glowing, yellow arches standing tall and comforting over a desolate American highway.
Now what if I told you that there is a meatless entity that starts with a veggie and ends with a burger that is, technically, more American than any German import? And, that has, since 1982, been creeping into American food consciousness through those very markets dominated by meat?
That’s right, that meatless burger that many a carnivore and probably a good portion
of veggies associate with the back of the freezer, has crashed its way into everyday American cuisine, and is, since the turn of the last century, showing up on menus everywhere from quintessential, meaty hamburger joints to well known gourmet restaurants.
According to the New York Times, a study conducted by market research firm Mintel showed a 26 percent increase in menu items labeled vegetarian or vegan between the last quarter of 2008 and the same quarter in 2010. Due to books like Jonathon Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and films like Food Inc., the amount of Americans committing to a healthier and often meatless, or meat reduced diet have skyrocketed, and restaurants and home food providers have taken notice.
“I think meat-eaters are probably dismayed by the idea of veggie burgers being both “fake” hamburgers, and a less macho counterpart at that,” said vegetarian cook and author of celebrated 2010 cookbook Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, Lukas Volger. “Maybe it has to do with the dredges of our hunter-gatherer heritage, plus all the reinforcement of such ideas in popular food culture today. But this is changing, for sure, especially in light of the surge of interest in the environmental, health, and ethical impacts of eating as much meat as Americans do.”
Volger, though not strictly vegetarian or vegan, is a strong supporter of eating local, unprocessed, and mostly meat-free.
Oddly enough, one man had these same philosophies (even if they didn’t catch on) back in 1800’s, and even odder, it is a man whose name we usually associate with breakfast.
John Harvey Kellogg, born in 1852, is both the inventor of the cornflake and the father of the American health food movement. As a Seventh-day Adventist, Kellogg practiced many healthy living techniques, including eliminating meat from his diet.
He started developing “meat analogs” as he called them as early as 1877 at his plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. In the earliest stages, he used nuts and wheat gluten to create his “vegetable meats.” In 1943, shortly before his death, he introduced soy products into the Kellogg Brand.
Though his heath food ideas and vegetable meats gained him a national following, this following really only included other Seventh-day Adventists and some hippie fringe groups. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the movement really took off.
The first veggie burger was established in1982 when American health food expert and fractal artist (weird, yes?) Gregory Sams, who was at the time living in Great Britain, created the first meatless patty to be marketed as a hamburger alternative. It was called, the “Vegeburger.”
The Vegeburger, a blend of sesame seed, oats, soya, wheat and vegetables, was sold in a box as a powdered mixture that one added water and egg to create a patty. It was dry and a little bland, but it was a veggie burger, and almost immediately many new veggie burger brands popped up all over the U.S.. From 1980 to 1987, all major frozen brands including Boca, Gardenburger, the Kellogg’s brand Morningstar Farms and Amy’s Organ Kitchen were established. They began to create burgers made of soy, vegetables, tofu, and other meatless ingredients, all of them to be sold frozen.
It wasn’t until the 90’s, however, that the benefits of a vegetarian diet began to really catch on (this was around the time the food pyramid was restructured and meats and dairies were bumped down from the “most important” position) and with this, those frozen veggie patties made their way into to the restaurant world. Burger King, McDonalds, and a whole assortment of family restaurants, truck stops, bars, etc. began adding the frozen patty to accommodate non-meat eaters in, what Volger calls, “the easiest way possible.” They were everywhere, but, let’s be honest, they weren’t necessarily the tastiest.
In the past few years, there has been a huge push toward a greener, healthier and less meaty living in America. This change has only aided in the transition many restaurants are now making away from the frozen patty, and into the world of house-made burgers. And it is this change that has given the veggie burger, a food born as nothing more than a powder in a box, a whole new, vibrant life.
