How do I fit into my peer group at work when I have some constraints?
March 15, 2011 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: How do I, an Indian, fit into my peer group without being an odd duck?

I am asking this on behalf of an Indian friend of mine, who lives and works in a different place than me:

I was moved from the Indian branch to this office for a few months. This is a small, highly-specialized consulting company and in this office, people are very friendly and informal. Some of them have invited me to a barbecue at their homes and I would like to reciprocate with lunch/dinner at restaurants (at this time, I am alone in a hotel room with a kitchenette and cooking meals for them is difficult).

The issue is that I am a vegetarian by choice and that limits me terribly when we go out. When I go to a barbecue at a colleague's place, I don't want to spoil the party by not eating anything or asking for veg options.

I was considering taking something to the party, but worry that the host will be offended ("Why is this guy bringing food to my party?"). By the way, some of them know my constraints and one person went so far as to order some plain salads for me. But that is a sweet consideration which I cannot reasonably expect from everyone. What options do I have?

Another situation is that I am not sure of which dishes I can ask for myself when we go out to American restaurants - are hash browns, fries, burgers, salads free from beef extracts/meat additions?
I know italian/mexican places have veg options, but that isn't always possible. What dishes can I order for lunch or dinner (and don't make a fool of myself by ordering breakfast dishes or just fries!)
posted by theobserver to Society & Culture (25 answers total)
Best answer: to your friend:
It's not at all a violation of etiquette to, upon being invited to a barbeque, say, "I'm vegetarian. will there be something i can eat, or should i bring a few things of my own to contribute?" nobody should take offense at that. And, I have to disagree with you on a point - if some people know your dietary constraints and invite you to a food-based event, then yes, you can or should reasonably expect to be able to eat there.

When you're out at a restaurant, simply ask the server to explain dishes, and just ask whether or not they have meat additions. They probably don't, but it's worth asking.

There are many, many vegetarians in America. You may be self-conscious, but you're not much of an odd duck.
posted by entropone at 12:34 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I go to a barbecue at a colleague's place, I don't want to spoil the party by not eating anything or asking for veg options.

I actually think you'd be okay in doing this. Maybe you can quietly take the host aside before the barbecue and explain that you're a vegetarian, and ask if there's anything you can "bring to share". If you turn it into an offer to "share" some food -- even if it's just a pre-packaged salad that you pick up at the supermarket -- your host will most likely interpret that as you trying to help them to help you. They don't want you to feel uncomfortable either, after all -- and giving them a little bit of advance warning that "hey, I'm a vegetarian" would spare them finding out when you're already there. They may also be able to find "veggieburgers," which are indeed a vegetarian option at a barbecue.

Another situation is that I am not sure of which dishes I can ask for myself when we go out to American restaurants - are hash browns, fries, burgers, salads free from beef extracts/meat additions?

That depends on the restaurant. But it is not unusual at all to ask the waiter any of these questions about specific dishes. Vegetarianism is much, much more common than you'd think, and I don't think anyone would find it odd if you were out to a restaurant and just asked the waiter, "I was wondering about [this dish]; I'm a vegetarian, would I be able to eat that?" One or two of your colleagues may raise an eyebrow and say, "oh, interesting, I didn't know you were vegetarian," and may ask you a question about whether it's for health reasons or something else, but that may be it. There are some people who do pester vegetarians, but most people consider that to be very rude.

I think you'll be fine. Vegetarianism is a lot more "normal" than it used to be.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:38 PM on March 15, 2011

Best answer: most "American" restaurants, even steakhouses, will usually have at least one vegetarian entree - often a pasta with a dairy/vegetable sauce. More casual places - for example, a BBQ joint - will let you order a bunch of side items together; I do this often and I'm not a vegetarian. Mac and cheese, hush puppies, and fried okra is a pretty fine meal in my book.

Things to watch out for -

- potatoes and other vegetables fried or roasted in animal fats (often duck but sometimes tallow, or beef fat). You'll come across this in high-end places and in very low-end ones
- lard in Mexican food, especially in beans and in corn masa-based foods - tortillas, tamales, etc.
- chicken and beef stock in soups and sauces
- demiglace (reduced beef/veal stock) in sauces, esp. in French restaurants
- bits of meat for flavor and sauce components that contain fish/seafood products in Asian food
- bits of meat cooked with vegetables in American food, especially Southern - bacon or ham in with your greens or beans

A salad that does not contain meat will almost always be okay. Pastas that do not contain meat will generally be okay.

