For Veggie Burger Power Hour, we asked Amanda Cohen, vegetarian chef and owner of East Village restaurant Dirt Candy, to write a guest post about her relationship with veggie burgers.
Before I became a vegetarian I was a huge hamburger fan. It’s not quite the national food of Canada (that would be beer, or maybe poutine, but probably beer) but hamburgers are for everyone, even us. Then, after I gave up meat, I became a huge veggie burger fan and that’s when I had my revelation: it wasn’t the meat that mattered to me. From where I was eating, the hamburger was simply a delivery device for condiments and lettuce and onions and cheese and tomatoes and bread. Those wan soy patties fell into the background and all those condiments, that turned out to be my true love, rushed to the fore.
But I gave up on veggie burgers a few years ago. I was eating for the condiments, so I didn’t care if the patties were blah, but I did care if they violated the sacred rule of veggie burger patties: First, do no harm. And the patties I was getting at restaurants in New York weren’t just doing harm, they were wreaking havoc. They were aggressively bad: fried patties made of mush and old vegetables. They were full of whole chickpeas, cubed carrots and corn kernels and they always tasted like last week’s salad thrown on the grill and cooked down into goop. They were bland, unpleasant, squishy and, worst of all, the condiments were boring and you had to beg even to get mayonnaise. And so I quit.
Everyone’s making lists of the best veggie burgers in the city these days, but I’ve been burned too many times. When I see a veggie burger on the menu, all my old instincts kick in and I can’t bring myself to order it. The veggie burger room in my heart is hidden away behind a locked door forever now.
But I wish it wasn’t so. As far as food goes, burgers are the ultimate comfort food and there are times when you just want your meal to remind you of something you ate when you were a kid and every trip to a restaurant was a treat and an adventure all at once. These days, I miss that feeling. Living in Hong Kong was what really took off my blinders regarding vegetables. Eating Chinese food in Hong Kong was the first time I realized that cooking vegetarian food could be so much bigger and better than I had ever imagined. But even then there were homesick days when my husband and I would sneak out to the Ocean Center in Tsim Sha Tsui, taking complicated routes to make sure we didn’t run into anyone we knew along the way, doubling back and walking in circles to lose our imaginary pursuers. Then, when we were sure we weren’t followed, we’d duck into Planet Hollywood, sit in the deepest, darkest corner, our backs against the wall so no one could spot us from behind, and order a couple of veggie burgers. They didn’t taste good, but they tasted like home, and I wish that today I could lower my guard, run the risk of getting hurt one more time and find the veggie burger that might bring me back there again.
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