“I think classically trained chefs, even vegetarian ones, have been eschewing veggie burgers for a while,” Volger said. “I don’t blame them, I’ve eaten my share of the frozen hockey puck patties, they really aren’t very good. Some brands and restaurants market them as meat substitutes, and sometimes they’re even engineered to even taste like meat. As you can imagine, for vegetarian chefs who are champions of vegetables, there’s something sort of depressing about cloaking vegetables to taste like something they aren’t. For me, it’s important to stop thinking of them as an alternative to a hamburger—I like to think of them as their own category of food, as actual expressions of vegetables—in order to make them tasty and, say, intellectually appealing.
Many restaurateurs agree with Volger, and have taken the inniative to integrate delicious, well thought-out veggie burgers into their menus. This makeover has given the veggie burger some actual clout in the culinary world.
Here in Chicago, some of the top burger joints, including DMK Burger Bar, The Counter, and Kuma’s Corner are serving up delicious, and elaborate house made veggie burgers.
At Kuma’s Corner, an Avondale hot spot known for its grittiness and metal music (and it’s gigantic, meaty burgers), there is now a gourmet veggie option, a thick, crumbling vegetable patty that can be topped like any other meat burger on the menu. The burgers at DMK Burger Bar at Belmont are primarily black bean, but a mix of brown rice and roasted vegetables is added, and the whole thing is cooked in peanut oil before being slapped on a potato bun with pesto and marinated tomatoes. And The Counter, a burger chain that started in California that has been gaining much attention, has a veggie patty made of brown rice, grilled corn, mushrooms and cranberries that can be made into almost an infinite amount of different combinations with the 30 topping options, 21 sauce options and a handful of cheese and bun options available.
Even more impressive, restaurants like Earwax in Wicker Park and The Chicago Diner in Lakeview offer an entire menu of vegetarian options, and some exceptional meatless burgers.
The Chicago Diner’s array of burgers are primarily seitan concoctions, and have had many vegetarians claiming it is the closest they have come to feeling the satisfaction felt after eating a meat burger (though Volger says this isn’t the point of today’s veggie burger, but we’ll get to that).
Earwax is the home of what some claim is the “best veggie burger in Chicago.” It’s Messy Burger, a “secret recipe” black bean patty topped with caramelized onions, coleslaw, cheddar, and spicy chipotle BBQ sauce.
When Earwax faced some financial problems due to changing neighborhood demographics (see, corporate yuppies), residents were so distressed about losing the Messy Burger and all of their other favorite veggie friendly dishes that they banded together and managed, after only two weeks, to get the restaurant reopened.
Perhaps the most impressive, however, are the burgers being served at some of Chicago’s pricier stops. Burgers from Bandera on Michigan Avenue, made with rice, veggies, sweet potatoes and topped with Monterey jack cheese go for 14 dollars.
Unlike the hamburger, whose basis must always remain meat (sure there’s ostrich, buffalo, etc—but it’s limited to few mammals), there are almost an infinite number of bases and combinations that one can spin together to create a veggie burger. Mushrooms (both wild and Portobello), chickpeas, almonds, lentils—it seems as though any non-meat food can be found in veggie burger form.
However, now that we have this new genre of food that has an almost endless amount of ingredients that can be combined to create the main component of the dish, how do we categorize them? Are there a set group of characteristics one can look for in order to judge the quality of one? Volger says yes.
In his book, Volger groups his burgers into three broad categories, first, bean, grain and nut burgers, second, vegetable burgers, and third, tofu, seitan and TVP burgers. Though these categories certainly overlap, it is essentially divided by what the dominant flavor and source of protein is.
In terms of judging the quality of a veggie burger, there is one key (and controversial) principle Volger stands by. He insisted that how “meat like” a burger is is not the proper way to gauge success, and that instead, one should focus on boldness of flavor, ability to hold shape, moisture amount, and texture.
“I’m not a fan of “meat-like” veggie burgers, if that means having them taste like meat. I like veggie burgers to be boldly flavored, taste like vegetables, and have a good texture that’s moist yet still holds its shape,” he said.
Volger says that getting both the moisture amount and the binding agent in a veggie burger correct is not an easy task. He is also a believer in the importance of toppings, a controversial topic among both meat and veggie burger enthusiasts.
