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Standing with my face toward Delights of the Garden’s counter and my back to the rest of the restaurant, it’s hard to tell if it’s live or Memorex.
“If you want to move something,” booms a voice so authoritative I assume it’s addressing a crowd, “you have to have a mass entity trained over time.” When I turn around, a melon shake in one hand and a plate of seaweed greens in the other, I see the man is indeed appearing in person and is speaking only to a friend. Both men, graying and entranced with one another, are probably professors from Howard University, located across the street. “And when you’re talking about moving an entity in terms of food,” the man continues, “it might take over 10 or 15 years to train them.”
There’s no question that these men and anyone within earshot of them are, at least during this lunch hour, practicing vegetarians. The block where Delights sits I’ve come to know as D.C.’s soul-food re-education corridor, a small zone where barbecue is served meatless, chili is prepared without the use of heat, and politics, religion, and diet intersect in the pocket of a pita.
Matt Tollin has been a raw-foodist for three years; for the last two, he’s been an employee of Delights of the Garden, a raw-vegetarian restaurant his older brother helped start in Atlanta and Matt helped bring to D.C. At the restaurant’s five locationstwo in Atlanta, two in D.C. (there’s another in Georgetown), and one in Clevelandvegetarian food is served “live,” undisturbed by the nutrient-robbing process of cooking. On one of Delights’ walls there’s a picture of an African Jesus, dreads framing his bearded face. Lining another wall are books for sale, mostly written by popular African-American authors; some are about the raw-foodist lifestyle, which Tollin says is about more than just eating right.
“Besides the whole health aspect of it,” Tollin, manager of the Georgia Avenue location, says, “there’s a whole socioeconomic…ecological aspect to it….You have countries where people are starving because they’re using a couple of acres of ground to graze cattle when they could be using that to yield barrels upon barrels of soy products or wheat products or any grain products.” Tollin goes on to explain the contradictory practice of taking vitamins but not consuming the enzymes necessary to make them effective, how the surgeon general advises eating five servings of raw fruits and vegetables a day, how Tollin has a “general philosophical inclination toward respecting life.” It’s all quite interesting. But is the food edible?
Delights’ meatless staples are nutmeat, a smooth blend of nuts that tastes a little like falafel, and kush, a wheat product that reminds me of crumbled veggie-burger meat crossed with tabouli. Each has a different incarnation depending on the daycurry, barbecue, or jerk nutmeat; kush curried or as a simulated fried rice or Mexican dishand is best eaten on a pita. The veggie tuna is made from grated carrotswaste from the juicing processand mixed with vegan mayonnaise; it’s our favorite dish. Delights’ chili is like a mild, chunky salsa, a good complement to a plate of vegetables marinated in tamari, herbs, and oil or to the Poseidon salad, a sprout bonanza. The fact that Delights’ dishes are cold and uncooked is never an issue. All of them are more than edible.
The Soul Vegetarian Cafe, located a half-block from Delights, stands for many things. It represents its spiritual base in Dimona, Israel, home of a similar restaurant called Eternity and of the Hebrew/Israelite community that for 27 years has advocated the importance of a vegetarian diet. The restaurant’s aim is to respect life and body; a mural on the wall boasts photographs of smiling vegetarian babies. It could be argued that the restaurant’s cuisine, however, represents something of an oxymoron.
“We call it soul vegetarian because our people, we’re used to soul food being defined as something that’s pork or pig or barbecue,” explains Hosheyah Israel, the cafe’s manager. “This has become, like, African-American traditional food, and it was something that was handed down to us through slavery. What we’re saying is that soul food is something that nourishes souls.It’s got to be something that’s healthy for you, that’s got some nutrients to feed the soul.”
The cafe’s soul/vegetarian hybrid, despite its spiritual underpinnings, could strike some purists as sacrilege. Besides the meatless barbecue twists, there’s macaroni and cheese made with soy milk and nutritional yeast, not real cheese, collard greens sans pig fatnot to mention that there’s nothing even pretending to be chicken.
But like Delights, Soul Vegetarian Cafe tries to cater to the conditioned tastes of meat eaters. The gluten used in the barbecue is texturally close to pork and quite good, further evidence that great barbecue is really about great sauce. The mac and cheese tastes like homemade, just a tad creamier. And the Cafe’s more traditional vegetarian dishesstir-fried or steamed vegetables, lentils, tofu strips, veggie burgersare all spiked with Afrocentric flair, be it a touch of barbecue or pepper, or names like the Marcus Garvey burger or the Tubman special.
“One of the things we notice is that people like good-tasting food,” says Israel with a laugh. “Even if it’s vegan and healthy for you, it’s got to taste good.”
Delights of the Garden, 2616 Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 319-8747.
Soul Vegetarian Cafe, 2606 Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 328-7685.
If there were an official nutriment of the blues, you’d expect it to be something transcendental, a food that serves as a tonic and vice versaperhaps a fine strain of sour mash. Though it makes no attempt to attach a singular sauce to the art form, Blues in My Kitchen, a cookbook put out by the D.C. Blues Society, does its part to marry meat and mojo. The book is a spicy collection of recipes submitted by blues musicians and their loved ones. Many of the entries are Southern-cuisine standbys with slight twists and bluesworthy names, like harpist Ward Gaines’ “Down in the Bottom” oyster casserole, Liz Lohr’s “Before You Go” beans and rice, and a profusion of “Jam”-balayas.
Some of the other stuff is just plain fun to readNappy Brown’s barbecued raccoon, for example, which actually calls for raccoon, or Beth Polhammer’s sweet ‘n’ sour hot dogs, which actually call for a 16-ounce jar of apple jelly. For more information, write to Blues in My Kitchen, P.O. Box 77315, Washington, DC 20013, or call (202) 828-3028.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.