The Plight of Being A Vegetarian While Traveling in Spain

Posted on
Aug 10, 2016

Ham. Ham, everywhere.

Dear Spain,

I like you. I truly do. You’re like Italy, but less mafioso-y. I begrudgingly appreciate how entire cities will shut down so that people can take naps. It’s absolute bullshit, and really annoying for tourists, but y’all are like, “FUCK IT! It’s 1pm. Let’s eat paella for 3 hours.” It’s hard not to be impressed with that level of impracticality. I, too, am weirdly committed to rice.

You have a bazillion types of ham, priced according to how much the pig in question seemed to appreciate the works of Cervantes. You came up with the idea of sangria. You gave us Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas and Julio-Effing-Iglesias.

You also gave us the Spanish Inquisition, but I’m trying to focus on the good.

The point is, Spain, I can totally get behind you on a lot of stuff, and even excuse some of the batshit crazy things you do (like, seriously, chill out with the mayonnaise. There, I said it). But there is one thing that kept coming up, and it’s absolutely bullshit, and normally I wouldn’t give a shit except for Clayton.

Can we talk about Clayton?

Here he is with Rand at the Alhambra:


He’s quite adorable. Every time I tried to take a picture of him he kind of froze up and got a case of something I affectionately call “constipation face”, and I understand because I do that, too. Constipation face is a global epidemic that no one wants to talk about. We just scream, “LOOK NATURAL,” which, like screaming “RELAX” results in precisely the opposite reaction of what we are seeking. But look how cute he is when he doesn’t know he’s being photographed:

Clayton, at right, with his husband Rob, and yes, they look alike, and yes, they’ve heard it all before.


Now, under normal circumstances I would not be worried about this enormous tattooed gay muscle muffin. He can clearly take care of himself and fell entire forests while in the company of Babe, his Giant Blue Ox. But here’s the thing: Clayton is Canadian.

Have you ever been to Canada? It’s the most polite and unobtrusive country in the entire world. It’s like a giant Minnesota. Where apologizing is a national sport. Where people are so well-mannered that you think you might be hallucinating. Where someone once held a door open for me and then said they were sorry afterwards.

And here’s where the problem arose: Clayton is Canadian, and a vegan. Bless his crazy, protein-deprived heart. He realized that in Spain, this essentially equates to starving (even the water has cheese in it), so he downgraded this to just vegetarianism while we were there. He was compromising. He was being flexible.

This is where you let us down, Spain. Well, not us. (I love ham.) But this is where you let Clayton down, Spain.

And, if I’m to be perfectly honest, it’s where we let Clayton down, too. (But mostly, I’m blaming you.)

Because we went to countless restaurants – tapas bars and cafes and places that were well reviewed – and at most, there was one, maybe two items that Clayton could eat. I don’t mean entrees – I mean actual items.

Have you ever seen a 200+ pound man nibble of a crust of bread and some tomato slices while on the verge of collapsing from low blood sugar? It’s really funny but also sad. Like a sedated panda.  


In our determination to not let him starve (and rest assured, in every single one of these photos, Clayton is starving), we looked up a few places that were recommended by vegetarians. One night, we even splurged and went to a gorgeous rooftop restaurant, and beforehand let the staff know that we had one vegetarian in our midst. That won’t be a problem, they told us.

When we arrived, I mentioned it again, and the server nodded – it wouldn’t be a problem, he said.

“He eats fish, right?”

“What? NO. He’s a vegetarian. He doesn’t eat meat of any kind.”

“Ah, then we don’t have anything for him.”

This happened again and again. Because in Spain, “vegetarian” somehow means you eat fish. Now, as my eating habits and physique will clearly attest, I am no expert on vegetables, but I am pretty fucking sure that salmon isn’t one. Plants grow in the ground, by mechanisms that I’m entirely unclear on (something to do with compost?), and fish can be found in the sea and, if you are in Spain, IN EVERY FUCKING DISH ON THE MENU THAT IS LABELED “VEGETARIAN”.


(Apparently the phrase for an actual vegetarian in Spain is “vegetariano estricto”. All of this is theoretical, of course, because there are no vegetariano estrictos in Spain. They all starved or moved to London.)

“We can make him some risotto,” the waiter said. That was basically what Clayton ate for nearly two weeks. Risotto. Crust of bread. Wait, no, sorry. Not that bread. That bread is actually made of ham.

Oh, and guess what? Clayton doesn’t like risotto.

Clayton, staring at rocks, wondering if that’s what we’re going to force him to eat that evening.


Honestly, we should have left that restaurant then and there. We should have left all of those restaurants then and there. We didn’t. Most of the time, three out of four of us had a nice meal. And that’s just a shitty percentage. That’s our fault.

“You don’t eat meat? Okay, cool. Here’s an animal cooked it its own shell. ENJOY!”


