Making A Meal Out Of Meat. Or Not.
‘Does chicken count?’ ‘But the animals have been killed already.’ ‘Have you ever tried beef – I just know you’d love it?’
Those questions, and many more besides, will be painfully familiar to any long-suffering vegetarian. It may be 2015, and we may be crazy about kale, content to eat quinoa and constantly on the look-out for the next food fad, but eschewing meat remains strangely controversial. No matter that chefs from Yotam Ottolenghi to Ella Woodward are famous for recipe books brimming with tasty ideas for non-carnivores, rejecting a lamb chop or a ham sandwich in favour of a hummus wrap still marks you out as ‘fussy’.
Having been a vegetarian for nearly ten years now, I can honestly say I’ve never looked back. In truth, I’m not a full veggie – nothing will come between me and a good piece of salmon, and I’ve got a real penchant for sushi – but it’s the meat-free thing that gets people’s goat.
At dinner parties, I am inundated with questions about why I chose this unorthodox lifestyle (simple, I don’t like the taste or texture of meat); how I get my protein (ever heard of eggs? Or pulses?), and whether I do genuinely like quorn (yes, really, I think it’s delicious). The worst are the naysayers who try to convert me; having eaten meat for 18 years before giving it up, believe me, I’ve tried. And no, your secret recipe for Shepherd’s Pie isn’t going to change my mind.
I’m no animal rights champion; as it happens, I’m terrified of dogs and only slightly less reluctant to go near a cat. Nor am I one of those environmental champions who’d kill for a hotdog but frets about the state of the planet. Of course, I respect those who choose to go meat-free on that basis, just as I have no issue with those who go the whole carnivorous hog. I won’t cook meat, to my husband’s dismay, but I’ll calmly eat my Linda McCartney burger beside him as he munches on the real deal. On occasion, I’ll even go with him to the butchers (holding my nose, obviously).
Unfortunately, this tolerance only seems to go one way. I don’t judge meat eaters, but boy do they judge me. I’m expected to smile pleasantly when a friend turns up for a dinner party claiming to be on a gluten-free kick, or ‘off dairy’ – because these days, fussiness has been repackaged as intolerance and we can’t criticise it – but plenty of people still treat a meatless meal as a novelty and a vegetarian as an oddity. It’s as if they can’t imagine being sated without animal flesh on their plate. As a nation, we’re increasingly politically correct – except when it comes to narrow-mindedness against those who prefer tofu to turkey.
Abroad, it’s a mixed bag, and there have been trips where I’ve survived on a diet of chips, chips and more chips. France is, unsurprisingly, a nightmare for vegetarians; every meal still comes with a hidden ingredient, usually of the flesh variety, and waiters feign shock if you dare suggest that a dish might not be veggie-friendly. In Brazil, I fought (and lost) a battle to explain to the courteous tour organiser that the red creatures in the rice meant I would have to steer clear.
Elsewhere, it’s easier; Italy’s great because some of the best dishes are vegetable-focused, and India was a dream because as a country where vegetarianism is frequently the norm, everything is labelled.
I know I’m fussy. I know that being a vegetarian is a hassle for a host (although, seriously, don’t make me a special dish; I’d much rather just eat the sides, especially if you were planning on a nut roast). But what I will never understand is why so many people treat it as a personal slur, as if by my not eating meat, I’m somehow passing judgement on them.
After all, it’s hardly an alternative lifestyle. Estimates say there are 1.2 million of us in the UK. So rather than treating me as some obscure species (although not one you want to serve medium rare with potatoes) how about a little less judgement? If I’m not eating it, there’s all the more meat on the table for you.