Vegan in the South

Happy New Year Denton, Dallas and Beyond listeners! I am proud to report a year later I still (for the most part) adhere to a vegan diet. I do have a few exceptions. 1. I will consume eggs if they are cage-free, organic and in a dessert. 2. I will eat organic cheese (sparingly) with Mexican and Italian food. I tried vegan cheese once. Hence, exception #2.

My 2013 holiday travels took me to Hixson, Tennessee. I honestly had no clue about its existence until my mother and step-father recently retired there. It is a northern suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It lies two hours north of Atlanta and at the foothills of the smoky mountains. When I asked my mother why they decided to retire to the boonies, she pronounced, “We don’t live in the boonies! We have a Target!” She requested a list of foods to have on hand during my visit. I found her gesture touching, but I worried about sending her on a wild goose-chase for items like almond butter, sprouted grain bread, and chia seeds. I packed nuts, tangerines, and 3 dozen vegan chocolate crackle cookies into my carry-on. Just in case.

My flight took me from sunny San Diego to cloudy and cold DFW. Despite the gloomy day, I looked forward to transferring planes in the great state in which I was raised. I instantly felt at home as I disembarked to big hair, holiday sweaters and friendly people. When I hopped on the sky train escalator, I struck up a conversation with a flight attendant. (In Southern California if you try to initiate a conversation with a stranger the stranger will probably look at you like you have spinach stuck between your front teeth. I learned this fact the hard way, in a grocery store line, don’t ask.)

Me: Are you all done for the day?

Flight attendant:  Yes, where are you headed?

Me: Chattanooga. I’ve never been there before. I think I have to hop on a pretty small commuter plane to get there. Do you know which terminal that is in?

Flight attendant: Oh, you’re going to the deep south girrrl. You’ll be okay though. I’ve flown those commuter jets. They’re fine. You’ll go out of Terminal B.

I find my gate in Terminal B. I peer out the window to see the pretty plane which will whisk me to Tennessee. I see a jetway but no plane. Then I look . . . down. I see a very small commuter jet. I text Roux and ask if his homeowner’s insurance considers a plane crashing into his home an “act of God.” Roux informs me if I am asked to pedal or flap my arms to just stay in the DFW area for Pete’s sake. I was flying on Christmas day, so I figured sweet, baby Jesus would keep an extra close watch on my plane. Once we took off, and no pedaling or arm flapping was requested, I settled into my seat and fell asleep to the droning of the engines. When I awoke to the plane descending, I saw Tennessee below. It reminded me of Virginia, where my mother and step-father used to live. There were mountains, rivers and lovely tall trees. Hmm, I thought if I am spending my holiday in the middle of nowhere at least it’s quite beautiful.

After I land, I realize that I have no knowledge of the Chattanooga airport arrival area. My very amazing, loving family, like every family, has its quirks. My family members will not come inside the airport to retrieve you. Rest assured when you see sweet families holding signs in the baggage claim that say “Welcome home! We missed you!” none of them are related to me. I have many years of being picked up at Washington Dulles airport. The routine involved calling my mom and informing her if I was standing by door number 1, 2, or 3. Every time I called, I felt like a game show host, “Mom you can find me at door number 2, along with a lovely set of all-clad cookware.” Fortunately, Chattanooga regional airport has only one arrivals door. Several folks were parked along the arrivals curb and walking in to greet their loved ones. No TSA recordings here about how they consider leaving your car unattended a terrorist threat. My mom rolls up, along with my sister, who drove in with her husband from DC.

We have a lovely drive back to my mom’s home which is in a small sub-division off a winding country road. The lots seem huge compared to those in San Diego. As my sister and I pull my luggage from the trunk, we hear the pop, pop, pop of a shot gun. We give each other quizzical looks, then I turn to my mother and give her the, “You told me you did not live in the boonies” look. She quickly retorts, “That’s the first time I heard that.” When she asks my step-father about the shots, he chalks it up to duck hunting. Naturally. Suddenly Dueling Banjos runs through my head. I consider begging my sister and brother-in-law to take me with them to their hotel in downtown Chattanooga.  What if I risked the same fate as Dick Cheney’s hunting partner?

Ok, you will be relieved to know I was not the victim of a hunting accident, and I found some good vegan dining options in Tennessee. Our first dinner out took place at Biba’s Italian restaurant. We had a delightful waitress who asked if she could, “start ya’ll with some drinks . . . maybe some sweet tea?” Sweet tea oh how I missed you! In San Diego, if one asks for tea, the waitress typically presents you with a large wooden box of various, organic tea packets. I always feel pressured to pick the best one. At Biba’s, no pressure. I order a delicious warm spinach salad which they kindly toss for me without bacon or eggs. My mother also shared a piece of her delicious veggie pizza with me. Afterwards, my sister and I popped into the Work Out Anytime gym next door to see their facility and learn about guest rates. We explained to the kind young, desk attendant that we were visiting from out-of-town and would like to know if they offer a drop-in rate. She sweetly replied, “We . . .um . . .have a week free. . . if that’s ok with ya’ll?” We reply in unison, “that’s ok with us!” Thereafter, my sister and I were official Work Out Anytime members. Honestly, we truly enjoyed the gym. It was clean and had nice equipment, plenty of space and a pleasant women’s locker room.

