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!

A Sensual Exploration

In recent weeks, I’ve been coming to the end of the semester at work and thus have been starting to run low on material for my conversation classes.  After a particularly olfactory journey to work one morning, inspiration struck me, ensuring that a large number of recent lessons have explored the nether regions of my learners’ senses; not just smell, but the whole gamut. It only seems fair then that I should reciprocate and lay my senses equally bare for exploration. This I intend to do now, in a hopefully much more focused look at how I experience my vegetarianism on a day-to-day basis.

As we’re talking about food here, it only seems right to start by looking at taste. Not that I believe for one moment that this is in anyway more essential to the discussion, just that I need to start somewhere. So let’s be clear; I DO like the taste of meat, well, I certainly used to 17 years, 4 months and 9 days ago. I say this, but it strikes me that it’s an extremely unsophisticated statement to make. People do ask; ‘do you not like meat then?’  as if ‘meat’ had a single homogenous taste. I imagine there are unifying characteristics about the tastes of all meats, though quite clearly I’m the last person who should be purporting such a suggestion. Even so, my limited experience strongly suggests that liking one meat need not suggest you like all others, in the same way that liking parsnip is rather obviously not linked to your propensity to enjoy fennel. I guess the statement ‘I like the taste of meat’ is however a pretty fair one for me. At the time I stopped eating meat, I had yet to really explore the full depth of the joys that carnivorous living might offer. Financial restrictions dictated the quality of meat available to me, the idea of free range and organic meat was in its infancy and generally my understanding of food was naïve to say the least. Thus, a broad sweeping statement about the tastes I enjoyed at the time seems somewhat appropriate.  I remember liking meat, I don’t remember much about which meats I liked. More importantly for me, I really can’t conjure up the taste of any meat at all in my mind. It seems, for me at least that my taste buds aren’t quite as intimate with my memory as my nose is for example. Rather than memories of tastes, I have memories of feelings that eating meat created. How reliable such memories are however, I suggest is pretty questionable. I remember the pleasure of sucking the salty fat from freshly fried bacon in the morning. I remember the pleasing combination of gravy seeping through a roasted chicken breast and I remember the pure animal chew of working my way through a mammoth steak sandwich during my visit to my godfather in the States. Indeed the latter is a time I think of often as it is my abiding memory of eating meat as well as being one of my few remaining memories of really enjoying it.

I wonder whether I am now trying to convince myself that I enjoy the taste of meat because I’m fed up of depriving myself of it; ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome? However wonderful our senses are, I suspect they are easily tricked.  Take Beer, Coffee, Olives and Marmite for example. In Stuart’s world, these foods form their own food group: foods that essentially taste hideous, but, through perseverance, depending on your determination to do so, can soon become delectably heaven-sent i.e. by tricking the senses. Another example is the group of foods that smell tantalisingly wonderful, only to let you down with a rather insipid dearth of taste. This group includes Hulahoops, tangerines, fruit teas and white asparagus. So you see, I reckon all is not as it seems in the world of senses and hence my fear of following my nose, so to speak.

Ok, so to some extent, I like the taste of some meat or other, but what about fish? Here, my road map gets ever more blurred and patchy. Even pre-veggie I refused to eat fish. I must at some point have eaten some fish and decided pretty adamantly that it wasn’t for me, but I have no recollection of it. I’m reminded that the fish I had was bony, thus annoying me senseless, and, coupling with the violent smell of tinned fish, was more than enough to turn this asinine soul into a seafood hater for life. I say ‘seafood’ because despite never eating anything else that constitutes seafood, not even on a single occasion, I managed quite categorically to lump the lot into my newly formed food group of evil never-to-be-touched foods. Ok, yes, now I’m a little more rational about… well about everything I like to think, but still I can’t even imagine eating anything that constitutes seafood. I do have a perverse fascination with what these things taste like however, it’s odd to have a whole spectrum of possibility shut off from you, but ultimately, I’m still not drawn, not even strangely, and I believe this has much more to do with my sense of smell than my increasingly adventurous taste buds.

