The Occidental Vegan

"Irony regards every simple truth as a challenge."

                                                          -- Mason Cooley

I can’t decide whether it’s the Biggest Irony since the Dawn of Man (my caps) or merely an incidental coincidence.

When it opened in 1873, the Occidental at 2nd & Main in downtown Wichita, Kansas was a hotel for cattle barons, livestock traders and cowboys. 140 years later, it’s a retrofitted office building.

In 2012, my penny loafers make the stairs creak and historical photos on hallway walls are testament to the building’s heritage. I’m a daydream away from checking my six-shooter at the front desk, pardner.

Today, the Occidental Building houses the Kansas Leadership Center, a lawyer or two and a handful of other office-bound concerns.

I’m sure we all value the talking point:

“Built in Wichita’s Cowtown heyday, it’s the oldest working office building in the city…”

There’s a restaurant space smack in the middle of the Occidental that one day very soon will be filled. I can see (and hear) the progress.

The Garden Grill will feature entirely vegan fare.

Let that sink in for a minute.

In the heart of the most visible structural reminder of Wichita’s livestock legacy, there’ll be no petite tenders, flatirons or steak salads.

Whether the owner/chef of the new restaurant is aware of the irony is not the point.

This is the point: If you were to sit me down and ask me to dream up a story to illustrate the tangible diversity of 21st century Kansas culture – there’s no way I could do better than a vegan restaurant in a building that symbolizes Cowtown.

Those latter day livestock deals were premised on one thing – demand for beef. Wichita exists because 19th century American families wanted a pot roast for Sunday dinner.

I will assume the vegan chef/owner has a business plan showing high demand for lunchtime vegan offerings among us 8 to 5ers in downtown Doodah.

It would not surprise me in the least. There’s an entire generation of Kansans for whom wellness-centric living translates to chicken instead of beef, fish instead of pork. And very often, grains, fruit and veggies instead of anything that comes from an animal.

If the vegan chef is talented and smart enough to tap into that trend to earn a living, more power to him. Anyone with the courage to take a risk and shoot for a dream deserves admiration and respect. He’s got mine. I hope Wichitans flock to the Garden Grill to enjoy vegan fare in the same exact physical space where the cattle deals that helped define Kansas were made.

But while they’re in the Occidental, I also hope they’ll take a little time to learn about its history and the Kansas culture from which it sprang.

I don't yet know whether I’ll dine at the Garden Grill. Eleven years telling the stories of family farmers and ranchers are still pretty close to the surface. 

So there’s that.

Plus, I really like my cheeseburgers, thank you very much.

As rapidly as our society is changing, there’s bound to be an irony or two that we’ll miss. But when we do recognize them, let’s lift them up and give people a chance to respect the other guy. 

And in this case, appreciate the simple truth about our history.