For Volger, writing a veggie burger cookbook was a long process. With so many different options to try, he found a way to narrow down the search for the best recipes and combinations that gives a lot of insight into the potential veggie burgers really hold.
“I start backward, by selecting a single vegetable or a simple flavor profile, such as mushrooms and barley, and then I build the veggie burger around it,” Volger said. “When I was working on the book I also wanted to develop a balance of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free recipes, and that’s another factor I still keep in mind.”
A recent New York Times story asserted that all burgers, whether meat or veggie, are a quintessential American food because it just feels good to us to hold a meal between two buns in our hands. The Times has also said, and Volger agrees, that the veggie burger has taken on a new identity, one that chefs love because they get to “play with flavors and textures,” and one that new, health-aware Americans, whether vegetarian or meat-eating, are eager to try.
(I can’t cook, it’s comical.)
Lukas Volger is an avid vegetarian and vegan eater and the author of Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, a book that since summer of 2010, has gained him huge success in the world of vegetarian cooking. I talked to Volger, who is currently getting ready for the July release of his second book Vegetarian Entrees That Won’t Leave You Hungry, about vegan/vegetarian cooking and his expert opinion on how to cook, judge and enjoy a veggie burger.
When did you become interested in vegan and vegetarian cooking?
Mostly in college. Well, I worked at a bakery in and after high school, and I will always love baked goods, but as a home cook I always gravitated towards vegetables. Veggie dishes just seemed more sensible when I started cooking for myself.
I know you have worked with food in many different ways and in many locations, can you give me a quick overview of your professional cooking history?
In high school I worked in a bakery in Idaho, making various baked goods, sandwiches, bagging bread, etc. My first job when I moved to New York was as a prep cook at a restaurant in Manhattan. I spent a year there, but it was hard to do at the same time as going to school. I finished school and started working in book publishing, and meanwhile did a lot of home cooking, and took classes around NY and in Europe when I was traveling. For a period when I was working on the veggie burger book, I was also waiting tables. Lately I’ve been writing and taking catering jobs here and there.
What is the most challenging part of maintaining a plant-based diet and of cooking vegan/vegetarian?
I really don’t think it’s challenging at all. Everyone has a unique relationship to food, and mine, luckily, is on its best terms when I’m eating veggies, beans, and grains. For a while I had the hardest time figuring how to structure the plate–what, exactly, to put in the middle of it, where the meat is supposed to go, and so that I wasn’t preparing 4 different side dishes every night. But over the years I’ve figured that out (and have done a lot of thinking about it over the past year and a half, since this is the subject of my second book).
What is your favorite vegan or veggie “comfort food”?
Soup. I love making soup and eating it, and am really satisfied when I have a stockpile of leftover soup in little containers in the fridge and freezer.
Is there any key ingredient you would recommend a vegan keep in their pantry/refrigerator/etc.?
As long as I have a good spread of dried beans in my cupboard, I never worry about going hungry.
What made you decide to write an entire book focused on the veggie burger?
I had a couple recipes that I’d cycled through in the years during and after college, and I’d always enjoyed eating veggie burgers. Then my publisher contacted me with the idea for a veggie burger cookbook (because he’s a friend, and he’d eaten mine before) and I jumped at the opportunity.
How do you think veggie burgers are perceived by the meat-eaters among us? By vegetarians and vegans?
