Vegging out - Starch, Meat, Repeat

Vegging out
When my friend’s daughter was very small, she loved steak so much her grandparents nicknamed her Mr. Meaty. We are a town, a state, a nation of Mr. Meaties.

Think about your favorite meal. Your last meal on earth. Got it?

So. What kind of protein would you choose? I’d go for my dad’s Chinese pork spare ribs — his secret sauce is a sweet, succulent match for that dense, stand-up cut of meat. But whether it’s chicken, beef or something more exotic, meat is always there; it’s the most inevitable thing on our plates.

Ordinarily, I don’t think much about how I eat. I eat for pure enjoyment — but I wondered if I would still enjoy my meals as much if I thought about something besides the present moment.

Perhaps it was my upcoming birthday. Not any particular milestone, still ... I was beginning to meditate on my worldview. Each year that my body endures seems like another year lost to bad habits that I’ll probably regret when I’m trying to enjoy my retirement. Junk food. Alcohol. Lots of heavy, bad-karma-inducing meat.

A monthlong vegan cleanse, during which I lost 10 pounds and the devious 3 p.m. energy crash (but realized that forgoing meat and dairy was sapping the pleasure out of life), was almost two years behind me. My brother and his wife, vegetarians for years, seemed so healthy, so annoyingly energetic, radiating good vibrations. I was starting to think about going meat-free.

It’s tough to forgo eating flesh in Cleveland, though. We’re Irish, we’re Polish, we’re Hungarian. We’re enjoying the same meals from the same recipes, in many cases, that our grandparents did.

Our city’s ethnic meld puts meat (and lots of it) on our dining room tables and restaurant menus. It’s the one thing that can’t be taken away from a city that has lost a lot over the years.

Our therapist’s couch is the meat counter: Slyman's. The Sausage Shoppe. Sterle’s. Take what you will from us, but you’ll have to pry the corned beef sandwich out of our cold, steely jaws. But truthfully, Cleveland, we could use a salad.

“Lets B vegetarians,” I texted my best friend. She agreed, but with a caveat: “Lets wait till after Hoggy’s.” My birthday dinner was going to consist of pork nachos, saucy ribs and multitudinous wet naps.

Less than a week later, my editor called me into his office. He had an assignment for me: Go forth and eat vegetarian dinners for five consecutive nights on the company tab. Coincidence? Fate? Or a karmic intervention?
Starch, Meat, Repeat
For years, I didn’t know what that smell was. To me, it was just dad. He would sit down at the kitchen table and tell stories about guys who had amazing nicknames. Mouser. I wanted to grow up to have a friend named Mouser.

I could smell it from across the table, even after he excused himself to wash his hands one more time before dinner. The oil and grease and grit that attaches itself to you when you work at a machine shop doesn’t go away with one washing. Nor should it. It is our history. Bits of our Cleveland heritage. Bits of who we still are. The White Motor Co. LTV Steel. Lorenzo Carter. Carl Stokes. Ten-cent beer night. The burning river. It sticks with you like a pound of The Sausage Shoppe’s leberwurst.

And every night, after hearing stories about how he figured out why a machining process didn’t work and then how he fixed it, my mother would bring out a plate with a huge hunk of meat on it, some kind of potato and a vegetable. Dinner was prepared lots of different ways, but it was always a meat, potato and vegetable. If she varied from that formula, it just wasn’t dinner.

The years passed, and I was forbidden to become a machinist like my father. I’d never know the regular 12-hour workdays. I’d never smell like steel shavings and oil, but I still get that same look on my face that my dad would get — relief. Dinner was stress-free. You know what you’re getting. Tasty, juicy animal. Thick, hearty potato. And something about this kind of meal just makes you feel like you’ve earned it. You worked hard, and now you get to eat a pig or cow.

But sometime between then and now, it became unacceptable to eat like this. In came the age of stir-fry. Everyone in this country bought a wok. And, sure, it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t dinner, either.

So when the boss called me in and said, “eat meat and potatoes for five straight days,” I didn’t even ask what the assignment would be. I just started thinking about that first big steak. Because steak is the mother of all meats. It’s what we’d eat when dad got a raise. It was what I wanted on my birthday. It was the first home-cooked meal at every new apartment I moved into.

Day 1
Before embarking on my journey, I sought some advice from former food critic Elaine Cicora, who now handles public relations for Steve Schimoler’s downtown haute spot, Crop.

“It’s deplorable,” she says of our vegetarian dining scene. “It’s stunning how many restaurants there still are where a vegetarian can’t find a single dish that comes without meat.”

