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.

Musings about health & happiness… oh, and the odd reference to vegetables

In the past couple of weeks my body has enjoyed somewhat of a vernal reawakening. My hibernatory tendencies in Winter are comforting, they allow a period of stability and they ease my path through the relentless dark nights. They are however, certainly not good for my health; my mind needs more adventure, my body needs less chocolate! With the coming of Spring however, the longer brighter days are fuelling mind and body alike. Again, my pursuit of health feels like a viable venture. Clearly the winter is not without health-giving activities and joyful moments, but at this time of year, the idea of health is almost palpable, almost like we wear it like a badge; our eyes, smile, skin, stance, weight, mass, indeed our whole body reflects our health or at least our conception of it. It is then, probably unsurprising, that when thinking about where next to head on my journey de blog, I found myself asking questions about the link between my health status and my choice of diet. It is clearly important for me to believe that my sedulous pursuit of Vegetarianism need not result in negative health implications.

It’s easy to form opinion about the health impact of being veggie. Whether you’re of the ‘you’ll never get enough protein and iron’ persuasion or the ‘eating less fat and avoiding the hormones in animal-feed has to be good’ school of thought, the existence of a link between a vegetarian diet and health status is pretty self-evident. The nature of that link however is rather more up for interpretation… and misinterpretation. There is a wealth of research it seems, and, as is the way, it rather depends on who you are and what you want from your research as to what outcomes you discern. Thankfully, you’ll be pleased to read, I have no intention of trying to present here any kind of scientifically rigorous summation – sadly I’m ill-equipped for such lofty tasks and I’m unsure if this would be particularly informative at any rate. Instead, I intend to look at my feelings about, and experiences of, veggie health – after all, like every other facet of human life, health experience is almost entirely subjective; a personal construct.

When I use the word ‘health’ here, I of course mean it neutrally and don’t intend to imply good or bad health. Health is actually a spectrum and where you find yourself on it depends us much on your outlook as on your body or mind. Let me introduce you to Aaron. He may be familiar to some of you, but for everyone else, Aaron Antonovsky is a health theorist, and a bit of a dude I reckon, as far as you can be in such circles anyway. I introduce him because of how he’s revolutionised how I look at my health. He describes how the convention in our society is to see health as a given, we are, if all goes well, born with health, thus our challenge is to replenish it whenever it is depleted by  a broken leg, a headache, or asthma say. With this way of thinking however, we set ourselves up to fail in our pursuit of health. Nothing is perfect in this world. If we are aiming to maintain 100% health, whatever that may mean, where does that leave those with genetic conditions, those born without limbs, etc? It creates the idea that these people are in some way deficient. But also for the rest of us, we’re on to a loser from the get go as we fumble around our less than perfect world – hence always feeling awful about ourselves; that we didn’t go to the gym 4 times that week but only 3, that we ate that extra doughnut. Our Aaron though, clever as he is, envisages health as a salutogenic concept. In essence, this means that we are born not with 100% health, but with the potential for health. Health then is something we continually build and contribute towards rather than trying to make up for the loss of it.  Thus it’s a positive concept and allows us to feel good that we at least went to the gym those 3 times and that we ate a wonderful balanced meal as well as that doughnut.  In this way, there is space for everyone to work towards their own level of ideal health; the mythical 100% perfection benchmark having been removed.

Ok, that’s the heavy bit over! I really wanted to share this with you, not just ‘cos I love it, but also because it is through a salutogenic lens that I view my own health. Not least in terms of the impact of vegetarianism on my body and mind. It’s very possible that eating meat or fish could benefit me, but not eating them is not a loss to my health, rather eating more vegetables, pulses, grains and other wholefoods is a boon to my health. At this moment in my life, it’s not possible to honestly say that I feel especially healthy but as I say, there is a reawakening taking place, I’m on a path back towards well-being – not some 100% ideal of health, but enough; the point of happiness. On more days than not, I walk taller and smile broader. My eyes brighten, my skin softens, my digestion regulates and my heart lightens. None of this need necessarily be about the longer days of Spring as I suggest at the beginning of this blog, but it is certainly in large part about feeling better in myself, something that is facilitated by the longer days. Ok, so why do I make this point? I mean to illustrate that although the existence of a link between being veggie and an effect on our health status is a given, I believe that there are in fact more fundamental determinants of health over and above our diet, seasonal weather being just one, and as such, we need to put dietary choice in perspective.