It seems to me the breakdown is about “real” vs “fake,” and then, because meat is such a macho thing in a America, as “tough” vs “sissy” (or something like that). I think meat-eaters are probably dismayed by the idea of veggie burgers being both “fake” hamburgers, and a less macho counterpart at that. Maybe it has to do with the dredges of our hunter-gatherer heritage, plus all the reinforcement of such ideas in popular food culture today. This is changing, for sure, especially in light of the surge of interest in the environmental, health, and ethical impacts of eating as much meat as Americans do. Vegetarians and vegans have an entirely different agenda, with the imperative to eat little or no meat or animal product, so the macho thing doesn’t seem to apply. But I think classically trained chefs, even vegetarian ones, have been eschewing veggie burgers for a while. I don’t blame them. Even though I’ve eaten my share of the frozen hockey puck patties, they really aren’t very good. Some brands and restaurants market them as meat substitutes, and sometimes they’re even engineered to even taste like meat. As you can imagine, for vegetarian chefs who are champions of vegetables, there’s something sort of depressing about cloaking vegetables to taste like something they aren’t. For me, it’s important to stop thinking of them as an alternative to a hamburger–I like to think of them as their own category of food, as actual expressions of vegetables–in order to make them tasty and, say, intellectually appealing.
What was your process for coming up with recipes?
I start backward, by selecting a single vegetable or a simple flavor profile, such as mushrooms and barley, and then I build the veggie burger around it. When I was working on the book I also wanted to develop a balance of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free recipes, and that’s another factor I still keep in mind.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
Can’t pick my favorite child! But…. I do love the mushroom burger with barley, and the Thai carrot burger, and miso-marinated portobello burger, especially when prepared on a grill.
What is your take on the frozen veggie patty?
I don’t eat them anymore. As I was finishing up writing the book, I thought it would be a good idea to go buy several different brands and just give my palate a reminder of what they taste like. It was something of a relief that none of them tasted nearly as good to me as my homemade ones.
Any tips for cooking burgers at home?
I advocate cooking them first on the stove top, so as to “sear” them, then finish cooking in the oven. This results in the best texture–a nice crisp exterior, and then a fully cooked, firmed-up interior.
You have a new book coming out this July, can you talk a bit about the concept behind “entrees that won’t leave you hungry?”
Whenever I talk to people–mostly non-vegetarian/vegans–who are interested in incorporating more vegetarian or vegan meals into their diet, one of the reasons they resist is that they don’t know what to put in the center of the plate, where they’re used to putting the meat. (And I’d even hear the same sentiment from longtime vegetarians and vegans, too.) So this book is all about providing a solution to that, as well as some new ideas for more experienced veg cooks.
Have you ever eaten any memorable vegan or vegetarian food in Chicago?
I have never been to Chicago! I would love to stop through when I’m out promoting the next one though, and if I do I will want recommendations.
Sometimes You Wanna Go, Where Everybody Shares Your Dietary Restrictions
Chicago Diner Serves up Comforting Vegan and Veggie Food and an Atmosphere to Match.
By, Sarah Rogers
The voyage into a meatless, cruelty-free existence is often a dark one. For those of us who took the leap during those formative teen years, meals with friends, family and anything out in public often became a torturous affair—Grandpa Jim asking why you eat potatoes if they have eyes, your little brother shoving hunks of beef stew into his gaping mouth inches away from your face, you leaned back in your Morrissey t-shirt and thought, WHY ME?
But worse than the company, was the fact that you knew they were right—you DID want that hunk of beef, you did want those bacon-filled potato skins. Christmas Dinner, Pizza Night, Enchilada Night—all those delicious meals left untouched while you munched on the garnish off of the edge of your plate.
At some point all veggies attempt to emulate those missed meals, we create tofu nuggets hoping for a fix, we eat frozen Amy’s meals that just aren’t quite there, we go to vegan restaurants and pretend that steamed brown rice with vegetables is really substitute for heaping plate of baked macaroni and cheese.
But, fear not, veggie friends, for I bring you great news. Nestled in the heart of the gayest little neighborhood in Chicago is a safe haven for vegans, vegetarians and their allies—a place that has meatloaf that will put mom’s to shame, a double bacon “cheeze” burger that won’t give you, or any farm animals, a heart attack and room full of people that are just. Like. You. Yes folks, it’s The Chicago Diner.