The problem was we had no idea that Clayton was miserable half the time, because he’s so fucking polite. See, Rand and I are Americans. If we go to a restaurant and there’s nothing there that’s acceptable, we leave, but not before flipping over a few tables, dousing them with gasoline, and running around in circles with a match while screaming Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” That is how we gently communicate our displeasure at being inconvenienced.

For fuck’s sake, a major plot point in our country’s fight for independence involves tea. We are not afraid to lose our shit in the name of sustenance.

It wasn’t until Clayton’s husband, Rob (also giant, also tattooed, hunky, polite and Canadian because God is real) let us know that Clayton was having a hard time. Three courses in at dinner one night, he gently informed us. And we realized that most of the time, they were just too polite to make their unhappiness known in a way that we Americans could understand. By the time we caught on, it was too late.

A happy moment before we talked to the waiter and realized that one of us was going to starve.




Later, Clayton would say that he wanted other people to realize that vegetarianism is a viable option. Even if it was just once a month, or once a week. He needed to show them how happy he was – and he couldn’t do that by feeling or being miserable because there wasn’t anything for him to eat. He’s so committed to his cause, he didn’t even complain.

I’m so sorry, Clayton. You deserved better. You deserve sweeping smorgasbords of lentils and falafel and whatever the hell tempeh is. You deserve cookies made with flaxseed eggs and coconut oil. And while I’ve uttered those exact sentences as a threat to people in the past, I say them to you with utmost affection. I hope you never go hungry again.

So I realize that we were part of the problem, Spain, but you also somehow think that turbot is a plant, so a lot of this is on you, too. You need to understand that there are people out there who are, well, good. Really good. They care about animals and the planet and about other humans. And when they have decided to live their life with a commitment to that, you cannot say, “Great, here’s a fish. Its name was Javier and it probably had feelings and a family. ENJOY.”

We need to make those people are happy, because they are really good people. We need to make sure they’ve gotten enough ethically-sourced food to eat. Especially if they are 6-feet tall and mostly made of slow-twitch muscle fibers.


Eating candy underneath a dental clinic sign. As one does.


In anticipation of seeing Clayton again, I’m reading up on how to make lavender and cardamom cupcakes without animal products. You can step up, too, Spain. We did our research, and you let us down. You need to understand that if something can wiggle around and swim away from you and has eyes that IT IS NOT A VEGETABLE. If you don’t want to cater to vegetarians, then say that. Stop pretending that you have options for them because there’s sardines on the menu.

Maybe – and I really can’t believe I’m saying this – MAYBE STOP PUTTING FUCKING HAM IN EVERYTHING.

I don’t mean my order – I love ham.  But you know, consider having some options for the good people out there. For people like Clayton.


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Leave a Comment

  • Elle-Rose Williams

    I am sending Clayton some ham-free hugs.

  • Lyn Never

    My college graduation present was a 5-week tour through Europe with 25 other new American college graduates. At the first meal on this trip, in London, one of our tour-fellows looked up at the waitress and said, “this is all Kosher, right?” And the waitress/everyone else all made a sort of “I don’t… why would you…?” face. Turns out, she’d never eaten in a non-Kosher restaurant before, and was unaware that this might present a hurdle in literally 99% of Western Europe on a completely religiously-unaffiliated package tour. She called her family and they decided she’d just eat vegetarian.

    I’d lived in Sweden for a year in HS and dated a vegetarian, so I kinda knew what was coming. “Do you have anything vegetarian?” Germany: “This one only has a *little* ham.” France: “There are vegetables, yes.” “But is there animals?” “Of course!” Netherlands: “You want fish?” I tried to be helpful, she was impatient about it to start with and it only got worse, I spent a lot of time oinking and mooing and shaking my head no, and dealing with all the cultures that acted like they had never heard of such a thing and also thought both fish and bacon were a vegetable. She only lasted a couple of weeks.

    I did finally figure out the reason fish is a vegetable is that the Vatican declared it one, and they’re never wrong so fish are just carrots with a weird lifestyle now, and maybe that causes a certain amount of confusing cognitive dissonance. But I also think it is rooted in religious ignorance/intolerance and a sort of xenophobia to stubbornly not know or pretend not to know that a whole lot of people don’t eat animal products, or to not even know what an animal is or isn’t. It’s really frustrating. (Weirdly, in my Swedish high school there was a veg offering in the lunchroom every day, but restaurants acted like they were legally obligated to put meat in every dish.)

    • Everywhereist

      “Fish are carrots with a weird lifestyle.”

      That sentence is so great I’m mad I didn’t come up with it myself.