Sure, I could go to Vegiterranean for fake meat or Tommy’s for total tofu. But I begin my vegetarian boot camp with my friend-turned-foe: Hoggy’s. Like my own personal Broadway, if I can eat vegetarian there, I figure, I can do it anywhere.

One section of Hoggy’s menu features loaded, two-pound baked potatoes. Amid the Cajun chicken, barbecued pork and chili topping options, I spy garlic and parmesan grilled vegetables. The spud pulls up to my table like an Airsteam-camper-turned-clown car. Veggies and fried onion straws spew out of the tinfoil-wrapped behemoth, showering juicy parmesan shavings everywhere.

I’m surprised by the quantity and quality of vegetables: asparagus, red and green pepper slices, mushrooms, zucchini and squash. The crispy onion straws satisfy my need for something deep-fried.

The best part is, I don’t feel like I’m denying myself. Instead, I get my fill of carbs and starches, and that night, I pass out in a food coma at 8 p.m. like a satisfied Mr. Meaty.

Day 1
I had never eaten at one of downtown’s really pricey steakhouses. But with an expense account at my disposal, there was no question where I’d be heading. XO Prime Steaks had been on my mind for days, prompted by a waitress who told me about their Delmonico: A large, perfectly marbled steak cooked medium that just kind of melts in your mouth. The juices fill your mouth but the meat doesn’t gush when cut. I needed a shower.

The Delmonico appears before me, and I don’t even savor anything at first. I rip flesh with my teeth. But the steak is unbelievably huge — more than a pound! And it’s accompanied by a big-ass potato packed with Vermont cheddar cheese, cubes of apple smoked bacon and sour cream.

By the time I get to the last three bites (a half hour later), I’m staring regret in the face. But I eat them anyway. I look at my buddy. We’re heading to a Tribe game afterward. “I never knew a steak could make you pant,” he says. When eating the steak is part of your job, it’s hard to feel like you earned it. My fingernails aren’t even dirty. Yet, as I look down at my empty plate,

I can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment.

Day 2
When this challenge was still embryonic, I figured it’d be easy: Just eat ethnic — Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian. Not enough of a challenge, my editor said.

So Cicora pointed me toward the new breed of American restaurant: ethnic influences and tons of local ingredients. “We’ve seen, over the last two or three years, a real maturing of the Cleveland dining scene,” she notes. Crop is just such a place.

The day I visit, Crop’s menu doesn’t offer a fully vegetarian entree, so I order the Thai-D Bowl minus the shrimp. Two-toned sticky rice and green curry marry with julienne peppers.I finish with a dessert that’s garnished with tiny champagne grapes.

Fruits and vegetables are so tangible here, and surprising: the oversized, overexposed photos of veggies on the wall, those crisp champagne grapes, popcorn mixed with green peppers and onions, the cucumber/red pepper/mint relish that subs for butter or cream.

“It’s so fun eating vegetarian,” I tell my boss the following morning. “It’s only been two days,” he says.

Day 2
After yesterday’s gluttony — which I should, but won’t, regret — I realize I can’t keep this up. (By the fifth inning of last night’s Indians game, I had started to nod off Thanksgiving-style.) If I am going to enjoy my five days of decadence, I need to make careful lunch choices. The next day, my veggie counterpart spots me eating a salad, and she looks at me in horror. “That’s not meat and potatoes!”

I tell her to back off cause tonight, I’m going to the meat mecca, where vegetarians cower in fear — Brasa, a Brazilian churrascaria. That’s Portuguese for “unlimited, giant hunks of meat on spits.” She rolls her eyes and talks about hugging a tree. Out of the way, sweetie, this man is thinking about meat.

So much meat: Lamb. Parmesan-crusted steak. Bacon-wrapped turkey. (How do you make some girly meat like turkey masculine? Wrap it in dead pig.)

At Brasa, you have this little coaster with a red side and a green side. Green means keep coming by with the meat. Red means “I’m a wimp.” My roommate Jenny and I pile the meat high. The only meat she skips is a chicken sausage, but to her credit, she instantly regrets it and demands a slice off my plate.

At one point, my plate is actually red with blood. I brag. “Jenny, look at this! My meal died for me.” She rolls her eyes, and stabs a pork tenderloin with her fork. The waiter, watching me dip french fries into the blood, replaces my plate for me.
Day 3
Today I’m headed to Momocho, one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Andy suggests I order the grasshoppers. “Grasshoppers aren’t vegetarian,” I point out. Argument ensues. Wikipedia is consulted. Later, my brother will very succinctly explain what I couldn’t articulate to Andy. “You’re eating meat if you’re eating something that had eyes, a nose and a mouth.”

