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Mar 20, 2008 10:45 AM

Vegetarian sugar shack ... an oxymoron? [Moved from Quebec board]

What is it with vegetarians looking to be accommodated at meat-oriented restaurants and other meat-heavy food-related activities? Whether it's self-imposed (for either personal or religious reasons) or medically-advised, if you're vegetarian, then some food activities just aren't designed for you. "I've heard bacon is yummy, but could I get it without the pork?"

So while there are things for a vegetarian to eat at a sugar shack (e.g. maple syrup on snow, or maple-syrup on crepes), you're never going to have the experience that an omnivore does and raves about.

What do you think? Is it worth looking for a sugar shack that accommodates a vegetarian diet?

(I can't help but be a bit further annoyed by the CH censors... sometimes I wish you'd just let people carry on a discussion and not interfere unless a post is truly off-topic or offensive. Having had 2 carefully thought-out posts deleted, I'm annoyed at having to re-write it again and am thus feeling about 10x more snarky about the whole issue).

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    1. While a sugar shack experience may not be complete for YOU without having pork products, that certainly does not mean the same is true for everybody who visits a sugar shack. After all, sugar shacks don't exist because of pork. They exist because of maple syrup, which, yes, is vegetarian. The experience of watching syrup boil down also has nothing to do with diet.

      I've been to more than a few sugar shacks across MA and NH and (although I am as big a pork-lover as you'll come across), pork products don't play a major role in my experience at a sugar shack. Give me a big pile of buttermilk pancakes with syrup, a cold glass of maple milk and sugar on snow or a dish of maple walnut ice cream and I am in maple nirvana. I actually don't choose to mix my pork with my maple products because I want to focus just on the maple experience.

      What I don't understand is why some people feel their version of a particular experience is the TRUE version, and why it's hard for those people to believe that others with different needs can still have an experience that is perfectly satisfactory. Why can't we all just respect that others make choices that differ from our own? Nobody's taking pork away from you, so why do you care if somebody else isn't putting it in their mouth?

      17 Replies
      1. re: Chris VR

        «What I don't understand is why some people feel their version of a particular experience is the TRUE version, and why it's hard for those people to believe that others with different needs can still have an experience that is perfectly satisfactory.»

        Because in Quebec -- and an earlier version of the OP's query was first posted on the Quebec board (and properly so) -- it is in fact the true version. No self-respecting cabane à sucre would serve a meal in which pork products didn't feature prominently. Oreilles de christ (deep-fried pork rind), pork belly in the pea soup, slices of ham and more are as central to the traditional meal, to the cabane à sucre experience, as maple taffy. As another poster in the original thread said, a vegetarian wanting to go to a cabane à sucre is a little like someone with a seafood allergy wanting to go to Red Lobster. Sure you can do it but, ultimately, why bother?

        1. re: carswell

          Why bother? Maybe because you want to see sap boiled to syrup. Get out into the country and enjoy the spring. Stock up on gallons of syrup. Accompany friends who might be able to indulge in the full menu. There are many reasons one might want to do it, so why begrudge people the desire to do it and maximize their enjoyment by finding a place that might offer options that would work for their dietary needs?

          And also note that the poster didn't ask if such a place existed, he/she was remembering a discussion about a place that DOES exist and wanted help remembering the name. If it does exist, that's even more the reason to "bother".

          Your Red Lobster analogy is flawed. If they were called "Pork Shacks" and not "Sugar Shacks" you might have more of a point. Because you're right, I'd be surprised if a vegetarian wanted to go to a restaurant that didn't offer vegetarian-friendly food UNLESS there were other factors involved (proximity, dining companions, etc.). But whether or not the food served at Quebec sugar shacks is heavily pork oriented doesn't negate the fact that a sugar shack experience is about more than what the main dishes are.

          1. re: Chris VR

            In the original thread and this one, we're talking about cabane à sucre food, not other factors and extenuating circumstances. And let's also bear in mind that a lot of those non-meat cabane à sucre items -- those omelettes, potatoes, sugar pies and poudings chômeur -- are made with lard. It's lumberjack food, not vegetarian lumberjack food, and it's central to the Quebec cabane à sucre experience. Clear on that?

            Yes, there is apparently at least one Montreal-area cabane (out of hundreds) that accommodates vegetarians. And, as the OP in that thread rather condescendingly points out, that cabane came into some criticism for making those accommodations, for tinkering with tradition, for distorting the true version.

            eoj's basic question is legit: How far should a meat-centric restaurant go toward accommodating vegetarians? Is it right for a vegetarian to expect to be accommodated at a traditional cabane à sucre, as the OP obviously does? What about at Au Pied de Cochon (there have been queries along those lines before)? What about L'Entrcôte St-Jean, which has one main course on its menu -- ribeyes -- the only option being rare, medium or well-done?

            eoj's question also points to other interesting questions. Like how far should a meat-centric or vegetarian restaurant go toward accommodating vegans? And if meat-centric restaurants should accommodate vegetarians, shouldn't vegetarian restaurants accommodate carnivores?

