Kansas City has always been a meat-lover’s town. Early vegetarian restaurants’ lousy cooking years ago may have kept it that way longer than it should have.
Maybe it was the post-Thanksgiving repast at the Japanese joint up the street (it was great), but for some reason I remembered my first encounter with macrobiotic food.
It was 1972 and I was living at the White House, a commune over at 5424 Virginia, in Kansas City. (There’s a story there, for another time.) Some people we knew were into macrobiotics, and they always made it sound so healthy and great, although they didn’t look any healthier than the rest of us.
I went there one summer Saturday evening. The place was empty, except for the guy behind the counter who seemed to be the sole employee that night. Since I was alone, I sat at the counter and took a menu. The guy who would be my waiter for the evening (that obnoxious phrase had yet to appear) looked to be your garden-variety hippie (like me), with longish blonde hair and scraggly beard, dressed in white but without a turban. An agreeable sort.
I scanned the menu for something that looked vaguely familiar. No dice. There were no sandwiches of any sort, no soup or salad or anything else that bore any resemblance to anything I was used to. And I had no idea what to expect. I was used to foods others might call strange, especially in those days.
I grew up Italian with a dad who loved greens and the usual mostaccioli and meatballs. My friends up the street were Japanese, so miso soup and nori were home cooking to me. But the Golden Temple menu was totally out of my experience.
Smoothies were something like $2.50 and entrées around $5. I decided to splurge. I got a banana smoothie and an entrée, the name of which escapes me.
The smoothie was fine. The entree was another matter entirely. What I got for $5 was a plate of raw red cabbage topped with sunflower seeds. There was no salt, spice or sauce. It was dry as a bone. In a depressing silence (no music was playing, nary a sitar), I choked down the cabbage-sunflower seeds, washed it away with the smoothie, paid up and left.
On top of being out of about $10, a lot of loot in those days, I was still hungry.
Help was at hand. I drove across Westport Road over to Norm’s Zesto, or Zesto’s, as we called it, a venerable fast-food emporium. Zesto was a chain, but at least the one at Westport and Wyoming was good. “Prepared in sight, it must be right.” That was Zesto’s motto, hanging on wall behind counter. There were no tables in the narrow space, only the walk-up counter for ordering and getting your food and a few stools at a dining counter along the window looking out on Westport Road.
Zesto’s was kinda busy – it was Saturday night, after all. The bright yellow neon lights lit up the counter and eating space. I went to the counter and ordered a tenderloin with everything, i.e., mustard, lettuce, onion and tomato. Also got fries and a Coke.
The total came to $1.79.
I sat at the window, chewing thoughtfully. It was plain to me why Zesto’s was busy and the Golden Temple was empty. The tenderloin was great, the fries hot and crisp. I savored each tasty bite.
The Golden Temple’s plate of raw cabbage with sunflower seeds was barely edible. Zesto’s wasn’t fancy, but they gave you honest food that tasted great. The folks at Golden Temple were honest (if a little earnest), but short on the concept of a good meal. It was people like them that gave macrobiotic foods, and vegetarian cooking in general, a bad name.
I left Zesto’s full and happy. I shoulda gone there in the first place, but it was all in the spirit of discovery. It would be a few years before I ate any vegetarian dish again, and then it was something my wife cooked (I’d gotten married along the way).
It was really good. Having been raised Catholic (I had lapsed way before 1972), I was used to not eating meat at least every Friday. At home, we sometimes had stuffed artichokes, and other times Mom would make a pizza. Actually, she’d make two: one with mushrooms and olives for us kids, and one with anchovies for her. Sometimes we had macaroni and peas, a nice, subtle dish that is way better than it sounds, and an Italian omelet made with Romano cheese, breadcrumbs, spices and eggs.
We didn’t think of those as vegetarian dishes. It was just what we ate on Fridays. Turns out the folks at the Golden Temple were ahead of the curve. Too bad they were lousy cooks.
In later years, this same spot was occupied by The Corner Restaurant, and altogether terrific place for breakfast. Its heyday was during the late 70s to late 80s or so. The Corner lasted much longer than the Golden Temple!
For some years now, for health reasons, I’ve eaten a largely vegetarian diet. And the same holds true now as it did then: Whether I cook it myself or eat at a restaurant, whatever it is, it has to taste good.