Welcoming Back the Grey

It may have been brief, but writing this mini blog has been a productive exercise for me:  it has become clear that; the idealism which led me to becoming Vegetarian in the first place is no longer a good enough reason, being veggie is a social-justice issue and so is much more than a concern for animal welfare, my Vegetarianism is a key pillar of how I see myself and (I think) how others see me, my meat-free diet is more likely to be a net contributor to my well-being and is far from detrimental to my health, and that my senses are hugely implicated in this discussion even though they are unfortunately unable to agree on it. Now, in this final blog, the nitty-gritty; some practicalities. As alluded to in my first post, being vegetarian is not something you’d do for fun: it can be a hassle.

It can sometimes feel like Vegetarianism requires a road map, not least because dead animals can turn up in some unexpected places. Most sweets contain gelatine, but so do many medicines and vitamin supplements. Animal fats are frighteningly ubiquitous; they can be found in both fruit pies and dryer sheets for example. Some cheeses and wines still use rennet in their manufacture, toothpaste may contain bone meal, bar soap is likely to contain tallow and so on. Not least of course, leather is widely used, and in products like shoes and belts, can be a challenge to avoid. Having said this, once you know the map, avoiding animal by-products in your shopping does become more doable.

Additionally there’s the minefield of ‘meat-alternatives’; seitan, tofu, Quorn, soya, textured vegetable protein and the like. I have to say, although I can very easily see why these things might hold as much appeal as chewing a tyre, I do generally enjoy them, if nothing else they are a great blank canvas for the vegetables that I love so much. They are good sources of protein and are very low in fat, but are they healthy? I strongly suspect that they are a major contributor to my digestive issues. It struck me only recently that the organic and wholefoods that I so enjoy treating my body to are probably being somewhat laughed at by these products which; though often sold on the same shelves, are actually almost certainly as processed and ‘unnatural’ (even genetically modified) as anything else one might consume. I have to say though, that I need to re-evaluate my vision of natural foods. It seems that here too, I’m searching for an unrealistic ideal. Salad washed in chlorine is certainly not natural, vitamin supplements do not grow on trees, so why would bean curd be any less natural? Where to draw the line? Ultimately however, these are not the only alternatives to meat protein; I reckon that vegetables, nuts, pulses and dairy could easily provide me with my daily requirements.

Unfortunately, cutting out meat replacements would ultimately only serve to narrow my diet yet further, and already I’m bored with what I eat! One of those classic ‘oh you’re vegetarian!’ questions that people will incessantly ask is: ‘if you don’t eat meat, what DO you eat?’ Clearly this is an ignorant question. I would strongly suggest that most vegetarians have a more varied diet than is average for the population. I say this as I’m keen to avoid perpetuating the myth that Vegetarians must inevitably base their diet around lettuce. However, I’m human, and like all of us we get bored with our food. We get into routines, we have stock favourites that we always cook, we go to the same shops for lunch, etc. Here in Slovenia, I face the additional hurdle of having very limited access to some of the stock products that I take for granted at home. Slovenia is no backwater, it’s just different. Maybe I just need to be more inventive? Maybe I need to allocate more time to cooking properly? Maybe I need to be more open to new food stuffs. Undoubtedly this final thought was additional impetus for re-evaluating my relationship with meat.

Choosing food to eat as a veggie can be further complicated by price. In the supermarket, Vegetarians often have to pay more to maintain a balanced diet than meat-eaters need to, and in restaurants, meals may be cheaper than the meat dishes, but you will absolutely be paying over the odds for what is often the meat dish without the meat. And then there’s take-out food; ‘the ladle you just used, did you use it for the meat soup as well?’, ‘the fat you just fried the chips in, is that animal fat?’, ‘the pizza slice wasn’t next to the meaty one was it?’ I know I know, these things sounds hideously pedantic, but for many a year they mattered to me, deeply. More recently I realised that life is too short!  It’s slightly worrisome to realise that I held a grudge against myself for over 10 years about a meat sausage roll that I consumed by mistake at a party once. Shocker! No wonder I had chronic fatigue! I’m pleased to say that I’ve come along way. It does illuminate however, the strength of feeling that existed, and indeed still exists, about this issue for me.

Having safely navigated all these little gremlins, being veggie may also cause untold havoc when hosting, or more keenly, when being hosted. Of course I don’t want to assume friends and family will just fit into my dietary needs, but ultimately, this ends up being exactly what has to happen. Initially of course this is uncomfortable and you feel guilty, but then a new harmony happens and all is well, until the next time you visit someone for the first time. Indeed this can be a most serious concern when living in countries where meat is still a treat and is considered the only appropriate meal for ‘special’ guests. To my continued disquiet I have been in a handful of situations in my time in which I have turned down meals from gracious hosts that could potentially have been hugely offended purely on the basis that they contained meat.