As I’ve said, I’m not denying that human biology is important here, obviously, otherwise malnutrition wouldn’t so effectively decimate populations. However, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a relatively guaranteed food supply, I suggest that the nutritional content of our food is only half the story – (though this is no excuse for gorging on fish finger and tomato ketchup sandwiches!). Of course I wonder whether meat or fish would boost my vitality, or whether a dearth in some random mineral is doing untold damage for the future, but these are ultimately fruitless thoughts unless I intend to do something about it, and current evidence suggests that I’m doing pretty well thank you and so should really get on and enjoy my food rather than overanalysing it. My belief then, is that nutritional balance is essential to health, but no more so than psychological balance for example – not to mention political, financial and social sustainability which are not the subject of this blog. It is the combination of all of which that dictates out health status.

For me, mental well-being is number one: happiness = health. Over the past ten years, I’ve enjoyed opportunities to teach innumerable groups of people about the sociology of health. One of my favourite exercises is a very simple one; to rank determinants of health, first individually and then trying to achieve consensus as a group. Clearly there is no ‘answer’ to such an exercise, but the heightened passions and convictions that are exhibited in the resultant debate are illustrative of the subject’s complexity. If nothing else, what always manifests itself from this exercise is a new and broader definition of health. Poverty, poor housing, family breakdown, workplace stress and innumerable other factors become health issues; though what about happiness and self-esteem? My linking self-esteem and health here assumes as given, that mental and physical well-being are deeply and incomprehensibly linked such that it is rare to enjoy one without the other and vice versa. One of my favourite ever quotes, and one that I used a lot with the young people I taught last year is from author and activist, Gloria Steinem. She says that “self-esteem isn’t everything, it’s just that there’s nothing without it.” The woman rocks! Self-esteem can be pretty elusive for many people. Consequently, a great deal of strain is placed upon our efforts to maintain happiness, and thus also on our pursuit of health.

All of this brings me, somewhat clumsily, back to my health status and the suggestion that although my vegetarianism is a factor in my well-being, it is in fact probably only a minor one and moreover, it is more likely to be a positive factor than a negative one. I have, over the past 17 years, not always been well, but of course not. I’ve had 2 years of life-stifling chronic fatigue, 12 years of peptic angst, 9 months of depression and a range of minor physical gripes. My response to each and every ailment of the past 17 years has always involved an evaluation of whether the lack of meat in my diet has been the root cause; had I brought it on myself? This idea stems from our society’s view of what will be ‘the inevitable consequences’ of being vegetarian. But I know my food, I know how to balance my nutrition and I ensure that, give or take a wobbly moment or two, I do so. More fundamentally, I get ill because I’m human! Of course I get ill, indeed the list of ills I present above is probably most noteworthy for how short it is I would suggest. And of course being vegetarian is only one of a massive range of factors determining my health over the period. So why have I insisted on a religious examination of my diet and how I’m ‘depriving’ myself of vital nutrients? Note to self; eat and enjoy! Within reason of course, I imagine the joy will more than compensate for the odd ‘doughnut moment’.  So yes, there are times when I’m not as healthy as I am able to be and there are ailments that I’d rather be free from, but really, does anyone know anyone for whom this is not true?  I doubt strongly whether meat is the ameliorism I’m looking for. Rather, treating myself well and giving my ‘self’ some care may in fact be a far more worthy challenger to the rigours of my spasmodically enervating life. The personal spring clean continues!