In the Beginning
This pint-sized diner began with a love story. Mickey Hornick and Jo Kauchner met while working at a vegan restaurant, the Breadshop Kitchen. At the time, they weren’t romantically involved, but when the restaurant closed and Kauchner decided to leave Chicago for California, she promised that one day she would find him and they would open a restaurant together. Hornick was a vegetarian for health reasons, and Kauchner by choice, and upon meeting once again, they decided to pursue their veggie dreams together and open a restaurant where they could cook their favorite comfort food recipes, without the meat.
Though publicity for the diner and it’s incredibly realistic meat imitations has gone national, the establishment has yet to expand—keeping it’s home in the bottom of a narrow, little two-story in Boys Town, with one grill, two or three cooks, and 20 tables.
A group of veggie and veggie-curious friends and I hopped the redline down to Addison and walked the few blocks to Halstead to tryout the most talked about vegetarian/vegan gem in the City of Chicago.
Worth The Wait
It was a cold, wet night and the small windows on the front of the diner were steamed over and glowing red. As we slipped in through the tiny front door a wall of sound—voices, music and clinking glasses, greeted us, but before we could see the sources someone blocked our entrance. The hostess, a slim, stylish brunette with a pixy cut smiled serenely and asked us the size of our party. We told her, she made a quick jot on a notepad, told us 45 minutes and directed us back out the front door and down an alley toward the back of the restaurant where a large tent was pitched.
The tent we entered was huge and yellow, with twinkling Christmas lights and orange tube lamps hanging from the metal support beams. It was utterly packed, every deck chair and patio table occupied by a body. And, we realized, no matter how diverse the crowd was, we all had one thing in common—we were choosing not to eat meat.
A yuppie-looking family poured over a menu at a table near the front, a group of Mohawked, chain-wearing teens sat near the back discussing food politics, a lesbian couple with “Vote for del Valle” buttons tacked to their Patagonia ski jackets sat sipping chai tea and talking about their favorite dish on the menu—the Rueben.
My possie and I grabbed a few menus and shoved our way toward the back of the tent. My dear friend James, a vegetarian of 6 months, was initially confused as to why, aside from their naturally peaceful demeanor, the waiting crowd seemed so calm at the pretty lengthy wait time. Then he opened his menu, and gave an almost tearful smile when he looked up and said, “I don’t know what to get!”
What meat-eaters don’t understand is that when veggies go into restaurants, usually ¾’s or more of the menu has meat, and the other third has to be scrutinized for any lingering animal products.
Chicago Diner has an entire, 4-page menu packed with entrees, sandwiches and appetizers that are ALL vegan and vegetarian. Not a meaty dish in sight.
Meats are replaced with tofu, soy and most celebrated, seitan—a substitute, made right in Chicago Diner’s kitchen, of a mixture of wheat gluten, water, and beat sugar that is then cooked, sliced and seasoned to emulate various meats from poultry to steak.
Since the restaurant is both vegan and veggie friendly, dairy products are available, always organic and free-range, as are dairy substitutes for everything from mayonnaise to cheddar cheese—and they’re good!
The diner also, at the wishes of its owners, uses as much locally grown produce as is seasonally possible, and everything from their cooking oils to their carryout boxes are organic, and environmentally conscious.
So, I know what you’re thinking at this point, how much is this incredibly conscious dinner going to cost me? Entrees range from nine dollars to 12, appetizers 3 dollars to 9 and desserts, soups and salads between 4 dollars and 7. Though a nine-dollar burger may be more than you’re paying at the diner on the corner, you can sleep happily knowing that those extra three dollars went to making sure no animal was hurt in the making of your meal.
The Biggest Little Diner in Chicago
By the time it was our turn to enter the restaurant, after around an hour of waiting, we had already looked at so much food porn our pupils were as dilated as our stoned hostess’s and our mood was nothing but GIVE ME MUNCHIEZ.
When we finally heard “Sarah table of 4” we were quickly whisked away from the quiet, patient, yellow tent and escorted in through the diner’s back door. The bar-like sound greeted us again as we walked down a long hallway where we passed the smallest most bustling kitchen I’ve ever seen. Three young, bandanaed chefs rushed back and fourth pulling baskets of sweet potato fries out of a deep fryer and flipping seitan and vegetable patties on a rather small, silver grill.