Being abroad of course creates other issues for Vegetarians, the UK being so veggie-friendly, it is easy to forget that there are numerous cultures in which vegetarians are not only misunderstood, but seen as downright odd: Spain, Argentina, Mongolia and France being the most pertinent examples. To what extent should the idiom: ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ be taken to heart. I’m inclined to think that just because I arrive in Argentina, the home of the steak, shouldn’t mean that I should be obliged to consume one, however I should also not expect that the locals will easily embrace my dietary needs. Should I ever get to Argentina, not doubt I’ll very quickly get extremely fed up with the inevitable cheese sandwich that generally populates my diet when travelling in such countries.

Last weekend I was in Sarajevo where the celebrated must-have cuisine is ćevapčići. This is basically mini sausages (made with actual meat by all accounts) served with a light bread. Not revolutionary, but apparently amazing. I’ve always tried to be someone who gives it a go, will try things out, is up for new experiences, but of course with food I’m currently hugely restricted. I strongly suspect that had I tried ćevapčići I wouldn’t actually have liked it, but I can’t know this, I would have liked to try for myself. I think one of the greatest frustrations I have with my diet is that I might be missing out on something. Whether I am or not is hardly the point, the idea that I’m restricting myself in any area of my life, when the world is so full of possibility, is really uncomfortable and is therefore a strong push towards me letting down my guard to meat, even if only fleetingly. Thankfully, I was spared cheese sandwiches in Bosnia, but next time I may not be so lucky.

So, these are just some of the practicalities which, quite frankly, I could do without. But it’s not all unpleasant. I lay out these issues purely to remind myself of what I have normalised. However real they remain, these thoughts are no longer problematic; they’re just how it is, if a little frustrating occasionally. I imagine carnivores rarely think about food in quite the same way. Maybe this is the reason why veggies face endless inquisition about their choices. I’ve made reference a couple of times to the expectation that Vegetarians have to justify their diet and the kind of ‘dumb questions’ we’re asked in the process. These are expertly and humorously explored in more detail by kerryg in this article http://kerryg.hubpages.com/hub/The-Dumbest-Things-People-Say-To-Vegetarians-and-Vegans so I strongly recommend you checking it out if you’re interested. I particularly enjoy the idea of ‘Defensive Omnivore Bingo’ – most amusing.

What I notice by laying these niggles out to bare is that they all disappear if I allow myself a little flexibility. Shocking as it may be, during my studies of Mathematics, I actually learnt some pretty useful things. Only two years ago I was introduced to the ideas of Absolutism and Falliblism. These are actually schools of thought and the details are slightly unpalatable, but the idea that Mathematics didn’t have to be absolute; that something is only true because someone else said it was and that there can be more than one truth was extremely exciting to me. This idea of fallibilism fits beautifully here I reckon. I’m coming to a very different view of Vegetarianism than I began with. I was very much about a set of strict mythical rules which governed what it was to Vegetarian and actually to my shame, I have been quite disparaging towards those who only partly adhered to them. Yet I’m coming out the other end with a much softer view. Vegetarianism shouldn’t have to be about being perfect; it’s about doing less harm. The way our food is created today means that there is no perfectly cruelty-free /ecologically-sustainable diet (with the possible exception of complete self-sufficiency) – it seems that dairy cows are fed with fishmeal for example and so it could be argued that indirectly I contribute to the depletion of fish stocks through my consumption of cheese and milk. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the lower you eat on the food chain, the less total harm you’re racking up. Fallibilism has added the grey back into my formerly black and white world and so any contribution towards my goal of ‘less harm’ is a great thing. Phew!

Having, properly reconsidered my Vegetarianism during the course of writing this blog, I feel stronger than ever that I will to continue to consider my food intake carefully for its impact on not only myself, but also the biomass of this planet. The ‘I’m-helpless-and-I-don’t-rule-the-world-so-all-is-lost’ argument doesn’t wash with me. This however, doesn’t mean that my diet will be indefinitely meat-free in its entirety. I need to continue living, loving and enjoying, not least when it comes to food. So if once in a blue moon I feel a real urge to eat some meat, I hope I can allow myself and without any resultant guilt that I’ve somehow debased my character. Time will tell whether I can justify still referring to myself as a Vegetarian, but I think I’ll certainly be dropping the capitalisation. Viva vegetarianism!