Vegetarianism and the Summer of ’76
Life as a fledgling lacto-ovo vegetarian during the summer of ’76 was both frustrating and interesting. When asked why I did not eat meat or fish I would say, “It is a healthier lifestyle for me”. The inevitable comeback was, “You’re weird”.
People just didn’t get it then. Part of the misunderstanding was that people saw vegetarianism as a fad, or saw it as one of those things hippies did, even though it had been a healthy lifestyle, worldwide, for thousands of years.
In the summer of ’76 I worked as a graduate student for the State Department of Education. I was living in San Diego, headquartered in Sacramento and worked 5 days a week in the Los Angeles basin where I stayed at a low-cost motel at 3rd and Vermont. By low-cost I mean sleazy.
By being thrifty on lodging, my per diem went a lot further toward a good meal than it would have otherwise. Money or not, I had a hard time getting a good meal without worrying whether it was truly vegetarian. This is not to say there weren’t good vegetarian restaurants because there were. It’s just that they were few and far between.
I remember asking, at restaurant on Pico Boulevard, for a “vegetarian” pizza. The closest thing on the menu was a plain cheese pizza and it was politely pointed out to me that was all they had for vegetarians. The manager heard the counter person and asked if he could be of help. I explained what I meant by vegetarian and he said “no problem”.
I paid for the pizza and a beer and took a seat at a table near the salad bar. To my amazement, the manager brought out my pizza, loaded it with lettuce from the salad bar and proudly served it to me 20 minutes later. I’ve since learned to enjoy grilled baby romaine lettuce but iceberg lettuce baked for 20 minutes at 400 degrees was not very tasty.
Another time I wanted a simple, fresh salad for dinner. I remember thinking that if I had to eat one more greasy bag of French fries from the hamburger joint on the corner I was going to get violently ill.
Desperate for fresh food, I walked to a nearby grocery store and purchased a head of romaine lettuce, a bottle of olive oil, a bottle of red wine vinegar, a fresh lemon and packaged croutons. On the way back to my motel room I purloined a couple packets each of salt and pepper from the hamburger joint.
It wasn’t until I got back to my room and unpacked the groceries that I realized I wasn’t back home. My motel room, unlike my cozy apartment, did not have dishes or eating utensils. I sat on the edge of the bed and hung my head in frustration. Then I saw something out of the corner of my eye.
I saw a small wastebasket on the floor at the head of the bed. The basket had a trash liner that appeared to be unused. I ripped out the liner and took it, with my groceries, into the bathroom. I washed the lettuce under the faucet at the sink, tore the lettuce into pieces and put them in the liner. I then poured olive oil into the liner with the lettuce. The vinegar followed along with juice from the lemon. I closed the top of the liner and shook it vigorously. Croutons were added to the mix.
I left the bathroom and returned to sit on the end of the bed where I devoured my salad. I didn’t stop eating until the liner was empty. It may not have been the healthiest salad ever made, but it was fresh, vegetarian and wonderful.
At the end of each month, I saved enough money to be able to eat at good restaurants for an entire week. One of my favorite vegetarian restaurants was on the beach about a block down from Muscle Beach in Venice. The food was funky and fun and the restaurant had an excellent name: The Marathon Meatless Messhall. The Messhall was a hangout for a lot of folks. Bob Dylan, for example, was a regular. Swami X, an American icon on the UC Berkeley and UCLA campuses, held court there.
Another popular vegetarian restaurant was called The Prophet and located in San Diego. When you walked in, you were escorted to a table that was at just the right height for eating. The right height, that is, if you sat on the floor with legs folded in the Lotus position. Lucky for me, this was a comfortable position. They served a side dish of brown rice steamed with garlic, tarragon and basil leaves. A friend worked there and gave me the recipe. I still make their rice to the delight of friends and family.
What I’ve learned since the summer of ’76 is to cook for myself. There is nothing better than fresh home-cooked food. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get out because I do. I still enjoy eating someone else’s cooking.
Today, unlike the summer of ’76, most restaurants will accommodate vegetarians even if there are no vegetarian items on the menu. Better yet, there is a plethora of excellent vegetarian restaurants throughout California. One of them, The Farmer and The Cook, is right here in the Ojai Valley. I smile knowing the food is fresh, truly vegetarian and the salad is not mixed in plastic trash liners.