            1. re: carswell

              I don't think any eating establishment is morally required to serve or not serve anything. They are a business, and at the end of the day are there to make money. A restaurant will accomodate a special dining need if it will help make them money. That's about it.

              1. re: carswell

                The OP in that thread does not "expect to be accommodated". The way you phrase it, he/she is expecting to flounce in, expecting the place to whip up special meat free dishes on request. The poster clearly understands that what he is asking for is out of the ordinary, and is asking for help in finding places that ALREADY are vegetarian friendly. Sheesh. Mellow out a bit, willya?

                My opinion is if a restaurant has the ability to accommodate a diner's special request (vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, whatever) they should do so if it's feasible. It's not terribly difficult to take the pasta from the linguine bolognese and the vegetable mix that usually come as a side with the lambchop and toss them together with some garlic and oil and serve a vegetarian a meal he/she can eat. If the pace of the kitchen is not insane and it can be done pretty easily, it should be done. I do think it's unreasonable for a diner with (for example) a dairy allergy to ask "can you make the mashed potatoes with chicken broth instead of milk and butter?" or some other request that would require the kitchen to re-engineer a dish on the fly. (And I say that having been at one time the diner with the allergy problem.) But to ask "You normally serve the steak with mashed potatoes potatoes and vegetables with butter- is it possible to get the steak with the french fries you normally serve with the burger, and leave the butter off the vegetables?" is perfectly acceptable in my opinion. If the chef wants to say no, I'd respect his/his decision because I'd assume there's a really good reason that would throw things out of whack for the kitchen. I'd order it anyway and leave the potatoes and vegetable uneaten- and I'd remember that the restaurant wasn't particularly accommodating, and probably not return.

                As for yor straw man, a vegetarian restaurant CLEARLY could not accommodate a request for a meat-centric meal because they're not going to have the ingredients on hand.

                1. re: Chris VR

                  But we're not talking about just ANY restaurant accommodating vegetarians. This situation is much more like a vegetarian restaurant having meat. As carswell points out, many of the non-meat items at a cabane à sucre are cooked with lard.

                  1. re: eoj

                    I would argue that they might have traditionally been cooked with lard, but that many cabanes have probably moved away from lard as a cooking grease nowadays.

                    And as the token vegetarian in my entire family and circle of friends, I would love to go the the cabane à sucre - I was just looking at listings tonight, actually - if only for the snow candy. I don't expect them to cater to vegetarians, and I'll pack a lunch if I have to if it means I can hang out with everyone and reminisce about my childhood traditions. If they can whip me up some veg pancakes, all the better.

                  2. re: Chris VR

                    I assure you I am quite mellow.

                    My point was a restaurant will accomodate (and I'm not sure why you take offense to that word, but whatever), any diet if it helps them get, or retain, or please, customers. Some care more about it than others. Every kitchen is different. In some kitchens, particularly when busy, it might be a big deal to make a substitution and they may not care enough about pleasing that customer to do it. In others, it may not be a big deal. But it's not a some sort of ethical requirement to do so. If you have dietary needs that a restaurant can't or won't meet, you spend your money elsewhere. Pretty simple. I know all sorts of people with diet restrictions: diabetes, celiac, vegetarian, etc., and we dine in places that we know will accomodate us, without the need to talk trash about the ones who don't. Not every restaurant is made for every person.

                    And please, tone down the hostility. This thread is getting a bit snarky.

                    1. re: dagwood

                      "This thread is getting a bit snarky."

                      Indeed, as my comments were not directed toward you, but towards carswell. You and I actually seem to be in agreement on this topic. I have no problem with the word "accommodate" and agree with you. Not every restaurant is made for every person, but as you say, when it's possible for a restaurant to deal with special meal needs, I personally think it should be done.

                      1. re: dagwood

                        I think the snarkiness increased when people started misconstruing my discussion point as an attack on the vegetarian lifestyle.

                      2. re: Chris VR

                        Unless you followed the hearings of the "reasonable accommodation" commission and the media reaction to them, unless you're familiar with the ongoing psychodrama that is Quebec politics, unless you've been to Quebec cabanes à sucre and understand their historical and current significance in Quebec society and unless in the hour or so before it was deleted you happened to read JES's snarky reply to the poster who made the Red Lobster comment, you don't have the full picture and probably aren't going to catch the nuances of *got in trouble because they did accommodating things*.

