A Penn State Vegetarian’s Lament
It’s a pretty universal truth: College equals freedom. When you kiss your parents goodbye and sit in your dorm completely alone, it is often the first time your life is in your own hands. You can now do whatever you want! Skip a week of classes? Sure. Eat nothing but cookie dough for a solid 36 hours? Go for it. Hook up with that guy on your floor that your high school boyfriend would totally loathe? Do it to it.
Now, all of those scenarios sound pretty sweet to me. But back when I was a young, doe-eyed first-year, I wanted to do something unheard of. Something wild.
So, I became a vegetarian.
I know, I know. I needed to calm down, because I was just too crazy. I mean, no meat?! As someone who grew up in the land of pork barbecue and fried chicken (read: the south), it was a pretty bold move.
But nevertheless, I started my Penn State career as a veg-head. I believed the
lie story that my tour guide told me. You know, the story that Penn State and the surrounding area boast a cornucopia of eateries for every dietary preference and restriction.
That could not be further from the truth. I’m not saying that I starve, but there is a serious lack of actual vegetarian fare in State College.
First, I should explain what good vegetarian food actually is, which is more accurately described by what it is not. Vegetarian food is not simply the absence of meat. It is replacing that meat with an equal, non-animal source of fat and protein — be it tofu, broccoli, nuts, or beans.
It’s a shame that so few people understand vegetarians around here. My working definition of State College vegetarianism is cheese. No meat? Cover it in cheese. I do love cheese more than the average person, but you can’t replace the main source of nutrients in a meal with fat and salt. There’s a reason that cheese doesn’t have its own section on the food pyramid.
The herbivores of State College are too often an afterthought. My favorite example of this occurred when I was still living on campus. By this point, I had already realized that Penn State was not a vegetarian’s paradise. In response to that, I downloaded the PSU Dining app, so I could always know if there was actual food (other than the salad bar) that would be worth my precious meal points. One fateful eve, I launched the app and scrolled down to the area marked for vegetarian cuisine. And to my horror, the only options that were listed as vegetarian were “baked potato” and “cheese cubes.”
I know that there are other options at the dining halls that don’t include meat, but this section of the app was supposed to be dedicated to actual nutritious vegetarian fare. Instead, it was inhabited by side dishes at best.
I’m not asking for much. I don’t need a completely vegetarian restaurant to set up shop downtown. I don’t require a whole dining hall devoted to herbivores. I’m simply asking for a little bit of consideration. I’m sure my other dietarily-restricted and preferential compadres would agree (looking at you, gluten-free kids and vegans). We just want to be more than second-class food citizens here.
Being a second-class eater in State College means that I have to worry whenever I go out to eat with friends. It means that I often have to search for menus ahead of time on Yelp, to ensure that there’s at least one item on the menu that I can actually eat and enjoy. It means never trying something new, for fear of being stuck with horribly unbalanced and unappealing meals. It means that my only victory in downtown cuisine is the free guacamole on my burrito bowl at Chipotle, but that’s something that happens at every Chipotle across the nation.
Remember how free you felt when you first came to school? I hope that one day, the vegetarians of Penn State will feel this freedom too. I dream of a day when a vegetarian can stroll into any downtown eatery and order a full-fledged, nutritious meal.
Until then, I’ll keep munching on my salad.