Vegetarianism as a choice is widely accepted as a choice in the States; it's not weird or asking a lot to ask, ever. Most servers will happily tell you what you can eat.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:45 PM on March 15, 2011

Your friend's MMV depending where they're currently located, but fake meat products are pretty widely available in US supermarkets. It should be fine to bring some of those to a barbecue to put on the grill, thus participating in the whole ritual without eating the meat. (Yes, bring enough to share -- meat-eaters do also enjoy fake meat products sometimes, because they taste good in their own right or are lower in fat or whatever.) There are also lots of non-meat salads available at supermarket delis that would be perfectly appropriate to bring to a barbecue.

Best bet for dealing with group restaurant outings when one has any kind of dietary restriction is to study the menu online beforehand and arrive with a plan -- but, yes, your friend can always ask the waitstaff questions, too.

Nthing that vegetarianism is pretty normal in at least some parts of the US.
posted by treblemaker at 12:46 PM on March 15, 2011

Best answer: Dude. Just let your host know that you're a vegetarian and offer to bring something. I live in a pretty conservative small city in the Midwest and even we know what vegetarians are, I promise. And at the restaurant, just ask. Again, even the greasy spoons are used to vegetarians (ethical, religious, and otherwise). Almost every restaurant will have at least a couple vegetarian options. (In fact, you can just ask the waitress -- "What vegetarian options do you have?")

Is there an Indian restaurant nearby where you could have a few words with the proprietor and set up a special Indian dinner for your colleagues that you could host? I bet they would LOVE that.

PS -- in much of America we show welcoming and love through food. We want to feed you happy. We don't want to feed you something you can't eat. Just speak up, it's not a faux pas. We worry that you're not eating enough in your hotel room with your kitchenette and so far from home! IN THE LAND OF PLENTY THIS MUST NOT OCCUR! WE MUST FEEEEEEEED YOU! We do not want your mother to worry that you are not getting enough to eat! We must worry on her behalf! So, yeah, just speak up. This is probably not the "ENJOY THIS FOOD OR ELSE" kind of feeding people where you show off through food. This is the, "Wow, I hope this guy is having a good time in America and is getting enough to eat," kind of feeding people where they want to be sure you get food you like and can eat.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:49 PM on March 15, 2011 [9 favorites]

Some of them have invited me to a barbecue at their homes and I would like to reciprocate with lunch/dinner at restaurants

It is not necessary to actually take somebody out to dinner or lunch in return for an invitation to a home barbeque. It's good to reciprocate hospitality, but they understand that you don't have a home right now that's appropriate. Buying someone lunch or dinner in return would be too much, I think. Instead, be a good guest at the barbecue by bringing a vegetarian dish to share if the host says that's ok.

If you can cook something Indian, all the better. Educated Americans are generally very curious and welcoming of other country's cuisines. We're also generally ignorant about Indian cuisine (difference between North and South, etc), so it might be interesting for them to hear about your local dishes.

And it's also always appropriate to bring a bottle of wine or some beer, even if the hosts say "don't bring anything."
posted by yarly at 12:58 PM on March 15, 2011

Welcome! It sounds like you work in a nice office with friendly co-workers. I'm glad to hear they're inviting you to their houses. I would do the same if you worked in my office. I would not expect you to reciprocate by taking me out for lunch or dinner in a restaurant. You can, and it's a nice gesture but I don't think it's necessary. These people are being hospitable because they know you're alone here, living in a hotel room and eating by yourself, and because they like you.

For sure bring something anytime you go to someone's house. This can be a small box of chocolates, a bunch of fresh flowers, a package of pretty paper napkins, a bottle of wine or a 6 pack of beer, or anything else you want to take. It's not expected that you bring enough for the whole group; it's more of a hostess gift. But anytime I'm invited to someone's home, I always ask if I can bring something specifically for the party (in addition to the hostess gift). Ask, and it's a good time to mention that you're vegetarian. Offer to pick up some cookies for dessert, or to bring a salad. You could probably fix up a side dish in your room, or buy the ingredients and whip it up at their home when you get there. Don't aim for anything too elaborate, just simple and tasty.

