DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — In 1990 when Sue Weinstein wanted to eat out, dinner usually meant a salad and a baked potato.
"It's easier than it used to be," the 20-year vegetarian-turned-vegan said. "But it's still pretty tough."
That's part of the reason she's a co-organizer for the Decatur Vegetarian Meetup group. Meetup is an online forum where people can form clubs open to anyone and create events for those with similar interests.
Last Thursday, the group met at the newly opened Taproot restaurant in downtown Decatur. Weinstein contacted Executive Chef John Redden several weeks before to discuss menu options. Redden saw it as a challenge.
"It forces you as a cook to be more creative," Redden said.
With popular documentaries such as "Forks over Knives" and "Food Inc." increasing public awareness of the food industry and the benefits of eating less processed food, Redden said they often get dietary requests for vegetarian, vegan, or more recently, gluten-free foods.
He and his right-hand man, sous chef Paul Maisel, worked to make creative and tasty menu options for the group.
"Just because you're vegan doesn't mean you have to eat bland food or suffer with your house salad while everyone else at the table eats a steak," Maisel said. "I can't imagine what's that would be like on a day-to-day basis."
It's not as hard as you might think though. Weinstein became a vegetarian in 1990 out of ethical concerns and went vegan five years ago. She enjoys cooking meals at home, especially ones such as Vegan Mac and Cheese, but struggles at restaurants.
"It's so hard for vegans and vegetarians to eat out," she said.
That difficulty in finding tasty veggie meals on a menu inspired the group's creation. The idea was that if vegetarians and vegans went as a group, they could get restaurants to put together menu items specifically for them.
The idea paid off, as Thursday's dinner at Taproot had the largest number of people of any of their meetups, with 21 people filling the private room.
"I think everyone wanted to try this restaurant," Weinstein said.
The menu started off with a vegan potato and onion bisque topped with mushrooms and fried asparagus or a salad. Entree choices were spicy Asian grilled lettuce wraps, grilled portabella mushroom with potatoes and spinach or a loaded market salad. Dessert was strawberries with chocolate silk mousse made out of tofu that only a few could resist ordering.
Topics of conversation shifted from favorite recipes to seedlings for spring gardens already being planted. Comfortable laughter filled the room as friends chatted and strangers quickly became acquaintances. That is until, plates were brought out and everyone settled into a meal designed especially for them.
The Meetup group branched out of the Decatur Vegetarian Society two years ago this month. The group welcomes vegetarians and vegans or anyone considering it and has participants from as far as Springfield or Champaign. They try to meet once a month at a member's house or an accommodating restaurant.
Julie Rotz is a member of both groups. She became a vegetarian in February 2012 to help in her fight against breast cancer.
"I found out after I got diagnosed with breast cancer some of the things I was eating weren't so good," Rotz said.
Already an avid runner, around that time her daughter became a vegan and encouraged Rotz to read "The China Study," by T. Colin Campbell. Knowing her body was going to go through a lot with surgery and chemotherapy Rotz decided she wanted to help the process by eating well.
"I likened it to the longest marathon ever," Rotz said about her treatment.
She's now in remission and is still running, but has no plans of returning to a diet that includes meat.
"This really is a nutrient dense way to eat, so it has got to be one of the best thing I can do for myself," Rotz said. Still, she pointed out that it's possible to have an unhealthy vegetarian diet.
"You could eat potato chips and drink Coke and be vegetarian."
The top question she gets from people is the most obvious one: Do you get enough protein?
That was something Rotz considered during the first stages of research. She used a nutritional guide from the American Cancer Society to log her plant-based diet for several days with a surprising result.
"I got more than I needed," Rotz said.
After researching the food industry online and through the library, she got involved with the vegetarian society to learn more. She picked up cooking tips, tried new foods at the potlucks and learned from the videos they showed at society meetings. She now has a growing library of vegetarian cook books and has enjoyed trying new fruits and vegetables.
"I'm just soaking it up like a sponge," Rotz said.
Taproot's menu is seasonal. The focus now is on root vegetables and winter comfort foods, which will shift to more spring-like fare in March.
Sous chef Maisel made the first and last dish. He and Redden bounced ideas off each other when planning out the menu, conscious of developing "explosions of flavor" for the dinner. For the chocolate dessert, he took the extra step to sweeten it with agave nectar, instead of honey, which is off limits for some vegans.
"It's one of those (dishes) where you could do blind tastings with guests and no one would know," Maisel said.
Redden used Thursday's dinner as a testing board for vegetarian and vegan items that may turn up on future menus.
"Good food is good food, don't discriminate."
Source: (Decatur) Herald and Review, http://bit.ly/1lqGzh4
Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com