Since 2010, my husband Josh and I have been on an annual pilgrimage to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. America! We’re on a quest to visit (and spend at least one night) in each and every state. This year we went to Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, D.C., Delaware and North Carolina. We’re now at 44/50 states and it has been a thrilling, beautiful, confounding & bizarre adventure.
This year was my first year Roadtripping as a vegan. Previous roadtrips saw me inhaling mac n’ cheese, chicken tenders & Reeses Peanut Butter Cups like they were going out of fashion and I was intrigued as to how I’d cope this time round. Turns out it was significantly more challenging than I’d expected. Here are the highs and lows:
As well as an indie co-operative in Virginia, I absolutely adored going to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Mom’s Organic Markets on this trip. Each had huge selections of non-dairy cheese and milk, loads of organic produce, cruelty free cosmetics, mock meats and ready-to-go vegan lunches and breakfasts that were tasty, reasonably priced and delicious. They were miles ahead of most grocery stores I’ve visited so far in the U.K and genuinely exciting to explore.
Breakfasting as a vegan on this roadtrip was mixed. I had some really nice fruit bowls and oatmeal made with almond milk at hotels and out and about but I really missed getting to eat waffles, pancakes and donuts. I’m sure there are specialised vegan breakfast places but when you’re staying in a motel or a boutique hotel and need to eat a quick breakfast before hitting the road they most likely won’t be able to whip you up a vegan-version of the dirty glazed donut/ pumpkin-spiced waffles they’re selling.
It was also a bummer that every place we stayed that had in-room coffee machines had no dairy-free milk as I like a super-white coffee and had to go without.
Props to Alternative Baking Company cookies for being delicious, High Five Coffee for a banging flapjack and Califa Farms for making salted caramel cold brew with almond milk that tasted dangerously good.
As my husband is very much ~not~ vegan and as a really big part of these roadtrips has always been about exploring local history, dive bars & regional food when we planned this trip we knew we’d have to compromise. I didn’t want Josh to miss out on visiting the diners/drive-ins that we’ve always had fun checking out and he didn’t want me catching scurvy. So we divided the meals between places that catered to both of us, were totally plant-based and BBQ/burger joints with limited veggie options. Occasionally I’d have something from a grocery store whilst he’d get a burger from Five Guys. I have to stress that if you’re vegan and going alone or with another vegan/vegetarian I know that you’d be able to visit places exclusively tailored to your needs and this would obviously make for far more satisfying dining experiences on your vacation.
That said, some of the lunches I had were ripsnortingly good. A round of applause to Mellow Mushroom for making rad pizzas for everyone like my tempeh, caramelised onion and avocado pizza topped with Daiya cheese. The Clementine Cafe (Harrisonburg, Virginia) made my favourite lunch of the trip: grilled tofu with red curry over udon noodles and crushed peanuts that nearly had me causing a When Harry Met Sally scene it was that fantastic. I had a decent miso soup and baked avocado at Teaism in D.C. and filling pitta and hummus in Dogfish Head pub in Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. In Nashville we visited The Wild Cow and ate buffalo tempeh strips, slightly average hummus, really good queso and nachos and hands-down the best Caesar salad of my life. This place was ace and well worth a trip. Next door in Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams I had a Riesling poached pear sorbet that knocked my dang socks off too.
However I also had waffle fries and small salad at a hamburger place, two bags of crisps at a BBQ shack, fries and ketchup at a drive-in; because there was nothing else on the menu I could eat. Don’t get me wrong, the fried potato is a god amongst carbs but it felt gross eating so much fried food and a bit depressing when I was in especially hangry moods.
The best meal I ate was at Plant in Asheville – a fully vegan restaurant. To start Josh and I shared fried plantain with soured cream, hot sauce, spring onions and Maldon seasalt which I liked and Josh tolerated. My main, which I think about and smile in quiet moments, was a sensational seitan chile con queso with a tamale gordo, grilled farm squash, coriander mojo and pickled pink onions. We both really enjoyed the peanut butter and chocolate ice cream and, after months of excitedly waiting to go here, it was totally worth the wait.