Before we could register what they were, the colorful, heaping plates being slid into a small window toward the front of the kitchen, were rushed away by waitresses into what we would soon enter—the dining room from hell (in a good way, sort of).
The room we encountered was, for lack of a better word, “ragin’”. People (it is hard to say who were wait staff and who were customers, as they were all dressed in the same uniform—flannels, vintage t’s, sleeves of tattoos and trendy haircuts) moved constantly up and down the two long, narrow isles that divided the booths lining the left wall from the rows of two-person tables that filled the rest of the narrow space.
Not only was it impossibly packed and pulsing with movement, the lights were dimmed down low and toned red, giving the place a moody, yet warm feel while The Smiths blared from a hidden sound system.
The walls were coated in kitschy, Chicago-themed art and the only other light came from a giant neon sign hanging over the window to the kitchen that boasted “Restaurant, Good Food, Air Conditioning”.
It was cramped, and though expanding the diner has been discussed many times, the one attempt, and establishment in the suburbs, “didn’t work out.”
The hostess seated us at two classic, diner-style red Formica tables which were pushed up against another table of strangers—two women with dreaded locks poking out of knitted winter caps.
We told our heavily eye-linered waitress, who had knelt down at our table, that we had already decided on our meals. She replied “right on” and walked around touching each of us on the shoulder as she jotted our order down.
This laid-back, friendly waiter/customer vibe seemed to be happening at every table. A male waiter with a Mohawk had sat himself next to a older couple in one booth and was pointing at the drink menu, another waiter could be heard regaling tales of missing bacon to a table of teenaged girls near the front.
James looked over at me as our waitress brought our waters, “I kind of feel like I know everyone in here…”
Food, Glorious Food
If it seems like we had to wait awhile to actually get into the restaurant, this time was completely made up for by the speed at which we received our appetizers and our entrees.
No sooner had the glowing diner clock on the wall hit 8:25 (only 15 minutes since our seating) and plates of food were falling in front of us—not just from our waitress, but a team of wait staff all smiling serenely and asking us if we needed anything else.
We decided to cover all sides of the menu (sans the brunch, which is only served until 3:30PM and which I will undoubtedly be going back for), sampling three appetizers, two items from the burger/sandwich section (with varying sides), and three different entrees.
For our first appetizer we ordered what we thought would be a comfort food winner—the “Special Recipe Wings”. They were our first bite of imitation meat and they were good, but not great. Made from seasoned seitan cut into thick strips, their flavor was dead on—capturing the smokiness of wings with the sweetness of a nice BBQ rub, but their texture was a bit too soft and the presentation was almost unappealing (each piece cut into a random sized rectangle). The sauce however, was a delectable and completely vegan ranch that set a very high bar for the rest of the vegan sauces in the meal (spoiler, they only got better).
The second and most notable appetizer was the nachos. Though nachos may sound like something that can easily be made vegetarian, you can’t realize until you’ve tried these massive nachos with spicy, ground seitan how much that heavier protein is needed to round out the dish.
The ground seitan felt and smelled so much like beef it was startling. And, we found out, had almost the exact same amount of protein with none of the fat. I chose to get dairy cheese, but tried some vegan sour cream, atop the mountain of chips, onion, peppers, tomatoes and guac it was excellent.
No sooner had we dug into our appetizers, however, than our entrees arrived.
We ate an “Avacadonaise and Cheeze” burger, a seitan and vegetable burger piled high with lettuce, tomato and sprouts and topped off with an incredible blend of vegan mayonnaise and avocado spread. We ate a “Radical Rueben”, a giant sandwich with pink seitan sliced into thin, deli-meat like pieces and two slices of thick, rye bread overflowing with vegan Thousand Island Dressing, sauerkraut and “cheeze.” We had a “Dagwood sandwich”, a monstrous open-faced beast filled with “corned beef“—the seitan cooked and peppered so perfectly it pulled away like a real slice of meat, topped with chewy vegan bacon, and a mountain of lettuce, tomato, pepperoncini and (a little too much) onion. (Our meat-eating friend Joe claimed it was the best sandwich he’d ever had.)