A Personal Spring Clean

I met someone new the other day. We talked, rather, we chatted, garrulously; about the weather, about  Ljubljana, about travel, our work, our music collections and a ream of other stock items that people turn to in those initial exploratory first meetings.  As is the way in plutonic conversations such as these, our menu of topics very much scraped the top soil of emotion, staying well away from any roots.  It is this emotional safety that enabled me to speak freely. Before long however, the topic of my purportedly grass-like diet surfaced and immediately I clammed up; reluctant to expound in a single conversation, what it has taken me half of my life to explore. At this moment I realised for the first time just how much of a disjunction exists between the view that Vegetarianism with a capital ‘v’ is only about what someone eats on a daily basis, and the notion that it is in fact an essential facet of who that person is. The problem is of course, that no one could reasonably be expected to know whether I write Vegetarianism with a capital letter or not when I first meet them! Note to self; lay off the disapproving attitude when randoms ask about veggiedom.  I was being asked about what I ate, but the question I heard was, who are you? what makes you tick? My reluctance to answer such a well-meant question, and one which was intended to be simple, does little to ingratiate me I’m sure. Equally however, having responded with a suitably neutral, ‘because it just feels like a good thing to do’ or ‘yes, I eat eggs, everyone has to draw a line somewhere’, the stream of flummery that follows in reply about a long established curiosity with vegetarianism, the best friend they once had who was Vegetarian, or the fact that they rarely eat meat and ‘might as well be vegetarian’, is, I must say, also far from ingratiating. Asking someone about their Vegetarianism then, can be personal, extremely personal; a conversation about being Vegetarian requires much more willingness to be open and to reveal oneself than would normally be expected when meeting someone for the first time. It might be akin to asking how someone feels about being Gay? Or what their Black skin means to them? It’s about Identity. Clearly I’m not suggesting that responding to questions about being a veggie is quite as challenging as the afore-mentioned, not remotely; Vegetarianism is not generally stigmatised, pitied, feared or subject to extremes of oppression or aggression, rather, I just want to make the parallel for myself to illustrate why I find the question ‘why are you Vegetarian?’ so hard to answer.

So, if I’m talking about Identity and questioning my vegetarianism, then ultimately I’m talking about changing my identity to some extent – sounds dramatic, but it’s not. Identity is fluid, our identities are ever-changing. Recently I finally acknowledged for myself that being single and flighty are also oh-too-dearly held identity markers for me. If I intend to move on, and I do, I need to really work on, not just the practicalities of changing these situations, but possibly more importantly, how I use these labels to identify myself. Along with being single and travelling round the world, choosing Vegetarianism belongs to 17 years ago. At 37 (near as damn it), I remain single and I still flit around the world like a 20 year old. Though just because I’m finally allowing myself to let these go, should not mean that being Vegetarian must necessarily go with it. My vice-like grip on the label however, I believe could beneficially be released?

Vegetarianism has become a marker of me as a young, idealistic liberal, but am I still that person? Answering ‘yes’ to this question is problematic as I’m clearly a very different person to the me of 17 years ago, however answering ‘no’ is also unsatisfactory as this would bring an abrupt end to my formative years. As I have just remarked, we are, of course, dynamic creatures and so aside the black and white, a little grey is needed here. I want to suggest that although I am still young, idealistic and liberal at heart, I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself. It is this which means that I no longer have need for an external method of demonstrating these traits – which crudely, is what Vegetarianism can be, and as I suggested in my last blog, is probably exactly what it was for me at 19. If this is true, it gives me ‘permission’ to stop being veggie, but it also certainly doesn’t oblige me to. Why should being veggie necessarily continue to be anything to do with identity? I have no intention to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the process of spring cleaning my life continues, and potentially washes away some of the hooks and labels that I’ve unquestioningly held dear for the last 17 years, I wonder whether my Vegetarianism will prove to be one of the most indelible?

It strikes me that identity is not just about how I see myself however, but also how I project myself to the world and how the world therefore sees me. I have to admit to loving my ‘Vegetarian’ label. Clearly when people first realise you are veggie they want to know more – it’s a subject that interests people, it’s a choice that most people can empathise with if not quite understand fully. It brings with it assumptions that I am healthy, principled, a passivist even. Regardless of the truth of these assumptions, I enjoy them; it’s what I want to be.  It’s also a hook for others to identify me with; to remember me, and don’t we all want that? Maybe I do still feel the need to ‘prove’ myself to others? For me, the most fascinating manifestation of these assumptions is when I tell someone about my dietary choices and they respond by saying ‘oh yes, you look vegetarian!’ – really? I do? Well, I guess to some extent there’s some sense to this; maybe I look like the stereotype of a Vegetarian. I’m thin, unshaven and generally I dress casually, it’s not much, but if you’re looking for a connection between me and the wider phalanx of Vegetarians, maybe it’s enough to assume we’re all emaciated pseudo-hippies? Can’t say as that idea bothers me too much, though I imagine if you’re a smart, buff, rugby-playing vegan, being lumped in to such assumptions will probably grate quite sorely. Anyway, this feels important. Not being able to tell someone I’m veggie; being yet another meat-eater, somehow feels disappointing. As much as stereotyping is dangerous, it also provides us with a sense of belonging, should we choose to accept it, and I want; I need it.