I hope you're enjoying your stay here!
posted by Kangaroo at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2011

If you can cook something Indian, all the better. Educated Americans are generally very curious and welcoming of other country's cuisines. We're also generally ignorant about Indian cuisine (difference between North and South, etc), so it might be interesting for them to hear about your local dishes.

Yes! I would love this.

I'm vegetarian, living in the South, and I get some good-natured kidding but no one seriously thinks I am "weird" in a way that makes me feel out of place. You are perfectly within your rights to bring food you can eat to a barbecue - even if it's a package of veggie burgers. There very well may be other people there who would like a vegetarian option, too.

Even at Ruth's Chris Steak House, the meatiest of the meat restaurants, I've gotten a vegetarian entree by simply asking the server. Restaurants will be glad to help you out, even if there is nothing vegetarian on the menu.
posted by something something at 1:02 PM on March 15, 2011

If grilling is involved, it's a safe bet that you can bring something vegetarian that can be put on the grill, and not necessarily limited to imitations of meat. In most parts of the U.S., this kind of event is informal and someone will most likely be willing to spare room on the grill for anything you might want to contribute.

As far as entertaining, an Indian restaurant sounds like a fabulous idea. Even if that isn't possible, most restaurants will have at least one non-salad vegetarian option. Just look out for hidden animal products in processed or cooked vegetables.
posted by Hylas at 1:09 PM on March 15, 2011

Best answer: As someone who avoids pork products, I have sometimes run into similar issues with what's actually in food, particularly in rural areas. Here are some suggestions for the particular foods you asked about:

Hash browns and fries: Varies from restaurant to restaurant; mostly you just have to ask what they are fried in. Fast food places are moving towards using vegetable oil, but often the flavorings contain meat. McDonalds, for instance, uses canola oil but the fries are seasoned with beef flavoring.

Burgers: If you order a veggie burger (available at the big fast food chains and many other restaurants) it will not come with meat and should be free of meat-based ingredients. If you're at a barbecue and you're not comfortable asking for something vegetarian, you can always take a bun and make a sort of vegetable sandwich with tomato, lettuce, pickles, and condiments.

Salads: Even if a salad usually comes with meat (e. g. a "chef's salad") you can usually specify no meat. Since most salads are made to order this isn't a problem. The big thing to watch out for is bacon. It's a big culinary fad at the moment and I've been finding it everywhere.

As to fitting in, it looks like you're in Denver, which is pretty cosmopolitan; most restaurants should have vegetarian options available, and people are very likely to be familiar with vegetarianism. They may be less familiar with religious dietary restrictions. As a member of a minority religion with dietary restrictions, I've found that people are frequently uninformed but very open to understanding and accommodating my needs.

It's certainly not offensive at all to bring a dish to a barbecue (in fact, it's often the polite thing to do!) and no one is going to bat an eye if you're not eating the main meat dish.

Welcome to America, and I hope that you enjoy your time here!
posted by charmcityblues at 1:16 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The numbers people present vary slightly, but it seems that between 2.5 and 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian. So you can safely assume that your coworkers know what vegetarianism is, and have known vegetarians. For a BBQ, if you want to bring a dish, bring corn or asparagus for the grill, or potato salad, beans, or cole slaw as a side dish. Definitely tell people that you do not eat meat. They may ask for more information (like, how about dairy, eggs, honey) and they may tease you (animals are so tasty!), but they will be horrified that they'd not asked before and have been leaving you with few options during meals. They invite you because they want you to have a good time -- you need to tell them, so that they can be successful! Think of it this way: If the roles were reversed, wouldn't you want to know?

In restaurants, it is not at all rude to ask about the ingredients. People do this for many reasons (allergies, diets, medical conditions, religious observances, vegetarianism) and it is completely ok. At many restaurants, the waitstaff are required to know the ingredients of every dish for this very reason.
posted by Houstonian at 1:19 PM on March 15, 2011

Sorry, I just re-read and saw that you're asking for a friend. So please disregard my Denver-specific comments. It might be helpful to know where you friend is located to others who know the area can suggest specific restaurants, etc!
posted by charmcityblues at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2011

At a BBQ, I don't even think it's a big deal to show up with uncooked veggie burgers and just tell the host you're a vegetarian, and would they mind adding these to the grill. "I brought some extras in case anyone else wants one."