Our favorite, however, had to be the meatloaf entrée. Made up of a mixture of veggies and ground seitan, this massive slab of moist, crumbly loaf was better than any actual meat loaf I’ve ever tasted. Paired with a side of mashed potatoes with a heavenly vegan gravy and some sautéed veggies, this had to be the most comforting, filling, and delicious dish on the menu.
We also sampled two Mexican entrees. The enchiladas and the tostadas were both delicious, but they didn’t pack quite the punch that everything else did. The portion sizes were smaller, their presentation was a bit more highbrow than the mile high burgers and sandwiches and the taste fell a little flat.
For dessert, we had two milkshakes, one chocolate and one cookie dough peanut butter. Both were completely vegan—using a soymilk base and cane sugar, and both, I can honestly say, were the most rich and sweet milkshakes I’d ever had.
As we were finishing up our shakes the lights went out in the entire restaurant. Thinking that was some sort of closing signal, we started to reach for our wallets then a voice shouted over the crowd. “It’s Sonia’s birthday, let’s all sing for her!”
The entire restaurant erupted into song while Sonia, an utterly embarrassed 20-something, was given a giant piece of vegan chocolate cake.
Overall, both food, fellow patrons and staff made it a welcoming and comforting experience. It seemed apparent that every patron was our friend, all waiters were our waiter, and that no one was excluded from refilling water, getting an extra side of guac, or stopping by a table to discuss dessert. (Commies, all commies I tell you!)
When It’s Over
After Sonia’s embarrassment our eye-linered waitress came and took our payment and gave us some to-go boxes. It was only an hour from closing time, and the energy of the room had started to wind down—giving off that oddly reminiscent and sleepy “last call” vibe.
“Ahh, here it is again, my comfort food coma,” said one of the dreaded girls next to us rubbing her belly.
We drank down our shakes as best we could and doggie bags in tow, left the warm, red glow of the little diner and headed back out onto cold, wet Halstead to make the trip back to the el.
Keep You Coming Back For More
Once you’ve experience the Chicago Diner, it’s hard to stay away. James and I actually ventured back the day after our visit just to grab a piece of cake (sadly, it was nothing to write home about, and I will definitely be sticking to milkshakes as my desert of choice). We felt happy to once again be squeezed next to a patchouli rife hippie at our little red table.
Your sorry excuse for a home-cooked, veggie comfort meal will always pale in comparison to the perfectly concocted recipes of the Chicago Diner chefs.
The good news: their reach goes beyond just that crowded little building in Boys Town.
They have a fully functioning vegan bakery and catering business, cooking up both baked goods and other menu items for your wedding, fundraiser, bat mitzvah, etc. and, they have published a cookbook so you can attempt their recipes right at home.
Like any good diner, carryout is also welcome, and there are specials that change weekly that you won’t want to miss.
So for all my veggie and vegan friends looking for a hearty meal, and all my skeptical meat-eaters looking for a bet, head to Chicago Diner—you will enjoy every cruelty free bite amongst a sea of tranquil, veggie loving friends.
Chicago Diner serves up devilishly delicious steaks—without the sin.
It’s thick, juicy and tastes good with BBQ sauce, but no friends, it isn’t cut from a certain animal that goes “moo.” It’s seitan (pronounce say-tahn, go figure), and it is one of the key meat substitutes that The Chicago Diner cooks up to keep both veggie worshippers and skeptical carnivores alike coming back for more.
This “wheat meat” originated in Asian cuisine and has become popular amongst “veggies” of all regions as an alternative to both meat and soy-based meat substitutes, like tofu.
Made from wheat gluten, this gift from the veggie gods packs nearly as much protein as a sirloin steak (only 3% less) yet has less than 1% saturated fat!
The Chicago Diner, a meat-free Chicago staple “since ‘83”, uses Seitan to create delicious, hearty, comforting dishes for vegetarians and vegans alike.