And the point being?

17 years, 1 month and 12 days… and counting! What is it with me? Must I be so obsessed by detail? Maintaining such trivia in this fragile, yet asinine brain of mine is no trifling matter. It is done at great expense. We of course, are a balance of physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual energy – right? So a hegemonic cognition leaves at least one of these other domains squeezed and floundering.  For me, this is where writing comes in. Writing is rebalance that allows space for emotion. I think. I think a lot. I endlessly think. But feeling is sadly reserved only for new experiences, for passion, for crises. Writing allows me to expunge my brain of the minutia of everyday activity and enables me, as my senses kick in, to ‘feel’ as well as think. I do have senses; I sometimes find reminding myself of this is essential to effective functioning. And when I do? Mindfulness results. I let myself out of my tiny brain and into my wonderful world, truly feeling my existence. Ok, a little ethereal possibly, but for lack of a more eloquent summary, writing gives me phenomenal head space to appreciate what is great and enables me to identify what is less so, as well as to understand a little more of both.

So here I am, 17 years, 1 month and 12 days on; I’m still a vegetarian. I’ve spent over 16 of those years bullishly sure about what I think based on what I felt then. How do I feel now? Do I still hold the same beliefs as I did then? Do I have any new wisdom to offer? What have I gleaned from others on my journey? Is my body really ok with this? SHOULD I REMAIN A VEGETARIAN!?! It is these questions that prompt the writing of this blog. I have read many articles recently on this issue and have found just two good ones, both I’ll no doubt be using a lot. Of course it is a selfish journey on which I now embark, but should you wish you join, you are most welcome. I doubt very much whether I will come to any conclusions or whether I’ll change my eating habits as a result of this exploration, but I will be very much more honest and robust in my beliefs, whatever they turn out to be.

So, having done my share of academic writing in the past, I know that starting by defining terms is good practice. Not that this’ll be anything like academic writing you understand, but in this blog, definitions will be essential. Vegetarianism is a contentious issue which evocates strong opinion. It is also not the singular issue that the previous sentence suggests, and therein lies the source of much confusion and misinformation. The plurality of this issue would be instantly obvious upon conversation with any group of dedicated veggies for more than 5 minutes. Be their motivation about animal cruelty, healthy, environmental sustainability, a spiritual principle or any other belief system, you’d be left in no doubt that it was very much a belief system in charge. Everybody makes choices about their diet. Vegetarianism is one of those choices. But choosing a vegetarian diet and being Vegetarian somehow feel very different indeed. As liberal omnivores delight in declaring, many people choose to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. There are also however people who chose an entirely vegetarian diet without actually being Vegetarian with a capital V; because they prefer it, because it is cheaper, or because it is more convenient. Regardless of how sensical such reasoning may or may not be, the point is that these individuals are rare. Being Vegetarian is somehow about making a declaration to the world. It means that a stand has been made, a conscious effort made in the belief that you are doing what is right. But what does this mean? Vegetarianism is a political stand, but against what? Indeed FOR what?

Everyone draws their own line. My Vegetarianism means that I do not eat anything that had a brain and eyes. Thus I eat egg and diary and don’t eat fish or other seafood. My motivation for such choices has changed over time yet without being comprehensively challenged at any point. Of course by beliefs about food are challenged almost daily, when someone screws their nose up at my lunch, when I try to buy lunch and find there is nothing tasty or nutritious that I can eat, when I meet someone for the first time and again have to recount ‘my story’, when I read articles in the news about food security or ethics or, most powerful perhaps, when I’m with friends who provide role models. As I hope you can imagine, all this challenge is really quite exhausting. There’s enough reasoning, justifying and ‘standing up for’ that needs to happen in the world, doing so about what I choose to fuel my body with is really the last thing I’d hope for; but then why not? Food is important, indeed vital. It is not only a political issue, but possibly the most pertinent one of the current century. Maybe this is exactly what I should be investing my cognitive quota on? Having to field off the relentless enquiry into my dietary habits is really what I blame for not more comprehensively re-examining my beliefs on this issue any sooner. A realisation that this is exactly the issue that might most warrant my attention is what I credit for kicking me into writing this blog now.