I can't imagine that anyone hospitable enough to throw a party would then be offended by this. Asking ahead may be preferable, but I wouldn't worry too much about it.

As far as resturants, just asking the server what vegetarian options are available will certainly give you several options. It's really not unusual any more.
posted by The Deej at 1:22 PM on March 15, 2011

It's polite to bring food to a group party like a bbq, and bring Indian food, it may not be something everyone eats, but a lot of people will want to try anything 'exotic'.

Most American restaurants these days have vegetarian options and it's not at all weird or unusual to ask the server about it. Generally, the nicer the restaurant is, the more likely they'll have more vegetarian/began options available, but even the cheapest diners will usually have something, even if it's macaroni and cheese. If a place didn't have good vegetarian options and you were forced to order french fries, most people would find that a flaw in the restaurant, not with you (though there are always people who will be jerky about things like that).

If you're taking your friends out, take them out for Indian food, especially if you have a favorite place. Indian food is still exotic in most of America, so having someone who knows the food guide them is always appreciated.
posted by empath at 1:25 PM on March 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your wonderful responses - just emailed them to my friend. I will post his replies here shortly. [Should I have given friend's email, even if it is only a throwaway one? Does this count as a different question? :) ]

Charmcityblues: He is in Colorado Springs, close, but not quite. But your advice still applies, I think.
posted by theobserver at 1:29 PM on March 15, 2011

Let your friend know that big portobello mushrooms thrown on the grill for a few minutes are an excellent substitute for hamburger patties. Although when bringing anything to grill, there's a chance it'll be thrown onto the grill *after* meat has been there and pick up some meat juices, so it may be better overall to bring a separate non-grill dish, or just get tehre early and have his stuff cooked first.
posted by telophase at 1:54 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Colorado Springs is one of the less-veggier cities in the area, but it's still not going to be that odd. However, when your friend finds an awesome Indian restaurant in Denver, PLEASE I BEG YOU have him email me, so that I can go and eat there. (I'm sure there are some, but here in Boulder meh not so much.)
posted by cyndigo at 4:05 PM on March 15, 2011

Your friend might have an advantage being Indian in this case. I think many Americans associate Indians with Vegetarianism, so it probably won't be a surprise. Bring a tasty Indian dish to share and you'll have a bunch of new friends!
posted by JohntheContrarian at 4:55 PM on March 15, 2011

Best answer: I've been a vegetarian for 20 years in several different American cities. It's not that hard. Accept that you can't know with 100% certainty if every single thing you eat in a restaurant is free of all traces of meat ... but restaurant menus are generally pretty clear.

With soup at restaurants, do NOT ask, "Is this soup vegetarian?" They might say "Yes!" just because the ingredient list is vegetarian, without thinking about the stock. So, ask, "Do you know what kind of stock this soup is made of?" I'll even add, "Is it chicken, or .......?" (not finishing my own question). This way, they are unlikely to say it's a vegetarian stock unless they're sure of it.

You need to watch out for certain kinds of sauces; for instance, Worcestershire sauce contains fish. But steak sauce is vegetarian.

Bac-os are vegetarian, even though many people mistakenly believe they contain bacon.

Anyone serving a salad with bacon or chicken is not going to conceal this fact! That will be the main selling point. However, Caesar dressing often has fish, so I avoid anything called "Caesar salad."

What I do with BBQs is ask the host: "I'm a vegetarian; is it OK if I bring some frozen veggie burgers?" Then buy a pack from the store (Boca Burgers is a popular brand) and bring them. No special explanation or apologies are needed beyond that, and no one should take offense. If someone is throwing a BBQ and you're invited, that means they're interested in having a whole bunch of people at their house for a big get-together. They are not going to want to arbitrarily exclude people.
posted by John Cohen at 7:04 PM on March 15, 2011

As a Southerner, BBQs are pretty much part of the culture. The "greens" (collards, mustards and kale) are made with bacon or ham hocks. Sorry...we can't help it.

Just say "hey, sounds great! Tell you what, I'll bring something that we have at get togethers back home." They might say "oh, you don't have to bring anything", but an "I'd really love to contribute" will get you big points. We love people who help cover the food.

