9 May 2011

The chicken on the desert island

I'm a vegetarian, and have been so for about 20 years. There isn't a question I haven't heard; there isn't a ‘hilarious‘ quip that hasn't been rolled out already.

I don't mind talking about it sometimes, and certainly don't mind friendly curiosity. The fact that I'm vegetarian sometimes provokes more than curiosity though – for some reason, it makes people a bit defensive, as though I'm judging them, or they can be downright aggressive in challenging me, as though I'm being offensive.

I even ended up in an (admittedly alcohol-fuelled – it was at a wedding) outright, vehement, sweary argument once with a chef that resulted in my storming from the room. A lot of chefs really hate vegetarians, by the way, in my experience, but maybe that's because it's harder to be creative with a vegetarian dish.

It's never a subject I raise myself. I'm not a proselytiser. I'm not trying to convert anyone to a cause. Of course I'd be pleased if more people were vegetarian, or at least made ethical choices about their food and ate less processed, intensively produced meat than they do. But it's your shout what you eat, just as it's mine about what I eat.

It's a personal choice I've made, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me sometimes that I'm cornered and challenged on it when I just want to enjoy my meal.

For the sake of simplicity, I've prepared this handy Q & A sheet which I may hand out in future when people want to spoil my dinner with an interrogation.

Please bear in mind I'm not preaching. These are all questions I'm often asked so I'm assuming curiosity.

Why did you become vegetarian? Was it for ethical reasons, or taste?

A little of both, and neither. My ex-husband was a vegetarian, and I hated preparing raw meat in any case, so I was eating very little except when out in a restaurant. I had an epiphany one day in that Mecca of finely produced meat, McDonald's, in Liverpool Street station. I bit into a burger, chewed on a particularly unpleasant piece of gristle, and decided then and there I never wanted to eat meat again. I must have been working up to that moment, either consciously or below the surface, but that was the moment the decision was made.

The other issues that I'm aware of now such as factory farming, the impact of meat production on the environment, health, etc, came in later, and reinforced my initial decision.

Don't you miss it? You must crave a bacon sandwich!

Nope. I genuinely never want to eat meat again, and have no cravings for it.

I'm told that bacon has been the downfall of many a person experimenting with vegetarianism, particularly in their student days. Occasionally the smell of barbecuing or roasting meat or frying bacon fleetingly seems attractive, because I grew up eating the stuff and it still has associations. But I'd never want to follow it through. I just don't want to eat animals.

Do you eat fish?

This is an ill-informed question, and a personal pet peeve. A fish is an animal, and eating it involves killing an animal. Vegetarians don't eat animals. It really is that simple.

People who describe themselves as vegetarians but then tuck into a fish dinner are on The List. Just so you know. Thanks to them, I get offered fish as the ‘vegetarian option’. If you don't want to eat red meat or poultry, then great – but you're not a vegetarian.

Do you eat eggs and dairy?

Yes, I do. If I'm honest, I wish I didn't, because these products still entail the slaughter of male chickens and cattle, who are surplus to requirements. It's one of the uncomfortable compromises I've made on vegetarianism, because a vegan diet would be the logical conclusion of the ethical grounds of my diet choices. I personally would find it difficult to go vegan for practical reasons, and also because I really like cheese. Some day, perhaps.

Nice shoes. Leather?

Another uncomfortable compromise. Yes, many of my shoes are leather. Good quality alternatives are difficult to find, and expensive. I try to avoid other leather accessories such as belts and bags, where possible and where I can find a good quality alternative.

I've been accused of hypocrisy because of the leather shoes. It's a fair call, and not one I can really argue against, except to show me anyone who hasn't had to compromise on something or other in their lives. I accept the accusation.

Humans are carnivores. We need meat to survive.

No. Humans are omnivores. One of the reasons that the human species is so successful is because we can adapt so well, and can extract nutrition from a wide range of sources.

