For years I’ve wanted to write this, but each time I succumbed to laziness – as well as the self-induced hope that things would eventually get better. That concert managers and organisers might become more sensitive to the idea of vegetarian nutrition by themselves. That they would educate themselves about what is vegetarian and what is not. But even though things have indeed got a little “better”, the changes are way too slow. With these lines, I hope to speed things up a little – first, by destroying a few myths and providing some accurate information about vegetarianism; and second, by noting down a few simple and inexpensive ideas to create a vegetarian meal for musicians.
Our American colleagues may laugh at this. In the US, vegetarian and vegan options are literally all over the place. In some parts of Europe, however, the notion of vegetarian food is still as unknown and as exotic as it gets.
I also hope that my intentions here will not be dismissed too easily. My needs – and those of countless other vegetarian musicians – are really not that special or difficult to accommodate. Just believe me when I tell you that on too many occasions while on tour, I have had NOTHING to eat. On even more occasions, the food I received was scant, not nutritious – and boring, to say the least. A tour is already busy and stressful enough. It would be nice if concert agents and organisers could be a little more flexible, and not expect vegetarians to sacrifice themselves once more for the sake of the organisers’ comfort (or lack of interest). Yes, we can sacrifice ourselves and pick up some junk food. But not for a whole tour. In the end, it’s only meatless food. We’re not asking for some blessed food from a holy mountain. For the sake of keeping things simple, I won’t even get into the realms of vegan food. Hoping for vegan food on the road is, unfortunately, still nothing but a dream. After being a vegan for seven years, I sadly had to give up some years ago, tired of having nothing to eat after a long rehearsal or a late concert. Now I do what most people do, including colleagues who have taken the same decision for the exact same reasons: I repress all ethical thoughts about the egg and dairy industries. It’s sad, but it works. At least this way, I can get something to eat before or after a concert, which is really important – especially when I spend about half of my time on the road.
In my experience, two regions in particular have been highly problematic: rural eastern Germany and rural Lithuania. As I haven’t had a concert in rural eastern Germany for the past two years, my examples will shed a little light on “the Lithuanian problem”, as I call it. But the myths about vegetarianism are the same everywhere. Here are a few things to think about:
1. Fish is not a vegetarian food. This is probably the most important fact we need to get straight – especially since some people who occasionally eat fish and seafood identify themselves as vegetarian. This is an old-fashioned notion, coming from a time when the term began to be used by people who wanted to lead a healthier lifestyle by eating less meat. It is also the reason why some people think Hitler was a vegetarian. Back in those days, even chicken soup was considered vegetarian. Fish was considered healthy, and therefore “vegetarian”. (I hope everyone realises that most fish is anything but healthy, but that’s another issue.) Here’s a quick and easy way to remember this point: if it has eyes, it’s not vegetarian.
2. Sweet does not replace savoury. It’s nice to eat pancakes with local cream cheese with a splash of forest fruit jam once in a while – but not instead of savoury food. Vegetarians often end up eating too many sweet things on the road, simply because they are all that’s available. Often, a buffet will have nothing vegetarian except cookies. This is simply not OK.
3. Even if it seems to makes sense to a meat-eater, we cannot “just put the meat to one side”. If the dish includes meat – I remember a Lithuanian dish of mashed potatoes with pieces of bacon in it – we cannot eat it. Think of yourself as a non-smoker who is forced to sleep in a room in which someone used to smoke a lot with the window shut. Right. That is not a non-smoking room, even if right now, nobody is smoking in there. Believe me, vegetarians can tell if there’s meat in our food. Some of us may even feel physically unwell.
4. Please, if you can’t offer anything more than ham and cheese – please, please, never put them together on the same plate. See above. Also, when it comes to cheese, unfortunately, Lithuanian smoked cheese often has bits of bacon in it (read the ingredients), which means we cannot eat it.
