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Getting Kicked Out Of The Vegetarian Club

30/05/2017 12:16

At some point in my early twenties, I became a vegetarian. And I surprised myself by sticking at it. As the months rolled by, the thought of the rubber-like texture of chicken actually became repulsive to me. My discipline was contagious; distant relatives, friends and women I dated became vegetarians, and in some cases, vegans. "Don't you care about the environment?", I would ask, at the height of my zealotry.

But even as I was sticking religiously to my vegetarianism, I had habits that led some people, including some of my faithful new converts, to question whether I was really a vegetarian. Chief among these was my habit, from time to time, of eating pork and sometimes beef. Not buying pork, which I recognised as being, of course, completely incompatible with vegetarianism, but eating ribs, loin or fillet, that would otherwise go uneaten.

This began after a friend introduced me to a great homeless shelter in North London called 'Shelter from the Storm', where I joined her in becoming a volunteer cook each Saturday. Among the best of the cooks was the occasional celebrity such as AA Gill, the late Sunday Times food critic, and Alistair, our regular head chef, who managed the kitchen with a pinch of Gordon Ramsay's culinary flair, and all of Gordon Ramsay's penchant for verbal abuse. At the lower echelons were people like me, to whom the word 'cook' applied only in the most abstract sense.

Despite this variation in talent, under Alistair's expert direction, a hearty - sometimes, even nutritionally balanced - meal would be served, which the guests, as well as the cooks, looked forward to. While I would naturally put my name down for a vegetarian plate at the start of these evenings, often the numbers of visitors to the shelter changed at the last minute: we sometimes found we had one too few vegetarian dishes - and sometimes, too much meat. This was a problem, not least because the shelter did not have the ability to store many leftovers.

I quickly established a reputation for magnanimity and self-sacrifice, giving up my plate of vegetables at the slightest provocation and replacing it with steak whenever that seemed helpful. And it wasn't just steak - but sausages, burgers, and sometimes bacon that we had too much of and which I would have to eat. A few times, I even ate chicken goujons to check that the rubbery taste of chicken was still repulsive to me. As the austere winter of my vegetarianism took hold, I noticed that my enthusiasm for volunteering at 'Shelter from the Storm' increased somewhat.

When the details of my eating habits filtered through my social circle, most people accepted the irrefutable logic of my justifications. Some, who without my realising had gone to particular trouble at dinners to prepare vegetarian options for me, were understandably, slightly exasperated. But my vegetarian and vegan friends found me outrageous. They didn't see the act of giving up my vegetarian dish for steak that was going to be thrown away as "taking a bullet", as I called it, and practically spat at me when they heard me describing myself as a vegetarian to new acquaintances.

I never saw the harm. My 'vegetarianism' was always motivated by a concern for animal welfare and the environment, neither of which was threatened by my policy. I also was unashamed to admit that I still enjoyed the taste of meat; surely it was the presence of that desire that made refraining from buying meat an ethical decision rather than a mere culinary preference? But among my friends at least, I was outvoted. In the end, I accepted that the term 'vegetarian', like 'chartered accountant', or 'chiropractor', is a protected term, which I cannot claim.

Now, however, there is finally a word for my kind. When people ask me whether I eat meat, I no longer grimace and move my hands back and forth to convey the nuance of my position, a little like the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, when people ask him if he is a Marxist - no, I simply tell them that I am a flexitarian. Whatever the hell that means.

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