Ditching meat for Lent? Lunch-delivery service can help you make the sacrifice

Rachel Klein,owner of Miss Rachels Pantry, delivers hot vegan lunches on Fridays for $10. In background is Marina Levtov of My Better Butter, a local peanut butter company. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Philadelphia Daily News
Rachel Klein,owner of Miss Rachels Pantry, delivers hot vegan lunches on Fridays for $10. In background is Marina Levtov of My Better Butter, a local peanut butter company. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Philadelphia Daily News (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ)
Posted: March 10, 2011

PART-TIME vegans are cropping up everywhere.

There's the veggie-themed Meatless Mondays, a wartime campaign revived in 2003 by Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. And New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has touted his daily "vegan until 6 p.m." plan for a while. In February the trend truly arrived with Oprah Winfrey's One-Week "Vegan Challenge": 378 Harpo staff members went animal-free for a week - no meat, no dairy, no eggs - and many chatted about their experiences with food gurus Michael Pollan and Kathy Freston.

Which brings us, of course, to Lent.

Wait, what? Is this kind of trendy casual dieting really related to a period of serious spiritual renewal, the 40-day period preceding Easter?

Very much so. The obvious connection is temporarily abstaining from the food you're used to grabbing, but it goes deeper. Catholics (as well as some Protestant denominations) in America celebrate Lent in a relatively relaxed way, forgoing some habit or just eating lower on the food chain on Fridays, but even today there are hundreds of millions of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic adherents who spend the whole period as vegans.

OK, six weeks is a stretch for most of us. Oprah pal Freston, the author of Veganist (which shares techniques for "leaning in" to veganism), previously walked the talk-show queen through a vegan cleanse half that long, three weeks.

Still too much? All right, then, let's just look at the next few Fridays.

If you like rocking the "Meatless Fridays" option, you're in luck. A new lunch-delivery service has hit the streets of Center City, and the food is all vegan. Miss Rachel's Pantry is a catering and meal-delivery service run by Rachel Klein, who will, if you order by Thursday night, bring a hot vegan meal to your desk for Friday lunch for just $10.

A vegetarian since childhood and a lifelong foodie, Klein (daughter of Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Klein) went vegan a couple of years ago and decided to expand her game after years of juggling personal-chef gigs and desk jobs. The one-day-a-week lunch was partly a response to popular demand.

"My friends kept telling me, 'You have to open a lunch truck down here [Center City].' I said, 'Well, no, I don't want that, but I will bring you lunch.' "

The choice of Friday wasn't for the Lenten tie-in, Klein said. "It's just because Friday is fun day."

But the concept of ditching hidebound routines on Friday for something new and exciting does resonate with the "cleanse" aspect of Lent (and similar religious fasting periods - almost all religions have a period or situation explicitly forbidding animal products). For one thing, it's about paying attention to the habits you're attached to.

"I think people in general are being more conscious of what they're eating," said Klein, "and people who don't follow a vegan diet are becoming more conscious of where their meat comes from."

Awareness and willingness to experiment are good in theory, but there's got to be tasty real-world food to enjoy. On this note Miss Rachel's Pantry certainly does deliver: Her seitan sandwiches are tangy, juicy and filling (with three main varieties - Barbecue, Hot-Wings and Reuben-style), and the potato-leek soup that came with my lunch was rich and flavorful. She also makes vegetable soup, sweet-potato bisque and tortilla-tomato soup.

Klein's standard lunch includes a sandwich (there are also tofu and gluten-free options), soup, a vegan cookie and a piece of fruit. "Usually it's an apple," she said, "locally grown or, when I can't get that, at least organic."

She has tried "swapping the cookie and apple for a fruit salad. I plan to do that every once in a while," but she admits there was a bit of an outcry about the lack of a cookie. (Check her website before placing your order; a new menu goes up every Monday.)

So far, the food has largely done its own marketing.

"I'm getting a lot of orders now from people who aren't vegan and who saw people in the office getting it, and they thought it looks good," Klein said. Her clientele is "a lot of vegans but also a lot of people who want it for health reasons. A lot of the food is low-fat. It's low-calorie - the seitan is fried at a low temperature, and very little oil winds up in it.

"It's not like a salad," she said, "it's not bird feed - but it's not going to make you chubby-tired. It's not like you just ate a Big Mac."

"Miss Rachel" has taken note of the "vegan holiday" trend in her own travels. "I think vegan is coming into being a cuisine for some people," she said. "You know - 'I'm gonna have vegan on Friday.' "

But as Lent reminds us, the return to basic whole foods can be more than a whimsical break from routine.

Freston, who literally wrote the book on vegan time-outs (The Quantum Wellness Cleanse) pointed out a common thread in spiritual traditions: "Across the board, religions ask people to develop kindness, compassion and mercy. One way to do that is to eat consciously, to choose food that is not bound up in suffering. And of course it's also being a good steward of the environment."

Even if people make the choice temporarily, it can do a lot of good, Freston noted. "If every American just went meatless one day a week, that would be like taking 8 million cars off the road. It has a huge effect."

Also, every "day off" helps establish a new pattern.

"If we're thinking about it for that one day," Freston said, "we're learning to keep our eyes open, learning to look at our food choices, learning new recipes. And it ripples out into the world - it helps build momentum, build steam. And it's one of the most spiritual things we can do, showing who we are, what our values are, and whether we're willing to live by them."

Rachel Klein also sees the philosophical overlap: "Choosing to respect all lives is contributing to the greater good." And with a customer base including "a lot of people who are in human-rights and animal-rights fields," she gets as much as she gives - and not just on a theoretical moral plane.

"People like to hug me - I get like 10 hugs a day." she said. "I guess people are happy for the food. But then, I do this whole thing . . . as a labor of love. So I don't mind the hugs."

She must not, as Klein is now expanding operations: Starting next week, folks in University City can order by Tuesday for lunch delivery on Wednesday.

With or without hugs, taking a "vegan holiday," then, can be a treat instead of an assignment.

Sure, maybe the historical idea behind Lenten self-denial was to make life a little harder to sharpen spiritual insight. In modern urban America, though the spiritual principle is still there, a vegan day, or week (or six?), is something anyone can pull off. Talented entrepreneurs like Klein are making it easy and fun. And whatever your creed, that's something to celebrate.

Find out more about Miss Rachel's Pantry at www.missrachelspantry.com or 215-285-7622.

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