Vegging Out

Vegetarianism has always seemed to me like some sort of strange, distant religion—perfectly admirable, perhaps, but utterly alien to my way of thinking. Believing that perhaps I ought to become better acquainted with the vegetarian worldview, FM dispatched me to a vegetarian cooking class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE), a stone’s throw from the center of Harvard Square. But actually it was not your run of the mill vegetarian cooking class—it was a class on what to serve at a vegetarian Valentine’s Day brunch buffet.

My mind was boggled. How better to say “I love you” than with a heart made of tofu? And so, with agreeably high hopes (for a disastrous evening), I arrived at 60 Brattle Square with my requisite accoutrements: two wine glasses and a plastic container that could be used as a “dump bucket.” What the heck a dump bucket was and just when it should be used was, alas, never made clear. I can only stick with my original guess: that it is the new term for colostomy bag, and was required in case the vegetarian food was too fibrous.

The crowd in attendance was utterly predictable. Out of the eight participants (not including FM photographer and ravenous meat-eater Andrew Brunner and me) five were vegetarians, and seven were women. Accordingly, a dish of butternut squash and potato gnocchi au gratin was served with the joking proviso, “Remember, this is not a dish for bikini weather.” The crowd tittered approvingly. Not that they had anything to fear—the portions served were so miniscule that I felt I was on a crash diet, not attending a course for which you had to stump up over $60.

In fact, I thought that much of the food, prepared by Didi Emmons, the head chef at Veggie Planet, was pretty good. The gnocchi were soft and rich, served in a creamy sauce with roasted cherry tomatoes, the perfect thing for a cold winter’s night. A salad of baby spinach leaves with candied walnuts and crumbled blue cheese was simple but refreshing. The same went for a fresh fruit salad. French toast was, well, French toast. (Obviously, at the CCAE they haven’t yet discovered that the dish has been renamed Freedom toast, to celebrate America’s freedom to launch military offensives at will).

As Andrew remarked, it would have all made a perfectly pleasant spread—if it had been served around a large, juicy steak. I am still not about to charge off to Veggie Planet, located on Palmer Street, across from the Coop—carnivorous habits die hard. But, based on Emmons’ cooking at the CCAE, I could think of far worse places to go for a meal.

However, this was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day brunch. And the love was, alas, sadly lacking. I struggle, for example, to think of anything less aphrodisiacal than borscht. Yet somehow it made an appearance on the menu. Beet soup may have its own Gulag-chic thing going, I guess, but it screams sex appeal about as much as a Russian shot putter in a catsuit.

Fortunately, though, the CCAE recognized that a lack of romance can always be overcome by, well, plenty of booze. To compliment each dish, a different wine was selected by Eden Stone, our self-described “wine wench.” In theory, this should have been fantastic. I mean, you can’t go wrong with free booze selected by a self-proclaimed expert, right? Wrong.

I don’t know a tremendous amount about wine, but it doesn’t really take a genius to understand why you don’t serve an overpowering port with a salad. Similarly, I hadn’t previously had the misfortune to encounter Lambrusco, a fizzy Italian red wine, but I rapidly realized what the “excellent” bottle Stone served reminded me of: box wine mixed with seltzer. According to the expert, however, this Lambrusco was a great deal, coming in at just over $20 a bottle. The faces of those who tried it, though, suggested that, then again, maybe it wasn’t.

To liven up the rather dry French toast, Stone offered Bonny Doon Framboise, which tasted like viciously spiked cough syrup—cloying sweet, but strangely astringent. “Framboise is the French for blackberry or raspberry,” she said, sipping it. “Yes, blackberry, I think. Definitely blackberry.” Framboise is the French word for raspberry.

To compliment her woeful selections, Stone offered a variety of banal snippets of advice. “There are two qualities that make a wine good: balance and complexity. If a wine has both, it is in the top 5 percent of wines in the world,” she explained—without, of course, explaining anything. “I love to smell wine for five or 10 minutes before I take a taste of it,” she added pretentiously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the evening was not a success. I know that I would have felt ripped off if I had shelled out for an evening that was long on twaddle, but short on portions and meaningful culinary advice. But as it was, I headed out into the cold, determined to make the best of my newfound vegetarian knowledge. “Wanna grab a slice of pepperoni pizza?” I asked Andrew. “Thank God,” he said. “I’m starving.”