                        Cabanes à sucre are iconic for many old-stock Quebecers, one of their last direct ties to the good ole days (or bad ole days, depending on your point of view), an annual pilgrimage, a rite of spring, a communal celebration of Québécois roots. They're not like any sugar shack I've been to in upstate New York or New England. At a time when Quebec culture is often viewed as being under attack, the integrity of such icons assumes an even greater cultural importance. One tinkers with them at one's peril.

                        The incident referred to in JES's query is actually two. The first and most incendiary didn't directly involve food: a large group of Muslims visited a cabane à sucre and brought their own food (merguez from the sounds of it) for the kitchen to prepare. After the meal, they wanted to clear the dining room and pray. However, another group of non-Muslims was already waiting to be seated. The accommodating owners decided to clear the adjacent dance hall instead, stopping the live music and asking the non-Muslims to leave for the 15 minutes required for prayers. Rightly or wrongly, the displaced non-Muslims were disgruntled, and before long the media got ahold of the story and used it to fan the flames of the reasonable accommodation debate (or horror show, depending on your point of view) about how far immigrants should go toward integrating themselves into Quebec culture and how far Quebecers should go toward accepting cultural differences. The second incident involved a cabane à sucre cook who announced he'd made a ham-free pea soup to accommodate Muslims; reportedly, he continues to offer the traditional pea soup. This story soon became twisted into cabanes offering only ham-free soup to non-Muslim patrons and led one prominent politician to remark that a ham-free cabane might find it hard to stay in business.

                        Setting aside the question of JES's reason for choosing to talk about pea soup ("peasouper" has long been an ethnic slur for French Canadians in general and French Quebecers in particular), he misrepresented what happened: the accommodating cabanes did not "get in trouble" though the dance hall cabane did come in for some flack. And maybe I'm reading him wrong, but to my ear, in this context and posting on the Quebec board, JES comes across as a little indignant that accommodations generally aren't made, as though he has an underlying sense of entitlement, a feeling that he should be accommodated and that people not willing to do so are, well, unreasonable.

                        For a Quebecer, the notion of vegetarian sugar shack is hard to wrap one's head around. "Muslims at the temple of ham!" screamed the headline of a local francophone tabloid during the debate. For non-Quebecers, it'd be a bit like seeing a request for a vegetarian steakhouse. I, like several other hounds, chuckled when I first read the thread title. JES's now-deleted reply to one who laughed out loud equated him with a couple of the more xenophobic players in the cabane à sucre kerfuffle. That, sorry to say, confirmed my reading of the implications, the subtext, the coded language of his original request. If anyone needs to mellow out, it's JES.

                        «if a restaurant has the ability to accommodate a diner's special request (vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, whatever) they should do so if it's feasible»

                        No problem with that. I'd even go further to say that, in view of the increased popularity of vegetarianism, it may often make business sense for restos to be more proactive. However, at a traditional cabane à sucre, where meals are served family-style to large groups, where lard may be the go-to cooking fat, where the cooks are not likely to know or care whether the skillet they're using contains residual dead animal fat, where the entire outing is usually predicated upon a return to Quebecers' cultural and -- need I add? -- non-vegetarian roots, accommodating a singleton vegetarian is not likely a viable option. But, hey, in reply to the original query, someone just posted a link to a vegan sugar shack meal. *Tant mieux.* It may be a fun outing but it's not going to be a cabane à sucre experience.

                        Lastly, you may think mixing steamed vegetables with pasta constitutes an acceptable vegetarian option. Most vegetarians I know don't. Nor do they consider the standard salad, bread, omelet and cheese a viable alternative. Heck, I know vegetarians who condemn Chez Panisse Café -- which always has two or three vegetarian apps and one or two vegetarian mains -- for its "weak" offerings.

                        1. re: carswell

                          thanks for the clarification. I didn't see the original post; this thread makes much more sense to me now.

                2. re: Chris VR

                  "They exist because of maple syrup, which, yes, is vegetarian. The experience of watching syrup boil down also has nothing to do with diet."

                  I have seen a place that processes the maple syrup with a piece of bacon. I can't remember what the purpose of the bacon was, but it wasn't for flavour specifically, It has something to do with the boiling process. So technically, that maple syrup wasn't 100% vegetarian...