Dishes featuring Seitan include a Philly Cheeze “Steak,” BBQ “Bacon” Cheeze Burger, Radical Reuben and more.
Seitan is also used in what I can easily say is the best special at Chicago Diner this week.
The Country Fried Steak Biscuit Sammy.
This gargantuan open-faced sandwich includes two large pieces of Seitan coated in a crispy breading of organic flour with two Rosemary filled vegan biscuits and topped with a stunningly thick and flavorful herb gravy. It also comes with a choice of any sandwich side on the menu.
Only served before 3:30PM, and only featured on the menu through February 24th, you better get your butt down to Boys Town and try this most warm and comforting dish. Enjoy the Seitan, but be prepared to become a member the cult.
The Chicago Diner
3411 N. Halsted
1. Eggbeaters and Sharp Cheddar on a Toasted Bagel with a Two Clementines.
Upon first whiff, the smell was purely burnt toast. The bagel was well toasted, nearly black toward the center of the top, and crunched when bitten into. The hard exterior, however, gave way to very fluffy eggs that were cooked perfectly–airy but with a wettness to them. Being mostly egg white, their taste was mild, but they were well peppered which gave a bit of a bite to them. After the egg came the real flavorful part of the sandwich, a sharp cheddar cheese, still cold and firm, it gave a nice juxtaposition to the warm, fluffy eggs. It was the most flavorful part of the dish, balanced well with a bite of clementine which, when bitten, flooded the mouth with sweet, cold juice. The meal was satisfying, but not overly filling. A bit difficult to eat due to the excess egg falling out the sides.
2. Garlic Crust Cheese Pizza with White Sauce, Green Pepper and Onion.
The aroma of the pizza was like any Domino’s delivery pizza–a strong smell of cheese and cardboard. However, the taste was far superior. The cheese, a mild mozzarella, was hard to detect once the strong flavors of the cooked onions and peppers were on my tongue. The peppers and onions gave a bit of a crunch, which sat nicely on the soft (though not at all stringy as the pizza arrived luke warm) cheese. The real kicker, however, came with the sauce. Much stronger than the cheese, it filled the mouth with a warm, nearly liquid cheesiness with each bite. The dough beneath, as well as the crust, were rife with a heavy dusting of garlic. The temperature of the pizza upon reaching the house left much to be desired, but the vegetables and sauce were baked to perfection.
3. Cheese Ravioli, Green Beans and Garbanzo Beans in a Pesto Sauce.
A “kitchen sink” type meal as I like to call it, this dish was created from the few things I had left in the cupboard/fridge. The smell of the pesto sauce was a bit overwhelming at first, but the flavors of the cheese within the ravioli and the shredded parmesan on top balanced the sweetness of the pesto nicely. The ravioli were soft on the outside, and the cheese on the inside was a bit like a paste, and a bit sweeter than expected. The garbanzo beans lacked a real flavor, but their firmness and density gave a nice heaviness that the dish would have lacked otherwise. The green beans, being canned, were quite soft–but their slight sweetness worked well with that of the pesto, which caked itself around the beans nicely. The shredded parmesan on the top gave the pesto sauce another element, evening out the strong basil flavor. The meal, probably due to the amount of ravioli and garbanzo beans, was a bit too filling.
4. Italian Style Vegetable Soup with a Buttered Bagel and Clementine
The soup smelled strongly of tomato and not much else. The broth was very thin, with only a tomato taste to it. All of the vegetables had the same overly soft quality to them, with not much of a flavor difference between the celery, pasta, carrots and potato. The stewed tomatoes were the only truly strong taste as well as the few onions floating about. The color of the vegetables left much to be desired–all were muted versions of their usually vibrant selves. The bagel and clementine were a bit more tolerable. The bagel was lightly browned, with a crunchy outside and soft, warm middle. It was buttered while hot so the butter seeped all the way through. The clementine was not quite ripe enough, and flavor was more watery than anything else, with only a faint orangey under taste.