Monday, April 9, 2012

Southern Hospitality, Veggie Style

Memphis, TN and Nesbit, MS were the two sites of my recent vacation. I did not have the highest hopes of finding good vegan cuisine, or even much sympathy towards my diet in these locales, given their fame for specialties such as BBQ pork; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only several enjoyable food options but a Southern hospitality which extended to a complete respect for herbivores.

At Bonne Terre Inn, a quaint yet upscale Mississippi B+B situated by two lakes and a host of gorgeous, serene scenery, the proprietors were exceptionally sensitive to my requests, which were quite uncommon. Upon our arrival, the registrar scrutinized me as to my breakfast desires, and when I asked about soy milk for coffee and cereal, he immediately sent his wife, the hostess, to the store to procure some. While other guests dined on bacon and eggs, our complimentary breakfast consisted of: Kashi w soy milk (the hostess picked up two varieties for me to choose from), homemade Hash Browns, whole grain toast with strawberry jam, OJ, and a fruit bowl with strawberries, blackberries, and grapes. When I requested ketchup for my potatoes, the hostess exclaimed approvingly, "Ketchup? You ARE Southern!"

Bonne Terre's chef, whom I later discovered was actually the Inn's computer technician with a knack for cooking who had temporarily taken over the kitchen while a new chef was found, was kind enough to create a unique vegan menu for dinner for us the two nights we stayed. Meal one consisted of two salads, one of cucumber and fresh mint and one of beets and string beans (not a leaf among these salads, which is just the way I like it), followed by an asparagus and spring pea risotto, all of which was superb. The following night we started with a thick, cold tomato-based gazpacho, moved on to another beet salad with raw asparagus, had an entree of mint-basil pesto pasta which was so rich I double-checked to see it didn't contain cheese (the chef ensured me it didn't), and closed with a homemade raspberry sorbet so fresh and fruity we were picking out seeds. 

Our venture into downtown Memphis also yielded more food options than I had anticipated. At a bistro-style cafe near the National Civil Rights museum, I ordered a veggie burger, the only vegan item on the menu, and had the option of about 15 complimentary vegetable toppings (a hero sandwich was also available with any combination of veggies I might desire.) The burger was black bean-based and smacked of cumin, which was a pleasant surprise given the prevalence of soy burgers in New York. A few moments after we were served, the owner rushed out to assure us that more vegan options would soon be available, should we return in a few weeks. While obviously I won't be back anytime soon, I was pleased to see that the inclusion of plant-based meals was becoming a priority.

Later that evening, we were combing the streets looking for a dinner spot (and not finding too many meatless options) when a woman outside a small cafe with live music practically dragged us in to see the show, which was admittedly excellent. When we began to protest that we were in search of dinner she pointed us towards the menu, which boasted about 5 items scribbled on a chalk board. When I declared I was a vegan, she recommended the greens, which I was immediately suspect of since traditionally they are made with pork or turkey. "No!" she declared, "ours are MEATLESS greens! You gotta try them!!!" Her enthusiasm was so overwhelming that we decided to stay and eat bowl after bowl of greens for dinner while enjoying the blues act. They were not only decidedly vegan, they were absolutely delicious with a mildly spicy seasoning.

What Memphis lacked in variety for vegans (if any Memphis chefs are reading this I have two words for you: barbecue tempeh), it made up for in its astonishingly sympathetic catering to our needs to the best of its ability. The final note of kindness came in the airport, where a young man at a sandwich counter noted I had ordered the Veggie Sub and asked me if I would like him to change his gloves before preparing my food. The sandwich was nothing to write home about, but the extra mile of courtesy will ever remain in my memory of this vacation.

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