                  1. re: moh

                    Interesting, I've never heard of or seen anything like that, but I imagine it's for flavor. Regardless, even there, bacon is secondary to the process- and not essential to the action. Maple syrup (which is maple sap, boiled down to a thick consistency) is vegetarian. Mape syrup with bacon is (obviously!) not :)

                    1. re: Chris VR

                      We put our heads together, and we remembered that the strip of bacon helped prevent the syrup from boiling over. At least that was how it was explained to us on the tour or the sugar shack. It is a tiny strip of bacon compared to the amount of syrup. The person making the sugar did not suggest that it was for flavour.

                      Just goes to show, you never know what is in your food unless you ask carefully! I do know a lot of my vegetarian friends are careful about what they eat, but they would not be overly fussy about small things like this in the presence of friends and company. Still it really depends on how careful you want to be. I would be a little nervous about offering maple syrup to my strict vegetarian friends, or devout Muslim or Jewish friends after discovering this tidbit. If they are devout, then I think I need to let them know before I offer them this item. But it hasn't come up yet.

                      1. re: moh

                        Oh, and also just to point out, I don't know if all maple syrup producers use bacon in the processing, certainly the ones with kosher products do not. It is possible this was just a peculiarity of this one producer.

                        1. re: moh

                          it kind of sounds like the sort of thing that would be done because their family always did it that way and the true reasons are lost to antiquity.

                3. I don't eat meat or any of it's by products.

                  I have often accompanied friends to a steakhouse to eat a meal if that's what they want. I am just as happy to have a salad or a baked potato as a meal. Do I expect a soy burger or a slab of! I'd expect though if ask for my bacon on the side of my salad, the the kitchen complies. I can not however, pick the bacon out of a carbonara dish, nor would i expect the kitchen to, if their sauces are pre made. Easy things. Would I go to a steak house on my own? No.

                  I enjoy the sugar woods experience. Like one poster said, nice spring walk in the woods, watch some maple syrup being made, eat some maple creams. I've rarely stayed for the meals, but not because of the eats. If i went with friends or family and everything contained lard? Well i'd be just as happy to sit with a roll or a piece of bread and soak up the atmosphere.

                  Not all of us vegetarians are whiny, demanding, or meat-scent gagging types you know.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: im_nomad

                    We're not discussing vegetarians who are just happy to "go along". We're discussing those who want their special dietary requirements catered to in an omnivore-oriented environment. If you're happy to go for non-food reasons, then great (that's as it should be). But that's beside the point we're discussing.

                    What we're discussing is whether there's a point to looking for a cabane à sucre that accommodates vegetarians. My thought is "no" unless you're only going with other vegetarians and you don't care if you don't have a traditional meal. Pork-based products are a huge part of the whole cabane à sucre food culture and thus, that food culture is not designed for vegetarians (or those on a kosher diet, for that matter).

                    1. re: eoj

                      "We're not discussing vegetarians who are just happy to "go along". We're discussing those who want their special dietary requirements catered to in an omnivore-oriented environment."

                      Actually, the point you're trying to make (axe you're trying to grind?) is that you think vegetarians expect the world to remake itself to fit their needs. Neither the OP in the thread you mentioned nor any other vegetarian I personally know supports this point you're trying to make. I'm sure there is at least ONE vegetarian out there who fits the mold you're trying to press all vegetarians into, but there are jerks everywhere, meat-eating habits aside.

                      "What we're discussing is whether there's a point to looking for a cabane à sucre that accommodates vegetarians."

                      Since such a cabane à sucre evidently exists, there does seem to be a point in looking for it. Although it sounds like you believe it shouldn't exist, obviously at least one business owner sees a reason to do it. And you conveniently ignore the point I've made that there is more to a sugar shack experience than eating a pork-heavy meal. Eat and let eat. If the shacks that offer a pea soup without ham offend you, don't patronize them. There's plenty of other porkchops in the sea.

                      1. re: Chris VR

                        Um, no. Please don't tell me what I think. You've made it clear what YOU think I'm thinking though. (Did you even read the post that you responded to?) I do NOT have a thing against vegetarians in general. But I don't think they deserve special treatment either. If you're a vegetarian who doesn't expect accommodation and doesn't care about the food, then you would be better off to go to a traditional cabane à sucre. In which case, no point looking for a vegetarian sugar shack. This is not the interesting case.

                        And PLEASE GET THE POINT that we're talking about the FOOD experience. You keep bringing up the other stuff, which is like saying "but the restaurant might have nice decor". If you're not there for the food, then again, why bother going to a vegetarian sugar shack. I wasn't asking "should a vegetarian go to a sugar shack?". If they want to, of course they should. What I was talking about was what they should expect of the FOOD.

