Digging Deeper


Hungry Midwest vegetarians? Not on this map

View Hungry Midwest Vegetarians? in a larger map

I wonder if Arthur Sulzberger, the New York Times correspondent based in Kansas City, thought his first-person piece on the difficulty of being a vegetarian in the Midwest would create so much attention.

I wrote about this a couple weeks ago (The ‘Mecca of meat?’ Who, us?) and posed this question via the Harvest Network: Is there really a “startling lack of fresh produce" here? I asked you to fact check his piece, and boy, did I hear back from some good reporters.

Those who responded were mostly offended by this tempest in the tempeh and came through with many suggestions for the obviously hungry Sulzberger. I received so many thoughtful responses, in fact, that I decided to share them with you, via this map, created by Harvest web wunderkind Jeremy Bernfeld.

Why the floating globes of green iceberg lettuce? Well, that’s just my sparty-pants nod to this paragraph in Sulzberger’s piece:

“This is a part of the country — and there’s no polite way to put this — where the most common vegetable you’ll see on dinner plates is iceberg lettuce."

Although it’s a bit heavy on restaurants in the college town of Columbia, Mo., and many good places in Kansas City, there are some surprises on the map. Haans Petruschke of Kirtland, Ohio, said the Times story had “no truth whatsoever” in northeast Ohio, and he pointed to a suburb near Cleveland.

"In downtown Willoughby, an area of 3x3 small blocks there are 14 independent restaurants including a brewery and a sushi bar. No fast food, 2 local coffee shops, no Starbucks.  Nothing like it anywhere I've ever been."

Jill Shepherd recommended a place called the Duckling Inn in Pickerel, Wis.

“Northern Wisconsin, a (place I frequent) always has one or two items on any menu, usually plenty tasty. Back in the 1990's, not so much. Everyone has come a very long way since then.”

Vicki  Walker of Kansas City, a self-described “flexitarian” who eats mostly vegetables and a little chicken and fish, pointed to the many vegetarian-inspired restaurants in Kansas City and wondered if Sulzberger just forgot to ask his neighbors where to eat. She pointed to Fud, Farmhouse, Succatash, Californos, You Say Tomatoes, Beer Kitchen, Blue Koi, Eslah or Blue Nile, Rock-n-Moroccan or Duo East.

“Gee, I guess maybe we ARE a little bit cosmopolitan - but with some hay in our hair.”

Walker, like others, was also miffed at Sulzberger’s suggestion that "Lard still plays a starring role in many kitchens."

“Lard?” Walker wrote. “I use it for my bird feeders. Puuuullleezzee!”

A few frustrated plant-based peeps sided with Sulzberger, including William Dickson of Columbia, Mo.

“Speaking as a vegetarian of 25 years who moved here a couple of years ago from Seattle, I sympathize with Sulzberger. It's not that you can't get fresh produce here, it's that you have to go to farmer's markets and specialty markets to get the kind of stuff that's available in the chain grocery stores in Seattle.”

True enough, and Harvest reporter Jessica Naudziunas, a vegetarian, reported in her podcast that farmers markets are abundant, especially in the more urban areas. But she also met up with some notable locals, including U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Matt Eyman,  the local Yelp community manager, who were as offended as Jim Cosgrove of Kansas City about playing to the Midwestern stereotype.

“As a former journalist, I lose patience and interest when writers make dim-witted generalizations about anything -- it exposes them as lazy and uncreative. Oh yeah, and smug. Really, perpetuating tired misconceptions of any region or culture is just lame.”

The map is a work in progress, so send me your best recommendations for eating well as a vegetarian (or a carnivore supporter) in the Midwest and you, too, can earn a floating iceburg lettuce. Email me at peggylowe@harvestpublicmedia.org.