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Yesterday, I paid a visit to Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary to help celebrate the farm’s annual fundraiser. My main motive for visiting Poplar is always to say hello to the pigs; as you know, I help to sponsor Hamlet, a pig with tremendous personality.

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I couldn’t find hamlet yesterday—I think he was off playing in the mud somewhere–but I did get to greet some of his friends.

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My other reason to visit poplar was to see Colleen Patrick Goudreau, the keynote speaker, in action. Colleen is one of my culinary heroes, and she’s a role model as an activist, too. I met her at Vida Vegan, and found that she is every bit as gracious and composed in person as she is in her work; we spent a moment comparing our literary pasts (Colleen was also an English lit major, a fact that is evident in her elegant prose). Most of all, I was impressed with Colleen’s “seeds of compassion” lecture, which was about sharing a compassionate message with others. I’ve written often in the last few months about how to reconcile activism with humility and a gentle touch. No one masters that balance better than Colleen does, and yesterday’s speech proved to be no exception. Even the hand gestures were earnest:

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One of the questions that emerged from the audience was, “What do I do if I’m an omnivore going veg*n, and most of my friends like to eat out at mainstream restaurants? Do I just have to starve?”

Obviously, this is something we’ve all discussed a lot here at CR. Colleen answered exactly as I would. If you anticipate having a lack of options, she said, a lack is what you’ll get. If you feel confident enough to order off the menu, and create your own set of options, you’ll be well fed.

What does this mean? This means that you don’t simply stare at a menu with threadbare salads and meat/cheese dishes feeling disappointed. It means you ask—politely and respectfully—if the chef has any rice or beans that could be added to the mesclun salad. Is there a way to do the pasta primavera without the chicken? Is there a sandwich that can be veganized? How about plain spaghetti and red sauce with a few pieces of steamed broccoli? Hopefully your options will be richer than that, but even if they’re not, you won’t starve.

Of course, gathering the nerve to talk to your waiter is most of the work. I once met a man who told me that he was essentially vegan, except for restaurants. He told me this as if it were a given, and there could be no other solution: “I’m vegan, except when I eat out, obviously.”

I looked at him quizzically, and said, “why restaurants?”

“Well, they never have options I can eat on the menu,” he said.

“So why don’t you just try to order off the menu?” I replied.

He stared, as if I’d just changed everything. “I guess it never occurred to me that I could ask for something that wasn’t on the menu,” he said.

It’s a tiny exchange, but I think it speaks to the fact that, if you choose to eat in a way that is selective and different, it’s important to think outside the box. Heck, isn’t all of veganism—at least at this moment in time—a form of thinking outside of the box? Part of exploring the lifestyle is learning how to search for solutions and accommodations when they haven’t been given to you. Restaurant dining is shifting in a more plant-based direction, but we’re far from the day when vegan options will abound on any restaurant menu in any part of the country. Till then, we can do our best to create options for ourselves, rather than waiting for others to hand them to us.

It’s easy to confuse confidence with aggression or egotism. The first time I wrote about my unabashed exchanges with waiters, a former waiter commented and reminded me that people who demand 103837 modifications impolitely are terribly hard for wait staffs to handle. This was a good reminder. That said, I think it’s all to do with attitude: as Colleen pointed out yesterday, you pay good money to dine out. And you have the right to ask for simple things, like a side of beans, just so long as you don’t demand something outrageous (for example, I’m not going to ask any old restaurant to create a raw vegan entrée for me). But you have to ask in a way that is as respectful as it is self-assured.

I love that women like Colleen are out there, sharing a confident message with both veteran and prospective vegans. And I think that her formula extends to any particular way of eating. Few things are more intimate and personal than how we choose to feed ourselves, and we all have the right to pick and choose our food identities—veg*n, allergy-specific, local, organic, whatever. If we can find ways to do that with both graciousness and pride, “ordering off the menu” becomes easy.

More advice on restaurant dining? Check out calling ahead and last week’s talking to people about your food choices posts.

Till tomorrow,

xo