Gastronaut: The Meat of the Matter
First off, let me say this: I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to portraying Philly as a mecca for twig-and-berry eaters.
Like just about every other food writer out there, I was won over the very first time I stepped into Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge in Midtown Village. After years of sharkishly eating my way through several major American cities as an itinerant restaurant critic, I’d formed some pretty strong opinions about the depth and limits of vegan cuisine, and all of them were burned away the minute I tasted Vedge’s sweet potato pâté.
This, I thought, is what every vegan restaurant in America should be aiming for. This is a cuisine to be proud of.
Immediately I began telling people about it. Loudly and repeatedly. I brought people to Vedge specifically so I could share the weird sideways joy of finding a groundbreaking and totally unexpected version of something you were pretty sure you were going to hate going in.
And it wasn’t just Vedge. It was the bloody beet steak at the Farm and Fisherman. It was the daily lines outside HipCityVeg, and the vegetarian prix fixe at Le Bec-Fin (which, as things turned out, didn’t go so well), and the sudden explosion of plants on so many menus around town. It was the fact that here, of all places, genius vegetable cookery had become the direct heir of the farm-to-table movement, offering the city’s best chefs a whole new range of flavors and textures to play with. After all, if the people of the city appeared willing to eat turnips and roasted brussels sprouts, someone had to charge them for it.
I was with them, just as delighted (and bewildered) over this paradigm shift in eating habits. Vedge was winning awards in national magazines. Everyone from Cooking Light to GQ posited that Philadelphia was becoming a destination for vegetarians and vegans.
But no. It’s not.
Sure, the mobs of kale enthusiasts can descend, and we’ll feed them. We’ll do it well, and we’ll do it happily, and we’ll do it with not just award-winning but award-deserving style. But this is still Philly, a city where an oversized pretzel, a beer, a shot and a plastic-wrapped set of Butterscotch Krimpets is considered a perfectly serviceable breakfast. We more or less invented the idea of joyous, uncompromising, unhealthy eating, and no matter how many great vegetables there are here, there are still 10,000 cheesesteaks for every portabella carpaccio (a real dish at Vedge) and countless actual braciola for every eggplant-and-cured-olive version (another real dish at Vedge).
We’ll always be a steak-and-martini kind of town, a soggy-bag-of-cheesesteaks kind of town, a scrapple-innovating, hoagie-eating, hey-let’s-go-to-Vetri-on-Tuesday-because-it’s-one-of-the-best- restaurants-in-the-country-and-it’s-right-here kind of town. As much as we enjoy arguing over food, we love what we love without reservation. And we’re wise enough to understand that in choosing a smoothie over a pint one day, or a plate of fancy radishes over a plate of charcuterie on another, we may be changing how we dine. But it’ll never change who we are.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.