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.