Let’s face it, cooking meat smells rank! Indeed, funnily enough, it smells dead.  As I say, my olfactory memory is far more resilient than that of taste and so I DO remember disliking this smell from way back. There were of course exceptions; roast chicken and bacon I believe were particularly happy smells, but generally the smell of meat cooking is an unacceptable assault; especially lamb! He says incidentally. Ok, ok, I’m aware that this is my rather freak personal opinion. Of course, it’s a personal thing, but what I’ve realised is that, for some reason, I personally have a very strong reaction to smell. Maybe it’s because, like hearing, it’s such a second-hand sense that cannot be ‘turned off’? Maybe it’s because all of us have strong reactions to smell? Regardless, it is when I smell meat or fish that I am most assured about my Vegetarianism, and it is when I imagine the texture of it in my mouth that I drool and most impugn my dietary decisions.

I crave chewing. Really! Who knew that such a simple function could bring such pleasure, but deprive yourself of it, and all of sudden the joy of chewing becomes palpable. There really are no true alternatives to meat in terms of texture. Sure you can manufacture synthetic foods which pretty much taste like meat, indeed some even look reasonably similar, but nothing comes close to the texture; on this, I’m firm. Yes, you can chew French stick for example, or textured vegetable protein (should you be so inclined!) or even chewing gum, but however loathed I am to admit it, I can’t get away from the fact that I miss that ripping against my back teeth. I also remind myself that there’s something sensually pleasing about the contrast of textures present in a meat-and-two-veg dinner. Quorn is of course pleasing in many ways, however in the texture of meat lies the one sensual carnivorous experience that really cannot be replicated elsewhere; a true loss.

As I’m lucky enough not to live next to an abattoir and thus am spared the hell-bent squealing of porcine death row, there is actually little in my life that links my hearing to being Vegetarian. My eyes however are quite another story. Those who read my previous blog from India will know of my distress at the daily gauntlet thrown to me by the bloody streets of Bakrahat Road; bringing butchery to the people – quite a strapline! They do say that you should only eat meat if you’re prepared to kill it. Who ‘they’ are I don’t know and I find no reason to agree with this sentiment whatsoever, though I do empathise with it. However, for me it is important to be reminded that meat is dead animal. If you’re going to eat meat, it should certainly be conscious, pretending it’s something else seems odd to me. I however, regularly find myself trying to deny the reality of what is on people’s plates; it’s how I cope. I have no real issue with watching people consuming meat (once its cooked and the smell has dissipated!), though I do need to deny that it’s a dead thing. Hence my aversion to watching people eat meat off of the bone, something which makes denying the food’s past pretty tricky. Given this squeamishness, it seems unsurprising that I choose not to eat meat myself, for this reason alone.

Of course there is however, another side to the story. My eyes do not only see the blood and bones, they also see the perfectly grilled juicy steak that falls so beautifully from the fork. I was sat with my lovely mates in a Gostilna the other day tucking in to my over-salted plate of vegetables (served only with a tiny bit of polenta) whilst watching my three friends devour some quite divine looking wild boar steaks (which incidentally, and inevitably, cost just one Euro more than my insipid vegetables). Yes, I was tempted, very. Though no doubt I would only have been disappointed, especially as I’m told it wasn’t so special anyway. But the point is that it looked good. I see that. Certainly if you compare on face value, meat dishes hold a huge attraction to me. It’s clearly not all about face value however, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to waffle on at such length in this blog, but when temptation calls, it’s immediate, and in that moment, it’s extraordinarily hard to resist.

I’m open to the argument that in fact we are creatures with six senses, not five. Clearly human intuition is made up of a set of learned responses from a combination of the other five senses, but I’m keen on the idea that there is some bigger sense we have that is not so easy to explain. Why indeed must we feel the need to explain everything? Maybe there is something bigger that drives my need/desire/commitment to being veggie? But maybe not. It seems my senses can’t agree on how I feel about eating meat so why on Earth should the little guys who run my consciousness.