Retro Vegan: The Way It used to Be (Part 2)
Growing up on Long Island, Chinese food was an early source of vegan sustenance for me. On this massive suburb benefitting from New York City’s proximity, you can get good bagels, good pizza, and good Chinese food. Three staples you learn, with time, that the rest of the country doesn’t do so well. I don’t know what I would have eaten growing up if it wasn’t for “bean curd with broccoli.” Bean curd dishes on Chinese take-out menus are still an active option for me.
Early in realizing vegetarians desired a textured protein in their familiar sauces, Asian eateries created full menus of mock meats. Vegetarian beef, vegetarian shrimp, vegetarian shark fin soup, and the ubiquitous vegetarian chicken, the king of mock meats. These were rubbery wheat glutens and texturized soy proteins… but I didn’t know what that was at the time. I just thought it was magic. Texture. It was all about an early vegan missing texture.
I remember the early days of the faux-heavens in Philadelphia’s Chinatown when I thought I’d move there in 1998, the old Zen Palate and their Sesame Medallions, and this favorite on Bell Blvd in Bayside–No. 1 Chinese Food Restaurant. No. 1 Chinese Food Restaurant had a section of vegetarian chicken selections. Their fake chicken was thin and porous, a vehicle for their various sauces. The old woman who served me in the dark restaurant let me make a combo with veggie fried rice and the can of Coke was always ice cold, its popped tab echoing to the far reaches of the curtain covered dining room. In their booths, I ate with the important historical figures of my youth. I was disappointed to learn it is no longer there on Bell Blvd.
In homage to Chinese mock meats and their place in my food history, I visited Asian Bowl with Max, the friend I dined with most often at No. 1 Chinese Food Restaurant.
In the years since our visits to my old mock meat haunt, Max has been diagnosed with a wheat allergy and I have since avoided the faux for the most part–though since I had this blog post in mind I seemed to have gravitated towards them (See previous posts.) Mock meats were a key part to my developing veganism. But now, they are a last resort or a nostalgic whim used sparingly. There is something sophomoric about fake meat products. Maybe because in vegan years, I am an old curmudgeon.