Ok, we need some background. I was 19. I’d left home that September and was living independently for the first time. I’ve always said when asked ‘what pushed you to become veggie in the first place?’ that this opportunity was my reason; cooking and shopping for myself for the first time made it very easy. But I’m no longer convinced this is the whole story. For instance, did I even imagine being veggie whilst at home? I don’t remember doing so. If I had, I know my parents would have made every effort to embrace this, indeed when I have visited ever since, they’ve gone out of their way to support and encompass my rather alien diet. Although shopping for myself for the first time inevitably made the switch easier, I think it was only part of the story on the morning of January 16th 1995. Maybe it was my Korean flatmate at the time, who insisted on searing whole squid directly on to the hob and then leaving it on the side for days to go chewy. Not a pleasant sight or smell, but surely not enough in isolation to push me towards a lifetime devoid of meat? At that time in my life I was meeting wonderful, worldly, informed and passionate people. University, for me, was a major awakening. I don’t recall any of these friends at the time being veggie actually, but they were bursting with a complex menagerie of political beliefs and ideas and I suggest that what leaked out in my direction was daunting, but Vegetarianism offered the most easily embraceable concept. I know that, broadly, I felt that I’d found my posse at last and that I knew I would be part of it in some way, clearly Vegetarianism isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to a politicised life, but I now think that it was the start of my forging an identity which opened the doors to greater social and political awareness. In addition to this however, I’m an extremely strong-willed person! I imagine that once the idea was planted, there was no way that I might not be Vegetarian. It is these two things; the fact that Vegetarianism is an integral part of my identity and the fact that I’m on the edge of being stubborn, which suggest to me that regardless of what path this blog takes, I feel it is unlikely that I’ll greatly change my dietary habits as a result. Having said this, my aim is to challenge the status quo, so I’m working on keeping an open mind. Having woken up on that morning and determinedly declared my new allegiance to all things veggie, the realisation hit me that even in 1995, it was still proper difficult in England to be a Vegetarian – this was not to be a walk in the park. I disliked Tofu, I was scared of soya, I believe Quorn was just getting going and there weren’t so many other veggies around to get tips from, oh, and I still hadn’t discovered Marmite! Oh, the barren world from which I came! As for going out to eat; the ubiquitous vegetable lasagne, if you were very lucky. This is where my strong-will became a positive trait. I would do this thing! And not be defeated, not even by the humiliating humour of my Grandad who decided, when first I visited after telling them of my veggiedom, that for lunch he’d serve up a plate of grass from the garden! Not funny then, still not funny now. Though not universal, this unsupportive lack of understanding was common place for quite some time to come. The point being, that although I was putting a brave face on and using my determination to get me through, the reason for bothering was still most definitely a belief, which was at that time yet to be defined, in the injustice of our definition of humans as superior beings to other animals.

This is a belief that I still hold to – the notion that we are ‘civilised’ and users of ‘higher thought’ and therefore are somehow more worthy than other creatures is beyond me. The fact that we are capable of these things is unquestionable, but I’d argue that the fact that we are failing in both is equally undeniable. We have turned our ability to produce ‘higher thought’ in to a handicap rather than an evolutionary boon. Our ‘superiority’ to the rest of the animal kingdom is a social construction used to justify our pillage. I remember being in my early 20’s and someone telling me (was it my Dad?) that as I get older I’ll become less principled and moralistic about everything, not just diet. My predictable response of course was ‘No, I won’t, I believe too strongly to not take action’. I think I was partly right. I have not become any less principled or moralistic. Sadly however, I have become more tired and pre-disposed such that I take a great deal less action. Ouch! This is an uncomfortable truth.

Although, not abandoned, this original drive towards Vegetarianism now rests nestled amongst a basket of other motivations. As my moral landscape has matured I can see much more clearly that issues do not stem from a single root, but rather the complex interplay of number of factors. It is this complexity that necessitates my reviewing of exactly why I continue to be Vegetarian. It’s unquestionably an animal welfare issue, but it’s also a social justice issue, an issue of sustainability, one of health and finance, one of identity, one of taste and preference, and most likely, though I’m yet to be clear about this, one of spirituality. Next time someone asks me why I’m Vegetarian I won’t be able to answer them; the answer is too big. However, by then I will have completed this series of blogs and so hopefully will have at least answered the question for myself.