So. Grasshoppers are out. As are two varieties of guacamole: the blue crab and smoked trout. But my meal tonight will feature something almost as terrifying as insects on a stick: beets!

Beets have never impressed me. To me, the beet is a wobbly, vaguely internal-organ-looking food, and my sole memory of it is passing a dish of the blood-red beasties to the left each year at Thanksgiving.

But chef and owner Eric Williams does an impressive job of changing my point of view. His beets are mixed with spinach and onions, layered under a quilt of cheese and sautéed, then baked to a golden brown. Under the twinkly lights and moonlit darkness of the Momocho patio (with a few courage drinks under my belt), the beets aren’t bad. They hold up well as a supple substitute for the usual chicken, pork or beef.

The consistency reminds me of a potato, but where potatoes fall apart when they’ve soaked up their surrounding juices, the beets absorb and conquer, maintaining their integrity and acting as flavor vehicles for the rest of the dish. I order an ear of corn on the side, a char-grilled snapshot of summer, slathered in butter and seasonings that lend the warm, salty starch a creamy, citrusy infusion. It’s almost starting to seem like a secret vegetarians don’t want us to know: The best flavors don’t come from meat at all.

For the first time in this week of trial and error, I don’t even notice — or care — what my dining companions are eating. I forget to miss the meat.

When I stuff my stuffed body into the car, I hold my belly. “All I ate were beets, and I’m so full.”
Day 3
All I want is a burger. After two meat-filled evenings where I had to wear pants without wrinkles in them, I want to cut the charade. Like most guys in this town, I’d rather be wearing blue jeans. Preferably old ones. Like my dad does, I only throw away jeans when they’ve nearly disintegrated or no longer fit. (OK, personally, I’d walk around in a bathrobe all day if I could get away with it, but jeans are good enough.)

Something really disturbing hits me. I consider myself a pretty blue-collar guy, even if I do occasionally go to chichi-froufrou restaurants. But I had no idea where to get a decent burger. I’m talking about the kind of burger that’s cooked with care, perfectly medium but big as my head. I call regular Cleveland Magazine contributor, professional eater and organizer of the competitive eating portion of the Akron National Hamburger Festival, Dave “Coondog” O’Karma.

Me: “Where’s the best place to get a hamburger?”

Coondog: “What kind of a question is that? You can’t just say hamburger. Do you mean bar burger? Fast food burger? Drive-up burger? Sit-down fancy burger?”

He’s so right. I’m humiliated. This is a blow to my manhood. Or at minimum, a blow to my meathood. This is a hamburger town, and I could tell you exactly what kind of crowd you’d see at each of those locales. It’s just that I’ve been a backyard burger guy for so long, I couldn’t remember how many different options exist. Fast food burger? Brown Bag burgers in North Olmsted.

Drive-up? Swenson’s. Sit-down? Fire Food & Drink at Shaker Square. Coondog fully embraces the burger. He’s versatile. He’ll rub elbows with a steelworker at a bar or put a cloth napkin on his lap if it means something well-seasoned.

Me: “I want something carefully prepared but as big as my head.”

Coondog: “Oh. Go to Louie’s Bar & Grille in Akron. Amazing. It will never disappoint. Mention my name.”
The burger is ridiculous. It is so thick, so juicy and so cheesy. To be honest, I did order the Lotsa Cheeseburger with American, Swiss and mozzarella. It’s a half pound, and it comes with french fries —which can be prepared with more cheese, ranch dressing and bacon, if so desired.

It doesn’t scream family picnic in the backyard, but it’s a great ran-out-of-propane Plan B.
Day 4
Finally, finally, I’m eating at Lola. And I’m a goddamned vegetarian.

I’m headed into the belly of the beast. It’s an apt metaphor on more than one level. Michael Symon is renowned for his approach to the pig. Pig, the meat of my memories.

As a child, one of my dad’s many gigs was pig roaster-for-hire. To this day, a hulking, rusting roaster sits in our backyard, waiting for its day in hog heaven. Each year, my dad hauled it out for our family friends to throw a hog roast on their massive compound, a junglelike playground with a pool, a pavilion and mowed grassy pathways among lush messes of flora and fauna. For my graduation party I had a pig roast, and I’ve always wanted one at my wedding.

Sure, chicken paprikash, kielbasa and steaks fresh off the grill are the sinew of our enduring memories, but there’s also the childhood recall of working in my mom’s garden, canning applesauce and July-fresh corn on the cob. Memories are not made from meat alone.

