I guess I'm not American: Eating out as an ethical eater

Last night, I entered a vegan's hell: A barbeque restaurant. Lauded as one of Fairfield County's best "BBQ's," I broke out into a cold sweat when I heading into the meat-lover's paradise. I know, I know, "Pick your battles, Alex." I've expressed my outrage over bad vegetarian food or being treated as a second-class citizen at fine - cough - dining establishments. As I mocked the homemade, high-fructose corn syrup (hmm, I didn't know this was made in Connecticut!)-laden barbeque sauce, I realized: How do or can I ignore food ethics when eating out in self-described "American" eateries, without coming across as a food snob?

Obviously, if it had been my choice - and I was paying the bill - I wouldn't have eaten at this restaurant that shall not be named. The gut-busting, 1/2-lb beef burger piled with five cheeses and fried onions isn't my ideal meal. Instead, I perused the menu and the only vegetarian options: a spinach dip - not vegan, a veggie burger and an asian chop salad. The menu wasn't seasonal and local as far as I could tell, and, I guess if it hadn't been so cold outside and I wasn't with my family, I would've stormed out. (Not really, but it makes for a good story.)

I'm a foodie. Sure, it's a pretentious label often associated with rich, wine-drinking white people who say things like "fabulous," but I really love food and knowing a lot about the edible system. How can I be OK with eating at a place that serves factory farm meat, salty "Asian" dressing and GM produce? Does this make me un-American for wanting to know where my food comes from? I really, really, really try not to dampen the mood when I'm eating with other people, and I think I did a pretty good job of holding it together when I read the menu, but how should people like me feel when aren't wanted at a restaurant?

I don't want to settle for the pre-made veggie burger or the iceberg, "without creamy bleu cheese dressing" salad. Is this as far as the American vegetarian options go? What happens if you don't feel comfortable eating what's on the menu? The obvious answer is this: Don't eat at the restaurant. Or, risk being that dreadful patron who pesters the waiter until their food needs are met.

Yes, but what if you can't leave? Not held hostage, but, well, you have to eat at that chosen restaurant. Is it OK to ask the waiter if he or she knows where the meat comes from, where the produce originates or if it is organic? Does the menu have to be specially labeled?

Conversely, why should people just accept bad food as the norm? I don't ever want to give off the perception that I'm better or smarter than anyone else, or, as my brother joked, can't eat "common food." I'm not looking to vilify my waiter (even though I could have for being high and still coming to work, but that's another story), but I'm wondering if there is any way to avoid being a food snob.

Maybe it's not about me settling, but people of all different diets should ask restaurants for better food, and, more important, clearer labeling on menus. I've grappled with these questions and don't have an answer, except to say that the consumer definitely has a right to know where their food comes from and "American food" needs a broader definition.