I'm lucky to live in a country wealthy enough to offer a huge range of healthy alternatives to meat. I accept that if I were impoverished, or in a developing country, meat would be the fastest and most nutritional way to get protein. However, we really don't need as much protein as is consumed in the developed world anyway. I can easily get a balanced diet without meat. About the only vitamin that's tricky for a vegetarian to get from a non-meat source is B12, but that can be overcome with food choices and supplements.

But what about your health? Aren't vegetarians all pale weaklings?

Oh really? Come over here and say that. (Weakly waves feeble fists)

No, really, I am one of the halest, healthiest people I know. I rarely get so much as a cold. And look at this belly. I'm not going to waste away any time soon.

Mm, yummy, I've got some Haribo sweets and marshmallows! Want some?

No thanks. I avoid sweets and other products made with gelatine, or indeed any slaughter byproduct. This also applies to cheese made with rennet, and food or beauty products coloured red with carmine.

(Perusing menu) Do you mind if I order meat?

Of course I don't! I'm not trying to convert anyone. Eat what you like. I hate the smell of fish and seafood though, and can't bear it when it's served complete with a head, so I may quietly move to another seat.

Look! Over there! A chicken!
If you were on a deserted island with a chicken and you were starving to death, I'd bet you'd eat it! Gotcha!

Gotme! Given people have been driven to cannibalisation by starvation, I might just eat the chicken. Is this likely to happen, though? Really? It's not a worry that keeps me up at night. Should it?

POSTSCRIPT: For more information on vegetarianism, there are great resources on the Vegetarian Society website.


  1. Well said, Trish. I have sometimes considered vegetarianism, but am completely lacking in the self-control to actually completely give up meat. My concern is not so much about eating animals as it is about the way the animals are raised and treated. So I try to reduce the amount of meat that I eat and I buy meat from a local farm where I can see the cattle actually standing in a field and eating grass (as opposed to eating corn in a high density feed lot). Not an ideal compromise, and less morally pure than your compromise, but we do what we can, I suppose.

  2. I think that's a pretty good compromise. Factory farming is horrific. I think the most chilling phrase I've learned recently is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation - that's what they call factory farms in the US.

  3. I have found over the past few years that I eat Vegetarian options more and more, sure I eat lots of fish and much chicken, but I have swapped to Quorn for many chicken recipes and prefer indian vegetarian food! I don't think I'll ever be a vegetarian full blown but have to say I understand more about the lifestyle these days and enjoy the options that the food can be prepared so nicely

  4. Indian food is one of the best cuisines for a vegetarian since so many Hindus are vegetarian for religious regions. Luckily it's also one of my favourites because it's yummy. :-) Even for people who love meat, it can't do any harm to cut back.

    Not all vegetarians like Quorn or other meat substitutes - they don't see the point of it. I grew up on a meat and potatoes diet, though, and quite like the texture and bite of Quorn sometimes, especially at barbecues (when I often bring along my own disposable barbecue to cook my stuff separately - I don't want to taste the animal fat). For non veggies, it's a good low-fat substitute, even if you just go meat-free once a week. :)

  5. By 'religous regions' I did of course mean 'religious reasons'...

  6. I've never loved you more - you have pretty much summed up my life here!

  7. I have, at many points in my life, flirted with vegetarianism. Mostly for health reasons.

    Actually, "flirted" is something of an exaggeration. "Smiled at, blushed, then stared at my shoes feeling self-conscious" would be more accurate. But hey.

    Either way, I am mostly repulsed by factory-farmed meat, and so when purchasing meat I do tend to err towards the free-range/organic types. And the more local, the better.

    Of course, the hidden hypocrisy here is my oblivious purchase of products made with intensively-farmed meat by-products. Maybe I should start reading ingredients labels more carefully...

  8. @Dave - like I say, I think we all make compromises. Eating ethically is a moral minefield for anyone with a conscience these days, whether vegetarian or not. Byproducts get into the most surprising foods, and it's hard for most of us to avoid at times.

  9. I love this post! There's nothing worse than a whiny meat-eater who just won't let it go.

    Oh, and Haribo have started making a vegetarian range, to my eternal delight!