                      2. re: eoj

                        I don't see how pork-eaters are harmed in any way by cabanes à sucre wanting to accomodate vegetarians and/or non-pork eaters. It isn't as if anyone is trying to ban pork-based products.

                        Yes, those are traditional, but cultures evolve, and a modern feature of culture is accomodating minorities and welcoming other ways of life. Another is lighter food, as not many of us are loggers or farmers working out in the bitter cold.

                        After all, the sap was first tapped by Amerindian people who didn't eat pork either - it was not a native meat as far as I know -

                        1. re: lagatta

                          cabanes à sucre are not an Amerindian tradition, though. And while we certainly don't eat that "lumberjack" food every day, it is what people expect when going in for the whole sugar shack experience.

                      3. re: im_nomad

                        I know I'm late to the party, but I just wanted to echo what im_nomad said. There really are a hell of a lot of easy going vegetarians and vegans. We're not all awful meat haters. I have gone to many meat-specific places over the year and eaten the vegetarian options. We may not be completely stuffed with a variety of veggie goodness, but it doesn't always matter and it doesn't diminish the experience.

                        Whether I'm going for particular veg friendly food items or going with my meat loving boyfriend, I'm not going to make a scene. I'll have a few pickles and some black cherry pop at Schwartz's, a cheese sandwich at Wilensky's and there's still time for tasty syrupy goodness at a cabane a sucre.

                        Any veg or non-veg person can be a demanding, pushy jerk, but there's no need to make grand statements. Why can't we enjoy either a modified version of the classic or just enjoy the veg parts? As long as we're enjoying ourselves and not berating you, what's the problem?

                        Whether it's poutine with vegetarian gravy, some info on non-meat snacks at APdC (which, by the way, I have vowed to go to with my boyfriend in the not too distant future) or anything else, it doesn't diminish the meat version by getting to enjoy it as a vegetarian.

                        I don't eat meat, but I'm definitely a chowhound. I love good food and I want to experience a variety of gastronomic delights, including ones with meaty components. In a thread that clearly shows that there are veg options, why jump on people and judge their potential snacks as invalid because they don't stack up to the original versions in your opinion. The only reason to do that is a love of pointless bickering.

                        Or maybe a vegetarian took your lollipop as a child.

                        1. re: killedwithkarate

                          Not if the lollipop contained gelatin! Heehee!

                      4. I'm glad I didn't find this thread until now. It turns out I'm a much more interesting and complex person, with subtle motivations and deep cultural resonance in my writing. I won't respond to individuals point for point, and I have no need to clear my good name but in the interest of thanking those who stuck up for me in both threads, here's what happened:

                        I'm a recent immigrant to Quebec. I'm vegetarian, my wife is an omnivore. She says to me one day, "JES000 [that's her pet name for me], let's go to a sugar shack. Wasn't there one that served vegetarians?" Knowing that most places are pretty meaty, we figured we'd better call ahead rather than just show up on someone's doorstep. I post a query. I get flamed. Rather than being a mature, reasoning person, I flame back. As we know, flames are not usually well-thought-out replies.

                        End of story, or so I thought until I found this thread.

                        As to other aspects of the thread: as a vegetarian, I know better than to expect all places to accommodate me. That's why I ask, look over menus ahead of time, and/or call ahead. Some places, like Au Pied du Cachon, can be surprisingly accommodating and do it with a sense of humor. Others do not and so they don't get my business. As many posters have mentioned, it's a pragmatic issue on both sides -- what's worth doing for business, and to whom it's worth it to me to give my business. It's not personal. This is why I asked at the top of the thread if anyone knew the name of the place that was willing to serve vegetarians.

                        If I said anything ethnically offensive regarding Quebecois, I certainly apologize and retract it, as offense was not intended and it would have been the result of my own cluelessness. Since arriving here, I have been studying French (since I knew none upon arriving), living in Francophone neighborhoods, reading up on Quebec history, and generally working on meeting the host culture halfway (as an immigrant does). That said, I know plenty of Francophone vegetarians, and think it's lame if you're actually saying that of all the Canbanes a sucre in Quebec, not a single one should accommodate vegetarians if they so choose.

                        As to the "vegetarian steak house" option, I would refer you to Chu Chai, a Thai place that does all sorts of veggie "meats" (or Yuan on Sherbrooke). Such places do exist for those who like them, and in the case of a cabane, the adjustment is actually much less extreme. No, the experience won't be "authentic Quebecois" but then neither am I. The experience will be an interesting fusion of two traditions: hopefully tasty for my companions and I, and worthwhile for the people running the place -- which was the original point of my query.

                        Thanks again to those who stuck up for me and for the doppelganger that I became in this discussion.