Our next food adventure took my sister, brother-in-law and me into Chattanooga. Honestly, boredom took us to Chattanooga . . .to the mall. It was a rainy, cold day and we all had a clothing item on our wish list. While looking at shoes, I was tickled by the cute little voice saying, “mama, mama can I please have those beuts (i.e., boots)?” None of us really enjoy shopping. However, I did appreciate all the delightful sales people who bent over backwards to help us. Don’t get me wrong, salespeople in San Diego are not mean; however, when you ask for assistance locating an item they literally point and say, “isle two.” In Chattanooga, the sales people personally escort you to the item you desire, ask about your day, your family and if you have any questions they can answer. Ahhh.

We found ourselves famished after our mall adventure and yelp.com yielded minimal vegan options there. Hence, we sought out a Whole Foods and found one in the Historical North Shore district. As the lovely green and white sign came into view, my sister exclaimed, “This is like when you’re hungry in a foreign country and you find a McDonald’s . . . you’re home!” The Whole Foods was new and beautiful. We danced in between the self-serve food bars and filled our plates with curried tofu, hummus, kale salad and lentil samosas.

In addition to Whole Foods, the North Shore is home to many fun, whimsical shops and galleries. I look forward to exploring this area further on future trips.  We greatly enjoyed our trip to the Hunter Museum of American Art just opposite the North Shore in downtown Chattanooga. While my mother (a fairly serious and cerebral woman) and I contemplated a modern art exhibit, she cutely pointed to a phallic-looking blown glass sculpture and whispered, “The title of that one should be ‘Need More Viagra.’” We also found a great vegetarian restaurant called Sluggo’s Vegetarian Cafe.  Entering the café transported me to Austin, TX. The café had unassuming tables and chairs, funky wall art and a great vibe. A friendly waiter met us at the counter and asked us where we were from. When I told him San Diego, he informed me he played several gigs with a punk band in San Diego at Studio 11. He asked me if I knew of the place, and I regrettably told him no. He tried to help me visualize its location by explaining it was near the airport and across from a marijuana dispensary. I replied with a hesitant, “oh, I think I know where it is.” I did not have the heart to tell him he was describing a 1 mile swath of the Pacific Highway near the airport and the city shut down all the marijuana dispensaries. I enjoyed a delicious plate of sweet potato enchiladas with spinach. I usually skip the beans and rice; however, these sides were amazing! The beans had a delicious, yet not overpowering flavor. My sister appreciated that they were fresh and not mushy.

Our next dinner took place at Delia’s Mexican Restaurant in Soddy-Daisy (pop. 12,000). I love so many things about Delia’s I don’t know where to begin! First, I loved that each of us received our own cute pitcher of homemade salsa and dipping bowl. Given, the homemade salsa was outstanding, I felt grateful that I could double-dip without any sideways glances from family members. We also split a bowl of their homemade guacamole which was incredibly fresh and zesty with wonderful hints of peppers and cilantro. I ordered their soft corn tacos filled with grilled vegetables and enjoyed every bite! My step-father ordered the chimichanga which resembled the size of the Soddy-Daisy newspaper! He swore it was the best chimichanga he ever ate. Given this man spent most of his life in the South and visited many a Mexican restaurant, I will vouch for him (though I have never tried one myself).

Sadly my wonderful visit in Tennessee came to an end, and I flew home to San Diego via Chicago O’Hare. Flying over Lake Michigan took my breath away. The sun glistened on the aquamarine blue water and the ice formed iridescent crystals along the shoreline. I found myself drunken with its exquisiteness until the thought occurred to me that if we took a nose dive I would plunge into freezing water. It was approximately 8 degrees outside, and I do not like being cold. My mind began to race, “how long would it take me to die in freezing water? Do those vests really self-inflate in the event of a water landing? Is it paddle-kick-paddle-kick or kick-paddle-kick-paddle? Should I just go ahead and finish the decadent dark chocolate and almond bar in my carry-on just in case? . . .” Thankfully, the plane banked away from the lake and towards the airport before my irrational thoughts resulted in chocolate bar inhalation. I saw my breath as I deplaned onto the coldest jetway EVER. (I can hear my step-father, who worked several years in Russia, laughing at this complaint.) Cold followed me during my entire layover at O’Hare. I escaped the Cold momentarily by popping into a Wolfgang Puck Cafe and ordering a delicious, piping hot bowl of butternut squash soup and a delicious side salad. Fortunately, my flight for San Diego left on time and I arrived to a “chilly” 60 degree evening with an ocean breeze.(Hence, I pulled out my knit hat, gloves, down vest and Uggs . . . not really but I swear many San Diegans were wearing this exact outfit.) Happy New Year everyone!

The preceding blog was written by our Beyond travel correspondent, Amelia a longtime friend and amazing supporter of Denton Dallas and Beyond.

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