My mind wandered to the hazy days of being a freshie in an engineering college located in a small town in South India. I remember being greeted at the doors of my room by this guy (let us call him DeepThroat, OK?) After the parents of us freshies exchanged greetings, visiting cards and concerns, they left us with heavy hearts. "So this is what hostel life is all about," I thought with satisfaction. I did not know at that point that I was to share a small room with three others.
I got to know my room-mate better as the day progressed. My heart sank when we went to the cafeteria. No, it was not the food. I was fully prepared for all kinds of tortures in this front (I later repented this attitude and asked my warden to give me the Spanish Inquisition as a humane gesture. In the typical masocistic style of hostel wardens, he refused.) I felt like doing a Houdini act when I saw Deep Throat bring out a contraption to filter the water being served. "This kills the bacteria, you see," he explained.
Being a person who grew up eating in all sorts of roadside 'Dhaba's' I was flabbergasted by the idea of somebody filtering water and drinking it. He studiously avoided eating anything with onions, masala and garlic all through his college days which means that he could not eat most stuff served in the mess. That was how orthodox he was. I, on the other hand, was so glad to be on my own and away from parental pressures that I actually put on weight. Deep Throat somehow survived the four years of college by moving out of the hostel.
Six years later I wondered what Deep Throat would do in this 'Land of Milk, Honey and FDA Certified Grade A Beef' as I continued reading his letter. I knew that I, a vegetarian (well, sort of) who gobbles anything which does not move, was finding it hard. "I have a problem of gastronomical proportions here (Copyright (R) Ramesh Mahadevan)," I thought. What advice was I to offer this friend? I decided to write him a letter describing all the problems faced by vegetarians in the US. This article is an offshoot of the letter that I wrote to him.
On my way to this country I spent my entire trip from Madras International airport to Austin's domestic airport Ogling at Airline hostesses, guzzling cans and cans of beer and eating shuddh Indian Vegetarian meals (thanks to Singapore Airlines.) The only time I tried to experiment was when I bought a glass of "Coke" in the LA airport. The lady behind the counter immediately filled a glass with ice to the brim and soaked it with Pepsi. I was so intimidated by the this "Phoren" land that I even left a twenty five cent tip for the lady. One of my college seniors whisked me from the airport to a run down desi ghetto. I was greeted by my future roomie with Vengaya Sambar and Katthirikai curry.
The next few days were a torture. Had to quench my hunger with OJ (those were the pre-OJ-media-hype days when OJ just meant some yellow fluid in a glass drank by Wodehouse characters like Augustus Fink-Nottle and not some aging football star in a Ford Bronco) the next few days. I was hesitant to try anything new. The first non-Indian food that I tried was a Subway sandwich. The food attendant slit the bread and proceeded to stuff it with all kinds of shrubs. "Give the shrubs to the cows and give me something nicely cooked and oozing with grease to eat," I wanted to shout.
To stop from starving I had to learn to cook. Tried to con my roomies with Rasam and Beans curry. That was what it remained. A trial. Meenakshi Ammal's 'Cook and See' with its arcane measures like Aazhakku was of some help. My roomies who reached these shores (should I call Austin that? It is not even remotely near a sea shore) a year ahead of me were helpful (or were they helping themselves because they had to eat what I cooked?) in making me a decent cook.
The problems of a vegetarian starts when he wants to eat out. His co-diners have to call up the restaurants in advance to find out if the restaurant serves anything that is remotely vegetarian. The easy way out of the tedium behind this is to go to a dEsi dhaba with a grandiose name like 'Light of India' or the more neo-post-modernist 'Thali.'
I was lucky in keeping away from all alien food till I was very sure. I have had veggie friends recount horror stories of Cheese burgers having more than cheese and Chili referring to a dish not only made of humble chilli peppers. There are some ingenious friends who get around the problem of veggie food by joining every conceivable Indian / Tamil / Telugu / Marati / Tulu / Oriya association in their college. Their simple logic - cheap Indian vegetarian food.
"Capitalism is just bull!!," I thought. How else can one explain having to pay more for a dish with comes with less? Being a person who spent most of his life paying lesser for vegetarian dishes I was surprised by the clerk in a Burger joint. She actually told me that the burger without the meat (all the others ingredients remaining the same including their infamous "Secret sauce") would actually cost me more.
There are those among us who are forced to work in American cafeterias where they are expected to dish out meat products. I have seen some of my "Green" brethren actually recoil as they were dishing out the food. Thank god I was not served my food by a person actually recoiling away from the portion being dished. They really should have developed long arms, I guess.
I just wondered about the variety among vegetarians. There are the lactovegetarians. Then there are those that go "Oh!! Does this Egg roll have meat in it?," and continue champing on it. Then there are those that won't eat in certain places where it is alleged that lard is the chief cooking medium. There are also those newly reformed vegetarians who have found the light shone by the likes of Gandhi and Morarji.
I finally said to myself "where there is a will there is a way." and dashed a letter off to Deep Throat giving him the standard encouragement's and advice about colleges to apply to adding promises of help to equal measure. I also added a footnote about food problems that he would have to face.