  • Aspen Lewis

    My bf and I are both gluten/dairy free and this reminds me of our experience at family gatherings. I plead with them not to worry about us, we either bring our own contributions all the way down to dessert, I consult with the cook ahead of time or I AM the cook, but someone always makes an earnest attempt that covers only one of the allergies. We got vegan cupcakes! Yes but they are literally composed of gluten. This ice cream pie is gluten free! *sigh* It’s hard to have to turn down a truly loving attempt and not feel like an asshole.

  • Loey

    Did you try out Rasoterra? It was one of the best meals we had in Barca and it’s vegetarian!!

  • Christine Foltzer

    I had a similar issue in France with a friend who was extremely lactose intolerant. Multiple times we would go to restaurants she would explain that she could not eat dairy and would ask if the meal of choice could be made without cheese. They seemed to understand but the meal always showed up covered in cheese and would have to be redone after much diliberation with the waiter a second time.

  • Yup, Spain and Latin america are horrible for vegetarians; they don’t even get the concept. The culture is lovely, I love Latin America, but the food is the worst in the world, especially for vegetarians.


  • Technus

    Poor Clayton, I’m never going to Spain 🙁 I’m vegan too.

  • itstoospicy

    Hahaha, I had a similar experience trying to eat as a vegetarian in China.

    “No meat? No problem!”
    “…what’s that?”

  • Mr. Tiny

    I’m not vegetarian but the best meal I had in Barcelona was at a vegan restaurant. Maybe the separatists of Catalonia are making a political statement with meat-free meals!

  • Your posts always have my laughing to tears, but “ot before flipping over a few tables, dousing them with gasoline, and running around in circles with a match while screaming Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run.'” had me rolling. Well done!

  • I’m not a vegetarian, but I cook a lot of veg. My husband and I take turns and when it’s my week to cook, it’s all couscous and quinoa and beans and when it’s his week it’s all couscous and quinoa and fish and steak. He tries, but he’s not a trained monkey.

    We often talk about living in Spain or Italy for a while after he retires from the Air Force at the ripe age of 38. He loves Spain, I love Italy, and we both love the food. It’s a little easier to eat veg in Italy, but have you tried the wild boar pasta? No, seriously. I’ve just had to accept the fact that going to these countries where meat is as common an ingredient as olive oil that I’m not a strong enough person to maintain a mostly veg diet. Hangry doesn’t look good on me. And then I make myself feel better by telling myself what I’m eating was likely hunted and/or free range and grass fed because Europeans are much more farm-to-table than us (regardless of whether that’s actually true), and then I feel better and snarf down that boar with a chaser of chianti, which provides instant verification that these people know what they’re doing when it comes to sustenance.

  • Ismael Minguet

    Hi there,

    Sorry for reading about this trouble to find proper vegan food. I came across with this article and, despite the fact I can understand these issues, I think you forgot to mention that the South of Spain is well-known for the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables and legumes. For example, you can find easily ‘gazpacho’ and ‘salmorejo’, both cold tomato soups or fried peppers, ‘berenjenas’ or garlic soup. Potatoes are quite important as well in our diet and don’t forget fruit. I think you and your friends had a cultural missundertanding, because in Granada, for example, there are lots of places, very cheap places, where you can enjoy vegetarian and vegan meals or Mediterranean traditional food made of vegetables, like free meat lentels o salads. Even you can find ‘halal’ food. Next time, try to ask for that or pay attention to the ingredients, I’m sure you won’t have any problem. And please be open mind before complaint about the cultural background of a place and try to understand the huge and complex legacy of 3,000 years of mixing races and life styles from Fenicians, Greeks, Romans, Iberian, Arabic, Jews and Cristians. Travelling requires put yourself in place of the other and comprehesion.

    I hope you enjoyed your trip and you come back to Andalusia in other time.

    Take care!

  • Andi Plummer

    “Where someone once held a door open for me and then said they were sorry afterwards.”
    Totally read the “sorry” in a Canadian accent. “Soooorry”. 🙂

  • Lindsay Gasik

    Have you or Clayton ever used Happy Cow? It’s a website that will show you where to go to eat vegan anywhere in the world, and I really mean pretty much everywhere. Spain is not too bad as vegan…did 3 weeks there and definitely did not starve. I had gazpacho and salads and horchata and those pumpkin pastry things and even vegan tortilla (the Spain kind, not the burrito-wrapper) and don’t forget FIGS and the best watermelon of my entire life.

  • karin

    Good God! This describes my 4 days in Barcelona in 1996 and sadly, I’ve never stepped back onto Spanish soil. It was AGONY trying to describe what I *could* eat (because, really, it’s a lot as I eat egg and cheese) and every single service person wanted to kill me. I found southern Germany challenging too, but Berlin stepped in to save me on that particular trip.

  • I studied abroad in Spain in 2005, and while there were many delicious meals, the only vegetable I remember is gazpacho. Which, yuck. Meat and wine are definitely Spain’s strong suits.

  • Hagar ter Kuile

    Interesting culture differences, vegetarian in the Netherlands where I live also often means you do eat fish. I think the idea being the fish had (presumably) a nice free life beforehand while the pigs and cows don’t? The worst country I’ve been in for vegetarians was Poland. The waiters treated the vegetarians in our group like freaks and we once even had the cook come out and yell at them why they don’t like his meat. Before anyone Polish yells at me: I love Poland and not being vegetarian I love the food (mmm meat dumplings) 🙂

  • Irene

    ‘It’s absolute bullshit, and really annoying for tourists, but y’all are like, “FUCK IT! It’s 1pm. Let’s eat paella for 3 hours.”’ This comment says a lot. You seem not to have any idea about Spain and I found your tone quite rude and offensive. If you are travelling to a country, you should learn beforehand about it. It’s true Spain has no vegetarian/vegan tradition, but man, there are SO MANY dishes you can eat! I can’t believe he couldn’t find anything. I come from the ‘ham’ region of Extremadura, and even there, people are more than happy to adapt dishes to your liking and prepare something that isn’t on the menu. But seriously, there are hundreds of vegetarian dishes in Spain (Spanish, not the foreign dishes you mentioned), from soups, to salads, to main courses.
    Here’s just a short list of things your beloved can order next time you go to Spain:
    -Parrillada de verduras
    -Espinacas con garbanzos
    -Berenjenas con miel
    -Paella de verduras
    -Pimientos rellenos
    -Ensalada de judías verdes
    -Huevos rellenos
    -Sopa de verduras
    -Menestra de verduras
    -Sopa de tomate
    -Sopa de lentejas
    -Potaje de alubias con verduras
    -Crema de calabacín
    -Arroz cremoso con boletus


  • I spent a weekend in Madrid last spring with a vegetarian friend, and we had a fairly difficult time trying to find a place where she could actually eat something other than bread with tomatoes. Granted, we didn’t really have much time to spend researching vegetarian-friendly places or travelling across the city for them (a flight disaster shaved a day and a half off of what was supposed to be a long weekend), but since we live in Italy and have no problem wandering into any random restaurant and finding at least an antipasto, a plate of pasta and a selection of side dishes that are totally vegetarian, we had (naively) assumed that Spain would be no different in that respect. We ended up reading the menus of upwards of twenty restaurants before finding a sauteed mushroom dish that sounded vegetarian. Before ordering, we confirmed with the server: “This is totally vegetarian, right? No meat?” “Yes!” When the dish was slid onto the table in front of us, it was showered, liberally, in tiny, impossible-to-pick-off bits of ham. Delicious for me, tragic and starvation-inducing for her. (She survived the rest of the weekend on those Spanish tortillas, which are good only if you don’t need to eat about ten of them.)

  • JaimeLobo

    Apparently Barcelona was not part of your trip.

    We are both vegetarian and spent the better part of a week there last summer and had no trouble find a wide assortment of vegetarian meals. Several complete vegetarian restaurant in the Gothic Quarter/Ciutat Vella.

  • Brooklyn

    Literally the reason I have not gone to Spain – I worry about starvation!
    Why must the country look so gorgeous?!

  • Very interesting read. I too am a vegan. In America, though, I have experienced, vegetarian means pasta filled with mushrooms swimming in full fatty cream. There is nothing vegetable about it. If I experienced this, I would go to a market, buy some vegetables and give the restaurant to cook for me with some nuts. I’m sure they would have done it or one could define the veggies you want and ask them to saute. Or go off the menu, ask them what veggies they have and self define the entre I want..

  • Send him over to Berlin; we’ll take care of him. Most veggie- and vegan-friendly city in Europe as far as I’m concerned (ignore the meat-heavy lifestyle of the southern Germans).

  • Poor Clayton, I can see his sad, hungry eyes. I felt the same in Oslo. Spain, at least, has plenty of fruits and veggies, and Oslo has plenty of expensive nothing. So everything is relative

  • This is everything I needed in my life to feel validated. Although slightly smaller than yourself at 5’4 and 110 lbs, my appetite rivals a bear at the end of hibernation or at the very least, a 6 foot starving Canadian man. Similarly, I am a vegetarian and get fish in my food allllll the time, despite being “vegetarian” not “pescatarian.” In Thailand I finally learned that “vegetarian pad thai” really means “pad thai with shrimp” and so I love the Princess Bride gif you put in for good measure!

  • I’m not vegetarian but the best meal I had in Florida was at a vegan restaurant. Maybe the separatists of Catalonia are making a political statement with meat-free meals!

  • I totally understand this plight! I lived in Madrid, Spain for a year and a half, and though it took a while, I found some great vegetarian options. However, knowing how hard that was at first, I can only imagine that how difficult finding vegan food would be.

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