5. Also, please be a little more aware that it’s not OK to use your meat-contaminated fork while fishing for vegetables on “our” plate. This is the equivalent of a smoker blowing smoke in a non-smoker’s face. Yes, we can live with it, but it’s not nice, and it adds to the already-present discomfort. In the end, it’s about respect. It doesn’t cost much to look after vegetarian; all it requires is a little thought.
So, now to the fun part: a few simple ideas for what to put on a vegetarian-friendly table. Nothing pretentious, nothing expensive – in fact, some things that will please everybody.
1. Do you like a classic Italian bruschetta? So do we. And it’s awfully easy to make: finely chopped tomatoes, onions, or garlic, or both, a few dried herbs (basil, oregano or whatever there is), salt, pepper and olive oil, mix it in a big salad bowl. Voilà! And everyone can put some on their own bread (using a neutral spoon) themselves.
2. On that plate where the omnipresent cucumbers lie, feel free to add some olives. Maybe a lot of olives. They are a good substitute for a “real” ingredient, while cucumbers are just solid water.
3. If possible, do offer more than just one type of bread. I love Lithuanian dark bread with caraway seeds, even if I wouldn’t use it for everything – but there are a lot of people (usually foreigners) who hate caraway.
4. It’s literally raining avocados in every Lithuanian supermarket, almost all year round. While the extreme commercialisation of avocados is ecologically questionable, well, instead of letting them rot on the shelves, just buy them and put them on the table. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you can even fix a quick guacamole: avocadoes, tomatoes, a bit of onion (although it’s possible to do it without), lemon juice, dried herbs, salt, pepper, a bit of olive oil (or not). Just don’t add anything dairy. Same goes for the pitted olives that are everywhere, they might taste awful while “naked” but can make a decent paste, if you add some dried herbs, a bit of garlic and maybe a fresh tomato.
5. Pesto is also a great invention for every table. It’s easy to find practically everywhere. And a portion of spaghetti with pesto is a quick and easy idea for lunch.
6. The (un)holy trinity of every standard meal offered by organisers in rural Lithuania is: meat/fish + boiled potatoes/rice + salad. Sure, we can eat it without the meat, but that sucks. Besides, sorry to say, but food quality is often simply terrible: cold boiled potatoes, cold, mushy, dried-out rice plus a bit of tired salad without dressing. Just depressing. I see my colleagues eating only the meat and leaving most of the rest, surely for the same reason. We could make do with such a meal if we had something to replace the meat in this trinity. Why isn’t grilled cheese an option in Lithuania? Think about it, it’s really delicious. Or at least, some stew – beans, peas, even cabbage if need be (without the bacon of course).
7. If breakfast is an issue, there are many more options than scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese. People tend to be quite inflexible during breakfast, I noticed three categories: savoury breakfast (as described above), sweet breakfast (jam on toast or sweet baked goods), and wholefood “mueslies” (that’s a word describing people like me, who are happy with a bowl of granola or porridge for breakfast). Best to have some options: cereals, yoghurt, and (in the most luxurious case), if possible, some non-dairy milk. Also something fresh for breakfast, like fruit or at least some fruit juice, would be much appreciated (not only by vegetarians).
8. I’ve had the pleasure of discovering in Lithuania that soups are usually quite delicious. And if soup is being offered, why not make it a vegetarian version? Everyone can eat it.
Travelling sparks people’s imagination. Monotony kills it. In this context, it makes sense to let oneself inspired by what food is standard in other parts of the world. It doesn’t always have to be pigs’ ears, smoked cheese, cucumbers, and herring salad. Or let’s say, it doesn’t always have to be only that. When musicians tour, with all the joy and excitement that rehearsals and performances provide, we are in a slightly more stressed-out mode than usual, because we have to deliver, often in too short a time or/and while dealing with unexpected problems. Meals are often the only times when we get to calm down a little. Nobody expects gourmet food during a tour, but vegetarians always seem to be at the back of the queue. Our comfort is also important – so if you can make all this easier for us, that would be great!