Sulzberger piece prompts question: How tough is it to be a vegetarian journalist?
Arthur G. Sulzberger should no longer have trouble finding a vegetarian restaurant in the Midwest. He got a lot of suggestions, as well as plenty of criticism, after writing a New York Times story last week about how difficult it is to be a vegetarian in the Midwest.
Some accused him of stereotyping the region, while others said he simply didn’t do enough reporting. As a vegetarian who’s been to the Midwest, I thought Sulzberger’s piece seemed exaggerated. But I also related to some of it. It's not always easy being a vegetarian, and being a vegetarian or vegan journalist comes with its own set of challenges.
Stock up on energy drinks, protein bars
Griff Witte, deputy foreign editor of The Washington Post, has had to get creative when reporting out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A vegetarian since 1998, Witte has found that the best way to prepare for international reporting trips is to bring food along. Every time he travels abroad, he packs half his suitcase with energy drinks and protein bars.
“When I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002, I pretty well knew that there weren’t going to be whole lot of tofu joints there, so even on that first trip I packed a lot of protein bars,” Witte said by phone. “After a while, though, eating the same thing gets old.”
When he traveled to Kabul for three months in 2005, Witte lived off french fries, turnips, potatoes and radishes. He remembers eating in the Dubai airport on his way home and devouring a plate of salad and hummus. It was one of the best meals he ever remembers eating.
Despite the monotony of his diet, Witte has never been tempted to eat meat while abroad.
“In Afghanistan, there’s not very much refrigeration, so meat tends to be left out on big hooks outside of butcher shops,” he said. “Just driving down the street and seeing one goat carcass after the next covered in flies is enough to keep me from having any temptation when it comes to meat.”
There have been times when he’s been served a hearty dish of lamb and has had to politely decline. “I would often say, ‘My stomach hurts today and I’m just not feeling well enough to eat meat,’ " said Witte, who doesn't want to offend those feeding him. “I got a lot of puzzled looks when I said that, but I thought it would be more believable than saying I simply choose not to eat meat.”
Witte hasn’t had any difficulty finding vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the U.S. Others, though, say it can be tough if you’re reporting out of a rural town with just one restaurant (which isn’t likely to be vegetarian or vegan), or when you’re meeting sources for lunch or dinner. After a while, you learn that sometimes you have to make sacrifices -- and put up with flack from other journalists.
Let your coworkers & sources know you’re a vegetarian
Dallas Morning News education reporter Holly Hacker said that inquisitive journalists often ask her why she’s a vegetarian. She tells them her decision was part environmental, part health and part ethical.
“Some die-hard carnivores react with bemusement, as if I told them I crochet my Birkenstocks from hemp yarn,” Hacker said via email. “And I received good-natured taunts when I brought veggie dogs to the newsroom hot dog lunch to celebrate the Rangers making the World Series.”
It helps, Hacker said, to let others in the newsroom know that you don’t eat meat. She was open about this with the newsroom’s office managers, who now make sure there are veg-friendly options when ordering food for training lunches and election night.
When Hacker went on maternity leave, the newsroom sent her a meal from one of her favorite vegetarian restaurants, and one of her editors threw her a vegetarian potluck/shower when she gave birth to her second baby. (To appease the meat eaters, she said, another editor made sure to order in Chinese food.)
Chipotle is a safe bet when reporting on the road, Hacker said. She’s found other fast-food restaurants to be less reliable. Once, on a trip through rural Missouri, Hacker ordered the Veggie Max at Subway. “I think they kept one in the back of the freezer for such rare occasions,” Hacker said. “The Subway lady nuked it into oblivion. I used that as an excuse to get a milkshake instead.”
It’s easy to think that vegetarians are elite eaters who expect everyone to accommodate them. Sure, there are some vegetarian snobs. But most of the vegetarians I’ve met are flexible. They’ll order a couple of sides if they’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have many veggie options, or they’ll “settle” for dessert.
Hacker said she’s never had a source complain when she’s asked to meet at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. At times, her dietary restrictions have even helped her relate to sources. “Once I met a source for lunch and found out she couldn’t eat gluten,” she said. “I think we both ended up with big salads.”
Cite policies, look for veg-friendly restaurants ahead of time
Libby Clark, Web editor of The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., suggests eating something before covering events where there may not be many vegetarian-friendly options. Clark said being a vegetarian posed problems for her when she was a business reporter because so many of the events she covered took place at a luncheon or dinner. Thankfully, she said, The Columbian’s business team has a policy that restricts reporters from accepting complimentary meals for events it covers.
“It was easier to cite the policy than turn food down for not meeting my dietary preferences,” she said via email. “Even if this isn't an official policy, it can serve as good cover.”
For the past two years, Clark has gotten a Honey Baked Ham gift certificate as a holiday bonus. “I smile, accept the gift and then re-gift it to my omnivore friends and family,” said Clark, whose husband Taylor Clark is also a vegetarian journalist.
Before meeting sources for stories, Sarah Day Owen tries to scope out restaurants with vegetarian-friendly options. Foursquare, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and HappyCow.net are all helpful resources. Owen, associate online entertainment editor at the Des Moines Register, doesn’t mind telling sources that she’s a pescetarian and said it can be a good conversation starter. She’ll sometimes recommend a restaurant, but she ultimately lets sources pick where they want to eat.
Unlike Sulzberger, Owen hasn’t found it difficult to locate veg-friendly places in the Midwest. She doesn't cover stories that would require her to eat meat (such as judging a barbecue contest), and she avoids the pork on a stick while at the Iowa State Fair.
“I’ve found working in the South it was more difficult than the Midwest,” said Owen, who used to report in Augusta, Ga. “Worst case: You can eat plain rice at a barbecue joint with a salad (hold the bacon) and bread. Best case? Non-chain restaurants,” she said. “If you’re looking by type, best bets are a coffee shop or something quick -- a Vietnamese restaurant or an Indian restaurant.”
Finding vegetarian-friendly restaurants forces you to use your journalism skills to scope out the community you’re covering, Owen said via email. “Isn’t part of being a journalist finding that unique dish or unique story?”
Write about local vegetarian/vegan restaurants
Vance Lehmkuhl, a home page producer of Philly.com, found that some Philadelphians have underestimated how veg-friendly the city actually is. As a vegan journalist, Lehmkuhl figured he was in a good position to highlight the city's offerings and build an online community for local vegetarians and vegans.
Last year, Lehmkuhl launched “V for Veg,” a Philadelphia Daily News column that celebrates and chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in the city of cheese steaks.
Lehmkuhl, who used to think vegans were “bitter, out-of-touch extremists,” said writing about veganism has helped him educate the community and motivated him to eat healthier.
“Having become a columnist,” he said, “I realized I was now a much more public exemplar of veganism and have resolved to improve my diet and have been taking steps to do so -- introducing more raw fruits and vegetables and cutting back ever-so-slightly on delicious vegan cookies and snacks.”
Being a vegan has served Lehmkuhl well in a newsroom where (non-vegan) donuts are commonly brought in. But, the former Midwesterner says, “this being Philly, soft pretzels have also made frequent appearances and I haven’t always been able to avoid having one ... or two.”