We order the heirloom tomato salad to start. (I wanted the french fries, had heard so many good things about the french fries. The french fries are cooked in duck fat.) It arrives with two blue cheese croquettes, which the diners on both sides of our table eye hungrily. I warily try a tiny bite of one, then send it over to my companion’s plate.

“There’s just so much cheese in the world,” he sighs. He’s been down this road with me before. I’m a rotten vegetarian, and I don’t hold out hope that much will change, even if this does stick and I become one for life. I can tolerate small amounts of cheese, but in general, my diet is devoid of the stuff, as well as tofu (yuck!), mushrooms (ew!) and beans (blech!). It’s a problem.

Yet I persevere, forging a meatless, cheeseless, tofuless path through a sea of Mr. Meaties. I feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. I’ve traveled deep into the jungle, down the river, no end or beginning in sight, the journey becoming the end-all, be-all. What’s on this menu? What’s hidden in this turn of phrase? I study the lists of dishes like Sheen did the dossier, hoping to discover something new. And at each stop along the way, miraculously, I do. I’m forced to read menus in a way I never have before.

I have to think about the foods they’re describing, parse each line and, usually, choose something I never would’ve noticed before.

Giving the menu a few solid passes, I come up empty yet again. What did I expect? Symon’s new restaurant in Detroit is called Roast, for God’s sake. Meat is this guy’s daily bread. Our waiter points to the halibut dish. Extra gnocchi will take the place of the fish, he explains, assuring me it’ll be delicious. Whatever.

My dish arrives, small and delicate against my companion’s manly spread of meat, starches and barbecued delights. I watch wistfully as he wolfs down Symon’s signature entrée, the pork chops, while I push wax beans, gnocchi and asparagus around my plate. Not that I didn’t love the meal, of course. The potato gnocchi are like perfect little pillows all those dead piggies will lay their cute little heads on in heaven. Each bite bursts with buttery flavor, the perfect foil for the sharp, fresh taste of the vegetables.

At the end of the meal, my companion sits back with satisfaction. But I will have the final forkful. This light, fresh meal is making me feel great. I’m not weighed down. I’m not eating past the point of fullness. So I order dessert! And I don’t have to feel guilty at all.
Day 4
It’s day four when my boss calls me in. I’m not being very adventurous with my choices. Steaks? Burgers? Meat orgy? Let’s stretch the culinary palate a bit —surprise some people. Last year, a similar conversation ended with me eating sweetbreads. Turns out pancreas ain’t half-bad, but I was thinking about another steak.

How about steak tartare? OK, for the uninitiated, any food name followed by tartare means the meat is raw.

I spend the day bouncing between the excitement of ingesting raw meat like a wild animal and the complete dread of ingesting raw meat like a wild animal. Something is just cool about saying, “yeah, I’m going to eat it raw.” It makes you want to drive to Thompson, choke a deer to death, hang the head on the wall and eat the rest.

But that’s silly talk. Animals eat meat raw because they can’t cook. Humans can. It’s basic evolution. If a plate of raw meat appeared in front of my dad, he’d probably ask if they wouldn’t mind throwing it on the grill so it tastes like it’s supposed to taste. Come to think of it, this sounds like a delicacy that goofs in New York or L.A. might relish after asking a vacationing Clevelander if he’s intimidated by “the big city.”

My explanation doesn’t faze my dining companion. “Oh, I’ll eat it if you don’t want it. I’ll eat anything.” Shouldn’t she be saying, “eeew, gross!” at this point?

Walking into Johnny’s Downtown feels like a death march. No one should ever feel bad about eating at Johnny’s on the boss’ tab. I man up and grab the menu. The steak tartare also comes in an appetizer portion. I order that as well as a filet and crab meal to wash down the raw meat.

The appetizer comes out, and I stick it hesitantly in my mouth. It’s the consistency of raw ground beef. There is a heavy Worcester sauce flavor. And while it actually tastes like high-quality and tasty beef, it is still raw frigging meat. We push through the meal, but I am glad when I see a plate radiating heat waves heading my way.

The food, my real meal, makes me feel better. There’s a bleu cheese topping on the steak, and though it’s ritzy, it’s exactly what I needed to put the tartare’s gooey texture out of my mind. It brings me back to reality,just like yesterday’s burger.
Day 5
My last day, and it feels sort of anticlimactic. No salads in sight. No tofu or portobellos, either. Five days in and I’m on cruise control. I don’t feel the loss of meat in my diet. I’ve felt full without feeling weighed down. I realize there are so many restaurants where I want to try eating vegetarian. The excitement of the challenge hasn’t dimmed.

Tonight, at Share this story: