The Dish: Veggie Burger Smackdown

by Erica Moody

First Congressional Veggie Burger Smackdown challenges annual Hot Dog Lunch.


Dr. Neal Barnard, Ellen Kassoff, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Todd Grey, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Rep. Steven Cohen (Photo by Tim Barker)

Hungry Hill staffers faced a difficult decision last Wednesday – where to go for lunch? For the first time in recent memory, the North American Meat Institute’s Annual Hot Dog Lunch had a worthy competitor, and one with some notable spokespeople. The Congressional Veggie Burger Smackdown filled a room in Rayburn with meatless treats and the earnest words of plant-based diet devotees.

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The “Florida” FLOTUS burger (Photo by Erica Moody)

For the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Veggie Caucus, scheduling the inaugural vegetarian lunch at same time as the hot dog event was no coincidence. Physicians Committee president Dr. Neal Barnard had once faced off with Meat Institute president Janet Riley on an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and was geared up for some healthy competition.

Renowned Washington chef Todd Gray, owner of Equinox restaurant, was brought in to create four new sauces for his vegan FLOTUS burger (a mix of mushrooms, black beans and quinoa) to honor state-friendly fruit and vegetables of four vegetarian members of Congress: Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Rep. Ted Deutch (Fla.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.).

Attendees received four FLOTUS sliders—one with each sauce—and voted on their favorite topping. New Jersey got the most votes, with its slow-cooked tomato chutney surprisingly beating out the delicious caramelized black pepper pineapple sauce of the Hawaii burger. As a reward, New Jersey received nutrition education materials for its public K-12 students.

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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Photo by Erica Moody)

We spoke with lifelong vegetarian Tulsi Gabbard about maintaining a vegetarian lifestyle.

“There are so many misperceptions about what a vegetarian diet looks like, tastes like, the impact that it has on our bodies…gatherings like these really do a lot to dispel those misperceptions, bringing folks out to taste some really delicious plant-based vegetarian burgers that normally they might not think about or be exposed to,” Gabbard told Washington Life. “People moving towards a plant-based, vegetarian diet is an important step in order to really make a dent in the environmental challenges that we face in our world.”

To those who say vegetarian diets lead to nutrient deficiency, Gabbard says, “I’ve been vegetarian my whole life, have been blessed with a very healthy life, never had any medical issues and was a vegetarian in Hawaii and around the world in different places that I lived – from spending thirteen years in the Army National Guard…and some pretty austere environments, with training and deployed to the Middle East and was able to successfully maintain this diet.”


FLOTUS burgers with state-inspired sauces (Photo by Tim Barker)

Veggie Caucus founder Adam Sarvana spoke about his efforts and optimism since launching two years ago.

“We have been on this ongoing quest to get at least one hot option a day in the cafeteria, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask,” Sarvana said, adding that, with Sodexo taking over as contractor, “This is a new opportunity…to show everyone how popular this kind of event is, that there’s obviously a market for this kind of food once a day, or once a week for that matter.”

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