  10. Great news about the Haribo :-D

  11. Brilliant piece Trish. I am frequently embarrassed and disgusted by some of my fellow meat-eaters and the way they mock, bully and provoke vegetarians and vegans.

    One point I like to raise is that not everyone can do a vegetarian diet, even in the west. Poor people and people who have certain disabilities or chronic illnesses may find it impossible, and one might not be able to tell their reason just by looking. Some of us are unable to be healthy on a vegetarian diet just due to our metabolism. I tried for 2 full years- and years later discovered through the Internet that I was not the only one who can't handle it. I think this is sometimes the underlying reason why some people try and fail again and again- they castigate themselves for being "weak", when in fact their body is taking charge and making them eat what it can thrive on.

    I've been called cruel, disgusting, immoral and evil for eating meat; I've been compared to a baby-killer, a cannibal and a Nazi concentration camp guard. At best, people see me as "not ethical" (being "ethical" has replaced "good taste" as the contemporary middle class religion- but that's a whole blog post which I *will* write!).

    Years ago I responded to this by being very angry at vegetarians and vegans (which is most of my social circle). Now I can see that there are people who behave like arrogant idiots on both sides and I refuse to participate in this polarisation. I admire you for writing this Trish- it is a beacon of passion tempered by humour, maturity and reason.

  12. Thanks for your comments - yes, absolutely, there are those who can't sustain health on a vegetarian diet, and you're not the only one who I've heard of with similar problems.

    I'm frankly horrified by the remarks that have been directed at you. A little perspective wouldn't go amiss! As I've been saying, I don't expect everyone to adopt my diet to suit my own personal beliefs. People like that give all us veggies a bad name! It's possible to have passion and zeal for one's beliefs without treading on others'. The people who said these horrible, utterly disproportionate things to you have failed.

    People are more aware these days of where their food comes from, and that's a good thing. Even then, though, not everyone has the luxury of choice. Sadly, the factory-processed meat and animal products (often packaged as 'value' options) are cheaper, so for someone on a very constricted budget, the only option. Actually, the same goes for any food product, meat or otherwise.

    It's a very complex moral maze which is why I never judge others on their choices; all I ask is respect for mine. And I don't forget that I'm lucky to have the luxury to choose.

  13. I once was a vegetarian for taste and health reasons and I'm sure I will be again for ethical reasons, but I've stopped reading "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer, because it's hard enough to find anything without meat that my ultra-carnivorous daughter will eat, other than sugar! My compromise is the expensive, but ethically better one for now: Organic, free-range. I shop at organic farms where I can see(!) animals outside in the grass. By the way, when I was vegetarian, you were the one visitor we ever cooked meat for. How's that for ironic????

  14. My home cooking is entirely vegan, although I class myself as a vegetarian. I don't go out of my way to eat eggs and I don't drink milk, but cheese... sigh... cheese is my downfall.

    My shoes, belt, wallet, etc, all vegetarian. It's not that much extra work. But like you I wouldn't dream of trying to convert anyone. I'm too old for that nonsense now.

  15. Thanks for saying what we're all thinking!

    Being a vegetarian, vegan in the past and quickly heading that way again, I get so bored being challenged on my dietary habits. And even from time to time made fun of - I have difficulty in seeing the funny side of it. What's so amusing about not eating meat?

  16. 13 days ago I was frogmarched past a fantastic tapas restaurant in Amsterdam to another one my companions seemed keen on. Bearing in mind May is asparagus month in Holland and asparagus is one of the best tapas ingredients I was puzzled by the lack of asparagus on the menu. I had befriended a vegetarian so we both marched straight to the kitchen. Ravi - "do you have any vegetarian dishes" Chef - "yes we have fish". Me - "do you have any asparagus specials" Chef - "No". Hence I got pissed on red wine instead, fell on the back of my head onto concrete on the way home, got up again, slipped down a dike and ended up in A&E the following night thinking I had broken my neck.