P.S. - I didn't think of this...I had an Indian friend who always showed up with the tastiest, most savory side dished to my meat-fests, and I think it was the 5th or 6th time before I figured out he wasn't eating the meat.
posted by kjs3 at 8:15 PM on March 15, 2011

Best answer: Definitely bring a dish to the barbecue. That's how you express thanks for their hospitality, just check with them first if you're bringing something as part of the main meal. A bottle of wine or veggie/cheese tray or plate of cookies you wouldn't even have to ask about, in my experience. But you probably would want to bring something more substantial since it may be a major part of your meal.

So have something in mind that you'd like to bring - I'd bring potato salad, personally, because I can eat potato salad for three meals a day, and in general there's no shame in getting something at the store, but something authentic and Indian would be pretty cool too - and then you say, "I'm really looking forward to the barbecue! Can I bring () to share?" and they'll almost certainly say yes. And then you've got that, and a bun, and a pickle - at the very least.

Feel free to ask the person who brought the dish about ingredients, ideally in an aside so that if it's from a can or a box they don't have to admit to it loudly in front of everyone. Veggie burgers are always vegetarian; that's the point of a veggie burger, in the US. The most popular corn bread mix that I've seen (Jiffy's) has "animal shortening" in it so be aware of corn bread; other breads, buns, etc. have always been fine in my experience.

General vegetarian food advice: Anything specifically marked vegetarian is fine, although you may want to make sure you specify vegetarian if there are two similar dishes on the menu (for instance, the cheese enchiladas might be listed as a vegetarian option, but that's assuming you get it with the pinto beans instead of the refried ones). You can also always ask the waiter what's in the dish - if they don't know they can ask the chef. If they look uncertain or you think they're just saying what you want to hear, order something where you'll be able to tell if there's meat - instead of soup get salad, for example, or a veggie burger, or pasta. And then act all embarrassed if+when you find bacon bits and have to ask them to re-make your salad.
posted by Lady Li at 12:19 AM on March 16, 2011

Other things are great for grilling too! Portobello mushrooms as someone mentioned above, or corn in the husk are two great examples. You won't offend anyone by asking after your dietary requirements and making sure; they'd rather have you there and happy.

To 'reciprocate', once the weather warms up, plan a cookout at a local park! If you do it potluck style, then there'll be plenty of food. Most parks have built-in charcoal grills (and many have covered pavilions) that one of your coworkers would be happy to start and/or man the grill. Bring a frisbee or soccer ball, and you've got the makings of a great party. You can find out from the parks dept if you're required to reserve them and if it costs, but it's usually $10-35 depending on how big and/or fancy.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:23 AM on March 16, 2011

Response by poster: From my friend:

Thanks for the great suggestions. Between veggie burgers, frozen foods and my own cooking, I am sure I can manage at friends' homes.

Still have to figure out some of the restaurant stuff. Some of the places don't have people who know completely what is in the food they serve. Y'day, I asked for a veggie salad (at a fairly decent place in the business district in Denver), with no meat/fish and no meat based dressing. But I got one with lots of sauce on top and the guy serving us didn't know what it was (and didn't think it was a big deal as the salad was veggie, right?). But he kindly agreed to ask the chef and was told that it was beef-based.

I don't want to give the impression that this was not correct; after all, this is what majority of the people eat here (even considering 3% of Americans as vegetarians). But the onus is on me to ask and find out. Like McDonalds adding beef flavor to french fries made with canola oil! Luckily, Tillamook makes cheese without animal rennet (I love cheese!)

Eyebrows McGee: Gee, you do sound like my mother!

Thanks once again for your thoughtful responses and for welcoming me here.

BTW, I joined MF today with my own account after seeing your helpful responses.
posted by theobserver at 10:23 AM on March 16, 2011

Hooray! Now, please have your friend memail me about those great Indian restaurants....
posted by cyndigo at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2011

In barbecue land (Texas), I had a friend who would always bring a package of veggie burgers (like a whole package, not just one or two for herself) to barbecues. That way she could have one, and other people would actually wind up having one beef burger and one of her veggie burgers, too, or some people who didn't feel like eating meat that day would be relieved to have another option.
posted by thebazilist at 2:13 PM on March 16, 2011

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