I had fried edamame and a BBQ ‘chicken’ pizza at Johnny Rad’s in Baltimore which was the kind of really relaxed dive bar I live for on roadtrips. In teeny Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia I had pasta with oil and garlic at a little Italian place which was so simple but utterly joyful. The incredible kale pakoras and a mixed vegetable uttapam at Chai Pani in Asheville were mind-bendingly good. I had another really tasty pizza in Tomato Head in the surprisingly beautiful Knoxville. I had a few entirely average quinoa & blackbean burgers along the way too, but that’s OK. I was a little bit ticked off that outside of vegan-only places there were exactly zero dessert options on every menu but that’s the way the non-vegan cookie crumbles, dudes.
Several things about being in America depressed me more than I’d anticipated. One day we saw a couple of trucks transporting eleven tiers of tightly-packed and distressed chickens to slaughter and, having read a tweet about how Americans eat more chickens each year than there are people on earth, I knew I was looking at the tiniest tip of the iceberg and it was repellent. The portion sizes have always seemed ridiculous but know I’m more aware of food waste and the ecological impact of producing food it felt scandalous too.
We drove about 2.5 thousand miles and it’s no exaggeration that I saw hundreds of billboards touting animal products. From Arby’s to Cracker Barrel to Wendy’s to White Castle to Burger King to Popeyes to McDonalds to Sonic Drive-In to Applebee’s to Golden Corral to Bojangles to KFC to Denny’s to Red Lobster. And on and on and on. I saw loads of signs of BBQ joints decorated with creepy illustrations of dancing, smiling pigs. Chick-Fil-A rubbed me up the wrongest way as their billboards purport to be designed by cows who are suggesting that hungry humans skip the beef burger and “eat mor chikin” instead. Up yours Chick-Fil-A.
The drumbeat behind all of these billboards is the bitter knowledge that these industries are sustained by the sickening factory farm system. That 33 million cows, 113 million pigs, and 9 billion broiler chickens endure hell from birth to slaughter for cheap, plentiful meat, eggs & milk. This devastating Rolling Stone article covers it very well although the truth is almost too brutal and disgusting to comprehend.
Reasons to be cheerful
Loads of restaurants that served meat and dairy also had several thought-out clearly marked vegan options. It was easy to find really solid pizza places & Mexican places in particular that had delicious options for Josh and I.
Asheville and Nashville had incredible options for vegans but other places – like Portland in Oregon or California – would be even more exciting and I can’t wait to explore them.
It feels like there is lots more awareness of vegan issues – I overheard people talking about veganism in the most unlikely places and the grocery stores had so many products I would ~love~ to have on sale in the UK.
Oh and because being on holiday with your best mate for a couple of weeks is just so rad!
For long car journeys and times when restaurants might not be open/have the range of food you were hoping for try and stock up on nuts/bars/fruit. If you know which cities and towns you’re headed to I’d plan as much as possible to make sure you don’t miss out on great veggie restaurants or options in omnivorous places. Happy Cow is a great resource.
If you’re travelling with non-vegans try & compromise as much as you all can – you may end up going to places you’d rather not and it might be upsetting seeing friends and family scoffing on meat and cheese three times a day; likewise they might not want to visit veggie places or miss out on going to the most popular restaurants/diners because they have zero vegan options.
Take your own bathroom products. Some hotels will have cruelty-free cosmetics but if they don’t you’re sorted.
You might want to keep a list of the non-vegan things you couldn’t eat & veganize them at home. There were certain burger/waffle flavour combos I can’t wait to recreate now I’m back. There was also a non-vegan corn chowder that I saw on a menu and can’t stop thinking about; so I’ll be making my own version of it soon.
Don’t beat yourself up. If you take a bite of something non-vegan, if you eat something and later discover it has milk in it, if you feel a little pouty when you read a menu and all the vegan options are lame. For me veganism is about doing your best, and in a non-vegan world it’s easy to feel like you’re falling short of perfection; but it’s better to be 99% brilliant than not try because you’re scared of not being 100% perfect. I found eating on this roadtrip to be waaaay harder than in normal, everyday life (I also really missed hashbrowns and Linda McCartney sausages!) but I still got to see and taste incredible things.
Have you travelled as a vegan in the USA or anywhere else? How did you find it? Any top tips for me and other vegan lads?